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The Gülen Movement and diffusion theory

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

Although Fethullah Gülen has been a prominent public figure since the late 1960s and the movement that has formed around his ideas has been an important agent of change within Turkish society, he and the movement he has inspired have attracted academic attention only in the last decade. Scholars have focused on three dimensions of the Gülen movement’s activities: interfaith dialogue, Gülen’s views on secularism and the state, and education.

Fethullah Gülen and interfaith dialogue

Gülen and movement volunteers have sought to establish dialogue among different segments of Turkish society, primarily between secularists and the faithful, and secondarily between Muslims and non-Muslims living in Turkey. The Ramadan Dinner events held by the Journalists and Writers Foundation in 1994 were the first of their kind in terms of bringing together intellectuals, politicians, and other prominent figures who were believed to belong to different camps and, hence, hold irreconcilable views. Such dialogue events were followed by similar ones bringing together the representatives of Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Armenian communities in Turkey. Gülen’s visit with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in February 1998 was a highpoint for the development of interfaith dialogue in Turkey.

According to Sidney Griffith and Zeki Sarytoprak, one result of Gülen’s meeting with Pope John Paul II was that Gülen and his associates received wide public support in Turkey. At the same time, however, they were severely criticized by hard-line secularists and radical Islamists.5 The first group criticized Gülen’s initiative on the basis that such a meeting required the state’s permission and that Gülen, by speaking to the Pope on his own behalf to promote interfaith dialogue, had signaled his desire to create an Islamic state with himself as head. The second group criticized Gülen for degrading Islam by engaging in dialogue with a non-Muslim leader. Griffith and Sarytoprak contend that the idea of interfaith dialogue pioneered by Gülen in Turkey is rooted in his interpretation of Islamic principles and Qur’anic verses, most notably the basmala, the phrase recurrent at the beginning of all but one of the Qur’an’s surahs. 6 The phrase describes God as “the Compassionate and the Merciful.” Repeating this phrase one hundred and thirteen times, the Qur’an teaches Muslims to be compassionate and merciful in their relations with their fellow human beings and with nature.

Moreover, Griffith and Sarytoprak argue that Gülen’s interfaith dialogue efforts stem from his perspectives on Islam’s ecumenical aspect. In other words, Islam not only accepts the central role of such figures as Moses and Jesus, but also requires good Muslims to incorporate the teachings of these figures as part of their own faith. Similarly, for Gülen, not to believe in the Biblical prophets mentioned in the Qur’an is enough of a reason to place someone outside the circle of Islam.7 Along the same lines as Griffith and Sarytoprak, Kurtz maintains that Gülen advocates tolerance toward and dialogue with others because of his commitment to Islam. According to Kurtz, the pillars of Gülen’s method of dialogue comprise love, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness, all of which Gülen derives from Qur’anic teachings.[1]

Fethullah Gülen and the middle way

The wide publicity that Gülen and the movement gained throughout the 1990s also brought his views on modernity, secularism, and other contemporary debates under scholarly scrutiny. Kuru considers Gülen a moderate with regard to the ongoing debate about the compatibility between Islam and modernity. Kuru suggests that extreme modernists and religious fundamentalists ironically agree that the four features of modernity (modern science, rationalism, the idea of progress, and individual free will) are incompatible with the four aspects of Muslim tradition (Islamic knowledge, revelation, a conservative understanding of time, and the belief in destiny).[2] In contrast, he argues, Gülen denies such an incompatibility, seeing it as a false dichotomy, and takes a moderate position.[3] Gülen contends that “Islam, being the ‘middle way’ of absolute balance—balance between materialism and spiritualism, between rationalism and mysticism, between worldliness and excessive asceticism, between this world and the next—and inclusive of the ways of all the previous prophets, makes a choice according to the situation.”[4]

Along similar lines to Kuru, Thomas Michel argues that Gülen’s criticism of both traditional and modern secular education systems illustrates his quest for a middle path between modernity and tradition. Michel suggests that Gülen’s criticism of the madrasas and the takyas (traditional Islamic institutions of education) rests precisely on the grounds that they do not meet the demands of modern life as they lack the methods and tools for preparing students to make positive contributions to the modern world because of their failure to integrate science and technology into their traditional curriculums. However, Gülen criticizes modern secular schools for failing to convey spiritual and ethical values to students, even if they might be able to teach scientific knowledge and technical skills. To resolve this, Gülen proposes an education system that integrates scientific knowledge and ethical values.[5] In this vein, Nilüfer Göle suggests that Gülen’s integrated approach enables people to preserve what is best and still valuable from the past as well as to accept and make use of scientific and technological advances, whereas isolationist approaches have been divisive and have polarized society into secular versus Islamic, modern versus traditional, and scientific versus religious camps.[6]

