The Gülen Movement and its Role in Turkish Civil and Political Society

By Walter Ratlif, PhD Student, Georgetown University

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Hizmet in Civil Society

In Gaziantep, Turkey, children at a local orphanage were recently asked to write about what they wished for most in life. The exercise was designed to help them think about their goals for the future. However, one child took the answer in a different direction: “I wish my parents could come back for just two hours, so I could show them around and have them meet my friends.” This anecdote formed perhaps the most poignant moment in our recent visit to Turkey. As an orphanage sponsor told our group the story, our host and translator, Emre Celik, had to take a few moments before he passed the story along to us. There were few dry eyes in the room. Earlier, the children had greeted us with cheers, laughter and singing. But this story brought home the stark realities that these children face every day.


The facility we visited serves about 600 children between the ages of 10 and 18. Most of the children are Kurdish. Before coming to the orphanage, they were in danger of becoming street children, or being recruited by violent rebel groups such as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Here, they can continue their education, make friends, and receive counseling. The site we visited is part of a network of orphanages taking care of about 10,000 children in Turkey who have lost one or both parents.


The counselors work hard to engage new children coming to the facility. They also watch for danger signs. The biggest concern among the staff is that new children will emotionally withdraw into themselves. Developing a habit of withdrawal after an emotional trauma can have long term negative consequences. The staff and other children work hard to give the new kids a sense of care and belonging. This is as important to their health as any educational program the school has to offer. Caring, reciprocal relationships matter. Like a recent Harvard study (unsurprisingly) concluded: Happiness is love. Full Stop.


The orphanage visit was part of a week-long study fellowship for DC-area Ph.D. students. The trip gave us an inside look into many key segments of Turkish government and society. Our visits ranged from Turkey’s foreign affairs brokers in Ankara, to the country’s leading newspaper in Istanbul, to businesses, relief organizations and think tanks located around the country.


Many of the organizations we visited were part of what is popularly called the Gülen Movement. Its members refer to it as Hizmet, which simply means “the service.” It is perhaps the most powerful civil society group in Turkey. The founder, Fethullah Gülen, is a Muslim public intellectual and cleric who advocates what The Economist described as “pacifist, modern-minded Islam, often praised as a contrast to more extreme Salafism.” Hizmet members shun political office in favor civil society projects. They run several large universities, hugely popular media outlets and influential non-governmental organizations. They resemble Christian groups that established universities, hospitals, NGOs and civil society organizations throughout the history of the United States. Faith is an important starting point for each member of the Hizmet. At the same time, Gülen advocates a secular government where religious practice is free from state control, and the government holds every religion at an equal distance. He promotes religious freedom for all faiths who wish to participate in the public sphere.


This places the Hizmet ideology far apart from some Islamist groups who wish for a theocratic state, as well as the Turkey’s historic Kemalist government position, which simultaneously controls religious institutions and removes them from public life. This includes the displacement of religious participation in education and other key sectors of civil society. Hizmet promotes religious pluralism, freedom of conscience and fully engaged faith communities as critical components of a healthy society. Civil society is left vulnerable without support from citizens who actively look after its welfare. Just as caring relationships can change the life of an orphan, engagement by service-oriented religious groups can change a nation. Yet, there remains some suspicion and mystery, even on the streets of Istanbul, as to what Hizmet stands for, including its political agenda. The question remains whether a religious civil society organization can have a lasting beneficial impact on a staunchly secular political environment.


Defining the Gülen Movement

The best place to look for the principles that guide a movement such as this is in the most prominent member of the movement, Fethullah Gülen. Though he is a leader of one of Turkey’s most influential movement, he lives in self-imposed exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Members of the movement insist that Gülen is not at the top of a hierarchy of leaders driving the movement. Rather, they describe Hizmet as the collective product of like-minded individuals pursuing goals. Even so, the cloistered intellectual and spiritual leader of the movement is deeply respected by members of the Hizmet, and his teachings are carefully studied and widely disseminated by his followers.


