If you have the chance to talk to a staunchly secular Turk these days and want to hear something mind-boggling, just ask him a simple question: “What the hell is this Gülen movement?”
The Imam in America
But if you want to get your facts right, don’t stop there. Ask the same Turkish ultra-secularist about the role of the U.S. in this evil scheme. It is very likely that he will tell you that Gülen is “supported by the CIA.” He will explain you how America wants to create “moderate Islamic regimes” in the Middle East, along with an independent Kurdistan – and, of course, a Greater Israel – and how Gülen perfectly fits into all these plots. Your friend will even quote a recent bestseller titled “Amerika’daki İmam” (The Imam in America) by Ergün Poyraz, a staunch Kemalist, to “prove” all this.
To me, however, all this rather sounds a bit like The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-Semitic forgery. In both The Protocols and the conspiracy theories about Gülen, the theme is similar: There is a cunning enemy that is secretly, yet steadily achieving its plan for total domination. The enemy never sleeps, always schemes and works “everywhere... behind every institution."
I, as you can imagine, have a different explanation for the Gülen movement.
First, I believe that its extent and influence is exaggerated. I actually know this from personal experience: Despite the fact that I have stated many times that I am not a follower of Gülen, or anybody else, I routinely get aggressive comments, and even hate mail, from Kemalists who take it for granted that I am yet another “Gülen lackey.”
In fact, Turkey’s ultra-secularists have lately come to believe that anybody who is conservative, pro-Islamic or even just critical of the military must be a “Gülenist.” Recently, even a more refined Kemalist commentator defined the anti-militarist daily Taraf as a “pro-Gülen newspaper.” One could rather define it as the Turkish paper with the highest number of atheists and agnostics among its editors and writers.
The truth is that with a few million followers, and lots of schools, media outlets and business networks, the Gülen movement is certainly powerful, but not all-dominant in any part of society. Within the Islamic camp, they are just one of the many different communities. For the secularists, all of these people can be the same – they all pray too often and their wives wear the hated headscarf. But there are actually various groups of Naqshbandis, Qadiris, “Süleymancıs,” “Erbakancıs” or “Nurcus.” The Gülenists are just one of the several offshoots of the latter tradition.
But what do they aim for Turkey? While the secularist answer is, “to dominate, stupid,” I think they rather want to have a hospitable environment in which they can survive and grow.
To see why, you should look at the group’s origins. Islamic thinker Said Nursi (1878-1960), who laid the foundations for Gülen’s thinking, was a very apolitical figure who believed Islam can best be served in this age by an intellectual and spiritual struggle against atheism and moral decadence. Even this most moderate form of Islam was unacceptable for Kemalism, so, in the latter’s heyday (1925-50), Nursi was repeatedly imprisoned for his books. He and his followers, whose stated goal was “to save people’s afterlife” by preaching “the truths of faith,” only took a deep breath in 1950, when the center-right Democrat Party came to power.
A secret agenda?
Since then, both the followers of Nursi, and of Gülen, who further modernized Nursi’s thoughts and created a global movement out of them, have supported center-right governments. They, meanwhile, distanced themselves from the Islamist parties founded by Necmettin Erbakan, whom they saw as a radical troublemaker. The reason was that the Nursi-Gülen tradition doesn’t envision an “Islamic state.” It rather seeks a liberal-democratic state that will be tolerant to its missionary work, which it carries out through publications, charity and education.
The recent alliance between members of this tradition and the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government should be understood within this context. Members of the Gülen movement supports the AKP because they know that the alternative (a military coup, or a military-orchestrated restoration government) will crack down on them severely, as happened in the late 1990s. This is a survival strategy, in other words, rather than a plot to dominate.
Finally, if the group really has a “secret agenda” to turn Turkey into a “Shariah state,” then it is in deep trouble. For it now has schools in more than 100 countries, most of them non-Muslim and any radical thing it does in Turkey would ruin its reputation and faith mission throughout the whole world.
So, perhaps, the Gülen movement has to dominate the whole world first in order to take over Turkey!
But, well, your secularist Turkish friends might say, isn’t that what all “learned elders” conspire for?
Published on Hurriyet Daily News on 16 March 2010, Tuesday