Turkish Islam's Moderate Face

Fethullah Gülen, a foremost religious figure, has become a focus of wide public attention in Turkey. As a moderate Islamic spiritual leader whose views on Islam are surprisingly liberal, he appeared on the political scene at a moment when the Turkish government sought a counterbalance to the Islamists. Indeed, his rise to public prominence and his increasing support among Turks offer a non-political alternative to the Islamism of the Refah (Welfare) Party. But Gülen and his community represent something larger than the fulfillment of political needs; they may constitute a landmark development for the future of Turkey. They will also have a major impact on relations between state and society in the decades to come and may even effect the future shape of Turkish society.


Born in Erzurum in eastern Turkey in 1938, Gülen learned Arabic and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad early in life from his father.[1] According to biological information given in his publications, he knows Arabic, Persian, French, and some English.[2] The writings of Said Nursi (1877-1960), which argued that there is no contradiction between religion and science, had an important influence on Gülen's thinking. Nursi and his followers, the Risale-i Nur movement, spread throughout Turkey after 1950, despite the state's efforts to stop their activities, and had special success among the young and those educated in the secular education system.[3]

Gülen began his career in 1953 as a preacher paid by the government (the only legal position a preacher can hold in Turkey). In 1958, he took up a teaching position at a mosque in Edirne. In 1966, he transferred to Izmir. His movement is sometimes known as the "Izmir community" because of its origins in that city. He was arrested during the military rule that began in 1971 for clandestine religious activities (such as organizing summer camps to disseminate Islamic ideas) and spent seven months in prison. He endured police prosecution in the early 1980s but was not arrested due to the ruling military junta's relative tolerance of Islam. He then gained official protection during the premiership of Turgut Özal. Now he is retired from teaching and lives in modest houses in Izmir and Istanbul given to him by his followers. Gülen devotes himself these days mainly to writing tracts and booklets that focus on religious philosophy and deal mainly with issues related to faith and belief.[4]

Throughout his career, Gülen, known to his followers as "respected teacher" (hocaefendi), traveled the width and breadth of Turkey, addressing public gatherings and conferences on such subjects as the Qur'an and contemporary science, the Islamic perspective on Darwin, and social justice in Islam.

Gülen pays special attention not to look or talk like a typical media-constructed religious leader, as Nuriye Akman, a senior Turkish columnist, concedes:

The hocaefendi is an extremely respectful person. He is like that "old-style gentleman" we read about in old books and see in old films. He says "estagfurullah [I beg the pardon of God]" every other sentence. He speaks in phrases of delicacy and politeness. He is extremely modest. . . He speaks with a constant tone. He knows what he will say. He speaks with correct grammar and with an Ottoman vocabulary.[5]


Gülen does not favor the state applying Islamic law, the Shari'a. He points out that most Islamic regulations concern private life and only a small portion of them concern state and government. These latter need not be enforced because religion is a private matter and its requirements should not be imposed on anyone. He looks at the Islamic regulations bearing directly on government (such as taxation and warfare) in light of contemporary realities. This leads him to the conclusion, for example, that the democratic form of government is the best choice, an outlook that causes Gülen to oppose strongly the regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Gülen seeks to accomplish two intellectual feats: the Islamization of Turkish nationalist ideology and the Turkification of Islam. He hopes to reestablish the link between religion and state that existed in the Ottoman era, thereby reversing one of the most clear-cut features of the state established by Atatürk. This widens the state's base of legitimacy and enhances its ability to use Islam to mobilize the population. In Gülen's view, the virtues of Turkey are many: its Ottoman heritage, secularism, economy, and democracy.

Gülen holds that the Anatolian people's interpretations and experiences of Islam are different from those of others, especially the Arabs. He frequently emphasizes that there should be freedom of worship and thinking in Turkey. He writes of an "Anatolian Islam" based on tolerance and excluding harsh restrictions or fanaticism. He proposes two keys to provide peace in society: tolerance and dialogue. "We can build confidence and peace in this country if we treat each other with tolerance."[6] In his view, "no one should condemn the other for being a member of a religion or scold him for being an atheist."[7] His professed tolerance and respect for others needs to be proven vis-à-vis all segments of society, including the followers of the former Refah Party.

