Gülen Movement as a Change Agent

The Gülen Movement, although it initially sprouted as a faith-based movement in Turkey in the late 1970s by a few Turkish followers of Fethullah Gülen, seemingly portraying a new formation as a result of a slightly different interpretation of Nursi (Said Nursi) tradition, a historical and ontological analysis of the movement indicates that Gülen movement is a social movement that does not have religious, ethnic, cultural and political agenda. Seemingly a faith-based movement but beyond any faith,  cultural movement but hosting members of other cultures in its body, Gülen movement today demonstrates a harmonious global network of volunteers, teachers, intellectuals, students, businessmen/women of any ethnic, religious, race, and socio-economic backgrounds who are inspired by Gülen’s social philosophy based on dialogue and peaceful coexistence

Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish Muslim scholar and opinion leader who is regarded as the initiator and inspirer of the worldwide social movement whose driving force is the acceptability of universal values  they represent to mankind such as dialogue, civility, tolerance, coexistence, rule of law. Focused on education where secular curricula are taught by teachers of any ethnic and cultural background who aspire to “represent” high values of humanity, this social phenomenon defeats quick categorization of mankind based solely on their ethnic, religious, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

Gülen, listed among the top hundred public intellectuals in the world in 2008 by Foreign Policy magazine , whose life exemplifies values like empathic acceptance, altruistic service of one’s community and humanity in general, complementary roles of the intellect and the heart, sincerity, holistic view of the human, deepening faith and love of the creation. He is noted for his pro-democracy, pro-science, pro-dialogue and non-violence stances in critical junctures of the history of his society.

Characteristics of Gülen Movement as a Change Agent

a) Not an Exclusive but an Inclusive Movement: In the context of being a change agent, the Gülen movement due to its fundamental investment on universal values taking its kinetic energy from altruistic service to the “common good” of mankind, became transnational civic society movement, and have attracted large numbers of supporters in Turkey, Central Asia, Europe, and increasingly in other parts of the world. Among the basic tenets of their worldview is the paradigm of inclusiveness rather than being isolationists, through which, this network of loosely connected people represent common denominator of world’s ethnic, intellectual, professional and social diversity; that is to say that people with different backgrounds of any sort- white-blue collar, men-women, black-white, Muslim-Christian-Jews, scientists, artist, actors, singer, young-old- all have found safety island in this movement. The movement is mainly active in education and interfaith (and intercultural) dialogue, however has also aid initiatives and investments on media, finance, and health.

Not a Sufi leader, but coming and representing strong Sufi tradition, it is very evident that that Gülen’s ideals and teachings germinated under the Sufi’s  belief, which is very inclusive connecting all creatures (mankind and universe) with the creator, which emphasizes that God, mankind and natural world are all purposefully linked (Harrington, 2011, pp.7-10). This idea of “all connected in and beyond the universe” has had deep practical consequences, such as loving, respecting humanity and the natural world, in turn, advocating friendship among people regardless of their faith or lack of one.

Forbes magazine identified the chief characteristic of the Gülen movement as not seeking to subvert modern secular states but rather encouraging practicing Muslims to use to the fullest the opportunities those countries offer. The New York Times describes the movement as coming from a “moderate blend of Islam that is very inclusive.Prospect magazine reported that Gülen and the Gülen movement “are at home with technology, markets and multinational business and especially with modern communications and public relations.

b) Renewalist Nature of Gülen Movement: Gülen’s social thinking evolved overtime, moving from anti-atheist, nationalist worldview in his early days to a more glabolizd worldview, that is, according to Harrington (2011) closer to classical liberalism-one which supports democratization, civil liberty, and separation between secular and religious spheres. Harrington further argues that for Gülen, its possible for a true religious believer to have a good relationship with people of other faith and those of no faith, and its possible for a true believer to engage in intellectual dialogue with anyone of any school of thoughts, question mediocre,   remain open to new ideas and new pathways of thinking. “[Gülen] is a mediator of sorts, presenting a moderate Islam to Jews and Christian, and in turn, presenting them to Muslim” (p.7).

Gülen simultaneously embraces and represents several aspects of both traditional and also innovative Islamic thought and practice. Williams (2008) writes, “ This combination of characteristics, abilities and qualifications, some of which have hitherto seemed mutually exclusive, marks him out from other scholars and reformers and has provided him with a transformative edge’ (p.3). He further defines and identifies Gülen as an alim, a peace activist, an intellectual, a civil-faith-based movement leader, a social reformist, mentor, poet and writer, who has motivated and inspired a generation of people in Turkey and abroad into a multi-ethnic, socio-religious movement which he himself coins as a “Community of Volunteers”.

