Portrait of Fethullah Gülen

A Modern Turkish-Islamic Reformist

Fethullah Gülen, founder of a worldwide Islamic education movement, regards morality and education as the engine for a contemporary Islam that is compatible with laicism. By Bekim Agai

photo: Hakan Yavuz
Fethullah Gülen

​​Many are on the lookout today for "reformist thought" in the Islamic world. The question here is what qualities an Islamic reformist is expected to demonstrate and what exactly makes for "Islamic reformist thinking."

On the one hand, there are Muslims who refer to themselves as Islamic reformers (e.g. as "Euro Muslims"), but of whom few Muslims take much note. And on the other hand, there are those who are described as such, but themselves say that they are not out to reform Islam, but rather only to interpret it in an "Islamically correct" manner.

This second group of Islamic thinkers includes Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual father of what has been probably the most active Turkish-Islamic movement of the late 20th century. To date, far too little attention has been devoted to Gülen and his followers in analyses of recent Islamic thought in Turkey.

The following observations are based largely on my analysis of the ideas of Fethullah Gülen, their dissemination, and the way in which his devotees are organized. I will describe how Fethullah Gülen's discourse on education is reflected in the extremely flexible organizational network of his followers.

We will examine both Fethullah Gülen himself as well as the broader question of whether we might not often be looking in the wrong places for the reformers within the Islamic spectrum.

Fethullah Gülen as "Model Muslim"

Fethullah Gülen is a retired preacher who was born in 1938 in a village near Erzurum in eastern Anatolia and today lives in the USA. During the 70s and 80s he traveled as a state preacher all over Turkey, at that time already accumulating a broad following.

One of the key approaches in the ideas he has developed through the years is the attempt to shape a more modern Islam by applying knowledge borrowed from the natural sciences.

In the face of the growing influence of Islamic tendencies on Turkey's political landscape during the 90s, the moderate/conservative parties in particular styled Gülen as a "model Muslim" who offered a synthesis of Islamic values with the separation of Islam and politics demanded by Kemalism.

In 1999, however, he himself became the victim of a state campaign that labeled him an Islamic menace, although these accusations have meanwhile died down. Fethullah Gülen lives today in the USA.

Gülen's education network

Fethullah Gülen is the founder of an Islamic educational movement, which during the past 30 years has set up a network of schools in Turkey and elsewhere, but in the day-to-day operation of which he is not directly involved.

Motivated by Islamic principles, his adherents are committed to modern, "non-religious" education and are active in building private, state-certified educational facilities without a central focus on religious subjects.

English is usually the primary language of instruction. These schools are today represented all over the world, the result of a view of Islam that developed from the secular Turkish context in conservative Islamic circles.

This attitude toward Islam is not a component of the modern reformist Islam proclaimed by the Turkish state and taught at the theological universities; to some extent it even came about in opposition to the official state understanding of Islam.

The concentration of activities on "non-religious" educational work is all the more astounding when one considers that it is precisely the laicistic Turkish state that tends to regard foreign cultural policy, for example in Central Asia, but in Germany as well, as a matter of religious works, such as building mosques or supporting religious educational institutions.

The traditional understanding of Islam

Fethullah Gülen is well known to the Turkish public for his activities in the inter-religious realm, his standing on the reconcilability of Islam and laicism, his public condemnation of violence in the name of Islam, and above all for his stance on the significance of education in Islam.

Delving into his extensive writings, however, one soon realizes that Fethullah Gülen is not interested in advocating his own unique theology or even a revolutionary new direction. His understanding of Islam is oriented along the conservative mainstream and his arguments are traditional – and yet the activities of his followers still manage to amaze every observer.

Since the 80s, they have built some 150 private schools, 150 dersanes (centers that prepare students for their university entrance exam), and numerous student dormitories.

Fethullah Gülen's education discourse is disseminated chiefly through a media network set up in the 80s, encompassing a news agency, a television station, a daily paper, and several magazines and publishers.

These media all report on the activities of Gülen's adherents. The facilities set up by the group are formally independent of one another; however, they are joined together into an educational network by virtue of the close contacts maintained by their directors.

Educational concepts with worldwide success

After the fall of the "Iron Curtain," Fethullah Gülen encouraged his followers to spread his ideas beyond Turkey's borders. He could count on receiving support from businesspeople who had expressed interest in backing his ideas abroad.

