What is the Gülen Movement?

This is a question social scientists have been trying to answer earnestly for over a decade, yet no one definition or approach seems to satisfy. Even social scientists cannot agree on what to call it, and one can find various articles referring to it as the Gülen Movement, the Hizmet Movement, The Gülen Hizmet Movement, the Volunteers Movement, or simply hizmet, hizmet being a Turkish word meaning service. Thus, we propose a series of short articles to delve into examining these different approaches to the Gülen Movement in an attempt to arrive at a more accurate and holistic understanding of the movement. We will begin with a general definition and then examine nuances to this definition given by scholars who have examined the Gülen Movement from within their own specialties – as a social movement, as an international organization, and as social entrepreneurship. We will also consider a debate relevant in the Turkish context – Is the Gülen Movement a society or a community? Finally, as part of the definition, we will consider a facet of the organization that you rarely see discussed; is the Gülen Movement a religious organization?

Let’s begin with an overview adapted from this website fethullah-gulen.org.  The Gülen Movement “originated in 1970s Turkey as a faith-inspired initiative to improve educational opportunities for a local community; over the three and a half decades since then, it has grown into a transnational educational, inter-cultural and interfaith movement, with participants numbering in the millions with securely established, respected institutions …mostly schools on every continent” (Cetin, 2010, The Gülen Movement, p. xv). Today, this Turkish Diaspora reaches over 130 countries. The movement is named after Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish scholar, writer, and preacher. What is unique about Gülen’s philosophical writings is that they have inspired millions to put his philosophy into action. In Turkey, this movement is known as “hizmet” a Turkish word meaning service. This is an apt word as the movement is fueled by the grassroots activity of volunteers who have dedicated themselves to serving humanity. Gülen’s writings and speeches have inspired Turks to make their hijra (in the Qur’anic sense of the term, meaning to leave one’s homeland for the sake of serving God) to other countries with the express purpose of serving humanity by starting secular schools. The Gülen-movement is a non-confrontational, social movement that adapts itself to the status quo and the existing laws, culture, and norms of each country in which it works.

With this brief overview, we can begin to understand how the Gülen Movement defies easy classification. It is faith-inspired, but it does not have a missionary arm; even its schools are secular. It is inspired by one charismatic figure, yet there are many charismatic figures in the Muslim world (and everywhere for that matter), but most do not inspire a worldwide movement of service. It’s a social movement, but it is lacking a key ingredient of nearly every social movement, in that it is non-confrontational. As we explore further, we will uncover more contradictions with traditional understanding of a movement. For example, it can be described as a grassroots or “bottom-up” movement, yet it targets to work with the elites in any country in which it serves. All “members” serve voluntarily, yet there is no formal membership. The Movement displays a remarkable degree of dynamism and flexibility in its actions, but its members exhibit a high degree of conformity in values and lifestyle. The Movement is decidedly a Turkish movement, yet it is welcomed in over 130 countries. In many respects, it can also be described as a youth movement. As we explore further, we will discuss these dimensions to come to a fuller understanding of the Gülen Movement.

Next, the Gülen Movement as a social movement.

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