August 6, 2016

Gazi Warrior vs. Sufi Mystic: Turkey’s Erdogan-Gulen Breakup

Sophia Pandya

Yesterday, they stabbed us in the back. Tomorrow, they will stab their current colleagues in the back if they get the chance. I call on those who are still silent in the face of this vile betrayal to reconsider their positions.
— President Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan, regarding the Hizmet movement

There have been so many injustices, so many false allegations and slanders. The enmity is not mutual. We do not feel enmity towards anyone. We do not see them as the enemy.
— Fethullah Gülen, discussing the rift with Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan

The two men with the most power in Turkey are President Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan, and religious leader Fethullah Gülen. The former is the founder and long-time former leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and former Prime Minister. The latter, a Sufi theologian known reverentially as Hocaefendi (respected teacher) to his millions of followers, inspired a civil society humanitarian movement, called Hizmet, or service, which has founded thousands of educational centres and owns dozens of media institutions, in Turkey and abroad. They both recently appeared in the news, reflecting vastly different personalities and modes of masculinity. In a speech on 25 May 2015, Erdoǧan angrily rebuked The New York Times, stating ‘as a newspaper you should know your place!’ after it published an article critical of his power-seeking authoritarianism. This article noted that an Ankara-based prosecutor (likely pressured by Erdoǧan) just called for a ban on Gülen-related media outlets, and that many journalists working for Hizmet have already been arrested. It went on to accuse him of ‘brute manipulation of the political process,’ and being ‘increasingly hostile to truth-telling.’ Juxtaposed to this image of a livid Erdoǧan, are recent news reports about Gülen, honored in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 9-10 2015, by the historically Black Morehouse College. Morehouse presented him with the 2015 Gandhi-King-Ikeda Peace Award, for his work towards global peacebuilding. A ceremony was held for him at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, and pictures of the three humanitarians, together with Gülen, were prominently displayed in the lobby, to honour those whose life mission, like that of King, was to struggle towards positive social transformation. These contrasting representations of Erdoǧan and Gülen reflect their contesting visions of Turkey, but also their differing performances of masculinity, leadership, religion, and values regarding alterity.

Ironically, Gülen and Erdoǧan were allies for years, but experienced a ferocious fallout in 2013 after a series of events. Their alliance was based on their common traditional and religious inclinations, not to mention their shared political enemies. Their ultimate breakup was informed, in part, by their contesting forms of masculinity. It would be reductive to attempt to determine causality for their respective gendered identity performances: facets of identity are all dynamically interrelated. Nonetheless, an analysis of their gendered identities and behaviors sheds light on their feud, and on their greater religious and political landscapes. Cain and Abel offer historians of religion two examples of distinct biblical masculinity: Cain as the wild, unrestrained brother, and Abel, the disciplined, more diligent one; Erdoǧan and Gülen provide divergent contemporary models from the Islamic context. Erdoǧan’s macho demeanor, patterned after the archetype of the Anatolian Gazi Warrior, Ottoman Sultan, and the figure of Atatürk, speaks to Turkish paranoia and desire for restored honor. Gülen’s masculinity, on the other hand, evokes that of Sufi sainthood – one less ‘macho’ than intellectual, less warrior than liminal mystic. While clearly ‘mystics’ and ‘warriors/sultans’ have at times had interdependent relationships, this one was unsustainable for a variety of reasons, including clashing agendas and a profound loss of trust on both sides.

Gender is not merely a subjective, individual construction or performance: it reflects personal agency and the sociopolitical, religious, and economic landscape; it is mediated, relational, in flux, and its analysis must be contextualized. Some in the contemporary Muslim community have conceptualized male gender roles in a narrow, hypermasculine way, especially idealized by political Islamic groups. However, as Amanullah de Sondy notes, multiple performances of masculinity are allowed by and reflected in the Qur’an and Hadith literature. Several other scholars of masculinity have theorized the connection between gender and politics. Lyndal Roper postulates that changing political environments shape masculinities; for example, in times of political conflict men are both allowed and pressured to behave more aggressively. ‘After all’, she writes, ‘the city ultimately required brute fighting men to keep order and defend the town.’ Mark Juergensmeyer argues that emasculated men ritualize and sacralize their aggression to restore honor. Hypermasculinity may be understood as a response to the emasculation of colonialism and volatile political realities. I also rely on Selin Akyüz’s analysis of the ‘gendered discourses’ of Turkish political parties and their leaders and consider the power garnered by different modalities of being.

