June 4, 2014

Gulen Movement Practice in the Netherlands

Martin van Bruinessen*

Cemal was 26 years old in 1989 when he arrived in the Netherlands in search of work. (1) He is a Kurd, and was born and grew up in Southeastern Turkey in a conservative and religious household.
He received a solid religious education and as a young man, was very familiar with the works of Said Nursi. Upon his arrival in the Netherlands he settled in the city of The Hague, which has a large Kurdish community (and where there is a large sector of informal jobs for illegal workers). He was at first very isolated enjoying only a very narrow circle of acquaintances. After four years, he learned about a sohbet in The Hague where the Risale-i Nur was read. This sohbet was held in a private house and was organized by disciples of Hocaefendi Fethullah Gülen. Eager to resume his immersion in the Risale-i Nur, and to find a community of the likeminded, Cemal became a regular participant at the sohbet of this group. It was there where he first watched and listened to video recordings of sermons by Fethullah Gülen. When Hocaefendi spoke of Allah, the Prophet, or his Companions, Cemal expressed that he was moved by Gülen’s display of emotion, by the tears flowing down his face, and by the choking in his voice. Gülen’s emotional intensity was so strong that it aroused a similar response in his audience and Cemal explained that he also experienced an involuntary urge to cry; and that he enjoyed this sense of emotional devotion, and the sense of relief it produced in him afterwards. The sohbet became an important part of Cemal’s life, and he wanted his wife to share in his experience. He thus explained that simultaneous with the men’s sohbet that he attended regularly, there was usually a sohbet for women in a separate room that was led by an abla (elder sister). Because she spoke only Kurdish, Cemal knew his wife might not understand much in the beginning, but he brought her along anyway. With the help of the group’s abla, Cemal’s wife learned Turkish.

As mentioned above, Rotterdam was likely the first city to host Gulen movement activities in the Netherlands. Kamil was twelve-years-old when he arrived in the Netherlands in 1980 with his mother. Kamil’s father had been working in the Rotterdam harbor since 1972, and was able to bring his wife and son under the program of family reunification. The family had long been affiliated with the Nur movement in Turkey; and Kamil’s father, in fact, was aware of Fethullah Gülen since at least 1973. Kamil explained that his father had already considered Gülen to be the most inspiring preacher of the Nur movement. In the early 1980s, ağabeyler (elder brothers) from Turkey first visited the Netherlands, which ultimately led to a core of Gülen followers settling there. This was still a very small group, however. In the entire region of Rotterdam they were only twenty to thirty people at this time, but from these modest beginnings, the movement developed rapidly. Kamil is proud that he and his father have made a modest contribution to this growth. When his father retired and returned to Turkey, he gave the movement free use of his house in Rotterdam, which now serves as a dershane (“lesson house,” student apartment; the ışık evi in Turkish). Kamil did not fancy a life in working class employment like his father and preferred to go into business for himself. He opened a shop and he is now a successful businessman and a loyal mütevelli (financial supporter) of Hizmet in Holland.

The development of the Gulen movement, or Hizmet (service), as its followers prefer to call it, in the Netherlands reflects the evolution of the Turkish community in general. Initially this largely consisted of single men who were recruited as workers in low-wage sectors of the Dutch economy. Active recruitment stopped in the early 1970s, but immigration continued because European states allowed established workers to bring their wives and children; many others came as “tourists” and overstayed their visas. Well into the 1980s, it remained relatively easy to stay illegally or to legalize one’s residence. When immigration regulations became tighter, the only way to acquire legal residence was through marriage with someone already living legally in the Netherlands. As the Turkish community came to consist more and more of families with young children, it developed needs that created new opportunities for enterprising members: Turkish butchers, greengrocers, and textile and furniture shops all catered to the tastes of Turkish families; newspaper agents and journalists, and later local radio and television stations contributed to a Turkish-Dutch public sphere. Turkish travel agents offered affordable travel to Turkey for holidays and family visits; Turkish undertakers took care of the last rites and burial in Turkey. Turkish mosques were not only places for worship; they were cultural centers that provided a whole range of services to the Turkish immigrant community. By the 1990s, increasing numbers of second-generation immigrants (i.e., those born in the Netherlands or those who arrived at or before pre-school age) were entering higher education in the Netherlands and began making careers in Dutch businesses and institutions, rather than remaining locked in the Turkish community.

