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Worldly Asceticism in Islamic Casting: Fethullah Gülen's Inspired Piety and Activism

by M. Elisabeth Özdalga on . Posted in Review

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The road democracy is long and conflict-ridden. Although crises are inevitable in this process, nations differ with and find paths out of political deadlock. Since modern democracy is built on urban mass society, the problems of democracy often are closely connected to those of integrating an increasingly complex and diversified society. An essential part of the democratic process is the growth of a public sphere. Recently in Turkey, a Muslim country with a long tradition of democratic rule, a question that has become especially focused: Who rules over the public sphere? During its 50-year long experience of parliamentary democracy Turkey has faced several deep and on-going crises, including three military interventions. At a time when its membership in the European Union (EU) is being discussed seriously, open military intervention is no longer a feasible alternative to social and political disorder. Therefore, to maintain control over society increasingly has come to mean controlling the public sphere. The effect of this urge to keep society under control by means of monitoring the public arena has meant that the military-and the state-have become more involved than over before in the affairs of civil society. Refraining from the use of arms and acting in accordance with what the late Commander in Chief of the Naval Forces, Guven Erkaya, called the "non-armed forces" [silahsiz kuvvetler [1]] does not imply democratic improvement. On the contrary, this kind of indirect interference, due to its manipulative character, may have even more detrimental effects than direct intervention in the building of civil society.

The main issues of order in Turkey clearly are the role of Islamists and the Kurdish question. The fact that ethnic and religious conflict cut deep into the social fabric-seemingly without prospects for a tenable solution in the foreseeable future-increases the vigilance of the political and military leadership concerning the alleged threat from these social and political movements. As part of their concern for the overall public space, the military command has kept a sharp eye on different pro-Islamic organizations, especially with respect to their activities within the field of education. Ever since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, the military and bureaucratic establishment has taken a special interest in education. However, state intervention particularly increased following the 1980 military intervention and most recently after the National Security Council's 28 February 1997 declaration directed against the Islamist Welfare Party, which had come to power in June 1996, six months after the December 1995 elections. The main targets in the propaganda war against Islamist tendencies within educational institutions have been the Islamic head-scarf [basortu], the religious education (Imam Hatip Schools), and the private schools set up by Fethullah Gülen and his supporters. Gülen and his schools are the focus of this article. [2]

Fethullah Gülen is one of the most outstanding followers of the Islamic reformer Said Nursi (1873-1960). [3] Gülen, who comes from Erzurum in northeastern Turkey, started his career as religious leader in Edirne (Adrianople). During the second half o the 1960s, he became known as an Islamic activist, serving as a vaiz (preacher) in different mosques in and around the western Turkish city of Izmir and organizing courses and summer camps intended primarily for university students. As a result of these activities he was detained for seven months after the military intervention in 1971. [4] Gülen's discouraging encounter with the secularist authorities all through the 1960s, but especially after the military intervention in 1971, led him to develop a low profile. Eager not to attract too much public attention, the channeled his activities to symbolically less loaded projects, even suggesting that building a school is more virtuous than building a mosque, and building a normal (secular) school is more virtuous than building an Imam Hatip school. His followers headed his advice, and by the year 2000 they had built 300 schools and seven universities throughout the world. Due to the combination of a zealous religious piety and a strong emphasis on national affinity, the Turkic republics that emerged in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been the objects of priority attention by Gülen's followers. Consequently, there are nearly one hundred such schools in that region. [5] Nevertheless, within Turkey Gülen and his followers have been subjected to hostile propaganda, including accusations of treason, which strikes a discordant note to their social and educational achievements. The controversy highlights the need for a scholarly understanding of Gülen and of his goals and those of his followers.

Since the late 1970s, political Islam, often used synonymously with the ambiguous term "fundamentalism," has been a top item on the agenda of social scientists and journalists working on the Middle East. However, the effect of the overwhelming preoccupation with the political aspects of Islam has been a failure to pay due attention to what is happening in terms of new religious expression. Moreover, even if the explicit aim of many movements have been to keep themselves aloof from politics, political aims have been ascribed to them in terms of hidden objectives or latent functions. [6] A less biased approach to the study of religious movements, however, means giving greater credence to the pronouncements and openly declared values of their members and spokesmen. Hidden objectives are not necessarily more difficult to determine than explicitly defended sets of values. Also, a so-called hidden perspective is not necessarily more valuable for understanding the structures and dynamics movements being studied. It is with this basically phenomenological understanding that I analyze Gülen's vision. [7]

