Reductionist Approaches to the Rise and Aims of the Gülen Movement

by Muhammed Çetin on . Posted in Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen Movement

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This article is about the need to develop an appropriate discourse for studying 'the Gülen Movement' and contemporary social phenomena like it. The Gülen Movement[1] originated in 1970s Turkey as a faith-inspired (or Islam-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 tend to refer to reductionist approaches in relation to the rise and aims of this collective actor.

1. What is reductionism?

What is common to all reductions is that one phenomenon is explained in terms of another of a different nature, one thought to be simpler or more fundamental, so that 'our desire for understanding at least the reduced phenomenon is satisfied.'[2] Although different kinds of reductionism do not proceed in exactly the same way, an example would be reducing the social dynamics of religions to economic conditions. Jones argues:

Structural reductions of religious phenomena to non-religious sociocultural phenomena (even if established) cannot rule out that there may yet be more to religion – something other than being a purported sociocultural cause – and so cannot entail the substantive reduction of religion to only sociocultural phenomena. In particular, it would not rule out the possibility that religious experience involves an experience of other realities than those involved in social scientific theories.[3]

Similarly, social realities are much more complex than economic models allow, and the real social significance of faith or religion needs to be acknowledged as a causal power affecting people's views, choices and actions:

Religious influences are located at the heart of all societies rather than in the private or epiphenomenal 'sub-systems' envisaged by secularization theorists. […] This underlines the importance of the specifically religious differences for the development of society, and points towards some of the dangers in trying to explain away religious factors through forms of economic and political reductionism.[4]

2. Two specific examples of reductionism about the Gülen Movement

The first of the most frequent examples of reductionism relates the rise and appearance of the Movement to certain conjunctural factors[5], that is, to the economic and political liberalization policies of Turgut Özal. The second example concerns the aims or outcomes of the Movement, whether the Movement, as a "political actor" aims at seizing power, gaining control over the state apparatus, and changing the direction of the Turkish system.

2.1 The First Example

Yavuz (2003a:1–2) claims that the emergence of the Gülen Movement is attributable to the increased migration from the countryside to the cities, the urbanization, industrialization and modernization of Turkey during the Özal decade[6]. While this explanation contains a small kernel of truth, it is reductive and misses the reality and meaning of the Gülen Movement in this period. It is at best a very partial explanation, and unsatisfactory because it fails to take account of or distorts key aspects of the Movement and its history. Social movements take time to develop; they do not come ready made.[7] In any case, as sociologist Koopmans has argued,[8] 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 contingent of people with the necessary intellectual and professional skills, and the readiness and will to be employed, before a particular historical conjuncture opens up a window of opportunity.

Linking the Gülen Movement to Özal's liberalization policies is, at best, an account of the structural conditions that define the action, it is a deficient, reductionist explanation insofar as it neglects to examine the actor itself –in terms of internal factors for example – and so fails to account for the types of behaviour observed. In point of fact, the structural conditions explanation is itself of doubtful value, generally and particularly. It is generally so, because a collective actor or action does not automatically spring from structural tensions or conditions: 'Numerous factors determine whether or not this will occur. These factors include the availability of adequate organizational resources.'[9] It is particularly so, because the example of Özal invalidates the argument since Özal himself was from the faith communities,[10] from the multitude of people already educated, qualified and holding roles and status in Turkish society and the state structure at that time. A single individual could not, by coming to a higher position one day, have produced people like that in such a short period of time, let alone a movement like the Gülen Movement, when there were already other state bodies functioning independently and when there was in place a large and strong protectionist opposition to what Özal planned and carried out.[11]

The hypothesis that political opportunities structure alone accounts for the existence of a particular collective actor is also disproved by asking the obvious question: If Özal and political conjuncture played such a formative role in the emergence of the Gülen Movement, why did the same opportunities not lead other actors to achieve comparable public visibility, resonance and legitimacy? As Edwards and McCarthy explain, 'the simple availability of resources is not sufficient; coordination and strategic effort is typically required in order to convert available pools of individually held resources into collective resources and to utilize those resources in collective action.'[12] The reality is that the faith-inspired communities had already managed to utilize all the different forms of communication networks and media and, as entrepreneurs independent of state subsidies, had proved themselves successful and profitable in foreign-exchange-earning export industries.[13] Such financial and business acumen cannot be acquired all of a sudden following one person's accession to political power. In short, the explanation is not a careful evaluation of the conjuncture but social reductionism – it ignores the existence of informal networks, of everyday solidarity circles; it disregards 'the density and vigour of the networks of belonging, and the associative experiences that individuals have accumulated'.[14]

The mobilization resources of the Gülen Movement were present at the time, ready to be directed towards new goals because already in place. Had they not been, the situation could not have created them, nor could they have benefited from the situation to redirect and reshape their action.

The informal networks and resources, all the heritage, present in the movement need to be taken into consideration. Sociologist Kömeçoğlu (1997) highlights the role of non-visible networks before a movement emerges into the public.[15] He distinguishes between the discovery of the movement by the mass media and its organizational and cultural origins. Distinguishing between 'latent' and 'visible' phases in the formation of the Gülen Movement, he deems it necessary to explore the cultural networks that existed before its public appearance. Della Porta and Diani (1999) support Kömeçoğlu's claim with the argument that adequate organizational resources necessarily precede the mobilization of a collective actor.[16] Prior to the 1980 coup, Gülen Movement participants had already responded to the crisis in education and the contraction in the field for the expression of moral concerns by setting up institutions such as student halls of residence, university entrance courses, teacher associations, publishing houses and a journal.[17] In short, the claim that the Gülen Movement emerged as a consequence of Özal's economic liberalization is simply a reductionist account and accordingly deficient even as a partial explanation of the Movement.