The emergence of a Turkish middle class of entrepreneurs was crucial to the Gulen movement’s rise in The Netherlands as more than a loose network of sohbet groups. It was shopkeepers and other businessmen who acted as mütevelli, providing financial support for the movement’s various initiatives: student homes (dershaneler), homework assistance centers (eğitim merkezleri), dormitories (yurtlar), newspapers, local television stations, dialogue organizations, and schools. As the number of students and university graduates increased, the character of the movement changed considerably. With a better knowledge of the Dutch language and culture, these locally educated young people entered Dutch institutions and became successful in gaining various forms of support for the Gulen movement’s various initiatives.

Student Followers and Organizers

Students played a key role in establishing the first dormitories and educational centers (for assisting children of school age) and various other public activities. These students typically lived together in ıșık evleri/dershane established by the movement, and organized themselves in a Turkish- Islamic student organization named Cosmicus. Interviews with members of the first generation of activists give the impression of a very loosely organized community. Some of them belonged to families that were already involved in the Nur or Gülen movements in Turkey, but a considerable number of them claim that they only became acquainted with the ideas of Fethullah Gülen in the course of their studies in university or college. Their first contact with the movement was in many cases through activities organized by Cosmicus or after they accepted an invitation to stay in a dershane. The name of the student association Cosmicus (Citizen of the World) indicated its ambitions. It specifically targeted students of Turkish background and organized various activities that helped members to establish contacts with Dutch society and to gain experience in cooperating with Dutch institutions in business, education, and social work. It constitutes the nucleus of a rapidly growing “old boy network,” whose members helped one another effectively in their careers. Cosmicus was originally founded by students at the Free University of Amsterdam, but soon after, branches were established in seven more cities: Rotterdam, The Hague, Tilburg, Utrecht, Leiden, Nijmegen, and Enschede.

Not all students who were invited to stay in a student apartment were necessarily practicing Muslims; active members of the movement had a strong preference for recruiting intelligent and serious students who they believed they might be able to persuade to become loyal followers. Many students who became active in the Gulen movement in the 1990s, therefore, had diverse family backgrounds; although in most cases their families were nationalistic and socially conservative. Although there was no explicit obligation to take part in communal prayers and readings, most of the recruits rapidly adapted themselves to this common discipline. Those who did not want to adapt usually left after a brief period. This was the case for an Alevi student who felt very uncomfortable in this environment in spite of his friends’ efforts to show tolerance. Quite a few others preferred to stay in the dershane for pragmatic reasons (e.g., the low rent) but established some distance after completing their study. Similarly, I encountered several students who joined the association Cosmicus because of the networking opportunities it provided, rather than for its championing of Gülen’s ideas.

The dershaneler tended to have a positive influence on the academic performance of students later and on their social success in Dutch society. Some of the students who were most active in the early years of the Gulen movement in the Netherlands later found employment with Gulen movement affiliated institutions; others found employment in the municipal bureaucracy or in municipal politics, in business, or in education. Edip, Abdullah, and Mustafa were representative of this generation of early followers.

Edip was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1972 and went to primary school there. His parents, concerned about the moral dangers they perceived lurking in Dutch secondary schools (e.g., alcohol and drugs, petty criminality, and sex) sent him to a boarding school of the religiously conservative Süleymanlı cemaatı (a religious group) in Turkey, as many other parents did. When Edip returned to the Netherlands in 1990, he had forgotten his Dutch and had to learn it anew. His Turkish diploma did not give him access to the higher education to which he aspired, and he had to first spend a few years in vocational training. During these years as a student, Edip became acquainted with the Gulen movement through an imam who regularly visited Utrecht to give talks on Nursi’s and Gülen’s ideas. His father had earlier come under the influence of this imam and already owned a collection of cassette recordings of Gülen’s sermons, which Edip enjoyed listening to. He was gradually drawn into a circle of young admirers, and together with them he decided to establish a homework assistance center and boarding house (yurt) for Turkish secondary school students. The teaching staff and organizers consisted entirely of student volunteers. They used the original center in Rotterdam as a model, and often visited Rotterdam to learn from their more experienced peers. It is hard to believe that the initiative to establish such a center in Utrecht was entirely spontaneous, but Edip insists that no one told he and his friends to do this; he explained that it was entirely their own idea. Unlike many of his friends, Edip dropped out of school because he was too busy with the center, and because he had also begun helping his father who ran a business catering to the Turkish community. After some years, Edip and his two brothers took over their father’s business and transformed it into a modern, internationally oriented enterprise. He now travels all over the world and has little time left for practical work with the center; however, he remains a member of the board. His business leaves him little time for sohbet and regular devotions, but he compensates for this by being a generous mütevelli.

