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A Response to "Gülen movement: Turkey's third power"

Ihsan Yilmaz, PhD, April 28, 2010

Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst released an analysis on the Gülen movement, titled "Gülen movement: Turkey's third power." Unfortunately the analysis is biased, reflecting mostly the views of Turkish ultranationalists and American pro-Israeli neocons who are staunch Gülen movement and Justice and Development Party (AK Party) enemies and who disregard several objective Western analyses of the movement. Jane's analysis suffers also from several Orientalist inaccuracies, false assumptions and a lack of sufficient knowledge on Islam in Turkey. An analysis of Jane's analysis will be helpful in understanding not only Turkey-Islam but also Islam-democracy-secularism-West relations, which need to be revisited in the Barack Obama world.

The Gülen movement has been studied well. There are several academic books and journal articles on the movement. About 10 international conferences have specifically focused on the movement, and more than 200 papers were presented at these conferences. Many more Western academics have referred to the movement in their works. Thus, it is wrong to argue that the movement is largely an unfamiliar entity to the West, and factual mistakes by an analysis on the movement cannot easily be ignored.

Several objective analyses of the movement have suggested that the movement challenges the stereotypical Oriental misperceptions on Islam-secularism, Islam-politics, Islam-democracy and Islam-this worldliness. Jane's analysis fails on all these counts and gives the impression that it follows an Orientalist and essentially flawed paradigm of Islam. I appreciate that the sophisticated discourse of Gülen and the movement associated with his name make life difficult for armchair Orientalist and neo-Orientalist analysts. But even an armchair analyst could find sufficient literature on the above-mentioned issues, the Turkish interpretation of Islam, Sufism, Ottoman secularism and Islamic discourses on democracy. It would then be easier to understand how Gülen offers an Islamic paradigm to the Muslim self to accommodate him/herself in secular and democratic settings as argued by several Western academics as well. Moreover, anyone familiar with Max Weber's work on the Protestant ethic would not find it puzzling to see an Islamic scholar asking his audience to not ignore this world but to endeavor for success as long as the intention is attaining God's pleasure.

The Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst calls the movement a "tariqah" (which is mostly assumed to be secretive and clandestine, especially in the Turkish context) several times, but any undergraduate student of Turkish Islam knows that the Gülen movement originated from the Gülen community but is completely different from a Sufi tariqah. The analyst falsely claims that Said Nursi - a prolific Islamic scholar - also established a tariqah, but quite the opposite is true. He repeatedly stated that "it is not time for a tariqah." In any academic work on Nursi, this fact is repeated and only his staunch enemies claim - without evidence - that he belonged to a tariqah. Furthermore, in contrast to the ultra-secularist rhetoric, tariqahs are not dark organizations. For instance, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi was not only a member of a tariqah, he was also the founder of one: the Mevlevi tariqah, known widely as the whirling dervishes.

The report also falsely claims that Gülen started his inter-religious dialogue activities after he moved to the US and was transformed. As repeated by Father Thomas Michel several times, it was Nursi who in the 1950s visited the Greek patriarch in İstanbul and spoke with the pope. The history of Islam could also be read as a history of inter-religious dialogue (and also intelligent polemics). Gülen started his inter-religious activities well before he moved to the US and met with several non-Muslim religious leaders in Turkey and the pope in the early 1990s, at a time when he was "liked" by the elite members of the (deep) state, who saw him as a balancing force against the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, a former prime minister of Turkey and leader of the now-closed Welfare Party (RP). Some analysts even suggested that the Turkish deep state became a staunch enemy of Gülen because of his inter-religious activities and that he had to flee to avoid a deep state-engineered assassination, similar to what happened to Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The evidence we have heard so far in the ultranationalist and militarist Ergenekon - a clandestine terrorist organization charged with scores of unsolved murders and other atrocities conducted for the purpose of ruling the country from behind the scenes - case strengthens this view.

I will continue tomorrow, but let me finish today by saying that Jane's analysis is completely unaware of the intrinsic qualities that helped the movement get bigger and more influential: a pro-democracy stance, an understanding stressing cosmopolitan and peaceful coexistence, a pro-EU position and a firmly apolitical stance. The analysis omits the fact that many millions who sympathize with the movement like it because of these qualities and that the movement also has many enemies because of these qualities.

An analysis by Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst of the Gülen movement, titled "Gülen movement: Turkey's third power," repeatedly calls the movement Islamist. But this term is not the best term to define the movement and is also misleading. Islamism is a controversial term. Even though the term has been used for a long time, the distinction between Islam, Islamic and Islamism is unfortunately sometimes blurred and difficult to discern as some writers use them interchangeably.

The term generally refers to the ideologization of Islam and political Islam and the instrumental use of Islam in politics. Islamism enunciates the view that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system. As in the case of Jane's analysis, the term Islamism is also employed to refer to observant and socially active Muslims as well, regardless of whether these people see Islam as an ideology, a political project to be implemented or perceive and live Islam just like any other religion's followers see their religion.

