September 12, 2015

The Gulen Movement: An Islamic Response to Terror as a Global Challenge

Ibrahim A. El-Hussari

Inspired by the Turkish Nursi Movement, M. Fethullah Gulen was among the few Muslim leaders, across the world, whose response to the challenges posed by global instability had been presented prior to the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington. (1) In fact, Gulen had already placed his movement in the context of accepting to meet the local and global challenges in a world defined, if not actually controlled, by the worldviews of secularists and their strong hold of the state and its functions in almost all the fields of human activity including: free trade, human rights, democratic institutions, international law (etc).(2) …

Within this uneasy atmosphere of the clashing visions and interests trying to shape interconnected societies and cultures, Gulen and his followers have chosen to toil hard, in Turkey and elsewhere, to redefine Islam and reintroduce it to both Muslims and non-Muslims in a world that does not seem to have settled accounts with itself over globalization as a controversial term. To be more specific, since the first Gulf War (1991), and the collapse of the Soviet Union that occurred thereafter, the momentum in search for a new world order in which globalization assumed a prevailing role has not slowed down irrespective of the asymmetric global power relations that ended, unexpectedly, in the interest of the Western world led by the US.

However, a formidable global challenge appeared following 9/11. Terms such as ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamism’ began to enter daily parlance – thanks to media and film industries – as the equivalent of ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ requiring international alliances as means of suppression and ultimately victory; militarily, politically and ideologically. Since those tragic attacks – which claimed nearly 3000 civilians and undermined the opportunity for a positive commencement to the 21st century – the entire international community, specifically the Islamic world, (3) has been, in one way or another, embroiled in Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ Most (self-identified) Islamic countries, together with the rest of the international community, denounced the 9/11 attacks as acts of terror. Yet, state policies to combat terrorism have varied greatly despite the official outspoken statements released by various governments. The tides of support turned in response to successive Bush proclamations in the US Congress, and elsewhere, as waging the ‘war on terror’ was presented as a priority for all states, excluding none. (4) The direct result of such a reprioritization was the military invasion and occupation, led by the US and its allies, of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) respectively. Despite these actions, terrorism has not subsided, and the two conflicts continue to rage, claiming heavy damages to property and incalculable losses of human life.

In the ‘Islamic world,’ various responses to this global challenge have entered into the post-colonial structure of the state, cracking down on suspected underground activists, and at the same time maintaining oligarchic rule in collusion with the military. In some Islamic states, the state declared war against local ‘Islamist’ movements which have begun to fight back. Other states chose to withstand democratic change and have annulled the results of general elections which may have permitted some Islamic movements to take office, and assume political and administrative leadership. (5) Still, other states seem to have tacitly connived at, if not colluded with, their in-house Islamic movements in defense of Islam against global threats. The outcome was unexpected, however, for some Islamic countries have witnessed civil turmoil and social upheavals, and above all instability and a higher rate of violence as is the case in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, the Sudan – to name a few.

Some Islamic movements, including Gulen’s, responded to the pressures of global challenges addressing terrorism in very different ways than their governments. Such Islamic movements, and the states from which they operate, might have viewed acts of terrorism in a similar way, but part ways over the means to combat terrorism. One of the reasons for the widening gap between secularist states and religious movements is the controversy over the specific meaning and definition of the term terrorism. In this respect, many religious movements, including Gulen’s, have raised doubts about a conclusive definition of terrorism, and whether military occupation, forced expulsions, land-grabs and institutional acts of vigilantism, (6) or sieges (7) conducted by some states are part of the working definition of terrorism.

Among the various responses issued by global Islamic movements that repudiated and denounced terrorism, Gulen’s response has been the most articulate. Its emphasis on both Islamic faith and tradition provides, as he argues, effective transition to the new global era. Gulen’s reaction to terrorism, as a global challenge, is mainly found in two books, one written by Gulen himself in 1993, the other edited by Unal and Williams in 2000: and the same reaction reappears with a little variation in Gulen’s personal discourse regarding multiculturalism and pluralism. Gulen’s followers assert that his vision has a positive impact on contemporary debates which attempt to shape the future of Muslims and non-Muslims alike through advancing inter-faith dialogue among key-representatives of major world religions.

Gulen’s Islamic Discourse Against Terror

As regards tolerance and forgiveness, Gulen explains how true Muslims should behave towards the ‘other’ expecting nothing in return for their humane behavior. Against this conduct based on non-violence, a Muslim who performs his/her religious duties properly cannot be a terrorist; and here lies the power of Gulen’s Islamic discourse to correct the stereotypical image blemishing Islam under labels such as Islamists or extremists or terrorists which are commonly mistaken as interchangeable. In Islam, killing a human being is an abhorrent act that is equal in gravity to kufr (Arabic for blasphemy), as Gulen explains in many of his public speeches and articles. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Gulen issued a statement condemning the horrendous act and the perpetrators, naming Bin Laden as the most hateful to himself, for Bin Laden “has sullied the bright face of Islam” (Akman, 2004). He apologetically admits that “[e]ven if we were to try our best to fix the terrible damage that has been done it would take years to repair” (ibid).

