Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Is it possible to be a true religious believer and at the same time enjoy good relations with people of other faiths or none? Moreover, can you remain open to new ideas and new ways of thinking?
Fethullah Gülen, a 67-year-old Turkish Sufi cleric, author and theoretician, has dedicated much of his life to resolving these questions. From his sick bed in exile just outside Philadelphia, he leads a global movement inspired by Sufi ideas. He promotes an open brand of Islamic thought and, like the Iran-born Islamic philosophers Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Abdolkarim Soroush, he is preoccupied with modern science (he publishes an English-language science magazine called the Fountain). But Gülen, unlike these western-trained Iranians, has spent most of his life within the religious and political institutions of Turkey, a Muslim country, albeit a secular one since the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s republic after the first world war.
Unusually for a pious intellectual, he and his movement are at home with technology, markets and multinational business, and especially with modern communications and public relations—which, like a modern televangelist, he uses to attract converts. Like a western celebrity, he carefully manages his public exposure—mostly by restricting interviews to those he can trust.
Many of his converts come from Turkey’s aspirational middle class. As religious freedom comes, falteringly, to Turkey, Gülen reassures his followers that they can combine the statist-nationalist beliefs of Atatürk’s republic with a traditional but flexible Islamic faith. He also reconnects the provincial middle class with the Ottoman traditions that had been caricatured as theocratic by Atatürk and his “Kemalist” heirs. Oliver Leaman, a leading scholar of Islamic philosophy, says that Gülen’s ideas are a product of Turkish history, especially the end of the Ottoman empire and the birth of the republic. He calls Gülen’s approach “Islam-lite.”
Millions of people inside and outside Turkey have been inspired by Gülen’s more than 60 books and the tapes and videos of his talks. Why? A combination of charisma, good organisation and an attractive message. What Gülen says is that you can be at home in the modern world while also embracing traditional values like faith in God and community responsibility—a message which resonates strongly in Turkey.
Gülen (pictured, right) insists that he is not a Sufi leader, but his thinking is certainly influenced by Sufi ideas: he says, for example, that a reader who wants to truly understand the Koran needs to invest his heart as well as his intellect. Another belief he shares with Sufism is the idea that God, humanity and the natural world are all linked, and might even be part of a single entity, a sort of cosmic trinity. This idea has practical consequences. For example, it suggests that a believer will love and respect humanity and the natural world as they would God. It also means that no one should be seen as an outsider. Hence Gülen’s insistence on friendship among people of all faiths and none.
Hakan Yavuz, co-editor of Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement (Syracuse), describes the Gülen movement as comprising a small inner cabinet along with a network of perhaps 5m like-minded volunteers and sympathisers, rather than an organisation with a hierarchy or formal membership. Others say it is more like a cult, with no deviation from Gülen’s word allowed. The network’s largesse has meant that the movement now boasts newspapers and magazines, television and radio stations, private hospitals and, by some estimates, more than 500 fee-paying elite schools in dozens of countries. These schools are mostly in Turkey and the Turkic-speaking ex-Soviet republics like Azerbaijan, but a few can also be found in Africa, China and the US.
The Gülen movement sponsors international conferences to debate his ideas. (The most recent one in Britain was held at the House of Lords.) These ideas cover three main areas: Gülen’s attempts to marry science and religion; his large body of work on interpreting Islam for the modern age; and his role in Turkish politics through his influence on the governing Justice and Development (AK) party.
Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 in a village near Erzurum in eastern Anatolia, near the border with Iran and Armenia. After a period of Islamic education, in 1959 he began work for the religious ministry as an imam—imams in Turkey are public servants—a post he held until 1981 when, shortly after a military coup, he struck out on his own. The life of a government imam will not have suited someone with his creativity and charisma—those who have heard his sermons say he frequently reduces audiences to tears—and Gülen did well to last over 20 years.
While still an imam, Gülen joined the Light movement, a Sufi-inspired network for followers of the Turkish thinker Said Nursi, who died in 1960. Gülen later broke away, but continued to be influenced by Nursi’s ideas on accommodating Islam to modernity and finding harmony between scientific reason and religious revelation.
Science and technology are important to Gülen for two reasons. First, he attributes the underdevelopment of many Muslim nations to a neglect of modern knowledge. For Gülen, a failure to study science is a dereliction of Islamic duty, as learning is repeatedly emphasised in the Koran. More controversially, he says there can be no conflict between reason and revelation, and that science should be used as a tool to understand the miracle of the Koran.
Gülen does not follow those Muslims who believe the Koran contains all that is necessary for scientific understanding. He knows that scientific discoveries are mostly provisional and that science is an incremental business. But he also believes that as researchers refine their understanding of physics or biology, they get closer to revealed Koranic truths, such as the existence of a creator. His approach has a parallel in the west in the Templeton Foundation, with its generous grants and prizes to scientists sympathetic to religion.
Sufism is integral to Ottoman as well as wider Islamic history, and in spite of attempts at repression, it remains popular and powerful in many Muslim countries. In its most traditional sense, it is marked by a master-disciple relationship in which a Sufi master is linked through a chain of living and dead Sufi masters to Muhammad himself. These days, however, Sufi leaders are more mentors than svengalis, particularly in the west.