If we label socially active observant Muslims as Islamists, then we will end up considering almost all observant Muslims as Islamists. In short, such usage of the term blurs the differences between individuals who take Islam as an ideology and condones its instrumentalist use of politics and individuals who simply see life as a divine test and try to follow the religion's basic tenets such as giving alms, helping the needy, trying to tackle socio-economic inequalities and so on. One wonders why similar Christians are not called "Christian-ist." If we remember how the popes and the Catholic Church played a political role in the Middle Ages (the pope is still the head of a state), it is futile to mention the oft-repeated false claim that "unlike Christianity, Islam is a political religion." Thus, the term loses its academic quality to discern minority Muslims who see Islam as a political project from the majority of observant but apolitical Muslims.

In the case of Fethullah Gülen - a well-respected Turkish intellectual and scholar - it is usually used by his adversaries to imply that Gülen is after political projects such as toppling the government. Gülen has repeatedly stated that the ideologization of Islam and its use as an instrument in politics harm Islam first; furthermore, he condemns the politicization of religion.

The movement has reportedly stayed away from politics and has severely been criticized by Islamists as being CIA-funded Muslims who try to pacify other Muslims. As a matter of fact, with only one or two exceptions, who define Islamism very loosely, academics who studied the movement do not label it Islamist. We should also take into account that the movement has non-Muslim sympathizers, volunteers and even donors, a phenomenon that is directly opposite of the exclusivist Islamist ideology.

A transparent movement

Jane's analysis also claims that the movement is highly coordinated and centralized. Gülen and his circle of friends deny this, but this claim has been frequently raised by Gülen's adversaries. To date, these claims have not been substantiated with credible evidence but are still repeated to imply that there is a secretive organization. On the contrary, the movement is transparent; everything it does is publicly known.

It has also been claimed, as repeated by Jane's analysis, that there are many Gülen followers in the civil service but that they hide their true identity. This is a complicated issue and without knowing the intricacies of Turkey is difficult to understand. First of all, Gülen has been publicly preaching for the last 50 years almost. His sermons have been copied in the millions and sold. He has dozens of books which have sold millions of copies. Several surveys have indicated that about 80 percent of the population sympathizes with his views. If we talk about representative bureaucracy, as would be expected to exist in a typical democracy, it is only natural that there would be many Gülen sympathizers in the civil service. But it is important to underline what kinds of views these people have.

If we do not resort to conspiracy theories and stay within the limits of reason, we would see that Gülen and his movement have been supporting democracy, a liberal market economy, a secular state, freedoms, human rights and so on since the emergence of the movement. But these people also worry about the afterlife, have spiritual concerns and endeavor to be religiously observant individuals in their daily lives. There are several similar individuals and groups around the world. With this in mind, Gülen is a competent Zeitgeist-friendly guide because he blends human rights, fundamental freedoms, several aspects of modernity, spirituality and Islam.

Forty percent of the American population from all walks of life reportedly regularly goes to church. Why then should it be surprising to see similar Muslims in Turkey. If we jettison the essentialist idea that Islam is intrinsically and inherently bad, then we will agree that there can be good Muslims who are at peace with modern life, democracy, freedoms and secularism. If these civil servants who are suspected of being Gülen followers break the law or do not undertake their duties responsibly, they should be caught and punished. But with blanket accusations without any evidence, anyone can accuse everyone and this is what happened in Turkey during the Feb. 28, 1997 process. Peer rivalries among civil servants who did not have anything to do with practicing Islam, let alone being Gülen followers, led these civil servants to backstab each other by claiming that such and such a person is a Gülen follower and should be fired. Upon closer inspection, the accused were sometimes discovered to be alcoholics or even staunch Islamophobes.

I was also puzzled to read that Jane's analysis states that many people shy away from discussing the group publicly. This is completely contrary to the truth and makes one wonder why an analysis that claims to be objective would state such a false claim without double-checking with objective sources. I am also curious to know if the writer of the analysis can follow the media in Turkish. Every year, more than 1,000 news items and comments appear in the media about the movement. Several of them are written by people who disagree with Gülen. Some of these pieces are not only biased, but outright hostile, libelous and full of unproven accusations. There are dozens of Web sites in Turkish full of libelous material about Gülen and the movement, ranging from accusing Gülen of being a secret Catholic cardinal to the movement being funded by the CIA, from Tony Blair's prospective role in the movement to the movement's "true" Korean Moon sect identity! Simply put, the movement is the most publicly discussed (both revered and insulted) group in Turkey.

