The Hocaefendi, “respected teacher”, Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, remains a mystery in the Unite States
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Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, left, gives a vase as gift to Islamic scholar and spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, right, during his visit to Istanbul on Feb. 25, 1998. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
A Rare Meeting With Reclusive Turkish Spiritual Leader Fethullah Gulen
JAMIE TARABAYAUG 14 2013, 9:05 AM ET
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish religious spiritual leader, some say to millions of Turks both in Turkey and around the world, and the head of the Gulenist movement. His network of followers span the globe and have opened academically-focused schools across 90 countries, including the U.S.
The hocaefendi, meaning “respected teacher,” as he is called, left Turkey in 1998 to avoid charges from the Turkish government of involvement in anti-secular activities. He eventually settled in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, where he continues to preach, write, and guide his followers through television and the Internet.
He is sickly and doesn’t travel, yet secular Turks worry his influence in political ranks will grow Islamist influence there and turn the country into a religious state. He is well-known in Turkey and across Central Asia, yet here in the United States, he remains a mystery.
The reclusive spiritualist keeps to his home in the Poconos, attended by believers, praying, lecturing, and claiming his influence is not as wide-ranging as his critics claim it to be. He rarely gives interviews, but I was recently allowed to travel to the idyllic resort-like compound he has been living in for around 14 years and meet with Gulen for an interview. An edited transcript of his translated answers follows:
The Atlantic: It’s so rare to have an interview with you, why is that?
Fethullah Gulen: I grew up in a humble family with a shy personality. I accept these kind offers out of respect for those who are requesting such interviews, otherwise, I would prefer to live a secluded life just by myself.
We just saw your living quarters, and I saw a very small bed, a small mat, a small room. When you can have all the space you need, why do you use such a small area for yourself?
My whole life has been this way, during my years as a student, and later on in life I have always lived in such humble spaces. It’s because I would like to live like my fellow citizens because I consider myself among them. By no means do I consider myself superior in any sense. Also, it is in my nature. I believe in the hereafter; I believe that’s the true life, therefore I don’t want to attach myself too much to this world.
Do you still teach every day?
I try to spend time with the students here every day as much as my health allows me. Some days my health prevents me from doing so, but I’d like to continue to study with them for as long as I am alive.
I heard you had no female students.
In Turkey, our friends are running a program in which female students are taking graduate-level courses in divinity. Here, the same system couldn’t be replicated, but there are ladies who regularly follow the lectures.
According to Islamic tradition, is the role of women limited to motherhood?
No, it is not. The noble position of motherhood aside, our general opinion about women is that, while taking into account their specific needs, it should be made possible for them to take on every role, including the jobs of physician, military officer, judge and president of a country. As a matter of fact, in every aspect of life throughout history Muslim women made contributions to their society. In the golden age (referring to the years during Mohammed’s lifetime) starting with Aisha, Hafsa, and Um Salama (the Prophet’s wives), had their places among the jurists and they taught men.
When these examples are taken into consideration, it would be clearly understood that it is out of the question to restrict the lives of women, narrowing down their activities. Unfortunately, the isolation of women from social activities in some places today, a practice that stems from the misinterpretation of Islamic sources, has been a subject of a worldwide propaganda campaign against Islam.
If there is one thing that you would say to people here in this country who don’t know a lot about you, your beliefs and your teachings, what would that message be?
I don’t have a need to promote myself. I’ve never sought to be known or recognized by people. I simply share ideas I believe in with people around me. If people recognize me despite that, that’s their mistake. But my core belief is to seek peace in the world, helping people eliminate certain malevolent attitudes through education as much as possible. An Arabic proverb says: “If something cannot be attained fully, it shouldn’t be abandoned completely.”
What message do you have for Americans who are concerned about the number of charter schools founded by people you inspire? How do you expect that influence to reflect on that educator’s life?
First of all, let me clarify that I have never been personally involved in the founding or operation of any school. My influence, if any, has been through my sermons, talks and seminars. If I have any credit among the people who listen to my words, I have channeled that credit or credibility to encouraging them to establish institutions of education. I have tried to explain that we can achieve peace and reconciliation around the world only through raising a generation of people who read, who think critically, who love fellow humans and who offer their assets in service of humanity.
