The Global Imam
by Suzy Hansen, The New Republic December 2, 2010
THE LEADER OF what is arguably the world’s most successful Islamic movement lives in a tiny Pennsylvania town called Saylorsburg, at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, otherwise known as “the Camp.” The Camp consists of a series of houses, a community center, a pond, and some tranquil, woodsy space for strolling. From this Poconos enclave--which resembles a resort more than the headquarters of a worldwide religious, social, and political movement--Fethullah Gülen, a 69-year-old Turkish bachelor with a white moustache, wide nose, and gentle, sad expression, leads perhaps five million followers who, in his spirit if not his name, operate schools, universities, corporations, nonprofits, and media organs around the globe.
Last spring, I visited the center and was warmly shepherded around by Bekir Aksoy, the president of the Camp. Just past a checkpoint, a portly Turkish man in a “Sopranos”-esque tracksuit was stretching, preparing for a jog. Along a road leading to the pond, we encountered a group composed mostly of Turkish men who had come from Japan to see Hocaefendi, as Gülen is respectfully called by his followers; they had been escorted onto the premises by a Columbia University student in a white Mercedes. The guest of honor for the day was a professor from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was fishing for trout...
...Gülen’s views are moderate and modern. He is fiercely opposed to violence and enthusiastic about science. According to Gülen, “avoiding the physical sciences due to the fear that they will lead to heresy is childish.” He is emphatically not a radical Islamist. “The lesser jihad is our active fulfillment of Islam’s commands and duties,” he has written, and “the greater jihad is proclaiming war on our ego’s destructive and negative emotions and thoughts ... which prevent us from attaining perfection.” ....... His followers run nonprofit organizations that promote peace, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue, and Gülenist businessmen devote their resources to building secular schools.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gülen has many admirers in the West. “It’s a civic movement,” says Islam scholar John Esposito, one of many American academics who praise the Gülenists. “It’s an alternative elite within Turkish society, as in many Muslim societies, that can be modern, educated, and successful, but also religiously minded.” Particularly after September 11, Gülen’s movement had a lot of appeal in the United States, which was suddenly desperate for “good Muslims.” “It was 2003, two years after 9/11; we were just in the beginning of the Iraq war, and here’s this ecumenical Muslim movement that seems to be open to modernity and science and is focused on education,” said one senior U.S. government official who has had dealings with Gülenists. “It seemed almost too good to be true.”...
With the help of Turkish businessmen, Gülen began building dorms, or “lighthouses.” At the time, Turkey was urbanizing at a breakneck pace. Country kids often floundered, socially and financially, when they moved to the big cities. The “lighthouses” provided a religious community for these young people, one that offered help with academics and didn’t, say, watch porn or get carried away with leftist causes.
Within these safe havens, the Gülen movement introduced the pious to the possibilities of modern life. “My father was a teacher in a primary school. His father was a stonecutter,” says Kerim Balcı, a journalist who works for the newspaper Zaman, which is owned by Gülenists and claims to have the largest readership in Turkey. “And here I am a Ph.D. student, columnist, and academician probably earning my father’s yearly salary in a month.” Balcı’s life story--he hails from the small Black Sea city of Samsun, yet went on to receive his master’s from a university in Israel and is working toward his Ph.D. from Durham University in Britain--echoes the trajectory of many middle-aged Gülen followers from conservative families. The Turkish state had been founded on the notion that modernity meant rejection of religion--and, for a long time, it was dominated by a military and a political class that enforced this ideal, sometimes harshly. Gülen suggested there was an alternative path. “It may be possible to be both religious and a TV commentator,” Balcı says....
....Even as the movement has sprouted numerous organizations and companies, the schools have remained at the center of the Gülen orbit. Starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Gülen dispatched his students to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, where he rightly suspected that they might find some post-communist youths in need of religion. But it is not just Central Asia that hosts Gülen schools. They also exist in far-flung Muslim countries like Indonesia, Sudan, and Pakistan, as well as mostly non-Muslim countries like Mexico and Japan. In total, according to Ebaugh, Gülenists operate over 1,000 explicitly secular schools and universities in more than 100 countries. They emphasize science and technology, teach the Turkish language, and, by many accounts, are very good schools. Gülenist businessmen build these institutions and sponsor scholarships to them. Whenever you ask who’s funding anything, Gülenists reply “a group of Turkish businessmen,” “a Turkish businessman,” “a Turkish-American businessman,” or “our Turkish friends.”
When I recently visited Afghanistan, I was surprised to learn that Turks had been operating schools there since the ’90s, even during the Taliban era. They currently have schools not just in Kabul, but in Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Shebhergan, and Kandahar. Behind the lovely painted-pink school in Kabul were dorms where kids from all over the country sat outside, some of them eager to say hello in English. Every Afghan I spoke to in Kabul, from politicians to cooks, told me that “the Turkish school” was the best in the city. As we left the premises, the teachers gave my Afghan translator some books by Fethullah Gülen....[continues]
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FULL ARTICLE TEXT:http://fethullah-gulen.idcnj.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=207:the-global-imam&catid=83:op-eds&Itemid=199