Gulen movement: Turkey's third power
Gulen movement: Turkey's third power
| Key Points |
| * Turkey's Islamist Gulen movement, while a powerful political force, |
| is largely an unfamiliar entity to the West. |
| * The movement's extensive operations in various fields, including |
| education and media, give it unique access and influence. |
| * While secular Turks and the military continue to have serious |
| reservations about the movement, its relationship with other |
| Islamists is also complicated. |
Despite its political influence in Turkey, the Gulen movement has a low
profile in the West. Jane's charts the group's rise to prominence,
examines its current activities and assesses its relationship with secular
Turks, as well as the country's military and other Islamists.
Turkey's Fethullah Gulen Community (FGC), also known as the Gulen movement
after its founder and leader Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim preacher,
often escapes scholarly attention. Yet no analysis of Turkey is complete
without due attention paid to the FGC; a highly co-ordinated and
centralised movement with many well-positioned followers, known as
Gulenists. Some Turks deridingly refer to the movement as 'F-type' or
'Fethullahci' (followers of Fethullah).
According to FGC members, the organisation controls millions of dollars
and has many organisations, including a network of high schools across the
world that serve as signpost FGC institutions. In addition, the FGC owns
universities, banks, non-governmental organisations and television
networks in Turkey, as well as other countries. What is more, the FGC
appears to have influence over the Turkish National Police (Emniyet),
including the police's powerful domestic intelligence wing.
political power renders it a taboo topic in Turkey where many people shy
away from discussing the group publicly. The Turks have a polarised view
of Gulen: some see him as a political leader such as Iran's Ayatollah
Khomeini, while others view him as the face of modern, non-violent, even
reformed Islam. This and the FGC's political power makes the organisation
worthy of closer scrutiny in an effort to map out its structure, global
reach, message, political influence and future in Turkey.
The FGC is considered a modernist off-shoot of Sufi Nurcu tariqat
(religious order) in Turkey. The movement aims to transform Turkey through
conservative social values. Many academics describe the FGC as a neo-Nurcu
movement. Gulen, a spiritual and charismatic preacher who has been known
to cry during interviews and public sermons, is the founder and leader of
his own branch of Nurcu Islam.
The movement emerged in the late 1970s in
Izmir, coalescing around Gulen's personality in the late 1980s in big
cities. Initially, Gulen espoused a tactical view of democracy in Turkey,
saying that in order to reach the ideal Muslim society "every method and
path is acceptable [including] lying to people". Gulen added that in
reaching the movement's final goal, "service on behalf of the movement
would be discreet and quiet", and that this stance constituted the "founding philosophy of his movement".
In the late 1990s, Gulen clashed with Turkey's secular democracy. At this
time, Turkey had a brief experience with Islamist government. The Welfare
Party (Refah Partisi: RP) came to power in a short-lived coalition
government in 1996. Subsequently, Turkey's secular forces, including the
military, forced the RP to step down.
Following the demise of the RP
government, Turkey cracked down against Islamist movements and tariqats,
including FGC, bringing a court case against Gulen on grounds that "he was
working to overthrow secular government in Turkey".
In 1998, Gulen was forced to leave Turkey to avoid prosecution on charges
he was involved with anti-secular activities. He took refuge in the United
States and starting running his organisation from the suburbs of New
Jersey and then Pennsylvania through senior aides in various outlets he
In the US, Gulen's message subsequently went through a significant
transformation. He rejected some of his earlier rhetoric on dismantling
the secular state, turning instead to emphasising tolerance in Islam, as
well as interfaith dialogue with Judaism and Christianity, and shunned
In the late 1990s, he told his male followers their wives could
uncover their hair. While part of the Islamic law, he said this issue of
head covering was futurat (among the details of Islamic jurisprudence).
This stance widened his appeal for the liberal Turks who thought of the
Gulen movement as a more tolerable version of Islamic fundamentalism.
