Creating an elite to lead the state
Seventy-six-year-old Fethullah Gulen became an imam at the young age of 18 and built a large following as an itinerant preacher in the 1980s. Operating under the motto "build schools, not mosques", he enjoyed the active support of Turkey's secular governments between 1986 and 1997. Tutoring centres, dormitories and universities sprang up like mushrooms, becoming the financial basis of the movement. The finances were managed by Kaynak Holding. Media companies, clinics and a bank – Bank Asya – were added as well.
At the same time, wealthy business people opened more than 1,000 schools in 160 countries, including in the former Soviet republics, particularly in the Caucasus and the new Balkan states, as well as in Africa and Central Asia. These institutions offered a modern, secular education. Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported their construction, and the qualifications were recognised by the Ministry of National Education.
"Gulen was styled as a 'model Muslim' who offered a synthesis of Islamic values and the separation between Islam and politics prescribed by Kemalism," explains Islam expert Bekim Agai of Goethe University Frankfurt, who adds that a close examination of Gulen's writings reveals that his version of Islam is oriented towards the conservative mainstream and his arguments are traditional. His goal, the scholar says, is to educate a pious elite that is capable of leading and ultimately controlling the state.
Thus the Gulen movement managed peu à peu to undermine Turkey's state apparatus, writes Günter Seufert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in a study: "Because the network refrains from ostentatious displays of religious identity, and because Gulen cooperated with the state in the past, supporters of the movement were able to survive a series of purges and build insider relationships within the state bureaucracy." They are believed to be particularly strong within the police force, the justice system and the military since the early 1990s.
This situation took on a new dimension with the electoral victory of the conservative Islamic AKP in 2002. The party of then-Prime Minister Erdogan joined forces with Gulen's supporters who were already civil servants. Both groups were pursuing the same goal: they wanted to turn Turkish society away from the hated Kemalist ideology and towards a religious identity. AKP politicians lauded Gulen as "honoured teacher". At the time, the imam was already living in exile in Pennsylvania, USA. He had left Turkey because his movement was accused of Islamising the military following a coup on 28 February 1997.
No connection to Turkey or Islam
Abroad, the Gulen movement functions as a global representative of conservative Islamic values and Turkishness. "Its goal is to spread the Turkish language and culture around the world," says Bayram Balci, a political scientist from the French institute Sciences Po. Its foundations, educational and cultural institutions in other countries are not only concerned with reaching the Turkish diaspora, but also catering to members of the host community. These people often have no connection to Turkey or the Islamic religion.