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

Mar 18 ’16

The Fethullah Gülen Movement in the Context of Turkey’s Socio-structural Development

Günter Seufert

Although the manner in which the Fethullah Gülen movement (aka Hizmet movement), its emergence and evolution, are entangled within Turkey’s political development and the interpretation of its religious foundations elucidates the network’s political and religious orientation, it does not explain the movement’s exponential growth in the last twenty years. And, despite the fact that its toleration by the military government in the early 1980s, nurturing by the secular governments in the 1990s and subsequent cooperation with the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the following decade aided its expansion considerably, this does not account for the dynamic it has developed. That said, however, it is indeed the political sphere which holds the key to explaining the movement’s success. The Fethullah Gülen movement grew in parallel with the visibility of Islam in politics, i.e. the success of Islamist parties such as the MSP, RP, FP (Virtue Party), SP (Felicity Party) and, later on, the Muslim-conservative AKP.

At the time of the Republic’s foundation in 1923, less than ten per cent of the population lived in cities. Today, this figure has risen to almost eighty per cent. The imposition of a Western lifestyle and the marginalisation of religion by the Kemalist elite created a deep cultural divide between the rural population and the urban middle classes, which was made manifest
 in virtually all aspects of everyday life, ranging from dress to linguistic usage, daily routine and political loyalties. The rather radical attitude espoused by the Islamist movement (political parties mentioned above) in the seventies, eighties and nineties was a response to the social marginalisation of their supporters, chief among whom, in the seventies, were inhabitants of underdeveloped provinces and,
 in the nineties, those who had fled the countryside
 to settle in the major metropolises. People turned against the secular Republic, demanded an economy without a system of interest, the withdrawal from NATO and even toyed with the idea of founding an Islamic State. By contrast, the current situation is characterised by the integration of social climbers from these classes (now in the majority in the fast-growing cities) within educational institutions, the State bureaucracy, the economy and politics.
 For ever-expanding sections of society, then, this social upheaval effectively equated Fethullah Gülen’s decision to focus his efforts on raising the education level of the devout population as opposed to the organisation of religious life and carrying out political work against the Republic with a functional orientation for the life plan of these individuals. In contemporary Turkey, large social groups are faced with the task of reconciling their traditional religious identity with the challenges posed by new living environments. Teachers and students within the educational network, their sponsors – predominantly entrepreneurs from Anatolia – and civil servants from the lower and/or provincial classes discover in Gülen’s teachings a strategy which allows them to expand their professional and social milieus and yet remain Muslims at the same time. Still more, Gülen’s beliefs allow them all to combine their personal educational success and increased social status with their faith and the interests of their nation in a legitimate manner.

With this, the Gülen movement marks a provisional hiatus in the Republic’s far-reaching socio-structural reorganisation.


Seufert, Günter. 2014. Is the Fethullah Gülen Movement Overstretching Itself? A Turkish Religious Community as a National and International Player.” SWP Research Paper (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs)




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