Reflections on Gülen Movement: How Islam is Promoting Liberal Democracy in Turkey

by Nader Hashemi on . Posted in Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen Movement

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This paper explores the contributions of the Gülen Movement to the consolidation of liberal democracy in Turkey. Arguing against the assumptions of mainstream modernization and dependency theorists, and the writings of liberal political philosophers, who have long argued that religion (especially Islam) is an obstacle to the construction of liberal democracy, this paper seeks to demonstrate that religious politics is compatible with democratization. Specifically, it will be argued that religious groups and religious leaders are playing a significant and critical role in fostering social trust, building social capital and promoting reconciliation, all critical ingredients for the development of liberal democracy in Turkey. This is a unique phenomenon that has very few parallels in the rest of the Muslim world. Precisely how the Gülen movement is contributing to the development and consolidation of liberal democracy in Turkey will be the focus of this paper.

The first section provides a brief survey on the topic of social trust, civil society and democratization. Three writers who have written insightfully and influentially on this subject, Alexis de Tocqueville, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam will be discussed. Secondly, a brief background on the Gülen Movement will be provided focusing on its intellectual influences, organizational structural and analytical worldview. Finally, the bulk of this paper will analyze the precise contributions the Gülen movement has been making to the process of democratic consolidation in Turkey.

The link between the Gülen movement and democratization is important because it helps resolve a core paradox in the global debate on Islam and democracy. The paradox is as follows: liberal democracy, as a modern political regime, requires a form of secularism to sustain itself, yet in the context of Muslim societies the primary intellectual, cultural and political resources that democratic forces can draw upon are religious in nature. A paradox, therefore, confronts the democratic theorist. The activities and behavior of the Gülen movement in Turkey help us understand how this seemingly irreconcilable paradox can be reconciled. While the focus of this paper will be on Turkey it is believed that the social and political behavior of the Gülen movement serve as a potential model for other Muslim groups to emulate in terms of contributing to the struggle for democracy, human rights, peace and national reconciliation in their home countries.

Civil Society, Social Trust and Democracy

In the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Empire and the democratic revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe there was considerable media and scholarly discussion on the relationship between strong civil societies and democracy.[1] The role of civil society movements, especially in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, were viewed as central to the story on how these former authoritarian regimes were overthrown allowing for a smooth transition to democracy. The literature on this theme expanded exponentially after the fall of the Berlin Wall including in the area of Middle East studies.[2]

One of the first writers to systematically discuss the link between civil society and democracy was Alexis de Tocqueville. In his classic book, Democracy in America, he noted that that it was America's propensity for civic associations that most impressed him in the 1830s as the key to their unprecedented ability to make democracy work. He observed that "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types – religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute… Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America."[3]

In a 1996 book, Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity[4], Francis Fukuyama examined the impact of culture on economic life, society, and success in the new global economy. He argues that the most pervasive cultural characteristic influencing a nation's prosperity and ability to compete is the level of trust or cooperative behavior based upon shared norms. In comparison with low-trust societies (China, France, Italy, Korea), which need to negotiate and often litigate rules and regulations, high-trust societies like those in Germany and Japan are able to develop innovative organizations and hold down the cost of doing business. Fukuyama argued that the United States, like Japan and Germany, has been a high-trust society historically but that this status has eroded in recent years. Thus, Fukuyama drew attention to the link between strong civil societies, the prevalence of social trust and economic prosperity.

In a similar vein, two widely discussed books by Robert Putnam highlighted the link between civil society, social trust/capital and democracy. In Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy[5] he studied community-based organizations in Italy and their effects on the workings of democracy on a regional and national level. He drew attention to the importance of civic organizations and their ability to inculcate in their members a sense of civic duty and social trust which consequently lead to a vibrant democracy. In a more famous book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,[6] Putnam drew our attention to the long American tradition of civic engagement, of voluntarism and group activity which he lamented as a passing social phenomenon that was affecting the quality of American democracy in the late 20th century. According to Putnam: "Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of governance was determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs – these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it." He further noted that "life is easier in a community blessed with substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved. When economic and political negotiation is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced….Finally, dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants sense of self developing the 'I' into the 'we' or (in the language of rational choice theorists) enhancing the participants' 'taste' for collective benefits."[7]

In short, a wide number of influential theorists from Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century to Robert Putnam in the late 20th century have documented the link between vibrant civil societies, the cultivation of social capital and social trust and how these processes can engender and strengthen the quality of democratic governance leading to both political and economic prosperity. What does this discussion have to do with contemporary Turkey and the Gülen movement? Everything.