2.2 The Second Example

Emergent movements in complex societies have been interpreted in basically two ways: (1) in terms of an economic crisis; or (2) as a result of deficiencies in political legitimation, that is, exclusion from institutions and access to decision-making.[18] Those who would justify the social order then interpret the movements in ideological terms – that is, as a struggle (actually or potentially) to subvert or undermine that same order. However, not all forms of marginalization, reactions to crises, or efforts to adapt to imbalances necessarily generate a collective action or movement, and not all collective demands assume a political form.[19]

The dominant explanation for social movements hinges largely upon a particular understanding of the European New Left action and ideology in France, Germany, and Italy after the '68 generation and in the 1970s.[20] As a result of the closedness of political institutions, the radicalization of movements, the prevalence of sectarian Marxist organization in the New Left, and even the lamentable turn towards terrorism, the intellectuals of the Left, as the social movement theorists, preached revolutionary ideologies. They dignified social disorder and disruptive behavior with a revolutionary label. They often based their understanding on a reductionist analysis which tended to mask some of the features of collective action. They overlooked the presence of non-political elements in emergent movements. To them, that which was not directly political in nature was folklore and only political representation could prevent collective demands from being dissipated into such.[21]

This arbitrary 'politicization' of demands constitutes a reductionist interpretation in that it underestimates the specificity of the emergent movements. Emergent collective phenomena in complex societies cannot be treated simply as mere effects of marginality or deviance, or purely as problems arising from exclusion from the political market.[22] In reality social movements in complex societies share a number of prominent features as multi-form and diverse as are the areas of social life. The issues are not all objectives of low negotiability, nor are they entirely reducible to political mediation. Indeed, only a portion of collective demands can be mediated and institutionalized through the functions of political representation and decision-making. Demands can re-emerge in other sectors of society, the implications of which are often outside the official channels of representation, rationalization and control by the co-ordinated intervention of state apparatuses.

Also a striking phenomenon in recent forms of collective action is namely that they 'largely ignore the political system. They generally display disinterest towards the idea of seizing power'.[23] New social movements are less engaged with social and political conflict than before because 'collective bargaining, party competition, and representative party government were the virtually exclusive mechanisms for the resolution of social and political conflict. All of this was endorsed by a "civic culture" which emphasized the values of social mobility, private life, consumption, instrumental rationality, authority, and order and which de-emphasized political participation'.[24] New social movements are, instead, characterized by open and fluid organization, inclusive and non-ideological participation, and greater attention to social than to economic transformations.[25]

In the case of Turkey, after the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern bloc, and the end of the Cold War, Turkey's statesmen and civil societies worked to establish close commercial and political relations with the Balkan, Caucasian, and Central Asian states. A thin sort of culturally Islamic revivalism came into view. However, there was little prospect of any movement for an Islamic state gaining wide popularity in Turkey in the 1980s. Islamist fundamentalists occasionally staged dramatic acts of violence, but numerous polls of the general population have found that no more than between two and seven per cent of Turks favored the establishment of a political order based on Islamic law. Throughout the 1980s, electoral returns gave Erbakan's Welfare Party no more than ten per cent of the popular vote nationally. Sometimes the spectre of an Iranian-style Islamic revolution was raised, but Turkey was not Iran. No one in any way resembled Khomeini.[26] The majority of Muslims in Turkey are consciously resistant to any sort of radical or fundamentalist Islamist movement. Even those who may be considered or consider themselves to be conservatively religious have grown up as citizens in a secular order and accepted its basic premises. Accordingly, Turkey's Islamic or faith-based movements accept the fundamental premises of democracy.

What is the relationship between the Gülen Movement and the political system in Turkey? A notable feature of the Gülen Movement is that participants acknowledge and abide by the political system, and display disinterest towards seizing power and gaining control over the state apparatus. The Movement assumes forms of action and organization which are accountable and amenable to political mediation by the Turkish political system, without becoming identifiable with it. The Movement therefore does not act like an oppositional action which involves a minority, or which rejects the system in Turkey, or which resists the 'rationality' of decisions and goals imposed by the Turkish system.

Mobilizations with political strategies seek primarily to alter external realities and often have defined material objectives; they tend to focus on change in particular political or economic relations, or particular policy directions or outcomes. Mobilizations that are culturally oriented tend to look to an interior transformation as a means (and goal) of change in value systems; aiming to preserve or restore and revitalize a culture, they focus much more on ideas and beliefs, on values, norms and identities.[27]

It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss whether the Gülen Movement is a social or cultural actor. To a certain extent, within different contexts and in response to different questions, the Gülen Movement has established that it is a cultural actor, or a social, not a political, movement. However, the chief implication of the Gülen Movement is that political action and parties are unable to give adequate expression to collective demands. This is because parties are structured to represent interests that are assumed to remain relatively stable, with a distinct geographical, occupational, social, or ideological base. Also, a party must ensure the continuity of the interests it represents. When faced with the task of representing a plurality of interests, the traditional structure of a party may not be able to adjust itself to accommodate them. Indeed, it can hardly mediate between short- and long-term goals. For short-term gains and profits a party may act in favor of unstable, partial and hierarchical interests. In contrast, unlike political parties and bodies, the Gülen Movement's participation in social projects and in the specific areas of social life demonstrates no interest in hierarchism or short-term gains.[28]

