Conceptualizing Hizmet

Annabel Hertz


It is perhaps no surprise that analyses of Hizmet (“service”) defy traditional disciplinary boundaries of the social sciences. Given the vast differences between its adherents and its analysts (and particularly among its analysts), characterizations of the movement will remain diverse and, in some cases, diametrically opposed.

At once an international network of social entrepreneurs guided by Fetullah Gülen’s cosmopolitan and peace oriented Islam and—by virtue of its role in branding a Turkish education model that fills a supply vacuum at home as well as abroad—a player in the rapidly expanding global education market, Hizmet is also promoted and received as an expression of transnational, moderate Islamic values and citizenship on the world stage. All of these elements—methods, motivation, mission, and meaning—come under both intense scrutiny from detractors and intense praise from its supporters.

Transparency has been a key issue in debates over the nature of Hizmet’s roughly 500 Turkish-Islam inspired, English-taught, secular schools in 100 countries (including US Charter schools), its affiliated media in Turkey and the US, and its business and humanitarian networks. The schools, which tend to be at the crux of most analyses—they are the hallmark of the movement’s internationalization and success— are financed through local donations and, if need be, supplemented by partner schools in Turkey. Reports that the movement is hierarchical and rigid—despite its outward philosophy remaining open and liberal— generate mistrust. The absence of “accurate” data regarding the number of Hizmet schools beyond the 30 or so in Istanbul1 reinforces the network’s image as secretive.

More specifically, many find the lack of an overarching organizational structure to the Hizmet global network simply unacceptable or unbelievable. For social entrepreneurs, however, the existence of a value driven, and nimble business model as a vehicle for individual and community leadership is likely to make perfect sense, as does the idea of decentralization as a counterweight to top-down tendencies associated with cults-of-personality that can exist in every (corporate, nonprofit, spiritual) setting, let alone within a “movement.” Further, increasingly detailed and sophisticated public information campaigns about Hizmet and Gülen are advancing openness, familiarity, and knowledge to a global audience.

Moreover, all of Turkey’s domestic schools are subject to national testing and admissions standards under the purview of central government agencies,2 and schools set up abroad are created by local individuals (despite their promotion of Turkish culture and nationalism), and monitored by host country governments. In the US, schools are overseen by relevant government agencies and investigated (and where corruption

is found, exposed) by the media—as well as pressured to make their boards gender balanced and representative of the people and areas they serve (Berlinski 2012). As a promoter of democracy, the network would, ostensibly, endorse these methods of fostering accountability. However, while cronyism and mismanagement exist in every industry, many have pointed out that critiques within the movement would demonstrate that individuals might speak out without being excommunicated. The more tolerance the movement shows internally, the greater the believability of the movement’s external message of tolerance and, in the broadest sense, the greater the consistency with Gülen’s personal philosophy of individual liberty.

Internal governance—or the self-management—of the movement is therefore multidimensional. It is both a stand-alone issue, as well as one that connects to other questions of about Hizmet as a civil society actor within communities, political systems, across state boundaries, and amongst competing versions of Islam. As such, what kind of analytic lens might help us situate and understand Hizmet?

I believe scholars of Global Governance—itself an approach that is flexible enough to examine phenomena across national, local, and global levels—can add value to the conceptualization of Hizmet. In this paper, I briefly explore how several related theoretical frameworks that speak to civil society’s role in global governance—transnationalism,  critical theory, and constructivism—might interpret Hizmet, and then consider this in light of the status of women.

Transnational Social Networks, Individual Agency, and Liberalism

The international space in which Hizmet operates is not contested in the classic sense of power in International Relations because the network operates alongside governments as per its approach and its apolitical stance at the most macro level (even if it gains power through social engagement). Neither does Hizmet fit into concepts of global governance based upon a transnationalism in which Western style NGOs engage directly in political advocacy or lobby government for operational budgets through a

centralized headquarters or in combination with field offices.3  Nor would the network be included in a survey of transnational “epistemic communities” making authoritative claims to policy-relevant knowledge,4  or “sovereignty-free actors”5  with power equal to the state and operating at the intersection of public-private interests in the formation of “global public policy.”6

Critical theories of Global Governance, on the other hand, enlarge the scope for analysis by defining ideas as part of a broader interplay among material conditions and institutions allowing for transformative change in the “world system” arising from these three spheres, including through civil society.7  Yet by nature of being highly “critical,” such theories tend to highlight the negative aspects of neoliberalism, claiming that the hegemonic discourse supporting “civil society” and “globalization” is merely a mask for a larger agenda for “reregulating” the global economy (Dingwerth 2006).

Certainly, the idea of ‘counter-hegemonic’ responses to self regulating markets8 was, historically, never based on observations of Hizmet’s self directed markets which are founded on values that may rely on market mechanisms, but also transcend market values, and which operate in areas that were once the purview of states. Yet, one could argue that is exactly what Hizmet is doing—filling a vacuum in state sponsored social programs—while taking advantage of globalization and student mobility to compete in the education market: the government is already aiming to more than triple the number of 27,000 foreign

students who studied in Turkey in 2010-11 by 2015.9 The movement therefore cannot be accounted for by

neatly within established descriptions of the cycles and forces of capitalism and counter-capitalism.