In line with this concern for an insider perspective, I will demonstrate that Gülen's views have little to do with seeking political power or even traditional Islam but rather have more in common with Max Weber's ideas about "worldly asceticism." The perspective taught by Gülen is based on activism, stirred up, as well as controlled, by pietism. This "activist pietism" (or Weber's "in-worldly asceticism") describes, I argue, a new feature in Turkish religious life. In accordance with Weber's analysis of in-worldly asceticism, the general effect of Gülen's similar "activist pietism" has been in the direction of a rationalization of social relationships. Thus, the following analysis will focus on three different aspects of this rationalizing influence. The first has to do with the organization of education. The second is related to what Weber, in relation to so called congregational religion, termed "the emancipation from political organization," [8] hinting at a development of religious civil society organizations that curb the influence of the state. The third aspect is related to the democratization of Turkish society, a process that can be observed in the manner Gülen's movement broke some of the momentum of the para-military, ultra-nationalist groups of the 1970s, twisting the sentiments that they cultivated into an ideology based on piety and non-violence.

Activist Pietism

One does not have to know Turkish to understand the gist of Gülen's message. Watching his emotional expressions and spasmodic gestures during a videotaped vaaz [sermon] shows him as a man possessed by an inner nervousness and affected anxiety, which is related not just to the concerns or routines of daily life but also delves into much deeper layers of the human condition. Gülen is the opposite of a calm and polished speaker; he does not sit down in the chair but moves back and forth as he adjusts his clothes and speaks himself into a kind o tense excitement and his emotions often make him cry. If one ignores the agitated facial expressions and tries to catch the spoken message-not always easy to do since Gülen uses an old-fashioned, almost obsolete language-one is confronted with an appeal to hurry up in order not to be late; there is a feeling of uneasiness and an urgent shortage of time.

What, then, is this tense haste about? According to Gülen, everyone has only one life, one opportunity, to accomplish anything in the service [hizmet] of God. By taking the message seriously and committing oneself to the benefit of God, one will live, otherwise one will be lost. Gülen's urgent nervousness is caused by his desire to get people to choose between seizing this opportunity and gaining eternal life, or else being deprived of everything.

To serve God is without limits. Compared to traditional (orthodox) interpretations of Islam, in which there are certain fixed rules for charity [zekat], Gülen's concept of service is endless. One never can sit down, satisfied he or she has done enough or finished what is expected; as soon as one work is done, one has to rush to the next project. The question "Oh, my Lord, what else can I do"? [Daha yok mu Allah'Im] [9] summarizes this understanding of a never-ending urge to work and to serve others.

Gülen calls this ideal aksiyon insani [man of action]. Aksiyon, he claims, originates in French and means attack [hamle] or movement [hareket]. [10] The human being [insan] identified with this ideal is one who never is satisfied with existing conditions. Such an insan is one who is inclined to work his or her best until this world is turned into a paradise; and also is one who in the struggle for a better world is stopped by nothing except death itself. [11]

According to the saying "human beings die away, but their work remains" [insan olur gider, geriye eseri kalir], a believer has to work incessantly so as to leave pieces of work [eserler] to the descendent generations. For Gülen the ideal that "This life has to be lived to its utmost limits" [bu hayat dolu, dolu yasanmalI] can be achieved through work. [12]

In order to keep this meaning [mânâ] and spirit [ruh] alive. Gülen recommends adherence to the five following points:

1. Ideas must be criticized and analyzed. Never take any statement or argument for granted. Self-criticism and self-control is very important.

2. Never forget that one day you will die. Keep the image of death alive, even in concrete, physical terms. The awareness of death urges one to work hard, so as to leave lasting legacies behind.

