November 24, 2010


The Global Imam: What does the leader of the world’s most influential Islamic movement really want? (Suzy Hansen, November 10, 2010, New Republic)

The leader of what is arguably the world’s most successful Islamic movement lives in a tiny Pennsylvania town called Saylorsburg, at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, otherwise known as “the Camp.” The Camp consists of a series of houses, a community center, a pond, and some tranquil, woodsy space for strolling. From this Poconos enclave—which resembles a resort more than the headquarters of a worldwide religious, social, and political movement—Fethullah Gülen, a 69-year-old Turkish bachelor with a white moustache, wide nose, and gentle, sad expression, leads perhaps five million followers who, in his spirit if not his name, operate schools, universities, corporations, nonprofits, and media organs around the globe. [...]

Like many foreign journalists based in Istanbul, I first became acquainted with the Gülen movement through a group called the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF), which invites foreign journalists to seminars on political topics and generally serves as the Gülenists’ unofficial p.r. firm. At the time, new to the country, I didn’t know the JWF was a Gülen-linked group. (In fact, Gülen serves as its honorary president.)

But it wasn’t just the JWF. As I became more acquainted with Turkey, it began to seem as if everything there was somehow linked to Gülen. Not only NGOs, businesses, and schools, but also people. “This article is good,” I would say. “Yes, but you know, that writer is Gülen,” would come the reply. Sometimes, calling someone “Gülen” seemed to reflect fear or prejudice, and pinning down whether or not any given organization was tied to the Gülen movement was rarely a simple matter. As someone at the Rumi Forum in Washington—another organization where Gülen serves as honorary president—put it, “If you say you are in [the Gülen movement], if you say that at 12:20, and say you are out at 12:21, you are out.” One Turkish acquaintance joked to me, “Who knows? Every day, when I go to the bakery or get my groceries, I could be giving money to Gülen. Who knows!” “They’re everywhere” is a common refrain. At times, suspicions about the Gülenists sound like anti-Semitism—they run the media, they’re rich, they stick together, they only help their own.

If you ask Gülenists—who blanch at the words “follower” and “member,” as well as the term “Gülenist” (in Turkish, the term is Fethullahçı, referring to his first name)—they will call themselves a “faith-based, civic society movement” or a “volunteers movement” made up of people who admire the thoughts and writings of Gülen. They are an organic network of people, they say, whose goal is to do good works at Gülen’s noble behest while spreading his message of love and tolerance, as well as his vision of Islam. According to academics who have studied the movement, there are, more or less, three levels of involvement: sympathizers, who admire Gülen; friends, who, to some degree, support or work for the movement; and the cemaat, or community, the core adherents who are closest to Gülen himself.

The Gülen movement reminds people of everything from Opus Dei to Scientology to the Masons, Mormons, and Moonies. Mark Juergensmeyer, an expert on international religious movements, says that the Gülenists echo the Muhammadiyah of Indonesia, the Soka Gakkai of Japan, and various Indian guru - led or political-religious groups. I’ve seen Gülen referred to as the Turkish Billy Graham. “If you look at some of their educational work, they remind me of Quakers and missionaries who went off to Africa,” says Bill Park of King’s College, London, a scholar who has written about the group, “but if you go all the way to the other end, it is a political movement as well.”

Gülen’s views are moderate and modern. He is fiercely opposed to violence and enthusiastic about science. According to Gülen, “avoiding the physical sciences due to the fear that they will lead to heresy is childish.” He is emphatically not a radical Islamist. “The lesser jihad is our active fulfillment of Islam’s commands and duties,” he has written, and “the greater jihad is proclaiming war on our ego’s destructive and negative emotions and thoughts ... which prevent us from attaining perfection.” He has exhorted women to take off their headscarves, a ritual he considers “of secondary importance,” in order to attend university in compliance with Turkey’s secular laws. His followers run nonprofit organizations that promote peace, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue, and Gülenist businessmen devote their resources to building secular schools.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gülen has many admirers in the West. “It’s a civic movement,” says Islam scholar John Esposito, one of many American academics who praise the Gülenists. “It’s an alternative elite within Turkish society, as in many Muslim societies, that can be modern, educated, and successful, but also religiously minded.” Particularly after September 11, Gülen’s movement had a lot of appeal in the United States, which was suddenly desperate for “good Muslims.” “It was 2003, two years after 9/11; we were just in the beginning of the Iraq war, and here’s this ecumenical Muslim movement that seems to be open to modernity and science and is focused on education,” said one senior U.S. government official who has had dealings with Gülenists. “It seemed almost too good to be true.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2010 5:32 AM
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