Fethullah Gülen and the origins of the Gülen Movement

by Mehmet Kalyoncu on . Posted in A civilian response to ethno-religious conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey

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Fethullah Gülen

The Gülen movement is a faith-based civil society movement which initially comprised mostly a loose network of individual pious Muslims and is currently active in some ninety-one countries. Throughout the years it has come to include secular Muslims, as well as non-Muslims.

The movement emerged in the late 1960s in Turkey with a handful of people who were attracted by an influential preacher and Islamic scholar, M. Fethullah Gülen (1941–), and his circle of admirers has expanded ever since. Fethullah Gülen, a stateauthorized mosque preacher, delivered sermons in major cities in Turkey until 1992. The mosque congregations present at his sermons averaged from four to five thousand people at a time, and many more who have not attended have listened to Fethullah Gülen’s speeches in recorded form. In this period, Gülen also spoke and gave seminars in many secular settings, such as halls and cafes.

In contrast to an ordinary mosque preacher that focuses exclusively on religious matters and texts, Fethullah Gülen has spoken and written prolifically about a variety of subjects that, according to many, might seem beyond the ordinary subject matter of most preachers. The most notable of these subjects have included the Qur’an and science, social justice, human rights, the metaphysical world, thoughts on economics, child education, parenthood and parents’ rights, in addition to many other more standard religious subjects such as the interpretation of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Gülen’s knowledge of the specifics of the subjects he speaks about and his frequent references to such Western luminaries as Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Jacques Cousteau, Newton, Pascal, and Einstein, distinguish him from his contemporaries and have enabled him to appeal to a broader audience beyond mosque-goers.

In mosque congregations and public conferences of the 1970s and 1980s, Fethullah Gülen’s listeners comprised mostly low- to middle-income businessmen, with a small number of wealthy ones, and university students who would soon be, respectively, sponsors of and teachers in the Gülen-inspired educational institutions and cultural centers. Inspired by Fethullah Gülen’s frequent emphasis on reconciling moral values and religion with modern science and on opening schools where the students could receive a modern education, including science, without neglecting moral values and standards, one group opened the first university preparatory course in Izmir, by far the most secular city in western Turkey, in 1979. Hundreds of university preparatory courses have followed since then. In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Turgut Özal instigated a number of liberalization and privatization policies. Gülen movement participants used those legal spaces and opportunities wisely to consolidate their provision of educational and cultural activities and services.

In 1982, groups of people inspired by Fethullah Gülen’s educational paradigm opened their first two private secondary high schools in Izmir and Istanbul. These were soon followed by another one in Ankara. As well as teaching arts and humanities, compared to their public counterparts and other private schools, the Gülen-inspired schools have been extremely successful in preparing students for university admissions tests and for national and international science contests in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science. The success of the university preparatory courses and private schools established by the movement was, for many, a confirmation of what Fethullah Gülen had always argued in his speeches and writings: that one could be a pious Muslim and yet modern at the same time, for modernity and Islam are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are complementary. As the number of Güleninspired educational institutions increased, the size and influence of the movement grew. Therefore, the 1970s and 1980s were years during which the Gülen movement achieved broader public recognition, expanded its base, and gained a foothold in the field of education.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the independence of the Turkic republics in both Central Asia and the Caucasus provided opportunities for educational projects in the Gülen movement to become transnational. With schools in Turkey, the participants in the movement had already developed the capacity to expand outreach and to open schools in the newly independent Turkic republics. In his sermons in the late 1980s, Gülen increasingly advised his audiences to prepare to help the countries with shared cultural values and history which had suffered under the communist regime of the Soviet Union to develop their human capital, since the federation was soon to collapse and this would allow the Turkic republics within it to become independent.

Once the Soviet Union had collapsed, a group of individuals comprising teachers and businessmen inspired by Gülen’s education vision opened the first high school abroad in Azerbaijan in 1992. In the same year, the first Güleninspired school was opened in Kazakhstan and, in the following two years, a further twenty-eight schools were opened in that country.[1] In 1996, participants in the movement for the first time opened a university in Kazakhstan. Between 1992 and 1994, schools were opened in Kyrgyzstan, where participants now run twelve high schools and one university. Simultaneously, some twenty schools were opened in Turkmenistan. In Uzbekistan, on the other hand, the movement has experienced difficulties, despite some early successes. Although eighteen schools were opened there between 1992 and 1995, due to a diplomatic crisis that broke out between Turkey and Uzbekistan, all Turkish-initiated institutions were closed, including the schools.

