What is the historical context in which the Gulen movement emerged?

What is the historical context in which the Gulen movement emerged?

Helen Rose Ebaugh

The Gulen Movement emerged in late 1960s’ Turkey which had been struggling with social, economic and political problems that any nation state would face within its former years. Modern Turkey was established in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk and his colleagues on what was remained from the Ottoman Empire which disintegrated during the WWI. Contrary to the multi-ethnic structure of Ottoman social system the new Turkey claimed to be a nationalist republic.

In 1923 Kemal Ataturk and his comrades won sovereignty over eastern Trace and all of Anatolia and founded the modern Turkish Republic. The main goal of Ataturk was to forge a path that was very distinct from that of the Ottoman Empire, especially the creation of a secular and nationalist state run without the influence of Islam in politics. The new republican elite, with Ataturk as its leader and spokesman, favored complete modernization which they saw as an escape from backwardness and expressed as a dislike and distrust of all things associated with the ancient regime and the old ways of life. Most particularly, religion and religious institutions were suspect and deemed antithetical to contemporary civilization. Ataturk and his Kemalist followers sought to create a new Turkish nation-state founded explicitly on ethnic nationalism that would replace the multiethnic, multireligous and Islam-oriented values of the Ottoman Empire.

Ataturk introduced his reforms slowly and initially used Islam to unite and mobilize people, especially against the invading European armies.

It was only in 1924 that he declared that Turkish nationalism, rather than Islam, was to be the only factor in uniting Turkish people. The state used the army, schools and the media to consolidate Turkish national identity and break away from Islam and the Ottoman legacy. To achieve this and deemphasize the influence of Islam, he closed the dervish lodges and the Sufi orders, banned their ceremonies and liturgy and outlawed their dress. He denounced the fez as headgear of a backward people and the veil as representing the subordinate status of women. The call to prayer, ezan, was to be sung in Turkish rather than Arabic and imams were ordered to lead the prayer in Turkish, which was a clear deviation from mainstream Islamic doctrine. The Qu’ran was also translated into Turkish and reading this translation in the prayers was made compulsory. In order to be more westernized and modernized, he replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin one and adopted the Gregorian calendar, instead of the Islamic one. He also promoted equality of women and in 1934 influenced the right for women in vote in Turkey.

Between 1925 and 1928 a strongly Kemalist parliament enacted a series of measures to secularize public life. Ataturk believed that Turkey must leave behind its past and follow the example set by Europe. Therefore, he advocated eliminating all obstacles to creating a national, secular and western country. After achieving national independence the republic implemented a rigid secular rule by denying any role for Islam in the formation of the new polity.

The secular model that Ataturk introduced into the Republic of Turkey was that of laicism or laicite, the system modeled on that of Europe and France, in particular. Laicite expands the power of the state and restricts religion to the private sphere. It is antireligious and seeks to control or eliminate religion unlike the model of Anglo-American secularism that seeks to protect religions from state intervention and encourages faith-based social networking to consolidate civil society. Turkist secularism is based on the notion of transforming society through the power of the state by eliminating religion from the public sphere. In fact, in the system of laicite any attempt to use religious discourse in public debate, even in the Turkish parliament, can be used to ban that party or individual.

Laicism became the basic principle of the Kemalist endeavor of building a nation-state in which religion was relegated to the private realm and controlled by the state. With the influence of French positivism and laicism strong among the new leadership, the Kemalist’s only legitimate agent of change was the state itself. The nation and state were seen as one and the same and all religion, and Islam in particular, was excluded from the public realm. Any form of civil unrest or popular protest was a source of suspicion and worry to the state.

Kemalist laicism placed absolute faith in science and positivism and prioritized the restructuring of society according to these principles. Such a policy, therefore, prevented religious influence in the spheres of education, economics, family, dress code and politics. Secularism in this context meant excessive state penetration into everyday life and the exclusion of ethnic and religious differences. The Turkish republic established the Directorate of Religious Affairs to administer and regulate people’s religious needs and affairs in the public sphere. It thereby banned all civil society-based religious networks.

In 1937 these principles were incorporated into the constitution as basic principles of the state. The ideology and political system that resulted from these principles was and still is known as “Kemalism.”

Kemalism perceived modernization as Westernization and, in practice, became the ideology of eliminating class, ethnic and religious sources of conflict by seeking to create a classless, national (Turkist) and secular homogenized society. Thus, fear of differences became the guiding principle of the Kemalist state. Moreover, Kemalists saw change as legimate only when it is carried out by the state itself. Therefore, any form of bottom-up modernization of civil society was a source of suspicion and worry, especially when it was motivated by religious concerns which were a threat to the secular state.

The principle of laicism or secularism was based on the French model of laicism in which religion is placed under the control of the state and official religious expressions are removed from public life. Turkish secularism, while based on French laicism, went even further by establishing total control of the state over religion. Not only were imams placed by the state as civil employees, but even the content of their Friday sermons was determined by the state, control that continues into modern day Turkey.

The system of laicite (or laicism) dominated Turkish politics during the Republican Public Party years (1923-1950), years in which a single party ruled the country. The underlying philosophy was that the state knew best what was in the best interest of the people and that the RPP was protecting Islam from the influence of foreign languages and cultures.

Turkey’s shift to a multi-party political system in 1946 when the Democratic Party was founded constituted a turning point in Turkey’s political history, including the role of Islam in the Turkish state. By this time Islam was under the control of the state but remained an effective social and moral force in Turkey. The Democratic Party criticized the RPP’s total control over Islam. In order to pacify the DP the Prime Minister began to soften policies on Islam, including the addition of courses on Islam to the educational curriculum. When the DP party was elected to office in 1950, it maintained a similar approach to secularism even though it allowed a return to Arabic for the call to prayer, removed obstacles prohibiting religious practice and teaching, and built new mosques. However, it opposed political Islam and challenges to the secular nature of the state.

