Fethullah Gülen

1. Particular and general aims of this study

This book is about a contemporary social phenomenon, generally referred to as ‘the Gülen Movement’, and about the need to develop an appropriate discourse for studying it and phenomena like it. The Movement[1] originated in 1970s Turkey as a faith-inspired initiative to improve educational opportunities for a local community; over the three and half decades since then, it has grown into a transnational educational, inter-cultural and interfaith movement, with participants numbering in the millions, as well as securely established, respected institutions (of different kinds, but mostly schools) on every continent. It has, naturally, begun to attract a great deal of scholarly attention, but studies so far do not describe the Movement fully and accurately or explain adequately the effectiveness of its mobilization and its durability as a collective actor.

A part of the reason is that those studies have focused on individual projects or aspects of the Movement’s work in isolation from the whole. Also, they were done by outsiders who, perhaps because they were not specialists in collective action and social movements, were unaware of the reductionist perspectives they brought to their study, and could not see the benefit of referring to the Movement participants’ own discourse about and interpretations of their work. The principal reason, however, is that the various theories and approaches within contemporary discourse on social movements are not, separately, equipped with the conceptual tools needed to give an adequate account of phenomena like the Gülen Movement. In the first chapter, through an historical overview of recent and current theories and approaches, I set out my arguments for that judgment in some detail. Here, I will say briefly that the established discourse concerns itself with social movements as ‘protest’, as ‘challenge’ to the System, as contentious actors looking to alter or even overturn existing structures and/or policies in some field, usually political or economic. But the Gülen Movement is, as it has always been, non-contentious; it is not a marginalized actor working on the System from the outside. On the contrary, it has always worked within the System – within the boundaries of the laws and public norms that obtain in the different local and national settings where it has set up institutions.

An important feature of the complexities of life in modern industrialized societies, especially but not only in urban settings, has been a contraction in the space available for collective (and to some extent also individual) expression of moral and cultural values. The Gülen Movement and others like it can be considered a response to that contraction – to put it in very simple terms, they offer an opportunity for individuals to construct meaning for themselves by unselfishly doing some good in their lifeworld, without contention or violence, without seeking to disadvantage any person or institution or diminish their power or question the legitimacy of their authority to exercise that power. I shall argue, and in subsequent chapters, hope to demonstrate, that to study mobilizations of this kind requires a synthetic theoretical discourse, one able to deploy conceptual tools taken from different theories, and able also to juxtapose insider and outsider perspectives and interpretations of what the movement is doing or trying to do. The alternative is socio-political reductionism, a potentially harmful misreading of what this Movement and other faith-inspired cultural initiatives are trying to achieve – a misreading that may lead on to disastrously inappropriate responses.

Even as I write these words (April 2008), a legal action is in train in Turkey accusing the civilian government (elected by a substantial majority of the country’s population) of seeking to subvert the state by giving public visibility to symbols of Islam, whereas such visibility is not forbidden by the constitution. As Chapter 2, the historical background, will show, this legal action is quite predictable in that it follows a pattern of action and reaction embedded in the socio-political life of the country since at least the 1930s: the danger of yet another military or bureaucratic coup in Turkey is quite real. It does not follow from an action’s being strictly cultural that the response to it will not be crudely political. From the research-scholar’s point of view a particular attraction of studying the Gülen Movement is its potential to show the capacity of an Islam-inspired movement to mobilize huge numbers of religiously-minded and observant individuals not only to accept but to cherish a secular, pluralist, democratic social and political order. The Movement is not a marginalized, alienated, anachronistic entity; it is actively engaged, in Turkey and world-wide, in establishing collaborative relationships through dialog and joint projects with like-minded individuals and institutions of different religious and cultural background. It is, in this sense, a thoroughly forward-looking movement, concerned to contribute constructively to the mainstream. Therefore, the issues raised in this study are relevant to current problems and trends in Turkey and the international scene generally, and I hope that it may contain or enable insights that have a broad applicability.

Civil society movements have been explained by social movement theorists using a variety of theoretical insights. In this study I evaluate these insights in relation to the actual practice of the Gülen Movement. The effort to say what kind of movement it is carries academic implications for collective action and social movements theory, and, beyond that, socio-political implications for Turkey, the region and the world. I hope that this book will contribute something to the development of a new method of approaching non-contentious collective action and actors. I hope also that advancing our knowledge of the Gülen Movement will improve our understanding of contemporary social movements, our ability to analyze future events and to resolve contradictory socio-political analyses of Turkey and the region. More generally, I hope that a clear understanding of this particular Movement will help other cultural actors and peaceful movements to expand their repertoires of action for societal peace and inter- civilizational co-operation. Finally, at a personal level, my aim is to contribute to the vitality of civil society, and to diminish polarization and fragmentation in Turkey and similar societies. In short, the concerns and issues raised here have a scope that is well illustrated by, but not limited to, the Gülen Movement as collective actor or its participants.

