The Muslim Martin Luther?

Fethullah Gulen Attempts an Islamic Reformation
By Victor Gaetan

In a video posted on his Web site last December, the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen called on God to curse Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gulen, who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999, declared in a sermon broadcast on Turkish television, “Those who don’t see the thief but go after those trying to catch the thief: may God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities.” This went far beyond the normally secular bounds of political debate in Turkey.

But to fixate on Gulen’s lack of political polish is to miss the point. Gulen and Erdogan have been described in the West as political rivals, but there has always been more at stake in their clash than earthly affairs. Whereas Erdogan may frequently indulge in Islamist political rhetoric, it is Gulen that has tried to make actual contributions as an Islamic intellectual and develop a genuinely modern school of Islam that reconciles the religion with liberal democracy, scientific rationalism, ecumenism, and free enterprise. Regardless of who wins the battle for Turkey’s political future, it is vital that Gulen’s religious legacy be preserved.


Erdogan has repeatedly portrayed Gulen, and his religious movement, known as Hizmet (which translates to Service), as part of a political conspiracy, calling it a “parallel state” responsible for initiating a series of corruption investigations against his administration. These accusations are impossible to substantiate. Hizmet has no formal membership, no headquarters, and no hierarchy, which makes it impossible to know whether Gulenists are overrepresented in law enforcement and the judiciary, let alone orchestrating a putsch. There are many civic organizations in Turkey that are explicitly linked to Gulen, but, in keeping with Gulen’s teachings, they neither endorse nor reject any political party.

Gulen’s theology went hand-in-hand with Turkey’s capitalist revolution. The country’s new entrepreneurs were pious Muslims who drew on Gulen’s teaching to justify their embrace of free enterprise, strong democratic institutions, and dialogue and commerce with other faiths.

Although Gulen has always assumed that pious Muslims would be drawn to politics, he has long warned against allowing religion to be used as a tool to pursue political power. In this sense, Gulen has followed in the footsteps of Said Nursi, a great Turkish scholar of Sufism, who inspired an Islamic revival in the late Ottoman period and under Ataturk’s republic. Nursi’s 6,000-page commentary on the Koran, Risale-i Nur (Epistles of Light), argued that true spiritual knowledge was accessible to all Muslims without the guidance of a “master.” Nursi considered materialism an enemy of Islam, but he also advocated modern science instruction in Muslim schools.

Gulen has endorsed this same basic approach. Born in eastern Turkey in 1941, he grew up studying the Koran. He began to manage a mosque as well as a study center in the city of Izmir in the 1960s. Pushing beyond Nursi’s concept of strengthening religious conscience, or inner discipline, Gulen emphasized the importance of public service as a way for believers to glorify God while repressing selfish impulses.

These teachings were in sharp contrast to the political pronouncements of Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, that gained ground in the Middle East in the mid-twentieth century. Where the Brotherhood considered it a religious obligation to control the state and to make Islamic law the basis of jurisprudence, Gulen argued that religion suffered from politicization. Where the Brotherhood implies that jihad is necessarily an armed struggle, Gulen emphasized that jihad is a moral and spiritual struggle.

In 1970, Gulen was arrested by a newly installed military government, and his license to preach was revoked. But his private talks to small groups — in mosques, theatres, coffee shops, and schools — were taped and distributed. Gulen leveraged his growing fame to establish a series of student hostels, or “lighthouses,” that offered private prep courses for university entrance exams. In 1979, personal friends of Gulen set up a publishing business so that he could provide his growing number of students with study materials. Yamanlar College in Izmir, the first Gulen-inspired private high school, followed in 1982. By 1983, he had a wide national following.

Today, Gulen sympathizers run more than 1,500 schools and universities in 120 countries, including Afghanistan, Austria, Bosnia, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Sudan, and the United States. (In Texas alone, Gulen affiliates manage 26 public charter schools.) The Gulen movement provides countless scholarships for the poor to attend their schools, which mostly emphasize science and math. By contributing as volunteers, or financiers, to the movement’s education network, supporters also engage in a form of sanctified charity.

His commitment to education as the main solution to problems plaguing most Muslim societies is the most concrete expression of Gulen’s religious teachings. Drawing on Islam’s sacred texts — the Koran, hadith (words of the Prophet), and Sira (biography of the Prophet) — as well as Turkish and Ottoman cultural tradition, Gulen has developed a distinct form of Islamic theology that puts social engagement, not political engagement, at its center.

The Utah-based political scientist Hakan Yavuz, author of Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement, sees four defining characteristics in Gulen’s project. First, Gulen emphasizes that a believer’s piety can be measured by his practical actions, specifically, the degree to which the person improves the human condition. Second, Gulen argues that Islam must be an ecumenical religion. Muslims, he believes, are obliged to seek consensus in their communities and should value social participation and dialogue with other groups. (Gulen’s movement has placed a particular emphasis on interfaith dialogue, especially with Christians and Jews.)

Third, Gulen teaches the inviolability of individual rights. Religious engagement, he maintains, must be voluntary, which is one reason that Gulen’s followers are usually referred to as “volunteers” and their total numbers are never officially counted. Finally, the Gulen movement endorses critical thinking as a foundation for knowledge that glorifies God, rather than as something that contradicts revelation. Science, Gulen teaches, is a vehicle for Muslims to honor their religious duty to improve the economic condition of their societies.

To the extent that Gulen has had anything to say about politics, it has almost always been in the service of promoting democracy and cultural tolerance. Asked by The New York Times about his attitude toward the Turkish government, Gulen responded, “I always believe in being on the side of the rule of law, and I also believe in the importance of sharing good ideas with the officials of the state that are going to promise a future for the country. Accordingly, irrespective of whoever is in charge, I try to be respectful of those state officials, keep a reasonable level of closeness and keep a positive attitude toward them.” He has also emphasized the importance of maintaining a healthy civil society outside the control of the state. Private schools, private enterprise, volunteerism — these were the institutions that Turkey required if it hoped to maintain its traditionally inclusive culture.