Other frameworks that have shifted the discourse on global governance towards a more modern version that emphasizes individual agency hinge on rational actors’ professional and personal interdependence and vested interests that serve as drivers of change.10  This version, originally aimed to characterize

individuals working for the state, could be extended to include civil society networks, but would require a corresponding recognition that non-state actors are no longer at the periphery. Still, this vision is closer to a human centered approach to global governance in which democratic institutions co exist with the state and civic participation in international, democratic law increases.11

Further, constructivism, by emphasizing the non-material aspects of association, can speak to the motivations of Hizmet network members to problem solve and propagate moral leadership. As such, Hizmet constitutes a community’s shared intentions as its legitimate social purpose.12  Based upon the success of Hizmet thus far, one could say a new social-educational norm associated with Turkey is being created, and certain communities around the world are internalizing it to various degrees.13

Probably the most libertarian perspective of global governance asks the question of whether the collective resolution of “borderless” problems is best implemented by governments at all. This line of thinking debunks the myth of a clear division between public and private spheres, and one can point to business associations that essentially govern by establishing industry standards, product certification schemes, and responsiveness to their members (Koppell 2010). The logic underpinning this model is corporate competition whereby standards are increasingly driven by an educated, powerful and demanding consumer market.

In such a scenario, civil society organizations are free to implement their own responses to the competing demands of democratic norms (legitimacy) with the necessity of retaining states’ participation (authority) or at least passive cooperation (Koppell 2010). By all accounts, this is absolutely true regarding the role that Hizmet has played historically in Turkish culture as harbinger of democratic pluralism: domestically it has managed a balancing act between accountability to its principles and, later, to the state, such that it is now being welcomed, more than feared, by the ruling party (despite some of the party’s claims it is being destabilized). Previously, for more than seven decades, Turkish laicism decided matters of religion and Hizmet’s liberal discourse was counter-hegemonic (Walton 2013). It is this aspect—that a movement

can be simultaneously more Islamic and more liberal than the state—is what confounds Western thinkers.

Understandably, this is where most of the literature on Hizmet focuses—on the movement’s domestic relationship to the democratization progress, its own reconciliation of liberalism with Islam, and its role as an import (students)-export (model) business. Central to this is whether a vehicle for liberal values— without the corresponding representational aspects of liberalism—is an oxymoron or not. The world has certainly seen instances of undemocratic liberalism (or the voting in of illiberal democracies) and this kind of non-abstract paradox is one that occurs with Hizmet.

In terms of tolerant and peaceful representation of Islam, Hizmet provides an important counterweight to the expression fundamentalist Islamic jurisprudence. The objective of its schools it to broaden the sources of knowledge for students is the opposite of what is offered by madrasses focused exclusively on religious studies. A well-rounded education cultivates many ‘sides’ to each student’s intellectual identity, and minimizes what humanists would consider a dangerous propensity within and outside Islam to reduce Muslims to their religious identity.14  Hizmet schools in the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey, demonstrate the translation of spiritual values into secular education and a humanist outlook—and thus provide a basis for individuals to transcend Islam. (Michel 2003). Indeed, for Gülen, the religion of Islam is less important than Islam as a social and historical identity and symbolic power (Koyuncu-Lorasdai 2010). According to one analyst, Hizmet, in its identity and practices as they are defined in the public space and daily life (in Muslim and non Muslim contexts), recreates “social ethos” as part of a larger social project aimed at good deeds and “the other.”15  This perspective is very much consistent with constructivism.

Thus, Gülen’s desire to rebuild global, cultural leadership through pan Turkic cooperation is at once innovative and proactive, and on the other hand, nostalgic. However, perhaps most importantly to the Post-colonial project, and—unlike some legislation in Muslim countries that is driven by ‘anti western’ sentiment and rationale—it is restorative rather than reactionary.

One of the legacies of colonialism in the Muslim world was that educational systems were implemented by colonizing states, which squeezed out religious education and made it the sole domain of madrasssas, and hence the false dichotomy between things foreign, scientific, and secular, versus indigenous and Islamic. The impacts of this forced separation of education systems in Afghanistan, for example, have been clear and devastating. The task of reinstating an educational synthesis is hugely important work, despite the irony that that the Ottomans were also once a colonizing empire. Hizmet holds a unique place in demonstrating that the rise of religion need not correspond with the violence of conquest, conflict and colonization—including in regards to women.

Hizmet and Gender in a World with Malala

Probably the most prominent arena for debate regarding a liberal-Islamic amalgam is the status of women. The secular state granted Turkish women freedom and opportunity they did not possess under the Ottomans, and the aforementioned combination of innovation and restoration represented by Hizmet poses its own challenge for gender equality.

