A Universal Islamic Phenomenon in Turkish Religious Practice: the Fethullah Gulen Case

Gulen Movement Community Integrated Businesses

Dec 5 ’14

The Spread and Institutional Development of the Gulen Movement: Community Integrated Businesses

Sabine Dreher

The Gulen movement (aka Hizmet movement) slowly developed from the 1970s onward in Izmir where Fetullah Gulen was working as an Imam. He organized summer camps to study the Quran and dormitories for students, and became well known throughout Turkey due to his sermons that were widely distributed through cassettes and a magazine, Sizinti. His most important innovation was to set up schools that would prepare students for the university exam, which the public school system did not do well. It is these preparatory schools that laid the basis for the success of the movement because they increased the legitimacy of the movement in the public eye as they provided access to upward mobility for the hithero-excluded segments of Turkish society. By supporting poor students through scholarships and dormitories, the movement has been “extremely successful in fostering upward social mobility” according to Turam (2007, p. 20; Baskan 2004). Besides the preparatory schools, high schools and universities were also created at a later stage. Religion is not a part of the curriculum for the schools—it is taught outside in the more private atmosphere of the dormitories, and private meeting houses. The movement separates the secular space from the religious space and uses the religious space to create a sense of community for the individual in a rapidly modernizing world.

The initial financing for these schools came largely from the businessmen in the network (Balci 2003). Gulen had always urged his followers to get rich in order to support the movement’s activities (Agai 2004, p. 243). While the students pay, further investment comes from businesspeople both in Turkey and abroad (Baskan 2004, p. 223; Balci 2003). Hendrick (2009, p. 260) explains the cycle of development initiated by hizmet [movement]: the success of the individual students in the national university exams was widely published. These successes attracted more students and as a result the enrollment in the preparatory courses and schools grew. This in turn created and increased an internal market for hizmet firms which in turn allowed for more profits to go back into the schools (Hendrick 2009, pp. 176 and 248). As one follower describes ‘‘First they aimed to establish schools, you know. After schools were opened in various parts of the country, and overseas, they started seeing that they had to meet their needs’’ (Hendrick 2009, p. 260). “Need” implies that schools bought their supplies from hizmet members. In other words, the schools created a market for hizmet business that then allowed them to branch out to other customers. Kaynak publishing company is now exporting its products to over 100 countries and sells them in a successful retail store across Turkey and abroad. Surat technology is now a successful IT firm and an IBM partner company (Hendrick 2009, p. 260). Its flagship daily, Zaman, has become the largest newspaper in Turkey and reaches a global audience as it is translated into English and other languages, regularly consulted by diplomats and used by foreign news services. It has significant investment in the media, not only just the daily Zaman, but also Samanylu TV, a radio station, and four journals. In 1993, the hizmet business association had 470 members. Today, the newly created TUSKON has 47,000 business members (TUSKON 2007).

As a result of the increasing success of “Islamic capitalists” the Turkish economy is no longer dominated by big holding companies, and it has become more vibrant over the last 20 years. The share in added value of companies with more than 500 workers has decreased from 66.1 % in 1985 to 49 percent in 2004 (Karabat 2008). This means that the economic power of the so-called Anatolian capitalists (Demir et al. 2004) has been increasing. They are not limited to hizmet but all Islamic movements in Turkey are engaged in market activities (Baskan 2004; Yavuz 2003). However, according to Baskan (2004, p. 223), hizmet is now the richest religious network in Turkey.

The educational activities of the movement are not limited to the schools but have reached Turkish society through the Journalists and Writer Foundation that created the Abant platform, a Dialog initiative that discusses Turkish public affairs (for a critical discussion see Yavuz 2013, pp. 147–150). Worldwide, its Intercultural Dialog Centers organize dinners for the celebration of Ramadan to which non-Muslims are invited, yearly friendship dinners, Turkish festivals, Turkish courses, academic conferences, and study trips to Turkey. While the initial globalization process was limited to the former Soviet Union, hizmet has become a truly global network from 2002 onward. Two examples of this globalization project in action stand out. One is the Turkish Olympiad, and the second is the busi- ness association TUSKON.

At a first glance, the Turkish Olympiad looks like the Turkish version of Eurovision. It is language competition centered on a song and poem contest among students from the hizmet schools worldwide that takes place in Turkey (TURKCEDER 2012a, b). In 2012, 1,500 students and 300 teachers came to Turkey, having undergone an extremely competitive selective process in their home countries. It became a huge event in Turkey since it was first held in 2003, with performances in approximately 40 Turkish cities, attracting huge audiences annually. It is also broadcasted on national television, and in the finals, high profile politicians such as the president and the prime minister have been in attendance. It is also widely dis- cussed in the news media (TURKCEDER 2012c, pp. 54–55) and has developed into an effective marketing opportunity for hizmet firms.

TUSKON has now 49.000 members most of whom are small and medium-sized businesses. The association is extremely active in establishing trade links. For instance, in 2005, it received 500 delegates from 31 African countries in Istanbul. It has offices in Brussels, Beijing, and the United States. One important initiative is the annual World Trade Bridge started in 2006 in which businessmen from more than 130 countries participated. In addition to the world trade bridge there are also smaller, regionally focused trade bridges and thematically focused events. The world trade bridge benefits from the Turkish Olympiad because there are now more qualified persons for the necessary translations due to the schools. This is necessary as TUSKON actively organizes and schedules meetings to ensure that each attendee will have some opportunity to talk to a corresponding business from the Turkish side, creating a need for translators (Hizmet 2012). The schools are also responsible that TUSKON’s Turkish-African trade initiative was successful as the schools provided vital contacts (Tanik 2013).

Business interest and education work together: As explained earlier, often, the first entry into a country is the setting up of a school, which provides opportunities for Turkish ministers to visit. TUSKON members accompany Turkish ministers, and business deals are struck alongside cultural activities. On the other hand, TUSKON has also organized scholarships for students from Africa to study in Turkey in 2012 (Tasci 2012). One concrete example of the interrelationship between business, education and culture is the opening of an Ottoman complex in Johannesburg, South Africa. It contains a Mosque, a Turkish School, shopping facilities, a medical clinic, restaurant, and an academy of Islamic sciences. Its opening was attended by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and high-ranking Turkish officials and businesspeople. The complex’s name is: Nizam al-Mulk who was an 11th century statesman of the Seljuk Empire and known for setting up schools (Baysal 2012). This shows that TUSKON has surpassed MUSIAD which concentrates on Islamic countries whereas TUSKON’s focus is global. The economic strength of hizmet is visible in the conviction of TUSKON’s president, that its efforts to increase foreign trade are one of the reasons why Turkey was able to deal with the global economic crisis better than other countries as the increased trade links compensated for the weakening business elsewhere (Kristianasen 2001; Tanik 2013).

What we essentially have with the hizmet movement is a globalization project centered on small- and medium-sized business and their families promoting through their dialogue and education initiatives an alternative Islamic globalization project centered on the idea of service in order to fight the three main enemies of humankind: poverty, disunity, and ignorance. In their own way, they thus counterbalance the more totalitarian visions of political Islam. The following section will lay out how this potentially—further research is necessary—aligns with the notion of corporate social responsibility outlined in the UN social compact as explained in Williams and Zinkin (2010).


Excerpted from the article: Dreher, Sabine. “Islamic Capitalism? The Turkish Hizmet Business Community Network in a Global Economy,” Journal of Business Ethics, Springer. April 2014


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