Who is Fethullah Gulen?

Who is Fethullah Gulen? - A Biographical Album
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Who is Fethullah Gulen? - A Brief Biography

Overview

Fethullah Gulen
Fethullah Gülen
Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish Muslim scholar, author, poet, opinion leader, education activist, peace advocate, and preacher emeritus. He is regarded as the initiator and inspirer of the worldwide civil society movement, known as the Hizmet (Service) Movement or the Gülen Movement, which is committed to education, dialogue, peace, social justice, and social harmony.

Focused on education where secular curricula are taught by teachers who aspire to “represent” high values of humanity, this social phenomenon defeats easy categorization. The movement consists of students, academics, businesspeople, public officials, white-collar and blue-collar workers, farmers, men and women, young and old. These volunteer participants contribute to Hizmet mainly in tutoring centers, schools, colleges, hospitals, a major relief organization, publishing houses, and media institutions, in Turkey and more than 160 countries around the world.

Gülen has published more than sixty books in Turkish, many of which have been translated to more than thirty languages. Fethullah Gulen was listed as the World's Top Public Intellectual by Foreign Policy magazine in May 2008.

Fethullah Gülen is known for his philosophical and active stance for human rights, democracy, interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, spirituality, as well as his opposition to violence, segregation, and turning religion into a political ideology in critical junctures of the history of society.

Gülen’s discourse cherishes and his life exemplifies values such as empathetic acceptance, altruistic service to one’s community and humanity in general, the complementary roles of the intellect and the heart, sincerity, holistic view of the human, deepening faith and love of the creation. “Serving humanity to serve God” and “living to let others live” are the core principles of his understanding of service. His promotion of sympathy, compassion and harmonious coexistence can be best understood through a comparison with that of Rumi, the 13th century Anatolian Sufi and spiritual poet and one of Gülen’s sources of inspiration.

Gülen started his career as a preacher and education activist. In time, he succeeded in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people for the purpose of serving society by uniting around high human values. Despite the high regard millions hold for him, he considers himself only one of the volunteers of this civil society movement he helped originate and denounces any attribution of leadership.

Sharing the suffering of humans in every corner of the world, Gulen has always been known for his deep respect for and connection to all creation. “Living to let others live” (“yaşatmak icin yaşamak” in Turkish) is the core principle of his understanding of service.



Early Life

Young Fethullah Gulen
Fethullah Gülen was born into a humble family in Erzurum, Turkey, in 1941, and was raised in a spiritually enriching environment. Gulen completed his education in modern and traditional institutions. He studied Islamic sciences and attained his teaching certification.

He attended the training circles of local Sufi teachers, where he learned the principles of Islamic spirituality and humanism. He was also introduced to the writings of Said Nursi, a renowned scholar of Islam who thought that Muslims should welcome the benefits of modernity and find inspiration in the sacred texts to engage with it.

Gülen’s parents played a critical role in his early education. His father, an imam, enjoyed reading classical books, reciting poetry, and meditating on the early period of Islam. It was his father who instilled a love of learning and love for the Prophet and his companions in the young Gülen. His mother, a volunteer Qur’an instructor, taught him the reciting the Qur'an and exemplified a spiritual life and perseverance. Gülen became a hafiz, one who have completely memorized the Qur’an, at the age of twelve, and started preaching in local mosques when he was only fourteen years old.

Early Career

Fethullah Gulen in his twenties
After passing an exam administered by the Turkish State’s Directorate of Religious Affairs in 1959, Gulen was appointed as a state preacher to a historic mosque in Edirne, a province in the European part of Turkey. In this period of his youth, he was both socially active and personally ascetic. He had the opportunity to deepen his knowledge in the Islamic tradition, informally study social and natural sciences, and examine the classics of both Eastern and Western philosophy and literature. Among the historic figures who had the most impact on his intellectual life we can mention Abu Hanifa, Ghazali, Imam Rabbani, Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Said Nursi. It was his broad-ranged reading attitude that equipped him for his well-known comprehensive interpretations.

Throughout his career, Gulen maintained his personal life style of devout asceticism while remaining on good terms with the civic and military authorities he encountered. He witnessed how the youth were being attracted into extremist, radical ideologies, and endeavored through his preaching to draw them away from that. He saw the erosion of traditional moral values among the youth and the educated segment of Turkish society feeding into criminality, political and societal conflict. For this purpose, he organized a series of public lectures. These experiences were formative influences on his intellectual and community leadership and reinforced his faith in the meaning and value of human beings and life.

In 1963, following his military service, Fethullah Gülen gave a series of lectures in Erzurum on Rumi. He also co-founded an anti-communist association where he gave evening talks on moral issues. In 1964, he was assigned to a new post in Edirne, where he became very influential among the educated youth and ordinary people. After being appointed to Kirklareli in 1965, Gulen he organized evening lectures and talks. In this phase of his career, just like earlier, he took no active part in party politics and taught only about moral values in personal and collective affairs.

