Does Fethullah Gülen see himself as simply the representative of an Islamic teaching, or is he the carrier of a philosophy centered on the “human,” which is a larger mission that also includes the former?

by Doğu Ergil on . Posted in Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement in 100 questions

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Fethullah Gülen

The answer to this question is implicit in the previous answer. But this time, partially because of Fethullah Gülen’s character and partially because of the things accomplished in the name of the service, he approaches the matter from a different angle. According to him, those who write the history of this movement are going to attribute its greatest aspects to different causes, ignoring that the main cause is the consent of God.[1]

Preconceived notions and biases repeatedly obstruct the philosophy before it has a chance to explain itself. For Fethullah Gülen and the members of his community, this state of affairs has always been a source of pain and difficulty. For this reason, they are always careful to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it. Regarding this matter, he states:

When our government gave permission for private schools to be established, a wave of people, rather than spinning away their days and wealth on summer and winter houses, chose to spend their energy in the service of their people. They did this not only for their country, but for all humanity and they did it with the enthusiasm that comes with an act of devotion. It would be impossible for me to know of all of the schools these volunteers have opened within Turkey and abroad. Not only do I not know most of the companies who have established these schools, as someone must advised me to record, I do not even know which schools are where. As far as I can tell from the media, it is common knowledge that these schools have opened in nearly every country where the opening of a school is permitted, excluding such places as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. From Azerbaijan to the Philippines, from Petersburg, the capital of the czarist Russia, from Moscow, the capital of Communist Russia, through the help of the Jewish businessman Üzeyir Garih, to the one opened in Yakutsk, they have proven to have the capacity to spring up.[2]

Even if only one tenth of what I am saying was inaccurate, I would still fear for its accountability, because in the end I will answer to God. Only God knows the role that I have played in the hundreds of schools that have been established. I did my part to encourage it for a short time, but the matter has grown with ten times the force of what I put into it. I have no contribution there. In fact, taking credit for even one tenth of the planning that was involved would be disrespect to that service. It would be disrespect to the labors of many people. Let someone else be unfair in this way, and overlook the good work that has been done. Let someone else say that there are a handful of people who carry all of the influence of this movement, rather than the movement itself which carries its industry and passion as a banner in a national struggle. No matter who says it, it will still be untrue.

… Something great is happening. Those who do not see it are welcome to go on not seeing. In my opinion, for the Turkish nation, a new era of prosperity has begun. God is accomplishing this through the hands of people whose names and faces we will never know. Though I may have advised that this might be a preferable direction, the matter has gone many times further than that. I am not convinced that I was significantly influential in this area, either. Maybe the nation is uniting around simply the reasonability of the idea. You propose an idea, it implies a certain kind of future, and then if it bears observable fruit and the people can see no drawback, why shouldn’t the nation flock to it?[3]

Everything that Fethullah Gülen has said so far is in alignment with his ideas about religion, morality, and community. However, after the other Turkic Republics freed themselves from the Soviet yoke and he advised them to seek out a place for themselves in the international system, can this also be explained in the same terms? He sees great benefits to be reaped from establishing cultural, economic, and spiritual relationships with the Turkic world. Since the late ‘80s, Fethullah Gülen has been calling for businessmen, educators, and entrepreneurs who have the opportunity to establish a new life to settle in Central Asia. He more generally called on them to spread to the four corners of the world, establish families, and represent Turkish and Islamic culture in the societies they join. This call has multiplied Turkish influence on the world. After losing their Empire, the Turks were never again as influential as they are now. Hundreds of schools have been opened and thousands of businesses have been established. From these schools, tens of thousands of students have graduated and as they took their places in their respective countries, became voluntary ambassadors for Turkey. Businesses established by Turks abroad have opened places of work for other businessmen and technicians arriving from Turkey. Turkey has become the subject of discussion in the world as a country providing capital. Turkish language and culture are carried to these countries. This culture then mixes with local culture and a new synthesis is produced. These schools and social activities have added to Fethullah Gülen’s understanding of the ideal person and of morality.

In this big mission, there is also a personal side:

Since my childhood, Central Asia was always in my prayers. The opportunity to embrace our fellow Muslims and Turks always seemed to me that it would be the cause for great celebration. There was a time when I advised from the pulpit that all businessmen, traders, industrialists and all of our friends go there.[4]

When asked why he has not visited these places and seen the work that his friends and followers had accomplished, Fethullah Gülen responds:

If we think in Sufi terms, one should not pursue mundane pleasures in this world. According to my philosophy, one should not even seek the spiritual pleasure which might be derived from the knowledge of God and the acts of worship. Even so, as a human, I had a desire to see with my own eyes the work of those who nobly work mostly without salaries, as laborers, scholars, diplomats, or whatever professional the task at hand calls for. For reasons known only to Him, God did not give me the opportunity to taste these pleasures.[5]

He also makes a personal point:

In actual fact, to this movement which has become the property of the nation, my contribution is very little. Despite this truth, I am afraid that if I were to go to these places, there would be a misconception that I am somehow the author of all of those things done by these good people. I am concerned that people would assume that it was my thoughts and ideas that are the driving force behind these great works, rather than the devotion and enthusiasm of the people.

Besides, people in general have a tendency to attribute the successes of others to the person who appears to be at the helm. I was also worried about what some might say. I was afraid to do anything that may provoke a reaction from certain portions of the population in those places. They might say, “Behind this is so and so,” “They have a hidden agenda,” or other similar things even though they do not say it openly or explicitly. In this situation, I have buried my desires in my chest in order to keep an even keel and not to overshadow the services of our friends.

On a smaller point, if I packed up and went to the Turkic world as if I was the architect of what has been done there, people would look at me in the street and embrace me. These kinds of things do not seem natural to me.[6]

We can hear in his words the genuine desire to carry the spiritual values and the culture of his country to other communities of the world, no matter what their ethnicity or religion may be. Beneath that umbrella idea is the desire to have first an emotional, and then a concrete cultural and commercial connection with Central Asia. This is a significant need which he has felt since his childhood, as he feels this area of the world is where the roots of Turkish culture lay. For this reason, Fethullah Gülen advised all who would listen that they first go to Asia and then open up to the rest of the world.

He believes that Islam has a universal message which can be transformed into a broad humanistic philosophy. He feels that this philosophy could be used to kindle the sense of solidarity which has been in decline and then spread it to the world.

[1] cf. Gülen 2006c, 186.
[2] Gülen 1997a.
[3] “Bu Hareket Devlete Alternatif mi?” (Is this movement an alternative of the state?),
[4] Gündem 2005, 62.
[5] Ibid., 63.
[6] Ibid., 63–64.