“The Hizmet Movement and Social Movement Theory: Applicability or Irrelevancy?”

By Heather Marie Brown, Researcher, George Mason University

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The Gülen Movement, or Hizmet (The Service), is a movement that defies existing theoretical frameworks within social movement literature.  Though in recent years the movements that have gained attention as breaking the theoretical mold have been largely youth-led, contentious and politically motivated, often culminating in massive on the ground protests.  Perhaps the most visible examples are the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings of 2011, and the laterally organized and diffuse global Occupy movement.  These sensational, (yet no doubt fascinating,) examples of collective action and mobilization have in many ways eclipsed movements such as Hizmet, which, despite having different goals and tactics, are also proving Social Movement Theory (SMT) and even New Social Movement Theory (NSMT) to be increasingly outdated.  This paper will explore how existing social movement theories do, and do not, apply to Hizmet, and how the explanatory power of SMT and NSMT can benefit from using such cases as the Movement, in addition to movements such as the April 6th Youth Movement and Occupy.


The Hizmet Movement: A Brief Background

Established in the 1960s in Izmir, Turkey by Fethullah Gülen, the movement soon grew nationwide in the 1980s, and in the 1990s it reached a global scale. Based on social justice, universal rights, and more specifically, the goal of providing quality education to all children, Hizmet is based in moderate Islam, yet is inclusive and pluralistic in those they serve. Gülen, a Turkish Muslim scholar, was inspired to seek educational reform after his father’s job moved the family to a village with no public schools (Cetin 2010).

The exact number of members is unknown, yet some estimates put the number at one million to eight million (Aras and Caha 2000).  The Movement has a somewhat loose structure, and consists primarily of students, teachers, businessmen, journalists, and other professionals (White 2002).  Some studies have found the organization to be locally based, linking into networks on an informal basis, as opposed to on a legal basis. Movement members have established numerous media outlets, including newspapers Zaman, the English-langauge edition, Today’s Zaman; Samanyolu TV and Mehtap TV; Burç FM Radio; and the media group Cihan. Hizmet also has nonprofits and aid charities, such as the Journalists and Writers Foundation and Kimse Yok Mu? (Is anybody there?), respectively.  In the United States, members of the Movement have formed the Rumi Forum, the Interfaith Dialogue Institute, and Interfaith Dialogue Center.

Hizmet as been accused by detractors as having a heavy hand in anti-AKP political activities, and is anti-Kemalist in stance.  But what sets the Movement apart from many social movements is its nonpolitical stance, and apolitical goals. This makes New Social Movement Theory (NSMT) more applicable than traditional Social Movement Theories (SMT), as we will subsequently see.


Social Movement Theory: A Background

Collective Behavior

One of the earliest attempts at explaining social movements was the collective behavior approach.  Sociologists in the mid 1900s viewed movements as random events that resulted from emotional reactions to circumstances and situations outside of the actors’ control.  The connection between social psychology and social movements has been dated back to the Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 work, The Crowd, which strongly influenced the study of collective behavior that emerged in the 1950s (Snow and Oliver 1995).  The work of Sigmund Freud on group psychology and the ego, Gordon Allport’s Social Psychology (1924), John Dollard, et al.’s Frustration and Aggression, and Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) also played a role in pushing the psychologically-based approaches. While not aimed at specifically explaining political opposition movements, this form of SMT is at its basic level a “goal-directed activity, engaged by more than one single agent,” (Spier 2011, 4).  The types of groups examined in this approach vary from riots to interest groups, as well as large-scale movements, such as revolutions.  This is conceptually problematic in terms of explanatory power in that the variation between social movements and interest groups or riots.  Often social movements use non-institutional tactics, such as boycotts or protests as opposed to seeking legislative change.  Yet in order to have a chance at realizing their goals, social movements require more organization than simply a riot.

Herbert Blumer, a prominent collective behavior theorist, identified collective behavior as non-institutionalized efforts to effect social change as “social movements as collective enterprises to establish a new order of life” (Blumer 1951, 199).  Blumer also characterized social movements as disorganized and unstructured.  Under the rubric of collective behavior, social movements have also been described as “large-scale, widespread…elementary action(s)” that aim at affecting and shaping the social order” (Lang and Lang 1961, 490).  According to collective behaviorists social movements are not rational and logical forms of mobilization and cannot be explained by organizational context (prior experience with collective action among the group members) or cultural norms (Morris and Herring 1984).  Once such movements become institutionalized they are no longer classified as social movements and the goal of study shifts to detecting the origins of the movements and how they gave rise to change.  The idea of “loss of individuality” and the irrational nature of movements were later criticized by different frameworks, namely the rationality-based resource mobilization.

