. . . Gülen is a powerful business figure in Turkey and—to put it mildly—a controversial one. He is also an increasingly influential businessman globally. There are somewhere between 3 million and 6 million Gülen followers—or, to use the term they prefer, people who are “inspired” by him. Sources vary widely in their estimates of the worth of the institutions “inspired” by Gülen, which exist in every populated continent, but those based on American court records have ranged from $20 billion to $50 billion. Most interesting, from the American point of view, is that Gülen lives in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos. He is, among other things, a major player in the world of American charter schools—though he claims to have no power over them; they’re just greatly inspired, he says.
Even if it were only for these reasons, you might want to know more about Gülen, especially because the few commentators who do write about him generally mischaracterize him, whether they call him a “radical Islamist” or a “liberal Muslim.” The truth is much more complicated—to the extent that anyone understands it.
To begin to understand Gülen, you must start with the history of the Nurcu movement. Said Nursî (1878–1960), a Sunni Muslim in the Sufi tradition, was one of the great charismatic religious personalities of the late Ottoman Caliphate and early Turkish Republic. His Risale-i Nur, disdained and sometimes banned by the Republic, nevertheless became the basis for the formation of “reading circles”—geographically dispersed communities the size of small towns that gathered to read, discuss, and internalize the text and to duplicate it when it was banned. Nurcus tend to say, roughly, that the Risale-i Nur is distilled from the Koran; non-Nurcus often find the claim inappropriate or arrogant.
These reading circles gradually spread through Anatolia. Hakan Yavuz, a Turkish political scientist at the University of Utah, calls the Nurcu movement “a resistance movement to the ongoing Kemalist modernization process.” But it is also “forward-looking,” Yavuz says, a “conceptual framework for a people undergoing the transformation from a confessional community (Gemeinschaft) to a secular national society (Gesellschaft). . . . Folk Islamic concepts and practices are redefined and revived to establish new solidarity networks and everyday-life strategies for coping with new conditions.” To call this movement “fundamentalist” or “radical” is to empty both terms of meaning. It is equally silly to dismiss it as theologically primitive. I confess that I have not read all 6,000 pages of the Risale-i Nur, but I have read enough to be convinced that Nursî is a fairly sophisticated thinker.
Gülen’s movement, or cemaat, arose from roughly a dozen neo-Nur reading circles. Gülen was born in 1941 in a village near Erzurum, the eastern frontier of what is now the Turkish Republic. This territory was bitterly contested by the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman empires and gave rise to interpretations of Islam strongly infused with Turkish nationalism: when nothing but the Turkish state stands between you and the Russians, you become a Turkish nationalist, fast. Likewise, contrary to a common misconception among Americans who view the Islamic world as monolithic, Gülenists do not consider Persians their friends.
Two notable points about Gülen’s philosophy. First, he strongly dissuades his followers from tebliğ, or open proselytism. He urges them instead to practice temsil—living an Islamic way of life at all times, setting a good example, and embodying their ideals in their way of life. From what I have seen in Turkey, the embodiment of these ideals involves good manners, hard work, and the funding of many charities. It also involves a highly segregated role for women. I would not want to live in the segregated world that they find acceptable here; neither, I suspect, would the Western sociologists who have enthusiastically described the Gülen movement as analogous, say, to contemporary Southern Baptists or German Calvinists.
Second, Gülen holds (publicly, at any rate) that Muslims and non-Muslims once lived in peace because the Ottoman Turks established an environment of tolerance. To restore this peaceful coexistence worldwide, he says, Turks should become world leaders in promoting tolerance among religions—and Turks following his teachings should become world leaders.
. . . Gülen’s cemaat is by far the strongest Nurcu group in Turkey, described by many as Turkey’s third power, alongside Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP, its initials in Turkish) and the military. The structure and organization of the cemaat are a subject of controversy. Members tend to be evasive not only about their relationship to Gülen but about the very existence of the cemaat; of late, some have urged Turks to use the word camia in its place. What’s the difference? Not much. Camia conveys looser ties; cemaat can mean “congregation,” whereas a camia is more like a circle. But the word cemaat has become so fraught with sinister overtones that rebranding was in order. Gülen himself calls his movement Hizmet, or service.
The movement’s supporters say that its structure is informal—that being “inspired” by Gülen is akin to being “inspired” by Mother Teresa. Critics, including many people who have left the movement, observe that its organizational structure is strict, hierarchical, and undemocratic. Gülen (known to his followers as Hocaefendi, or “master teacher”) is the sole leader, they say, and each community is led by abis, or elder brothers, who are privy to only a limited amount of information. Sociologist Berna Turam has argued that the abis make strong suggestions about, and perhaps dictate, whom members should marry.
. . . there is evidence that the cemaat is internally authoritarian, even cultlike.
. . . The belief that the movement commands or inspires blind obedience is not confined to those who have left it—its spokesmen are proud of it.Read the whole thing.
. . . The second troubling fact about the cemaat’s activities is that the Turkish media organizations associated with it are clearly pursuing an agenda at odds with the movement’s publicly stated ideals. The English version of Zaman is often significantly different from the Turkish one. Remarks about enemies of Islam, perfidious Armenians, and Mossad plots are edited out of the English version, as are other comments that sound incompatible with the message of intercultural tolerance.