While today there are many Muslim thinkers and practitioners in the name of Islam, what is it in Fethullah Gülen’s teachings that seem to be so attractive to his followers?

Fethullah Gülen

There are three answers to this question.

  1. The Gülen Movement is an open circle.
  2. It is on good terms with the authorities.
  3. It does not hold a coercive moral approach. Morality and moral laws are not enforced by external forces.

Now, let us explore each point separately.

I. The Gülen Movement arose among pious men and women who wanted a modern interpretation of religion, cleansed of superstition. At the beginning, there were many among his followers who did not send their daughters to school. But through his inspiration began sending their daughters to school and even to the university.

In the dynamics of the transformation of the movement, circumstance and the social milieu also played an important role. A rich, progressive city like İzmir, with a population of recent immigrants from smaller cities, played a primary role in helping the movement take on the character of a big city. The movement gradually began to employ those with a higher and higher social status. The movement became a spiritual refuge for those who searched for an interpretation where Islam was in harmony with modernity. Fethullah Gülen understood this need well and satisfied it. For this reason, many began to understood the world better through his interpretation; they found answers to the basic issues of existence, duty, trust, sacrifice, tolerance, ethics, charity, goodness, happiness, peace and success.

This social body has become a community in harmony with the world. It is not fearful of the new era in which the world is heading and is in the process of being crystallized. It welcomes the changes that are occurring and is always looking to the horizon. Its followers have never been squeezed into the narrow confines of being merely a religious community. The Abant Platform, which began by the inspiration of Fethullah Gülen, reached an important understanding at its first meeting in 1998: Revelation and reason do not contradict each other. When people put their social lives into order, they should use reason. The state should be impartial towards religion. State administration should not be based on religious principles. As a policy, secularism should not limit the legal activities in public life, just as it does not limit personal and private freedoms.[1] It is clear that the struggle of the Gülen Movement is not with others. Their struggle is with their own souls. They strive to become ever-improved and moral human beings; they strive to face their fellow human beings as they would like to face their Creator—with a clean slate.

There is another aspect of the Gülen Movement that allows it to transcend the bounds of a religious community. They have never approved the motto, “Bir lokma, bir hırka,” which translates as “one coat, one bite.” It is a famous expression in Turkish Sufism and refers to the state of being a very poor person, and though he may have only one bite to eat and only one coat to wear, he is traveling on the path of the dervish. According to this philosophy, this state is desirable for the spirit. For Fethullah Gülen, this is not enough to keep the body and soul together. God had given them reasoning and individual talents. To obey His commandments is to take these gifts to their highest level. This, in turn, means to work hard and to be productive. The harder they work, the more value is generated for the community. Is there a saturation point in this idea? Or worse, a breaking point? Worldly industry and blessings may serve to erode the very same values that inspired them. It can be said that the personality, character and the lifestyle of the leader in the movement does not allow for that. Fethullah Gülen lives like a dervish—who is content with little, whose personal consumption is very limited, who never married, and whose personal integrity has never been compromised. He lives in this manner before the >scrutinizing eyes of the public. Although he leads such a lifestyle, he advises his followers to work, to succeed, and to become wealthy. But he advises them further: Their wealth should be used to educate and to strengthen those deprived of it. In the West, this is called “human capital.” Fethullah Gülen believes that the richest and most influential societies are those with the greatest human capital. The result is a philosophy of life and ethics which puts one foot on the side of the lofty ideals of religion and the other on the side of the “human.” It is the philosophy of those who do not lose perspective on the world in which they live. This outlook seems to be convincing and attractive to many people. As opposed to many other religious communities, its embrace of change makes the movement open to the world and does not imprison the members in the confines of one particular group by separating them from modernity. It is important to remember, however, that the Gülen Movement still sees itself as a community of believers first and foremost. But they see all the characteristics of being a modern person to befit them.

The followers of the Gülen Movement do not describe themselves as a political movement as some claim that they are. They absolutely refuse to be seen in that light. Fethullah Gülen often talks about the debasing, corrupting, and polarizing influence of politics on people. The movement sees itself as the carrier of an offer for an ethical doctrine and a sense of solidarity. It is not afraid to rid society of its tendency to become divided and closed off from the world. It is these same tendencies which limit a nation’s ability to compete internationally.

The movement has no revolutionary intentions or any political agenda of any kind. Fethullah Gülen is defending the real revolution which takes place within each and every individual. He thinks that ethical, altruistic, industrious, and compassionate people can become the foundation of an ethical and productive society. Further, he believes that this is possible, only if we understand religion in its purest form, not imprisoned in a cultural context, and if we conceive and interpret religion in a way which allows humans to develop. He believes that the societies, which initiate change within themselves, can flow more easily in a world which is itself rapidly developing and changing.

II. The second answer to the question why Fethullah Gülen’s teachings are so attractive to his follower is because the movement is on good terms with the authorities. It is clear that this movement is a civil society project and not political. For this reason, it is not in a fight with political authorities nor other civil society groups.

III. The final point contributing to the attractiveness of Fethullah Gülen’s teachings is that it does not hold a coercive moral approach.

Morality and moral laws are not enforced by external forces. There are two types of ethics in Social Psychology: external and internal. The external ethics are the measures and types of behavior imposed on people from without. The individual obeys these rules and regulations only under the existence and observation of that authority. If somebody runs a red light when there are no police around, or if he thinks he can steal from the budget entrusted to him and get away with it, shows that a person has not internalized a sense of ethics. This reflects on the society as a whole, that this society views morality as a set of official rules whose subjects are under observation and monitoring. Morality is achieved through the threat of an authority with a stick in its hand. In societies such as this, to the extent that the authority is weakened or becomes incapable of oversight, the disregard for the rules and social degeneration only progresses further. Moreover, if the government fails to treat the population equally and does not monitor it in order to prevent unfair action, the sense of justice in the society weakens and ethical degeneration will lead to violence. There is a Turkish expression, “If meat is foul, you can salt it, but what if the salt is foul, too?”

For Fethullah Gülen and his followers, ethics should be a tool for dialog with one’s self and in interpersonal relationships. There is no need for an external authority. It is enough for people to guard themselves and internalize their own code of ethics. One who cannot be true to himself can never be true to others. If the individuals of a community cannot be compassionate and empathetic, then any dialog entered into would not come from a place of seeking common ground, but a place of self-interest. The resulting social landscape would not be based on solidarity and trust, but on egoism and materialism. The future of such a society is always ambiguous.

[1] “First Abant Platform Meeting Final Declaration,” http://jwfglobal.org/index.php/news-updates/turkey/item/47-1st-abant-platform-meeting-addresses-islam-and-secularism

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