Within psychology-based theories of SMT is the concept of strain and breakdown.  The ideas of strain and breakdown are the connecting ties between a diverse set of social theorists addressing collective behavior.  “Strain and breakdown” are sometimes looked at as explanations for the collective action phenomenon (Buechler 1994).  There are two prominent aspects of this model: collective behavior is triggered by some sort of tension or disruption in normal social routines; and collective behavior differs from conventional behavior by the presence of contagion, emotionality, and spontaneity (Spier 2011).  Neil Smelser (1968) pointed to deprivation and as one of the psychological factors involved in collective action, connecting an actor’s anxiety to structural issues; the theory analyzes collective behavior as a direct result of an actor’s perception of their current situation compared to references in the past or of another group or individual.  This approach proposes that one is in relative deprivation when they observe a benchmark indicating there is a more optimal situation for them that they can or should try to achieve (Buechler 1994).  This is a psychological strain that prompts a person to join in collective action.  The psychologically-based approach faded over the course of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as an era ridden with less organized protest gave way to a shift in studying organizations within a more structured and institutional framework (Snow and Oliver 1995).

Hizmet is rather antithetical to the collective behavior approach, as the Movement is a longstanding with quite deliberative goals and rationale. This approach to understanding mobilization is much more applicable to spontaneous movements.  Additionally, the claim that social movements are emotional responses to circumstances outside of the movement’s control could not be farther form the truth regarding Hizmet.  The Movement is very much changing the educational landscape for many

Resource Mobilization

In the 1970s resource mobilization came to dominate the discourse on social movement theory.  John McCarthy and Mayer Zald identify social movements as opinions and beliefs in a population that represents preferences for altering components of the existing social structure “and/or reward distribution of a society” (McCarthy and Zald 1977, 1217-18).   At the center of analysis is a group’s ability to acquire “resources” in order to mobilize actors and attain the movement’s goal (Spier 2011).  In many ways, this approach to understanding social movements was a reaction to the psychologically based collective behavior and strain and breakdown theories.  Under the resource mobilization approach great emphasis is placed on the movement as a rational institution, having deliberately formed in order to meet specific goals.  Efficient use of accumulated resources is also emphasized, resembling the structure of enterprises within a capitalist framework (McCarthy and Zald 1977).

There are five types of resources referred to, the first are “moral resources,” which include solidarity, legitimacy, and sympathetic support for the movement’s cause.  These resources are not typically in the group’s control and are provided by outside sources, which make them less accessible than other types of resources.  Cultural resources are conceptual tools derived from culturally specific, specialized knowledge; these include prior experience with activism and mobilization, a useful understanding of the issues at play in achieving the group’s goals (Spier 2011).  Cultural resources are also useful in the recruitment and socialization of new members, in the form of music, literature, films, and websites.  Cultural resources are more readily available as they are not contingent upon outside sources, such as moral resources.  Social organizational resources are comprised of three categories: infrastructures or organizational strategies, which help in the functioning of a movement; and access to social networks that have resources within them (Spier 2011).  Human resources are the fourth in the typology and refer to labor, expertise, special skills, etc, and in many ways accompany material resources- physical capital, property, equipment, supplies, and miscellaneous monetary resources- in the practical workings of a movement.  Like the other rationalist approaches, though, it neglects the less overtly rational methods a movement might employ.

Resource mobilization theory differs from previous approaches in its emphasis on rational, institutionally rooted, structural patterns, and the thought that protest is a part of the political process (Della Porta and Diani 1999).  This turns the analysis away from the assumption that movements spontaneously occur amidst otherwise “normal” settings, and redirects the focus on the organizational dynamics of a movement.  Resource mobilization was also the first approach that acknowledged the presence of influential factors outside the group, such as outside actors’ perceptions of the movement.  It questions the centrality of grievances of collective actors to the growth of a movement, rather refocusing on structural factors.  McCarthy and Zald (1977) acknowledge the variance in these resources, but the emphasis placed on the society a movement works within is possibly problematic because these social frameworks have typically been Western and in developed countries.

