The Imam: Fethullah Gulen in the Western Media

More than a decade after Fethullah Gulen moved to the US, three articles appeared in the western media in 2010 providing a closer look to the life of Gulen, and the movement he inspired. One was written by Suzy Hensen and published in The New Republic on November 10, 2010. The other appeared in The Wall Street Journal on June 4, 2010 right after the Gaza flotilla incident. Another comprehensive article was published in The Time magazine on April 26, 2010. Aside from being the only three major articles that appeared in the western media covering Fethullah Gulen, all three articles had one common word in their titles: Surprisingly it was not Gulen’s name, but the term “imam”.

Time Magazine called Gulen “The Turkish Imam” whereas The Wall Street Journal referred to him as “Reclusive Turkish Imam”, and finally The New Republic went with “The Global Imam”. So what does “imam” mean, and why did such prestigious media choose to call Gulen “the imam”? This note provides a little analysis on the perception of Fethullah Gulen in the western media and suggests alternative terms that could better define and describe him.

Imam in the Islamic Terminology and Turkish Understanding
Merriam-Webster defines “imam” as 1) the prayer leader of a mosque, or 2) a Muslim leader of the line of Ali held by Shiites to be the divinely appointed, sinless, infallible successors of Muhammad, or 3) any of various rulers that claim descent from Muhammad and exercise spiritual and temporal leadership over a Muslim region. The Turkish understanding of imam is mostly as described in part one, because the majority of Muslim population in Turkey is not Shiite but Sunni.

Wikipedia differentiates a little more between Sunni and Shiite understanding of imam: “An imam is an Islamic leadership position, often the worship leader of a mosque and the Muslim community. Similar to spiritual leaders, the imam is the one who leads Islamic worship services. More often, the community turns to the mosque imam if they have a religious question. In smaller communities, an imam could also be the community leader. The Sunni branch of Islam, where to approximately 90% of Muslims adhere, does not have a clergy and therefore an imam is not a cleric like that of a Catholic Christian priest. In the Shia (Shiite) branch of Islam, the concept of an imam occupies a much more central religious position. The Sunni branch of Islam does not have imams in the same sense as the Shiite.”

Following the above definitions, we have to clarify that Fethullah Gulen is not an imam in the Shiite sense, as he openly declares in many of his writings and speeches he is a strict follower of the Hanafi tradition that is a streamline Sunni branch of Islam. Therefore, as an imam for Sunni Muslims, Gulen is someone who leads congregational daily or weekly prayers and gives sermons. He actually performed in that position officially in Turkey for more than thirty years from sixties to nineties.  The same reasoning or description applies to all imams in Turkey, as almost all of the Muslim populations are followers of the Hanafi or Shafi traditions which are both Sunni branches of Islam.

So not only Gulen but any imam in Turkey, is not an imam in the Shiite sense, that is, he is not believed to be sinless or infallible or divinely appointed. Those references only apply to various sects of Shiite branch. Neither Fethullah Gulen himself nor the people inspired by him see him in that position.

Gulen vs. Khomeini: A False Analogy
Those who compare Fethullah Gulen to Ayatollah Khomeini are making a false analogy. Riza Meral, a Turkish political scientist, gives a detailed analysis of this faulty comparison on Turkish Daily News

“The first serious mismatch between Khomeini and Gulen is the overall political context. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 did not happen because of Khomeini or his return. The dynamics of the economy, poor governance and foreign intervention had led to a wide reaction against the Shah’s regime, uniting the voices of leftists, communists, clerics and apolitical middle-class merchants. The eventual clerical manipulation of the revolution and imposition of theocracy were unexpected outcomes of a reaction to a failed political regime. Today’s Turkey is nowhere near as fragile as Iran was in 1977-79, nor is there such a unanimous or clear-cut feeling of reaction against the rulers of the land, or even a consensus on who is actually at the root of the problem. The fact that the AK Party is in power with 47 percent of the vote makes it impossible to have an overnight revolution or instant change, as Turkish society is divided almost evenly and no group can declare unchallenged dominance.

The second mismatch is seen in contrasting the appeal Khomeini had and Gulen has in their respective societies. Within the political vacuum that lacked a credible and trusted political figure, Khomeini eventually emerged as representing authenticity, faithfulness to Persian culture and values, virtue and humility, in stark comparison to the Shah and his elitist excesses. His political language, with its religious and socialist tunes, connected with the broad revolutionary imaginations of the people. That is why his return to Iran from exile initially appealed to everyone. Similarly, the notions of Mahdi, the anticipated return of the Hidden Imam added a Messianic aura to his arrival in Tehran on a French jumbo jet.

Gulen will not return to a society that is expecting him as the Savior or the true representation of Turkishness or the antidote to current political failures. Although it is true that Gulen’s imminent return would cause tensions, it would only be tensions created by political interest groups which would use his presence for their own ends, rather than a unanimous welcome that would lead to the overtaking of the country. Although the Gulen movement will increasingly become one of the most powerful social and political Islamic voices in Turkey, at the moment there is no evidence that the movement has plans for a concrete recreation of or enforcement of a new political system. For now, the movement seems to be resolved to influence society and politics with a tolerant, conservative and traditional Islamic faith.