Moreover, the Gülen Movement represents its understanding through formal and institutionalized SMOs. As these institutions are mostly educational they do not take sides with political parties.[29] Rather than being distant to some, Gülen says, they are equally near to all.[30]

The social praxis of the Gülen Movement focuses on the role and needs of the individual.[31] It emphasizes individual needs for self-reflexivity and self-realization. Without straying into forms of narcissistic behavior, or the individualistic search for self-affirmation and instant gratification, the Gülen Movement testifies to a profound change in the status of the individual and his or her problems. Through socio-cultural efforts and services, the Movement addresses the individual dimension of social life, and thus with the products it provides, it may then affect the whole of society. Its space and the level where new forms of social action originate is not political space or power, nor government, nor regime.[32] It educates and socializes individuals without individualizing and politicizing the social. It acknowledges that neither individuals nor a system ever undergo change at all levels at the same time and in the same way. Change requires a lengthy period of time, enormous sacrifice, commitment and patience, and it can be achieved only through education, peace and co-operation of like-minded citizens and civilizations.

Barton reads Gülen's optimistic and forward-looking thought as a contemporary reformulation of the teachings of Rumi, Yunus Emre, and other classical Sufi teachers. He argues that Gülen emphasizes the self development of heart and mind through education, engaging proactively and positively with the modern world and reaching out in dialog and a spirit of co-operation between different religious communities, social strata and nations.[33] Weller makes the same point:

Gülen has concentrated his efforts on establishing dialogue among the various ideologies, cultures, religions and ethnic groups of Turkey and of the wider world. While Gülen and his thought are rooted in a strongly religious vision of the world, his efforts for dialogue have extended beyond traditional religious circles alone.[34]

Like Barton and Weller, Michel recognizes the centrality of the religious and cultural vision of the Movement to its activities. The effectiveness of these activities depends on the openness, receptiveness, and efficiency of the available forms of representation.[35] The character of the services that the participants are engaged in providing keeps them away from the everyday, largely pointless partisan fights and rhetoric of political parties; they do not divert or exhaust their energies in political skirmishes.[36] This stands in contradiction to the dominant understanding of social movements as always contentious and conflictual. This conscious avoidance of political contention is reflected in Gülen's evaluation of the failures in the last few centuries in Turkish history:

Those who were in politics and those who supported them considered every means and action as legitimate and permissible if it were to gain them position for their own team or party; they devised and entered into complex intrigues and deluded themselves that by overthrowing the dominant group and changing the party in power they would change everything and the country would be saved.[37]

Gülen adds that action should have been guided by thought, knowledge, faith, morality, and virtue rather than by political ambitions and hatred.[38] Yet, in 2000 Gülen was accused of politically-motivated subterfuge, and of inciting his readers to plot the overthrow of Turkey's secular government. In 2006, the Court revealed that it was unable to prosecute Gülen and therefore dropped the case, and thus Gülen was acquitted. In response to questions from The New York Times, Gülen described the charges as fabrications by a 'marginal but influential group that wields considerable power in political circles':

'Statements and words were picked with tweezers and montaged to serve the purposes of whoever was behind this.' He 'was not seeking to establish an Islamic regime but did support efforts to ensure that the government treated ethnic and ideological differences as a cultural mosaic, not a reason for discrimination. […] Standards of democracy and justice must be elevated to the level of our contemporaries in the West', said Gülen.[39]

Both Gülen and his opponents use the term 'political power' in their arguments. It will be worthwhile from here on to discuss on what this term and the associated notions of 'political demands' and 'political participation' mean, how they influence the reductionist arguments, and how the Movement as collective actor and its action relate to Turkey, democracy, Islamism, subterfuge and dissembling, development or change in Turkey.

Political power is generally understood to denote the capacity of certain groups to exert privileged control over the processes of political decision-making, to take normative decisions in the name of society as a whole, and to impose those decisions, where necessary, through the use of coercive means. In order of increasing generality the nature of 'political demands' are categorized into three: (1) demands regarding the regulation of exchange between particular groups within the society; (2) demands that call for the modification or adaptation of the rules of the political system, so as to widen or restrict access to it; (3) demands regarding the maintenance or adaptation of the mode of production and distribution of social resources. Political participation is also the defence of specific interests, an attempt to shift power relationships within the political system, to acquire influence over decisions.[40]

The Gülen Movement has not allied itself with any established political party, and this has secured it a certain measure of success.[41] It sees that Islam does not need a state or political party to survive, but does need the educated, the financially well-off and a fully democratic system.[42] Stephenson (2005:13) differentiates Gülen's ideas from Islamists or other political activists in "emphasizing the entrance of Turkey and Islam into mainstream global processes and a market economy […] and emphasis on intellectual development and tolerance".