Regarding the relationship between science and religion, Gülen seems to seek the middle way as well. Osman Bakar suggests that Gülen finds the two not contradictory but complementary.[7] Gülen first distinguishes between absolute truth and relative truth, which religion and science, respectively, seek. According to Gülen, “Truth is not something the human mind produces. Truth exists independently of man and man’s task is to seek it.”[8] Moreover, while religion represents those absolute truths that are about the essence of the universe and have existed since the creation of the universe, science represents relative truths produced to help humanity understand those absolute truths. Gülen views religion and science as not genuinely in conflict, since the latter depends on empirical data and their rational—yet relative— interpretation by humans with limited knowledge.[9]

Fethullah Gülen and education

Along with his unusual views on modernity, secularism, and science, Gülen’s views on education have also been studied by scholars. Thomas Michel defines Gülen’s educational vision as integrating the insights and strengths found in the various education systems of the past and the present and as bringing about a “marriage of mind and heart” in order to raise individuals of “thought, action, and inspiration.”[10] According to Michel, Gülen envisions an education system that would not only teach students marketable skills, but also educate them to have ideals:

Fethullah Gülen’s main interest in education is the future. He wants to form reformers—that is, those who, fortified with a value system that takes into account both the physical and non-material aspects of humankind, can conceive and bring about the needed changes in society.[11]

However, Bekim Agai considers Fethullah Gülen’s vision of education to be limited to the Muslim world. He claims that Gülen aspires to use modern education to stop what he sees as a process of decline in the Muslim world. He wants to create an educated elite within the Islamic umma (community) in general and within the Turkish nation in particular.[12] In addition, Berna Turam suggests that the Gülen movement seeks to reconcile Islamic culture and identity with a secular regime by adopting modern educational techniques and putting them into practice in its schools.[13] It can be noted, however, that the ideas of these two writers do not appear to account fully for the range of activities of Gülen movement volunteers in non- Muslim and non-Turkic countries and communities.

Diffusion of social movements

Most studies of the Gülen movement have focused on the personality of Gülen himself. The movement has been explained by examining Gülen’s own views on modernity, science, and secularism. As a result, scholars have generally ignored the precise mechanisms of diffusion of the movement and have not linked the movement to existing theories of social mobilization. The following section analyzes those key concepts from social mobilization theory that can provide insight into the successes of the Gülen movement.

Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht argue that two theories, resource mobilization theory and political process theory, have dominated the literature on social movements. However, they contend, less attention has been paid to intra- and inter-movement relations as a means of spreading. Therefore, they have developed a model of cross-national diffusion of ideas within social movements that emphasizes both the role of interpersonal relations in encouraging an initial identification of activist-adopters in one country with activist-transmitters in another, as well as the role of non- relational channels as the principal means of information transmission once the initial identification is established.[14]

Differing from those mainstream diffusion theorists who define diffusion as the spread of innovation, McAdam and Rucht perceive the concept of diffusion, in more general terms, as the spread of ideas and practices. They suggest that diffusion processes have so far been studied in such areas as the spread of language, consumer goods, technology, and techniques,[15] but have not been examined in terms of the spread of social movements. In order to apply diffusion theory to social movements, McAdam and Rucht define diffusion in more general terms as “the acceptance of some specific item, over time, by adopting units—individuals, groups, communities— that are linked both to external channels of communication and to each other by means of both a structure of social relations and a system of values, or culture.”[16] According to this definition, diffusion consists of four essential components: first, a person, group or organization that serves as the emitter or transmitter; second, a person, group or organization that is the adopter; third, the item that is diffused, such as material goods, information, skills, and the like; and fourth, a channel of diffusion that may consist of persons or media that link the transmitter and the adopter.

In their model, McAdam and Rucht pay special attention to the channel of diffusion. They note that, depending on the channel, there are two models: relational and non-relational. The relational model is a traditional perspective on diffusion, one marked by interpersonal contact between transmitters and adopters. The non-relational model defines diffusion as being carried out through means other than direct personal contacts, such as the media and literature. As McAdam and Rucht note, the non-relational model was utilized first by David Strang and John Meyer to explain the uniformity of policy practices worldwide that could not be explained on the basis of direct personal contact among policymakers. Strang and Meyer concluded that “cross-national diffusion can occur in the absence of high levels of direct contact, provided non relational channels of information are available to a group of potential adopters who define themselves as similar to the transmitters and the idea or item in question as relevant to their situation.”[17] Taking their conclusion as the starting point, McAdam and Rucht apply this model to the study of social movements, specifically the interaction between the American and the German New Left.

How does the Gülen Movement diffuse?