These ideas about tolerance and dialogue are not restricted to Muslims but extend to Christians and Jews. Gülen met twice with Patriarch Bartholomeos, head of the Greek Orthodox Fener Patriarchate in Istanbul. He also came together several times with Christian and Jewish religious leaders to promote inter-religious dialogue. In February 1998, alone, for example, he visited the pope in Rome and received a visiting chief rabbi from Israel.

On the question of women, Gülen has progressive views. The veiling of women is a detail in Islam and "no one can suppress the progress of women through the clothes they have to wear." Gülen also states that "no one should be subject to criticism for his or her clothing or thoughts."[8] Furthermore, he says, "women can become administrators," contradicting the views of most Islamic intellectuals. Despite these views, modern professional women in Turkey still find his ideas far from acceptable.

Gülen emphasizes worldly education and favors integration with the modern world. According to Mehmet Özkaragöz, his U.S.-educated devotee, "a basic principle of Islam is seeking knowledge. We recognize the West as the best source of technology at the moment although of course we'd prefer the Muslim world to be the leader."[9] Gülen wishes to merge Islam into the international political system and the economy; he supports Turkey's bid for membership to the European Union, and he follows a fairly moderate attitude towards the West and Israel.


Gülen aims to create a devoted Muslim community that opposes political Islam, and he has had considerable success. No one knows the size of Gülen's giant community of sympathizers (known as Fethullahcis, "partisans of Fethullah," a name strongly resisted by Gülen himself) but guesses range between 200,000 and 4 million.[10] It draws much of its support from young urban men, with special appeal to doctors, academics, and other professionals. It has grown in part by sponsoring student dormitories, summer camps, colleges, universities, classrooms, cultural facilities, and communication organizations. Though Gülen is its sole leader, a hierarchy of his long-time devotees runs the community.[11]

Gülen has considerable political weight on the right side of the political spectrum, which explains why party leaders are eager to maintain close contact with him. Since 1994, he has met with a prime minister and the leaders of many parties, plus given interviews to the country's leading media. Turkey's President Süleyman Demirel accepted a prize of dialogue in 1997 from one of Gülen's organizations and blessed its educational activities. He met with Bülent Ecevit, the long-time leader of Turkey's Left, after which Ecevit reported on it as a "conversation that focused entirely on religion and philosophy. The meeting had no political dimension. I found Gülen to be a sincere and candid person. Our meeting was useful."[12] This meeting was remarkable in that it showed Gülen's ideas could also find a receptive audience on the Left.

The many activities of Gülen's followers have gained increased legal acceptance in recent years, and particularly after their leader was received by the prime minister in 1994, an event that encouraged his followers to become more confident and to dare show themselves in public.

Gülen's followers have set up organizations to disseminate Gülen's ideas to the elite of Turkish society. The Turkish Teachers' Foundation, for example, publishes a monthly journal, Sizinti (Leak) and two academic journals, Yeni Umit (New Hope) and Fountain; it also organizes national and international symposia, panel discussions, and conferences. The Journalists' and Writers' Foundation brings secular and Islamist intellectuals together; it forwards the view that no individual or group has a monopoly on interpreting Islam and that secularism does not mean being anti-religious.[13]

Dale Eickelman, an American expert on Islam, calls Gülen "Turkey's answer to media-savvy American evangelist Billy Graham. . . . In televised chat shows, interviews, and occasional sermons, Gülen speaks about Islam and science, democracy, modernity, religious and ideological tolerance, the importance of education, and current events."[14] A media network, consisting of the daily newspaperZaman, the television channel Samanyolu, the radio station Burc FM, videos and cassettes, counters arguments against the community and tries to provide alternative views on current issues. Prominent intellectuals from Turkey's prestigious universities (such as Mithat Baydur of Bosphorus University and Hasan Unal of Bilkent University) lend their talents to Gülen's media.