Gülen Movement is notable for its unrelenting contribution to the potential of students and people in positions of influence to pursue and implement new goals and life changing decisions. It has encouraged voluntary participation and service in a network of global schools and universities, developed trusting relationships between faith leaders and communities though inter-faith dialogue, creating shared objectives for their respective societies.

c) Non-confrontational Positive Mobilization: Gülen has been recognized for his consistent stance against the use of violence with a religious rhetoric. He has advocated peace and non-violence throughout his entire life. He gave speeches in Mosques, conferences in universities, and several interviews to different media outlets to try to stop anarchy which racked Turkey preceding the 1980 coup. Not only was he a national advocate for a sustainable peace, more specifically, he was the first Muslim scholar who publicly condemned the attacks of 9/11 with an advertisement in the Washington Post. He helped publish a scholarly book on the subject, unconditionally condemning terror and suicide attacks on humanitarian and religious grounds. He did not express these views only to Western readers but voiced them in mosque sermons with congregations of thousands of Muslims and to mainstream media outlets serving millions of readers and viewers.

Gülen condemns any kind of terrorism. He warns against the phenomenon of arbitrary violence and aggression against civilians, that is, terrorism has no place in Islam and which militates against its very foundational tenets of reverence for human life and for all of God’s creation. Fethullah Gülen was the first Muslim Leader to openly condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He wrote a condemnation article in the Washington Post on September 12th, 2001, just the day after the attack, and stated that `A muslim can not be a terrorist, nor can a terrorist be a true Muslim,Gülen lamented the deplorable hijacking of Islam by terrorists who claimed to be Muslims and acting out of religious conviction. He counseled that “One should seek Islam through its own sources and in its own representatives throughout history; not through the actions of a tiny minority that misrepresent it

Further Gülen received very harsh criticism in Turkey from ultra-nationalist and in Muslim world from religious fundamentalists when he criticized the Turkish-led Gaza flotilla for trying to deliver aid without Israel’s consent. He spoke of watching the news coverage of the deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and Turkish aid group members as its flotilla approached Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza. “What I saw was not pretty,” he said. “It was ugly.” He continued his criticism. The “organizers’ failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.

d) Use of Education as a Vehicle of Change: Believing in separation of religious and state affairs, and underlying the nonnegotiable fruits of democracy, supporters of the Gülen movement especially have become active in education. In 2009 Newsweek claimed that movement participants run over 1000 schools worldwide and more than 2 million students receive education in these schools. According to Newsweek, two American professors at the the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and Temple University wrote that, “These schools serving students from different backgrounds,-Muslim, Christian, Jews, Judaist, Atheist,  black or white- have consistently promoted good learning and global citizenship, a more positive way of living and relating to each other, and the Gülen movement is to date an evidently admirable civil society organization to build bridges between religious communities and to provide direct service on behalf of the common good in an attempt to build a better world.. 

Lester Kurtz of University of Texas, Austin states that the purpose of the schools movement, therefore, is to lay the foundations for a more humane, tolerant citizenry of the world where people are expected to cultivate their own faith perspectives and also promote the well being of others. It is significant to also note that the movement has been so successful in offering high quality education in its schools, and is therefore able to recruit students from different ethnic, social, cultural and socio-economical background (Kurtz, 2005).  

Gülen considers “education as the most effective vehicle [as a solution of every problem in human life], regardless of whether we have paralyzed social and political systems” (Hunt & Aslandogan 2006, p.33). Further Gülen, with his holistic approach to education, believes that the road to justice for all is throughout an appropriate universal education. Only then will there be sufficient understanding and tolerance to secure respect for the rights of others.

e) Advocating Dialogue for a Global Peace: Starting in 1994, Fethullah Gülen pioneered a rejuvenation of the Interfaith Dialog spirit in the Turkish-Muslim tradition, which was forgotten amidst the troublesome years of the early twentieth century. The Foundation of Journalists and Writers, of which Gülen was the honorary president, organized a series of gatherings involving leaders of religious minorities in Turkey such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Armenian Orthodox Patriarch, Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Vatican’s Representative to Turkey and others. The “Abant” platform, named after the location of the first meeting in Bolu, Turkey, brought together leading intellectuals from all corners of the political spectrum, the leftists, the atheists, the nationalists, the religious conservatives, and the liberals, providing for the first time in recent Turkish history a place where such figures could debate freely about the common concerns of all citizens and pressing social problems.