Gulen’s theology went hand-in-hand with Turkey’s capitalist revolution, which was sparked by economic deregulation in the 1980s. The country’s new entrepreneurs were pious Muslims who drew on Gulen’s teaching to justify their embrace of free enterprise, strong democratic institutions, and dialogue and commerce with other faiths and ethnic groups. Gulen, in turn, urged this new capitalist class to work hard and succeed — not for personal gain but to enhance the spiritual well-being of society. The prophet Muhammad was also a merchant, he reminded them.

Gulen has shown that he will refuse to be intimidated, but it is still an open question whether his movement can withstand the AKP’s relentless campaign against it.


It should come as no surprise that the Gulen movement saw a potential ally in Erdogan’s AKP party. In 2002, under the AKP flag, Erdogan spoke out in favor of greater religious and economic freedoms. Like the AKP, the Gulenist movement had identified the military and the old secular economic elite as impediments to those freedoms. Although the Gulenists never offered an explicit endorsement, it seemed keen to work with the AKP. After Erdogan won, the AKP (as well as Justice Department officials said to be affiliated with the Gulenists) supported a series of court cases that landed hundreds of military officers and businessmen in jail. (Although there were many flaws in the trials’ methods, blame falls mainly on the shoulders of the AKP, which had sole authority to direct the proceedings.)

But the alliance did not last. The AKP and the Gulenists have fundamentally different understandings of Turkish identity and how it relates to Islam. The AKP has its roots in Turkey’s National View ideology, which was originally advanced by former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in his manifesto Millî Görüş (National View), published in 1969. Erbakan argued that Turkey should turn away from the West and forge a political, economic, and military union with Muslim countries. According to this view, national strength, especially as expressed in conflict with the West, is a bigger priority than healthy democratic institutions. Erbakan is still a clear source of inspiration for the AKP in general, and for Erdogan in particular. When Erbakan died, in 2011, Erdogan cut short a trip to Europe in order to rush back for his funeral, attended by hundreds of thousands in Istanbul. Germany’s most influential Turkish Islamist organization is a Millî Görüş community that Erdogan has encouraged to resist Western assimilation, in accordance with Erbakan’s teachings.

Predictably, Hizmet and the AKP have clashed over Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and undemocratic domestic maneuvers. When a Turkish NGO attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza and was confronted by the Israeli navy (resulting in nine deaths), Erdogan responded by accusing Israel of terrorism and genocide. Gulen responded to Erdogan’s belligerence, by calling it not “fruitful,” and adding that he sought Israeli permission anytime his charities wanted to help the people of Gaza.

Another point of contention has been Turkey’s relationship with the European Union. As a strong proponent of closer ties with Europe, the Gulenist movement has been frustrated by Erdogan’s refusal to pursue more serious accession talks with the EU. Occasionally, Erdogan has pursued policies — such as legislation restricting Internet access and reducing the independence of prosecutors — that seem designed to antagonize EU officials. Gulenists have also been concerned by Erdogan’s support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Free speech has always been a critical issue for the Gulenist movement, so it has also spoken out against Erdogan’s persecution of journalists and his broader disdain for democratic dialogue. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has incarcerated more journalists over the past two years than any other country in the world. (Close on Turkey’s heels: Iran and China.) Gulen sympathizer Alp Aslandogan, president of the New York–based Alliance for Shared Values, a nonprofit umbrella group for Hizmet-affiliated groups, recounted the “intimidation, inspections, and fines” that now confront publishers. “Media group owners face threats to their businesses. Never in Turkish history has a single person or party achieved this level of media subservience.”

Erdogan’s response to last summer’s Gezi Park protests must have been particularly troubing for the Gulenists. In some sense, the diverse group of protesters, who originally gathered to demonstrate against the demolition of an Istanbul park, were the model of the sort of engaged pluralistic civil society that the Gulenists champion. Erdogan decided to order police to disperse the protests with force, which resulted in days of violent confrontation. Gulen placed the blame on Erdogan for not listening to the protesters’ demands in the first place. That seems to have convinced Erdogan to declare war directly on the Gulenist movement. In September, Erdogan announced that the government planned to close all private schools helping students to prepare for university exams: the Gulenist movement runs about 20 percent of such schools in Turkey and they represent a vital source of income, as well as one of the main ways in which Gulen’s ideas are introduced to the public.

Erdogan and the AKP have taken to describing Gulen’s movement as a power-hungry conspiracy. But there is little evidence of a concerted Gulenist push for power. The movement has stayed true to its teachings by devoting massive resources and attention to running schools, charity organizations, and media entities, in Turkey and abroad. Gulenists have not made a concerted push to infiltrate the AKP, or to seat their own members in parliament. Gulenists have regularly denounced the AKP’s corruption as a violation of Islamic ethics and Hizmet principles. There is no reason not to take those criticisms at face value.

Gulen has shown that he will refuse to be intimidated, but it is still an open question whether his movement can withstand the AKP’s relentless campaign against it. Erdogan is clearly intent on marginalizing the Gulenist movement, even at the expense of the rule of law in Turkey. This week, President Abdullah Gul signed a law allowing government agencies, without a court order, to block access to any Web site. Last week, parliament passed a bill giving the executive branch complete control over the judiciary, allowing the government to nominate and fire prosecutors at will.

Turkey would clearly be harmed if Gulenist teachings on tolerance and individual rights were successfully quieted. But the loss for Islamic culture would be an even greater tragedy.

Foreign Affairs, Victor Gaetan, February 20, 2014,