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Turkish Islam and Secular State: The Gulen Movement
Apr 1, 2004

The public role of religion is a source of controversy in almost every corner of the world in the contemporary age. The headscarf issue in France and Turkey, the Ten Commandments monument case in Alabama, US, the stoning sentence of a woman in Nigeria, and religiously inspired confrontations in India, among many other examples, all demonstrate an ongoing debate and struggle over the place of religion in the larger system of public ethos. Starting with Max Weber, the sociology of religion has been put under scrutiny in order to situate religion in the modern world, whose one key defining character is secularism.

Islamic movements today lack a path-breaking analysis comparable to Weber’s “Protestant Ethic.” Most Islamic groups have been evaluated according to either individual aspirations or the treatment they receive from other actors, especially their respected states. Analyses of the dynamic interaction between individual and group identities and the social and economic developments are necessary to understand the ongoing transformation in the Muslim world. Thanks to globalization, Muslim societies have come to grips with the changing world, not only in terms of science and technology, but also the far-reaching ideas of economic rationality, political freedoms, and human rights. Some Muslim intellectuals have attempted to develop a new sense of religiosity in touch with modern realities and these ideas have been put into practice by various forms of social activism.

Fethullah Gulen is an influential Muslim intellectual who inspired a series of social activities, including a transnational education and business network, inter-faith dialogue forums, and multi-cultural encounters. Gulen and his loosely-knit informal community have been subjected to political accusations in Turkey regarding the scope and motives of their activities. Scholarly interest was stimulated after the mid-1990s with the increased visibility of the movement in the Turkish public arena and overseas education initiatives. A recent book came out in such a context to investigate social aspects of the Gulen movement with the intent of eradicating an intellectual gap by offering a coherent social interpretation of the movement. Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement provides in-depth textual and contextual analyses of the emergence of the movement and also its evolution from a religious associate circle into a transnational “identity and ethic oriented faith movement.”

The book is an edited volume by M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito, two leading scholars on Islam in the US. Starting with an investigation of the public role of Islam in modern Turkey, Yavuz identifies the intellectual and social roots of the Gulen movement. According to him, Gulen has taken Said Nursi’s faith-based movement one step further to transmit religious consciousness of the individuals to the larger social institutions and has made Islam a significant contributor to public discussions. He defines Gulen as a “social innovator” who utilizes Islam as a social capital to promote civil society. Yavuz makes an analogy between the Gulen movement and the Puritans of the 16th and 17th century England in an effort to delineate the social activism inherent in the outlook of the movement. Yavuz believes that ideas and social factors shape each other and social movements are products of this interaction.

The Gulen movement is by no means an exception and has been quick to adapt to the changes in the world. Hence, the ideological left-right struggles of the 1970s, the economic and political liberalization of the 1980s and the global discourse of human rights has made a striking imprint on the identity of the movement. Hasan Kosebalaban’s discussion of the national security identity and enemy-friend culture of Fethullah Gulen illuminates some of these impressions. One of the key remarks of the book is that the movement has been quite successful in adapting to new social conditions, transforming itself and developing a language that speaks to the prevailing issues of the time.

The remaining chapters in the book can be divided into three categories: portrayal of Fethullah Gulen, connection among the Gulen movement’s followers, and the movement’s cultural and educational activities. First, the book presents a multi-dimensional portrait of Fethullah Gulen as a leader and intellectual. Gulen’s ideas regarding some of the social issues, such as democracy, state, and interaction with non-Muslims, are laid out from his various written and oral statements.

Ahmet Kuru analyzes Gulen’s critical engagement with Muslim tradition and modernity in order to come up with an intellectually appealing middle way between science and religious knowledge, reason and revelation, progress and tradition, and free will and destiny. Ihsan Yilmaz looks at the issue from a slightly different angle to highlight how Gulen and his community promote a new understanding of Islam in regards to state and governance, relations with non-Muslims, and civil society activism. He defines this renewal as Ijtihad (interpretation) by Conduct, with possible broader implication over the Muslim world. Related to the social issues is the practice of religion by Gulen and his associates. Zeki Saritoprak explores Gulen’s ideas of theology and practices of piety, comparing these with classical Sufi orders and concludes that Gulen, in his own way, is a Sufi:

He adheres to core ideas and aspirations of Sufism without necessarily following the traditional structured relationship between master and disciples. These articles underline an attempt by the movement to combine private piety with public activism, with its significant implications on modern Muslim identity, thought and practice.

One of the central questions that the book tackles is how a loosely-knit informal community of volunteers can undertake such a transnational venture. In other words, who are the individual champions of the movement’s accomplishments? And can they carve a niche for their personal identities within the confines of the movement? A second set of articles examines these matters. Elisabeth Ozdalga provides a report of an in-depth interview with three members of the community in Turkey. She investigates the influence of Gulen’s ideas and the movement’s public image over the formation of individual identities. Although she finds the movement conservative on social issues, she does not see this as an obstacle for independent self-reflection. Other chapters on the education project of the movement repeatedly underline the idealism of the participants and solidarity among the fellows. The Gulen movement is an interesting case in regards to its organization. For most scholars, it is puzzling to see a social movement managed by individuals with pious motivations carrying out social functions that are not strictly religious.

The third set of articles takes on the most prominent aspect of the movement: the educational activities. Thomas Michel looks at Gulen’s outlook on education and identifies his concerns about some of the modern challenges to true “human freedom.” Impoverishment of spirituality and ethical bases of value degeneration through false dichotomies and artifacts make up the departing point of the movement’s educational enterprise. In as diverse contexts as Turkey, Bosnia, Khazakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, and The Philippines, the teachers seek to cultivate good morals and conduct in their pupils as well as excelling in sciences. Education plays a bridging role not only between Turkey and the host countries, but also among subnational groups and localities. Michel’s chapter mentions an example from The Philippines, where a school named “Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance” played a constructive role to ease the tension between Muslims and Christians. Other contributors to the issue of education in the volume stress to the movement’s adept synthesis of local, national, and global values.

There are also some other compelling chapters which do not fall exactly into any of the three categories above. Yasin Aktay’s analysis of the constitutive elements of Gulen’s discourse should be mentioned among them.

The concluding chapter of the book puts forward a new perspective to understanding transnational social movements and religion in the contemporary world. John Voll, another leading scholar on Islam, questions the utility of binary thinking by arguing on behalf of a new framework for reading the social transformations that take place every now and then. He proposes the abandonment of the dichotomies of modern-traditional, global-local, and secular-religious in order to closely capture what is going on in social life. According to Voll, we have moved to a global, desecularized, multicultural, and pluralist world. One can argue that the Gulen movement sets a proper example of a correct reading of this multi-faceted dynamic world with its “active pietism” in the global public sphere.