The constant and consistent emphases by Gülen on educating individuals through institutionalized systems for individual and collective progress rather political organization or action for the appropriation of control of the state negate reductionist approaches to the Movement. Gülen believes that the main problem in the world is lack of knowledge, which involves related problems concerning the production and control of knowledge.[43] Producing, maintaining and disseminating knowledge can only be achieved through education, but not by party politics. Education is the key to becoming a better, productive and beneficial individual, whether one is Muslim or not.[44] He believes also that the sciences, humanities and religion enhance and complement one another rather than compete and clash.[45] Afsaruddin concludes that the effectiveness and spread of the Gülen-inspired schools within and outside Turkey are evidence of the success of Gülen's educational philosophy, which urges personal enlightenment and lays equal stress on the inculcation of ethical values and a sound training in the secular sciences.[46] According to Tekalan, the primary purpose of the education in the Gülen-inspired schools is to ensure respect for objective and universal human values. The Movement has not had nor fostered ulterior motives to seek material advantages or impose any ideology or seize power through politics in the countries where it has SMOs. He adds that for the forty years since the inception of the Movement, no act contrary to these principles has been witnessed in any country. He affirms that the Movement has never aimed to seize power economically, politically or culturally inside or outside Turkey; its objective is to serve humankind without expecting any return and consideration for that service. Tekalan (2005:3) reports what Gülen said in 2002 in Zaman newspaper, "Just as I did in the past, I am currently preserving the same distance from all political parties. Even if the power, not only in Turkey, but also in the whole world, is presented as a gift to me, I have been long determined to reject it with contempt."

Rather than leave Turkey to remain a closed society, Gülen has supported initiatives for a democratic, pluralistic and free society.[47] He states that the role of individual morality is pivotal in this perspective to build, strengthen, and preserve 'a just political order'.[48] In the same vein, he has supported ties to the West – on the basis that Turkish society has much to gain from the achievements of rational knowledge there – whereas many from both the religious circles and the dominant secularist elite have been opposed to such rapprochement. Gülen was among the first and strongest supporters of full European membership and integration,[49] although some ultranationalist and Islamist political groups criticized his remarks and opposed such membership. To them, the European Union is a Christian club and a threat to Turkish national and Muslim identity. Gülen was gradually able to bring about changes in the public mentality and attitude in Turkey.[50] He 'support[s] democracy and tolerance as the best way to govern and membership [in] the European Union as the best way of achieving economic prosperity'.[51] In addition, he has highlighted the need for peace, tolerance, and dialog with ethnoreligious minorities within the Turkish community and between nations as an integral part of Islam and Turkish Muslimness.[52]

Gülen is 'critical of the instrumentalization of religion in politics', and has constantly opposed direct participation in party politics because the modern world exists in a 'pluralistic experience rather than within an assumed homogeneity of truth'. He is against those who have created 'a negative image of Islam by reducing Islam to an ideology'.[53] Through words and deeds he underlines the distinction between Islam, a religion, and Islamism, a profoundly radical political ideology that seeks to replace existing states and political structures, either through revolutionary or evolutionary means:

[Gülen] opposes the use of Islam as a political ideology and a party philosophy, and polarizing society into believers and nonbelievers. He calls for those who believe and think differently to respect and tolerate each other, and supports peace and reconciliation.[54]

Gülen has always been in favor of democratic institutions, free elections and other principles at the core of liberal democracy today. He maintains that the Qur'an addresses the whole community and assigns it almost all the duties entrusted to modern democratic systems, that people ought to co-operate by sharing these duties and establishing the essential foundations necessary to discharge them, and that the government is composed of all of these basic elements.[55] He says:

Islam recommends a government based on a social contract. People elect the administrators and establish a council to debate common issues. Also, the society as a whole participates in auditing the administration.[56]

Gülen asks people to be careful not to erode the true values which the state or state organizations ideally stand for. He has opposed those who cause chaos, societal tension and violence in Turkey or anywhere else. While dealing with tarnished politicians, crooked party politics and corruption, people ought to pay extra attention not to erode in public the true values, authority and respect for a state organization.[57] Gülen holds that anarchic movements and activities destroy the atmosphere of peace and other important values:

I have always stipulated that 'even the worst State is better than no State'. Whenever I voiced my opinion in words such as 'the State is necessary, and should not be worn down', I have never sanctified the State as some people have done. ...If the State were not to occupy a certain place, it is certain that anarchy, chaos, and disorder would dominate there. Then, there would be no respect for ideas, freedom of religion, and our consciences would be violated; justice would be out of the question. In the past there were times when our nation suffered from the absence of the State. Therefore, I regard supporting the State also as a duty of citizenship.[58]

'Although Gülen is not a politician, he is shaping the consciousness that will determine the future of Turkish democracy.'[59] His call for democratization, freedom, equity, justice, and human rights and the rule of law as the main basis for the regulation of the state–society relationship has symbolically confronted the privileged role and vested interests of the protectionist elite in Turkey.[60] He has brought about a shift towards civil society and culture, rather than party politics, as new reference points in the mind-set and attitudes of Turkish people. Gülen warns: 'Religion is the relationship between people and their Creator. The feeling of religion lives in the heart's depths. [...] If you turn it into a display of forms, you'll kill it. Politicizing religion will harm religion before it harms a government's life.'[61] Also: 'Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas political, social, and economic systems or ideologies concern only certain variable social aspects of our worldly life.'[62]

Politicizing religion is always a reductionist endeavor: it turns the mysterious relationship between humanity and the Divine into an ideology. That does not mean cultivating indifference to what goes on in the public sphere, still less being indifferent to political or economic injustice:

Gülen is not arguing that religious or spiritual people should stay out of the political arena or stop concerning themselves with politics. Indeed, such a recommendation would be no better than quietism and is a withdrawal from the responsibilities and obligations of citizenship and social participation. Rather, the lesson here is that confusing political involvement and advocacy with partisanship and party loyalty places the need for religion to speak publicly regarding political issues that affect human dignity and welfare, environmental stewardship, social justice and peace within too narrow a framework of competing power groups that divide, instead of build, communities. Truly religious people who are responsibly involved in their polis are not single-issue voters or single-party loyalists.[63]