JAMIE TARABAY is a former contributing editor at Atlantic Media. Her writing has appeared in National Journal, TheAtlantic.com and the quarterly dispatch: Beyond Iraq. As Baghdad Bureau Chief for NPR News, her reporting on the war in Iraq received the Alfred I duPont-Columbia University Award. She is the author of A Crazy Occupation; Eyewitness to the Intifada.
Gulen Inspires Muslims Worldwide
Oxford Analytica 01.21.08, 6:00 AM ET
Fethullah Gulen is a provincial Turkish preacher who has inspired a worldwide network of Muslims who feel at home in the modern world.
The chief characteristic of the Gulen movement is that it does not seek to subvert modern secular states, but encourages practicing Muslims to use to the full the opportunities they offer. It is best understood as the Islamic equivalent of Christian movements appealing to business and the professions. Like them, it is feared by some for its ability to mobilize considerable resources and for its influence among decision-makers.
Gulen was born in 1938 in a village near Erzurum in eastern Turkey. His father was an imam, and Gulen learned from him the elements of Islam as well as some Persian and Arabic. His first appointment in 1957 was to a mosque in Edirne. At roughly the same time, he was introduced to the teaching of Said-i Nursi (1876-1960), a politically active Kurdish preacher.
Nursi influence: Nursi, whose name comes from the village of Nurs but brings to mind the word Nur, meaning “light” in Arabic, became the founder of the Nurcu (Followers of Light) movement. Although Nursi’s roots were in the strictly orthodox and conservative Naqshabandiyah Sufi order (tarikat), his message was that Muslims should not reject modernity, but find inspiration in the sacred texts to engage with it.
Izmir base: Gulen put Nursi’s ideas into practice when he was transferred to a mosque in Izmir in 1966. Izmir is a city where political Islam never took root. However, the business and professional middle class came to resent the constraints of a state bureaucracy under whose wings it had grown, and supported market-friendly policies, while preserving at least some elements of a conservative lifestyle. Such businessmen were largely pro-Western, because it was Western (mainly U.S.) influence, which had persuaded the government to allow free elections for the first time in 1950 and U.S. aid, which had primed the pump of economic growth.
From his base in Izmir, Gulen organized summer camps where the tenets of Islam were taught and started a network of student boarding houses known as “lighthouses.” He sought to transfer the loyalty of Muslims from the Ottoman empire to the Turkish secular republic, even when the republican regime put pressure on the Muslim community. This explains his support for the military coup of 1980 and for the soft coup in 1997, which forced Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamist prime minister, to resign.
Official toleration allowed Gulen to concentrate on what became his life-work–the creation of a network, first of private schools and residences, then of universities, media outlets and civil society groups as centers of excellence promoting a modern, Islam-based ethical framework. Starting with the wealthy businessmen of Izmir, Gulen mobilized resources allowing him to control one of Turkey’s leading newspapers, Zaman, a television channel and a radio station, as well as a university with campuses in Istanbul and Ankara. Like his schools, Gulen’s other activities try to be self-financing, competing on quality.
Over the years, Gulen extended his reach from Turkey to the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union ( Zaman runs a successful edition in Azerbaijan), then to other successor states of the Soviet Union, the Balkans and finally the West. His embrace of globalization became more pronounced after his move to the United States in 1997, in order to escape harassment at home, seek treatment and influence his followers throughout the world.
It is not yet clear whether the Gulen movement will, like Opus Dei, outlive its founder. In any event, it is a unique and highly successful manifestation of flexible, modern Islam in a globalized setting, and it is likely to have a lasting impact on the modernization of Islam and its opening to engagement with Western ideas.
Oxford Analytica is an independent strategic-consulting firm drawing on a network of more than 1,000 scholar experts at Oxford and other leading universities and research institutions around the world. For more information, please visit www.oxan.com. To find out how to subscribe to the firm’s Daily Brief Service, click here.
Gülen teaches an Anatolian (Hanafi) version of Islam, deriving from Sunni Muslim scholar Said Nursî‘s teachings. Gülen has stated that he believes in science, interfaith dialogue among the People of the Book, and multi-party democracy. He has initiated such dialogue with the Vatican and some Jewish organizations.
Gülen is actively involved in the societal debate concerning the future of the Turkish state, and Islam in the modern world. He has been described in the English-language media as “one of the world’s most important Muslim figures.” However, his Gülen movement has been described as “having the characteristics of a cult” and its secretiveness and influence in Turkish politics likened to “an Islamic Opus Dei“. In the Turkish context, Gülen appears as a religious conservative.