3. Never loose sight of the friends with whom you carry out the services, because they constitute God's army.

4. Never stop reading the kind of books that stimulate you intellectually.

5. Maintain close ties to people with whom you share the aspiration to do good deeds. It is by evaluating with them what you have accomplished so far and by discussing with them what you cam do next that the value of your services will increase. God will bless those who cooperate to increase their good deeds. [13]

The mental state needed to carry out these intertwined duties is humility. When performing a task, one never should look on this work as emanating from self-capacity. Power flows out from God. Human beings are weak, and a believer always should be humble and never think of himself with contentment. He should realize that he is always insufficient and could have done more. He should follow any success with thanksgiving and prayers to God for renewed strength to do more. All good things derive from God, but bad things are the responsibility of humans themselves. [14]

Gülen holds that in modern society religious life is not limited only to the mosques. Religiosity has to be taken out into the wider society, and especially to institutions that are of special importance in the contemporary world. Education and business are particularly significant in this respect. Special emphasis is given to academia, where religion must be taken because of the important exchange of ideas that occur in academic for a. Thus, the important educational institutions are neither the medreses (traditional Muslim schools for higher learning nor the mosques but rather public schools and universities, which means believers should make these institutions their fields of action.

Gülen's main appeal is to people with college education. The aim of reaching intellectuals, who especially are open to secular influences, is reflected in the importance given to the debate concerning the relationship between science and religion. A large number of debates in the pro-Gülen media (the daily Zaman and the television channel Samanyolu Televizyonu) and at conferences deal with this topic, emphasizing the argument that there is no contradiction between science and religious belief. Articles in the popular magazine (SIzIntI continuously emphasize the idea that science is no obstacle to religiosity and in a manner reminiscent of Enlightenment philosophers scientific findings are used to exalt the greatness of God. This aspect of science is emphasized rather than the notion that science contradicts religious belief. Thus, the more science develops, the more humans will be able to understand their own limitations in contrast wit the omnipotence of God.

The perspective taught by Gülen is based on a combination of activism and pietism. As pointed out in the introduction, his "activist pietism" describes a new feature in Turkish religious life. This can be demonstrated by comparing Gülen's teachings with three tendencies within Islam to which he belongs in the sense that each one constitutes a positive reference point for him. The first is mainstream, orthodox Sunni Islam; the second is the tradition of the Naksibendi Sufi order; and the third is the Nurculuk movement initiated by Said Nursi. These three traditions and the ethics emanating from them are Gülen's main sources of inspiration. However, even though they have not been held in trust by him, they have served as starting-points for the development of a new religious thought and praxis.

Gülen's teachings strongly emphasize service to others, i.e., doing good deeds. His ideas about service derive from the concept of hizmet, which is a basis belief for all pious Muslims. Charity, institutionalized as zekat (almsgiving), is one of the five pillars of the faith. While Gülen's emphasis one service therefore is in accordance with orthodox Islam, the stress on a never-ending commitment to do good deeds is new. In orthodox Islam there are a number of fixed and explicit rules according to which zekat obligations are fulfilled, thus permitting the believer to rest in contentment. For Gülen and his followers, however, hizmet is endless, and the believer never rests in comfort but always is prepared to ask: "What else can I do?"

Gülen also has been influenced by the Nurcu movement. [15] In the study groups and summer camps that the organized for high school and university youth during the 1960s and 1970s, Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur [The epistle of light] was read extensively. Nursi himself came from a well-known Nakshibendi tribe in the vicinity of Bitlis in the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey. [16] However, he broke with the Sufi tradition proper and eventually became the leader of a movement that, rather than organizing itself in the traditional tarikat [lodge] system based on close personal ties between a sheikh and his disciple, gathered around the private study of his books and writings. Gülen was trained in the Nurcu tradition, which in its turn developed out of the Nakshibendi order. Thus, Gülen shares with the Nakshibendi (and other Sufi orders) a preoccupation with the idea of death. [17] Furthermore, the Nakshibendis are well known for their strict adherence to religious law [sharia]; Gülen and his followers share the Nakshibendi seriousness toward life.

In terms of spiritual training, however, there are important differences between Gülen and the Nakshibendis. For a member of the Nakshibendi order, the path [tarikat] to follow in order to reach the final union with God is very well staked out. [18] A Nakshibendi disciple is presented with an explicit program, including step by step instructions on how to advance in spiritual development, as well as given concrete guidance by the sheikh and the opportunity to consult him on unclear and difficult questions. The sheikh monitors his disciples to ensure that the instructions are followed correctly. This is not the case with Gülen and his followers, for whom the path to salvation is a much more uncertain road. The alternatives are more open-ended, and the prospect for redemption therefore more ambiguous. Rather than practicing prescribed exercises and prayers, Gülen's followers see salvation more as a result of good deeds, or service [hizmet]. These two tendencies seem to re-enforce each other; since the way to inner salvation is less staked out and therefore more uncertain, the tendency to compensate for this incertitude by carrying out good works (redemption through deeds) becomes stronger.

