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An analysis of the Gülen inspired media and publications

By Greg Barton

Although Gülen Hizmet is becoming increasingly well-known outside Turkey for its schools and passion for education these schools are only one part of the Hizmet’s activism.

From its earliest days the Gülen movement has been involved with writing and publishing. The movement’s first magazine, Sizinti, launched in the early 1980s, is a popular publication directed towards a lay audience and intended to promote discussion and learning about science and spirituality. It aims to foster interest in science and spirituality and to demonstrate that rational scientific enquiry and religious faith are not incompatible. Sizinti was joined several years later by the English language publication, Fountain, edited in Istanbul and printed in New Jersey and aimed at fostering a general interest in religion and spirituality. The articles in Fountain deal mostly, but not exclusively with Islam and generally reflect a tolerant, Sufistic orientation and a modern articulation of tradionalist Islam. A sister publication of Fountain, Dialogue (joined in Australia, in 2004, by Dialogue Australia Asia) was established specifically to encourage inter-religious dialogue.

Magazines Sizinti, Fountain and Dialogue: These publications represent modern religious magazines in the style of many contemporary Christian publications, such as The Catholic World Report, Christianity, The Christian Century, Christianity Today, Guideposts, and World. If they represented the movement’s primary ventures in journalism and media this aspect of Gülen movement’s activities would still warrant serious study but as we will see below there is much more to the movement’s publishing activities than just ‘religious publishing’. The moderate and generally inclusive approach to discussion of spirituality and modern life of these religious magazines would suggest that the religious character of the movement is comparable to that of the mainstream Christian denominations in the west. These publications portray a religious movement that is socially and doctrinally conservative yet clearly not fundamentalist in the manner of America’s Christian right or its Islamist analogues in the Muslim world. The writings dealing with patterns of religious devotion and practice reveal a traditionalist orientation that shares common characteristics, in terms of reverence for places, peoples and events, with traditional Catholicism, Anglicanism/Episcopalianizm and Lutherism. At the same time the movement’s character is clearly forward-looking: optimistic about the future and the opportunities presented by modernity, and keen to adapt and contribute. There is, in general, in these publications a sense of the sort of values and principles associated with American civil religion and the humanitarianism and common decency of America’s mid-west and the world of Norman Rockwell that is also manifested in secular magazines such as Reader’s Digest, America’s best-selling consumer magazine.

Alongside of these religious magazines the movement has published hundreds of books with explicitly religious themes. Isik Publishing, the Istanbul-based publishing house behind Fountain magazine is responsible for most of the Gülen movement’s religious book publishing. The heart of its catalogue consists of works by Said Nursi, most notably the Risale-i Nur, and Fethullah Gülen. Alongside these are studies of Gülen’s thought and devotional works dealing with the life of the Prophet Muhammad and with Ottoman religious life. In certain respects Isik Publishing is comparable to American Christian publishing houses such as Eerdmans, Intervarsity Press, Loyola Press Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. Although these religious publications, both magazines and books, represent a vitally important aspect of the Hizmet’s, in terms of broad circulation and, arguably, of influence, the Hizmet’s wide-ranging initiatives in secular media are even more important. And it is these publications, which represent some of the most remarkable aspects of the Hizmet’s activism. Here it becomes much more difficult to make comparisons with western Christian movements. Contemporary Christian media in the English-speaking world, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Christian Science Monitor and some recent developments in radio and new media, tends to be inward looking and primarily concerned with explicitly religious issues.

One of the first initiatives on this front was the launching of the daily national newspaper Zaman in Istanbul. Zaman was founded in 1986 and quickly established a reputation for comprehensive, objective reporting directed by an editorial position that was perceived to be neutral and, unlike virtually every other major newspaper at the time, not aligned to any particular political camp or ideological position. In a market marked by overtly partisan periodicals, Zaman was welcomed by readers seeking reliable reporting of current affairs and professional journalistic standards. With current circulation exceeding 700,000 copies per day, it would appear that many of these readers have no connection with the Gülen movement and do not have a particular interest in its religious outlook. Some of Zaman’s writers take an overtly socially conservative on the issues that they write about but others are regarded as being relatively liberal and progressive in their stance. From its inception Zaman was intended to be a ‘newspaper of record’ along the lines of London’s The Times, and The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of India, Karachi’s Dawn, and Indonesia’s Kompas.

