Inspiring or insidious
By Delphine Strauss
Published: April 29 2011
|Scholar: Fethullah Gulen at home in Pennsylvania. Below, a school in Istanbul run by his supporters. The professional aim is to create a ‘golden generation’ able to succeed in the global economy while exemplifying faith and virtue|
In one corner of the courtyard, green-painted railings enclose the tomb of a saint. In another, a pair of 12-year-old boys in spotless white shirts and neatly pressed trousers politely answer visitors’ questions. In Diyarbakir, a city in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east where many children work on the streets or land in jail for throwing stones at security forces, these two have come to prepare for high school entrance exams. Asked what they want to do later, one says “doctor” and the other, grinning, declares “police”.
They are attending a study house run by supporters of Fethullah Gulen – a preacher who has inspired the creation of a vast network of schools and student dormitories that blend academic rigour, especially in the sciences, with a moral education based on Islamic principles.
“It’s not just explaining English or maths – it’s explaining what it means to be a good or bad person,” says the director of Diyarbakir’s 20 study houses. “In this system teachers come to school earlier, become friends with students and care about the relationship....In none of our schools do we teach religion. We tell them what’s right and wrong. We show them good and bad practice, and they decide.”
But in Turkey, opinion is sharply divided between those who see Mr Gulen as a force for social mobility and tolerance, and those who suspect he is insidiously undermining the country’s secular foundations. His followers have been described as “Islamic Jesuits” – and as Turkey’s equivalent of Opus Dei. Yet there is little doubt that the movement he inspires is now an important force shaping Turkish society, part of a broader evolution in which leaders emerging from a religious, business-minded middle class are gradually eclipsing older, fiercely secular, elites.
Mr Gulen – known to his admirers as hocaefendi, or respected teacher – now lives in leafy seclusion in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, nursing ill health and communicating largely though his published writings and speeches. Yet he has a following of millions, easily the most influential of Turkey’s religious communities. This Hizmet (“service”), as its friends call it, has a global reach: businessmen sympathetic to the cause have established schools – from Kazakhstan to Cambodia, the US to Iraq – and are rapidly opening them across Africa.
What the Hizmet consists of, and what it does, matters beyond Turkey’s borders. Growing prosperity and diplomatic muscle have made Ankara an assertive actor in the Middle East. Islamic movements around the region are drawing on Turkey’s experience as they challenge the old regimes. Gulen admirers are in the vanguard of Turkish businessmen in new markets; their activities may determine Turkey’s image as Ankara seeks a place at the centre of world affairs.
The professed aim of the schools is to create a “golden generation”, a new elite equipped to succeed in the global economy, while exemplifying faith, virtue and an ethos of serving others. When students graduate, many remain committed to the movement as they take up positions in teaching, business, media and public life.
“The Hizmet filled the gaps,” says Kerim Balci, a columnist for the pro-Gulen newspaper Zaman, who became involved in the movement when he left his village to go to high school and struggled to adapt to city life. “I work in a Hizmet institution. Economically also, I was given a scholarship by the Hizmet. But the real thing that kept me in was action. I meant something there – I was given duties.”
This commitment and absorption in the life of the community is typical. Almost all supporters also make financial donations – 20 per cent of income is not unusual.
To outsiders, such zeal can inspire both admiration and unease. Secularists worry that Gulen missionaries, once persecuted by the state but now working freely under the rule of the mildly Islamist AK party, will transform Turkish society, increasing pressure to conform to conservative values. But the bigger fear , beyond ideology, is that Gulen followers may be infiltrating state institutions, using their influence to undeclared ends.
These long-standing fears reached a new pitch when police swooped last month on an Istanbul publishing house with orders to seize all copies of a draft book. Entitled The Imam’s Army, it detailed the Gulen movement’s supposed dominance within the police. Its author, the journalist Ahmet Sik, had been jailed a few weeks earlier, accused of links to Ergenekon – allegedly a terrorist network that plotted to overthrow the government. But for many observers, his arrest reinforced suspicions that the Ergenekon probe – in which scores of government critics are on trial alongside known thugs – was being used to settle political scores.
