The Gulen movement in Germany

Dogma instead of dialogue

Opaque structures and ambiguous objectives are not conducive to the education of the young. This is why the Gulen movement must be monitored more closely, writes Ursula Ruessmann

In Germany, supporters of the Muslim Gulen movement run two dozen officially accredited private schools and close to 300 educational institutes offering private tuition, many of which are recognised as providers of integration courses and receive state funding.

These supporters have optimum connections within the political sphere via foundations and what are known as 'dialogue associations' and have friends in pretty much all the democratic parties (apart from the Left Party). All of this means that the news that this movement is now under the scrutiny of the national intelligence service and interior authorities at state level comes as a veritable media bombshell.

The fact that this bomb was recently set off by a visit from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of all people, must have pleased Erdogan greatly. After all, back in Turkey, Erdogan is currently locked in a bitter power struggle with the influential Gulen camp.

But quite apart from Turkey's domestic affairs, questions are being asked about the goals being pursued by Gulen's "Hizmet" movement (Hizmet means "service") within the Federal German context.

Ercan Karakoyun, chairman of the "Stiftung Dialog und Bildung" (Dialogue and Education Foundation), which has just been founded primarily for the purposes of image presentation, and one of the key figures in the German Gulen network, insists that Hizmet advocates "democratic values such as tolerance, religious freedom and freedom of expression, as well as gender equality".

The religious permeation of society

Turkey specialist Guenter Seufert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) also says: "The movement's democracy discourse in Germany is genuine." On the other hand, there are clear indications that Hizmet is quietly pursuing an entirely different agenda: the religious permeation of Western secular society.

There is clear evidence of this in the writings of the founder of the movement himself, Fethullah Gulen, says Friedmann Eissler of the Evangelische Zentralstelle fuer Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW – a Protestant agency advising on questions of ideology). In Eissler's view, Gulen's "pure teaching" is "not at all dialogic, but actually very apodictic. It talks a great deal about invariable values, and this is a reference to Sharia norms," he says.

Eissler assumes that Gulen's stringent interpretation is also upheld by leading members of Hizmet in Western Europe, and warns: "If a religious perspective is not understood as one possible approach in concert with the diverse and sometimes opposing religious perspectives in a plural society, but are instead comprehended as a divine principle or more specifically a general interpretational horizon applicable to all, then affirmation of a secular social order is ultimately nothing more than lip service."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/RIA Novosti/dpa)
Locked in a struggle with the Gulen movement: Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured here) and his former ally Fethullah Gulen have been involved in a serious power struggle for quite some time now. Things came to a head last November when Erdogan decided to abolish the private schools that constitute an important source of income for Gulen's Hizmet movement

Contradictions to the free and democratic basic order

The Stuttgart-based branch of the domestic intelligence service in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg is also sounding the alarm. Although it is not formally carrying out any surveillance of the movement in Germany, it notes that Gulen texts that have also been published here by individual institutions contain "contradictions to the free and democratic basic order".

These contradictions concern, for example, "the equality mandate, religious freedom, the sovereignty of the people, the separation of powers and academic freedom". That is a considerable list, even though the service in Stuttgart says that it does not thus far have "sufficient indications" of "targeted endeavours" against the free and democratic basic order.

The intelligence service's branch in the state in Hesse nevertheless harbours "doubts about the contemporary understanding of Islam (of the Gulen movement – ed.) in the spirit of a convergence with Western social models". This does not sound like a harmless educational network, but rather more like a highly unfathomable grouping with much to hide. Investigators in Baden-Wuerttemberg also complain that many of the educational establishments associated with Hizmet lack "a clear and demonstrable organisational correlation" to the movement.

There is a reason for the loose structure of the network. Few of the Hizmet educational associations or schools make any reference to the link on their websites. Even the purportedly close links with the Federal Association of Entrepreneurial Organisations (buv), in which 20 regional member associations with some 5,000 companies largely of Turkish origin are represented, are not made public.

Baden-Wuerttemberg's Interior Minister Reinhold Gall recently wrote that the buv's affiliation to Hizmet "is frequently suspected due to the attention given to Gulen personally and the affirmation of his teachings, but cannot so far be proven on the basis of actual, structural evidence".

Wall of silence

Any journalist conducting research into the organisation comes up against a wall of silence and fear. Nevertheless, there are increasing signs of parallel structures in which the Gulen movement disseminates a strict Islamic agenda away from its secular educational projects. For example, a religious film suddenly pops up during a private tuition course; maths teachers are summoned to Islam groups known as "Sohbets".

A Gulen association in the Rhine-Main region offered holiday camps for girls lasting several weeks. When asked why they sent their daughters to the camps, parents replied: "so that they don't turn out like German girls" and "so that they get to know the real Islam".

Students with small budgets are solicited for residential groups with segregated sexes and a strict hierarchy – religious instruction included. The target group is always the same: young migrants that, it is hoped, will go on to form a conservative Muslim educated elite in the future.

Naturally, religious freedom also applies to followers of a dignified, conservative Islam. And it remains to be seen how the movement will evolve in future. Its leader, Fethullah Gulen, is well over 70 and has, according to Guenter Seufert's study for the SWP, "to battle against increasingly controversial interests within the movement's inner circle". It is not out of the question that the Gulen networks in Western Europe will open more towards the societies they are in following the death of the organisation's figurehead.

Ralf Jaeger (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Cause for concern: Ralf Jaeger, Interior Minister in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently said that more clarity is needed in the light of a number of reports that are critical of the Gulen movement. Germany's domestic intelligence services have, for example, said that the movement's attitude to religious freedom and gender equality is problematic

Fastest growing Muslim group in Germany

But it is unclear whether this will indeed happen. For the moment in any case, the authorities' suspicions continue to grow in view of the movement's opaque structures. In a recent letter to Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, the Interior Minister in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Roger Lewentz, called for intelligence authorities to join forces nationwide and "monitor the movement for possible extremist endeavours" while at the same time remaining "open to all manner of outcomes". The state of North Rhine-Westphalia backed the call.

This concern is understandable: the Gulen network is the fastest growing Muslim group in Germany and has, according to EZW expert Eissler, "a huge socio-political desire to introduce change that does not rely on democratic means, but on ensuring its own elite accrues power and influence".

Thousands of children and young people are already under the influence of the Hizmet educational establishments – and that number is on the rise. But it's not just the domestic intelligence services that should be involved in any closer monitoring of their activities. As the supervisory body for integration courses, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees should follow up and demand transparency, as should local authorities and state education authorities. Critics also say that Federal Education Minister Johanna Wanka would be well advised to hand back her patronage of the Pangea mathematics competition run by Gulen-affiliated organisations.

Senior figures within the Gulen movement in Germany, among them Karakoyun, have at any rate realised the seriousness of the matter. His foundation has officially stated its willingness to co-operate with the probe into the movement's loyalty to the constitution and has just written to the Interior Minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jaeger, to say that the movement it is ready "to create transparency and dispel reservations".

In a more intimate context, Karakoyun cuts a contemplative figure: "We must be more open, and that also applies to our associations and weekend groups. But that'll be a long process."

Ursula Ruessmann

© Frankfurter Rundschau 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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