Gülen was born in the village of Korucuk, near Erzurum. His father, Ramiz Gülen, was an imam. Gülen started primary education at his home village, but did not continue after his family moved, and instead focused on informal Islamic education. He gave his first sermon when he was 14. He was influenced by the ideas of Said Nursi and Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.
Comparing Gülen to leaders in the Nur movement, Hakan Yavuz said, “Gülen is more Turkish nationalist in his thinking. Also, he is somewhat more state-oriented, and is more concerned with market economics and neo-liberal economic policies.”
His pro-business stance has led some outsiders to dub his theology an Islamic version of Calvinism. Oxford Analytica says:
“Gülen put Nursi’s ideas into practice when he was transferred to a mosque in Izmir in 1966. Izmir is a city where political Islam never took root. However, the business and professional middle class came to resent the constraints of a state bureaucracy under whose wings it had grown, and supported market-friendly policies, while preserving at least some elements of a conservative lifestyle. Such businessmen were largely pro-Western, because it was Western (mainly U.S.) influence, which had persuaded the government to allow free elections for the first time in 1950 [sic] and U.S. aid, which had primed the pump of economic growth.”
Gülen retired from formal preaching duties in 1981. From 1988 to 1991 he gave a series of sermons in popular mosques of major cities. In 1994, he participated in the founding of “Journalists and Writers Foundation” and was given the title “Honorary President” by the foundation. He did not make any comment regarding the closures of the Welfare Party in 1998 or the Virtue Party in 2001. He has met some politicians like Tansu Ciller and Bulent Ecevit, but he avoids meeting with the leaders of Islamic political parties.
In 1999, Gülen emigrated to the United States, claiming the trip for medical treatment, although arguably it was in anticipation of being tried over remarks (aired after his emigration to U.S.) which seemed to favor an Islamic state. In June 1999, after Gülen had left Turkey, videotapes were sent to some Turkish television stations with recordings of Gülen saying,
“The existing system is still in power. Our friends who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so that they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a nationwide restoration. However, they should wait until the conditions become more favorable. In other words, they should not come out too early.”
Gülen complained that the remarks were taken out of context, and his supporters raised questions about the authenticity of the tape,which he accused of having been “manipulated”. Gülen was tried in absentia in 2000, and acquitted in 2008 under the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Gülen does not advocate a new theology but refers to classical authorities of theology, taking up their line of argument. His understanding of Islam tends to be conservative and mainstream. Though he has never been a member of a Sufi tariqat and does not see tarekat membership as a necessity for Muslims, he teaches that “Sufism is the inner dimension of Islam” and “the inner and outer dimensions must never be separated.”
His teachings differ in emphasis from those of other mainstream Islamic scholars in two respects, both based on his interpretations of particular verses of the Qur’an. He teaches that the Muslim community has a duty of service (Turkish: hizmet) to the “common good” of the community and the nation and to Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world; and that the Muslim community is obliged to conduct interfaith dialogue with the “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians), although this does not extend to other religions and atheist. Gülen has appeared to be intolerant of atheism, commenting in 2004 that “terrorism was as despicable as atheism”. In a follow-up interview, he claimed he did not intend to equate atheists and murderers; rather, he wanted to highlight the fact that according to Islam, both were destined to suffer eternal punishment.
The Gülen movement is a transnational Islamic civic society movement inspired by Gülen’s teachings. His teachings about hizmet (altruistic service to the “common good”) have attracted a large number of supporters in Turkey, Central Asia, and increasingly in other parts of the world.
In his sermons, Gülen has reportedly stated: “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping Allah.”Gülen’s followers have built over 1,000 schools around the world. In Turkey, Gülen’s schools are considered among the best: expensive modern facilities and English taught from the first grade. However, former teachers from outside the Gülen community have called into question the treatment of women and girls in Gülen schools, reporting that female teachers were excluded from administrative responsibilities, allowed little autonomy, and—along with girls from the sixth grade and up—segregated from male colleagues and pupils during break and lunch periods.