Yet, opponents still accuse Gülen and the Movement of being a potential 'threat to the state'. Barton responds that 'Gülen is clearly not a fanatic; he is far too consistently moderate in everything he does and says for that to be the case'. He comments:

His critics, most of whom appear not to be very familiar with his writing and ideas, see him as promoting a different kind of Islam to that recognized and approved by the state. This apprehension is largely based on a false understanding. In fact Gülen is not so much advocating a different kind of Islam but rather an Islam that reaches more deeply into people's lives and transforms them to become not just better believers but better citizens.[64]

Gülen refutes in his speeches and writings Islamist claims for an Islamic political platform: 'Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Instead, Islam established fundamental principles that orient a government's general character, leaving it to the people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances.'[65] He rejects the totalizing ideological character of Islamist political thought and activism[66] as totally foreign to the spirit of Islam, which advocates the rule of law and explicitly condemns oppression against any segment of society. He holds that Islam promotes activism for the betterment of society in accordance with the view of the majority, which complements democracy rather than opposing it:

This introduction of Islam may play an important role in the Muslim world through enriching local forms of democracy and extending it in a way that helps humans develop an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds. I believe that Islam also would enrich democracy in answering the deep needs of humans, such as spiritual satisfaction, which cannot be fulfilled except through the remembrance of the Eternal One.[67]

This 'reading' of Muslims' responsibility to Islam is not, of course, peculiar to Gülen. Eickelman points out: 'thinkers and religious leaders like Turkey's Gülen [...] hold that democracy and Islam are fully compatible and that Islam prescribes no particular form of governance, certainly not arbitrary rule [...] and that the central Qur'anic message is that Muslims must take responsibility for their own society.'[68]

Barton explains that Gülen's rejection of Islamism is not due to merely strategic considerations or even personal preference. Rather, it is based on the argument that Islamist claims to have found political guidance in scripture represent a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the Qur'an that dangerously distorts the believer's approach to it.[69] Gülen says:

Such a book should not be reduced to the level of political discourse, nor should it be considered a book about political theories or forms of state. To consider the Qur'an as an instrument of political discourse is a great disrespect for the Holy Book and is an obstacle that prevents people from benefiting from this deep source of divine grace.[70]

Sykianien and Eickelman[71] note that Gülen not only directly criticizes Islamist political thought in his many books and articles but also frequently argues in favor of democracy and the modernization and consolidation of democratic institutions in order to build a society where individual rights are respected and protected. He carefully makes clear his position that some forms of democracy are preferable to others and is cautiously optimistic about its development:

Democracy has developed over time. Just as it has gone through many different stages, it will continue to evolve and improve in the future. Along the way, it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality. If human beings are considered as a whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach the peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just this.[72]

On the basis of Gülen's consistent comments in favor of modern democratic politics and against Islamist readings of the Qur'an and Sunna, Barton concludes that Gülen is neither an overt nor covert Islamist. He notes that, nevertheless, those who oppose Gülen insist that he is merely pretending to reject Islamist ideology – a tactic of some Islamists politicians and activists who do disguise their convictions and, in the name of political expediency, condone subterfuge and dissembling.[73] But Gülen has clarified, in both print and broadcast media, that he and Turkish Muslims, like all Sunnis, do not have this concept of subterfuge or dissembling in their faith and practice, nor do they condone it.[74] The accusation of subterfuge is symptomatic of the grossest oversimplification of the socio-cultural and spiritual dynamics of the Gülen Movement; it contradicts the consciousness and clear understanding of the supporters of the Movement (now in their millions), which is severe in its critique of conditions in countries where Islamist groups condone subterfuge as a tactic.

Barton points out that we have good reason for being confident that Gülen is not a secret Islamist and that he rejects Islamist epistemology.[75] For instance, both before and after 9/11, Gülen provided intellectual and moral leadership, condemned all kinds of acts of terrorism with courageous and unequivocal public statements, and comprehensively explained related issues. He stated that the basic principles of religion are totally opposed to the political–ideological interpretations that underlie and motivate acts of terrorism; that these basic principles should be taught to Muslims and other people through the education system; that administrators, intellectuals, scholars and community leaders have a responsibility to try to identify the originators and the motivating factors behind terrorist activities; that there are multi-national organizations which, overtly and covertly, have directed their efforts to destructiveness and the creation of fear in society.[76]

Gülen's ideas and the Movement became the agent of a mass transformation in Turkey, bringing into the public space a new understanding of religion, science, secularism, and collective, social, altruistic, and educational services. Gülen realized that the development of politics and political institutions was lagging behind social and cultural change. He therefore revived the philanthropic tradition, the altruistic values and benevolence, of his Turkish fellow-citizens, and urged them to make up, through their services, the gap left by government policies and protectionist discrimination.[77]

Views, such as Gülen's, in favor of the consolidation of democratic and basic human rights, are repressed on account of the threat they are perceived to pose to the structural advantage of the dominant protectionist interests in the society. Such views face exclusion because they are seen as implicitly calling into question the privileges of those interests in utilizing political processes, and, by extension, of questioning their hegemony over the political system. The protectionists fear that certain understandings and demands may alter the balance of the political system and cause the criteria for selection and entry into it to be widened.[78]

When new understandings are widely acknowledged and welcomed, and when people rapidly institutionalize for societal needs and cultural projects, this gives rise to new social models. The models provided by the Gülen Movement are cultural rather than political, they transform patterns of thought and relationship. These models survive because they follow a lawful political and institutional form. The rapid transformation of attitudes, efficient institutionalization of public needs and initiatives, collective or organized philanthropy for education, and apparently simple solutions to societal discord, achieved by Movement participants, were previously lacking in Turkish society, and never attempted by the protectionist political bureaucracy.