During numerous trips to Turkey between 2012 and 2015, I interviewed members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as members of Gülen’s Hizmet movement in Istanbul, Gaziantep, Urfa, Diyarbakir, Izmir, Konya and Nigde, Şanlıurfa. I have observed Hizmet institutions (schools, universities, tutoring centres, cultural centres, hospitals) in ten different countries. And on 7 April 2015, I was able to briefly interview Fethullah Gülen, in his Pennsylvania residence. This analysis is based on these interviews and field work.

A ‘Marriage’ of Convenience

A Turkish journalist visiting California explained Erdoǧan’s appeal in Turkey: ‘Erdoǧan told us what we all wanted to hear. Our biggest trauma was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and he created a dream to resurrect it’. Zeyneb Korkman and Salih Açıksöz note that the President’s ‘patriarchal authoritarian masculinity’ has both lent him his ‘charismatic popularity,’ and also works against him.

‘In the beginning’, Gülen told me, ‘the AKP, like us, also promoted Turkey’s admission to the European Union, democracy and global ethical values. We always spoke highly of the other’. Other factors contributing to Gülen and Erdoǧan alliance include common religious roots, inclinations towards the more traditional eastern Turkey, and valorisation of the Ottoman Empire. More importantly, they both had a powerful foe: the ultranationalist Kemalist guard which controlled the military and had engineered a spate of coups in (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, and attempted coup in 2003), ostensibly to protect the state from any threat to Atatürk’s model of an assertively secular state. An organisation comprised of Kemalist ultra-nationalist elite, likely trying to preserve their hold on Turkey, also carried out a number of secret activities to destabilise society. The group is called ‘Ergenekon,’ believed by many to be part of the ‘deep state,’ a clandestine wing of the military. On 21 September 2012, 330 military personnel were sentenced for ‘Operation Sledgehammer,’ in which the military planned to overthrow the government in 2003. They were allegedly planning to blow up a mosque in Istanbul and shoot down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea while blaming the Greeks, in order to provoke political unrest to justify the coup.

Graham Fuller mentions ‘two essentially contradictory visions of what Turkey was and is. On the one hand, an ethnically and religiously diverse Turkey, steeped in Sufi piety and tradition, on the other a Turkey that is European in nature, secular, scientific, and “cleansed” of its religious and Middle Eastern heritage’. Both Gülen and Erdoǧan have opposed the aggressively secular, ‘cleansed’ vision promoted by ultranationalist Kemalists, a vision devoted to the legacy of Atatürk, ethnic Turkish particularism and the repression of public forms of piety.

The history of secularism pre-dates Atatürk’s rule. Earlier forms were promoted in Turkey during the late Ottoman period, in part to resist Western colonialism through the strategic adoption of Western models. Atatürk’s model of repressive secularism arose from this paradigm – his insistence on new forms of Westernised masculinity and femininity in the Turkish Republic should be understood through this lens. His own militant, paternal, and virile image, ubiquitous in Turkey even today, was likely promoted to assuage Turkish emasculation anxieties after the Western invasion of Anatolia and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and to provide a totem of militant manhood binding Turkish identity as secure despite external threats.

In 1996, for the first time since the rise of the Turkish Republic, an overtly practising Muslim came to power: Prime Minister Necmettin Erkaban through his Refah (Welfare) Party. This party was ousted through the ‘soft coup’ of 1997 carried out by the National Security Council (MGK), ostensibly because it was deemed Islamist, and thus unconstitutional—the constitution enshrined the secular nation of the state; an element considered ‘unamendable.’ Many public servants who were practicing Muslims were dismissed, and Qur’an schools were banned. Nine hundred military officers were fired for their religious activities after the soft coup, and Erkaban was banned from public office for five years.

Yet this was not the end of the Turkish Republic’s new synthesis of politics and overt manifestations of piety. Erdoǧan, who was sentenced to a ten year jail term for reciting a religiously militant poem by Ziya Gokalp in 1997, founded the AK Party in 2001. It swept the elections in 2002, a clear victory over the secular Kemalists and the ultra-nationalist Turkish Armed Forces. Abdullah Gül served as Prime Minister from 2002-2003, and subsequently Erdoǧan took over the post in 2003. Both Erdoǧan’s and Gül’s wives wear headscarves, a symbol of piety for the overtly Muslim community, but a sign of ‘cobwebbed’ backwardness for many secularists. In 2007 the General Chief of Staff issued a statement in which he warned of a conspiracy to change the very Kemalist nature of the nation and damage the military, and that those involved were growing in power every day. The military, he added, was the only protector against this threat. He was likely referring to the AKP and perhaps also to the Hizmet movement. While anti-AKP protests took place in 2007, those assembled addressed fears of the Islamisation of Turkey via Erdoǧan and the AK party.