As already mentioned, the tradition closet to Gülen is the one originating in Nursi's teachings. However, Gülen also developed in a different direction from that of the Nurculuk. According to Serif Mardin, Nursi represented a "personalistic view of society." [19] This means that faith, acting through the individual, was seen as the driving force in history (Mardin argues that Nursi articulated a "discourse" [20] centered around two main issues. First, Nursi saw himself as the gate keeper of Islamic culture against the intrusion from the West and against materialism. Second, he rejected a mechanical way of looking at society and instead recognized and emphasized the individual as a person. Against the de-personalization of society, he worked for the re-personalization of it. He emphasized personal obligations and personal responsibility, characteristics that traditionally constitute an important part of Islam. In this way Nursi re-evoked in idiom, an image, that echoed in wide circles. To be sure, this representation is not an expression of the same individualism that is valued in the West. Instead, the re-personalization that Nursi defended was based on gemeinschaftlich aspects of interpersonal relations. [21] According Mardin, this idiom's flexible discourse provided Turkey's middle and lower class followers of Nursi a means for spiritual development, the maturation of their personality, the construction of a social sphere autonomous of the state, and a map for community action. [22]

Obviously moved by these values, Gülen has been an important intermediary and interpreter of Said Nursi's teachings. Nevertheless, his own outlook has diverged significantly from that of Nursi. Gülen is first and foremost a leader calling for action. Whereas Nursi regarded the pious believer as a vessel for God's will, for Gülen the believer serves as an instrument for doing good works. [23] Thus, Gülen's movement is based on activism, calling for a kind of responsibility that not only is related to one's inner life as a pious person but also is directed instrumentally toward the outside. A Gülen follower, then, is involved in society and social practice understood in its broadest sense. Furthermore, Gülen differs from Nursi in that this vision is congregational. Gülen gives special emphasis to good deeds carried out collectively, and those who cooperate in worthy projects, or join together to discuss past experiences and future plans related to such activity, render a special service as an army of God.

Combing the different elements of Gülen's ethic provides a picture of a celebrated ideal type within sociology, namely, Weber's "in-worldly asceticism." Gülen's vision is based on an ethic that is inclined to constant work, whereby the individual works especially hard because any other way to salvation seems too uncertain and ambiguous. This ethic also is based on a serious attitude toward life, where work, not leisure, and good manners, rather than carelessness are valued. It also is inclined toward congregational brotherhood.

In conformity with Weber's concept, Gülen's "pietistic activism" is based on a critical "rejection of the world" but not the "flight from this world" that is characteristic for escapist mysticism. It is not based on contemplation, which is "inactivity," but on activism. It is an ethic that finds the certification of salvation by deeds performed in this world. It is based on a paradox because it includes a critical rejection of the world while simultaneously calling for involvement in the world in rationally structured activities. [24] Thus, pietistic activism advocates measures that lead to a more rationally organized society. These activities include the building of schools instead of mosques, investing in secular education instead of religious instruction, encouraging economic enterprises and requiring them to invest in education, encouraging educational and economic enterprises to support each other, promoting individual and collective self-criticism, and supporting critically minded planning for future projects.

What Weber called the "Protestant Ethic" in his best-known is not an ethic that is inherently Protestant. What in fact caught Weber's interest was "in-worldly asceticism," an ethic that appeared to be characteristic only among Protestant sects in Weber's early twentieth century perspective. To be sure, this ethic was not characteristic of all Protestant sects, and those that exhibited these features did to only during limited periods of time, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So, even though "in-worldly asceticism" had a significant affect on the development of "capitalism" [25] in some regions of Europe, it was not comprehensive. As Gülen's movement demonstrates, a similar ethic is now observable in some contemporary Muslim societies. Judging from the experiences of the Gülen movement, what may be the affects of such an ethic on the wider society?

Rationalization of Social Relationships

The general effect of Gülen's "activist pietism" has been in the direction of a rationalization of social relationships. The first aspects of this rationalizing influence can be highlighted. The first aspect pertains to the organization of education, while the second concerns the affects of congregational religion on what Weber called "the emancipation from political organization." [26] A third aspect is related to the democratization of Turkish society, a process that is intertwined with Gülen's offering of an alternative to the belligerent, ultra-nationalist groups of the 1970s, turning the xenophobia which they cultivated into an ideology based on piety and non-violence. These three aspects are examined in detail below.