Enabling people to make better use of their resources, to free themselves from material and other inequalities, and to become reflexive and beneficial to others is achieved through prioritizing knowledge and education rather than party politics or partisanship. Gülen teaches that, for a better future, humanity needs more tolerant and more altruistic individuals with magnanimous hearts and genuinely open minds that respect freedom of thought, that are open to science and scientific research, and that look for the harmony between the Divine laws of the universe and life.[79]

The Gülen Movement looks for answers to the questions all people living in complex modern societies face: 'how to develop humane qualities, good behavior, love for others, enthusiasm for self-improvement, and an active desire to serve others, make a difference in the world, and to persevere in this desire in the face of setbacks and failures'.[80] It therefore assumes a non-totalizing role as mediator of demands. It invites and allows society to take responsibility for its own actions within legal boundaries. It helps to create common public spaces in which agreement can be reached to share responsibility for a social field, beyond party interests or positions. This generates innovative energies, keeps the system open, produces innovation and new SMOs, develops elites, brings into the area of the decidable that which has been excluded, and illuminates the problematic areas of complexity in a system. Such a movement is indispensable for the healthy functioning of an open democratic society.

Gülen holds that it is through the democratization of Turkey that the possibility of keeping the goals of industrialization and economic development together with a form of nondependent participation in the world system may be achieved. He assigns equal importance to democracy and development, which in his opinion are interdependent, but democracy precedes development.[81] He works for the development of a society freed from hunger, poverty, striking inequalities, and suppression of civil rights. This can be reached only if, along with economic development, society guarantees improved forms of civic as well as political participation, equal rights, and respect for civil and cultural freedom. He does not want change to lead to decreased participation and deeper isolation in the current world system. Without democracy, Turkey cannot conceive development in any meaningful sense. To Gülen, efforts to bring about transformation in institutions and the established mind-set in Turkey should be made through education, interaction, collaboration and consensus, without resort to violent or coercive means and ends.[82]

These non-confrontational, non-conflictual efforts must persevere without modification, despite peculiarly difficult conditions or adverse situations.[83] This will allow Turkey to participate in the world system, not in a merely dependent position but with some capacity to exert influence and engage in dialog and negotiation.[84] By the same token, it is a condition also for making a contribution to democracy on the world scale.[85]

The democratization process may thereby draw attention to a critical weakness and inadequacy of political initiatives for the problems and issues facing us today. It is one of the roles of social movements to bring these issues to public attention, through the proliferation of information and its novel forms. Cultural activities and non-violent forms of action, provided they find the proper channels, can sometimes reach out to address the world and make the difference.[86] Today, such positive change can only be brought about partially and in a piecemeal fashion.

The Gülen Movement transforms itself into new institutions, providing a new language, new organizational patterns and new personnel. The meanings and motives for behavior that the Movement attempts to constitute and the internal processes of the formation of attitudes are not merely material and political. Against the imposition of lifestyles which no longer provide individuals with the cultural bases for their self-identification, the Movement deals with human needs at the cultural and spiritual level. It brings collective energies into focus so that deep-seated dilemmas and critical choices can be addressed. It asserts that the individual can only be educated, cared for, and informed, within a healthy environment and sound institutions.[87]

3. Conclusion

Connecting the rise of movements to their socio-political context of origin seems too general an approach to explain the full range of collective actions that have emerged since the 1960s. The changes that began in the late 1960s contained in them a cultural and social aspect that was, and remains, irreducible to politics as such. Youth mobilizations, the transformation of lifestyles, the changed role of the media, the growth of voluntary action, new identity demands – all contributed to a profound change in Turkish culture, mental categories, and everyday relationships. Yet these significant features have been largely underestimated, and attention has rather been focused on the political dimension, on electoral outcomes, on gains for this or that party. The impossibility of reducing society to politics is typical of complexity in general. But in Turkey, the primacy given to party-political struggle has thwarted the potential for innovation present in society; it has paradoxically prevented the development of an autonomous civic culture, and a deeply-felt identification with democratic institutions.

In the 1960s, Fethullah Gülen realized that the artificial hyperpoliticization of non-political issues distorted and dissolved many things into violence. He witnessed the resulting crisis of movements that resulted in an escalation of terrorist activity. He was fully aware of the richness extant in civil society, which had (and has still) to express its full potential. He counseled and convinced individuals to transform themselves and to pool their efforts into forms of collective action, addressing issues like peace, education, dialog and cultural diversity. He has been responsible for a substantial modernization of public attitudes and thinking on these themes. His efforts, along with the contribution of the people who listened to his message, resulted in the emergence of a generation of educated and skilled personnel in education and the media, and in the public services and business. The Movement has become a meeting point and uniting agent which differs profoundly from the image of the politically organized actor.

The particular form and content of this action was not and has not become conflictual or antagonistic. The Movement, when compared with the specific occasions of mobilization and struggle based on reactionary, political and antagonistic interests, has distinguished itself as an enduring form of service network. It interweaves closely with the daily life needs and identity of the wider community it serves. This has transformed a potential that was latent into visible collective action.