Erdoǧan has not been able to convince the secular Kemalists that he does not have a panoply of secret agendas, such as Islamising Turkey or allowing the US, Israel, or Europe to control its policies. In fact, both Erdoǧan and Gülen have said they favour a secular state. Another widespread fear in Turkey is that the West is taking advantage of Turkey’s form of moderate Islam, urging its use as a model for other Muslim states. By association, Hizmet has been accused of the same thing. Part of the problem both Erdoǧan and Gülen face is that collective paranoia and emasculation anxiety are part of the social tapestry in Turkey.

A journalist working in a Hizmet media outlet in Turkey, tells a story about his first experience with a military official when he was twelve. A colonel whipped out a map, and explained, ‘Children, Turkey is a country surrounded on three sides with seas, and on four sides with enemies.’ This terror of being surrounded by enemies stems from the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s geopolitical position, and is worsened by the contemporary turbulent and repressive political situation inside Turkey. On all sides of the political spectrum, people worry that their phones are tapped, or that if they admit their allegiances openly that they will be blacklisted. In one interview of an academician, my informant refused to be recorded and firmly shut the door during the interview, stating that he was afraid his views would be perceived as pro-Gülen, which might jeopardise his job. In 2013, The New York Times reported that for the second year in a row, Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country.

Other than working together against the secular Kemalists to support religious freedom in Turkey, another principal reason for the alliance has to do with the economy. TUSKON (Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists) is a Hizmet-affiliated Turkish business association. In his book on the Gülen Movement, Hakan Yavuz argues that Gülen’s emphasis on working hard and abstaining from idleness has boosted Turkey’s economy, making it ‘the sixteenth largest global economy.’ TUSKON’s financial power was a driving force behind the growing Turkish economy; it has strengthened the more traditional, less secular central and eastern Turkey. As the Turkish economy improved, Erdoǧan and the AKP also benefited. However, leading up to the 2013 split, Hizmet became increasingly critical of Erdoǧan’s oppressive measures against journalists, intellectuals, Kurds, his neglect of the pursuit EU membership.

The Acrimonious Divorce

Although for about a decade, the AKP, the Hizmet Movement, and other religious groups benefited from the perks of a mutually beneficial alliance, such as more religious freedom, their coalition started to slowly unravel during the 2010s. In 2010, the chief of police, Hanefi Avcɩ accused Hizmet of infiltrating the judiciary and police, in the attempt to influence the Ergenekon trials. A further catalyst for the split was the allegation made by the Hizmet movement in 2012 against Hakan Fidan, chief of the MIT, the Turkish intelligence agency, and part of Erdoǧan’s inner circle. On 7 February 2012, special-authority prosecutor Sadrettin Sarikaya summoned Fidan, who was under suspicion for being linked to activities with the PKK. As Fidan is a member of Erdoǧan’s private circle, Erdoǧan considered this charge a personal attack against his authority. After the MIT-judiciary crisis, the government abolished the special-authority courts and restructured the police force.

Three years later, the Gezi protests erupted during the summer of 2013, in which Erdoǧan’s heavy-handed response to demonstrators trying to save Gezi Park from development was widely criticised. Since the Gezi Park incidents, observers of Turkish politics began to describe Erdoǧan’s tone and demeanour as ‘brash,’ ‘aggressive,’ ‘stubborn,’ ‘condescending,’ ‘authoritarian,’ and ‘intimidating.’ Gülen and his supporters were among those that were critical of Erdoǧan’s handling of the Gezi protests and post-Gezi crackdown. They also began to speak out against the AKP’s restrictions on press freedoms and Middle East policy. The Hizmet-affiliated think tank, The Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), released a statement accusing the AKP of spreading ‘slander’ on social media and for blaming the Gülen movement for the Gezi Park protests.

‘Most of Hizmet didn’t immediately get involved with the Gezi Park issue’, a Hizmet supporter pointed out. ‘Now I look at the tweets, newspaper columns, and people tell me there was an incident before, a spark here and there. People were naïve, but now being naïve has been transformed to guilt. Hizmet had “soft power”, people ask us why didn’t we pay attention. We were opening up schools, dealing with daily politics’. The conflict reached a tipping point, and in mid-November 2013, Erdoǧan announced the closing of Turkey’s dershanes, or prep schools; roughly a quarter of those institutions are affiliated with Hizmet. In a rare display of anger, Gülen stated in 2013, ‘if people concerned with mundane interests in every realm are against you, if the Pharaoh is against you, if Croesus is against you, then you are walking on the right path’. However, more recently he has pointedly advocated forgiveness in his sermons.

