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  • Can the rise of the Gülen Movement in Turkey be explained by reference to a specific factor or historical event such as the economic and political liberalization policies of Prime Minister Turgut Özal (1983–93)?

Can the rise of the Gülen Movement in Turkey be explained by reference to a specific factor or historical event such as the economic and political liberalization policies of Prime Minister Turgut Özal (1983–93)?

No, it cannot. For a movement to rise and develop very many determinants are at work, and movements cannot be reduced to one determinant.

Different movements arise out of unique combinations of different factors: the historical context, grievances, economy, norms, class, beliefs, resources, networks, strategies, ideology, organizations, leadership, adversary, etc.

Explanations focusing on a particular event or events may contain a small kernel of truth, but they miss the reality and meaning of the Gülen Movement. For example, it is at best a very partial explanation to claim that the Gülen Movement emerged because of increased migration from the countryside to the cities, the urbanization, industrialization and modernization of Turkey during the Özal decade. This sort of explanation is unsatisfactory because it fails to take account of or distorts key aspects of the Movement and its history.

In fact, Özal himself was from the faith communities. He was one of the many people who were already educated, qualified and holding roles and status in Turkish society and the state structure at that time. There were already other state bodies functioning independently and when there was in place a large and strong protectionist opposition to what Özal said, planned and carried out. So, a single individual, by coming to a higher position one day, could not have produced a large number of educated and qualified people like that in such a short period of time, let alone a movement like the Gülen Movement. The reality is that the faith-inspired communities had already started to use all the different forms of communication networks and media. Furthermore, as entrepreneurs who were independent of state subsidy, they had already proved themselves successful in foreign-exchange-earning export industries.

Social movements take time to develop; they do not come ready-made. In any case, the availability of political opportunities does not automatically and promptly translate into increased action and is insufficient to account for the emergence of a collective action and actor. For an organized collective action as large as the Gülen Movement, there has to be, already in place, a sufficient number of people with the necessary intellectual and professional skills, and the readiness and will to be employed, before a window of opportunity opens up in history.

Generally, a collective actor or action (such as a social movement or political party) does not automatically spring from political or social tensions or conditions. Numerous factors determine whether or not this will occur. Necessary factors include the availability of adequate organizational resources, the ability of movement leaders to represent their ideology attractively to the public or masses, and a political context which makes action possible.

In short, to say that the Gülen Movement emerged because of Turgut Özal’s policies, or any other specific event, ignores the fact that informal networks and everyday solidarity circles already existed; it disregards the widespread and strong networks that people already belonged to; it overlooks the fact that individuals and groups had already accumulated many experiences of living and working together for specific purposes. The Gülen Movement already had resources for mobilization. These resources were ready to be directed towards new goals because they were already in place. Had they not been, the situation could not have created them, nor could the Gülen Movement have benefited from the situation to redirect and reshape its action.

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