Gülen’s ideology is deeply rooted in the traditions and teachings of both Sufi and orthodox Sunni Islam. However, Gülen is careful to define the movement as a much different phenomenon that many other Islamic movements at work in the world today. He criticizes other Islamic movements for attaching their ideology and goals to an idealized past, which can lead to fanaticism and violence, as well as justifications for suicide bombings and the killings of innocent people. Gülen says one fatal error of these movements is the “The tomorrow that they offer is a yesterday that they cannot bring back. Thus, they are attempting to construct an artificial “today.”  In contrast Gülen argues that his movement embraces advances in technology, government, education and other domains of modern life, offering a particular Islamic perspective on how they should be harnessed in service to the larger community. Gülen argues that Islam should be in harmony with modernity.


Three “spiritual devices” are promoted by Gülen to members of the movement as fundamental attitudes that will help drive their upward mobility in education, business and other spheres of life. These devices include modesty, tolerance and the devotion of self to humanity. Members of the movement say their way of being is more attractive than other religious movements because of the openness of the organization to wide participation, the effort among members to be on good terms with authorities, and the lack of coercion on matters of morality. There is a deep emphasis on personal growth and the cultivation of personal integrity, rather than a struggle against external forces or an expense of energy to keep members in line.


Members of the group describe the movement as having no direct political agenda per se, and certainly no revolutionary ambitions. Rather Gülen describes the religious and political arenas as occupying distinct autonomous domains. He points to the model of Muhammad in consultation with his Companions. The Prophet listened to the opinions, reasoning and collective conscience of the group and applied it to the tasks at hand. This model adopts a practical vision of a partnership between the religious and social spheres: “By uniting everyone and involving everyone mentally and spiritually in the work to be done, he accomplished his projects on the strongest, soundest basis.”


Gülen outlines a system in which a very limited number of divine decrees are immutable, and therefore take precedent over legislative issues. A much wider range of “secondary” matters are the domain of state policy. The Consultation model is important because it brings the religious actors in society into a role that does not infringe on the autonomy of the political sphere (and vice versa), but brings it into conversation in order to provide better policy formation. The idea is that in Islam, there are a limited number of judgments regarding political and social matters that come from revelation. The remainder are left to human beings to figure out according to their role in society and in consultation across the political and religious spheres. This allows a high degree of flexibility. It allows religious and political actors to calculate and measure the effectiveness of given civil or political experiments, and change course if something does not work, or has worked in the past but not under current circumstances.


Clearly, Consultation does not take priority over Divine Commands as a source of legislation. It is itself enabled by Divine Commands, and though it may be the basis for some laws and principles. Those matters on which there is a clear divine decree remain outside the intervention of human beings, and people may only turn to consultation in order to ascertain its full meaning. Matters on which there is no such a decree are considered completely within the boundaries of consultation.


A key feature of the consultation model is that there is no coercion by either the government or religious group. Shared reasoning, and within the constructs of democratic society, and shared decision-making mark a mutually beneficial relationship between Gülen’s vision of Islam at work in a framework of secularism. It is the duty of the government to consult with its citizens (who form their opinions based on Islamic teaching), and it is the duty of the religious citizens to express their opinions in order to help policy-makers form laws, while keeping the separation between the domains intact. This approach actively rejects ideas from some Islamic groups that argue for a political system based entirely on divine decrees, where the form and practice of government is based upon immutable rules that come from God. Religion roams in a politically neutral field that nonetheless has a powerful impact on how the country unfolds politically. Gülen teaches that secularism “purifies religion” from politics, while remaining the driving force behind the will of the people: “Instead of declaring a war against [secularism], in the vast atmosphere it awards you with, you have to be making efforts to establish your institutions, efforts to serve your religion, your nation, and the ideals of your nation.”