With respect to the Gülen movement's impact on education, the numbers are impressive: 300 high schools established in 15 years. [27] I have visited several of these schools in Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. They offer a sound, standard education. The school buildings are in no way extraordinary, whether inside or outside, and their courses follow the curricula prescribed by educational ministries in respective countries. On the surface, there is nothing about these schools to put them in sharp contrast with ordinary public ones, and they blend with their environments. After all, it is not the spectacular that really counts for Gülen and his followers. Nevertheless, there are a number of important ways the teaching in these schools is structured that have long-range social affects.

The first unique aspect is the fostering of a competitive spirit. Yearly reports are prepared and distributed that compare the performance of students in Gülen's high schools with those in other schools-and the former often score very well in the entrance examinations to universities. This outstanding performance is even more noticeable in the schools in Central Asia than in Turkey. The competitive spirit also is encouraged by training and sending students to different academic "Olympic" contests for high-school students all around the world; often they return with medals.

The Gülen schools' goal is to offer a high quality standard education. Their classes are small (around 20 students per class), their teachers tend to be well qualified and knowledgeable in English, and their students are encouraged to stay in dormitories during the week in order to increase their study discipline. The schools also provide laboratory equipment for science and language classes and up-to-date computer technology. The main objective is to give the students a good education without inculcating any specific ideology. A basic idea among Gülen's followers is that ethical values are not transmitted openly through persuasion and lessens but by setting good examples in daily conduct.

The schools further are established on a sound financial basis. For Gülen, the establishment of schools and economic enterprises go hand in hand. For example, in the countries of Central Asia, where the economic infrastructure generally is weak, schools are being established first, then businessmen are encouraged to establish enterprises with assistance from the communities formed around the schools. In this way, small businessmen, who on their own lacked resources, gain confidence to make investment. Once their businesses are established, the entrepreneurs are expected to support the schools economically and morally, and in this way schools and economic enterprises support and complement each other.

These schools also are leading local efforts of global integration. Because they provide instruction in English and computer skills, possibilities are opened for the students to continue their studies abroad. In Central Asia, for example, graduates of these schools easily find work, while knowledge of English and computer technology also helps them to get summer jobs before finishing school. Consequently, the competition to attend the Gülen schools is very high. In fact, at one school I visited in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, in April 1999, an average of 80 students had applied for each student accepted. In addition, a few former students of the school had obtained scholarships and were studying at universities in the United States.

These schools also after employment opportunities for young and newly graduated teachers, who decide to go abroad. Their curiosity and idealism is channeled into the building of new educational institutions. In these milieus they are allowed to use their own initiative, and they may assume much more responsible tasks than they would have done in a centrally controlled public school in their own country. These positions thus offer higher job satisfaction. When these teachers return, for example to Turkey, they already have gained several years of work experience and are in a better place than they would otherwise have been to bargain for a good position.

The growth of the Gülen movement has made its relationship to Turkey's politics controversial. Gülen's rivals in the former Welfare Party [28] were very critical about his movement, implying that Gülen was dishonest about his actual objectives and claiming that he only pretended not to have any political ambitions, while in fact, he was preparing for a total seizure of power in the future. Other politicians, such as former president Turgut Özal (d. 1993), have been very supportive of Gülen's educational ventures. Özal even used his own influence among political leaders in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to promote Gülen's efforts in those areas. During Ozal's era in the 1980s and early 1990s, the media generally was favorably inclined toward Gülen's educational undertakings, and a number of laudatory reports and stories appeared in newspapers. These tended to be articles that recounted how heroic followers of Gülen, under great privations and hardships, set up new schools in isolated areas, including even in places as far away as Siberia and Mongolia. These reports generally did not arouse any suspicions about the Gülen's movement possible secret projects to overthrow the regime.