The community owns and runs about a hundred schools in Turkey. These schools are under tight state control and use the same curriculum as do Turkish state schools, only with an added emphasis on conservative values such as good manners and respect for elders. Funded by the community, their faculty have graduated from some of the best universities in Turkey, including the English language universities (Bosphorus University and Middle East Technical University). The community's mosques and businesses have sponsored the schools by collecting contributions; interestingly, two of Turkey's most renowned Jewish businessmen, Ishak Alaton and Üzeyir Garih, co-founders of the Alarko Group, support the community's schools. The schools have a vital role in fund-raising efforts, but their academic achievements so far are not very promising.

In keeping with his Turkish orientation, Gülen encourages attention to the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. His media targets those new countries, where they have many loyal followers. His followers in October 1996 financed a non-interest bearing bank, Asya Finans, backed by sixteen partners and $125 million in capital, that aims to raise funds for investments in the Turkic republics. In this way, Gülen hopes to draw the attention of Turkish businessmen to these new countries, thereby solidifying links to them.

Followers of Gülen have also founded more than 200 schools around the world from Tanzania to China, but mostly in the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. Those schools promote a philosophy based on Turkish nationalism rather than Islam. "From the Balkans to China, he wants to see elites formed with Turkey as their model."[15] For example, the community has set up eight high schools and a university in Turkmenistan since 1991, and one graduate of the community's schools currently serves as Turkmenistan's deputy minister of education.[16] These institutions admit non-Muslim students; and, because of their high quality and perhaps their use of English as the primary language of education, they attract children of the elite. In the United States, they run summer camps particularly in the northwest and aim to open the Virginia International University in the fall of 1998.


The Turkish military has staged three coups (in 1960, 1971 and 1980) to restore stability and order in the country. But in June 1997, rather than stage a fourth coup, the army maneuvered the Refah Party, Turkey's largest vote-getter in the 1995 parliamentary elections, out of power, replacing it with a government headed by Mesut Yilmaz. It did so on the grounds that Islamic radicalism was poised to cause a civil uprising which it would be legally obliged to resist, "by force if necessary."[17]

Gülen is fully cognizant of this background and takes particular care not to antagonize the army. To the contrary, he tries hard to persuade the military leadership that his activities do not challenge the status quo and should not be regarded as reactionary (a code word for Islamist). For example, he says that if need be, he would turn over his community's schools to the state.[18] When asked about the threat of reactionism being on the agenda of the National Security Council (MGK)-which consists of mainly military staff-he replies as follows:

The MGK is a constitutional institution. It is a part of the state. I have never believed that a threat of reactionism exists in Turkey. Turkey needs enlightenment. Reactionism means going backward. In an enlightened era which has experienced democracy and secularism, it is impossible for the Turkish people to go back.[19]

In all, while the Turkish army appears to accept Gülen and his followers as a domestic movement not inspired by foreign influence, for example, from Iran or Saudi Arabia, the suspicion still exists that he may seek to subvert the military from within by sending his disciples to the military academies. If true, this ensures that the community will have a difficult relationship with the military leadership. The West Working Group, a special group established under the office of the chief of the general staff, sent a file to the Constitutional Court that dealt with the activities of Gülen's followers, though it focused on their overseas activities, namely the opening and operation of educational institutions in Asian countries. Following this report, members of the military staff visited most of the schools in Asia. And, unlike secular politicians and intellectuals, the military leadership has no desire to be seen with Gülen; Ismail Hakki Karadayi, the Turkish army's chief of staff, did not even reply to the invitation to an iftar (a breaking of the Ramadan fast).

The split over Gülen has potentially significant political consequences, for he finds civilian support even as the military looks askance at his activities. In a dramatic move, as reports circulated that the military leadership planned to discuss Gülen's activities at a National Security Council meeting, Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit endorsed him.[20] In the end, however, the military remains the most respected and powerful institution in Turkey, and its strong opposition to Gülen likely erodes his civilian support.


