January 18, 2013

The Fethullah Gülen Movement: Realities and myths

The Fethullah Gülen movement is young and only into its second generation, said Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology Johan Leman, Fethullah Gülen Chair for Intercultural Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven.

He said that his intervention would take an anthropological approach and would seek to distinguish between “gossip and truth”.

Leman said that when asked what had attracted them to Fethullah Gülen, Turkish intellectuals, Belgo-Turkish entrepreneurs and second-generation migrants said they were drawn to its modern, Western-style Islam. He said these people had told him that with Fethullah Gülen, they could feel modern and Western rather than ashamed of going to mosque.

Leman explained that from an outsider’s perspective, the Gülen Movement was not an organization as such, but rather a loosely-coupled system of local initiatives. This came with two main consequences: not all members of these different initiatives know each other, and initiatives may differ from one country to another.

The Gülen Movement “is not the same everywhere and it’s not as well-organized as commonly presented,” he said. “The Gülen Movement’s practices are a combination of post-modern Western realities and traditional Ottoman spirituality. That’s the problem for people who see modernity only in Western terms, because you’re confronted with a modernity that is different,” he said.

Ziya Meral, a researcher on the Middle East at the University of Cambridge, said the difficulty in talking about Islamic movements was the line of inquiry: The kind of questions people ask tended to reveal more about the person asking the question than the Movement itself.

Anxiety over the Gülen Movement is often linked to growing fears among some sections of the EU and US population over Islam in general, as well as their fears of terrorism, Muslim movements and Turkey, the researcher said.

“The Gülen Movement is a new paradigm of its own. To understand it, you need to let go of your fears,” Meral said. “You’re misunderstanding [Fethullah Gülen] if you look at it through the prism of Western fears regarding Islam or the politically-engineered tension between Islam and secularism in Turkey. You’re missing the wider picture,” said Meral.

He said the Gülen Movement began in Turkey under unique pressures, but had evolved beyond that. When Gülen and many others within the Movement had to leave Turkey in the late 1990s due to the military, the Movement started to change so much. In fact, the global experience had a huge impact on the Movement and Gülen himself.

“As it reached second-generation families, its paradigms changed. The Gülen Movement is now bringing globalisation back to Turkey at a much deeper grassroots level than the secularists,” he argued.

He pondered whether the Gülen movement would break away from its Turkish links. “Turkish nationalism is still a part of it. The Gülen Movement is still a proudly Turkish movement, but will it evolve into a truly global movement?” he wondered.

“If you want to understand Turkey, then you need to understand something of the Gülen Movement phenomenon. But with the Gülen Movement, everything seems to be a myth,” said Bill Park, senior lecturer in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College, London.

Park said its membership had been rumored to number between three and six million, and the movement’s wealth had been rumored to amount to 25 billion US dollars. “But there’s no bank account anywhere that can be scrutinized,” he said.

“We don’t know which organizations are (or are not) inspired by the Gülen Movement. Its members don’t tend to say whether or not they’re inspired by it. What you get are societies in their own right that are inspired by the movement,” Park said.

“Something is going on. There’s an enormous amount of overlapping connectivity, so the lack of an organization doesn’t matter. People can pick up the phone and communicate within their tight networks,” he added.

“We struggle to understand the Gülen movement, just like we struggle to understand Turkey. But Gülen Movement shows how Turks can be connected in all kinds of ways,” he said.

Published on European Policy Centre, 18 December 2012, Tuesday