The analysis also states that Gülen said that "every method and path is acceptable, [including] lying to people." This claim in unbelievable as even staunch Gülen enemies do not put forth such claims. I wonder where the analyst got this from. I am shocked to see how an analysis that is expected to be more or less objective can include such an allegation without a shred of evidence and without a single reference. Astonishingly, it puts forth the statement as a commonly accepted fact and does not even try to use careful wording by at least saying "it is alleged that…"

The analysis also states that "[i]n the 1990s, Gülen clashed with Turkey's secular democracy." I am clueless as to whether I am reading a gossip column or a serious academic piece. The analysis is referring to the Feb. 28, 1997 process but does not even give us exact dates. This process has been called a postmodern coup by everyone, including the generals who carried it out. In it, the military simply toppled the democratically elected government and went after almost all observant Muslims, businessmen, civil servants and so on.

Upon orders from the generals, some liberal journalists who did not agree with the generals - such as respected journalist Cengiz Candar - were wrongly accused of being supporters of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). One of the accused, Akın Birdal, the head of a human rights group, survived an assassination attempt. The assassin is now in jail together with some generals on charges of being ultranationalist Ergenekon terrorist organization members. During the Feb. 28 process, $50 billion (almost one-fifth of the gross domestic product [GDP] at the time) of the Treasury were reportedly embezzled by bankers who were secularist supporters of the army. Generals also invited the judiciary to their headquarters and briefed them on the dangers of the alleged Islamist threat. The generals - without any democratic or civilian supervision - signed several lucrative contracts and military agreements with Israel. They also chased Gülen, whom they saw as a threat because he was independent of the military influence. A court case accused Gülen of being the head of a terrorist organization and of working toward overthrowing the government lasted about 10 years. The prosecution was publicly supported by the generals (Chief of Staff Gen. Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu, who today stands accused of being the number one of the terrorist Ergenekon organization, publicly accused Gülen. Any undergraduate student of military-politics relations in Turkey knows what this means) but the prosecutor could not prove any of his claims and Gülen was acquitted by the staunchly secularist judiciary that imprisoned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for only reciting a poem. To disregard all these and say without any evidence that "[i]n the 1990s, Gülen clashed with Turkey's secular democracy" is - with all due respect to the analyst - only laughable. The analyst's claim that "[i]n 1998, Gülen was forced to leave Turkey to avoid prosecution" is also wrong as he left the country several months before the case was filed.

Claims of a transformation

The analysis goes on to say that "[i]n the US, Gülen's message subsequently went through a significant transformation. He rejected some of his earlier rhetoric on dismantling the secular state, turning instead to emphasizing tolerance in Islam, as well as interfaith dialogue with Judaism and Christianity, and shunned violence." There isn't a single truth in these sentences. A dedicated enemy of Gülen, Cumhuriyet daily's Hikmet Çetinkaya, has been following Gülen since the 1970s and has had to pay Gülen substantial sums in compensation because of his fabricated news stories but even he never claimed that Gülen was pro-violence at any point of his life. Gülen never spoke about dismantling the secular state. Although his adversaries have always claimed this, courts have always ruled that they compensate Gülen for libel/slander.

As I wrote yesterday, Gülen started his dialogue activities at least four to five years before he moved to the US and Said Nursi, a prolific scholar of Islam, whom Gülen respects and sees as one of his intellectual mentors, was engaged in dialog activities in the 1950s. Gülen is also known for advising his friends to not clash with "communist" youth in the 1970s, underlining that these young people were also patriots but in the wrong way. Thus, to say that Gülen shunned violence after he moved to the US is a fatal mistake as Gülen never advocated violence. He has always been in the spotlight and government intelligence agencies quite possibly monitored him very closely, but to date, no one has accused him of being pro-violence.

The analysis changes into a gossip piece once more when it claims that "[i]n the late 1990s, he told his male followers their wives could uncover their hair." This is the first time I have heard such a claim. The analyst seems to be totally unaware of what happened in Turkey and his informants seem to have abused his lack of knowledge. The analyst never mentions that headscarved adult female students are not allowed to enter universities in Turkey. When asked on the issue, Gülen said that if these women face a dilemma between getting an education and uncovering their hair, he would say that education is important and that although covering the hair is still obligatory, it is not one of the essential pillars of Islam such as believing in one God. In my opinion, Gülen was simply making use of a new understanding of the darura (necessity) tool in Islamic law, which states that under severe conditions, the prohibited could be permissible. A classical example given to illustrate this is that if a Muslim faces starvation in a desert and has only pork to eat, he is not only permitted to eat it, but has to eat it to avoid death. Gülen's legal opinion on the headscarf is a similar case, based on darura, a temporary permission applicable to individuals under duress.

Gülen has consistently stated that covering the hair is obligatory. The language used in the analysis is also suspect in that it reads "he told his male followers their wives could uncover their hair." He spoke on this issue to reporters, the public and everyone else. Radicals blamed him and ultra-secularists loved him. Gülen is also known to have spoken with women. To say that he spoke to his male followers not only gives the impression that he is after some secret clandestine things, it also implies that he does not need to address women directly, leading the reader to assume several stereotypical obscurantist views of Muslims.

