June 4, 2016

The Gülen Movement’s Initiatives in Britain

Fatih Tedik

The history of the Gülen Movement in the United Kingdom is fairly short compared to other Turkish faith-based communities or movements, such as Suleymanci, Sheikh Nazim and other Naqshibendiyya communities. Indeed, this fact could be deducted when the facilities and other services of respective communities are observed. For instance, each of the aforementioned community has its own an opus magnum in terms of religious architecture, such as Suleymaniye and Aziziye Mosques that both situated in Hackney. To meet religious necessities of the Turkish community during Ramadan, Gülen movement, however, hire small community centres for Ramadan activities.

The most established institution of the Movement is Axis Educational Trust, which was established in 1994 as a charitable trust. Its founders and first trustees were Turkish-speaking businessmen and academics resident in the UK. The objective of Axis is three-fold, advancement of the educational attainment of the Turkish-speaking (Turkish, Kurdish, Turkish-Cypriot) youth in the UK, encouragement of their social integration and inclusion within the wider society and support and guidance for the rest of the Turkish-speaking community in social, welfare and educational matters that is of concern to them.

Although it has a history of slightly more than a decade, except a brief mainstream school experience, Axis have mainly operated supplementary weekend schools until the opening of Wisdom Primary and Secondary School in Tottenham, Haringey. In the supplementary schools whose number has fluctuated over years, as other weekend schools of Turkish community, main emphasis has been on the teaching of Turkish. Maths, science and English are among other important fields that taught each year. As stated above, two years ago, the Trust managed to open Turkish community’s first private mainstream school. The school, as its counterparts in different countries over the world, is an undenominational school, which follow national curriculum. As second year running, it has nearly 70 students all of which from Turkish background. As the additional facilities, last year, it rented an old school building in Bradford for thirty years as a consequence of an agreement with Pakistani community that vacated the building due to inadequacy of students. Axis is planning to open this building as a boarding secondary school by the spring term. Finally, following a mortgage agreement with the building society the Trust started refurbishing an old building near Edmonton, an Enfield town with a high density of Turkish and Kurdish population. This building will be opened next year as primary and secondary school since Wisdom becomes small for future expansions in educational field. (1)

Another organisation funded by the Movement is the Dialogue Society (DS). The Dialogue Society was established in 1999 by a group of Turkish-Muslim intellectuals, academics and volunteers as a not- for-profit charitable organisation. In its charter, the objective of DS is declared as “to promote tolerance, understanding, mutual respect and acceptance of people as they are, between people from all walks of life.” To achieve this goal, DS routinely organizes 5 different events throughout each year. These events are Whirling Dervishes event (or the Whispers of Love), commemoration of Prophet Muhammed’s birth (Mawlid an-Nabi), celebration of Kurbani festival (eid al-fitr) and commemoration of Jesus’ birth which generally held on following days of Christmas and finally fast-breaking Ifthar dinners in the holy month of Ramadan. In all programs, the preferred method by the members of the Movement is not to explain or demonstrate solely the Islamic perception and understanding of this event but allow other faiths to express themselves in the events. For instance, in a Whirling Dervishes event, which was held two years ago at Hackney Empire Theatre, the believers of almost all faiths explain their perspectives on the general theme, which was love for that year, and prayed for the good of all Londoners and humanity at the end of the event. There are several sister organizations of DS all over Britain, which are also established by the members of the movement inhabited in that region.

Although the movement has other organizations founded for different aims, i.e. Koza Women Association or Anatolian Muslim Society, either their scope or their activities are limited compared to Axis and Dialogue Society; thus they are omitted in this paper.

The Gülen movement in Turkey, and in the United Kingdom as its reflection, is a fairly controversial formation with its philosophies and institutions run by its sympathisers all over the world. They are severely criticized by two groups,
  • hard-line laicists who mainly constitute the dominant state-elite,
  • and a minor radical group of Islamists whose support are mostly external and politically oriented.
Whilst the former group suspect of organising to takeover the state when the conditions met, the latter group are not keen on their tolerant approach to the non-Muslims. For example, during the latest international academic conference in London in which the Gülen movement’s influence in the Muslim World was analysed, all of the Kemalist organisations and some of the secular organisations launched a campaign to prevent the conference by pressuring the venues, the editors and some of the organisers by insisting that the conference would undermine the secular structure of the Turkish political system.

However, as Kömeçoğlu argues, the community is not a response of dissidents Muslims of a ‘social breakdown’ or group of people with lower class background in order to protest social tension in Turkey or in the world. (2) Contrary, the members of the community are mostly university student and large group of small and big businessmen, professionals from all sectors in the country, especially from academics, media, music and the specialized strata that compose the elite as well as middle layers of the society. Altunoğlu determined seven characteristics of the members of the movement:
individually pious, culturally ascetic, politically conservative, idealist in the mission of converting souls, disengaged in active politics, success-oriented ‘Otherization’ and adversary component is weak. (3)
Yavuz adds four additional attributes to the followers’ profile:
they are “more predisposed to tolerance, electoral politics, moderation, and a market economy than are other Islamic groups in Turkey.”
Even though the devotees are enthusiastic believers of their faith, they formalise their mission with humanitarian parameters and believe that salvation “is not only to be ‘saved from’ sinful activities, but also to be engaged actively in the improvement of the world.” They think that serving the society in the narrow sense and the humanity in the wide sense is the most crucial activity to gain God’s favour and consent. They do not try to challenge the modernity but demonstrate how to be both good Muslims and modern. They are willing to live in a secular democratic atmosphere rather than rejecting it when they are trying to live their faith.

Following this concise information about the characteristics of the movement and its members, I’ll endeavour to articulate its current and potential contributions to the integration process with references to the Gülen’s ideas, and finally I’ll portray major constraints that define the movement’s efficacy in the British context.

(1) Lighthouse Educational Foundation is another charity that is as the South London counterpart of the Axis Educational Trust but neither its activities nor its facilities has developed like Axis. As new institutions are being opened via Axis, it seems that the dual system of weekend school system will fade out and the main focus will only be the Axis.

(2) Kömeçoglu, Ugur (1997) A Sociologically Interpretative Approach to the Fethullah Gülen Community Movement, Istanbul, Bogaziçi University, p. 46

(3) Altunoglu, Ebru (1999) Fethullah Gülen’s Perception of State and Society, Istanbul: Bogaziçi University, p. 86

Excerpted from the article “Motivating Minority Integration in Western Context: The Gülen Movement in the United Kingdom” in the proceedings of “The International Conference on Peaceful Coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s initiatives for peace in the contemporary world,” Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 22-23 November 2007. pp. 229-238.

Published on http://www.gulenmovement.us/gulen-movements-initiatives-britain.html, 3 June 2016, Friday