May 5, 2011

Is the Gülen Movement a civil society initiative?

Muhammed Çetin

Civil society is described "as an arena of friendships, clubs, churches, business associations, unions, human rights groups and other voluntary associations beyond the household but outside the state … [providing] citizens with opportunities to learn the democratic habits of free assembly, non-coercive dialogue and socioeconomic initiative.

"1 The terms "civil society sector" or "civil society organization" cover a broad array of organizations that are essentially private, that is, outside the institutional structures of government. They are also distinct from business organizations: They are not primarily commercial ventures set up principally to distribute profits to their directors or owners. They are self-governing and people are free to join or support them voluntarily.2

Despite their diversity, the services and institutions (SMOs) provided by the Gülen Movement share important common features that justify identifying them in the social civic sector. They are not part of the governmental apparatus, and, unlike other private institutions, they are set up to serve the public, not to generate profits for those involved in them.3 In line with the definition given above, the SMOs embody a commitment to freedom and personal initiative; they encourage and enable people to make full use of their legal rights of citizenship to act on their own authority so as to improve the quality of their own lives and the lives of others in general.4

The SMOs are not primarily commercial. They emphasize solidarity for service projects and collectively organized altruism. They embody the idea or ideal that people have responsibilities not only to themselves, but also to the communities of which they are a part. Within the legal space as given, the movement combines private structure and public purpose, providing society with private institutions that are serving essentially public purposes. The SMOs' connections to a great number of citizens and their multiple-belonging and professionalized networks within the civil society sector enhance the movement's flexibility and capacity to encourage and channel private initiatives in support of public educational purposes and philanthropic services.

The Gülen Movement is distinguished by its substantial and sustained contribution to the potential of citizens to apply their energies to discover and implement new solutions following their own development agendas. It has boosted voluntary participation, multiplied networks of committed citizens in mutually trusting relationships, pursued through respectful dialogue and collaborative effort, the shared goal of improving community services.5 The movement is thus an agent, on behalf of the country as a whole, for the accumulation of "social capital." In explaining the term, R.D. Putnam says "social capital" refers to connections among individuals -- social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called "civic virtue." The difference is that "social capital" calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.6

Weller draws attention to the fact that "although often overlooked in the social and political constructs of modernity," faith and faith-inspired organizations "form a substantial part of civic society and … contribute significantly to the preservation and development of both bonding and bridging social capital" in civic society volunteerism, the third sector and democracy.7 The voluntary aspect of association is an important dimension of the Gülen Movement.8 Individuals freely join associations and services of their choice, and they are also free to exit, without cost. Whether the underlying motivation for such voluntary participation is self-fulfillment, self-expression, self-development or something else, it is expressive of the individualistic nature of the concept of civil society.9

The fact that, as a thoroughly civic, autonomous initiative, the movement is situated entirely outside the conventional channels of political representation -- party, government, state, etc. -- does not mean that it therefore stands in some way against the political, governmental or democratic system.10 This would be a grave misreading of the reality of the diffused civic networks of collective action. Through the non-profit-oriented management of its educational and cultural institutions, the movement distinguishes itself sharply from political actors and formal state institutions and agencies.11 Its forms of collective action are multiple, variable and simultaneously located at several different levels of the social space. They do not contend with, or for space in, government or state institutions or agencies. They deal with human beings individually in the public space through independent, legally constituted civic organizations.12 The movement's field of action -- the origin, source and target of what it does -- is the individual human being in the private sphere.13 The natural consequences of this action extend to the civil-public sphere. Its approach is "bottom-up,"14 namely, transforming individuals through education to facilitate the consolidation of a peaceful, harmonious and inclusive society as a result of an enlightened public sphere. It is not the "top-down" approach characteristic of state or government agency. That is indeed the rationale for Gülen's emphasis on the primacy of education among the movement's commitments:

As the solution of every problem in this life ultimately depends on human beings, education is the most effective vehicle, regardless of whether we have a paralyzed social and political system or we have one that operates like clockwork.15

In short, the movement's work demonstrates a shift in orientation from macro-politics to micro-practices.16 While the movement's origin and services arise from a civil society-based faith initiative, its discourse and practice affirm the idea that religion and the state are and can be separate in Islam, and that this does not endanger the faith but, in fact, protects it and its followers from exploitation and may strengthen it.17 After his analysis of the transnational social movements originating from Muslim communities, Hendrick concludes:

The Gülen Movement emerged as the most successful purveyor of Turkey's improvisation of Islamic modernity, a civil/cosmopolitan Islamic activist movement that seeks to realize its goals of global transformation via "moral investment" in the global economy, "moral education" in the physical sciences, and moral convergence with "other" groups via tolerance and dialogue.18

The common features shared by its SMOs justify identifying the Gülen Movement as a civic initiative and a civil society movement.