The movement did not limit its scope to the Turkic republics. During the same period, starting in the early 1990s, the volunteers of the movement opened similar schools in various non-Muslim countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, and reached out to such Asia-Pacific countries as the Philippines, Cambodia, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the Gülen movement moved into yet another field of social life in Turkey. In 1994, the Journalists and Writers Foundation, a non-governmental organization promoting intercultural dialogue (and of which Fethullah Gülen is the honorary president), convened members of different faiths in Turkey in a public event featuring renowned intellectuals, public figures, and politicians. This event was the first of its kind ever in Turkish history, and the fact that it was organized by a movement perceived as Islamic was also a surprise to many. The following years witnessed similar interfaith activities, such as panels, conferences, and other public events. Fethullah Gülen’s visit and private audience with Pope John Paul II in 1998 was a ground-breaking event for Muslim-Christian relations in Turkey. Yet, hard-line secular and marginal Islamic groups in Turkey criticized him severely for it. The first group argued that such a meeting was a sign that Gülen had aspirations to create his own Islamic state on the model of the Vatican. The second group argued that Fethullah Gülen’s teachings and his movement were heretical, since his visit with the Pope was, according to their interpretation of Islam, unacceptable.

Given the absence of the actual teaching of Islam as a religion in its overall activities and the nature of its activities, which mostly involve secular education, it is difficult to describe the Gülen movement phenomenon simply as a religious movement. In the countries in which the movement is active, the local media do not normally identify the movement as promoting Islam or as pursuing a religious agenda. However, it would be easy to describe it as a faith-based civic movement because of the mobilizing influence of Islam on individuals associated with it. Fethullah Gülen himself, as a Turkish Islamic scholar, is a pious Muslim who reportedly strives to practice every tradition of the Prophet Muhammad in his own life and, accordingly, encourages others to do so as well. Many teachers in the Gülen-inspired schools in Turkey and abroad are pious Muslims who view their service in these schools as a way of serving God through serving their fellow humans.

The central puzzle about the Gülen movement is the seemingly contradictory relationship between its socio-cultural identity and its apparent success in reaching out to communities all over the world that are politically, economically, and culturally distinct from one another. In other words, a movement that has a Turkish Islamic identity would seem to face serious obstacles in its effort to expand into countries that are neither Turkic nor Islamic. Yet, the movement exists and is active in as many non-Muslim countries as in Muslim countries. The countries where Gülen movement volunteers are active include not only those with a Turkic and Muslim heritage, but also those with Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions, and countries like Russia, which has historically been cautious of anything Islamic.[2]

How has this social and cultural movement become so successful in reaching out to very different communities and cultures? I seek to account for the extraordinary success of the Gülen movement by drawing on major theories of social mobilization and then integrating them with original fieldwork in the multi-ethnic environment of Mardin, an important regional city in southeastern Turkey where Gülen movement participants have been especially active. Although the thesis draws on only a single fieldwork case, it suggests that the diffusion of the Gülen movement into Mardin’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious community provides a window into understanding its spread into very different communities on a global scale; that is, I have investigated the mechanism of diffusion of the movement, but I do not aim to evaluate the activities nor judge the impact of the movement on the societies in which it emerges. Rather, I seek to understand the relationships within the educational service projects that have allowed it to succeed.

The Gülen movement provides a unique example of a particular type of faith-based civil society initiative and thereby challenges mainstream ideas about Islamic mobilization. Islamic movements have often been perceived as being either Muslims’ reaction against the West or caused by political and economic deprivations in their communities. Such Islamic movements include the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, the Hizb-ut Tahrir of Pakistan and Central Asia, and Hizbullah of Lebanon. The common feature of these movements is that they all utilize Islamic discourse to garner popular support, are composed exclusively of Muslims, and are, in general, reactionary or revolutionary. However, the Gülen movement started out utilizing Islamic discourse in its early stages in Turkey to garner popular support and, over time, has emphasized the secular and humanistic elements in its discourse such as quality education, empathic acceptance of others and universal ethical values as it has reached out to broader audiences. Although the movement has remained Islamic at an individual level, it is a secular social movement overall.

[1] In an article titled “Gülen’in Eðitim Ýmparatorluðu,” Yeni Aktuel (November 10, 2005), it is argued that the schools associated with the Gülen movement are operating in ninety-one different countries. The article also provides a definitive list of the countries in which they operate.
[2] Recently, there has been speculation about the status of the Gülen-inspired schools in Russia. Several newspapers in Turkey, such as Hürriyet, Milliyet, and Cumhuriyet reported that these have been shut down by the Russian government. However, the Turkish embassy in Moscow has disputed this allegation by responding that none of these schools in Russia has been shut down and that they are operating as normal. See “Büyüklelcilik: ‘Türk okulları kapatıldı’ haberleri yalan,” Zaman (February 15, 2006), (accessed March 6, 2006).