2. Methodological questions

I describe the collective action of the Gülen Movement, within the period from the 1970s to 2006, in the light of mainly three contemporary approaches, namely ‘political opportunity structures’, ‘resource mobilization’ and ‘frame theory’. The reason for using these approaches was to have more and better tools to analyze a complex social phenomenon in the light of contemporary realities, rather than apply geographically-, politically- and culturally-oriented (and therefore restrictive) theoretical interpretations. In this way I endeavor to avoid reducing the complex reality of what is being studied to any one of its component levels.

In addition, I bring in to the analysis dimensions of the collective action that are not immediately visible to an outside observer. I directly address the question of how the Movement’s action is understood and constructed by its participants. To this end, I used questionnaires and interviews. The interviews were conducted in Istanbul in 2005 and 2006. The questionnaires, altogether 1200, were sent out in 2006 to educational institutions set up by Movement participants in Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Germany, Holland, Belgium, the USA and Australia. (They are presented in their entirety in Appendices 3 and 4.) Through these questionnaires I was able to evaluate the perceptions and attitudes of administrators, employees and volunteers through the insiders’ perspectives, and the disparity between their representation of the collective action and that of outside observers or opponents. Without understanding the internal factors and dynamics of its SMOs (Social Movement Organizations) it is not possible to understand how a social movement succeeds or fails in becoming a collective actor or producing outcomes.

I have attempted to overcome potential limitations by working within multiple and explicitly defined theoretical frameworks and by testing my hypotheses both theoretically and empirically. I discuss several aspects and ideational categorizations in the light of the production and outcome of the Gülen Movement in discourse and action. In other words, I evaluate what is theorized about the Movement by comparing it with its social production. In this respect, I present the perspective and the work of the Movement as actor and the perspectives which oppose its ideas, in order to clarify the location, social space, problems and solutions of both.

This work argues that, for faith-inspired movements, especially Islamic ones, a focus shift is necessary for social movement researchers accustomed to work on the protest movements and political understanding of Europe or North America. As to the functioning, strategizing and mobilizing of collective action and SMOs, much of what this book deals with constitutes problem areas in social movement theories.

As I have said, categorizations derived from the major contemporary movement theories are tested against the Gülen Movement – these include macro–micro relations; macro-, meso-, micro-structures; form, end, means, and environment; structure and agent; identity and culture; and mobilization and counter-mobilization. I show that these categorizations are not always mutually exclusive; rather, in many respects, they are overlapping and interrelated, or similar but formulated discursively or politically in different ways. I show also that none of the theories is adequate on its own to analyze the Gülen Movement. That said, I should clarify that my arguments and findings do not invalidate contemporary social movement theories within the western European and North American contexts. However, I emphasize that an evaluation of the Gülen Movement requires a very different mode of analysis and suggest that the use here of a syncretic framework may have implications for all other faith-inspired and civil society movements, but particularly for movements originating in non-European and non-North American contexts.

2.1. Insider/Outsider research and perspective

A feature of the methodology used in this work is the insider’s perspective that I bring to it. It is of some importance that being an insider in the Gülen Movement is not an exclusivist belonging: as will be detailed in the proper place[2] , solidarity and identity are not pursued as goals in this Movement; it does not have membership as such, let alone a closed membership; it encourages openness to the world, multiple belonging in many, diverse networks, and social and intellectual mobility; it urges continual access to sources of information, ideas and arguments outside itself, and co-operation with others on the basis of universal values.

An advantage of the insider role has been its enabling me to obtain the collective actor’s perspectives without causing any apprehension about the possible repercussions to individuals as a result of their answering my questions,[3] or of distorting or dismissing their understanding of what they are doing. Being an insider-researcher can be seen as a positive feature, in the sense that it is illuminating: it reveals important aspects of phenomena, such as the movement’s self-reflexive internal critique and culture, which outsider-researchers (especially if they have little experience of, or little sympathy with, faith-inspired collective action) may have difficulty in seeing or understanding.