Democracy in Turkey

Turkey’s political system is based on a particular form of secular democracy called, Kemalism, based on the country’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The aim of Kemalism is to treat every citizen of Turkey equally, without regard to religion. After the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Turks under Kemal’s leadership embraced a new state based on values of secularism, nationalism and egalitarianism. The fundamental features of Kemalism are:

Republicanism based on the rule of law, popular sovereignty and civic virtue,

A form of populism that promotes political power among the citizenry,

Secularism heavily influenced by the French laïcité system of government that severely restricts the role of religion in government,

A revolutionary overhaul of old institutions,

A strong state involved in the regulation of the country’s economic development.

One of the most important features of the new state was the relationship between the government and religious groups. The French laicité model dictates that religious discourse or institutional involvement with the affiars of the government is strictly out of bounds. The French used it to distance their government from influence and control of the Catholic Church. In Turkey, the model was embraced to force centuries-old religious institutions held over from the days of the Ottoman Empire to relinquish control and influence in the new nationalism government.


Yet, Turkish secularists took an extra step beyond the French model, regulating the practice of majority Sunni Islam in the country through the national Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi). In this way, the mosque is reserved as a place of personal devotion, and not a place to mobilize believers around a religious or political cause. Religious groups are not allowed to form political parties, and parties are not allowed to form around explicitly religious goals or ideals. As a result, religious groups and individuals who wish to engage society can operate openly primarily in civil society.


The rise of the center-right AKP (Justice and Development Party) on the Turkish national stage has opened up greater religious expression has opened up greater opportunities for religious civil society organization tied to the Gülen Movement and other religious groups. The AKP, though rooted in Islamic political movements, frames its political agenda in secular terms. In turn, religious foundations and associations also use secular language to frame their agendas and concerns in order to conform to laws regarding the secularity of Turkish public life.


The Hizmet ties itself to traditions of religiously-rooted service to the community that hearken back to the role of religious charities in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Where many European democratic models see a large state role in caring for the poor, educating children and providing other social services, members of the Gülen Movement see a smaller government role for these services in favor of a much greater portion of these services handled by religiously-motivated individuals and groups.


Hizmet is also associated with many schools, media outlets and charitable social service organizations across Turkey, and even beyond its borders. The movement counts the most popular newspaper in the country, Zaman, among its most influential organs. A volunteer-based charity associated with the movement, Kimse Yok Mu? consuistently raises more than five hundred million dollars in donation for its humanitarian relief projects. The movement is also involved in organizing a network of business and industry leaders.


Religious Freedom in Turkey

Turkey’s religious history is one of the richest in the world. Before the rise of the secular state in 1923, the Ottoman Caliphate was the (sometimes ostensible) leader of the Muslim world. Before the rise of the Ottomans, Constantinople was a capital of eastern Christendom. Two thousand years ago, diaspora Jewish communities provided the first footholds of the Christian faith. Holy sites visited in contemporary times speak of this country’s ties to Abraham, the founder of all three major Western religions. Even within the past 25 years, the earliest temple complex yet discovered was found in Turkey’s eastern desert.


This deep religious heritage is not matched by a freedom among Turkey’s various religious adherents to worship, gather and participate in the public sphere. While the government is secular, Turkey tightly controls what is said in the pulpits of the mosques. Minority religious groups face severe restrictions on where and how the worship, as well as their ability to govern their own religious affairs. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom provides an annual snapshot of the state of religious freedom in Turkey. Dissent published in the most recent report by USCIRF indocates the complexity of this issue with regard to Turkey.


The most recent USCIRF report removed Turkey from a list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), where it had kept company in previous years with a list of nations with the worst records of religious oppression. The USCIRF report cited ongoing improvements in perennial concerns, such as loosening restrictions on the use of headscarves, increased educational opportunities for religious minorities, and other issues. USCIRF also expressed optimism that the current process of redrafting the country’s constitution will result in greater government protection of a range of human rights concerns.