The analysis reaches climax in flipping everything upside down when it asserts that "some publicly deny affinity or membership with the movement. They do not mention his name openly, but may refer to him as ‘hocaefendi' (master hodja) or ‘he'." Every piece of literature on Gülen mentions that his followers and sympathizers affectionately call him hocaefendi (respected teacher) because of their respect for him and not to hide that they like him.

Furthermore, in Turkey, if you ask anyone on the street who hocaefendi is, 90 percent of them would tell you that it is Gülen. Even though any Islamic scholar and mosque imam can be and is also called hocaefendi, Gülen is the most famous one. Additionally, addressing anyone as hocaefendi - Gülen or otherwise - makes any person an anti-secularist in the eyes of ultra-secularists anyway.

The analyst seems to be totally unaware of the Ergenekon case and why some generals have become anti-American. It is becoming more and more obvious with every passing day that they are upset with the US because it does not allow for a military coup to take place in Turkey. It is an exaggeration to say that "Gülen and other FGC [Fethullah Gülen community] leaders' freewheeling presence in the US is a major source of anti-US feeling within the ranks of the Turkish military." As mentioned in the analysis, there are numerous schools, hospitals, media outlets, etc. that are affiliated with the movement. If they are doing anything illegal, the generals can easily go after them. It is obvious that the presence of Gülen in the US is a minor issue. Some of the generals are reportedly not happy with democracy in Turkey. If allowed to establish their dictatorship, they would handle Gülen and the rest. All they want is a coup, not Gülen.

The analysis also gives the impression that all the movement does is give scholarships to poor students and then convince them to emulate the movement's ideals. The analyst does not appear to know that all Gülen schools are private institutions and that they charge average tuitions fees. Only the upper middle class can send its children to these schools and they do because of the quality of education provided. Only 20 percent of the students who are from more modest backgrounds get scholarships.

The analysis claims that "[t]he schools represent the movement's charity arm," but this is wrong. Although there are several charities associated with the movement, the schools are owned by for-profit private limited companies of businessmen who publicly state that they endeavor to implement Gülen's idea of educating the masses by opening schools. The analysis gives the impression that it gives away donations and charity and that people are thus attracted to the movement. This is a very cynical and materialistic evaluation of these people and is also insulting. Several sociologists have noted that these people have religious and spiritual motivations, not materialistic ones, and that in most cases they are donors, not receivers of benefits. It has been reported several times that the majority of the people who are affiliated with the movement are from urban middle classes that do not need benefits. There could of course be rotten apples in every human organization, but this is an exception, not the rule. However, even speaking of this requires evidence. In a movement that is based on voluntary altruistic behavior, these rotten apples could not go unnoticed for long.

The analysis also claims that since Gülen moved to the US "the movement has explicitly stayed away from anti-Americanism, a telltale sign of Islamist movements globally." The analyst is not aware that the movement has never been anti-American and has always been accused of being funded or at least helped by the CIA. Moreover, several policies of the Bush administration were criticized both by Gülen in the US and media outlets of the movement, similar to the millions of Americans.

The analyst also claims that "the movement's English language outlets serving the West, such as Today's Zaman, and Turkish language press outlets serving Turkey, such as Zaman, have different editorial lines on the FGC messages." The analyst seems to be unaware of Today's Zaman's mission. The daily states that it is published to help readers understand Turkey better. All news coverage and comments would naturally be influenced by this motto. To imply that Today's Zaman is hiding some things that are published in the Turkish daily Zaman is also an insult to foreign readers who know Turkish. There are at least dozens of them in American and Israeli embassies and they could easily catch Today's Zaman red-handed every day.

Moreover, anti-Bush unilateralism and anti-Israeli massacre comments appear in Today's Zaman regularly and one can at least peruse my column for this purpose. The analyst has to prove his allegation of double discourse by showing any piece of anti-tolerance, anti-interfaith dialogue, anti-EU, anti-human rights, etc. in the Turkish daily Zaman. In a similar vein, the analyst claims that "the two papers diverged in their coverage of the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza war." These two papers are not of course identical, they have separate teams of editors. But the archives of both dailies are on the Internet and one can easily see that both of them have been extremely critical of the recent Israeli massacre of Gazans. Several columnists, including myself and our editor-in-chief, repeatedly condemned the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

The analysis finishes by alleging that "[t]he movement will keep confronting the military more vigorously until it manages to get its members and sympathizers into the military." Testing the validity of this claim is very easy. The movement states that it is not an enemy of the military, but challenges undemocratic and corrupt coup-seeking generals. Let us see if the movement continues to criticize these generals if they agree to conform to EU standards.

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