Fethullah Gülen may be the most influential Muslim leader in the world that you’ve never heard of. Or, at least, that may have been true until last week.
Gülen, a “reclusive” Turkish imam who resides in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile, has millions of followers worldwide but has mostly flown below the radar of the average American. Last week, however, his name hit the news cycle when Turkey’s President Erdoğan urged the U.S. to extradite him, claiming he masterminded Turkey’s recent coup attempt from his armchair in the Poconos.
Is that possible? What can we know about Gülen? How much should Americans care? I offer the following personal reflections.
I have never met Mr. Gülen, but you can tell quite a lot about a person by their friends and admirers, and I am privileged to count many Gülen followers as close friends. More formally, I have partnered with Hizmet organizations to develop and host intercultural and interfaith events for more than a decade (Hizmet means “service” in Turkish and is the name used for the loose network of people and organizations inspired by Gülen). As an academic, I have participated in conferences focused on Hizmet. I have studied Gülen’s writings as well as those of supporters, critics, and unaffiliated scholars who offer important outside assessments (For this latter category, I especially recommend two books: Former CIA analyst Graham Fuller’s Turkey and the Arab Spring and Turkish scholar Hakan Yavuz’s Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gülen Movement).
Less formally and more importantly, I have spent countless hours with Gülen followers in coffee shops sharing life and talking about our families and faiths. I have shared the podium with them in classrooms discussing and sometimes debating theology and politics. I traveled to Turkey a number of times and visited Hizmet-affiliated businesses, schools, service and media organizations, hearing not only what those organizations do, but why they do it. I was blessed to visit the homes of Gülen supporters throughout Turkey to enjoy Turkish cuisine and hot tea while learning about their work and dreams, and meeting their elderly and their children. I helped organize an opportunity for my 20-year-old son to spend a summer in Istanbul interning at a Turkish newspaper while being warmly hosted by people inspired by Mr. Gülen. Additionally, as someone passionate about sustainable development in East Africa (www.kibogroup.org), I have interacted with Hizmet doctors building a clinic in Uganda, and Hizmet business men working for poverty alleviation in Tanzania.
All of these experiences have informed my perspectives of Mr. Gülen and shape the following considerations for assessing the current confusion about him.
First, an acknowledgement: Turkey is as confusing as it is important. Its importance is highlighted by its location — both geographically and ideologically — between Europe and the Middle East. Confusion surfaces when one tries to untangle the multiple layers of Turkish history and society including radical secularism, Europeanization, and bids to join the EU; mysterious reports of a “parallel” or “deep” state; a century of coups and reforms; confusing and often atrocious legacies with Armenians and Kurds; the struggle between mainstream and heterodox forms of Islam; recent popular protests and government crackdowns on the media and military; and proximity to the Syrian crisis and fight against ISIS. And then you add to the mix last week’s failed coup.
All of this must inform assessments of Gülen, his influence, and his detractors. In terms of his critics, considering all of these cross-pressures, it becomes less surprising that there is no consensus, with some considering him a radical Islamist and others considering him dangerously liberal. How do we untangle all of this? If nothing else, the complexities give us reasons to be careful and humble in any assessments.
This invites another important consideration: We should consider not only what people say about Gülen, but what he says himself. Decades of speeches and publications make this possible and reveal certain attributes. For example, Gülen advocates a form of Sufi humanism. He seeks collaborative relationships across religious, cultural, and national borders. He is concerned about the poor and marginalized around the world. He actively promotes freedom of the press and democracy. He continuously condemns violence and terrorism. As a Muslim leader, he often opposes the building of more mosques in favor of hospitals and schools. He urges his followers to serve in non-political and non-violent ways, calling them to act “without hands against those who strike you, without speech against those who curse you.” And this week, despite his well-documented disputes with Erdoğan, he added his voice to the list of those who denounced the coup.
On all these points, Gülen’s record is public and consistent.
Are there legitimate questions and concerns about Hizmet? Yes. Some have identified questions about the movement’s lack of transparency, its organizational hierarchy, and other questions we should investigate (the books I listed above help in this regard). But is there evidence to suspect blatant hypocrisy and evil intent, as some critics imply? Is there reason to imagine a grand conspiracy? Are his many Turkish and non-Turkish admirers — including myself — simply being duped?
Persuasive evidence is lacking at this point. At the very least, however, time will tell the truth. I recently read that Martin Luther King Jr. had an alarmingly low approval rating when he died. History appropriately redeemed his credibility. What will history say about Gülen? I am no prophet, but if we assess people by their friends, and leaders by the fruit of their statements and actions, the reclusive cleric from Pennsylvania looks honorable. It is claimed by many that the only coup he has attempted to orchestrate from the Poconos is a coup against ignorance, intolerance, and the kind of fear that increasingly grips Turkey.
Whatever history teaches us about Gülen, my response to that kind of coup is straightforward: Sign me up!
*Professor (Pepperdine University), African development partner (@KiboGroup), aspiring interfaith peacemaker
Published on The Huffington Post, 22 July 2016, Friday