Shortly thereafter the conflict reached its peak during the graft probe in December 2013, in which top Turkish ministers and their officials were accused of corruption and bribery, and of involvement in the Iran-Halkbank-gold triangle. Stacks of shoeboxes filled with millions of dollars, found in the home of Riza Sarraf, an Iranian-born Turkish citizen, were shown to the press. Sarraf reportedly had bribed Turkish ministers and officials, and was working with the sons of three ministers of the Turkish government, and was arrested for his part in a racketeering, money laundering, bribery, smuggling, and corruption scandal, although later released. Iran was barred from using international money transfer systems, such as LINK, due to international sanctions. Thus Iranian money passed through Turkey’s Halkbank, returning to Iran as gold, ostensibly with Erdoǧan’s knowledge, allowing Turkey to indirectly pay for oil and gas purchased from Iran. Ministers were recorded discussing the deal on wiretaps and tapes of the recordings were released. The AKP accused those in the judiciary responsible for the wiretapping and release of the tapes, of doing so by command of the Hizmet movement, and of attempting to destroy the government. Gülen refutes this, stating ‘I don’t know one in 1000 of the people who executed the corruption investigations. But the whole world witnessed the proofs of bribery, thievery and illicit money’. Regardless, Erdoǧan called the movement ‘a state within a state,’ or alternatively, ‘a parallel state,’ and accused it of infiltrating the judiciary to control the government; while Hizmet participants are employed in a range of fields including the judiciary, they deny this charge as a conspiracy theory.

Despite being embroiled in a corruption scandal, Erdoǧan was elected as President in August 2014, earning the moniker ‘Teflon Tayyip’. In October of the same year, the Gülen Movement was deemed a threat to national security by the National Security Council (MGK). In Gülen’s view, Erdoǧan has given up on full democracy complete with power sharing and freedom of speech. It is true that at different times he has cancelled Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Google, and actively censors the press in other ways. Gülen expressed his frustration: ‘all the AKP wanted was to basically bring every group in the country under their control. When this didn’t happen, they became tyrants. The tyranny now is ten, fifteen, twenty times more than the coup eras of Turkey’.

In fact, the Kurdish community, who played a large role in bringing Erdoǧan to power due to his promises to allow the Kurdish language to be taught at private schools and his investment in the Kurdish regions, is now turning away from the AKP. In 2015, Erdoǧan unsuccessfully made every attempt to stop the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) from entering Parliament with the required ten per cent threshold of votes for the 7 June election. Fehim Taştekin writes that this party in turn is making efforts to spoil President Erdoǧan’s ‘dream of becoming an omnipotent, executive president,’ and that many Kurdish clans are leaving the AKP to join the HDP, because of the AKP’s vacillating policies vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

Though the Hizmet Movement and the AKP are no longer allies, Gülen’s recent proclamations suggest the enmity is not mutual nor set in stone, despite his vexation. Some Hizmet participants appear aware of the role the movement played earlier in creating its own image as secretive, a representation they now reject. A Hizmet-affiliated journalist in Turkey told me that some of the criticisms people have made against the movement are valid:

We have made mistakes. One mistake is that at the earliest days of the movement, in order to create feelings of belonging, Hizmet members kept a low profile and led a secretive existence. They did not even tell their parents of their association with Hizmet, and they kept their distance from other religious movements. In my early days, jeans were forbidden. We were trying to create a sense of difference. We didn’t consume margarine. We just said it was forbidden. Any kind of secret movement gets people asking about the secret agenda of its participants. We knew this, but we chose to be something, even if it meant we would be criticised. By 1994, this stage of ‘creating a sense of belonging’ was over and members no longer needed to keep a low profile, but rather they needed to go out and establish organisations. The fact that Hizmet has been criticised for being secretive and having a secret agenda is our own fault. ‘We did this,’ he conceded.

While that might have been true in the past, Hizmet now would prefer to be seen as transparent. Because it is not a formal organisation— but rather a system of loosely-connected institutions—some still find it enigmatic, despite the plethora of scholarship detailing its activities. Clearly, image construction, as any form of ‘knowledge,’ reflects power at play and not necessarily reality. Similarly, constructions of masculinity portray issues of power and control.