The Gülen Movement

The Gülen movement has been described as the "most dynamic, transnational, wealthy and faith-based [civil society movement] in Turkey."[8] It is completely autonomous from state control and "one of the main doctrines of this group is the idea that religious consciousness is formed and perpetuated through engaging in social practices and [engaging] with institutions."[9] It has an extensive social network in all the major Turkish cities and they have set up a vast education empire that now counts 300 schools – with a stellar reputation in terms of the quality of education they produce – in over 50 countries.[10] They have set up charitable trusts, businesses, newspapers, journals, universities, television and radio stations. The Gülen movement is a vast and somewhat amorphous movement that involves – according to one estimate -- between 200,000 and 4 million people worldwide.[11]

The charismatic leader of the Gülen movement is the 67 year old Fethullah Gülen, a religious intellectual, Islamic teacher, and modernist thinker whose writings and worldview are a marriage between religion and science, tradition and modernity, Islam and Turkish nationalism. He has been described by Hakan Yavuz as a "modern hybrid of [a] religious-intellectual in his ability to interpret Islamic precepts within the context of modern social condition. Gülen recontexualizes Islamic knowledge across different social boundaries by making use of interpretation in an original and incisive fashion. For example, Gülen is known to be well versed – not only in all aspects of Islamic theology but in works of such world writers as Kant, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and Kafka, and he uses their ideas to reinforce his reinterpretation of Islam to meet contemporary needs."[12]

Gülen's world view is a derivative from the writings and the teachings of Said Nursi (1878-1960), an early to mid 20th century Turkish Islamic scholar who similarly tried to develop a synthesis between Islam and modernity. "While the Gülen movement derived its conceptual framework and ideas from Nursi's writings, Gülen leads a different movement, one that is more praxis oriented and seeks to transform society and institutions by expanding its circles of sympathizers and supporters….The Gülen movement wants to engage with and participate in social and political institutions, whereas Nursi pursued a rigid civic resistance and refused to compromise with the [political] system while also rejecting violence and confrontation. Like Nursi, however, Gülen uses ideas as his weapons, stressing the significance of persuasion in religious and public discussions."[13] In brief, under the charismatic leadership of Fethullah Gülen, the social movement he began has sunk deep roots into Turkish society affecting both political and social life in ways that have few parallels in other Muslim societies. It has attempted to promote an understanding of faith that is modern, democratic and secular.

How is the Gülen Movement Contributing Liberal Democracy in Turkey?

The activities of the Gülen movement bear a striking resemblance to the account that Alexis de Tocqueville gives of life in the early American republic. Tocqueville noticed the prominent role that American civic associations played in sustaining and nurturing American democracy and believed that these were the glue that held together and strengthened America's early democratic experiment. In a similar vein, given the Gülen movement's deep roots in Turkish civil society, the social networks that they have established has generated the same social capital and social trust networks which Tocqueville felt were so central to the nourishing of American liberal democracy.

The Gülen movement is an action-oriented civil society movement that believes in a Weberian mixing of faith and economic development. It is strongly pro-capitalist, believes in free markets, deregulation and has a neo-liberal economic orientation. The movement has an objective to foster an ethic that comes very close to what Weber termed "worldy ascetiscism." In other words, the movement promotes an activist pietism with a tendency toward the rationalization of social relationships.

The fact that the Gülen movement is a religious group is significant in terms of its contributions to democracy. One of the interesting insights obtained from Tocqueville is that he strongly believed that a healthy democracy was in need of both strong civic associations and citizens who by virtue of their religiosity accept strong moral constraints on their beliefs and behavior. Tocqueville argued that religion is essential to a liberal democracy because it accomplished both of these tasks: it encouraged citizens to participate in civic associations, and it placed moral checks upon their beliefs and behavior.[14] The Gülen movement fulfills both of these Tocquevillian requirements for democracy.

The second contribution the Gülen movement is making to democracy in Turkey is by virtue of its commitment non-violence and national reconciliation. This is arguably its most important and under appreciated contribution. Given the abundance of military coups d'etat in Turkish politics and the war in southeastern Turkey against the Kurds and the ensuing violence this it has generated, national reconciliation has been in short supply during Turkey's 20th century. More broadly, however, any emerging democracy requires social stability if it is to develop successfully. Any effort to reduce social tension and build national cohesion during difficult moments of transition is critically important to the success of democratic consolidation. Opposite conditions that are ripe with anarchy, chaos and conflict provide an opportunity for authoritarian elements to seize power in the name of restoring social order. Due to the polarized nature of the debate on Islam and secularism in Turkey the contributions of the Gülen movement in reducing these tensions are significant and profound.