Special emphasis was placed on the countries in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Gülen's adherents also set up educational facilities that are not affiliated with the Turkish Ministry of Education in China, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Yakutia (Russ. Fed.), Cambodia, the Netherlands, France, the Philippines, South Korea, Tanzania, Chechnya (Russ. Fed.), and Thailand.

An obvious omission are the Arab states: the involvement of Turks here in such a central area as the educational system is apparently unthinkable. In Germany the movement is very active, with tutoring centers in nearly every major city and private schools planned. Although the group has no official headquarters in Germany, this does not mean that its activities are not coordinated in a network.

This represents the first time an Islamic group has exerted this kind of influence on the secular educational system in modern Turkey, and the first time an educational concept from Turkey has been successfully exported abroad.

No wonder opinion is so strongly divided in Turkey with regard to Gülen and his followers – after all, they have managed to flout the boundaries between "Islamic" and "secular" areas of society that have been firmly entrenched there for so long.

Although the educational institutions stem from an Islamic concept, they are recognized by the laicistic Turkish state. They are incorporated into the – almost always secular – national educational systems in the various countries and the language of instruction is usually English.

In Turkey the general curriculum for the schools within the network prescribes one week of religious instruction per week, while in many other countries the schools do not offer any religious education at all. These schools (with the exception of some Imam Hatip schools) can thus hardly be considered Islamic schools in the strict sense.

Gülen's Islamic concepts – the "Gülen discourse"

This commitment to education, Gülen's own attitude toward Islam and politics, as well as the positions of the media within his network manifest new impulses originating in Turkey's Islamic milieu.

We are seeing many positive ripple effects arising from Gülen's set of values and the activities of his followers. But does that make him an Islamic reformer? In order to answer this question, we first have to take a closer look at the world of ideas propagated by Fethullah Gülen.

A distinction must be made between reformist theology and innovative Islamic thinking. The "Gülen discourse" consists of numerous elements that can only be touched on briefly here. One feature of this discourse is the ambiguity of his statements, the way in which his ideas are "packaged" in different ways depending on the audience.

Here, his achievement is not to be found in the reinterpretation of religious texts, but rather in the way in which he recombines various generally acknowledged elements into new theses. The basic principles of this discourse are:

Preservation of Islam in the modern age

1. This tenet is based on the ideas of the Turkish activist Said Nursi (d. 1960). His view of Islam was shaped by several basic assumptions:

- The modern secular state is a powerful opponent. Direct confrontation can only harm one's own Islamic interests, since the state will inevitably respond with repression. It is clear for Nursi that God judges each individual separately for how he leads his own life. An Islamic reform movement would thus need to concentrate on guiding individuals along the right path; the state order must be accepted as the framework for one's own dealings, in order to devote attention to more important tasks.

- Man is living in an age of science and technology, for which there is no alternative. Either one helps to shape one's age in a religious way, or one forfeits the power to exert any influence at all. Fethullah Gülen elaborates on this point with the remark: "The dissatisfied have never shaped history." He thus disavows a revolutionary approach. He counters the idea of a retreat from secular society with active engagement (as a contribution to social reform).

- Nursi and Gülen view modern science as a means for attempting to rationally comprehend God by studying His creation. This is therefore the only way to preserve religion in the modern age. This concept endows the rational study of the world, the foundation of which is provided by the secular school, with a religious significance. Science likewise forms the basis for economic prosperity, social harmony, and national independence: all goals necessary for the survival of both the modern state and modern Islam.

- Theological debates have no place in an era in which the very continued existence of religion is at risk. Theology should thus emphasize those areas in which there is consensus and gloss over the more detailed issues.

Turkish nationalism and Islam

2. A crucial factor in Fethullah Gülen's ascendance in Turkey is the synthesis of Turkish nationalism and Islam for which he stands. This has been adopted by his adherents in other countries as well, with the nationalism principle expanded to suit local conditions.

Gülen and his followers view the world of nation-states as just as much of a given as globalization. They no longer believe (although this was a different story for Gülen in the 80s) that their own Islamic identity can be preserved by cutting themselves off from the outside world.

Gülen is confident that his views can be realized and therefore advocates open borders, in order to regain validity for Islam. Since there is no way to halt globalization, it must instead be harnessed as an opportunity.

In his opinion, theology is not the key to shaping the modern world, but rather secular educational institutions, along with the targeted use of (modern) media, and participation and influence in the business world.

Gülen sees the obligations Islam places on its followers as being very clearly defined, and in this respect he is well within the conservative consensus. However, Muslims must continue to pursue further knowledge in order to cast off both their material and ideological dependency on the West (with its materialistic, positivistic orientation). This dependency is just as much the focus of Fethullah Gülen's critique as is political Islam.