The Gülen Movement has reawakened the force for change that was dormant at the roots of civil society. It has managed to embody this apolitical potential in institutions in order to advance education and thus to revitalize and consolidate civic, pluralist and democratic institutions. It has acted as a barrier against actions that reduce everything produced in civil society to party politics. It has prevented the public space from being manipulated for cheap political gains and games. It has demonstrated that there are peaceful, non-confrontational, institutional channels for the handling of demands. It has opened new channels for individual and collective mobility, which certainly obstructs the formation of conflictual actions. The Gülen Movement is not affiliated with any governmental organization or state department inside or outside Turkey and has never induced its participants or others to breach the norms, laws and regulations enjoined there.[88]

The private initiatives and competitiveness which the movement encourages in support of public and philanthropic services are grounded on voluntary participation and located simultaneously at several levels of the social space and system. The Gülen Movement has assumed a bottom–up approach to transforming individuals through education, communication and co-operation, rather than the top–down approach of government, state or regime. The Gülen Movement therefore has not mobilized to claim a different distribution of roles, rewards and resources, nor clashed with the authorities and power. Through educational and intercultural efforts participants have not pushed the limits of the system. They wish, while holding to their identity and moral values, to be a modern partner and contributor to the European and wider global community.

The Gülen Movement's discourse and practice demonstrate a consistent understanding of the separation between cultural efforts and actors that can bring an issue to light and the political efforts and actors that may then carry that issue into the political arena. Its worldview and social praxis demonstrate that it is not a political actor, and that it systematically differentiates between socio-cultural issues and political action. Through the outcomes of institutionalized social projects, it turns into a catalyst for societal needs to be seen and analyzed within new conceptual frameworks. Those outcomes prove that the level of individual meanings and cultural dimensions is more significant than the political level because such dimensions and meanings of issues are not immediately identifiable, and politics and politicians can ignore and eliminate them from their analysis between election periods. The Movement highlights the importance of an open civil society and public spaces, which provide an arena for the consolidation of democratic institutions and for the peaceful encounter between politics and social movements.

Rather than contention and confrontation with the state or its agencies and institutions, or with other non-state actors, the Gülen Movement focuses on social renovations and transforming the mind-set of individuals through science, education, dialog and democracy. Thus it cultivates a holistic peace through a non-violent lifestyle, and both implicitly and explicitly rejects terrorism and violence. It provides stability in times of turmoil and inspires others to co-exist in diversity peacefully. It encourages reciprocal understanding and respect and so enables cooperation for the common good. It instils hope in individuals and, through that hope, inspires voluntary commitment to sound education, institutionalization, and altruistic contributions and services. These and similar qualities of the Movement have made it into a phenomenon which is, in both theory and practice, quite different from both traditional religious circles and from social movements as understood according to the prevalent conceptualizations.[89]

The Gülen Movement's societal projects have different meanings for different people in Turkey. In the eyes of those who look on the Movement favorably, the Movement recognizes that it belongs to the system and identifies itself with the general interest of the Turkish community, and acts – lawfully and properly within the boundaries of the legal rules and social norms of the country – in the pursuit of collective shared objectives. However, for those opposed, this participation and contribution are the covert claims of particular competing interests, an attempt to exert influence over the distribution of power to the benefit of 'the others' in Turkish society – a claim asserted despite the fact that collective cultural and altruistic services differ in nature from political participation or contention.[90]

Social movements like the Gülen Movement provide incentives for the modernization of a political system, consolidation of civil society and pluralistic democracy, and, in the case of Turkey, alert people to the urgent need for institutional reform. This means that the prevalent conceptual frameworks are inadequate (in some ways, even, biased) as approaches to faith-inspired communities, especially to peaceful, mainstream Muslims, and cultural Islam. Restricting analysis to the purely political dimensions of the observed phenomena (such as a clash with authority) constitutes a surrender to reductionism. Such reductionism ignores the specifically social dimensions of a collective action and focuses exclusively on those more readily measurable features which, because of their high visibility, attract the attention of the media.

The Gülen Movement sees that the needs of the individual, culture and society, come before politics.[91] This should not be in any way confused with naïve culturalism that may ignore rights and guarantees recognized by political institutions. The issue then is a redefinition and re-shaping of what democracy is, can be, and ought to be. Gülen does not ask individuals to remain passive recipients, just accepting whatever is fed to them from the outside. Rather, he advises them actively to seek possibilities and alternatives to construct themselves. Both means and ends must be non-confrontational, non-violent and non-coercive; they must be grounded in love of human beings and the creation, in reliable information and understanding through education and communication, and in freedom, collaboration and peace.[92]


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[1] 'Movement' with initial capital will hereafter mean 'the Gülen Movement'.

[2] Jones, 2000:3.

[3]Ibid., 252.

[4] Mellor (2004).

[5] Yavuz & Esposito, 2003:xxiv, xxv–xxvii; Yavuz, 2003a:1; Yavuz, 2003b:37–8; Hendrick, 2007:6.

[6] Turgut Özal was first the prime minister during 1983–89 and then the president during 1989–93.

[7] Snow et al., 2004:8.

[8] Koopmans, 2004:3, 24.

[9] Della Porta & Diani, 1999:7.

[10] Yavuz & Esposito, 2003:xxvi; Ataman, 2002:25.

[11] Yavuz & Esposito, 2003:126; Bal, 2004:138–40.

[12] Edwards & McCarthy, 2004:16.

[13] Yavuz & Esposito, 2003:xvi.

[14] Melucci, 1999:376; Kömeçoğlu, 1997:64.

[15] Kömeçoğlu, 1997:64.

[16] Della Porta & Diani, 1999:57.