Erdoǧan as Divine Warrior

Masculinity is deeply embedded within the Turkish political structure. Under Ottoman rule, the Gazi Warrior archetype embodied the powerful, heroic male warrior, who fought to spread Islam. Yet, this archetype is ‘a nationalist figure’, notes Salih Açɩksöz, ‘which evokes imageries of legendary Muslim warriors, Ottoman sultans, medieval warrior dervishes, Atatürk, distinguished warships’. The tradition of hegemonic masculinity persisted during the early years of the Turkish Republic under the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Grand National Assembly granted him the honoured title of Gazi for his accomplishments during the War of Independence, and under the Surname Law of 1934, he adopted the surname Atatürk, or Father of the Turks. He embodies the heroic warrior of the Ottoman past while simultaneously positioning himself as the patriarch of the modern republic.

In many ways, Erdoǧan has also replicated Atatürk’s model of masculinity: alternating between benevolent father and macho, authoritarian militant. Given that Turkey rates 125th out of 142 countries in the 2014 ‘Global Gender Gap Report,’ it is worth noting Erdoǧan’s statements regarding women. He has stated that women are not equal to men, and that manual labour was unsuitable for their delicate natures. On 8 August 2013, he rebuked women protesting gender inequality in Istanbul, telling them their role is to bear at least three children. Erdoǧan ‘enacts the role of a husband who wants three kids, a father who forbids drinking at night, a brother who snitches on his sister for socialising with men. He is a man who dominates, forbids, orders, scolds, degrades, and threatens.’ He is the archetypal Turkish tough uncle, or kabadayı.

Politicians often resort to hegemonic masculinity to justify their authority. The state has traditionally played a masculine role, working to fulfill masculinity expectations for Turkish males, and against emasculation anxieties. As Nil Mutluer explains, the ‘nation is represented through an ideal father figure who is the head of the nation as well as the carrier of the ideal masculinity.’ The refrain, ‘every (male) Turk is born a soldier!’ reflects the militarisation of Turkish masculinity. The legacy of a powerful military remains prevalent in Turkish society, as ‘compulsory military service still operates as a key rite of passage for hegemonic masculinity.’ Following his tenure as Istanbul Mayor, Erdoǧan was imprisoned for ‘inciting hatred based on religious differences’ after he gave a speech in which he read Gokalp’s poem. His verses, passionately rendered by Erdoǧan – ‘Our minarets are our bayonets, Our domes are our helmets, Our mosques are our barracks’ – imbue Islamic symbols with militant masculinity.

Indeed, the militarisation of Turkish masculinity has even made use of the Kurdish conflict to increase national sentiment, although currently the ‘dissident intellectual’ has recently replaced Kurdish leader Őcalan as a scapegoat; frequently these intellectuals are charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’. Even the noted author Orhan Pamuk was charged in 2005 by ultranationalist lawyers with insulting Turkishness, which seems to equal a castration of the state masculinity. Even the process to join the EU has also been seen as a threat to Turkish manhood. Not only is it illegal to insult ‘Turkishness’ under Article 301 of the Penal Code, but Article 299 makes it illegal to insult the Turkish President as well. Erdoǧan regularly takes advantage of this law, and has detained a great number of activists, media professionals, and dissidents for speaking out against him. If Erdoǧan embodies Turkey itself, an insult to him is an insult to the nation. This notion has extended to the way in which Erdoǧan positions himself on a global scale. He often challenges, even scolds, leaders and institutions of other countries. In 2014, he furiously (and successfully) demanded an apology from US Vice President Biden over Biden’s comment that Turkey had allowed ISIS fighters to pass through Turkey. His leadership style has grown progressively overbearing. Galip, a Hizmet participant in his forties told me, ‘Erdoǧan is turning inwards. He’s saying, “I don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. People elected me, they voted for me, so I don’t care about everyone else”. He’s positioning himself as leader of the Muslim world’. But it is not only Hizmet activists who are concerned; the legions of journalists in prison testify to that. During the parliamentary election of June 2015, he actively campaigned for the AKP even though he is supposed to remain impartial as President.

As Juergensmeyer notes, extreme forms of ‘warrior’ masculinity or ‘macho religiosity’ is often being embedded in religiously-fuelled narratives of honour, and behaviours also intended to restore order and control in a world ‘gone awry.’ Erdoǧan’s comments about women can be seen as a response to what he perceives as social disorder, ‘sex out of control’, or women taking prominent public roles. He has alienated the secularists within Turkey, the Kurds, Alevis, and now the Hizmet movement. Restricting the press, banning media outlets, Twitter and YouTube, all work to shock and traumatise Turkish citizens, and thus may be understood as forms of ‘symbolic expressions of violence,’ or ‘performance violence’, intended to restore honour and power to the agent. In this case, while he might justify his actions in the name of ‘protecting Turkey from internal enemies,’ it is difficult to ignore that they increase his hold on power. This behaviour reflects his embodiment of ‘warrior’ masculinity, certainly witnessed in his feud with Gülen.