  1. R. W. Hefner, ed., Democratic Civility: The History and Cross-Cultural Possibility of a Modern Political Ideal (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998).
  2. L. M. Salamon, W. Sokolowski, and R. List, The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, 2003), ii, 7-9.
  3. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2000, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit recognized how Gülen-inspired schools serving as NGOs contribute to the well-being and cultures of Turkey and other countries (G. Bacık and B. Aras, "Exile: A Keyword in Understanding Turkish Politics," The Muslim World 92-3/4 (2002): 381-418).
  4. J. Irvine, "The Gülen Movement and Turkish Integration in Germany," in Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World: Contributions of the Gülen Movement, eds. R. A. Hunt and Y. A. Aslandoğan (Somerset: The Light, 2007), 59, 67-72; S. Tekalan, "A Movement of Volunteers" (paper presented at the "Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice" conference, Houston, Texas, Nov. 12-13, 2005), 3; Y. A. Aslandoğan and M. Çetin, "The Educational Philosophy of Gülen in Thought and Practice," in Hunt and Aslandoğan, 59.
  5. A. Ünal and A. Williams, Advocate of Dialogue (Fairfax: Fountain, 2000), 21, 318; M. Çetin, "Voluntary Altruistic Action: Its Symbolic Challenge against Sinecures of Vested Interests" (paper presented at the second annual "Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice" conference, Norman, Okla., Nov. 3-5, 2006), 1-21; Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (Somerset: The Light, 2004), 210-14.
  6. R. D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000),19.
  7. P. G. Weller, "Religions and Social Capital: Theses on Religion(s), State(s) and Society(ies) with Particular Reference to the United Kingdom and the European Union," Journal of International Migration and Integration 9-2 (2005): 272.
  8. A. J. Stephenson, "Leaving Footprints in Houston: Answers to Questions on Women and the Gülen Movement," in Hunt and Aslandoğan, 58-60; Fethullah Gülen, The Statue of Our Souls: Revival in Islamic Thought and Activism (Somerset: The Light, 2005), 43-8; J. Irvine, "The Gülen Movement and Turkish Integration in Germany," in Hunt and Aslandoğan, 65.
  9. C. Sirianni and L. Friedland, "Civil Society," The Civil Practices Network,
  10. U. Kömeçoğlu, "A Sociologically Interpretative Approach to the Fethullah Gülen Community Movement" (MA Thesis, Boğaziçi University, 1997), 65, 78, 86.
  11. Ünal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue, iii, 326; G. E. Fuller, "Turkey's Strategic Model: Myths and Realities," The Washington Quarterly 27-3 (2004): 53.
  12. T. Michel, "Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Gülen," in The Muslim World, Special Issue: Islam in Contemporary Turkey: The Contributions of Gülen, ed. Z. Saritoprak (London: Blackwell; The Muslim World 95-3, 2005), 351.
  13. Ünal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue, 313.
  14. Ibid., 156-7; L. Sykiainen, "Democracy and the Dialogue between Western and Islamic Legal Cultures: Fethullah Gülen's Efforts for Tolerance" (paper presented at the second international "Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice" conference, Dallas, Texas., March 4-5, 2006), 116; E. Altinoğlu, "Fethullah Gülen's Perception of State and Society" (MA thesis, Boğaziçi University, 1999), 102; I. Yilmaz, "State, Law, Civil Society and Islam In Contemporary Turkey," in Saritoprak, 397.
  15. Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization, 199.
  16. N. Göle, "Islam in Public: New Visibilities and New Imaginaries," Public Culture 14-1 (2002): 173.
  17. Ünal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue, 36; L. Ashton, "Defending Religious Diversity and Tolerance in America Today: Lessons from Fethullah Gülen" (paper presented at the "Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice" conference, Houston, Texas, Nov. 12-13, 2005), 3-4.
  18. 18 J. D. Hendrick, "The Regulated Potential of Kinetic Islam: Antitheses in Global Islamic Activism," in Hunt and Aslandoğan, 30.
Published on Today's Zaman, 19 April 2009, Sunday

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