Although the majority of Gulenist women continued to cover their heads,
this verdict has sweetened his appeal for students in Gulen's network of
schools across the world, as well as middle-class conservatives.
The precise number of FGC members is difficult to estimate since 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'.
Although the movement emerged from Turkey, today it has a global reach.
Gulen continues to live in the US and obtained US residency in 2008. Since
Gulen's arrival there, FGC is known to have supported the election
campaigns of various US politicians. It has also sought their blessing by
asking them to appear at FGC events.
For instance, Hillary Clinton is
known to have attended FGC events in the US, including a September 2007
Ramadan breakfast organised by the Gulenist Turkish Cultural Center in New
York City. The FGC's new found base in the US has earned Washington enmity
inside Turkey, with some secular Turks, including many in the military,
concluding that the movement is backed by the US as a form of moderate
Islam to dilute Turkish secularism.
Gulen and other FGC leaders'
freewheeling presence in the US is a major source of anti-US feeling
within the ranks of the Turkish military.
The FGC exerts influence globally through means of modern communication,
including its flagship newspaper and television networks, respectively
Zaman (Time), and Samanyolu (Milky Way) - galactic, cosmic and temporal
names are tell-tale signs of FGC institutions.
The organisation has
numerous other media arms, including Ebru TV (Water Marble) in the US, as
well as Mehtap (Moonlight) TV and Cihan (Universe) news agency, and
Today's Zaman, an English language newspaper that mirrors Zaman and serves
as the FGC's window to the English-speaking world. Zaman also publishes
local versions in a number of countries, including the US, Turkmenistan,
Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.
Many organisations fall under the FGC umbrella, including hundreds of
boarding schools in Turkey, as well as the US, Europe, Central Asia, the
Middle East and Africa. These schools provide full scholarships, excellent
facilities and high-quality education, training the children of the elite
in the third world and the children of FGC members in the West. In Turkey,
the schools perform both functions.
The movement also has universities,
including Fatih University in Istanbul, and Virginia International
University in the US, a 'Gulen-sourced' school according to an FGC
website. The schools represent the movement's charity arm, an FGC
trademark. Its schools and other public arms are funded by regular
donations from FGC members.
In Turkey, the FGC appeals to students across various educational
institutions. First come high schools, including elite FGC Samanyolu High
School in Ankara, which offer scholarships and stipends. At least some of
these students are known to join the FGC. The movement also runs cramming
schools, such as Turkey-wide FEM and ANAFEN, preparing mostly poorer high
school students and FGC sympathiser students through the necessary
cramming practice for college entrance exams.
This is done often in
dormitories and again with full scholarships. Graduates of the cramming
schools usually go on to become lifelong sympathisers, members or workers
of the movement. The FGC also runs boarding homes (Isikevi-light houses)
for poorer college and high school students who are then provided with
stipends and scholarships.
The FGC schools, cramming schools and Isikevis
fall under a centralised organisation. The FGC schools and educational
endeavours are academically thriving environments and also provide a soft
passageway into the movement. Teachers and FGC member students extoll the
virtues of Islam in non-Muslim countries and virtues of the FGC movement
in Muslim countries, pulling in more members.
A number of wealthy Turks, and many mid- and small-sized business owners
organised under the Turkish Industrialists Confederation (TUSKON), form
the FGC's business arm. The movement also has financial institutions,
including Bank Asya that provides interest-free Islamic banking; insurance
company Isik Sigorta (Light Insurance); and investment arms, including
Asya Finans (Asia Finance), a finance firm.
FGC has think-tanks, including
Washington-based Rumi Forum, and is known to be supporting programmes on
Turkey at a number of prominent Washington think-tanks. Finally, the FGC
has global charities, such as Kimse Yok mu (Is Anybody Out There), which
provides disaster relief and religious giving across the world.
It is possible to think of the FGC structure as three concentric circles
comprising of sympathisers, members and workers.