A military coup in 1960 overthrew the DP government. This coup constitutes a benchmark for the history of Turkish democratic experience. The first party ever came to power through democratic means was overthrown by the military under accusations of being Islamic reactionaries who allegedly aimed at undoing Ataturk’s revolution and founding an Islamic regime instead. It is ironic that the Democratic Party leadership was raised within the RPP ranks, and among the accused were Ataturk’s close friends such as Celal Bayar.

Military coups became a tradition in Turkey after 1960. Whenever the ruling elite felt that they were losing their grip on power, they resorted to the same old techniques their predecessors used by playing the ‘reactionary’ card once again. 1971, 1980 and 1997 were the successful coups among numerous military intervention attempts. The leaders of the coups would come to power with promises such as ‘restoring the order and transitioning back to the democratic regime as soon as possible,’ but in the meantime they would usually make themselves untouchables through enacting new laws or totally changing the constitution.

As the Gulen movement flourished in the 80s it is necessary to study the 1980 military coup in detail in order to understand the circumstances under which Gulen and the movement continued doing their activities. The military coup of 1980 brought a military government first and called for elections in 1983. The Motherland Party (MP), a newly established political party under the leadership of Turgut Ozal who emphasized open market economy, democratic values, freedom of religious education and morality as a force against socialism. Ozal embraced Islam as a source of morality but rejected political Islam. It was under Ozal’s administration that Turkey moved to an open market economy and began to introduce democratic reforms. Likewise, the economic liberalization and growth of the Ozal period allowed the creation of a dynamic entrepreneurial class and opportunity for the existence of independent newspapers and television channels which could not be silenced by a political elite.

It was under Prime Minister Ozal that economic policy became a driving force in Turkish foreign policy. He stressed an export oriented program that opened the country to foreign investment and allowed the entrepreneurial skills of the Turkish businessmen to blossom. Subsequently, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up new economic options for Turkey in the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union, especially in the important energy field.

Ozal argued that restrictions on freedom of conscience breed fanaticism, not the other way around. He introduced classes in Islam in all schools.

The members of parliament and the cabinet were visible in attendance at mosques. The veil was allowed in public, based on citizens’ civil liberties that were guaranteed in the constitution. Opponents of the veil argued that Ataturk had made the veil the most famous symbol of the Islamic order and that to allow it in public was a direct threat directed against the secular state guaranteed by the constitution.

Ozal’s policies of bringing more freedom to Turkish society paved the way for the expansion of Islam in public spaces. This resulted in the pluralization of the religious sphere and to the expansion of religious networks in the economy, the media and charitable endeavors. The deregulation of broadcasting, for example, has empowered people’s voices such as those in the Gulen movement to express themselves on diverse radio stations and television channels and in newspapers and magazines. These new spaces created under the Ozal administration have served to empower the civil society in Turkey, including those inspired by Gulen.

The expansion of Islam in the public realm and the relative boldness of the leadership of the Islamic party, the Welfare Party, invoked the laicist military once again. In 1997 a top-level military commission, known as the “Western Working Group”, launched an investigation into the Islamic Party of the time, the Welfare Party. The result was a statement issued by the National Security Council (NSC), which saw itself as a guardian of the Kemalist reforms and especially secularism, that said that “destructive and separatist groups are seeking to weaken our democracy and legal system by blurring the distinction between the secular and the anti-secular.” As a result of the report of the working group promoted by the NSC, the Welfare Party government was forced to resign in what was called a “post-modern coup” and Prime Minister Erbakan, along with other political leaders in the party, were banned from office for five years and the party was closed.

The NSC outlined an 18 point plan that would have to be agreed upon before it would support a new government. This plan aimed to reduce the influence of Islam in Turkey and included proposals that enforced a ban on certain faith communities and religious organizations, the purging of “reactionary” personnel from governmental positions, tighter restrictions on “politically symbolic garments like women’s head scarves” and the purging of military officers for so-called Islamic activities and sympathies.

In short, Turkey lived a life for decades under constant military intervention threats. It was a well known fact that the military regimes did not have a good human rights record. So in times before the military interventions people were terrorized by the fight between militant camps killing each other; they were oppressed under the military regimes right after the coup was executed, or they were forced to live an obedient life in fear of military intervention.

Gulen movement emerged under these circumstances. To keep people checked the military and civil bureaucrats of the regime kept people under constant surveillance through intelligence services, made civil and religious gatherings unlawful, prohibited any sort of protest, banned signs that may refer to any movement that was deemed anti-regime. Laws, such as infamous 141, 142 and 163 allowed the government to raid into people’s houses and prosecute them without due process. They regulated religious services by dictating imams even what they have to say at a sermon. Teaching Quran at mosques or Sunday schools to the kids under the age of 15 was prohibited. Army officers who showed any kind of inclination to Islam –even performing very basic prayers were considered as a sign of inclination- were expelled from the service. In short an ‘assertive secularism’ was made the official religion of the state in expense of Islam and minority religions.

Nevertheless, performing basic religious duties and gatherings under government supervision and censorship were allowed. Gulen was a preacher first in Thrace and later in Izmir area in late 1960s when he started training students.


Answer to the question of this article has been derived with minor changes, additions and omissions from Helen Rose Ebaugh’s book The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam, Springer, 2009. The article is retrieved from the website HizmeteSorulanlar.ORG.

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