If we consider the relation between outsider-researcher and actor, the assumptions and interests of the two are not identical or located in the same position in the social field. They articulate their mutual differences, together with their common (and often provisional) goals in collecting and sharing information. The relationship between the observer and the observed must also therefore be incorporated into the research framework. An outsider-researcher tends to interpret action in relation to the observer because he or she may not have access to the actor. By contrast, the insider-researcher has that access because of the necessary rootedness, familiarity and mutual trust, refinement and sensitivity to nuances, in a particular location in the field of social relationships and discourses; this allows him or her to dig out the less apparent side of the issues. The Gülen Movement has already demonstrated its capacity to define effectively the meaning of its own action, and the possibilities and constraints of the social field. Being able to locate myself temporarily at a level outside the relational but in a discursive field, I could observe ‘natural’ action. My work derives from the action itself, not only from the observation of collective processes and effects – as is seen in the work of outsiders. The latter represent the social actor of the Gülen Movement as never being entirely in control of its own action. (The distinction between objective reality and its social construction will be explored in §5.2.5.)

The questions I put are drawn from the relevant social movement theory literature and from the work of third parties who write on the Gülen Movement, whether they are hostile to it or not. I also present the historical background and the Movement’s response to emergent realities through the words and arguments of third parties.

2.2. Methodological consequences of the research

A social movement should not be the object of knowledge as constructed by a few scholars – such construction does not reflect the empirical complexity of the action and its meanings and consequences. It is necessary to challenge simplistic conceptualizations of the Gülen Movement, whether positive or negative in tone. Social change needs to be discussed in analytical terms and with systemic points of reference rather than in relation to ideological grievances and ambitions.

In this sociological analysis, I try to avoid reducing the collective action of the Gülen Movement to just one of its levels. My intention is not to provide some sort of ‘official’ definition of the Movement. I have never consciously diminished the complex articulation of meanings that the Movement carries in itself. Rather, this research reveals some of those meanings of the collective action that may not be easily visible to an outsider. This should help in understanding how a social movement can succeed in becoming a collective actor or producing collective action.

As well as participants, third-party observers (whether sympathizers or opponents) are utilized to deconstruct the apparent reality and to let the plurality of relations and meanings appear. The methodological consequences of this theoretical stance require study of the Gülen Movement in its discourse, action, production and in the perception of its actors and others. This allows an adequate account of the multiple processes that constitute the empirical field of the Movement. Because these processes overlap and intertwine, they require a wide array of conceptual tools.

Drawing upon the literature for pertinent conceptual tools, interviews and questionnaires for insiders’ perspectives, using my insider-researcher role, and adopting a syncretic framework, the approach I bring to the subject may rightly be called multi-polar. It has allowed me to analyze beyond the confines of the discourse or logic of only one of the observers, actors or systemic dimensions. The reciprocal influence of the many elements is investigated: in this research I have mapped out in particular those dimensions that resist reduction to political exchange.

If inquiry and analysis are restricted to the political dimensions of the observed phenomena (for example, a clash with authority), it leads inevitably to socio-political reduction of the field of action. It ignores specifically social dimensions of collective action and focuses exclusively on those more readily measurable features which, because of their high visibility, attract attention. Also, historical narrative does not adequately reveal the meaning or the interactive nature of an action but easily ends up identifying action with the ideology of the researcher.

Therefore, I have applied analytical tools to the Gülen Movement rather than a historical narrative, or historical-descriptive account, or historical–comparative approach based on subjective observation. My approach considers the processes of collective action as resulting from the interaction of diverse analytical components. I therefore identify theoretical components and explain how they come together in a specific conjuncture in Turkish society. If the diverse elements are kept analytically separate, and if distinct and appropriate conceptual schemata are not applied to the Gülen Movement, discussion of socio-cultural phenomena inevitably lapses into stereotyping and fruitless debate about the nature and outcome of the Movement.

2.3. Data collection and presentation

I had intended to interview ten or twelve people for this study. Two businessmen, Mr. Cahit Tuzcu and Mr. Bahaddin Eker, who are active sponsors of and participants in the service-projects of the Movement were interviewed for half an hour each in Istanbul in January 2005. These two interviews are mainly used in the fourth chapter. Later, three more individuals were interviewed: Mr. Abdullah Aymaz, a teacher, journalist and writer; Dr. Ergün Çapan, an academic and writer; and Mr. Enes Ergene, a sociologist and writer. They were interviewed in person in Istanbul, in three sessions each, in December 2005, and then again in April 2006. There was no time limit for the interviews. The spoken answers were recorded during the interviews and later transcribed. In addition, as the need arose, they were asked questions by e-mail and occasionally also by telephone.