In recognition of his success in public service, Gulen was promoted to the positions of central preacher and director of a boarding school in Izmir, a large city on the Aegean coast of Turkey.

Nationwide Preacher and Education Activist

Fethulah Gulen, lecturing in a coffee-house
Gulen speaking in a coffee-house
In 1966, Yasar Tunagur, who had known Fethullah Gülen from earlier in his career, became deputy head of the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs and, on assuming his position in Ankara, he assigned Fethullah Gülen to the post that he himself had just vacated in Izmir. On March 11, Gülen was transferred to the Izmir region, where he held managerial responsibility for a mosque, a student study and boarding-hall and for preaching in the Aegean region. He continued to live plainly. For almost five years he lived in a small hut near the Kestanepazari Hall and took no wages for his services. It was during these years that Fethullah Gülen’s ideas on education and service to the community began to mature. In 1969 began to set up meetings in coffee-houses, and lecture all around the provinces and in the villages of the region. He also organized summer camps for middle and high school students.

In Izmir, the largest province of the west coast of Turkey, Fethullah Gülen’s outstanding discourse began to crystallize and his audience began to expand. He traveled from city to city to give sermons in mosques, speeches at gatherings in various places including theaters and coffee houses. Speaking on essential subjects ranging from peace and social justice to philosophical naturalism, his primary aim always remained as urging the younger generation to harmonize intellectual enlightenment with spirituality anchored in the faith tradition, and to serve fellow humans altruistically.

Gulen’s discourse, which had been easily distinguished by its depth of knowledge, logic, sensitivity, proper referencing and stellar eloquence, attracted the attention of the learned citizens including academic community and college students, as well as common people all around the country. His speeches were recorded on tape, distributed even in villages, and zealously embraced. As he frankly asserts, he simply thought to cultivate this public credit, “though he never deserved it,” by channeling good intentions and devotional energy towards a positive end.

Fethullah Gulen describes this initially national and subsequently universal ideal as “gathering around high human values” by means of education and dialogue. Regarding this ideal, Fethullah Gülen has always named his function as an “advisor” or “motivator” at most. His audience in Izmir initially served as a seed to form a community of like-minded citizens from all walks of life and later expanded to citizens from very different backgrounds, including non-Muslims who share the humanistic dimension of Gulen’s vision if not its Islamic roots.

Fethullah Gulen
In 1970, as a result of the March 12 coup, a number of prominent Muslims in the region, who had supported Kestanepazari Hall and associated activities for the region’s youth, were arrested. On May 1, Fethullah Gülen was arrested as well and held for six months without charge until his release on November 9. Later, all the others arrested were also released, again without charge. When asked to explain these arrests, the authorities said that they had arrested so many leftists that they felt they needed to arrest some prominent Muslims in order to avoid being accused of unfairness. Interestingly, they released Fethullah Gülen on the condition that he gave no more public lectures.

In 1971, Fethullah Gülen left his post and the Kestanepazari Hall but retained his status as a state-authorized preacher. He began setting up more student study and boarding-halls in the Aegean region: the funding for these came from local people. It is at this point that a particular group of about one hundred people began to be visible as a service group, that is, a group gathered around Fethullah Gülen’s understanding of service to the community and positive action.

Between 1972 and 1975, Fethullah Gülen held posts as a preacher in several cities in the Aegean and Marmara regions, where he continued to preach and to teach the ideas about education and the service ethic he had developed. He continued setting up hostels for high school and university students. At this time educational opportunities were still scarce for ordinary Anatolian people, and most student accommodation in the major cities were controlled or infiltrated by extreme leftists or rightists, seethed in a hyper-politicized atmosphere. Parents in provincial towns whose children had passed entrance examinations for university or urban high schools were caught in a dilemma – to surrender their children’s care to the ideologists or to retain them from further education. The hostels set up by Fethullah Gülen and his companions offered parents the chance to send their children to the big cities to continue their secular education, while protecting them from the hyper-politicized environment. To support these educational efforts, people who shared Fethullah Gülen’s service-ethic established a system of scholarships for students. The funding for the hostels and scholarships came entirely from local communities among whom Fethullah Gülen’s service-ethic idea (hizmet) was spreading steadily. With Fethullah Gülen’s encouragement, around his discourse of positive action and responsibility, ordinary people were starting to mobilize to counteract the effects of violent ideologies and of the ensuing social and political disorder on their own children and on youth in general. Students in the hostels also began to play a part in spreading the discourse of service and positive action. Periodically, they returned to their home towns and visited surrounding towns and villages, and, talking of their experiences and the ideas they had encountered, consciously diffused the hizmet idea in the region. Also, from 1966 onward, Fethullah Gülen’s talks and lectures had been recorded on audio cassettes and distributed throughout Turkey by third parties. Thus, through already existing networks of primary relations, this new type of community action, the students’ activities, and the new technology of communication, the hizmet discourse was becoming known nationwide.