The positive atmosphere has changed drastically since February 1977, when the military (through the National Security Council) started to pressure religious groups, beginning with the coalition government under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan's Islamist Welfare Party. Gülen's movement subsequently, came under special surveillance. Because the aim of the military has been to crackdown on all Islamic movements, Gülen has not been spared from repression. The first round of the crackdown focused on the Imam Hatip schools [29] but in the spring of 1999 a campaign was started against Gülen himself, including sensational charges of a reactionary plot against the regime. He was accused of having criticized and betrayed Ataturk, of having cooperated with the Islamic regime in Afghanistan (based on the fact that there were Gülen schools in that country), of having deceived and indoctrinated young pupils, and finally of having plotted against the state. Video films of Gülen's speeches- which the state said had been kept secret until then-where shown repeatedly on the major television channels such as ATV. The press followed suit, with dailies such as Milliyet, Hurriyet, Sabah, and Cumhuriyet all joining the chorus of voices uncritically supporting this slanderous campaign. Before a public tribunal set up by the media and supported by the military, a trial for treason took place without the accused having a change to be examined according to established legal procedures.

The media campaign against Gülen raises the question of whether in reality he has a political agenda. According to his own testimony, he does not. According to his followers, vocational accomplishments are more important than politics. Ever since Gülen began his career as a preacher and activist, he has kept a low profile vis-à-vis politics. As mentioned previously, in order not to draw too much attention to his activities he steered his adherents into less controversial projects, such as building schools instead of mosques and favoring schools offering secular education instead of religious training. The record of Gülen and his followers, therefore, does not provide evidence of zealots seeking self-fulfillment through political power, but rather demonstrates that they are social activists seeking eternal salvation through good deeds and ethical conduct. This point not only corresponds better to the observable facts, but it also fits Weber's general sociological observations concerning the behavior of "men of vocation" [30] gathered in congregational brotherhoods.

To be sure, Gülen's followers constitute a religious movement, not a political association or party. Is seems to be a movement that is based on individual membership. This means that Gülen's movement is not a religious organization based on certain family associations or tribes, which in their turn are connected to state power, but builds on membership between people who have united around a common religious cause, or mission. In this sense Gülen's movement is truly congregational. According to Weber, congregational religion "sets the coreligionist in the place of the fellow clansman," from which it follows that it also "contributes very effectively to the emancipation from political organization." [31] A movement based on congregational principles therefore is emancipated from family and tribal relationships, and also from political organizations.

In Turkey, where patron-client relationships [32] (i.e., family and tribal-like organizations) still play an important role in social and political life, congregational religion means deviation from that pattern. It is one example of organizational forms taking shape outside of the state institution, and thus may contribute to the strengthening of civil society. This point brings us to the question of how Gülen's ascetic ethic is related to his affinity to the ultra-nationalist movement in Turkey. During his years in Erzurum in the mid-1960s, Gülen developed close ties to the Association for Fighting Communism in Turkey [Komunizmle Mucadele Dernegi.] According to his own account, he was second after the one in Izmir. [33] In fact, the roots of this anticommunist association went further back, the first one operating in Zonguldak between 1950 and 1953 and another in Istanbul between 1956-60. It was revived in Izmir in 1963, and within two years there were 110 branches throughout Turkey. [34] Gülen thus was part of fast growing right-wing, nationalist organization. In his autobiographical interview he recounts that a relative with more experience in organized activities warned him against joining this association: "Where did you get this idea from? Read the Nurs [Said Nursi's epistles] instead. There could not be a better way to carry out a struggle [mucadele] than that." [35]

The anticommunist association was part of a wider nationalist movement that differed from official ideology by given more stress to pan-Turkish values. Pan-Turkism has been organized in the Turkish Hearth [Turk Ocagi] associations. The first Turk Ocagi was set up in 1911, but the British during their occupation of Istanbul in 1920 closed it. It resumed activity in 1924, one year after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, and by 1930 and more than 250 branches. Ataturk closed them down in 1931, but they opened again in 1949. A new crackdown during the military intervention in 1971 led to their closure and their headquarters being confiscated by the Ministry of Culture. They were allowed to reopen again in 1986, but in the meantime these groups operated under the name of the Hearths of Ideals [Ulku Ocaklari]. During the 1970s, the Ulku Ocaklari associations supported a para-military force, the Grey Wolves [Bozkurtlar], who acted as reserves for the ultra-nationalistic Nationalist Action Party led by Alparslan Turkes. [36]

