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

Mar 7 ’16

Turkish Islam vs. Islamic universalism – Is the Gülen Movement relevant to non-Turkish Muslims?

Graham Fuller

Does the Gülen Movement embrace and promote “Turkish Islam?” Is there enough Islamic universalism within the Gülen move­ment to make it relevant for non-Turkish Muslims? (1)

The Gülen movement (aka Hizmet movement) consciously acts within the context of Turkish society and not as part of a pan-Islamic movement. It accepts the vital importance of the role of the state in creating and maintaining the conditions for the pres­ervation of society, without which there would be anarchy. Thus, the move­ment is not antistate or antisystem. It views Turkish nationalism as compat­ible with the values of the movement as long as the state operates within the framework of tolerance and intellectual and religious freedom. Indeed, it is this strong Turkish orientation—a kind of “Turkish Islam”—that may account for the movement’s limited familiarity among or attraction to Mus­lims outside of the Turkic world, at least so far.

Is There a “Turkish Islam”?

Some transnational Islamic movements believe Islam’s message must totally transcend the state. Thus they reject in principle the Gülen movement’s will­ingness to work within contemporary Turkish state values as in effect creat­ing a special local form of what might be called “Turkish Islam.” But is there really such a thing as Turkish Islam? If so, how much relevance could the Gülen movement ever be expected to have outside Turkey’s borders? Put another way, is there enough Islamic universalism within the Gülen move­ment to make it relevant for non-Turkish Muslims?

Gülen’s own writings show a belief in the genius of Turkish history and the role of Turks in spreading Islam and creating the Ottoman Empire. Patri­otism to the state is fully compatible with his vision of Islam. Gülen perceives the evolution of global Islam as moving along diverse and well-identified his­torical paths and as working through the intermediacy of specific individu­als and peoples throughout history. Some Turkish Islamists criticize Gülen for having a near-mystical sense of the role of Turks in Islam, almost as if the Turks were chosen for a leading role in Islamic history. If this is indeed the message imparted outside Turkey, it would place real limitations upon the movement’s relevance and appeal to other Muslim peoples.

Gülen would, in fact, reject any notion that Turkish Islam exists as a dif­ferent branch of Islam, much less as a different form of religion; he refers to it only as a particular body of cultural and historical experience. Thus, there is such a thing as a Turkish expression of Islam, drawn from the cultural and historical conditions of the Seljuk Turkish and Ottoman Turkish periods, which witnessed the encouragement of religious tolerance and the active in­volvement of Sufi orders in society. But even these cultural and historical conditions are distinctive to Turkey only in a matter of degree.

Turkish scholar Sedat Laçiner suggests that Turkish Islam had the ad­vantage of developing within an Ottoman state that was never under Eu­ropean imperial control—unlike other Muslim countries, most of which were under imperialist control for long periods in the modern era. Thus, Turkish Islam could freely develop its own thinking about Islam and the world—at least until the intellectual shutdown of Islam in the Kemalist era. The Ottoman Empire was also forced to face the challenge of modernity as a state earlier than other Muslim societies. Laçiner sees Turkish Islam as more culturally secure because of the Ottomans’ relative equality as an independent state within the Western geopolitical order, giving it a greater worldliness.

Additionally, Turkish Islam has never fallen under a specific leader or been the project of a specific movement—such as the Wahhabis—but has evolved organically within the broader culture. Its development within the multi­ethnic and multireligious Ottoman context has made it more tolerant and open to other religions as well as to other Islamic schools of thought. As a result, religion was always a pragmatic part of the state under the Ottomans. Although Turkish Islam in the Ottoman period had a number of specific cul­tural and historical advantages, the conclusions of that experience can be of relevance to other Muslims who were deprived of the same opportunities for independent development.

It would therefore be regrettable if the particular Turkish historical roots of the Gülen movement caused other Muslims to believe the movement was irrelevant to their needs. The Gülen vision of the Turkish experience rep­resents a belief in the compatibility of the state, faith, and modernity. This reality differs from the experience of many other Muslim states, particularly within the Arab world, where there has been no meaningful independent state tradition and where the modern state is often viewed as an imperialist creation in terms of its borders, institutions, and unrepresentative, externally supported leadership.

In principle, the Gülen movement offers a form of Islam that allows for national forms of expression and that does not deny the universal character of Islam. In this sense, Egyptian, Pakistani, and Indonesian forms of Islam clearly exist, each of which uniquely flows from their respective cultural, lin­guistic, geographical, and historical experiences. Taken together, they make up the mosaic of the world of Islam and its essentially single body of faith and creed.

