M. Hakan Yavuz offers an insightful and wide-ranging study of the Gulen Movement, one of the most imaginative developments in contemporary Islam.
Its activities have fundamentally altered religious and political discourse in Turkey in recent decades, and its schools and other institutions have been established throughout Central Asia and the Balkans, as well as western Europe and North America. Consequently, its goals and modus operandi have come under increasing scrutiny around the world.
Yavuz introduces readers to the movement, its leader, its philosophies, and its practical applications. After recounting Gulen’s personal history, he analyzes Gulen’s theological outlook, the structure of the movement, its educational premise and promise, its financial structure, and its contributions (particularly to debates in the Turkish public sphere), its scientific outlook, and its role in interfaith dialogue. Towards an Islamic Enlightenment shows the many facets of the movement, arguing that it is marked by an identity paradox: despite its tremendous contribution to the introduction of a moderate, peaceful, and modern Islamic outlook-so different from the Iranian or Saudi forms of radical and political Islam-the Gulen Movement is at once liberal and communitarian, provoking both hope and fear in its works and influence.
Hakan Yavuz begins his talk by introducing himself and explaining that, although he is not part of the Gulen movement, he has studied it from a scholar perspective in order to write his book, “Towards an Islamic Enlightenment : The Gulen Movement.” He explains that the Gulen movement is an attempt to reconcile religion with modernity, democracy and contemporary market economies into a “New Islam”, of which there are several major characteristics.
The first aspect is that this “New Islam” is a form of religion rooted in the inner self. Yavuz highlights that “believing is important as long as you behave.” This is to emphasize religion as an instrument to improve the world around you and particularly the social, political and economic conditions of your society. In this sense, religion becomes a motivating force which transcends the simple fulfillment of religious duties. Secondly, religion in the Gulen movement is a “civil philosophy”. It is a process of involving Muslims in the public debate, as well as debating on the interpretation of the Qur’an. Clarification and understandings of religious texts should not be left to the sole responsibility of religious authorities but rather should be decided by Muslims “through the shared language of Islam”. Additionally, the Gulen movement highlights the voluntary side of Islam. It is an individual’s decision to follow Islam and in no way should be forced, neither by the community nor the state. Finally, the ideology preaches a “conscious effort to filter revelation through reason.” Reason therefore plays an important role in providing critical thinking, to determine the right from wrong and promote effective consensus-building.
Other aspects of the Gulen movement include the importance of interfaith dialogue and the bridging of different cultures and societies. Yavuz stresses that “the key purpose of this movement is character formation”, and that this purpose is not religious but secular, which explains the importance of education in the ideology. Furthermore, Yavuz explains that rather than preaching, the Gulen ideology recommends teaching Islam through good example. It is also a feminized Islam, seeing as Gulen explained that “his grandmother and mother shaped his understanding of Islam more than the men of his family.” It is finally a felt emotion, and followers of the Gulen movement care about others and the world around them, as part of an “ethical discourse.”
Yavuz ends the discussion on his book by addressing his personal criticisms of the movement in four major areas. He firstly argues that the Gulen movement has an issue with gender, highlighting that “the movement is not where it is supposed to be” and that this is partly due to Turkish culture. Secondly, Yavuz raises the issue of transparency in the movement. However, he also points out the Turkish political context as an influential factor in its lack of transparency. The politicization of the movement and its past association with the Justice and Development Party is another of its criticisms, claiming that “the movement is viewed as ‘too political’”. The last criticism argues that the movement lacks “critical thinking”. The movement is too focused on action and less time is spent on reading and debating the ideology. Yavuz however concludes by claiming that “this is the most progressive, most modern, most engaging movement in the larger Muslim world.”
In the Q&A part of the event, Yavuz touched on several subjects. He discussed the anti-interventionism ideology of the movement, which has condemned Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict. He also addressed the fall out between the Gulen movement and the Justice and Development party. He finished the talk by discussing the problem of transparency in the movement and its accusations of promoting a double-agenda.
M. Hakan Yavuz is a professor of political science at the University of Utah.Yavuz received his earlier education in Ankara, Turkey, graduated with B.A. from Siyasal Bilgiler Fakultesi, Ankara. He received his M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and spent a semester at the Hebrew University, Israel (1990) and received his Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1998 in political science. He has held MacArthur and Rockefeller fellowships. He has taught at Waseda University in Tokyo, Central European University in Hungary, Sarajevo University in Bosnia, Manas University in Kirghizstan, and the Baku State University in Azerbaijan.
Yavuz published a number of books: Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gülen Movement (Oxford University Press, 2013); with Isa Blumi, War and Nationalism: The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 and Their Sociopolitical Implications (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2013 in press); with Peter Sluglett, War and Diplomacy: The 1877-78 Russo-Ottoman War (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011); Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (Oxford University Press, 2003/2005); with John Esposito, Turkish Islam and the Secular State (Syracuse University Press, 2003); The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (The University of Utah Press, 2006).
Yavuz also carried out an extensive fieldwork in the Middle East,in Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan, and in the Balkans to examine the relationship between Islam and nationalism and the preservation and dissemination of Islamic knowledge under socialism. He is an author of more than 40 articles on Islam, Islamic modernity, nationalism, Kurdish and Armenian questions, and modern Turkish politics. He published in Comparative Politics, Middle East Critique, SAIS Review, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Central Asian Survey, Journal of Islamic Studies, and Journal of Palestine Studies. He is an editorial member of Middle East Critique and Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.