The outermost circle has
sympathisers, including people who attend weekly discussion sessions held
at FGC homes and others, such as the high school students, who receive FGS
services and charity benefits.
The middle circle has members, including
businessmen whose donations support the outer circle's activities, as well
as pay for the salaries of the inner circle.
This inner circle includes
workers, such as teachers, journalists, lobbyists and executives who work
in FGC schools, think-tanks, lobby and business groups, and media arms,
among others. The workers are mostly committed members of the movement.
Some of them seem to have joined the FGC through the group's cramming
schools, high schools and boarding homes in the 1970s and the 1980s when
Gulen was a preacher in Turkish mosques. Known as the Altin Nesil (Golden
Generation), this group can be considered Gulenist disciples.
The three circles are enmeshed into one another. For example, FGC
businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs
human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and
schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels
and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions.
Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as
teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC
businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.
One voice, two messages
The FGC rose to global prominence in the aftermath of the 11 September
2001 attacks in the US. The movement takes pride in promoting tolerance
towards and inter-faith dialogue with Christianity and Judaism, which are
considered by Muslims as faiths of the book - religions recognised by
The FGC relays its brand of tolerance and ecumenical dialogue through
conferences at prestigious institutions, FGC and non-FGC alike, as well as
coverage in FGC media and through meetings between Gulen and Jewish and
Christian religious leaders. The FGC takes the Islam-wide characteristic
of tolerance towards Christianity and Judaism, marketing it as an
exclusive trademark of the movement.
The FGC's three messages of ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and tolerance
matured after Gulen left Turkey for the US to escape political
persecution. Since then, the movement has explicitly stayed away from
anti-Americanism, a telltale sign of Islamist movements globally.
movement's three messages, communicated through English language outlets
such as Today's Zaman have been welcome in the West, including in the US
and the UK. The FGC promotes inter-faith dialogue and ecumenism also in
Turkey, sometimes to the ire of hardline Islamists.
However, 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. While Today's
Zaman stays loyal to this message, Zaman often strays away from it.
example, on 15 October 2008, Zaman ran a news story alleging that the
current global economic downturn started when USD40 billion was
transferred from Lehman Brothers to Israel.
Although Zaman and Today's
Zaman are twin papers, this important allegation did not find room in
Today's Zaman. In this regard, examples hinting at two FGC voices, an
external one for the West, and an internal one for Turkey, are plenty.
8 November 2008, Zaman ran a story about a Jewish family in Istanbul that
has converted to Islam. The story suggested that the family had been
painfully ostracised from the Turkish Jewish community, casting that
community in an unsympathetic light. That story was also not featured in
Today's Zaman read in the West.
Likewise, the two papers diverged in their coverage of the 2008-09
On 31 December 2008, Zaman ran a story with the headline:
Children hauling garbage are being targeted with missiles, while this
headline or its story was entirely missing from Today's Zaman on the same
day, or subsequent days.
FGC, AKP and the military
Traditionally, the FGC has supported many political parties and stayed
non-partisan. However, since 2001, following the establishment of the
Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi: AKP), the
movement has provided solid support to the AKP. While this has led many
people to associate the movement with the AKP, that appears to be a false
Although the AKP and FGC both stand for socially conservative
values and mix Islam and politics, they are competing political
organisations. Moreover, there seems to be at least some ideological
competition between the AKP and FGC. The AKP cadres view the FGC's
singular emphasis of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue as insincere,
while FGC members view the AKP as a coarse movement.
Still, the goal of holding political power in Turkey unites the FGC and
the AKP in an alliance of convenience. For analytical purposes, it could
be said that currently the AKP and the FGC are in a symbiotic
The AKP provides the FGC with an important asset, a ruling
party that facilitates the appointment of FGC members to key bureaucratic
positions, as well as the sheltering of FGC institutions. For example,
during his term as Turkey's foreign minister, President Abdullah Gul
issued a classified circular to Turkish diplomatic posts, encouraging them
to attend events at FGC institutions and help such organisations.