The relational and non-relational models of diffusion both prove useful in explaining the spread of the Gülen movement. The relational model explains the spread of ideas, values, and vision through direct interpersonal contacts and relations, whereas the non-relational (indirect) model explains the spread through such non-relational channels as the media and literature. Nonetheless, to apply this diffusion theory to the spread of the Gülen movement, it must differ from its original formulation. McAdam and Rucht utilized the model to explain the interaction and congruity between social movements that are active in different national or transnational settings. The Gülen movement case introduces a new dimension to the model. Normally, the model assumes that both the transmitter and the adopter are equivalent actors, that is, person and person, group and group, or social movement and social movement. According to the model, a social movement that is active in one setting leads another movement that is active in another setting to adopt similar activities through its interpersonal relations with the latter and through non-relational channels from that point on. However, in the Gülen movement case, the movement originated in Turkey but went into different communities and made contact not with another social move ment, but with individuals and social groups that are not necessarily engaged in collective action. In that sense, Gülen movement participants initiate activities in this new setting as local individuals and social groups mobilize toward realizing a shared vision of education.

The Gülen movement shows that both models, relational and non-relational, can operate simultaneously once interpersonal relations initiate the diffusion process. Before the movement participants launch educational and cultural activities in a new environment, be it a familiar or a completely strange community, they first and most importantly identify and make contact with local figures through personal visits. These local figures mostly consist of influential local people, such as bureaucrats, civil servants, clerics, intellectuals, and businessmen and businesswomen. Through these first meetings, the movement participants find an opportunity to articulate their motivations for starting up educational and cultural activities in this new community.

The main purpose of selecting the first contacts from those who are influential in the local area is neither political nor elitist. Rather, it is based on the understanding that such people possess an ability to mobilize their society and help certain ideas take root far faster than any other people can. In addition, through these interpersonal relations, the participants in the Gülen movement build trust with the local authorities by going to them and introducing the vision of the movement even before the local authorities learn about their existence and start investigating the movement’s purpose. Moreover, movement participants continue their relationship with the local authorities, assuring them that they are willing to be continuously monitored by local officials with regard to their activities.[18]

The next chapter examines the discourse of the movement participants based on the teachings and writings of Gülen himself. In this discourse, the overarching concept is the idea of hizmet (serving one’s fellow human beings). The chapter explores the movement’s core concepts and ideas, while later chapters link these ideas with their reception among the local individuals in a particular social setting. These chapters demonstrate that it is not merely the ideas of the movement that matter, but also the mechanisms that movement activists employ on the ground in order to root their vision of society in individual communities.

[1] Lester Kurtz, “Gülen’s Paradox: Combining Commitment and Tolerance,” The Muslim World 95, no. 3 (July 2005): 378.
[2] Ahmet Kuru, “Fethullah Gülen’s Search for a Middle Way between Modernity and Muslim Tradition,” in M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito, eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 117.
[3] Ibid., 117.
[4] M. Fethullah Gülen, Prophet Muhammad: The Infinite Light. (London: Truestar, 1995): 200–201; cited in Kuru, “Fethullah Gülen’s Search for a Middle Way.”
[5] Thomas Michel, “Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Gülen,” The Muslim World 95, no. 3 (July 2005): 349.
[6] Cited in ibid., 350.
[7] Osman Bakar, “Gülen on Religion and Science: A Theological Perspective,” The Muslim World 95, no. 3 (July 2005): 363.
[8] Fethullah Gülen, Understanding and Belief: The Essentials of Islamic Faith (Izmir: Kaynak Yayynlary, 1997): 309; cited in Bakar, “Gülen on Religion and Science,” 362.
[9] Bakar, “Gülen on Religion and Science,” 363.
[10] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise (London: Truestar, 1996), 12; cited in Thomas Michel, “Fethullah Gülen as Educator,” in Turkish Islam and the Secular State, eds. Yavuz and Esposito, 72.
[11] Michel, “Fethullah Gülen as Educator,” 77.
[12] Bekim Agai, “The Gülen Movement’s Islamic Ethic of Education,” in Turkish Islam and the Secular State, eds. Yavuz and Esposito, 50.
[13] Berna Turam, “National Loyalties and International Undertakings: The Case of the Gülen Community in Kazakhstan,” in ibid., 192.
[14] Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht, “The Cross-National Diffusion of Movement Ideas,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 528, “Citizens, Protest, and Democracy” (July 1993): 63.
[15] Ibid., 58. For more information on the diffusion of new techniques and practices in science, see Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (London: Collier Macmillan, 1983).
[16] Elihu Katz, “Diffusion (Interpersonal Influence).” In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Shils (London: Macmillan and Free Press, 1968): 81.
[17] McAdam and Rucht, “Cross-National Diffusion,” 59; also see David Strang and John W. Meyer, “Institutional Conditions for Diffusion” (Paper delivered at the Workshop on New Institutional Theory, Ithaca, NY, Nov. 1991); cited by McAdam and Rucht, “Cross-National Diffusion.” 25
[18] For a social movement, such behavior seems unusual. Normally, participants in a social movement would tend to avoid official scrutiny as much as possible. Yet, this unusual behavior seems to benefit the movement by pre-empting possible official suspicion about its intentions. At the public level, such behavior actually demonstrates the legality of the movement’s activities. In Mardin, I have observed that movement participants go out of their way to invite such local officials as the mayor, the governor, and the police chief to their institutions on a frequent basis.