A form of nationally expressed Islam—one that accepts but is indepen­dent of the state structure and its often state-controlled ulema—may be of particular relevance to other Muslim countries. Local and national expres­sions of Islam are not comfortable with rigidly transnational, one-size-fits-all expression of Islam. The transnationalists tend to produce a greater degree of ideological radicalism, a pan-Islamism that recognizes no local forms of ex­pression, that is not shaped or constrained by any particular historical expe­rience, that is largely an abstraction, that insists upon uniformity in practice, and that is beyond the purview of any state or society. This kind of Islamic vision can readily fall prey to self-appointed suprastate leaders who are out of touch with the grassroots and their specific cultural-historical practices.

I am well aware that many Islamists legitimately fear that the concept of “national Islam” can be used to weaken a sense of Islamic unity and solidarity of action in the face of Western dominance and divide-and-conquer policies: indeed, the West often reflexively opposes transnational Islam for that very reason. Islamists express the additional concern that national forms of expres­sion often represent local non-Islamic accretions to the faith that can twist or compromise the basic premises of Islam. But even local Islam can produce quite radical forms of expression—for example, take the Taliban or hard-line Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia who are not representative of the overall Is­lamic mainstream. Yet ironically many of the proponents of pan-Islam some­how seek “genuine” expression of the faith through embrace of Arab forms of Islamic practice, such as an insistence on Arab dress and manners that are nei­ther universal nor relevant to the faith but are somehow seen as more Islamic.

Much of the discrediting of national expressions of Islam stems from the seeming illegitimacy of the modern Muslim state, that often lies within bor­ders created for imperial convenience under rulers who were never democrati­cally elected, whose policies fail to serve the people or Islam well, and whose governance is reinforced by repressive state institutions and often bolstered by external Western support. Thus, establishment clerics are often seen as hire­lings who are subservient to the needs of the particular regime and employed to preserve its hold on power. Understandably, many Islamists and others re­ject this kind of state. Under such conditions, Islamism can easily become an antistate movement, particularly if the state is perceived to be un-Islamic, un­just, and repressive.

The task of the Gülen movement in Turkey is much facilitated by the view of most Turks that their state is quite legitimate—regardless of the shortcomings of any particular party in power—and reflects an honest and free electoral procedure. While the Gülen movement itself is unhappy with the discrimina­tion that it suffers from the antireligious secularists within the state, the move­ment in principle fully accepts the legitimacy of the Turkish state and only “seeks to develop greater religious freedom within it. (It is precisely this quest for change—and the implicit class rivalry within—that worries Turkish radi­cal secularists: the new bourgeois Islamists represent a rising class competing against the old Kemalist elite.)

Curiously Gülen is harshly criticized by both right- and left-wing nation­alist circles, which portray him alternately as an instrument of foreign con­trol, of the CIA, and of Jews and Christians, as a reactionary response to Kemalist nationalism, and as an instrument to destroy Turkish nationalism. His heavy focus on ecumenical outreach can only partly explain this pecu­liar virulence.

The Gülen movement was long at odds even with Turkey’s Islamist po­litical parties, particularly with the succession of Erbakan parties and even initially with the JDP. Gülen insists that Islamic movements should stay out of politics and objects to even being described as Islamist at all; he argues that the movement only seeks to further Islamic values and their practice at the personal and social level and not at the political level. In fact, the Gülen movement sees danger to itself when Islamists engage in politics, since they regularly bring down Kemalist wrath not only upon themselves but also in­directly upon the Gülen movement. Relations have thus been cool or even negative between Gülen’s followers and political Islamists, although Gülen has occasionally let it be known which of the current political parties he per­sonally believes best serves Turkey’s interests—and it has not usually been an Islamist party.

Since the JDP (AKP) came to power, however, and its adoption of a highly mod­erate, pragmatic, and productive political platform, the Gülen movement has greatly reduced criticism of it. As a result, relations between the two are much better now than in the past. Given the JDP’s experience in work­ing successfully within the political system, Islamic thinking has evolved perhaps more rapidly within the ranks of the JDP than anywhere else. The JDP is also largely an urban phenomenon, while the Gülen movement has had stronger roots in the countryside and towns. Many members of the Gülen community have now joined the JDP, not as an alternative to the Gülen movement but as a political complement to it. This improvement of ties between the two has in turn raised darker suspicions among the hardline Kemalists. (2)

Source: Excerpt from the book by Fuller, Graham E. 2007. “New Turkish Republic: Turkey As a Pivotal State in the Muslim World.” Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace.


(1) This question was added by the editor of the gulenmovement.us

(2) Since 2013 there has been a public disagreement between the AKP the Gulen movement, which has turned into a brutal witch-hunt against the Gulen-inspired organizations, supportive businesses and individuals. As this book was published in 2007, it is important to remind the audience of this critical change. Below is some links to news regarding this witch-hunt.

The Guardian view on the Turkish crackdown on the media: unjustified and undemocratic

EU pressured over Turkey’s seizure of anti-Erdogan newspaper

Turkey Escalates Gulen Witch Hunt With Koza Ipek Raids

Witch hunt continues as police raid Gülen-inspired schools across Turkey


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