Regarding Hizmet, resource mobilization does in some ways apply, but it does not provide an exhaustive explanation or understanding.  True, the theory moves away form the concept of social movements as spontaneous, and sees them as rational efforts working within existing institutions. With the addition of new cases outside of Western norms the contextual specificity of resource mobilization theory might have some use in explaining the Movement.  However, a clear view of the complexity of Hizmet is not present in resource mobilization. As with the other institutional explanations, there is not enough credence given to the autonomy of the Movement.


Political Opportunity Framework

Perhaps the most prevalent and complex approach to studying social movements within the more traditional approaches is political opportunity structure or the political process model.  This approach, like much of SMT is sometimes convoluted.  Moving away from the acontextual resource mobilization approach, but remaining within the institutionalism camp, political process theory or political opportunity structure[1] emerged as a corrective in the early 1970s, (Meyer 2004).  Political opportunity theory also aided in the move away from the psychologically based explanations of social movements and instead perceived movements as political phenomenon.  The theory seeks to predict variance in “…periodicity, content, and outcomes of activist efforts over time across different institutional contexts (Meyer 2004).  Activists were seen as subject to the political contexts in which they were attempting to mobilize; the tactical choices that they make are not conceived of within a vacuum.  Actors’ or a movement’s agency is seen as a product of the structure from which the movement arises, placing a heavy amount of definitive power far from a movement’s actors.

Exogenous factors or “political opportunities” play into this conceptualization, as they affect a movement’s decision making.  In fact outside forces are at the center of this approach.  Sidney Tarrow (1994) argues that the reason people join social movements in the first place (aside from shared grievances) is in response to political opportunities; this means that factors outside of the actors’ control initiate action, followed by collective action that seeks out new political opportunities.  Changes in the political opportunity landscape might include an unstable regime, an increasingly divided elite, and opportunities for new social alliances to emerge.   Once a movement is able to reach the first stage of initial mobilization, they must sustain collective action.  Tarrow argues that in order to do so a movement must develop a “repertoire of contention.”  These repertoires include familiar forms of contention, such as demonstrations, marches, strikes, etc. and are transferable across types of grievances and sectors of society.

Even before Tarrow’s 1994 Power in Movement, Charles Tilly discussed the tactical choices of a movement are reflective of changing opportunities and even a group’s changing set of grievances.  Once of the most intriguing components of this approach to understanding social movements is the claim that the frequency of protests has a curvilinear relationship to political openness (Tilly 1978).  There is a somewhat delicate balance between the degree to which a government cracks down on opposition and a movement’s impetus to partake in a movement.  If authorities allow legitimate and fruitful possibilities to voice grievances, members of a movement are less likely to choose political protest; rather they will seek less costly and more effective means of influence.  In contrast, a regime can stifle constituencies to the point of rendering them incapable of developing the organizational or cognitive capacity to mobilize.  Tilly argues that protest has historically occurred in settings where there is just enough space and toleration to organize and share awareness of grievances, but not too much for other avenues to become more attractive.

Leadership also plays a crucial role in mobilizing structures within political opportunity theory.  However, instead of being heavily addressed, it is by relative omission that the importance of a central leadership comes through; it is as if leadership is automatically assumed as a given, regardless of theoretical approach (Lind 2011).   Ronald Francisco said “leadership plays an overwhelming role in mobilization. All our theorists agree on this point, (Francisco 2012, 109).  The definition of “leader” within a social movement varies: sometimes leaders are defined as those tasked with recruitment, mobilizing resources, devising new tactics (Earl 2007).  However, Nepstad and Bob’s (2007) approach leadership from a different angle, defining leaders as individuals or teams who exert authority within a movement.

While heavily focused on external structural factors, it is important to address the mobilizing structure itself.  Tarrow argued that the collective action problem was social not individual, as collective behavior theorists would argue.  Coordination, not free riders, (Mancur Olsen 1965) is the main issue of collective action.  The costs associated with coordinating large numbers of actors are lowered when there are changes in the political structure.  Drawing on resource mobilization theory, it is the resources available within the community of a movement that allows for mobilization.  McAdam goes so far as to say that without these resources an insurgency would not have the capacity to act when an externally driven opportunity presented itself (McAdam 1999).