National and cultural independence can only be preserved if the Muslims succeed in shaping the modern world in accordance with their own beliefs rather than rejecting modernity out of hand.

Morality and education before politics

3. In accordance with these views, Fethullah Gülen's sermons are not theologically innovative. He preaches classic Islamic behavioral maxims: cihad (jihad = "exertion" on the path to God), irşad ("guidance"), tebliğ ("dissemination" of Islam), and above all hizmet (peaceful "service" in God's name). He substantiates these using theologically well established argument patterns.

Conspicuous here is how conventional his reasoning is when it comes to persuading listeners of what is right according to Islam, while at the same time he proposes entirely new ways of implementing these convictions. The schoolteacher here becomes a prophet, who fulfills the above-named Islamic principles by imparting knowledge.

The key point for Gülen is that the Islamic principles are themselves unchanging, and yet must be given concrete form in each new era. Once, a Koran course might have been the best way to invest Islamic donations. But in times in which "there is a mosque on every corner," other Islamic activities take precedence, according to Gülen and his devotees.

He succeeds at gaining power in conservative Islamic circles for new Islamic fields of action, using traditional Islamic terminology and defining his terms absolutely conventionally, but at the same time furnishing them with extremely innovative implications for the present day.

Gülen's strategy for circumventing critical objections, or contradictions between Islamic and secular law or Islamic concepts of state, does not involve taking recourse to Turkish, Iranian, or Arab reformist scholars, who reinterpret history and the Koran.

Instead, he simply argues that questions of morality and education are more essential for today's Islam than are political issues, and that present-day Muslims are confronted with entirely different problems than the question of whether or not to introduce the Sharia.

4. Gülen has developed an ethic of good works that both opens up new fields of society for Islamic activities and elevates work and efficiency to maxims to live by. In this context, work dedicated to reaching an Islamic goal (even if only a portion of the earnings are donated to the cause) becomes an act in the service of God. Educational work and support of education in particular are endowed with the highest Islamic value.

5. The vision of how to best implement the Islamic maxims organizationally is driven by the attempt to avoid frictional losses or inefficiency at all costs.

Inefficiency thus takes on a reprehensible flavor within Islam. In addition, strategies are prescribed for how the believer can best fulfill his duties toward God. These strategies revolve around the efficient implementation of Islamic undertakings, concrete projects, and individual piety.

Gülen first and foremost propagates the forms of organization espoused by his own adherents (the cemaat) as the tool that can help us today to tie individual salvation to the concerns and goals of the group and of all of society.

He thus "Islamicizes" the organizational forms of his followers and their strategies. Both must be flexible, so that as many people as possible can contribute to realizing the goals of the cemaat. For Gülen, a society can only be changed through its individuals. The cemaat are dedicated to educating this "new generation."

"Islamicized" pragmatism

6. Fethullah Gülen and his religious following pursue a very classic interpretation of Islam. In dealing with others, however, it is more important to them to convey at least a portion of their own values (even if they must keep their Islamic motivation in the background), than to come on too strongly and be too openly Islamic, and thus forfeit any influence beyond Islamic circles.

Decisive for the success of Gülen's ideas is this combination of conventional and conservative arguments couched in new methods of implementation that allow them to reach new target groups.

During my field research, someone with close contact to the cemaat told me the following: Where he came from, most people, with their traditional Islamic value system, would have refused just a generation ago to send their own daughters to a secondary school.

But nowadays they were even letting their daughters study at university, convinced as they were of the close connections between Islam and education. This was only achievable through the use of widely accepted traditional lines of argumentation.

People can readily identify with Gülen's Islamic scope of argumentation. He has succeeded in interesting people in his goals who could not be moved through the state-propagated reformist Islam to change their attitudes, but who were ready instead to put the more individual daily questions of how to raise their children and how to practice their religion before the broader issues of political Islam.

This sheds new light on the question of what reformist Islam consists of. Is it Islam that needs to be reformed, or do we have to change people instead? Fethullah Gülen shows that, when analyzing innovative processes in the Islamic world, we must not neglect the latter approach, even though his ideas cannot be termed reform theology in the narrower sense.

Bekim Agai

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Bekim Agai, PhD, born in 1974, has studied Islamic studies, science of history and psychology at Bonn and Cairo. Since 2003 he has been working as an assistant lecturer at the department of orientalistic studies at the University of Bonn.

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