Abdullah is a friend of Edip’s whose father also came to the Netherlands in the 1970s as part of a mass of in labor migration from Turkey. After being raised by relatives in Turkey, upon graduation from secondary school Abdullah joined his father hoping to continue his education in the Netherlands. He learned Dutch, which he now speaks fluently, before enrolling in school and before he found a job that interested him. After school, Abdullah heard that the local police were recruiting functionaries with immigrant backgrounds, and he applied and was selected for a position. After working with the police for several years, and after having come to know Dutch society well, he enrolled at an academy for social work. After graduating with a higher vocational education diploma, he worked for a year at a large institution specializing in immigration and integration problems. Neither Abdullah’s father nor his relatives in Turkey had a previous connection with either the Nur or Gülen movements, and he claims to have remained unaware of the Gulen movement while he lived in Turkey. In Utrecht, his father was unaffiliated with any group or cemaat and prayed in the Diyanet mosque. Abdullah was active in various Dutch-Turkish associations of conservative religious and nationalist orientation before joining the circle of Gülen-admiring friends. As a result of his education and work experience, he had many useful connections in Dutch institutions, which helped him to smooth the path for the various initiatives with which he later became associated.

After successfully affiliated himself with the Gulen movement community, Abdullah later established the Gulen movement’s cultural and education center in Utrecht. He also helped to organize a local Turkish business association, which later became part of the countrywide federation called HOGIAF. He later went into local politics and became a member of the Christian-democratic party (CDA), which had long-competed with the social democrats for the votes of immigrant Muslims (legal residents in the Netherlands may vote in municipal elections without being citizens). For two four-year periods between 2002 and 2010, he was elected to the city council on the CDA ticket, and explained that he saw this as a form of service (hizmet) both to Dutch society and to the Turkish community.

In several other cities, Gülen followers of Abdullah’s generation took part in municipal politics, roughly during the same period. With few exceptions, they did this as CDA members, as the Christian democrats were ideologically closest to the Gülen movement’s religiously conservative views. Members of the movement, however, also cultivated contacts with the other political parties, namely, the social-democratic labor party (PvdA) and the liberal People’s Party for Peace and Democracy (VVD).

Mustafa and Abdullah are two of the most visible Gulen movement personalities in the Netherlands. They claim, as do the other prominent men of their generation, that their activities are their own, and are aided by Dutch advisers. In this way, they downplay the role of older ağabeyler, whom they say are just religion teachers. Gülen’s ideas on education and serving the community (hizmet) are their inspiration, but they insist that there has never been any instruction or request about specific initiatives to pursue.

No other immigrant organization has been as successful in engaging the support of prominent Dutch personalities as notably as the Cosmicus Foundation and HOGIAF have. As a result, however, these institutions now function as part of the larger Dutch system, and have a natural tendency to engage in such activities that the Dutch institutional environment favors and facilitates. The Dutch educated front persons of the various Gülen-affiliated institutions are torn between two forces, the ağabeyler from Turkey and the Dutch boards of advisers. They cannot afford to be seen too dependent on their Turkish parent organizations. Their activities find their form in a process of negotiation that leaves little room for secret agendas.


(1) The name of Cemal, as of all other respondents who are quoted in this article, is a pseudonym, but he is a real person and the details on his life narrated here are genuine.

*Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University, Netherlands

Source: Excerpted from the article “The Netherlands and the Gülen movement” in Sociology of Islam, 2013, pages 165–187. Retrieved from http://www.gulenmovement.us/gulen-movement-practice-in-the-netherlands.html, 3 June 2014