This study is an effort to understand how the Gulen movement, named after the prominent Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen, has a sphere of influence on the global scale. Active in more than a hundred countries with schools and intercultural centers, the Gulen movement is considered to be one of the most significant social movements that arose from the Muslim world.
The Gulen Movement, Dialogue, and Tolerance
Tolerance (Note: Tolerance is translated for the lack of better word as the equivalence of the Turkish word, “hoşgörü”, which has a broader connotation in Turkish than tolerance in English. While tolerance implies a degree of forbearance, here it should be understood as accepting people as they are.) and dialogue are among the most basic and broad dynamics of the Gulen movement. These two concepts, first developed on a small scale, have turned into a search for a culture of reconciliation on a world scale.
Today, the idea of different groups peacefully living together is a philosophical issue that modern states are trying to formulate. The international relations of past empires were founded on conflict and war. Different civilizations were separated by thick walls, which were supported by political, ideological, and religious identities. Inevitably, this led to conflict. During the long Middle Ages, international relations were governed by a “law of engagement,” which allowed for little space to express religious or ethnic differentiation. The domestic laws of states and empires were not exempt from this philosophy. Throughout the Middle Ages, humankind’s struggle for civilization found expression in aggressive and passionate conflict. Today, with new concepts brought by globalization, the search for dialogue between civilizations and cultures has entered a new phase. The Gulen movement is a clear example of this search, a search that has reached international proportions. Fethullah Gulen strengthens this search with religious, legal, and philosophical foundations. One of the basic aims of the global education activities is to form bridges that will lead to dialogue between religions and civilizations. The long-lasting wars of the past had to do with the problem of power balance that reigned in the international relations of the day. This was probably the case for all political empires and religious formations of the past. But today, humanity is not in a position to shoulder such a conflict on the global scale. According to Fethullah Gulen, Muslims today should not shape their own cultural, social, and existential identities according to destructive values which are rooted in conflict and fight; these are not aligned with the universal value system of Islam, in which peace, dialogue, and tolerance are the basic principles. Today, humanity is not in a position to bear a conflict on the global scale. This is the principle that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, practiced in Medina. The people of Medina were composed of groups belonging to different religions and cultures. For the first time in history, the Prophet enacted a system of values that aimed to maintain a peaceful co-existence of these religious groups. What these historical documents show us is that the reciprocal rights and responsibilities of different religious and cultural identities were clearly defined and a consensus was reached. According to this, non-Muslims would be free to practice their religions, their way of life, and their way of worship. No one was to interfere with their partners in a pluralistic organization in which groups had religious, legal, and cultural autonomy. Ali, the fourth Caliph, would formulate this pluralistic freedom in a letter that he sent to the governor of Egypt, Malik b. Ashtar, as a systematic legal expression. According to Ali, people who lived in regions ruled by Muslims were divided into two main groups: one “our brothers in religion, the Muslims,” and the other, “our equals in creation, the non-Muslims.” They both have rights to protection. In history, there has never been a culture that has been able to place “the other” on such an ontologically humane basis and thus to exalt them. This definition of Ali’s stressed the Prophet’s saying: “All humans are the children of Adam, and Adam was of the earth.” The interaction of early Muslims with neighboring nations and cultures was rooted in human and moral principles. Six centuries later, a similar development occurred. The Mongols who reigned in the Damascus region in the thirteenth century had taken Muslims, Christians, and Jews who lived under their protection as slaves. A Muslim scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, went to negotiate with the Mongol commander, Kutlu Shah, for the release of the slaves. The Mongols refused to release the Christian and the Jewish slaves along with the Muslim ones. The scholar responded as follows: “The war does not reach an end until all the slaves are free. The Christians and the Jews are under our protection, we cannot accept that a single one of them should remain a slave.” Kutlu Shah soon agreed to set free all the slaves. During the periods when Muslims adhered to the principles of tolerance and dialogue, they thus developed a broad and accommodating perspective that guaranteed the lifestyles and freedoms of various religious and cultural communities. The Ottoman Empire was a typical manifestation of this phenomenon. Today, the Gulen movement advocates social pluralism, based on the principle of tolerance, on a global scale. Unlike pluralism in the past, which was limited by religious principles, today we need broader cultural and political bases on which to build. In order to produce such a culture of reconciliation, members of different civilizations have to make a positive contribution to these efforts. There needs to be a revival of such values so that shared and livable pluralism can be established on the earth. Only then will the efforts of the Gulen movement meet with the expected response on a global scale.
Is the Gulen Movement a Religious Order?