The Gülen movement in principle rejects the politics of confrontation and has consistently adopted a modus operandi of non-violence in advancing its own agenda.[15] In the realm of politics it does not explicitly support any political party and it rejects the instrumentalization of religion for political ends. Fethullah Gülen has encouraged his supporters to vote for candidates based on honesty, efficiency and integrity. In other words, to cast ballots for those who are best suited for the job rather than due to their party or ideological affiliation.[16]

This might surprise some observers as it would seem that the Fethullah Gülen would be a natural ally of Turkey's religious-based parties. However, in the late 1990s, for example, when Turkey was engulfed in a crisis between the Kemalist secular establishment and Islamist-oriented political parties, Gülen surprisingly sided with the secular establishment and blamed Islamist parties for generating a national crisis. Notwithstanding this posture, Gülen is still widely viewed with suspicion within the upper echelons of Turkey's military command and among hard line secularist political constituencies.

Furthermore, in the context of Turkey's evolving democracy, the Gülen movement has adopted very moderate views on some of Turkey's most hotly debated issues: the wearing of the hejab at universities, the Kurdish question, Turkey's admission to the European Union and Islam-West relations. On all of these contentious questions it has attempted to promote dialogue, civil debate, conciliation and understanding. On the question of the hejab, for example, Fethullah Gülen has sought to play a conciliatory role. He has referred to the hejab as a "minor detail"[17] in the life of Muslim women and has encouraged women to try and get around the ban by wearing a wig, if possible and if not, by choosing to pursue their education even if it meant compromising on a core aspect of their Islamic identity.[18]

In the domain of politics, without championing one political current or party, the Gülen movement has organized an annual meeting of Turkish intellectuals from across the ideological spectrum to debate issues of national concern and to find solutions to pressing national questions. Known as the Abant meetings, after the resort city on the Black sea where these meetings have typically been held, the participants have discussed and debated contentious political and social questions facing Turkey both at home and abroad and then issued a joint platform or memorandum of understanding. Previous topics have included "Islam and Secularism," "Islam and Democracy, "Pluralism," "War and Democracy," "The Kurdish Question" and "Turkey and the European Union."[19]

The meeting of Turkish intellectuals, from both sides of the religious-secular, is important in terms of reducing national conflict and political polarization. Given the emotionally charged nature of the debate within Turkey in recent years, especially with respect to the debate on Islam and democracy, agreeing on a basic set of political values has contributed to the reduction of political and ideological conflict in Turkey. Equally important is inculcating the art of political compromise which is vital to the success of any democratic polity. In other words, by gathering leading intellectuals and having them agree to disagree on some of Turkey's most pressing and emotionally charged political questions, the Gülen movement has made a contribution by promoting a climate of civility and dialogue in Turkey. Credit for this initiative goes solely to the Gülen movement. Under the auspices of its Foundation for Journalists and Writers Forum it has organized, launched and promoted these regular meetings among Turkish intellectuals. No other social movement or political party can make this claim or take credit for his unique contribution to promoting national reconciliation in Turkey.

The third major contribution to democracy in Turkey that can be credited to the Gülen movement is harmonizing and synthesizing the transition from tradition to modernity. This contribution can be better appreciated when the topic of democratization is looked at through the lens of the longue durée (long duration). L. Carl Brown has noted that one dominant feature of Muslims societies during the 20th century has been a rapid modernization process within a short period of time which has lead to vertiginous politics and social upheaval. In his comparison with Europe's experience with modernization he has noted that Europe had a longer period of time to negotiate the transition from tradition to modernity. In the case of Muslim societies this process has been accelerated leading to considerable more social conflict and political tension.[20] The Gülen movement has stepped in during this sensitive period of transition and is making an important and unique contribution to Turkish political development.

During the 20th century, the modern republic of Turkey has been deeply polarized by differing religious and secular outlooks. Since the earliest years of the republic at least three main positions concerning modernity can be discerned:

1) A rejection of tradition and a whole scale embracing of modernity. This has been the secularist position, adopted by the Kemalist establishment, based on lessons from France. It is a rigidly secular conception of political development with an emphasis on positivism, materialism and theories of Darwinism that allegedly proved the irrationality of religion and that it is an obstacle to process.