In Dynamics of Contention Charles Tilly, Sydney Tarrow, and Doug McAdam (2001) argue a movement must develop “a repertoire of contention,” which can include brokerage, certification, social appropriation, identity shift, among others in order to mobilize.  In this work the authors aim to provide new answers to old questions in identifying causal mechanisms that are present across a wide set of movements, but that are also shaped by factors specific to context from which movements arise.  While they might not answer old questions, they shift the conversation on social movements in such a way that new questions emerge, which appear to be more applicable to understanding movements such as Hizmet.  Initial conditions, sequences, and the combinations of mechanisms can result in varying outcomes across cases.  This diverges from older approaches to the political opportunity theory in that it emphasizes a relational focus and a transition from structure to dynamics.  The siloed concepts of mobilizing structures, framing processes, repertoires of contention, and opportunity and threat are linked by the new mechanisms mentioned above.  In addition to the improvement on a once rigid theory, the authors’ focus on persistent mechanisms instead of causal patterns does not purport to “solve” the question of mobilization, which to some may detract from their contribution, but to others it leaves this approach open to application outside of Western contexts.

Political opportunity models fall short in explaining Hizmet as well.  The overt political aims of movements that are illuminated by this theoretical approach vary drastically from the Movement’s focus on human rights and education.


Framing Structures

The concept of cultural framing overlaps significantly and is sometimes included in NSMT, as it takes it utilizes identity, symbols, cultural norms, ideology, etc.  While not an entirely new conceptual approach, it grew out of a frustration with the resource mobilization and political opportunity structure paradigm[2] (Buechler 1995). While initially a reaction to the more rigid aspects of political opportunity and resource mobilization and in many ways falling in line with more so with the components of NSMT, the framing perspective has been appropriated by political opportunity theorists in recent years.

David Snow introduced the concept in the 1980s in a response to political opportunity theory’s lack of attention to ideas and meaning.  The definition of “cultural framing” has changed since Snow established the concept; McAdam, McCarthy and Zald criticize studies for adopting increasingly broad definitions and they revert back to Snow’s idea of  “conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action” (McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1996, 5).  Jack Goldstone (2001) pinpoints the core framing when he states that the ideologies that are most effective are those that draw from dominant cultural frameworks, using older symbolic images, stories, etc. and reshaping them to fit the movement’s message and present day issues at hand.  Perhaps the there most crucial points the concept of framing posits are: framing connect social movements to existing frameworks within the relevant cultural context; it is a tool actively used by movements with the goal of mobilization; traditionally it is argued to be performed by a movement’s leader.  Additionally some have argued that the interpretation of framing within the political opportunity approach is structured by the way it takes into account previous attempts at planning and mobilization (Lind 2011).


New Social Movement Theory

Like traditional SMT, NSMT is a set of varying approaches, as opposed to a unified theory (Buechler 1995).  There are however some dominant characteristics of this set of theoretical tools, which have a post-materialist view and a de-emphasis on structural causality, Buechler (1995) argues that new social movement theory is better at explaining the “why” than the “how” of movements, which is a helpful starting point in critiquing or applying a theory to a specific case; one cannot fairly critique a theory without first acknowledging what it is trying to answer.  Because there are so many components of NSMT, this paper will attempt to address some of the major themes and their applicability to Hizmet

Certain dominant themes associated with NSMT revolve around ideology (typically values-based over political), group identity, context, and nonhierarchical structures.  In more detail, ideological outlooks in new social movements differ from traditional movements (Pichardo 1997); there exists an emphasis on symbolic interaction within civil society and culture, (Cohen 1985); an emphasis on processes that increase autonomy and self-determination instead of power and influence (Habermas 1984-1987); post-materialism (Inglehart 1990); the acknowledgment of the fragility involved with a (preferred) collective identity creation and group interests, as opposed to their formation as a product of structural determination (Hunt, Bedford, and Snow 1994); the social construction of grievances and ideology (Johnson, Larana, and Gusfield, 1994); contextual framing (Hunt, Benford, and Snow 1994); the acknowledgment of discrete, underlying, and sometimes latent networks or organizational forms, rather than assuming traditional, centralized organizations are necessary for mobilization (Gusfield 1994); and the importance of emotions, (however not in the irrational and spontaneous manner seen in collective behavior theory) in construction of a movement (Goodwin and Jasper 2004).  New social movement theory also places emphasis on the importance of communication and information (Buechler 1995).