The anticommunist associations that Gülen participated in during the 1990s had strong ideological affinities to the Turk Ocagi, whose pan-Turkism was based in five different ideals: Turanism (unification of all Turkish-speaking peoples), racism, militarism, anti-communism, and a hierarchical society based on obedience and self-communism, and a hierarchical society based on obedience and self-sacrifice for the sake of the state. [37] The high school and university students whom Gülen gathered in his summer camps and study circles during the 1960s shared these conservative and ultra-nationalist values. To a large extent he was addressing the same youth as the Nationalist Action Party [Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP], which developed into a para-military, semi-fascist movement involved in a large number of violent clashes with leftists and Alevi groups throughout the 1970s up to the 1980 military intervention. However, there still is no detailed study of the relationship between Gülen and his followers on the one hand, and Turkes and his Grey Wolfs on the other hand. Nevertheless, during the 1960s Gülen had been a great admirer of a prominent rightist intellectual, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, whom he personally invited to speak in the places where he himself was active. Kiskakurek wrote in the National Salvation Party's daily, Milli Gazete, in the early, 1970s, but he distanced himself from the party, which he criticized for being too pragmatic, and approached the MHP, which better reflected his own orientation toward political activism.

Gülen gave the anticommunist, nationalistic, and activist sentiments a different content. While he obviously developed in close association with the radical rightist groups in terms of ideals, values, and personal affiliation, he steered this movement into a different direction. Under his leadership, action and activism were put into a framework of pietism that excluded all violent means. He and his adherents not only disassociated themselves from political violence, but they also turned their backs on politics altogether, concentrating instead on projects outside the political sphere proper. The revolutionary force of his action program therefore was used in the building of schools and economic enterprises, while other youth from the same potential base of supporters joined violence-prone groups that turned the streets into battlefields.

The youth whom Gülen addressed opposed and even totally rejected the existing system in Turkey. Their origins were relative newcomers to the rapidly expanding urban areas. Even though cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir had become the main centers for all kinds of social and political activity, those attracted to Gülen often came from smaller cities. The fact that he gathered his first support in towns like Edirne and Erzurum is therefore significant. The aim of the youth was social mobility through university education, but they also were intent on building a better society, and in order to achieve their ideals they could adopt very militant attitudes. These young people also had started to realize that collective action gave strength. On the one hand they saw themselves as the heroic followers of Ataturk, but on the other hand they also criticized his legacy for undue suppression of religion, an allegedly widespread sentiment among the lower middle classes.

Turning these militant, opposition sentiments into constructive social and economic projects instead of giving in to the demands for violent disruption was no easy task. Gülen do not make this an explicit task from the very beginning, but this seems to have become the effect of his mission. In speeches where he has had to defend himself against accusations of having carried his militant discourse too far, he has touched on the difficulty of balancing between demands for heroic militancy on the one hand and the desire to bring about constructive social projects on the other. The youth he addressed, and with whom he shared important values and sentiments, wanted militant action; but his own religious conviction demanded more constructive work. If he had sacrificed his militant rhetoric, he would have lost the support of the masses, to whom his real message-good deeds in the name of God-was intended in the firs place. The worldly asceticism, or activist pietism, associated with Gülen therefore builds on a delicate balance between militant rejection of this world on the one hand, and a desire to rebuild a new social order by peaceful, constructive means, on the other. The power in this form of in-worldly asceticism lies in its militant and heroic commitment to improve prevailing social and economic conditions. Without the deeply religious sense of duty on which it builds, there most likely would have been less constructive, rational accomplishments. It is also as an effect off this ethic that the movement has reached out to the whole world.

The distinction between political ambition and religious activism is crucial for a correct understanding of Gülen's mission. While the objective of the first is state control, the second is concerned with the rebuilding of society, an undertaking that requires a radical opening of the public sphere. Achieving that aim, however, cannot be left to any single community but requires concerted, no-sectarian action, a challenge not only for the establishment, but for all kinds of civil society organizations as well.