If Islam is libeled as regressive, violent and reactionary by some influential media outlets, Gulen would attribute that to misunderstanding and ignorance. Such media must be mistaking a Muslim culture for the broader Islamic culture which is now non-existent and which badly needs to be revised by qualified Muslim scholars if the true image of Islam is to be addressed worldwide. If this is not done however, Gulen thinks that Muslims will not be able to contribute much to the balance of the world in the near future. He does not recognize the modern state, represented by current political regimes, as an effective tool for cleaning up the stain tarnishing the true image of Islam, for to him the Islamic State had long vanished since the Mongols ravished and burnt Baghdad, the capital city of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, in 1258. That central Islamic State was then succeeded by a number of Islamic emirates which in turn were conquered by the Ottomans who assumed leadership of the Muslim world until the outbreak of WWI (1914-1918), when the Ottoman Caliphate crumbled. He also holds the current apparatus of the state/regime in the Muslim world responsible for inadvertently raising or harboring fundamentalist groups due to the absence of educational curricula which ought to develop and promote the concept of cultural awareness which enables learners to recognize and accept the ‘other’ for what the ‘other’ is irrespective of differences in religion, color, gender or race, as well as construct citizens who ought to be sensitive to the issues of fundamentalism and extremism.
Therefore We prescribed for the children of Israel that who so slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether (Al-Maida, V: 32).
He argues that “a real Muslim, one who understands Islam in every aspect, cannot be a terrorist … for Islam does not approve of the killing of people in order to attain a goal … and therefore all of these tenets and interpretations require revision and renovation by cultivated people in their fields” (Gulen, 2004). In an interview with Nuriye Akman (Zaman, 2004), Gulen admits that those terrorists have been raised among us, but they have been manipulated and turned into robots by professional criminals voicing themselves as Islamists. For Gulen, the situation could have been and still can be prevented by means of education.
There is a remedy for this [terror]. The remedy is to teach the truth directly. It should be made clear that Muslims cannot be terrorists. Why should this be made clear? Because people must understand that if they do something evil, even if it is as tiny as an atom, they will pay for that both here and in the Hereafter (Gulen, 2001).
In theory, the above quote sounds like a good policy in need of implementation in real-life situations. However, in the absence of a Muslim State that enforces Islamic laws; punishing acts of terror in relation to Islamic Shari’a (Arabic for law), to guarantee justice across the Muslim community, there are doubts that a secular state in the absence of Shari’a could ever succeed. Hence, there is a gap between Islamic policy and state practice when justice, as the end-goal, must be served.

It is a great shame, Gulen says, that Islam, whose tenets and values are universally addressed for the good of humanity, should be equated by others with terrorism. “This is an enormous historical mistake” (Turkish Daily News, 2001). Terms like Jihad/Jihadism (8) are being abused by both Muslims and non-Muslims for hidden agendas. Islam advances the cause of Jihad in two ways. The first is the greater Jihad against the internal enemy of a Muslim; that is, the individual instinctive tendency to do evil which one must fight to maintain an upright and righteous Muslim status. In this respect, I recall Sigmund Freud’s concept of hostility and aggression being part of the human instinctive life which must be curbed and constantly checked by rules and laws set by civilization in the service of its cultural ideals (Freud, 1937). The second is the lesser Jihad against the external enemy of the Islamic Umma (Arabic for nation) where the violence used in the context of self-defense is legitimate and strongly recommended.
God has preferred in rank those who struggle [in the path of God] with their possessions and their selves over the ones who sit at home (An-Nisa’, IV: 95).
And in another Surah
Thus we appointed you a midmost nation that you might be witnesses to the peoples, and that the Prophet might be a witness to you; and fight in the path of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not; God loves not the aggressors (Al-Baqarah, II: 190).
In the same vein, Islam preaches patience and wise thinking and warns Muslims of taking any news for granted lest they do harm to the innocent.
O believers, if an ungodly man comes to you with a tiding, make clear, lest you afflict a people unwittingly, and then repent of what you have done (Al-Hojorat, XLIX: 6).
As far as forms of violence are handled as real challenges in the context of globalization, Fethullah Gulen has constant recourse to al-Qura’an and al- Hadith for a solution, thus by repudiating acts of violence and terror across the globe, he is also voicing the position of true Islam in a world that needs to understand Islam as it is – a global message of peace, tolerance, and forgive- ness. However, the Gulen Movement which has chosen to reactivate and revitalize Islam through education, and has so far succeeded in gaining followers and supporters in Turkey and beyond, has also chosen to distance itself from politics and the functions of the modern state. In the long run, the educational project, together with other community service projects, could be rewarding enough to place the movement as a force of change on local and global levels. However, not much of this is guaranteed along this path. The Gulen Movement, whose chief executive officer is one man, Gulen himself, needs to redefine the managerial functions of its hierarchal organizational structure by turning itself into an institution governed by the most effective tools of modern management, above all of which come accountability and strategic planning. Otherwise, the Movement would only enjoy a short life-span, which could be as long as the life span of its founder. Other Turkish Islamic and quasi-Islamic movements may have been influenced by the Gulen Movement, but they are fairing much better in trying to transform Turkey into a modern nation-state, a regional influential state, and perhaps a player in global power relations. If one of the global challenges facing Turkey and Turkish Islamic movements is the reaffirmation of its identity as a secularist/Muslim country (99% Muslim population), there should be a dialogue leading to an ‘inter-marriage’ between Islam and secularism.