Gülen as Cerebral Dervish

Gülen offers quite a different model of masculinity, a corporeal otherness that underlines his liminal status. He begins one of his books with the following words: ‘love is the most essential element of every being, and it is the most radiant light, and it is the greatest power; able to resist and overcome all else.’ Never married, he appears to represent the archetype of a celibate Sufi mystic whose strength is illustrated through his self-discipline, patience, and humility. A prominent Sufi theme is to strive to control one’s worldly desires, and give up one’s nefis, ego, or sense of self. Gülen claims that struggling with one’s ‘inner world and carnal soul’ is a Muslim’s greater jihad. In fact, when I met him, he expressed anxiety that he would not live up to the image his followers had created, and credited Hizmet’s successes to others. This model is likely influenced as much by Gülen’s profoundly pious, intellectual, and sensitive personality as by the legacy of Sufi masculinities.

In general, Sufism has often played a subversive, antinomian role to state-sanctioned and legalistic forms of Islam (although of course there have been legalist form of Sufism, and Sufism has at times enjoyed state support). Concepts that have typically been stereotyped as feminine, such as ‘love, submission, and subservience,’ are embodied by male Sufis as well. Male Sufis have also used gendered imagery in depicting their spiritual lives, describing themselves in feminine terms such as ‘brides,’ or as nursing babies, nourished by their male Sufi leaders, cast in the role of mother; however, Sufi practices, while often heterodox and diverse, have not rejected patriarchy. Even celibacy has been a hallmark of prominent Sufis, both male and female, such as Rabia al ‘Adawiyya (d. 801), Ibrahim al-Khawwas (d. 904), and many others. Abu Talib al-Makki (d. 996) argued for Sufi celibacy during the Abbasid era, as did Ali ibn Usman Hujwiri (d. circa 1072). Celibacy is a requirement for the highest positions for the Turkish Bektaşi order. Thus, Fethullah Gülen’s celibacy, and that of a few of his students, must be understood in part as a drawing from the legacy of acceptable Sufi masculinity and behaviour.

Hizmet-affiliated schools and tutoring centres provide venues for male bonding and spaces where masculinity is shaped. So does the Abi (elder brother) system, whereby an older man mentors a younger one within the movement. Within these institutions, Hizmet males often carry out tasks antithetical to hypermasculinity, such as housecleaning and cooking. Smoking, aggression, physical confrontations and womanising are taboo. In Turkey, some men affiliated with the Movement carry ‘Abi-purses,’ small bags for storing a Qur’an, prayer beads, wallet and keys. At times these men have been teased for not living up to ‘macho’ ideals of Turkish masculinity, perhaps fuelled by gender stereotypes of men as authoritarians, shaped by Muslim theologians such as Syed Abul A’la Mawdudi, who believed that ‘truly ‘Islamic’ piety for men was in their being superior and dominant’ to women. Instead, Hizmet men weep together openly, following the example of Gülen, whose tears have been caught on camera many times. Ibrahim Karatop recalls his time in a Hizmet-inspired school, writing that his earliest memory was the ‘comfort of crying collectively with men.’

Others also spoke of Gülen’s influence on their gendered behaviours. Kaya, a thirty-eight-year-old Turkish educator now living in California, joined Hizmet in his teens in Turkey despite the fact that his extended family is composed chiefly of Marxists and Kemalists. He explained: ‘I’m a little different from my father – I don’t think he ever cried or cooked – but I have. I learned this in Hizmet circles. I never thought about this question, but yes, I might have been profoundly affected. Crying and cooking are rare in Turkish society for men, but common in Hizmet circles. My loyalty to my wife too – loyalty in my [extended] family is a problem!’ He added, laughing, that actually his wife tells him that he is quite macho; when together, he does not let her drive, and believes it is his responsibility to lead the family.

