The ambiguous politics of the Gülen Movement

The ambiguous politics of the Gülen Movement

William Armstrong -
The ambiguous politics of the Gülen Movement ‘Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World’ by Joshua D. Hendrick (New York University Press, $49, 292 pages)

Turkey’s news agenda is so dizzyingly unpredictable that it’s difficult to write anything on the country that can endure for long. The landscape is constantly shifting, and common sense one month can seem passé the next. This dispassionate but critical case study on the movement of reclusive Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen by social anthropologist Joshua D. Hendrick was published toward the end of last year, but it could already use an update. The fallout from the graft probe that has shaken the country since December has torpedoed the (already uneasy) alliance between the Gülen movement and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and exposed myriad unhappy truths about both of them. Still, while it may already need a revision, and while some of its conclusions may be wide of the mark, there’s still much to learn from this book about the enigmatic Gülen and his enigmatic movement.

Gülen first gained a small but devoted following as a charismatic state-employed imam in the western Turkish city of İzmir in the 1970s. Within years, a burgeoning network of Gülen-affiliated enterprises had developed, mainly involved in educational services, dormitories, camps and after-school activities. In the years after the 1980 military coup, it had greater opportunities to expand; Gülen affiliates were ideally placed to take advantage of both the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” promoted by the authorities to heal the violent left-right divisions of the 1960s and 70s and the business opportunities offered by Turkey’s shift to economic liberalization. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Gülen sympathizers mushroomed in the private education, media, construction, publishing and light manufacturing sectors, and expanded abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia. By the late 1990s, Gülen affiliates had business interests in over 80 countries, and after 9/11 they benefited from both the Western search for “moderate Islamic” alternatives to aggressive Islamism and Turkey’s rapid economic growth. Today, the Gülen network is a series of loyal enterprises, some loosely and some more tightly connected, all mutually supportive and all sharing sympathy for the character and teachings of “hocaefendi.”

Material interests are key to understanding where the movement’s emotional power comes from: Its ability to help people fulfill their professional ambitions while also providing them with a spiritually satisfying piety and a space for self-defined good deeds. Gülen’s “sermons” (sohbetler) repeatedly stress the dangers of blind materialism, but also promote the pursuit of personal economic advancement and the importance of science. As Hendrick writes:

The stated purpose of the core community (cemaat) is to train a totally devoted ‘golden generation’ of ‘ideal humans’ who will lead Turkey toward ‘the light’ by revitalizing Islam as central to Turkish national identity, and by educating young Turks about their potential as world leaders in business, science, and statesmanship. The reality of participation, however, is that the cemaat also reproduces a system of social mobility, rational opportunism, and professional access.

On the individual level, he adds, the Gülen movement “might serve one’s spiritual inclinations to better humanity, but it might also provide an avenue for social mobility, for university education, for world travel, or for a sustainable income.”

The “ambiguity” of the book’s title refers to the “strategic ambiguity” that has been used by Gülen affiliates as an organizational strategy from the start. This secrecy is almost pathological, innate to the movement’s organizational practice in Turkey, and Hendrick suggests it should be understood in the context of the sometimes oppressive political situation in which it emerged. But such ambiguity has not gone down well in the United States, where hundreds of Gülen-linked charter schools now operate. Increasingly tough questions are being asked over allegations of financial mismanagement, unfair hiring in favor of foreign Turkish teachers, union busting and gender discrimination. One concerned parent contacted Hendrick after a run-in with the administrators of his daughter’s school, confiding:

What began to concern me was their reaction to any sort of questioning or disagreement with school policies – the degree to which they could not tolerate it, and the manipulative and forceful manner in which they responded struck me as distinctly abnormal.

Another asked him: “Why doesn’t the school acknowledge a link to other schools? … I feel uninformed and concerned. Why isn’t there an open dialog about the Gülen influence on the academic model?” School administrators routinely respond by denying any critical connection to Gülen and claiming only “inspiration,” but this isn’t enough to prevent an ongoing public relations disaster. The Gülenists are "playing the U.S. political field as though it were Turkey in the 1990s,” Hendrick writes.

Unfortunately, while the book lavishes attention on the movement’s American problems, much less energy is spent on its rather more consequential Turkish controversies. Barely two pages are devoted to the contentious Ergenekon and Balyoz cases into alleged “deep state” plots to foment chaos and stage a military coup against the AKP, let alone the trials of alleged members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). Gülenists within the police and the judiciary led those investigations, which were riddled with dirty tricks and falsified evidence. These malfeasances have done much to erode the reputation of the movement - both in Turkey and abroad - so ignoring them leaves a gaping hole at the center of the book. It’s like a volume about the recent history of the Catholic Church failing to mention child abuse. 

Also problematic is Hendrick’s rehashing of an argument that went stale long ago: Islamic politics in Turkey, he argues, is not about capturing or co-opting the state, but rather about engineering its decline in the interests of conservative bourgeois Anatolians. In fact, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that the current AKP government actually has little interest in “shrinking the state,” but instead wants to capture and bend it to its own will. The Gülen movement’s relation to the state is similarly complicated. It may well be a textbook example of “market-driven Islam” emerging from Turkey’s post-1980 economic opening, but there is plenty of evidence that its members are also pursuing all kinds of dubious political ends across many state institutions. Regrettably, that is little explored in this book.

Many people could already see it, but events since December have outed the Gülen movement as a political player once and for all, and it will never again be able to portray itself as a purely apolitical civil society actor. The aftershocks of the graft probes are altering perceptions of the Gülen movement by the hour, and its future direction now hangs in the balance. So although a revision of this book is already necessary, its author would probably be wise to postpone that update for a while. In the meantime, let's all just keep the popcorn topped up.

William Armstrong,