In 1974, the first university preparatory institution was established in Manisa, where Fethullah Gülen was posted at the time. Until then, it was largely the children of very wealthy and privileged families who had access to university education. The institution in Manisa offered the hope that in future there might be better opportunities for children from ordinary Anatolian families. Thus it was shown that, if properly supported, the children of ordinary families could take up and succeed in higher education. As word spread of these achievements, Fethullah Gülen was invited, the following year, to speak at a series of lectures all over Turkey. The service idea became widely recognized and firmly rooted in various cities and regions of the country. From this time on, the country-wide mobilization of people drawn to support education and non-political altruistic services can be called a movement – the Gülen Movement.

In 1976, the Religious Directorate posted Fethullah Gülen to Bornova, Izmir, the site of one of Turkey’s major universities with a correspondingly large student population and a great deal of the militant activism just like typical of universities in the 1970s. It came to his attention that leftist groups were running protection rackets to extort money from small businessmen and shopkeepers in the city and deliberately disrupting the business and social life of the community. The racketeers had already murdered a number of their victims. In his sermons, Fethullah Gülen spoke out and urged those being threatened by the rackets neither to yield to threats and violence, nor to react with violence and exacerbate the situation. He urged them, instead, to report the crimes to the police and have the racketeers dealt with through the proper channels. This message led to threats made against his life. At the same time, he challenged the students of left and right to come to the mosque and discuss their ideas with him and offered to answer any questions, whether secular or religious, which they put to him. A large number of students took up this offer. So, in addition to his daily duties giving traditional religious instruction and preaching, Fethullah Gülen devoted every Sunday evening to these discussion sessions.

In 1977, he traveled in northern Europe, visiting and preaching among Turkish communities to raise their consciousness about values and education and to encourage them in the same hizmet ethic of positive action and altruistic service. He encouraged them both to preserve their cultural and religious values and to integrate into their host societies. Now thirty-six, Fethullah Gülen had become one of the three most widely recognized and influential preachers in Turkey. For example, on one occasion in 1977 when the prime minister, other ministers and state dignitaries came to a Friday prayer in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, a politically sensitive occasion in Turkey, Fethullah Gülen was invited to preach to them and the rest of the congregation.

Fethullah Gülen encouraged participants in the Movement to go into publishing. Some of his articles and lectures were published as anthologies and a group of teachers inspired by his ideas established the Teachers’ Foundation to support education and students.

In 1979, this Foundation started to publish its own monthly journal, Sizinti, which became the highest selling monthly in Turkey. In terms of genre, it was a pioneering venture, being a magazine of sciences, humanities, faith, and literature. Its mission was to show that science and religion were not incompatible and that knowledge of both was necessary to be successful in this life. Every month since the journal was founded, Fethullah Gülen has written for it an editorial and a section about the spiritual or inner aspects of Islam, that is, Sufism, and the meaning of faith in modern life.

In February 1980, a series of Fethullah Gülen’s lectures, attended by thousands of people, in which he preached against violence, anarchy and terror, were made available on audio cassettes. In 1980s, for the first time in Turkey, a preacher’s talks were recorded and distributed on videotape. Thus, in spite of the atmosphere of intimidation following the 1980 military coup, the hizmet discourse, far from being suppressed, continued to spread in a way that, ironically, was possibly more effective. In the years immediately following the coup, the Movement continued to grow and act successfully. In 1982, Movement participants set up a private high school in Izmir, Yamanlar Koleji.

In 1989, Fethullah Gülen was approached by the Directorate of Religious Affairs and requested to resume his duties. His license was reinstated to enable him to serve as an Emeritus Preacher with the right to preach in any mosque in Turkey. Between 1989 and 1991, he preached in Istanbul on Fridays and on alternate Sundays in Istanbul and Izmir in the largest mosques in the cities. His sermons drew crowds in the tens of thousands, numbers unprecedented in Turkish history. These sermons were videotaped and also broadcast. At the beginning of the 1990s, the police uncovered a number of conspiracies by marginal militant Islamists and other small ideological groups to assassinate Fethullah Gülen. These groups also placed agent-provocateurs in the areas around the mosques where he preached with the aim of fomenting disorder when the crowds were dispersing after Fethullah Gülen’s sermons. Due to Fethullah Gülen’s warnings and the already established peaceful practices of the Movement, these attempts failed and the agent- provocateurs were dealt with by the police.

