The Gülen Movement’s ‘Turkishness’

Yet its roots are quintessentially Turkish, located in Turkey’s historical baggage, its domestic political circumstances, and in a version of Islam that arguably has more currency in Turkey than elsewhere. This rich ‘Turkishness’ endows this globally-engaged movement with a paradoxical and sometimes quixotic character.

The Gülen Movement’s ‘Turkishness’

Bill Park

Yet its roots are quintessentially Turkish, located in Turkey’s historical baggage, its domestic political circumstances, and in a version of Islam that arguably has more currency in Turkey than elsewhere. This rich ‘Turkishness’ endows this globally-engaged movement with a paradoxical and sometimes quixotic character. The Gülen movement offers an example of a transnational phenomenon that nevertheless retains and indeed lauds its national flavour. Although the purpose here is to explore the transnationalism of the movement rather than the ideas of its founder, so powerful is Fethullah Gülen’s inspiration that mention must be made of him.

He began his career in Turkish fashion as a state-appointed religious preacher in 1953, and began to acquire a serious following, sometimes referred to as the Fethullahci, in the wake of his appointment to Izmir in 1966, where a loose network of students, teachers, professionals, businessmen and the like took on his name. The movement’s first venture into the wider propagation of its philosophy came in the form of summer schools in and around Izmir. It soon established teaching centres (dershane), largely to prepare religious students for university admission. As its activities blossomed, so it attracted the attention of Turkey’s secularist state establishment. Gülen himself served a 7-month spell in prison in the early 1970s for propagating religion, and again attracted uncomfortable attention both during the1980s and in the late 1990s, in the wake of the ‘soft coup’ of 1997. Gülen and his followers are regarded with suspicion by Turkey’s secular establishment to this day, and this partly explains his preference for domicile in the US. (1)

The network did not openly emerge as a major educational, social and religious movement until 1983, when in the wake of the military coup of 1980 the Turkish General Staff expanded the space for religious activity. Such policies were inspired by the so-called ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis’, which emphasised a fusion between Turkish national identity and the Islamic faith. The hope was that religiosity would offer a more conservative and spiritual, and politically less threatening, antidote to the leftism that had contributed to the social chaos of the preceding decade. Thus the rise of the Gülen movement formed one element in the more general ‘Islamisation’ of Turkish public life that has been in evidence since the 1980s (Narli, 1999). Under the protective cover of the premiership of Turgut Özal, himself a sympathiser, the movement opened schools (there are now around 150 such schools in Turkey alone), universities, a television channel (Samanyolu TV), a radio station (Burc FM), a daily newspaper (Zaman), several other periodicals, and a bank (Asya Finans) set up in 1996 to raise investment funds for the Turkic republics. The network also spawned a Journalists and Writers Foundation (2) and a Teachers Foundation, each of which publishes journals and organizes symposiums and conferences, frequently abroad.

Notwithstanding its subsequent phenomenal growth, in many respects the nature of the movement remains true to its origins. It consists of a mix of largely professional male members, sympathisers, and affiliates, whose relationship to the movement varies considerably. It ranges from extremely pious individuals, often teachers and preachers, whose lives are dedicated to the propagation of the values and ideas of Fethullah Gülen, to more occasional and functional fellow-travellers, such as businessmen and even politicians. Partly for this reason, and the blurred distinction between members, followers, and sympathisers, estimates of the movement’s ‘membership’ vary considerably. One source suggests a figure anywhere between two hundred thousand and four million Turks (Aras and Caha, 2000 p33). The movement should not be envisaged as a centrally-organized body. It is loosely structured and decentralized, and each of its ventures are individually financed and run on a voluntary basis by members of and sympathisers with the network. This explains why estimates of the number of schools and other educational establishments run by the movement can also vary.

Although the thinking of Fethullah Gülen has continued to evolve, with an intensified emphasis on the philosophy’s more universalistic, pluralistic, liberal, and democratic qualities in recent years (Yavuz, 2005 p45), it remains rooted in Turkish-Ottoman experience. His belief is that, as Turkish society is overwhelmingly Muslim in faith, the state and its citizens should not have become as alienated from each other as he insists has been the case in Republican Turkey. The ‘top-down’ imposition of the sometimes anti-religious secular dogma associated with Turkey’s Kemalist state has served to distance its citizens from the governing elite. As the Turkish novelist Rasim Ozdenoren expressed it, modern Turkey is ‘like a transgendered body with the soul of one gender in the body of another’. (3) Gülen draws inspiration from the Ottoman rather than the Republican model of state-society relationships. Although the empire’s rulers were guided by their faith, and indeed held custody of the Caliphate, the leadership of the Muslim world, the Ottoman system of governance was not theocratic. Public laws were formulated on the basis of the state’s needs rather than in accordance with Islamic law (Shari’a). Indeed, Gülen’s thinking is quite distinctly state-centric, and this too gives a quite Turkish flavour to Gülen’s ideas. This statism might be thought to overlap with Atatürk’s, but again Gülen prefers to look back beyond the Republic to the Ottoman era. The state has a functionally secular role to provide internal and external security and stability for its citizens. It would be preferable if a state’s rulers are people of faith, but they should not use their secular authority to implement religious dogma. Gülen is not in favour of the political implementation of Shari’ a, which in any case is mostly concerned with private and personal faith-inspired behavioural expectations.

