July 3, 2015

[BOOK REVIEW] The Gulen Movement and Islam’s Third Way

The House of Service: The Gulen Movement and Islam’s Third Way
Over the past several years, the alleged opacity that surrounds the Gulen Movement has become a focus of many controversial debates in media and the wider society in Turkey and beyond. Commentators have been torn as to whether describe the Gulen Movement as a faith-based civil society movement or a religious group with political aspirations. Despite a diversity of analytical approaches deployed to study the phenomenon, few works were able to move the discussion away from the realms of conspiracy theories and so-called PR spin. David Tittensor in his work aims to provide insight into the lived realities of those who self-affiliate with the Movement and those who came into touch with it.

Tittensor attempts to put the Gulen Movement in the broader context of religious groups across the world by focusing on the analysis of the Movement’s distinct approach to education. His effort to understand the movement from within presents a valuable opportunity to hear from those inspired by Fethullah Gulen’s ideas and contributes to the growing literature on the topic from a very unique perspective. One aspect that makes this study different from several other works, which provide a macro perspective on the development of this civil society organization, is the author’s endeavor to comprehend the motivations of the Gulen Movement’s members. The second aspect is the author’s attempt to describe the evolution of the group into a global movement. Thus, Tittensor aims to achieve a more holistic view of the Movement, show how it negotiates its existence as a transnational organization and a recognized global actor.

In two parts, focusing on the Gulen Movement in precept and in practice, Tittensor juxtaposes the history of Islam in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey. The first part describes the differences between competing narratives about the history of the Turkish peoples. According to the author, secular elites have been able to produce a distinct account of the Turkish history through academe and the media. This account, according to him, was distinct from the “real history.” The second part focuses on practices by giving a critical insight into the “lived realities” of the Movement. The disconnection between the narratives of the students and the teachers of the Gulen inspired schools is what the author identifies as the main puzzle of the book.

Gulen Movement‘s Relationship with Society

Chapter one presents a brief overview of the history of Islam in the Ottoman Empire and the modern Turkish republic. It argues that the Nur Movement inspired by Said Nursi’s teachings is an organic predecessor to the modern Gulen Movement. According to the author, these movements represent a reflexive and adaptable type of Islam that engages with rather than rejects modernity. Building on that, the next chapter questions the widely spread narratives created by the secularists in an attempt to conceal the history of Islam in Turkey and demonize the religion and its proponents. In an attempt to come to grips with secularist narratives, Tittensor comes up with an alternative historical account of the Turkish republic, which shows that Islam has been and continues to be a major factor in Turkish society and politics. In the context of these competing historical narratives about the role of Islam in the Turkish society, chapter three delves deeper into the origins and development of the Gulen Movement. The author gives voice to both opponents and proponents of the movement to reveal the main controversies and debated alternatives about the Gulen Movement.

The second half of the book that examines “lived realities” of the Movement begins with the author’s account of the teachers’ motivations and practices at the Gulen-inspired schools as well as the students’ experiences. Having looked at what motivates the teachers to do the work they do and how their actions measure up against the Gulen Movement philosophy, Tittensor arrives to the conclusion that the Gulen Movement is very different from many other missionary organizations, despite the fact that it also has its own mission (da’wa). In the next chapter, the author calms the reader down arguing that having such a vision is no cause for concern. Through comparative analysis with the rhetoric and practice of World Vision, Tittensor shows that the Gulen Movement engages in a gentle brand of proselytism classed as “lifestyle evangelism.” Therefore, according to the author, criticism of the Movement for the same practice that their Christian counterparts do is part of an unfortunate global double standard that has a long history. Nevertheless, Tittensor believes, the Gulen Movement cannot be classed in the same category with World Vision, despite the fact that it is a confessional organization and operates in a similar fashion. For him, the Gulen Movement is not a conventional civil society actor like its Christian counterpart, as it is not purely philanthropic, but rather is a hybrid “social business” entity that “requires an entirely new characterization.” The final section of the book is reserved for a balanced praise and criticism of the movement. The author suggests that the Movement should be regarded as a unique business approach with its own mode of proselytizing and the so-called Gulen schools could be referred to as “lifestyle purveyors.”

David Tittensor’s analysis of the Gulen Movement, its history, principles, and practices of its followers deserves to be widely read and understood. Tittensor’s attempt to analyze the Gulen Movement from within and in the broader contexts of other religious movements presents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of Islamic thinking. Tittensor produced an insightful scholarly narrative and authoritative analysis of the Gulen Movement. His analysis, however, could have been more complete if he explored some of the areas that go beyond the education sector. Healthcare, philanthropy, business, media are only some of the fields that could have been examined in order to present a more holistic view of the Movement. Not immune from subjective interpretation and ethical dilemmas, the study, nevertheless, provides one of the most compelling portraits of the Gulen Movement made to date. It came as a timely resource for academics, policy makers, and a wider public to understand current debates in Turkey and beyond and raises the bar for future work on the subject. While a more global academic exchange would be very welcome, scholars interested in understanding the Gulen Movement and Islamic thinking today should read this book.

The House of Service: The Gulen Movement and Islam’s Third Way. By David Tittensor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 272 pp. $49.95; ISBN: 9780199336418.

Published on fethullah-gulen.org, 29 November 2014, Saturday