The Commission’s official stance on Turkey recognizes that, even though there have been some improvements, there are certain structural problems that remain obstacles to a resolving some of the most entrenched restrictions religious groups face in Turkey. USCRIF points out that that the Turkish government disallows full legal status for religious groups, and cites full governmental suppression of religious participation in the public sphere. Under the 1923 constitution, religious communities are free to worship, disseminate religious literature within the group and believe what they choose. However, the government prohibits religious political discourse. At the same time, Islam is subject to state control via an office of religious affairs (Diyanet). Minority religious groups are managed under another bureaucratic office.


USCIRF cites a variety of improvements in the treatment of religious minorities. This includes the return of confiscated real estate to religious minority foundations. Among the 500 properties returned are significant holdings by a variety of minority Christian groups. This includes hundreds of acres of forest land belonging to the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary, thousands of acres belonging to an ethnic Bulgarian Christian foundation, as well as several properties belonging to the Armenian Christian community. The Turkish government has also loosened restrictions regarding the use of sacred spaces still under government control to minority religious observances. This includes allowing certain observances at Armenian, Greek and Syriac churches and monasteries held by the Turkish government.


Though the official USCIRF position in the 2013 report was of cautious optimism, and the removal of Turkey from CPC status, there was significant dissent among USCIRF’s minority Republican commissioners. The only dissents recorded in the 2013 religious freedom report were the opposition to the removal of Turkey completely from both CPC and “watch list” status, and a brief dissent by two democratic commissioners regarding the inclusion of Northern Cyrus as part of the report on Turkey. The Republican commissioners argued that there has been negligible improvement by the Turkish government with regard to the most important issues affecting religious freedom in that country. They argue that, though Turkey did not deserve to be on the CPC list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty, it was also a mistake to remove them from the Tier-2 “watch list” category as well.


The dissenting opinion cites five keys areas where the Turkish government contuinues to infringe upon the religious freedom of communities living within its borders:


The denial of full legal status to religious minorities, and policies that prevent these minorities from training their clergy, own and maintin placesof worship and provide their own religious education. The closure of the Orthodox Christian seminary in Halki in 1971, and the failure by the government to reopen the seminary is a prime example of this policy toward religious minorities.

The denial of full rights to Muslims outside of the Sunni majority. Dissenting commissioners point out that state-controlled mosques promote only a particular interpretation of Islam, and prohibit the recognition and practice of Islam according to any other interpretation.

Freedom of expression in the public sphere for adherents of minority religious groups is severely restricted, particularly for non-Muslim religious minorities.

Quasi-government approval and encouragement of civil hostility toward minority religious groups, and statements by the prime minister that can be construed as anti-Semitic.

The destruction of northern Cyprus’s Christian communities and historic structures, as the area is under the control of the Turkish military. The 2012 USCIRF report asked the Turkish government to curtail military destruction of religious sites and provide access to holy places for Christians residing in northern Cyrus. However, the dissent argues that no progress has been made on this issue.


Gülen asserts that freedom of religion is one of the foundational blocks of Islam, and religions should be taught and even spread without government restraint. In the face of free competition from other religions, he says Muslims should remain confident: “We have no doubt in our religion. With its universal values, it is superior to the teachings of other religions in the fields of belief, rituals, and transactions. That would be the case as long as we expose them properly under the circumstances, and understanding of our age, and represent it properly.”  He argues that compulsion in religious matters, from controversies over headscarves to restrictions on non-Islamic faiths, are the results of political authorities overstepping their bounds at best, and the hallmarks of tyrants at worst.


Gülen has had personal experience with religious restrictions. In an interview with The Atlantic, he recalled Turkey’s anti-religious climate in the 1950s, and how it has shaped his views of religious freedom in his overall vision:


I remember when I was in elementary school around the age of 6 and when I did my noon prayer during recess once, I was locked in the basement as punishment by the principal. Such pressure was real. Today, on the one hand, some Muslims face oppression and in response, certain individuals commit suicide attacks. Religion doesn’t condone or justify responding to those who oppress with oppression. Today, Muslims face oppressive conditions in some places, and Christians in others. Some things take time. All humanity should embrace a peaceful attitude, but this can only be achieved in the long term through rehabilitation of society.