Thus, for Gülen, the key to Islam’s influence and utility in the modern world does not lie through direct political activity and organization, and he is opposed to ‘political Islam’ as such. Indeed, he sympathised with the 1997 ‘post-modern coup’ that removed Erbakan’s Welfare Party from power, although Gülen was himself caught up in the crackdown on religious activity that came in its wake. He believed that Erbakan and his followers were embarked on the first steps towards an ‘Iranianization’ of Turkish political and social life. Gülen sympathised with the 1980 coup too, regarding it as appropriate and necessary that the state protect itself and its citizens against the chaos and violence that was threatening to engulf Turkish society. According to Gülen, Turkish Islam’s more flexible, adaptable, spiritual and less doctrinal traditions have enabled Republican Turkey and Turkish society more broadly, with its democratization, free market economy, and secular political system, to incorporate aspects of modernity to an extent barely found elsewhere in the Muslim world. All this very much accords with Gülen’s vision of an Islamic, but modern and progressive, Turkey of the future. The movement has itself profited from Turkey’s post-1980 economic, social and political liberalization, of course, which has created a space for its media, educational and financial activities free from the control of the statist secular establishment. In this sense, we might argue that the movement is in large measure a by-product of the impact of globalization on the wider evolution of Turkish politics and economic management.

Thus, Gülen sees no contradiction between Islam and modernity. Indeed, he insists on the desirability of Islam’s embrace of science, reason, democratization, and tolerance. Although Gülen shares Atatürk’s assessment that the relative economic and moral poverty of the Islamic world is explained by its spiritual and intellectual decline, for Gülen the problem is not Islam per se. His assessment of the Turkish and Ottoman experience of Islam is that religion should not become a dogma, but can be adaptive, open, flexible, rational, and tolerant, and not closed and shielded from other faiths, other ideas, and from scientific and technological progress. Indeed, another root of Gülen’s thinking is the ‘folk Islam’ and pronounced Sufism, or spirituality, of Anatolian Turkish Islam. (4) Specifically, and as with a number of other Turkish sects and brotherhoods, Gülen derives inspiration from the writings of the prominent Kurdish religious authority Said Nursi (1877-1961). The Nur (Light) or Nurcu movement that Said Nursi inspired was distinguished by its advocacy of reason, progress, tolerance, and a distance from direct political involvement. It too did not regard western science, openness and modernity as necessarily contrary to the spirit of Islam.

Modern Turkish society is also intensely nationalistic, and some of this flavour too has been absorbed by the Gülen movement. Perhaps Gülen’s Erzurum birthplace – a kind of Turkish frontier town abutting the Caucasus, Kurdish regions, and former Armenian-populated lands, where both Turkish nationalism and Islamic faith is particularly strongly felt – has influenced his thinking. In any case, the movement’s philosophy fuses its brand of Islam with a Turkish nationalism. After all, its theological and cultural roots, as well as its key personnel and resource base, lie in Turkish practice and experience. This conscious ‘Turkishness’ has encouraged the movement to engage far more actively with the Turkic world than anywhere else. Turkish society and much of its political elite was quick to make overtures to Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and other traces of an ethnically and culturally pan-Turkic world in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet break-up. Turks enthused over the rediscovery of a world from which their forefathers originated and with whom they shared ancient cultural and linguistic roots. At its headiest, the hope in Turkey was that a political, economically and culturally tightly-knit entity would emerge that would take modern Turkey as its inspiration. (5) Gülen followers too were swept up in this mood, and this largely explains why the full-scale emergence of the Gülen movement as a transnational educational community essentially coincided with the 1991 Soviet collapse, which opened the way for an extension of its activities into Turkic Central Asia and Azerbaijan, purportedly Turkic republics and regions of the Russian Federation such as Dagestan, Karachai-Cherkessiya, Tataristan, and Bashkotorstan, other former Soviet states containing Turkic minorities such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and into the Balkans. Even in Iraq, the Gülen School’s pupils are mainly ethnic Turkmen (Balci, 2003a. p156). Thus, the Gülen movement can be said to have thrived largely as a response to international, as well as domestic, ‘opportunity structures’ that presented themselves (Kuru, 2005).


Excerpted from the article “The Fethullah Gülen Movement as a Transnational Phenomenon” presented at the “Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement” Conference, October 25-27, 2007, London, UK.


(1) For details of allegations made against Gülen in 1999, see Özdalga, 2005 pp. 439-440.

(2) Its website can be found at

(3) Quoted in Aktay, 2003 p.134.

(4) For more on this, see Gokcek, 2006; Saritoprak, 2003; Michel, 2005; Yavuz, 2004. Not all are convinced of the uniquely Su -in uenced or distinctiveness of Turkish Islam, however. See Özdalga, 2006.

(5) For an in-depth study of this phenomenon, see Bal, 2000.

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