Others accused of helping Ergenekon include Ilhan Cihaner, a prosecutor who had been investigating local branches of the Gulen community, and Hanefi Avci, a former police chief who wrote a book on the movement. Nedim Sener, another journalist arrested in February, had co-authored research criticising the ways Hizmet members sought to influence young people and dominate commercial life.
“Anyone who touches him burns,” Mr Sik called as he was bundled into a police car. When The Imam’s Armywas finally leaked online, it was downloaded more than 100,000 times in 24 hours – despite the fact that it contained little new information and was clearly a rough draft.
With his mild, contemplative expression and neat white moustache, Mr Gulen is not an obvious figure to inspire fear. Born in 1941 in the eastern province of Erzurum, he was largely self-taught after primary school but read voraciously – drawing inspiration from Said Nursi, a thinker who advocated reason, tolerance and distance from politics.
Mr Gulen began his career as an imam in Turkey’s state service, at a time when there appeared to be little choice between extreme conservatism and an extreme secularism that rejected Turkey’s history and religious traditions. Instead, he advanced an interpretation of Islam that stresses tolerance, condemns violence and embraces modernity. He has advocated action to alleviate poverty, promote education and advance dialogue between different religions.
Bill Park at King’s College, London, has described it as a “heady and promising combination of faith, identity, material progress, democratisation and dialogue”.
These messages make Mr Gulen a welcome antidote in the west to more radical ideologues. He has lived in the US since 1999, when he left Turkey under threat of prosecution during a clampdown on Islamists. In contrast to Turkey’s Islamist Milli Gorus movement, whose parties contest elections, Mr Gulen insists he has no political ambitions and preaches respect for authority – advising supporters to waive obligations, such as wearing the Islamic headscarf, if necessary to gain an education in the secular system. When sympathisers enter politics they are told to cut ties, says Mr Balci, the pro-Gulen columnist.
“The Nursi-Gulen tradition doesn’t envision an ‘Islamic state’. It rather seeks a liberal-democratic state that will be tolerant to its missionary work,” Mustafa Akyol, a commentator on religious affairs, wrote last year.
Mr Gulen himself rarely gives interviews to rebut the accusations against him – some of which stem from the wilder fringes of a fertile conspiracy culture. He has no spokesman, simply publishing a list of more than 80 “claims and answers” on his English website. There he insists he has no links to the finances or running of the schools, no possessions except books and clothes, and no wish to influence any state institution. He has said the word “movement” misdescribes the Hizmet, as it implies political aims, and even rejects terms such as “follower” or “member”.
Yet pro-Gulen media clearly seek to shape the political agenda. Zaman campaigns to end military interference in democracy and has championed the Ergenekon investigation in that context. It is supporting the AK party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, ahead of June parliamentary elections. Mr Gulen himself also intervened directly in politics for the first time last year, calling for a Yes vote in a referendum on government-sponsored changes to the military-era constitution.
“I wish we had a chance to raise the dead from their graves and urge them to cast Yes votes,” he said, in comments that shocked even his own followers – and raised speculation he might also pick sides in June’s polls. The community’s support could be “a huge factor in these elections”, says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst who has angered Gulenists by criticising the Ergenekon investigation. He believes Gulenist support could also be crucial if a battle develops between Mr Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.
Most Gulen supporters see AK as Turkey’s best option at present. But no politician likes a rival power centre emerging – and Gulen media often side with Mr Gul, not Mr Erdogan, when views of the two diverge.
Party politics aside, critics say it is disingenuous to deny the Hizmet’s influence in a society where people advance by personal connections. Research led by Binnaz Toprak of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University detailed interviews with businessmen in provincial cities who felt joining the community was the only way to prosper, while abstaining would mean losing custom and being shut out of municipal tenders. Many bought Zaman newspaper or attended the weekly meetings of local Hizmet circles in response to these implicit pressures and not through genuine conviction, the 2009 study found.
In Diyarbakir, many people consider the Hizmet, for all its claims of neutrality, as a rival power to Kurdish nationalist groups. “They are putting pressure on people, they want to shape people,” says one local politician, declining to be named because “talking about Gulen is not an auspicious business; when you talk about him, something happens”.
Hizmet members say secularists are too ready to believe any conspiracy that fits their prejudices. “Some people believe whatever is said against the movement. It’s understandable because the movement is changing what’s happening in Turkey,” says Fatih Ceran of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which acts as its unofficial public relations arm, politely explaining there is no way to seek comment from Mr Gulen himself. “Some people here want a more polarised Turkey andthe movement is going very much against it.”