In the context of promoting interfaith and cultural dialogue, similar to what has been demonstrated by the establishment of Abant Platform in Turkey; Gülen movement participants have founded a number of institutions across the world which promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue activities. Gülen personally met with leaders of other religions, including Pope John Paul II, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomaios, and Israeli Sephardic Head Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. In recent years, movement initiated dialogue with also those of no faith. For example, the Dialogue Society in London, which is inspired by Gülen’s teaching, has more atheist and agnostic members of its Advisory Board than it has Muslims.

Similar to Said Nursi, Gülen favors cooperation between followers of different religions (this would also include different forms of Islam, such as Sunnism vs.Alevism in Turkey as well as religious and secular elements within society. He has been described as “very critical of the regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia” due to their undemocratic, sharia-based systems of government.

One of the main characteristics of the movement is that it is faith-based but not faith-limited. In London, October, 2007 a conference examining the nature and activities of the movement was sponsored by the University of Birmingham, the Dialogue Society, the Irish School of Ecumenics, Leeds Metropolitan University, the London Middle East Institute, the Middle East Institute and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. There was a reception at the House of Lords. The most recent conference about the movement was held at University of Chicago on Nov 11-13 2010 named “The Gülen Movement: Paradigms, Projects, and Aspirations”.

The Tipping Point of a Change Lead by Gülen Movement

There are two forms of social changes; revolutionary and evolutionary. As the name implies, “revolutionary change” refers to sudden, dramatic, unexpected change which is engendered by an abrupt modification of mission, vision and strategy of the nation, such as the incalculable impact of a military coup in social life. In contrast to non-linear nature of revolutionary change, “evolutionary change” on the other hand, refers to a linear, continues, operational, transactional rather than transformational change (Burke, 2008, p.21), which is typically generated by series of internal developments, improvements, upgrades and emerging challenges that eventually force leaders to explore alternative solutions to remove obstacles on their pathway to develop.

The long and artificial silence of Cold War era started to break away as the power of centers began to losing their influences on the outposts of their colonies. Specifically, those “Istan countries” (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan) governed by the iron fist of former Russia, each of which was once numbed by a lethal injection, started to awake while feeling the strong pain of the slavery chain on their neck. The period 1988-1991 was the tipping period where social unrest and political turmoil gained momentum across the Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Balkans, and Northern Caspian region, dragging these small countries into a time-capsule whereby several of them woke up with the light of independence ending nearly a century long oppression. Within the context of overthrowing wardship regime to gain national sovereignty, these changes may be defined and identified as revolutionary change.

Contemporary Turkey, despite sharing common historical heritage with many of these “Istan countries”, unfortunately had very weak political, social and economical ties with them at the time of political upheaval mainly due to its own chronic internal deadlocks such as unstable regime, ailing economy, instigating imparities between different social, ethnic and religious groups, and most importantly a tumbling regime pregnant serving to needs of few powerful elites was busy inside  by diving its own people into right-left camps with subtle yet enough important ideological differences  in an attempt to maintain social unrest inside which was what  military wanted to see as a ripe picture for their perpetual attempt to what they call “aligning democracy” in the name of safety and sovereignty of Turkish secular regime.

Thinkers and philosophers, like Fethullah Gülen, generate ideas within social and cultural context in an attempt to provide practical solutions to political, social, economical, religious and intellectual challenges of their era (Gutek, 2005). As the institutions of Turkish government were severally contended with the never-ending internal conflicts thereby making them deaf and blind to external development,  non-governmental organizations (NGOs)  such as Gülen movement with its human capital were able to quickly mobilize its soft-power  into these “Istan countries” to address major social issues-education- after the break-away from USSR.  Gülen sees education as the primary solution to the three pervasive problems that plaque developing countries, namely ignorance, poverty, social divisions. This time period (1988-1991)  marks a historic turning point in the sense the supporters of Gülen movement first time had the opportunity to go beyond the physical borders of Turkey-the mother land of the movement-to open schools in order to instill universal values, such as tolerance, dialogue, hard-working, rule of law, civility, love, and respect  into the fabric of character formation of young generations to whom we are going to entrust our tomorrows.

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