[17] Çetin, 2009:79–80, 82.

[18] Melucci, 1999:97.

[19] Koopmans, 2004:24.

[20] Williams, 2004:92.

[21] Melucci, 1999:98–100; Williams, 2004:92–3.

[22] Melucci, 1999:98.


[24] Offe, 1985:24.

[25] Della Porta & Diani, 1999:12.

[26] Çarkoglu and Toprak, 2000:1–5; Turam, 2007:5

[27] Della Porta & Diani, 1999:149, 173–4; Melucci, 1999:156; Williams, 2004:92; Earl, 2004:513; Edwards & McCarthy, 2004:120.

[28] For more see Çetin 2009.

[29] Michel, 2006: 107; Ünal & Williams, 2000:277–8; Yilmaz, 2005:397; Çetin, 2009:263–70.

[30] Ünal & Williams, 2000:277–8

[31] Aslandoğan & Çetin, 2006:38; Hendrick, 2006:26; Sykiainen, 2006:113, 116; Michel, 2005b:351.

[32] Çetin, 2005:39.

[33] Barton, 2005:1.

[34] Weller, 2005:2–3.

[35] For more see, Aslandoğan & Çetin (2006:53) and Çetin (2005:36–7).

[36] Michel, 2006:107; Tekalan, 2005:3.

[37] Gülen, 2005a:145.

[38]Ibid., 145–6.

[39] Frantz (2000).

[40] Melucci, 1999:233–4.

[41] Ünal & Williams, 2000:277–8; Yilmaz, 2005:397.

[42] Barton, 2005:2; Ünal & Williams, 2000:320.

[43] Gülen cited in Michel, 2005b:356; Gülen in Ünal & Williams, 2000:86; Çetin, 2005:5.

[44] Gülen cited in Ünal & Williams, 2000:80.

[45] For more, see Aslandoğan & Çetin (2006).

[46] Afsaruddin, 2005:22.

[47] Sevindi (1997b); Ünal & Williams, 2000:38; Gülen, 2004a:223.

[48] Hand, 2004:27.

[49] Interviews with Gülen: by Akman for Sabah, 28.01.1995; by Sevindi for Yeni Yüzyil, 22.07 (1997a); by Çalişlar for Cumhuriyet, 21.08.1995. Also Gülen in Ünal & Williams, 2000:187–92; Yilmaz, 2005:399.

[50] Kuru, 2005:265–8, 274; Yilmaz, 2005:405–6.

[51] Balci et al., 2002:28.

[52] Webb, 2000:iv; Aras (1998).

[53] Voll, 2005:245; Yilmaz, 2005:397; Ashton, 2005:3–4; Zeybek (1997); Ünal & Williams, 2000:36.

[54] Alpay (1995); also cited in Ünal & Williams, 2000:158.

[55] For more similar arguments and quotations from Gülen, Sykiainen, 2006:110.

[56] Gülen, 2004a:223.

[57] Gündem, 2005:81.

[58]Ibid., 82.

[59] Hunt, 2007:8–9.

[60] Sykiainen, 2006:110.

[61] Zeybek (1997); Ünal & Williams, 2000:36.

[62] Gülen, 2001a:138; Gülen, 2004a:219.

[63] Ashton, 2005:3–4.

[64] Barton, 2005:9.

[65] Gülen, 2004a:220.

[66]Ibid., 220–4.

[67] Gülen, 2005b:452.

[68] Eickelman, 2002:4.

[69] Barton, 2005:17.

[70] Gülen, 2005b:456.

[71] Sykiainen, 2006:114: Eickelman, 2002:4.

[72] Gülen, 2004a:224.

[73] Barton, 2005:17–18.

[74] Webb, 2000:73–4; within the following media and press interviews: TRT (1995) with Muhtar; Zaman (1995) with Can; NTVMSNBC (1998) with Akyol and Çandar; Akşam (1988) with Yurtsever; Milliyet (1988) with Özcan; STV News (1997); Hürriyet (1995) with Özkök,; Also in Yilmaz (1997), Interview with Atilla Dorsay; Zaman (June 23); Yagiz (1997).

[75] Barton, 2005:39–41.

[76] Gülen, 2005b:466–7.

[77] Çetin, 2006:1–4; The Fountain, 2002:93; Frantz (2000); Özdalga, 2005:433.

[78] Çetin, 2009:148–57.

[79] Gülen in Ünal & Williams, 2000:99.

[80] Michel, 2005b:354.

[81] Gülen, 2004a:230–1; Gülen, 2000:7–8.

[82] Saritoprak & Griffith, 2005:336; The Light, 2006:5; Kuru, 2005:254, 261, 264–5.

[83] Gülen, 2004a:262.

[84] Weller, 2007:92–9; Kurtz, 2005:373, 380; Michel, 2005b:369–70; Bulaç, 2007:120; Stephenson, 2007:158–9; Murphy (2004).

[85] Sykiainen, 2007:130–2.

[86] Michel, 2003:70; Ergene, 2005:313; Aslandoğan & Çetin, 2007:55–60.

[87] Aslandoğan & Çetin, 2007:49.

[88] For more see Aslandoğan & Çetin, 2007:35–61.

[89] Kömeçoğlu, 1997:84–7; Bulaç, 2007:118–20; Eickelman, 1999:80–81; Yilmaz, 2005:397–8; Kurtz, 2005:377, 382; Weller, 2005b:2–3.

[90] Lofland, 1996:146.

[91] Michel, 2005b:351.

[92] Sykiainen, 2006:116.