Yet fears are magnified by the difficulty of identifying who supports the Hizmet and what it consists of. Gulen-inspired organisations are happy to welcome visitors and explain their activities – stressing their charitable and non-proselytising nature. But many individuals conceal their sympathies. US consular officials were unsettled by the reluctance of visa applicants visiting Mr Gulen to explain their motives, according to a 2006 cable published by Wikileaks.
The movement’s boundaries are vague: it attracts both committed and casual followers and has no membership lists or financial statements. Businessmen from one city might open schools in Kyrgyzstan – or an individual might support one student. “There’s no way to speculate on numbers because it’s non-hierarchical: there’s no central organisation,” says Helen Ebaugh of the University of Houston, who is researching the movement’s finances.
Supporters say this lack of definition is a strength. But as the Hizmet expands and becomes more influential, could its lack of structure leave it open to exploitation by people joining out of self-interest rather than conviction? Mr Gulen issued a rare statement denying any wish to suppress Mr Sik’s book. But one theory is that the raid on the publishers was orchestrated by Gulenists within the police, acting in their own interests and not on orders from any authority.
“It is possible theoretically that some people are using [the movement] for their own betterment,” says Mr Ceran. Others argue that anyone who approached the Hizmet purely to advance their career would either be deterred by the culture of donations, prayer and public service – or be inspired to join in.
Whatever the truth, a force that set out to bridge divisions in Turkish society is now inspiring fear among a broad section of the population. “You are trying to abolish one hidden power and you are creating another one,” says Sengul, a professional woman in Istanbul. “There are democratisation initiatives and so on, but at the end of it people are scared of reading a book.”
GULEN AND BUSINESS
GULEN AND BUSINESS
A secular elite yields to middle-class entrepreneurs with moral purpose
For much of the past century, Turkey’s economy was dominated by a handful of conglomerates owned by the families of Istanbul’s secular business elite. Now, governments hoping to boost trade with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies are increasingly dealing with Tuskon – an association that reflects the arrival of a new middle class of conservative provincial entrepreneurs.
Its growing influence also reflects the rise of the Gulen community, from which most of its 25,000 members are drawn. “We are not a direct part of that movement,” Rizanur Meral, Tuskon president, told the Financial Times in a recent interview. “We have members with different thoughts, ideas and preferences. But we can say that the majority of our members support Mr Gulen’s ideas.”
These are the entrepreneurs who answered the call by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher, to found schools and businesses in Balkan and central Asian states after the fall of communism. Tuskon – an umbrella for scores of regional business associations – is now spearheading Turkish efforts to enter markets across sub-Saharan Africa, and strengthen ties in the Middle East.
Though officials from the traditionally secularist foreign ministry have tended to keep their distance from Gulen-inspired projects, ministers appear to view them as a useful extension of Turkey’s soft power. Tuskon often takes them to visit “Turkish schools”, as they are known overseas.
Mr Meral squeezed a Saturday breakfast meeting with the FT into a fortnight when Tuskon accompanied Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, to Russia; helped organise a visit to Ghana and Gabon by president Abdullah Gul; and hosted Gary Locke, US commerce secretary, at an event to promote Turkish-US trade.
Tuskon remains apolitical, Mr Meral insists, merely ensuring its activities do not conflict with government policy. But its members’ presence in Africa appears to have helped it influence policy – it lobbied successfully for the opening of embassies and Turkish Airlines routes across the continent, for example.
Tuskon’s main role is to help small and mid-sized businesses understand the global economy and forge contacts in new markets, Mr Meral says. But it is also trying to address inequalities at home, encouraging members to support charitable projects and invest in poor Kurdish regions, even when it does not make economic sense. “You have to have some moral incentives,” he says. “There are many business people from the east of the country who . . . think they should pay their debts to the region where they grew up.”
Yet Mr Meral admits Tuskon’s influence is attracting some with less admirable motives. “We have become very careful in selecting members,” he says. “The major criteria are to be reliable and trustworthy, to stick to business ethics . . .so they represent the Turkish business community in the best way in international markets.”
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