June 29, 2014

Expansion of Gülen Movement Organizations Westwards

Jonathan Lacey

Fethullah Gülen’s promotion of interfaith dialogue pre-dates 9/11. However, the expansion of Gulen Movement (GM) dialogue organizations promoting “Turkish Islam” certainly expanded greatly after 9/11, and those in existence before 2001 gained much greater recognition and attention following this new opportunity for moderate Islamic organizations. The most high-profile GM organizations promoting dialogue in the USA include the Niagara Foundation (which now has eight chapters), Rumi Forum (which now has nine chapters), Raindrop Turkish House (which now has 17 chapters) The Institute of Interfaith Dialog (which now has 16 chapters), Pacifica Institute (which now has 11 chapters) and Gülen Institute. The GM’s expansion to the West did not, however, end in the USA but rather GM dialogue organizations sprung up throughout Europe as well, with prominent ones situated in Belgium (Intercultural Dialogue Platform), Holland (Dialoog Academie), Germany (Forum Für Interkulturellen Dialog e. V.) and England (DS), with smaller ones based in Ireland (NI-TECA and TIECS). Through these dialogue organizations Gülen began to use his transnational network to expand his movement in the West utilizing the movement’s human resources already present there, as well as encouraging others with movement experience to expand their mission westwards.

Following Gülen’s 2001 advertisement in the Washington Post, Zaman published an extended interview with Gülen in 2004, where he claimed, “In true Islam, terror does not exist.” This interview was translated into English and published by the Gülen’s Light Publishing House, which is now based in the USA. Gülen’s discourse was now becoming truly global and through a series of academic conferences the movement attempted to position Gülen’s “moderate” interpretation of Islam as the antidote to cultural conflict.

Fethullah Gülen was voted among the world’s “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Foreign Policy Magazine in 2008. From this list, over half a million people voted in a poll to select the top public intellectual. To the surprise of most observers, Fethullah Gülen topped the ballot. The GM’s Zaman ran a feature article alerting the public to Gülen’s name on the list: an intervention some claim was the key to Gülen’s success in the poll. Gülen’s triumph created something of a stir as some argued that the poll had been “hijacked” by his followers. In 2010 Gülen was also selected as the 13th most influential Islamic figure in a recent publication by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre.

Gulen Movement Dialogue Organizations and “Turkish Islam” in the West

Activities of Gulen Movement Dialogue Organizations

While the various GM dialogue organizations around the world differ slightly, there are staple events that most organizations arrange. These include hosting Iftar dinners, seminars celebrating the congruence between the “Abrahamic religions”, whirling dervish events, and bringing a selected few to Turkey to show them the avowed inherent tolerance of “Turkish Islam”, and introduce them to some of the GM’s major institutions. Most of the people invited to these events are non-Muslims who the GM has identified as people who can help them spread Gülen’s ideology. As a member of the DS in London explained to me: “I mean, we’re not an organization that’s concentrating [only] on Muslims. In fact, most of our events, you’ll find we have less contacts with Muslims and more contact with non-Muslims.” The aim of these events is not to convert non-Muslims to Islam. On the contrary, GM constituents find it more beneficial to have non-Muslim sympathizers in the West than converts.

GM dialogue organizations based around the world take their lead from the JWF based in Istanbul. This organization, of which Gülen is honorary president, began by developing a number of interfaith dialogue activities, drawing together diverse cultural and faith groups in attempts to create harmony in Turkey. The JWF organized a range of high- profile activities, including interfaith and intercultural symposiums, National Tolerance awards and Iftar dinners to name a few. It also arranged for Gülen to meet with world faith leaders including Pope John Paul II, the leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Barthalemeos; Turkey’s Chief Rabbi, David Aseo and Israel’s Sephardic Head Rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi Doron. According to Bilici “Proliferating activities organized by the Foundation and reported by the mass media succeeded in establishing a connection between Gülen and tolerance at the level of popular culture.” Yavuz supports this public perception of Gülen stating that “Gülen acquired a reputation as the moderate, emotional, and caring Hocaefendi.” The JWF also became essentially a public relations unit for Fethullah Gülen, managing Gülen’s image and helping create an image of him as a man of peace and dialogue. The importance of the JWF became even more significant following 9/11 as the GM began in earnest to promote itself as the alternative to radical Islam.

In 2007 I interviewed the vice-president of the JWF Cemal Usak, who identified his vision for expanding the interests of the JWF, “This is my personal image or vision, to extend our relations to all countries, for example. And also to have separate buildings and each country could have a representative of our Foundation.” The proliferation of GM dialogue organizations around the world indicates that Usak’s vision is becoming a reality.

Excerpted from the article “Turkish Islam” as “Good Islam”: How the Gülen Movement Exploits Discursive Opportunities in a Post-9/11 Milieu in Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 2014.


This paper argues that since 9/11 the orientalist discourse has been further adapted where both politicians and academics introduce provisos into their discourse, creating a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims. While this new discursive adjustment has created obstacles for many Muslims, they created opportunities for others. Drawing on empirical data, this paper demonstrates how the Gülen movement, a Turkish- originated Islamic activist movement takes advantage of what it perceives as a discursive opportunity to expand its operations in the Western context. Since 9/11 Islamic activist movements have often been portrayed as irrational, homogenous and naturally prone to adopt violent action repertoires. Taking the Gülen movement as a case study, this paper demonstrates how an Islamic movement engages with the West strategically and rationally, adopting a non-violent action repertoire, embracing modernity and operating predominantly within the cultural arena. Rather than adopting violence as a means to an end, the Gülen movement has turned its rejection of violence in all forms into a core feature of Gülen’s “Turkish Islam”, which is depicted as modern, peaceful, undogmatic and moderate.

Published on http://www.gulenmovement.us/expansion-of-gulen-movement-organizations-westwards.html 22 June 2014, Sunday