There are some people who do not look favorably on the Gülen Movement. One such organization, Çağdaş Yaşamı Destekleme Derneği (The Association in Support of Contemporary Living), were asked repeatedly to take part in the Questionnaires and interviews but did not respond in any way to my requests. However, I was not alone in encountering this lack of cooperation. Social scientist Berna Turam, who as an outsider-researcher claiming neutrality might have expected cooperation from this group, had quite bruising encounters with them and those in sympathy with them.[4] (Another factor in their lack of response may have been that the request to participate went out in 2006 just as a significant court case against Gülen, which they had been supporting, was dropped.[5] This may have made these opponents of the Movement hesitant to restate arguments on record.)

For this reason, finally only five people were interviewed and they were all insiders to the Movement.

On the questionnaires there was a very high rate of return. This can be accounted for by a number of factors. Across the Gülen Movement the rate of computer literacy and access to computers is very high. While my insider status may helped me to obtain cooperation from respondents, Berna Turam, an outsider-researcher, has also reported how open she found Movement participants to her ethnographic research.[6]

Those who are not in favor of the Gülen Movement did not contribute to or co-operate with my research for the reasons alluded to above. However, their perspectives, though (regrettably, and not for any want of effort on my part) not present as a direct, original input to the research, are nevertheless represented in this study in the form of citations from their published statements in the media and press. I paid particular attention to avoid integrating their arguments into a coherent whole, and to avoid reducing the content of those arguments to one particular level of analysis or another. As far as possible, I have also represented the views of neutral and third-party observers through the literature review. I made every attempt to get the views of Movement participants on the criticisms of opponents and neutral outsiders by presenting those criticisms to them unmodified and ‘unsanitized’.

Questionnaires A and B were distributed not among the general public but among people active in the social production of the Gülen Movement, in particular as teachers and administrators at Gülen-inspired educational institutions. The questionnaires were designed to determine internal factors within Gülen-inspired SMOs as seen through the eyes and the words of only the participants. The ages of the participants are between 25 and 40. The ratio of female to male respondents varied from country to country, but was relatively high in Germany and highest of all in the USA. In Central Asia, the overwhelming majority of respondents were male and relatively young (between 23 and 37).

The results of Questionnaires A and B show the respondents to be very aware of what they are thinking and doing, fully integrated and dedicated to their jobs, and willing to sacrifice much in their personal lives for the service, including leaving home to work abroad. It is this quality of dedication of the Movement participants at the SMOs that best explains the consistency of the results.

3. Present and future relevance

The present study is innovative in that it brings insiders’ interpretations into focus through its multi-polar approach. In this respect, it should encourage future work on the same and larger topics. Current and future research on related interdisciplinary topics – social change, political studies, sociology and sociology of religion – should find the resources, ideas, analyses and discussions in this book of relevance. My findings and their implications could helpfully inform a variety of theoretical and analytical perspectives, and sensitivities about and discussions of social and religious forces related to Islam and peaceful Muslim social or cultural movements. This books also sheds light on circumstances and issues in the recent history of Turkey and the Gülen Movement. While examining whether or not the Movement can properly be classified as contentious, it becomes necessary to question why some social actors have constructed the reality they have. This is not done in order to challenge their authority but to establish clearly and accurately the nature and outcomes of the Movement. By questioning some of the simple assumptions often made about the Gülen Movement, this book will I hope motivate and open up fertile avenues for future research.

4. Organization of the book

The book begins with the theoretical and historical background (chapters 1 and 2), then shows how the collective action of the Gülen Movement and the opposition to its action are mobilized and framed in practice (chapter 3), and how these are combined and interpreted in the light of conjunctural factors (chapter 4); it examines how the internal (organizational and operational) factors are seen and interpreted by participants in the Movement and by those outside it or opposed to it. Finally, in chapter 6, there is a detailed summary of the arguments and their implications.

5. The argument in brief

I hold that understanding collective action requires the analysis of all social, cultural and spiritual factors, i.e. material and immaterial resources, and that transformation can be willed, intended, planned and achieved by any collective actor without confrontation. These and other points are developed in the course of the following chapters. I should mention in passing that it is rare to encounter any research on matters and issues related to Muslims or to countries where Muslims are the majority population, that is not, to some degree, motivated (and accordingly limited) by political, ideological and even religious preferences.