Fetullah Gülen’s own views on women in Islam (on the his website for example) incorporate the ideas of gender equality but in the cautious, paternal tone adopted by men of the World War II generation—a perspective formed during the Western wave of the women’s liberation movement but derivative of the parenting received at a time in which gender roles were more traditional. Thus the language of the movement regarding women is relatively liberal compared to other Islamic movements, but nevertheless passive in the sense that Gülen’s endorsement of women as full participants in society are tepidly described as ‘non problematic,’ rather than as an imperative (Kuru 2008).

Yet the reforms within Turkey which allowed the Gülen movement to flourish there are, ostensibly, the same ones that grant women equal rights in the Turkish state. More critically, at an historical moment in which a more conservative society like Pakistan has produced young women like Malala Yousafzai— who delivered a moderate, tolerant (even forgiving) message to purveyors of violence and honor killings after being shot by them—the lack of a stronger integration of women into the Hizmet “platform” is noticeable. It could even be described as glaringly absent, given that the discourse of the “conflict” between Malala and the Taliban was over education.

If Gülen’s recognition of the equality of all religions implicit in his calls for tolerance and interreligious dialogue and his condemnation of terrorism were to include the prevention and condemnation of systematic violence against women (and therefore a recognition of their equality), the movement would gain a great deal of credibility in its liberal self portrayal. Similarly, and building on the trend of women instructors in Gülen schools exercising initiative and autonomy in their respective communities. (Özdalga 2003), women owned Hizmet schools, women on Hizmet related boards, and more (desegregated) women students would mainstream gender into the movement such that it is no longer a

secondary concern after liberalism (as it is structurally treated in this paper) but rather intrinsic to it. If an Islamic movement could achieve this, imagine the influence it could have on Western style liberalism— which retains its own mainstreaming challenges.

The cultural relativist argument—that women’s roles must change slowly in traditional society—was a view reflected in the Hizmet media’s explanation of why so few women appear on Turkish produced television (and then, in only one of several roles, and rarely in an intellectual capacity). They contended (in a meeting with myself and other researchers) that as their outlets expand into more traditionalist (Kurdish) areas of Turkey, this sensitivity to its consumers makes sense. Their rationale drives home an important point: the effectiveness of the Hizmet educational model is partly based on cultural sensitivity and a lack of proselytizing in international communities in which is operates.

On the other hand, as global experience shows, the media is often a critical change agent in the perception of ‘other’ in a pluralist society, and can portray ideals and exceptions to ‘rules’—the way Gülen himself does in relation to conservative Islam—rather than just reflect a static, more conservative version of reality. Given the prominent role that women played in the media throughout the Arab Spring uprisings, the cultural relativist argument seems especially outdated.

If we again consider the position of Malala in brokering and embodying moderation on the world stage, it is women—who are disproportionately affected by extremism—who may be the best “litmus test” of the messages and values of Hizmet. This is where a constructivist approach to global governance, in which new social realities and identities can be created and spread in the name of problem solving and shared values, is the most applicable.

As new constitutions are drafted and a new wave of rights sought after, the need for Islamic models that engage and allow women (and everyone else) to participate fully as citizens is critical. To imply that interreligious violence is a higher priority than violence against women misses the point that in the real world, as far as extremism goes, these two elements have manifested as one and the same.


1 Vela, Justin. 2011. “Inside Turkey’s Secretive, Islamic ‘Gülen’ School Movement.” The Atlantic. May 14. Retrieved from

2 ICEF Monitor. 17 Apr 2013. Retrieved from


3 See, for example, works by Kaldor, or Keck and Sikkink.

4 Adler, Emanuel and Peter M. Haas. 1992. “Conclusion: Epistemic Communities, World Order, and the Creation of a Reflective

Research Program.” International Organization 46: 367-390. Cambridge University Press.

5 Rosenau, James.1990. Turbulence in World Politics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

6 Reinicke,Wolfgang H.1998. Global Public Policy: Governing Without Government? Washington: Brookings Institution.

7 Cox, Robert. 1981.“Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Journal of International

Studies. SAGE. Reprinted in Neorealism and its Critics. Robert Keohane, ed. 1986. New York: Columbia University Press.

8 Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation.  Reprinted by Beacon Press: 2001

9 Per the ICEF Monitor’s 2013 assessment of Turkey.

10  Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2004. A New World Order. Princeton University Press.

11 see, for example, Held, David. 1995. Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance.

Stanford University Press.

12  Ruggie, John. 1998. Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization. New York: Routledge

13 Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International

Organization 52(4): 887-917. Madison: International Organization Foundation.

14 See, for example, Identity and Violence (2006) by Amartya Sen

15 Togoslu, Erkan. 2008. “Hizmet: From Futuwwa Tradition to the Emergence of Movement in Public Space.” Retrieved from emergence-of-movement-in-public-space





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