February 10, 2013

The Future of the Gulen Movement

Ziya Meral *

Leaving aside all of the conspiracy theories and anxieties, the Gulen movement, also known as the Hizmet from the Turkish word for service, is one of the most fascinating and out of the box faith-based movements that have emerged from the Muslim world recently.

It is clear that the movement has come a long way from its humble origins in Turkey as a local conservative Islamic initiative to rejuvenate faith into a global network of schools, charities, media outlets and businesses. Today, Turks inspired by the teachings of the Turkish imam and scholar Fethullah Gulen can be seen setting up institutions, organizations and companies in far flung corners of the world.

While most of what is written about the movement remains retrospective and critical of its current status, in this brief article I want to draw attention to few questions that need to be asked in order to forecast the future of the movement.

First of these is what will happen when Mr Gulen passes away? While he still accepts visitors, delivers talks, studies and publishes, it is a well known fact that his health is weak and he does suffer from the all too human limitation of being mortal.

The dynamic nature of the organization of the movement means that even though there is an organic accountability structure, local initiatives are independent in their day to day affairs. Thus, Gulen’s death would not cause a stop or change in any of the movement’s activities.

However, even though currently Gulen only serves as a wise authority that countless bodies approach on issues of disagreement and crisis rather than a CEO with executive powers, without him the movement will lack a ‘plumb line’ that will keep it focused and united.

After Gulen, issues of dispute, difference and conflict will be solved either through interpretation of his work or through the intervention of key figures of the movement, thus opening the door for non-conclusive tensions and debates on ‘what would Gulen do’. This will inevitably create power-tensions and personality clashes among leaders of various segments of the movement as well as different theological preferences.

The movement is now too large and diverse in political, social and economic backgrounds for any voluntary network to maintain coherence and without a spiritual guide that holds its vision together, different voices and cohorts will inevitably pull charities and organizations to different directions.

Will the movement’s Turkish nationalist and liberal voices clash in their visions? Will the globally experienced cosmopolitan affiliates find themselves at odds with Gulen followers in more traditional Turkey? Will significant economic and social uplifting we see in Hizmet circles open the door for resentment of its own privileged elites? In other words, will we see multiple Hizmets?

While most of those who associate themselves with Mr Gulen’s teaching are sincere folk who try do their best to serve to humanity as Muslims, undeniably, it is now profitable to affiliate with the movement for business and self-advancement purposes, thus not all who join the ranks have clear pure motives. Therefore, as its reach and influence continue to grow, will the movement be able to maintain its spiritual core values or will it evolve into becoming nothing short of an Islamic equal of the Rotary or Lions clubs?

The future of the movement also goes through on how it will handle its roots and activities in Turkey. Will the movement remain as a movement of Turks abroad or will it make the jump into becoming a truly global movement that originated in Turkey but includes peoples of all nations?

Thus far, vast majority of activities of the movement can be seen as Turks carrying the Turkish flag and culture abroad alongside its more universally appealing faith-inspired values. While the movement is enculturating itself abroad through second and third generation migrants and locals who studied in Hizmet schools, it is still dominated by Turks, Turkish and Turkish culture.

Accusations of institutionalization in key Turkish state structures continue to cast a cloudy shadow on the movement, although a lot of this sort of thinking is exaggerated thanks to the annual need in Turkey to find a domestic threat to nation’s secular existence. Nevertheless, the initial know-how and survival strategies of the movement in Turkey are increasingly stifling its global future. Will the movement be able to put its Turkish home in order and move on from its old frameworks?

These are neither all of the questions that need to be asked or a comprehensive list of things to watch out for. Nevertheless, the answers researchers and affiliates of the movement might seek to give to these questions will not only be vital in developing healthier understanding of the movement but also similar new generation Islam inspired civil movements that do not fit into any of traditional categories we ascribe to them.

* London based Turkish writer, researcher and academic with a focus on Turkey, Middle East, human rights and religion issues..

Published on ZiyaMeral.com, 09 February 2013, Saturday
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