2) A clinging to tradition and a rejection of modernity. Traditionalists held that it was not religion that was the problem but rather the lack of "true" religiosity that led to the decline and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. This group was highly critical of Republican reforms and Westernization. They believed that Westernization and modernization was anti-Islamic and refrained from contact with the modern state and its institutions.

3) A synthesis between tradition and modernity. Said Nursi embodies this approach. He tried to reconcile the gap between the secular and the religious. He understood the importance of science and technology for the future but he did not believe that modern science belonged to the West exclusively. For Nursi, science and religion were interrelated. He pointed out the dangers of a blind adherence to positivism and developed an indigenous understanding of science for Muslims that sought to reconcile scientific developments with religious knowledge and scripture. In other words, the laws of nature were a reflection of God's handiwork and science was one way of understanding God and getting closer to him. Nursi also believed that contact with the Christian West was not harmful to the believing Muslim but could actually benefit him/her if approached in the proper manner. Nursi's interpretations and synthesis resonated with pious Muslims, who had excluded themselves from technological progress at the beginning of the Turkish republic and moved large numbers of religious people from the periphery of society into the centre of it which subsequently made the appearance of person like Fethullah Gülen possible.

Gülen builds on this developmental approach to synthesize religion and reason and constructs a similar analytical framework in his teachings and writings. Ahmet Kuru has accurately called this the search for a "middle way" between modernity and Muslim tradition that seeks to reconcile reason with revelation, modern science with traditional Islamic knowledge and the idea of progress and conservation traditions.[21] In reflecting on this aspect of the Gülen movement's contribution to democracy, I am reminded of a comment by the late Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani Muslim intellectual and confident of Edward Said, who was once asked "what strategies should Arab and Muslim intellectuals pursue to democratize their societies?" He replied:

One must make an effort to understand the past, understand it with compassion, sympathy and criticism. The reason I am stressing that is that many of us, Arab and Muslim intellectuals know more about the West, more about modern history, more about the ideas of the Enlightenment than we do about our own [history and culture].

No significant change occurs unless the new form is congruent with the old. It is only when a transplant is congenial to a soil that it works. Therefore, it is very important to know the transplant as well as the native soil.

The Gülen movement is contributing to "significant change" in Turkey because it has recognized Ahmad's point. This period of transition is difficult to negotiate and can easily break down and lead to disorder and the rise of radical political tendencies that emerge during this transformative period with utopian and authoritarian solutions to the crisis of state and society. To counteract this tendency, the Gülen movement's moderate, peaceful and highly disciplined approach to social change is making lasting contributions to Turkey intellectual and political development especially among the deeply religious sectors of Turkish society.

Finally, the Gülen movement has made an important contribution to democracy in Turkey by virtue of its acceptance of a soft form of political secularism. This is critically important and again we can draw upon Tocqueville to understand why. One of the astute observations he made about early American democracy was that all of the clergy he met on his travels around the United States, from all denominations, had no political ambitions and respected the separation of church and state. This was a shock for him given religion-state relations in his native France where the Catholic Church had longstanding ties to political power during the ancien regime. Nonetheless, it draws our attention to an important aspect of democratic politics. In religious societies, there is a critical need for religious groups to accept the principle of secularity in order for democracy to function. The Gülen movement has effectively internalized this Tocquevillian understanding of religion-state relations. It both supports the ideals of democracy (while recognizing its shortcomings) and the principle of political secularism, albeit a soft one in keeping with American version of secularism.

Furthermore, Elizabeth Özgdala has suggested that notwithstanding the strong religious revivalist appeal of the Gülen movement, the sociological effect of this movement on Turkish society "actually leads to secularization (disenchantment)." Her argument is that in the same way that leading strands of Protestantism in the 19th century contributed to secularization by virtue of their support for universal values and humanism, the Gülen movement is having a similar effect on Turkish Islam when looked at over the long term. This is tied to the very elusive nature of universal and humanistic values that undermine particular and parochial identities. "The followers of Fethullah Gülen may well be fervent believers. Nevertheless, the way in which they formulate their mission – as a humanistic project – undermines their own theological foundation as Muslims – a development that has meant that the role of religion, Islam, has become destabilized."[22]


Alexis de Tocqueville was the first theorist to draw attention to the link between civil society and democracy. He is a constant reference point in these debates and his enduring insights about American democracy also have cross-cultural appeal in that they can be observed in other regional settings, such as Turkey, were religious movements are building social capital and social trust while contributing to the democratization of their societies.