The third mismatch is the difference between Shiite and Sunni Islam. One of the questions that always troubled observers of the Islamic world is why there has only been one Islamic revolution and that in Iran, a Shiite country, and nowhere else. Although some have unconvincingly argued that the reactionary roots of the Shiite faith have created a more aggressive political theology, this idea completely contradicts different voices and eras in Shiite theology, which have categorically rejected participation in mundane politics. However, there is an important element of the Shiite faith that always makes it a powerful social force, which is the strong structural relationship and hierarchy between the clerics and their followers. Sunni Islam is closer to Protestant Christianity in its autonomous, scattered and organic nature, whereas Shiite Islam is closer to Eastern Orthodox Christianity with its hierarchical, structured and multiple leadership roles. This is why a single Sunni Muslim leader can never hold the same social power and unquestioned following that a Shiite leader might attract. Thus it would be very difficult for Gulen to exercise power and enforce a vision like Khomeini was able to.”

Fethullah Gulen himself dismissed these allegations personally several times. When asked about his return to Turkey in 2008, he stated “I am not Iranian, I’m not like Khomeini. I have never carried his claims. So my return is not like a return of Khomeini”. He stressed that he is not a public person who loves to make appearances. “I never had similarities to Khomeini in terms of character, religious order or country. I will return to my country when the conditions are ripe, and it is going to be in my own humble modest way, without making a big deal out of it, without having any major public appearances.”

The above analysis should also answer the implicated question in the title of article by Delphine Strauss “Inspring or Insidious” at the Financial Times. As a strict Sunni traditionalist Fethullah Gulen cannot utilize the Shiite concept of “taqiyya”, meaning dissimulation. He has always been open about his thoughts and intentions. Moreover almost all his speeches are recorded, and scripts of those are published through various books or websites.

Considering his life, his writings, his speeches, and what he has promoted throughout his life, it might be more correct to call Fethullah Gulen a thinker, a writer, a preacher, an activist and an intellectual leader. Gulen abnegates any adjectives that would associate him any superiority or leadership, but he has inspired hundreds of thousands in education, dialog, outreach and charity.

Gulen as an Intellectual and Opinion Leader
Gulen renounces any reference of him other than an ordinary Muslim. He rejects any loyalty other than to the basic principles of humanity, citizenship and peaceful living. His simple but exemplary life inspired thousands of people to reach out to others, give charity to the needy, build schools all around the world, resolve conflicts, and establish bridges among different ethnic and religious groups of people.

Several universities across the globe established chairs in his name to study Gulen’s teachings and the movement he inspired. Professor Johan Leman, the chair holder at the Catholic University of Leuven says, “His (Gulen’s) message now has a growing influence, particularly among the second-generation migrant-origin citizens of Europe. It is our hope that this chair, inspired by this message, will contribute to the bridge-building process through promoting intercultural understanding and stimulating research on relations between Muslim communities and the wider society in Belgium and Europe”.

Foreign Policy of the United States and Prospect Magazine of the United Kingdom had chosen Fethullah Gulen as the World’s Top Public Intellectual in a 2008 poll of their readers. Ebru News quotes “With over 50 books written and available in 40 different languages it is no wonder how Gulen was chosen at the top of that list. Gulen is a well-respected contemporary thinker, a democratic figure and social renovator who appeals to the common sense of large masses.” In the FP interview, Gulen makes clear that he has no political ambitions and claims no leadership; he sees his only role as a writer and preacher promoting dialog and education.

Gulen as a Teacher and Preacher
Fethullah Gulen is generally referred as “hocaefendi”, meaning “respected teacher” in Turkish, as he has been teaching Islamic sciences on the understanding of the Quran, Holy Book of Islam, and the Sunnah, life and sayings of the Messenger Mohammad (PBUH). As mentioned above he has more than 50 books most of which are translated into English or other languages. His magnum opuses on Sufism (Emerald Hills of The Heart) and Life of The Messenger (The Infinite Light) are both unique in content and style.

Both in his sermons and his writings, Fethullah Gulen always admonishes the people inspired by him to adhere to the basic principles of citizenship, humanity and peaceful living. His writings and personal life is the best evidence that he always promotes peace and dialog, respect for one another. He always encourages the people inspired by him to cooperate and collaborate with people from all walks of life in resolving the emergent problems of the humanity.

We could conclude with the introduction of Fethullah Gulen, by the Gulen Institute, summarizing all the better terms that define and describe him: “Gulen is a Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader, educational activist, and preacher emeritus. He is regarded as the initiator and inspirer of the worldwide social movement of human values known as the Hizmet (Service) Movement… Despite the high regard millions hold for him, Gulen considers himself only one of the volunteers of the civil society movement he helped originate, and denounces any attribution of leadership. He spends most of his time reading, writing, editing, worshiping, and receiving medical care. Sharing the suffering of humans in every corner of the world, he has always been known for his deep respect for and connection to all creation. Living for others is the core principle of his understanding of service.”

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