The hype about the Gülen Movement
One of the hot topics in present-day Turkey is the so-called “Gülen Movement,” a widespread religious network named after its spiritual leader, a Sufi-minded cleric named Fethullah Gülen.
The movement is known for opening modern schools and media outlets, as well as pursuing interfaith dialogue, but lately it has been accused of “taking over the state.” Recently, there was even a long New York Times story about the matter, which quoted a Turkish journalist who believed that Gülen followers “have proliferated within the police and the judiciary, working behind the scenes to become one of Turkey’s most powerful political forces.”
So, as another Turkish journalist, let me also tell you what I think.
First, a reminder: Turkey is a paranoia-rich county. Most people here believe that some hidden power – the CIA, Mossad, “Jews,” freemasons, foreign states, the deep state, or just something – is under every stone. Therefore, if you hear any Turk saying, “Oh my God, there is this scary cabal that is pulling all the strings,” I would suggest taking that with a grain of salt.
Besides, some conspiracy theories about the Gülen Movement are already overtly crazy. Just go into any bookstore, and you will see ultra-nationalist bestsellers that blame Gülen for being “a secret Cardinal” (for he is too pro-Christian) or “a CIA puppet” (for he is not categorically anti-American).
Unless proven otherwise, therefore, I take the Gülenists-take-over-the-state theory only as convincing as the above.
However, it is also obvious that the movement has become growingly politicized in the past decade despite their earlier apolitical and non-partisan stance. One only needs to read daily Zaman and Today’s Zaman, or watch their TV counterpart, STV, to see a passion for supporting the investigations and cases against the alleged juntas in the military.
I think this strongly “anti-coup” stance of the movement is the basis of the speculations that they are “taking Turkey over.” My personal version of Occam’s Razor, however, gives me a simpler explanation: Gülen followers are very eager to prevent a military comeback, for they know that they would be its first victim.
You just need to know the history of the movement to see that. They follow in the footsteps of Said Nursi, who was jailed for decades under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for simply writing books of “religious propaganda,” and whose tomb was torn to pieces by the military junta of 1960. The latest junta, that of “the postmodern coup,” targeted not just Gülen himself – because of it, he moved to the United States – but also all the institutions of the movement.
Therefore, it can well be reasoned that the movement does not want to “take over the state,” but to save it from being taken over by their enemies.
What if this is a transitional stage, though? What if the movement actually wants to establish an “Islamic state,” as all Islamists ultimately want?
I would say no, for two reasons. First, just read Nursi and Gülen, and you will see a clear refusal of Islamism. Their hope is not an “Islamic state,” but an Islam-friendly democratic state, under which their faith-focused “hizmet” (missionary work) can flourish with civil means.
Second, the Gülen Movement is a global one now. It is dedicated to show the world the virtues of Islam, which they think are overshadowed by radical Islamists and jihadists. Their global message is all about tolerance, dialogue and moderation. They would be utterly unwise to tarnish that well-deserved reputation for the sake of the petite politics of a midsize country called Turkey.