At the start of his Democracy in America, Tocqueville discusses a core paradox in the struggle for democracy. There is a tension, he observes. that revolves around two groups of people: the virtuous non-democrats and the morally dubious democrats. The first group is comprised of "virtuous and peaceful individuals whose pure morality, quiet habits … and talents fit them to be leaders of their fellow men" but the problem is that while "their love of country is sincere …. civilization often finds them among its opponents; they confound its abuses with its benefits, and the idea of evil is inseparable in their minds from that of novelty." The second group are people "whose object is to materialize mankind, to hit upon what is expedient without heeding what is just, to acquire knowledge without faith, and prosperity apart from virtue; claiming to be the champions of modern civilization." The core paradox with respect to democratization, therefore, is the following:

The religionists are the enemies of liberty, and the friends of liberty attack religion; the high-minded and the noble advocate bondage, and the meanest and most servile preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are opposed to all progress, while men without patriotism and without principle put themselves forward as the apostles of civilization and intelligence.[23]

Tocqueville is discussing here the polarization of political identities between rival ideological camps in the early phases of nation building. One gets a sense in reading this passage that he is yearning for a mediating mechanism than can bridge the gulf between traditionalists and modernists in the attempt to construct a democratic society. It is my contention that had Tocqueville been alive today to witness the activities of the Gülen movement in Turkey he would found much to admire and praise. This group is acting as Tocqueville desired as an important bridge between tradition and modernity. This is demonstrated by virtue of the Gülen movement's commitment to education, democracy, non-violence and religious and political pluralism which stems from a decidedly modern interpretation of Islam which enjoys a broad following in Turkey today. While critics point the conservative orientation of the Gülen movement on issues related to women's rights and gender segregation, Tocqueville would have recognized distinct parallels between the early phases of democracy in America and similar developments in Turkey, especially in the realm of religious activity promoted by the Gülen movement, which is making a lasting and significant contribution to the development of liberal democracy in this important Muslim-majority country.


[1] Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals (New York: Penguin, 1994); John Hall ed., Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1995) and Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1996) and Peter Burnell and Peter Calvert eds., Civil Society in Democratization (Portland: Frank Cass, 1994).

[2] Augustus Richard Norton, Civil Society in the Middle East (Leiden: Brill, 1995). In Iran, for example, the reformist movement during the 1990s was enthralled with the concept of civil society (jameah madani) and it was a frequent reference point in political debates and analysis including that of President Muhammad Khatami. In Egypt, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies has a publication entitled "Civil Society" that examines this concept and its manifestation in the contemporary Arab world.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by George Lawrence (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 513-517.

[4] (New York: Free Press, 1994).

[5] (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994)

[6] (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

[7] Ibid. [get citation]

[8] Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 180.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ihsan Yilmaz, "State, Law, Civil Society and Islam in Contemporary Turkey," Muslim World 95 (July 2005), 399.

[11] Lester Kurtz, "Gülen's Paradox: Combining Commitment and Tolerance," Muslim World 95 (July 2005), 380.

[12] Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, 185.

[13] John Esposito and Hakan Yavuz eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 3.

[14] Hillel Fradkin, "Does Democracy Need Religion?" Journal of Democracy 11 (January 2000), 87-94.

[15] Steven Wright, "The Work of Fethullah Gülen and the Role of Non-violence in a Time of Terror," paper presented at conference on the Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement, London, School of Oriental and African Studies, 25-27 October 2007.

[16] Ihsan Yilmaz, 397.

[17] Manal Lotfi, "Fethullah Gülen: A Man Loved and Feared in Turkey," Asharq Al Awsat, 3 December 2007.

[18] John Esposito and Hakan Yavuz eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, 29.

[19] For the text of three declarations see John Esposito and Hakan Yavuz eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, 251-256.

[20] L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 137.

[21] Ahmet Kuru, "Fethullah Gülen's Search for a Middle Way between Modernity and Muslim Tradition," in John Esposito and Hakan Yavuz eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 115-130.

[22] Elizabeth Özdalga, "Secularizing Trends in Fethullah Gülen's Movement: Impass or Opportunity for Further Revival?," Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 12 (Spring 2003), 72. Also of relevance is Bulent Aras and Omer Caha, "Fethullah Gülen and his Liberal 'Turkish Islam' Movement," Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (December 2000) available on line at: and M. Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito, Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), xiii-xxxiii. The most comprehensive and scholarly overview of the Gülen movement can be obtained in M. Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, 178-205.

[23] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 12-13.