Meanwhile, the FGC provides the AKP with money, media support and voter
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, FGC members and sympathisers are
known to have been appointed to a number of important positions in Turkish
government, including ministries, as well as key positions in the Turkish
police, while many lower level and non-strategic positions in Emniyet
remain in the hands of non-FGC people. In this regard, some in Turkey
believe the FGC controls the technologically apt intelligence branch of
the police, as well as the strategic personnel and overseas relations
The FGC's influence in the Emniyet and a significant part of
Turkish domestic intelligence apparatus is a contentious issue,
challenging the movement's claim to be a spiritual organisation.
and opponents of the FGC and the AKP, even some top brass in the Turkish
military, fear that they are under surveillance by the FGC through the
Turkish police. Giving credit to such claims, intelligence leaks involving
the Turkish military often start in FGC-owned newspapers, such as Zaman.
Meanwhile, some alarmist secular Turks assert without proof that the FGC
is funded by the CIA to promote moderate Islam in Turkey as well as in
Central Eurasia - it is interesting to note that in 2007, Russia started a
crackdown on FGC infrastructure for its 'extremist' nature.
The FGC has a tense relationship with the Turkish military. Despite its
presence in the Emniyet and across the Turkish bureaucracy, the FGC lacks
representation in the Turkish armed forces. This is because the Turkish
military bi-annually reviews its staff, discharging personnel associated
with Islamist groups and tariqats, most notably the FGC. The military's
hardnosed attitude to FGC members has turned the FGC into its critic.
Since 2007, FGC-owned media has been lambasting the Turkish military. This
media has been prominently featuring allegations against the military, as
well as leaks from Emniyet about the likely involvement of retired and
active duty military personnel in a coup plot against the AKP government
in the Ergenekon case, an investigation of the clandestine nationalist
Ergenekon organisation that is currently being reviewed in a Turkish
In July 2008, using intelligence files leaked from Emniyet, Zaman
and other FGC-owned media gave prominent coverage to Ergenekon-related
news, implicating the military's hand in the alleged coup plot.
Turkey's third force
Lately, while pro-AKP newspapers have shunned criticising the military,
the FGC-owned media continues to take issue with it. This suggests
diverging views of the Turkish military between the AKP and FGC. Whereas
common wisdom suggests thinking of Turkey as a bipolar world of the
'Islamist block' led by the AKP and the 'secularist block' led by the
military, it might be useful to think of Turkey as a three-pronged country
composed of the military, the AKP and the FGC.
The consolidation of political and economic power in the FGC's hands and
the movement's evolving relationship with the AKP and the Turkish military
make such an analytical view more plausible. With its own growing base,
the FGC might soon feel comfortable to rethink its seven-year symbiotic
relationship with the AKP. The FGC seems to want a bigger share of Turkey.
The movement will keep confronting the military more vigorously until it
manages to get its members and sympathisers into the military.
On the other hand, there are at least some signs that on the eve of
Turkey's nationwide local elections to be held in March 2009, the FGC
might extend limited support to parties other than the AKP in an effort to
re-diversify its political base as a choice political strategy should the
AKP slip politically. However, this does not mean the FGC will burn
bridges with the AKP.
Rather, looking at the benefits of a symbiotic
relationship with a powerful political party, the movement will continue
to support the AKP. In fact, in the unlikely event of a future showdown
between the military and the AKP, the FGC would quickly close ranks with
the AKP as it did in 2007 when the military issued a warning against the
AKP on its website.
The FGC is perhaps the best organised grass roots movement in Turkey.
Moreover, the group has a vast social and economic organisation,
intelligence assets, a global network and a message that appeals to the
West, even if that message appears to be mostly for international
consumption. The FGC is effectively a third force in Turkish politics, and
the world will hear a lot about it in the years to come.