Interfaith and intercultural dialogue
Gülen movement participants have founded a number of institutions across the world which claim to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue activities. Gülen’s earlier works are (in Bekim Agai’s words) “full of anti-missionary and anti-Western passages”, and “vitriolic” diatribes against Jews, Christians, and others. During the 1990s, he began to advocate interreligious tolerance and dialogue. He has personally met with leaders of other religions, including Pope John Paul II, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomeos, and Israeli Sephardic Head Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron.
Gülen has said that he favors cooperation between followers of different religions as well as religious and secular elements within society.
Views on contemporary issues
Gülen has criticized secularism in Turkey as “reductionist materialism”. However, he has in the past said that a secular approach that is “not anti-religious” and “allows for freedom of religion and belief, is compatible with Islam.”
According to one Gülen press release, in democratic-secular countries, ninety-five percent of Islamic principles are permissible and practically feasible, and there is no problem with them. The remaining five percent “are not worth fighting for.”
Turkey bid to join the EU
Gülen has supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and has said that neither Turkey nor the EU have anything to fear, but have much to gain, from a future of full Turkish membership in the EU.
According to Aras and Caha, Gülen’s views on women are “progressive” but “modern professional women in Turkey still find his ideas far from acceptable.” Gülen says the coming of Islam saved women, who “were absolutely not confined to their home and … never oppressed” in the early years of the religion. He feels that western-style feminism, however, is “doomed to imbalance like all other reactionary movements … being full of hatred towards men.”
However, Gülen’s views are vulnerable to the charge of misogyny. As noted by Berna Turam, Gülen has argued: “the man is used to more demanding jobs … but a woman must be excluded during certain days during the month. After giving birth, she sometimes cannot be active for two months. She cannot take part in different segments of the society all the time. She cannot travel without her husband, father, or brother … the superiority of men compared to women cannot be denied.”
Gülen has condemned terrorism. He warns against the phenomenon of arbitrary violence and aggression against civilians and said that it “has no place in Islam”. He wrote a condemnation article in the Washington Post on September 12, 2001, one day after the September 11 attacks, and stated that “A Muslim can not be a terrorist, nor can a terrorist be a true Muslim.” Gülen lamented the “hijacking of Islam” by terrorists.
Gülen 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 multinational aid group members as its flotilla approached Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza. He said, “What I saw was not pretty, it was ugly.” He has since continued his criticism, saying later that the organizers’ failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid was “a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”
Syrian Civil War
Gülen is strongly against Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
Influence in Turkish society and politics
The Gulen movement has millions of followers in Turkey, as well as many more abroad. Beyond the schools established by Gülen’s followers, it is believed that many Gülenists hold positions of power in Turkey’s police forces and judiciary. Turkish and foreign analysts believe Gülen has sympathizers in the Turkish parliament and that his movement controls the widely-read Islamic conservative Zaman newspaper, the private Bank Asya bank, the Samanyolu TV television station, and many other media and business organizations, including the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON).
Split with Erdoğan
Despite Gülen’s and his followers’ claims that the organization is non-political in nature, analysts believe that a number of corruption-related arrests made against allies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reflect a growing political power struggle between Gülen and the prime minister. These arrests led to the 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey, which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s supporters (along with Erdoğan himself) and the opposition parties alike have said was choreographed by Gülen after Erdoğan’s government came to the decision early in December 2013 to shut down many of his movement’s private Islamic schools in Turkey. The ongoing power struggle between the Erdoğan government and the Gülenists in the police force and the judiciary has revealed the existence of an alleged well-organized and powerful “parallel state” directed by Gülen himself. The scandals uncovered what the Erdoğan government has said are the long term political agenda of Gülen’s movement to infiltrate security, intelligence, and justice institutions of the Turkish state, a charge almost identical to the charges found against Gülen by the Chief Prosecutor of the Republic of Turkey in his trial in 1999.
In emailed comments to the Wall Street Journal in January 2014, Gülen said that “Turkish people … are upset that in the last two years democratic progress is now being reversed,” but he denied being part of a “plot” to unseat the government, as Erdoğan has alleged.
Gülen has authored over 60 books and many articles on a variety of topics: social, political and religious issues, art, science and sports, and recorded thousands of audio and video cassettes. He contributes to a number of journals and magazines owned by his followers. He writes the lead article for the Fountain, Yeni Ümit, Sızıntı, and Yağmur Islamic philosophical magazines. Several of his books have been translated into English.