There have been circumstances specific to Turkey over the last thirty years which explain why the Gülen Movement does not map neatly onto current general theoretical paradigms. Very many determinants are at work for a movement to rise and develop, and movements cannot be reduced to one determinant like historical context, grievances, economy, norms, class, beliefs, resources, networks, strategies, ideology, organizations, leadership, adversary, etc. There are unique combinations of different factors. I identify such factors in the case study here and weigh their relative significance. I then extract some ‘core’ propositions, not necessarily found in every approach, which relate to key aspects of social movements, namely contextual and historical background, mobilization–counter-mobilization, conjunctural factors, and internal factors and components.

I hold that social movements theory needs to give equal weight to the insiders’ viewpoint, rather than ignore a movement’s framing and internal factors. In the case of the Gülen Movement, because it originated as a faithinspired civil society movement, motivations for participation include spiritual resources and moral values drawn from the Islamic tradition, like altruism and other non-material incentives. Faith is indeed a motivating force and helps to constitute social capital for peaceful civil society movements – not only conflictual ones – and it cannot always be discounted or analyzed in terms of something other than itself. Faith and empowerment by it are not a dependent variable, determined and structured by the social, economic, and political conditions; religious experience cannot be dismissed as a proxy or substitute for something else like, for instance, direct or contentious political action.

Current social movement theories are unable to describe the Gülen Movement adequately because of their political and social reductionism in dealing with faith-inspired movements generally and Islamic movements in particular. Evaluation of the Gülen Movement requires a very different mode of analysis from the kind of theoretical perspectives developed to account contentious social movements in the European and American experience. That is why I have suggest the use of a multi-polar approach with a syncretic framework for analyzing faith-inspired civil society movements comparable to the Gülen Movement.

6. The multi-polar approach

The multi-polar approach can avoid reductionism because of the three elements it comprises: a) the insider perspective and insider-researcher role; b) the empowerment believers gain from their faith; and c) a syncretic framework.

The insider perspective highlights the need to evaluate perceptions, attitudes and actions through the insiders’ perspectives, and the disparity between their representation of the collective action and its perception by others – by the insider-researcher and by external observers, whether neutral or sympathetic or hostile. This approach improves on existing ones insofar as it returns the collective actor to the center of the analysis, treating it as ‘subject’ rather than ‘object’ of collective action or mobilization.

Including faith and empowerment by it as a factor in the analysis underlines the importance of specifically religious differences for the development of collective action and society. Faith and empowerment by it form a substantial part of civic society and democracy. They contribute significantly to the preservation and development of volunteerism, dialog and relationships to achieve shared goals, competitiveness and non-materialistic and non-contentious services. Religious experience involves meanings, values and experience other than those entertained in protest theories or conflictual political actions. The real social significance of these factors needs to be acknowledged as a causal power affecting people’s views, choices and actions. Religious experience or its influences are located at the heart of all societies and they are not just private, epiphenomenal, sub-systems for the status quo, conflict-evading pacifism, etc.

Any social, political, economic or methodological reductionism offers at best a partial explanation of collective action. It is unsatisfactory because it does not take account of or distorts key aspects of a movement and its history – for example, it may treat philanthropic services and culturally innovative potential as politically subversive, when it is not.

The syncretic framework draws upon a) contextual and historical background, b) worldview or belief system, c) mobilization and countermobilization, d) conjunctural factors, and e) internal factors and components of a collective identity and action. Adopting core propositions from key aspects of social movements and from theories about them, this framework allows the researcher to look and explain beyond the confines of the discourse or logic of only one of the observers, actors or systemic dimensions. The reciprocal influence of all the different elements needs to be investigated as well, so that the complexity of reality and interrelations of its different dimensions and levels are not reduced to what is easiest to see or easiest to discuss – most typically the level of political exchange between contending actors.

[1] ‘Movement’ with initial capital will hereafter mean ‘the Gülen Movement’.
[2] See §4.1.1, 4.1.3, 5.2.1. 5.2.6, 5.2.7, 5.3, and 6.1.3.
[3] Movement participants are aware that the outsider-researchers’ interpretations of their discourse and action may, when reported, harm a SMO because of the sensitivities of the Turkish state and political system (in which the balance of power can shift abruptly and unpredictably) and the current world situation related to Muslims or Islam-inspired movements. This leads people to a prudent cautiousness about expressing ideas which, if recorded in any way, may later bring unwanted consequences.
[4] Turam, 2007:74–6.
[5] See §3.2.10 and Appendix 2.
[6] Turam, 2007:ix.

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