Turkish Islam and the Secular State : The Gulen Movement

gulen-movement-fethullah-gulenOver the past several years, the Gulen Movement, also known as the “Hizmet Movement,” has become a focus of scholarly research and public interest in the English-speaking world. Numerous studies have explored various aspects of the movement, the role of its spiritual leader and his philosophy. Some experts examined the movement within the context of faith-based civil society groups. Many others described it as a transnational community of philanthropic volunteers or a group of self-motivated people with a collective vision. With the rise of contentious debates in Turkey about the presence of sympathizers of Gulen’s philosophy in the Turkish state bureaucracy, some started to call the movement a centralized fraternity with political aspirations. Despite a diversity of analytical approaches and methods that were recently deployed to study Gulen’s philosophy and the Hizmet movement, so far very few works were able to reach the depth of some of the earlier studies on the subject. In one of the first books of its kind, Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito provide a unique perspective on the various strategies employed by Gulen’s followers to put his ideas into practice.

More broadly, the book explores some of the transformations in the Turkish Islamic culture and the role of Fethullah Gulen in these changes. In particular, it focuses on the educational activities of the Movement. As a result, the study achieves a degree of sophistication that exceeds previous research on the topic and lays the foundation for further work. In twelve chapters, contributors of the volume explain the nexus of complex historical and political developments that have contributed to the transformation of Islam in Turkey. Essays cogently trace the origins of Gulen’s vision and his early efforts to spread his ideas through educational activities. Overall, the book helps both to understand the intellectual and religious components of Gulen’s philosophy and grasp the reasons of its appeal to the people in Turkey and well beyond its borders.

In the introduction, Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito stress the importance of understanding the concept of secularism and its realization within the Turkish context. They discuss the background of cultural struggles within the country and its multiple effects on religion. They focus on the Gulen Movement to demonstrate the attempt to cultivate faith without involving into a confrontation with modernity. As a result, they argue that religion was not on decline or the brink of extinction. On the contrary, it was experiencing a transformation and indicating the possibility of multiple modernities. The internal challenge of any Islamic movement, therefore, was to develop a valid terminology to deal with contemporary social and political issues, and to preserve the authentic Muslim identity and ethics.

In the first two chapters Yavuz explores the origins of the Gulen Movement to explain the changing role of Islam in the Turkish public sphere. According to Yavuz, religious ideas are not fixed practices but are open to change. The author demonstrates the ability of religious traditions to absorb global discourses of democracy, human rights, and the market economy. He arrives to conclusion that Islam in Turkey operates as a source of social stability and as a motivational force rather than as a radical political project. For Yavuz, the use of persuasion rather than confrontation, combined with the expanding public sphere in the 1980s, consolidated the tradition of pluralist Islam in Turkey.

Bekim Agai examines the Gulen Movement’s Islamic ethic of education. He notes that so-called Gulen schools do not teach religion, even though religious faith is a primary motive for their creation. Rather, he argues, these schools stress the teaching of ethics, which are seen as a unifying factor between different religious, ethnic, and political orientations (p.49). He points out that trough education and sharing their ethical values with others, the Gulen Movement wants to educate a special class that will unify Islam with the requirements of the modern world. Thomas Michel contributes to this line of argument by sharing his personal experience as an observer of the Movement. In his essay he focuses on the personality and the role of Fethullah Gulen as an educator. Michel suggests that Gulen’s emphasis on morality and moral virtue is the first thing that strikes him as an observer.

Elizabeth Ozdalga examines the experience of three female teachers. She suggests that there is a room for self-reflexivity as well as for individual initiative and autonomy. Ozdalga argues that the media through which this individualism is transmitted are the privacy and the activist piety taught by Fethullah Gulen. Ahmet Kuru presents his study on Fethullah Gulen’s search for a middle way between modernity and Muslim tradition. Kuru disagrees with the essentialist claim that modernity and Islam have inherent incompatibilities. For him, Gulen pursues an inclusive middle way between fundamental features of modernity and the Muslim tradition accepting them as two faces of the same reality. Yasin Aktay examines sources of Gulen’s knowledge. He stresses the uniqueness in the formation of his body of knowledge. Zeki Saritoprak explores Fethullah Gulen’s attitude toward Sufism and Gulen’s spirituality. According to Saritoprak, Gulen may not be a Sufi in name but is certainly a Sufi in practice. Gulen’s dedication to Islam, his interpretations according to Sufi belief, and his ascetic lifestyle prompt Saritoprak to call Fethullah Gulen a Sufi, albeit a Sufi in his own way.

Gulen Movement Around The World

Hasan Kosebalaban shares his views on Gulen’s ideas related to issues central to Turkish foreign policy. These issues include European Union membership, the United States role in the world, Turkey’s relations with Iran and the Arab world, and the status of the Balkans and Central Asia. According to Kosebalaban, rejecting a confrontational attitude toward the West and building a bridge with the East, Gulen offers a dynamic and multidirectional foreign-policy vision. Berna Turam examines the case of the Gulen Movement in Kazakhstan. She challenges arguments about incompatibility between Islam and civil society. Ihsan Yilmaz suggests that Gulen has reinterpreted Islamic understanding in tune with contemporary times and has developed and put into practice a new Muslim discourse with respect to some traditionally sensitive issues. Yolmaz describes the Gulem Movement as a successful example neo-ijtihad and tajdid, with its origins in Turkey. Finally, John Voll attempts to frame the portrait of Fethullah Gulen by the analysis of the intellectual constructs of modernity. He suggests that the transformations of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey are an important part of the modern experience and the historical developments going beyond that experience. In this context, Voll argue that Fethullah Gulen’s vision bridges modern and postmodern, global and local, and has a significant influence in the contemporary debates that shape the visions of the future of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Overall, the book has managed to provide a comprehensive review of interactions between the Turkish secular republic and the Gulen Movement. It was one of the earliest studies in the English language that revealed the significance of the Hizmet Movement in the shaping of the Islamic sociopolitical scene in Turkey. The book came as a timely resource for academics, policy makers, and a wider public. It has surely helped many to understand the Movement and the context it operates in. More importantly it has set a high standard for future work on the subject. While many other sources became available since then, the book still remains very relevant. Those interested in understanding the Gulen Movement and its inner philosophy should read this volume.

Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement. Edited by M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003. 280 pp.; ISBN: 0-8156-3040-9.

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