Yet other Hizmet participants noted that their gendered behaviours were shaped by a variety of sources, refuting any assumption that Hizmet produces monolithic males. Pasha, a forty-three-year-old Hizmet official I spoke with in Huntington Beach, insisted that his own masculinity was influenced more by his upbringing in a Kurdish family, than by Hizmet, although he conceded that one reason Gülen has been speaking so frequently on the theme of forgiveness and compassion, is to encourage Hizmet participants to let go of their negative feelings regarding Erdoǧan and members of the AKP, as he has, and to begin the healing process. Nonetheless, he emphasised his individuality, stating:

Hizmet is a way of thinking or showing you things, but it doesn’t affect all of life. Otherwise, if you are always following in someone’s footsteps or way of living, how are you going to add to that community from your own thinking and learning and experiences? I don’t want people to think that Hizmet is a factory, and that when people go into that factory they become like everyone else, as if it were a production line. I don’t believe it is like that, and I’m not like that. Hizmet gives one values, but one applies them to one’s personal life in one’s own way. Islam has something to do with my masculinity, not Hizmet. Men are mostly the same in Sufi communities. It isn’t Hizmet telling us to cry, the Prophet Muhammad cried, this is in the hadith literature. Maybe Hizmet brings that to light.

In fact, while Zahid, a thirty-eight -year-old artist and musician, spoke of desiring to pattern his identity after Gülen’s model, he was quite critical of men in the movement, saying many really did not live up to that ideal, from his experience. He asserted:

I like to be close to Gülen’s style. As a person, I really like his style and the way he thinks. I have macho friends in the Hizmet movement, who yell at their wives. My observation is that there is not an enormous effect on the way Abis [brothers; Hizmet men] treat their wives. I am sometimes shocked that Abis treat their wives in ways that they do, ways that do not reflect Gülen’s ideals. Maybe they would be harsher towards their wives, if they were not in the movement. Sometimes men in the movement cannot balance work and family. They help others, but when it comes to their families, they don’t do a good job. Gülen always warns people to keep a better balance in this area, but many do not. When the wives ask them for something, they do not have time for their wives and children. They should spend time with their families as well.

Most men interviewed about this issue conveyed that their participation in the movement shaped them to be more patient, willing to carry out dialogue with others instead of being reactive, and to behave in ways that conveyed humility and respect. However, clearly the movement is not the only influence on their behaviour, gendered or otherwise, nor it is a panacea for marital harmony or constructing feminist men.

Indeed, patriarchy is reflected in many facets of Hizmet, and Gülen himself embodies paternal, charismatic religious authority, although his leadership style is that of a teacher, or hademe (servant), and not an authoritarian. Nonetheless, his statements regarding women contrast starkly with those of Erdoǧan. Gülen was quoted in 2008 as saying that women should learn martial arts if needed, to defend themselves against abusive husbands. During Kaya’s interview, he added that he enrolled his own young daughter in karate after hearing of Gülen’s advice. Gülen also actively promotes women’s career goals, and even asks husbands to consider adjusting their careers to facilitate that of their wives.

While also a patriarch like Erdoǧan, Gülen’s model of masculinity reflects Sufi ideals: humility, servanthood, patience. In his late seventies, Gülen is now quite reclusive, and in faltering health. However, Hizmet participants are asked to go forth and actively educate others, conduct peacebuilding through dialogue, and provide humanitarian service to anyone who needs it. He writes, ‘we are only truly human if we learn, teach, and inspire others’.

Contesting Religious Expression

Gülen and Erdoǧan both come from a Muslim background, of the Hanafi school of thought; the former’s Sufism developed in part out of the Said Nursi (1878-1960) movement, the latter a pragmatic Islamist. However, they express their religiosity in very different ways, unsurprising given their respective roles as politician and religious leader. During the June 2015 general election, Erdoǧan toured the country with a copy of the Qur’an in hand. Meanwhile, in his compound in Pennsylvania, Gülen led daily prayer circles, read Said Nursi’s Risale-i-Nur with his students, wrote essays, and conversed with his numerous visitors. While Gülen openly discusses religion, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, economics, and education, Sahih Yücel notes that the mystic often hesitates to respond to political questions. Thus, Erdoǧan openly waves the Qur’an for political gain, while Gülen at least overtly avoids politics, focusing instead on piety. Yet both draw power (political and religious) from their behaviours.