Even though the essential dynamics of the Gulen movement look similar to those of the classical Islamic tradition of spiritual orders in certain aspects, its organization is different with regard to producing civil initiatives and its way of acculturation. Max Weber’s concept of “worldly asceticism” can help analyze the Gulen movement only to a certain degree. Instead, it is a movement that has been organized by civil dynamics. The Gulen movement is defined by modesty, self-sacrifice, altruism, devotion, togetherness, service without expectations, and by a depth of the spirit and heart with no anticipation for personal gain for any intention or deed. These are all concepts of Sufi culture, and these are also among the intellectual and active dynamics of the movement. But these concepts do not only relate to a person’s own inner world, as in some Sufi orders; they are also directed to the outside, to what is social, to the same degree. In that respect, the awareness of religious depth and servanthood to God has more all-encompassing and social aims. Weber views such action as a “rationalization of religious and social relations.” But even such a notion does not fully encompass the rational and social dynamics of the Gulen movement. Religious orders are directed toward both the personal and the private. They make the individual grow cool toward the world and direct him or her to experience spiritual challenges at a personal level. Even though he or she is not removed entirely from social life, a religious order instills a rigid sense of discipline so as to allow little space for new openings. The Gulen movement differed in that it is inspired by a philosophy that is akin to that of Rumi (d. 1273), Yunus (d. 1321), and Yesevi (d. 1165), which is embedded in a wider social context (Note: These Sufi figures of Turkish history are considered to represent the most welcoming interpretation of Islam. Their poetry and exemplary life stories have been narrated generation after generation.). It is like a contemporary projection of the message of these historical Sufis. In this projection, “religious motive” and “social action” work in great harmony. Just as elements of self-discipline mature the person, they make him or her a participant in shared aims in the social sense. Gulen’s understanding of service requires a genuine spirit of devotion. This fits in with the ascetic definition of Weber, and yet it is a dynamic that is broader and has greater continuity. Gulen invites Muslims to fulfill the pillars of Islam (daily prayers, fasting, charity, pilgrimage) by taking modern conditions into consideration. He instills a broad understanding of charity to include the gifts of time and effort, not just money; he similarly conveys the idea that prayer is not just for us, but also for others. Thus, taking these as his starting point, Gulen’s definition of “service” becomes both broad and continuous, extending to national, human, moral, and universal values. It adopts a rational attitude toward the basic values of state and nation. When one speaks of a “person of service,” one refers to a person with a vast heart who can embrace a wide perspective, selfless service, and devotion. And this requires a transcending love for religion, for nation, and for humanity. That is why Gulen frequently refers to those who are filled with such a transcendent love, and ready to face any challenges on this path, as “muhabbet fedaileri” (guardians of love).
The Gulen movement as a catalyst
Conflict and alienation are not necessarily adopted by all formations within the society. Any community or movement that has an encompassing focus has to act in conformity to the existing notions of social identity. Movement or communities that try to provide service in various sectors of the society should be differentiated from non-governmental organizations that choose a single field of effort. The Gulen movement is an important and ideal example of such formations. As has been mentioned above, its base in the masses is not composed solely of members of the lower middle classes, people from the countryside, or those who have experienced a certain amount of deprivation or exclusion from society. Most participants share Turkey’s general social identity, they are mostly educated and open to social interaction. Overall, the Gulen movement does not advocate any stance against the current political structure or the version of national identity promoted by the state. Due to its widespread basis in the society, the Gulen movement can neither be analyzed through classical theories of modernization, nor categorized as a marginal or fundamentalist movement. It should not be forgotten that this movement aims to enrich society through innovative ways of social participation and volunteer work in the principles of positive action and adherence to the law. This makes the function of the
Gulen movement critically important in terms of playing the role of a catalyst fostering habits of cooperation and mutual respect in the society weakening the tendencies of apathy and indifference to what goes on in the society. There is a caveat here not to attribute its mission solely to a catalyzing religious awareness. Its willingness to move beyond the limited scope of religious communities shows the movement’s capacity to extract from the Islamic ideals a basis of action with broader and more humane themes. This feature of the Gulen movement highlights its role to provide a basis of participation for all segments of the population, some of which may be affected by the rapid modernization. It aims to protect individual identities from fragmentation, and it provides a feeling of self-confidence in individuals with fragmented identities (as the result of social transformations) by raising the awareness of one’s own identity.
The Analysis of Fethullah Gulen and Gulen Movement by Prof. Helen Rose Ebaugh Jill Carroll speaks on Fethullah Gulen and Gulen Movement