Islamist intellectuals generally stay clear of Gülen's movement, limiting their remarks to the nature of his school's curriculum or assessing his intentions. Political relations are more developed and tense, as Refah supporters widely believe that the secular establishment uses Gülen's community to obstruct their path. Necmettin Erbakan, Refah's chairman, even accused Gülen of accepting government support to intimidate Refah.[21]

In turn, Gülen has kept his distance from the Refah Party-in contrast to his efforts at dialogue with the secular parties-and frequently criticizes its policies and activities. He acknowledges Refah's impressive organization and growth in membership and notes that if other parties had worked as hard, Refah would not have received 21 percent of the vote in the December 1995 elections. From this, he draws the conclusion that Refah's vote is larger than its actual support: "Our friends in Refah may be annoyed, but I think that Refah's electoral share is still around 15 percent-maybe not even that. The great majority of those who vote for Refah are people who are dissatisfied because there is no strong government that inspires confidence in Turkey."[22]

Gülen holds the Refah Party responsible for the recent crisis in Turkish politics that pitted the secular military against the Islamist Refah Party and deems Refah's removal from office in June 1997 not unfair. "Hopefully, and God willing, no one will come out and try to drag the nation into the vicious circle from which we extricated ourselves with much difficulty."[23] Indeed, he sees Turkey as having just missed entering a deep conflict along the lines of Algeria.

Since 1996, prosecutors argued that statements like those of Istanbul's Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan (that "the minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, and the mosques our barracks,")[24] which led to his criminal prosecution in May 1998, proved the party's anti-secular intentions. They sought to shut down Refah as a threat to Turkey's constitutionally enshrined secular system. They got their way in January 1998, when the chief judge of the Constitutional Court, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, announced Refah's closing on the basis that it had engaged in "actions against the principles of the secular republic."[25]

Gülen rejected comments like those of Erdogan, holding that they "are not binding on believers who respect God in Turkey."[26] He supported the closure of Refah, reflecting an emphasis on the preservation of order, but commented that "it would be more sensible not to close Refah" for tactical reasons. Instead, he urged continuing the lawsuit against the party until the next round of elections:

If the trial is on when the election campaign gets under way, public trust in the Refah would be shaken. It would be viewed as a party that will be closed. People would not vote for it. Its votes would move, more democratically, largely to parties that are most closely aligned with the Refah Party. That would achieve the desired objective.[27]

Gülen predicts no major benefits to the Islamists for having suffered the closure of Refah; he rejects the idea that Turkey's Islamist party (now reestablished as Fazilet or "Virtue") will emerge with more strength among voters.


Gülen's sudden emergence on the political scene has triggered much controversy among secular intellectuals, a considerable number of whom suspect him of using different tactics to reach the same goal as the Islamists. They worry that behind his benign facade, Gülen hides ambitions to turn the country into an Iranian-style Islamic state. The insecurity and intolerance of some secularists causes them to accuse Gülen's community of being the enemy of the Turkish republic. They also worry that secularist parties will privilege Gülen in exchange for his promises not to endorse Refah. Rusen Cakir, author of a book on the rise of Islam in Turkey, finds that "The [secular] parties are promoting him as an alternative to Welfare. They're using their enemy's weapon against their enemy."[28] Another expert on Islamists, Iskender Savaşir, made similar remarks saying, "I cannot say that Fethullah Hoca is not collaborating with the state."[29] A "radical socialist" weekly whose sometimes sensationalist and unreliable allegations were used by the Turkish military, claims that the Gülen group "acquired financial support from the state, particularly from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs" and points to former prime minister Tansu Çiller having transferred "large sums from her ministry's secret budget" to his schools, seeing this as "one of the reasons for the close relations he has with her."[30]

At the same time, Gülen has the support from well-known liberal intellectuals (such as the journalists Mehmet Altan, Mehmet Barlas, Mehmet Ali Birand, and Cengiz Çandar) who argue that the solution to Turkey's problems depends on reaching a consensus and like the "soft" face of Islam he presents. Birand, for example, recently argued that Gülen has original ideas and that all segments of Turkish society-implying the military-should pay attention to this vision.[31] Gülen's critical stance toward Refah won him support from nationalist-conservative intellectuals (like Altemur Kiliç and Nazli Ilicak). As a symbol of this support, Gülen's Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation hosted an iftar meal in February 1996, at which about a thousand distinguished politicians, businessmen, artists, and intellectuals turned up.


The unique character of Gülen's movement lies in its attempt to revitalize traditional values through the state's official modernization program. Thus far, it has had some success as it attempts to harmonize and integrate a historically diverse land. It aims to reconcile hundreds of years of tradition with the demands of modernity-not an easy task. Gülen seeks to construct a Turkish-style Islam; remember the Ottoman past; Islamize Turkish nationalism; re-create a legitimate link between state and religion; emphasize democracy and tolerance; and encourage links with the Turkic republics.