Apart from striving for objective and professional journalism, Zaman is remarkable for its cutting-edge approach to developing the business of newspaper publishing. Zaman launched its online edition in 1996 placing it in an elite group of newspapers worldwide to make the move to cyberspace when usage of the internet was only just beginning. Within several years of its establishment in Istanbul Zaman opened operations in four other Turkish cities and began producing regional editions outside Turkey. Today regional editions are printed and distributed in Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Turkmenistan, and the US. Zaman also produces special international editions in local languages in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Zaman also employs a remarkably complete array of foreign correspondents and stringers across the world, as reflected in its extensive reporting on world affairs. Zaman is assisted in maintaining this bread of coverage though its association with its sister company ‘Cihan Haber Ajansi’ or Cihan News Agency in Englis (CHA), one of Turkey’s largest news agencies. Both Zaman and CHA are under the control of Feza Publications Incorporated, which also has in its well-regarded weekly news magazine Aksiyon along with Sizinti and the theological journal Yeni Umit.

The CHA stable of print publications are undisputedly part of the Gülen movement but are remarkable not just for their professionalism but also for their non-sectarian outlook. In this respect they have few parallels in the world of Christian media. In some respects Zaman could be compared, for example, with the Church of England Newspaper but unlike Zaman the venerable Newspaper, which has been published since 1828, is largely concerned with matters relating to its particular religious community. So too, to a greater or lesser extent, is the case with the other Christian newspapers and magazines mentioned above. The closest parallel to Zaman is probably The Christian Science Monitor.

Founded in 1879, in Boston Massachusetts, by Mary Eddy Baker, The Church of Christ, Scientist, is a relatively small Christian denomination (its membership is thought to number no more than several hundred thousand strong) that sits uneasily on the outside of mainstream Protestantism. With its unusual emphasis on spiritual healing through prayer and the ultimate ‘unreality’ of sin, disease and death the church has been viewed with suspicion by many mainstream Christians since its earliest days. It was partly because of this and related general disillusionment with mainstream media that in 1908 Baker launched the Christian Science Monitor as a daily newspaper (published Monday through Friday) intended “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind”. From these unlikely beginnings and despite its name the Monitor has become a highly regarded reporter of American and international affairs, winning many plaudits, including seven Pulitzer prizes. The only indications of its religious connections are a single daily religious feature page (‘The Home Forum’) and a general avoidance of issues relating to medicine and disease. Zaman and its sister CHA publications compare very favorably with The Christian Science Monitor in every respect, and arguably exceed it in several important respects, such as the breadth of outlook displayed by its editorial staff. Like the Monitor, Zaman was quick to take advantage of the internet, launching its first online presence in 1995, one year before the Monitor. Unlike the Monitor, however, Zaman and its CHA stable mates have met with consistently strong commercial success. Whereas the Monitor has struggled for years to expand circulation and turn a profit, Zaman has gone from strength to strength. It is likely that one reason for the greater success of Zaman compared with the Monitor is that whereas the later was merely adding one more quality newspaper to a market already well-served with such publications, Zaman was filling a hitherto unmet demand for objective, professional, non-partisan reporting and analysis. It is likely that this also is the reason that the Gülen movement has succeeded, where the Monitor has tried and failed, in expanding into electronic media.

Samanyolu Television was launched in January 1993. The initiative represented a financial gamble at a time when private television programming was dominated by tabloid reporting and entertainment with poor production values and sensationalist content. Like the CHA print publications Samanyolu set out to provide non-sectarian, largely secular content of a high standard. The product soon found a market and the rather undercapitalized venture steadily consolidated its market position and commercial viability. Samanyolu came to achieve the sort of quality in programming for which the BBC (the British Broadcasting Commission) in Britain, PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service) in America and the ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Commission) are well regarded. Unlike the BBC, PBS and the ABC, however, Samanyolu remains an entirely commercial venture, albeit one driven by a similar philosophy of striving for quality and thoughtful programming in both current affairs and in popular entertainment, including drama production and general interest documentary and lifestyle programs.


This paper was presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London. Click here to visit the conference web page.

Greg Barton: from January 2007, Herb Feith Research Professor for the Study of Indonesia, Monash University. In 2006 he was Associate Professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he continues to be an Adjunct Professor. 1993 to 2005 he taught comparative religion, Islamic studies and politics at Deakin University. Research interests and publications: Professor Barton has written about Jemaah Islamiyah and other radical Islamist groups in Southeast Asia; his central research interest is progressive Islamic thought and its contribution to civil society and politics, to which he has added a focus on comparative study of progressive Islamic thought in Turkey and Indonesia. He has widely published in this field. Currently working on two book projects: Islam’s Other Nation: a Fresh Look at Indonesia and Progressive Islamic Thought and Social Movements in Indonesia and Turkey.