Start of a New Era

In 1991, Fethullah Gülen once again ceased preaching to large mosque congregations. He felt that some people were trying to manipulate or exploit his presence and the presence of Movement participants at these large public gatherings. However, he continued to be active in community life, in teaching small groups and taking part in the collective action of the Movement. In 1992, he traveled to the United States, where he met Turkish academics and community leaders, as well as the leaders of other American faith communities. By this stage, the number of schools in Turkey established by the participants in the Gülen Movement had reached more than a hundred, not counting institutions such as study centers and university preparatory institutions. From January 1990, Movement participants began to found schools and universities in Central Asia as well, often working under quite harsh conditions.

Fethullah Gulen and Pope John Paul, II
Starting in 1994, Fethullah Gülen pioneered a rejuvenation of the Interfaith Dialog spirit in the Turkish-Muslim tradition, which was forgotten amidst the troublesome years of the early twentieth century. The Foundation of Journalists and Writers, of which Gulen was the honorary president, organized a series of gatherings involving leaders of religious minorities in Turkey such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch, the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Vatican’s Representative to Turkey and others. The “Abant” platform, named after the location of the first meeting in Bolu, Turkey, brought together leading intellectuals from all corners of the political spectrum, the leftists, the atheists, the nationalists, the religious conservatives, and the liberals, providing for the first time in recent Turkish history a place where such figures could debate freely about the common concerns of all citizens and pressing social problems.

Fethullah Gulen
During this period Fethullah Gülen made himself increasingly available for comment and interview in the media and began to communicate more with state dignitaries in order to help ease the tensions generated by the artificial debates around a phantom threat to the secular nature of the Turkish republic. The showdown between the military wing of the National Security Council and the ruling Virtue Party-True Path Party coalition eventually led to the so-called “February 28, 1997 post-modern military coup,” which forced the coalition government to resign and a harsh set of social engineering measures to be pursued by the new government under close military scrutiny.

In March 1999, upon the recommendation of his doctors, Fethullah Gulen moved to the U.S. to receive medical care for his cardiovascular condition. Upon recommendation of his doctors, Gulen stayed in the U.S. to continue to receive medical care and to avoid stress caused by politically charged atmosphere of the February 28 post-modern military coup.

The growing influence of Fethullah Gulen and the significance of the civic movement he helped generate worried some circles in the country who benefited from a closed society with government-favored enterprises, a monopoly on the intellectual life and an isolationist approach to foreign affairs. These circles accused Gulen of having long-term political ambitions and eventually persuaded an ultra-nationalist prosecutor to bring charges against him in 2000 based on a doctored set of video clips which first appeared in mass media in June 1999. While these charges were found to be baseless and eventually dismissed in 2008, the case caused a set-back in the interfaith and intercultural dialog spirit that Gulen helped re-kindle.

He currently lives at a retreat facility in Pennsylvania together with a group of students, scholars and a few visitors who consider it a “good” day in terms of his health if he is able to have a half-hour conversation answering their questions.

Years of Retreat in the United States

Fethullah Gulen's residence
In 1999, Fethullah Gülen traveled to the United States to receive medical care for his cardiovascular condition. He underwent a heart operation in 2004, following which his doctors recommended he avoid stress. For this reason, he chose to live far away from the politically-charged atmosphere in Turkey, and was granted permanent residency by the U.S. government in 2006. He was among the first Muslim scholars to publicly condemn the September 11 attacks. His condemnation message appeared in The Washington Post on September 21, 2001.

Gülen currently lives with a group of students and his doctors at a retreat facility in Pennsylvania, where he dedicates his time to reading, writing, teaching, individual and small group worship, and receiving a few visitors, as his health permits. He has been visited by American academics and religious leaders as well as members of the Turkish-American community. He maintains his ascetic and spiritual way of life, spending most of his time in his modest room. He remains concerned with happiness and alleviating the suffering of humans around the world. He also encourages people to be involved in organizing aid campaigns for those affected by natural disasters throughout the world, in places such as Indonesia, Myanmar, and Haiti. Most days he devotes a half an hour to conversation and answering questions, and is sometimes consulted about service projects. His conversations are recorded and made available to the public on a website (www.herkul.org). Throughout the years in Pennsylvania, he has been interviewed several times by local and international journalists.

Sources:
  • Bir Portre Denemesi - A biographical analysis about Fethullah Gülen (Istanbul: Nil, 2002)
  • Fethullah Gulen - A Biographical Album (Houston, TX: Gulen Institute)
  • Kırık Testi (11 volumes, Istanbul: Nil)
  • Küçük Dünyam - A biographical interview of Fethullah Gülen (Istanbul: Ufuk, 2006), 
  • The Gulen Movement: Civic Service without Borders (New Jersey: Blue Dome, 2008).
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