As aforementioned, it appears as though certain components of NSMT fit more appropriately than traditional SMT regarding Hizmet.  Ideology and the type of goals a movement has play a significant role in differentiating between traditional social movements and new social movements, moving away from materialistic goals towards post-industrial ideals of quality of life and life style concerns.  Human rights and justice are key concepts in NSMT, which is also the crux of Hizmet’s mission.  A post-materialist ethos and sweeping social-justice minded mission, makes Hizmet largely a movement of this newer wave of mobilizations.

The prominence of identity claims are argued to be the one of the most distinct characteristic of new social movements (Kauffman 1990 in Pichardo 1997), even though identity is critical to all group formations and movements.  Regarding new social movements, the focus on identity is important because of the “personal is political” notion: the politics of identity lead to the politicization of previously “nonpolitical terrains” (Kauffman 1990 in Pichardo 1997).  This falls in line with the way in which many Hizmet members express political identity.  One observer wrote that compared to students who followed other Islamist groups in Turkey, those who adhered to Fethullah Gülen’s community modest in manner, and not extroverted or very public about their ideological beliefs Simsek 2994).  Though an important factor in their lives, the students nonetheless had adopted a quite unique Muslim identity in many ways. Instead of bombarding other with their beliefs, they were reserved in their religious and cultural identity.  The author of this paper also witnessed a movement that was instead of loudly voicing their religiosity or values – a trait often associated with movements based in religion – members instead showed expressed their identity through acts.

Framing is used by social movements to shape discourse and portray their cause in such a way that it appeals to a wide audience.  While NSMT speaks of framing, Tarrow (1998) argued that social movements are trying to replace prevailing belief systems with alternative belief systems that call for collective action.  In order to do this they need to use symbols of revolt and meaningful cultural, ideological, religious, etc. references in order to promote inclusivity.  The alternative belief system is also framed in such a way as to alienate as few people outside of the regime as possible.

Hizmet has suffered from misplaced assumptions about the movement and its goals, seen my critics as attempting to undermine secular norms with a covert Islamist agenda.  This is an area where reframing on the part of Hizmet could be of benefit to the Movement.  For instance, even referring to the “Gülen Movement” presupposes what some members deem an overemphasis on the founder, Fethullah Gülen. However, there is something to be said for the noninvasive and nonconfrontational methods of Hizmet, even when it comes to their “brand”—they are after all a movement that is working within an established framework, rather than seeking to overthrow it. Taking a step back from controlling the message and discourse surrounding Hizmet, and letting their actions speak for the Movement, may in fact be of more benefit to overall public perception.  The building of schools and focus on education is an incredibly inclusive aspect of Hizmet.

Whether one wishes to see a less deliberate framing strategy as a misstep in the Movement’s strategy, framing strategies are quite intriguing when applied to Hizmet. When examining shorter-lived, more visible and “in your face” social movements, the group’s need to overtly control the perception of their own movement, as well as their opposition is vital. But in regard to Hizmet, taking too much action in this regard could be potentially detrimental.

There is a critical way in which the application of New Social Movement Theory  (NSMT) to Hizmet is theoretically important.  NSMT assumes cultural movements to be “expressive” and “confrontational,” rather than strategic (Gurbuz 2007).  Rather on the contrary, Hizmet exhibits both strategic aspects not typically found in new social movements, as well as expressive elements.  The binary view of either strategic or expressive is a contention longstanding in regard to all social movement theories.  The two major camps of SMT and NSMT have not engaged in enough dialogue, as can be seen when taking aspects of each theory and applying them to Hizmet, as well as other movements, such as the Egyptian uprising and Occupy.  Not overtly political, Hizmet is in many ways aligned with new social movements.  Yet, even NSMT does not fully elucidate all that has grown from Fethullah Gülen’s vision, making further analysis and research on the dynamics of a myriad of social movements necessary for a more robust theoretical approach to understanding mobilization.



















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[1] While the broader concept was initially referred to as “Political Opportunity Structure,” Tarrow later claimed the term was misleading because opportunities are situational, not so rigidly structural, (Tarrow 1998).  Because of the focus on dynamic opportunity processes within a political structure, this theory will be referred to as “political opportunity” model, framework, or approach in order to account for both the dynamism and the structural elements it uses to explain mobilization. This is unless the distinction between political opportunity structure and political process is being directly addressed.

[2] The more rigid political opportunity structure has in part been amended by its creators, in the adaptation of a more dynamic and fluid understanding, emphasizing political process, (Tarrow 1998) and later, the additional analysis of the relationships between mechanisms of contention, (McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly 2001).




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