Turkey and the ‘Twin Tolerations’

Taking a look at the relationship between religion and democracy in Turkey, particularly as it relates to the Gülen movement, a cosmopolitan mixture of influences emerges. On the one hand, Turkey’s government has a particularly French style when it comes to the exclusion of religion from public life. Yet, the service-oriented religious Hizmet movement has its conceptual roots reaching reaching back into the days of the Ottoman Empire. While there has been some suspicion of the Gülen Movement among some politicians, and the movement remains both highly visible and mysterious to many of Turkey’s citizens, it seems to have laid the foundations of a long-term major impact on Turkish society.


The question remains whether there is a conceptual model beyond the Gülen Movement that reflects the role that Hizmet’s political and civil theological base, as well as its Consultative approach to the formation of policy within the country. Perhaps the most popular model among political scientists was put forth by John Rawls. The Rawlsian approach to religion in democracy is that any actor who wishes to argue for a political goal should make arguments for their agenda within the bounds of reason, rather than religious values or appeals to traditional theology. In this way, all members of the community have a common language, and followers of one ideology are structurally prevented from treating those of a competing ideology as second-class citizens.


Rawls’ model seems to have strong egalitarian and reasonable features that enable to peaceful coexistence of many religions and perspectives within a democracy. It many ways, it resembles the French and Turkish laicité models. Yet, the flaws of Rawls’ model become apparent through the dissatisfaction expressed by religious communities operating within the Rawlsian model (including, to some extent, the United States). The chief complaint is that, even though a democratic government should represent the wishes and values of the citizens, the citizens themselves must shed a certain part of their identity to participate in the public sphere. By excluding religious arguments from political discussion, the Rawlsian model de facto makes religious actors in the public sphere second-class citizens by forcing them to relinquish a fundamental part of who they are.


A competing model, called the “Twin Tolerations,” was outlined by Alfred Stepan. Stepan questioned the Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis that democracy may not be suited for certain religions and people groups outside of the West. Stepan argues that there are certain boundaries that are off limits to government when it comes to the religious beliefs and institutions of the people. On the one hand, religious groups should not hold a privileged position that allows them to mandate public plicy in a democratically elected government. On the other hand, religious adherents should have a high degree of religious freedom, both privately and in public life. This includes the right to worship as they please, advance their values in public, and sponsor organizations and movements in political society as long as they do not seek to impinge on the liberties of other citizens or violate the principles of democracy and the rule of law.


The Twin Tolerations model seems the closest fit with the long-term goals of the Gülen Movement with respect to its relationship to the Turkish political domain. The Consultative Model resembles the Twin Tolerations in that the values of the religious community are expressed and taken seriously in the public sphere, yet the religious community itself does not take on the reins of power that are held by the democratically elected government. Turkey still has a long way to go when it comes to religious freedom for all of its religious communities. Yet, the Gülen Movement, with its emphasis on religiously-motivated service for the betterment of everyone on their society, is having a growing beneficial impact on Turkish civil society.


As some of the mystery about the movement fades, and as suspicions attenuate in the halls of power, the movement stands to present a clear path forward for countries in the region looking for a model that allows for religious freedom and participation within the arena of secular government. In a country where direct political involvement by religious groups is highly restricted, the Gülen movement is proving that religious civil service organizations can indeed have an impact on a nation’s through a devotion to service in the civil arena, and by framing discourse around religious values in the public sphere. For those children growing up in the Gaziantep orphanage, the Turkey they know as adults may be quite distant from the religiously-oppressive environment Gülen experienced from childhood to his years as a leader in exile.