Two of Turkey’s leading Sufi networks are the Mevlevis and the Naqshbandis. The Mevlevis were founded by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, and they include among their network the famous whirling dervishes. The Naqshbandis, founded in 1389 in central Asia, retain Sufism’s hierarchical structure but adhere to a more orthodox brand of Islam. The Naqshbandis were the leading Sufi order in the Ottoman empire’s last years. Many in the ruling AK party are members of Naqshbandi lodges. Some, however, have a higher regard for Gülen than for their Naqshbandi co-religionists.
Gülen has not involved himself directly in Turkish politics, and has always set his face against political Islam. Religion for him is about private piety, not political ideology. He was a stern and public critic of Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Welfare party—the forerunner to AK—who in the late 1990s briefly led a coalition government with the conservative True Path party. Gülen even backed the army’s “soft coup” of 28th February 1997, which forced Erbakan to resign.
After the tense period of the 1980s and 1990s, Gülen and the AK leaders have now become closer, although they have different social bases: AK’s base is the urban poor, Gülen’s the provincial middle class. Encouraged by Gülen, the AK party has softened its Koranic literalism, embraced the idea of human rights and given up dreams of introducing sharia or re-establishing the Ottoman caliphate. Its abandonment of Islamism has in turn emboldened Gülen to become more critical of the Turkish military. Gülen’s media outlets, above all the popular newspaper Zaman, give their backing to the AK government.
And the government needs all the backing it can get. Despite winning a landslide election victory last year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, President Abdullah Gül and many AK parliamentarians are fighting for their political lives in a battle with the Kemalists over, among other things, the wearing of headscarves in universities.
About 32 per cent of Turkish boys and 43 per cent of girls leave education after primary school. Polls indicate that five in ten women cover their hair, and the government argues that girls are put off staying on in education by hijab bans. In February, parliament voted by a large majority to amend the constitution and repeal the headscarf ban in universities, which had been in place since 1989. Yet on 5th June, this decision was annulled by Turkey’s constitutional court. (Turkey has a grand tradition of legislating for headwear: the turban was outlawed in 1829 and the fez introduced, only to be banned in turn by Atatürk in 1925).
Separate, but related, is the recent decision by the constitutional court to hear an application from the chief prosecutor to have AK shut down on the grounds that party members have violated the constitutional principles of secularism. The case could last eight months, during which time what little progress has been made on EU accession will effectively grind to a halt.
The banning of political parties is not new in Turkey—26 have been dissolved since 1960. AK was created from the embers of the Virtue party (banned in 2001), which itself was formed by former members of the Welfare party (banned 1998). Anticipating such a move for the third time, the chief prosecutor has asked for any AK members found guilty to be banned from politics for five years. If that happens, Turkey is headed for years of political unrest.
Many Kemalists see the repeal of the headscarf ban as just the first step towards an Iranian-style revolution. “Khomeini is alive and well in Ankara and being supported by the EU,” a senior member of the nationalist Republican People’s party told me. (And Michael Rubin, a leading American neoconservative, recently predicted that as political tensions in the country become unbearable, Gülen would make a triumphant return to Turkey, Khomeini-style, and trigger an Islamic coup.)
Yet Gülen himself is in favour of compromise on the headscarf ban. And outside the Ankara political village, the issue is not such a big deal. One poll found that in 2006, proportionately fewer women were wearing headscarves than in 1999. And just 3.7 per cent of respondents said it was one of Turkey’s most pressing issues.
The AK party is a sophisticated organisation surrounded by a cluster of think tanks and thinkers—men such as Ibrahim Kalin, a philosopher of science who heads the SETA think tank, and Ahmet Davutoglu, a former international relations professor, now Erdogan’s chief foreign policy strategist.
AK leaders, and Gülen too, have been pushing hard for EU membership for Turkey, partly to entrench religious freedom. (The Kemalists want membership for the opposite reason—to put a secular brake on the religious parties.) But now that Turkey’s prospects of accession are receding, some AK thinkers are downplaying the economic benefits of membership, and Davutoglu talks about a global, rather than just a European, role for Turkey.
Even in the event of EU-enthusiasm returning in Turkey, there remain many objections in Brussels to Turkey’s political norms. One of them, of course, is the continuing involvement of the military in politics. There is also the issue of minority rights, only now being tackled. The republic has hitherto functioned on the basis that all Turks are Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims. All other expressions of faith, language and culture have been suppressed. Even AK, in favour of more religious freedom, has been slow to promote the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish and Alevi minorities.
Gülen has always publicly supported the establishment and its organs of state, including the National Security Council. He has had the backing of both former centre-right president Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit, hero of the Turkish left in the 1970s. However, many Kemalists do not trust him, and see his support for the AK government as vindication of their stance that he is a Trojan horse for political Islam. Gülen has been indicted on anti-secularism charges, but was acquitted in 2006.
For the past several years, he has lived in self-exile in the US, where he has not been in good health. Rumours persist that he is ready to return to Turkey, though in the current climate, with talk of political bans in the air, this seems unlikely. Meanwhile, he has used his time abroad to build his overseas support and his network of schools—the latest has just opened in Pakistan.
Traditional Sufi leaders anoint a successor before they die. Gülen has not done so. Perhaps there is no need, as his ideas will live on through his books, DVDs, MP3 recordings and websites in 21 languages. Whether or not he returns to the country of his birth, Gülen’s legacy as a thoroughly modern Sufi is secure.