[1] Supposedly an euphemism for psychological warfare
[2] This study is part of larger research project on religion, education, and internationalization in west and Central Asia supported by the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences; an earlier publication about the Imam Hatip Schools is Elisabeth Özdalga, "Education in the Name of 'Order and Progress': Reflections of the Recent Eight Year Obligatory School Reform in Turkey," The Muslim World, July-October, 1999. For discussions of the veiling issue, see idem, "Womanhood, Dignity, and Faith: Reflections on an Islamic Woman's Life-story," European Journal of Women Studies, November 1997; and idem, The Veiling Issue, Official Secularism and Popular Islam in Modern Turkey (Curzon Press, 1998).
[3] The standard work on Said Nursi is Serif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).
[4] For an autobiography, carried out in the form of an interview, see Latif Erdogan: Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi: "Kucuk Dunyam" [Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi, "My little world"] (Istanbul 1995).
[5] For a detailed table of the number of schools established outside of Turkey (145 out of an estimated total of 300), see Hakan Yavuz: "Towards an Islamic Liberalism? The Nurcu Movement and Fethullah Gülen,"in Middle East Journal, 53, no.4 (1999): 599; for reports in the daily newspapers about Gülen's schools often being based on vacillating numbers, see for example, Hulusi Turgut, "Fethullah Gülen ve Okullari" [Fethullah Gülen and his schools], Yeni Yuzyil, 15-31 January 1998, which counts 500 schools world-wide. The confusion concerning numbers is related both to the fact that Gülen and his followers are reluctant to declare their achievements openly and that there are great variety of schools, including high schools, vocational schools offering short programs, and training centers that prepare students for the university entrance examinations.
[6] See Marc Gaborieau, "Transnational Islamic Movements: Tablighi Jama'at in Politics?" ISIM Newsletter (March 1999), in which the author points out "a long-term political strategy, which eschewed short-term political involvement." Although staying aloof from politics may be a tactical stratagem aimed at future political involvement for certain movements, it does not mean that this practice automatically can be generalized to others; each case requires its own analysis.
[7] The data gathered o date limits the present analysis mainly to a discursive level, leaving to a forthcoming study an analysis of the intriguing problems related to how the ethic in question is molded into "practical consciousness;" for discussions of the latter concept, see Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Polity Press, 1990).
[8] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p.211.
[9] Fethullah Gülen: Prizma, vol. 1 (Istanbul 1997), p.37.
[10] Ibid., p.9; Aksiyon is also the name of the movement's weekly news magazine.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p.11
[13] Ibid. pp. 10-13.
[14] Ibid. pp. 3-4
[15] See Mardin, op. cit.
[16] See Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Sheikh and the State. The Social and Political Structure of Kurdistan (London: Zed Books, 1992)
[17] For an account of the Nakshibendi's "bondage to death" exercises, see Korkut Ozal, "Twenty Years with Mehmed Zahid Kotku: A Personal Story", in Elisabeth Özdalga, ed., Naqshbandi in Western and Central Asia. Change and Continuity (Curzon Press, 1999), p. 177.
[18] See ibid., pp. 182-83, for a detailed description of the path to salvation followed by a Nakshibendi disciple.
[19] Mardin, op. cit., p. 11-12
[20] Mardin refers to the discourse concept as composed of several so called "root-paradigms," which have been elaborated by Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974). This discourse is related primarily to cognitive and ethical problems, not relations of power; see further Mardin, ibid., pp. 7-8, and 179-80.
[21] Mardin, op. cit., pp. 10-12.
[22] Ibid., p.13.
[23] Cf. Haberma's explication of Weber's concepts in Jurgen Habermas, Communicative Action, vol. 1, p.2002.
[24] Weber, The Sociology of Religion.
[25] Weber mostly referred to capitalism, not in narrow economic terms, but as a type of society having capitalism as its basic form of economic organization.
[26] Weber, p. 211.
[27] Although schools have been built on Gülen's initiative for about 30 years, the overwhelming majority have been built since 1993.
[28] Political Islam in Turkey has been organized mainly in the political movement led by Necmettin Erbakan. Due to repeated military in politics, his party has been banned several times and reestablished itself under different names: the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi, 1969 to 1971), the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi, 1972 to 1980), the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, 1983 to 1998), and currently the Virtue party (Fazilet Partisi).
[29] Elisabeth Özdalga, "Education in the Name of Order and Progress: Problems Related to the Recent Eight Year Obligatory School Reform in Turkey," The Muslim World, July-October 1999.
[30] Weber, Sociology of Religion, p. 183.
[31] Ibid., p. 211.
[32] Luis Roniger and Ayse Gunes-Ayata, eds., Democracy, Clientelism, and Civil Society (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994).
[33] Erdogan, op. cit., p. 78.
[34] Hugh Poulton, Top Hat, Grey Wolf and Crescent: Turkish Nationalism and the Turkish Republic (London, 1977), p. 13.
[35] Erdogan, p.78.
[36] Poulton, p. 143.
[37] Poulton, p. 135.

M. Elisabeth Özdalga, Critique, Vol. 17 (Fall 2003), pp. 83-104