Concluding Remarks

Although the Gulen movement has been struggling to correct the image of true Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, much more can be done to translate Gulen’s ideas into practice for a real transformation of the supra-structure of the Turkish state. Advocating and monitoring high quality education at school and university levels, together with sponsoring public health centers and hospitals, and gaining a foothold in the field of media (newspapers and television stations), are all effective means to address Islamic culture to the new generations in Turkey and Turkish-speaking communities elsewhere. Gulen’s attempt to revitalize Islam as a force of change is highly potential and practical but it needs time to meet local and global challenges.

On the global level, the theoretical ideas of the Gulen Movement have begun to gain some, but not enough, Western recognition, and this in particular is owed to Gulen’s residence in the US since the 1980s, and the facilities his residence has offered him as lecturer, public speaker and writer in the field of Islamic faith and culture. Advancing the cause of peace, tolerance and forgive- ness as human values fostered by Islam, Gulen has chosen to sustain these global values through quality education, for both genders, on the basis of equal opportunity. For Gulen, the goal of quality education is to improve the life of the people who join his schools and through them for the wider community. In so doing, Gulen is trying to counter the global campaign mistaking, and eventually mispresenting, Islam and Muslims as sponsors of violence and terror targeting global stability and world peace. However, it would be over- simplified to call the Gulen Movement a radical force of change, effective enough to meet all global challenges, especially when terror-related activities carried out by Muslim extremists or other militants who may also claim to be operating in the same name.

Excerpted from the journal paper “The Gulen Movement: An Islamic Response to Terror as a Global Challenge” by Ibrahim A. El-Hussari, appeared in Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, Vol 3, Issue 1, pages 66-80. This article is derived from a conference paper presented at the Gulen Conference entitled: Islam in the Age of Global Challenges, organized by Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 13-15 November, 2008.


(1) Reference to Said Nursi (1867-1960) who organized the Followers of Nour (Light) and called for the establishment of an Islamic state that would be based on Islamic law and ruled by the ulama (Muslim scholars).For further details about the influence of Nursi, see Turkish Islam and the Secular State, ed. H. Yavuz and J. Esposito, Syracuse University Press, 2003; and Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, 2nd ed., John Voll, Syracuse University Press, 1982.

(2) One of the economic and trade activities assigned and prescribed by globalization is abiding by the dictates of the International Standard Organization (ISO) for export/import commodity specification, without which a country cannot be part of the world free trade system. Another activity on global level takes the form of adopting a liberal political system of the state whose manifest characteristics are democratic general election, transparency and accountability.

(3) The term “Islamic world”, often referred to by the media and politicians in the West as something homogeneous, seems ambiguous and misleading, for the term cannot be true in light of the socio-cultural, political, religious and linguistic differences in the vast space encompassing Muslims and non-Muslims. For further illustration, see Edward Said’s Covering Islam, New York: Vintage Books.

(4) See, for instance, President George W. Bush’s “Address to the Nation on U.S. Policy in Iraq” on January 10, 2007. The speech is available at:

(5) I herein recall the “first” democratic experience in Algeria as regards the 1992 general election which was won by the Islamic groups/parties but the result was soon annulled by the Algerian military, and that gave rise to horrendous acts of violence across Algeria. Those Islamic groups did not have the chance to effect any change in the structure of the state and its various functions.

(6) The Israeli Jewish immigrant settlers’ confiscation of Palestinian land and private property and acts of terrorizing and humiliating civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories, serves as an example.

(7) The closure of border crossings of the Gaza Strip by both Israel and Egypt, serves as a good example.

(8) Jihad (Arabic for struggle), and not Jihadism or Jihadists, is the term Al-Qur’an prescribes for Muslims to observe and carry out in case of self-defense to maintain the word of God and the global mid-most position of the Islamic Umma (Arabic for nation).


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Published on, 11 September 2015, Friday