Erdoǧan’s AKP has been described in recent years as possessing ‘anti-Western and pan-Islamic’ influences. In contrast, the Hizmet movement has hundreds of institutions in the West, it is non-partisan and promotes interfaith and intercultural dialogue. It has defined itself as apolitical (although it has political influence). Hizmet values piety, discipline, education, and a vision of Islamic morality focused on serving the other. Regarding education as a vehicle for service, Gülen writes, ‘now that we live in a global village, education is the best way to serve humanity and to establish a dialogue with other civilisations. I have encouraged people to serve the country in particular, and humanity in general, through education.’ A Kurdish professor told me that other Muslim groups in Turkey have found Hizmet unacceptably apolitical, passive, and Western leaning. The Nurçus, the Naqşbandis, and the Islamists do not appreciate that Hizmet tries to dissolve boundaries between other religious and cultural groups, he added, and fear that the Hizmet practice of interfaith dialogue will result in a religious amalgam or synthesis of religion. He explained, ‘they misunderstand Hizmet’s interfaith dialogue activities, and they worry that getting together with other people to carry out interfaith dialogue will create a new form of Islam that will be a synthesis of the faiths of those involved in dialogue with Hizmet.’

Some Turkish Muslims were humiliated when Gülen met with Pope John Paul II in 1998. They believe as Muslims that Hizmet participants should promote a religious state; Gülen was criticised for ‘talking less about an Islamic State than he does a fly’.

A Turkish political scientist, affiliated with Hizmet, explained that other Muslims do not like that Hizmet refuses to think of the West as an enemy, and stated, ‘as Christians, Muslims and Jews we live in the same global village. Hizmet’s enemy is not the West, we need to find our common enemies.’ Hizmet is criticised for being too American, and for catering to Jews and non-Muslims. They are also jealous, he added, because as a powerful movement, Hizmet has created an international structure which provides its members with an expansive global network and opportunities.

Erdoǧan, it may be argued, is not merely positioning himself as an Ottoman sultan or Middle Eastern dictator, but as Turkey’s messianic saviour, if not a judgmental, angry, all-powerful deity to whom one should submit; decisively brandishing his nefis or ego. The eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz notes that ‘the mere fact that rulers and gods share certain properties, has, been recognised for some time.’ Kings, moreover, go about ‘stamping a territory with ritual signs of dominance’ in order to establish the ‘inherent sacredness of central authority’. The massive presidential palace Erdoǧan is building for himself, replete with a mosque in the edifice, aptly illustrates this concept. Islam under Erdoǧan is now an amalgam of religion, politics, nationalism, and conservatism – just as exclusivist as Kemalism. Given Erdoǧan and Gülen’s clashing understandings of Islam, the role of Muslims, and of gender roles within an Islamic society, it is no surprise their relationship fell apart. While on a shallow level they share a common religion, in his role as politician, Erdoǧan’s Islam is nationalistic, chauvinistic, militant, exclusivist, and is a source for his authoritarian, patriarchal leadership style. Gülen’s understanding of Islam is inclusive, peaceful, contains universal values, and requires humility and service to others; ideals that few politicians have found easy to uphold.


Gülen has preached that ‘just as God showed His attribute of forgiveness through humanity, He also put the beauty of forgiveness into the human heart…the greatest gift that the generation of today can give their children and grandchildren is to teach them how to forgive – to forgive even confronted by the worst behaviour and the most disturbing events’. When I spoke with him, I asked about the rift between himself and Erdoǧan, and if he envisioned a possible rapprochement. ‘We didn’t cause the illness’, he replied, ‘therefore we do not have a remedy to cure it. Since the source of trouble is not us, we can’t do anything but pray.’ However, he added that his door was always open to speak to Erdoǧan. Given the severity of their falling out, it seems unlikely that reconciliation will take place any time soon. However, given the shifting political landscape in Turkey, one cannot rule it out. Despite Erdoǧan’s macho posturing, he might find it expedient at some point to open channels of communication again.

Erdoǧan’s Gazi Warrior hypermasculine behaviour responds to old feelings of humiliation and emasculation in the aftermath of the fall of the Empire, and to contemporary struggles for power in Turkey. It speaks to those anxious about both Turkey and Islam coming under attack from the West; his forceful aggressiveness a strategy to restore Turkey’s honour and to keep it secure from the ‘enemies on all sides.’ Following Atatürk’s footsteps, Turkey’s new strong man has become repressive of religious and ethnic groups. Ultimately, Gülen and the Hizmet movement have found it difficult to support him, while maintaining their Sufi ideals. Their collective power, success, and influence, reflected in the sheer number of Hizmet-affiliated members and institutions in Turkey and abroad, is inspired by Gülen’s mystical theology and his particular embodiment of Sufism. Despite Gülen’s mild-mannered approach, Hizmet’s popularity appears to profoundly threaten Erdoǧan’s identity as ruling patriarch and sacred warrior.

*Editor’s note: Hizmet Movement Blog reaffirms its non-endorsement policy of the various viewpoints expressed throughout the articles that are solely shared for the convenience of the readers.

Published on Critical Muslim, Issue 16.1