Gülen's movement seems to have no aspiration to evolve to a political party or seek political power. To the contrary, he continues a long Sufi tradition of seeking rather to address the spiritual needs of his people, to educate the masses, and to provide some stability in a time of turmoil. Like many previous Sufi figures (including the towering thirteenth-century figure, Jalal ad-Din Rumi), he is wrongly suspected of seeking political power. Any change from this apolitical stance could very much harm the reputation of his community.

Ultimately, the future of the Gülen group will be determined by its ability to evolve into an open-minded, flexible, and democratic community, and to improve relations with the military leadership and secular elites. Gülen has made himself a most likely candidate for religious leader of the new Turkey. Its internal evolution and its relations with the state should have a major impact on the state-society dynamics of Turkey in the coming decades.

What about the significance of Gülen's movement beyond Turkey? Its best potential is in the Turkic countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where his emphasis on Turkish Islam will probably weaken the appeal of the message coming out of Iran. In the larger Muslim world, it does pose a potential challenge to Islamism, for its ideas may find receptive audiences among those with access to the outside world-those in any case most prone to Islamism. This said, his ideas have a much better chance than his organization, for authoritarian states and a general intolerance for new interpretations of Islam will impede it.

Bülent Aras, visiting lecturer at Indiana University's Central Eurasian Department, is author of The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process and Turkey (Nova, 1998) and co-editor of Oil and Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea Region (Praeger, forthcoming).

[1] Erzurum's frontier characteristics and large number of Caucasian immigrants is said to render its Islam state-oriented and nationalistic, known as "Dadaş Islam." See M. Hakan Yavuz, Milliyet, Sept. 18, 1996.
[2] Religious leaders in Turkey commonly emphasize that they know both East and West, and a usual way of establishing this is through the use of academic titles and claims of knowing foreign languages.
[3] For more information, see Şerif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Albany: State University of New York, 1989).
[4] Some of them are available in English: The Infinite Light, The Lights of the Way, Questions, Towards the Lost Paradise, and Truth through Colors.
[5]Nokta, Feb. 5-11, 1995, pp. 16-18.
[6] Alistair Bell, "Turkish Islamic leader defies radical label," Reuters, Aug. 7, 1995.
[7]The Turkish Daily News, Feb. 18, 1995.
[8]The Turkish Daily News, Feb. 18, 1995.
[9] Reuters, Aug. 7, 1995.
[10]Tempo, Feb. 7, 1997 pp. 46-50.
[11] See the series in Milliyet, Aug. 10-13, 1997.
[12]Milliyet, Mar. 26, 1995.
[13]Turkish Daily News and Millyet, July 21, 1998
[14] Dale F. Eickelman, "Inside the Islamic Reformation," Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1998, pp. 84-85.
[15] Wendy Kristianasen, "New Faces of Islam," Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), July 1997.
[16] Kemal Balci, "Fethullah Gülen's Missionaries," The Turkish Probe, June 1998.
[17]The Hindu, Feb. 19, 1998.
[18]Milliyet, Dec. 30, 1997.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Nicole Pope, "Generals Get Their Way," Middle East International, no. 571, Mar. 27, 1998, p. 14.
[21]The Turkish Daily News, Feb. 18, 1995.
[22]Milliyet, Aug. 31, 1997.
[23] Ibid.
[24]Milliyet, Dec. 27, 1997.
[25]The New York Times and The Washington Post, Jan. 17, 1998.
[26]Milliyet, Dec. 30, 1997.
[27]Milliyet, Aug. 31, 1997.
[28] Alistair Bell, "Turkish Islamic leader defies radical label," Reuters, Aug. 7, 1995.
[29] Nadire Mater, "Rise of Secular Priest Seen as a Threat by Islamicists," Inter Press Service, Feb. 22, 1995.
[30]Aydinlik, Mar. 23, 1997.
[31]Sabah, May 11, 1997.

Bülent Aras, The Middle East Quarterly, September 1998, Volume V: Number 3
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