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What Made the Gülen Movement Possible?

By Mustafa Akyol

In today’s Turkey Gülen movement represents an Islam, which is liberal and tolerant, which is in favor of the country’s EU bid and democratizing reforms. And this means that it is a “modern” movement. Yet this modernity has not been achieved by the authoritarian secularist policies of the state. It has been achieved thanks to Turkey’s heritage of Ottoman modernization, engagement with the Western world, and its social progress.

The paper discusses the historical roots and social dynamics in Turkey that enabled the kind of ‘moderate Islam’ represented by the Gülen movement. That effort could provide lessons for other Muslim countries. It is all but taken for granted that the Islamic world needs some kind of ‘reform’. Élitist and autocratic calls for ‘top–down’ efforts to reshape Islam notwithstanding, what is really needed is to build the social environment (security, freedom, democracy, economic opportunity) that will enable a new kind of Muslim, who will, eventually, search for new meanings in traditional texts.

Ottoman Modernization Revisited

To see that, one should first examine the Turks’ experience with Islam. Compared with the Arabs, the Turks were latecomers to the Muslim faith. The former were politically and intellectually more advanced until the 13th century, when the Arabs’ brilliant civilization was nearly destroyed by one of the most devastating conquests ever, the Mongol catastrophe. The chance of world trade roots, from the Middle East and the Levant to the oceans, was an additional misfortune that would steadily impoverish the Arab world, which owed much of its wealth to trade. The long-term result was the stagnation of the Arab peoples.

Meanwhile, the leadership of Islam was passing to the Turks, who created powerful states under the Seljuk, and especially the subsequent Ottoman dynasty. The Ottoman state extended its borders both towards the West and the East, and in the 16th and much of the 17th centuries, acted as the world’s foremost superpower.

The political power of the Turks, and their continual interaction with the West, gave them an important insight: They faced the rise of modernity. The Ottoman elite had to rule an empire, make practical decisions, adopt new technologies, and reform existing structures — all of which allowed them to understand and cope with secular realities. Sociologist Şerif Mardin defines the consequential praxis as “Ottoman secularity,” and gives examples of Ottoman bureaucrats who started to discover “Western ways,” more than two centuries before the Turkish Republic.

Tanzimat and Equal Citizenship

The 18th century discovery of Europe by Ottoman bureaucrats resulted in the famous “Imperial Gulhane Decree of 1839,” also known as the Tanzimat Edict, which introduced the idea of supremacy of law and modern citizenship to the empire. In a second substantive reform edict, in 1856, the dhimmi (“protected”) status was abolished, and Jews and Christians gained equal citizenship rights.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman state also started to accept the principle of religious freedom. As early as May 1844, an official Ottoman edict read, “No subject of the Sublime [Ottoman] State shall be forced by anyone to convert to Islam against their wishes.” In the Reform Edict of 1856 the Sultan proclaimed, “All forms of religion are and shall be freely professed in my dominions. No subject of my empire shall be hindered in the exercise of the religion that he professes.” The Ottoman Constitution of 1876 established a limited monarchy all of whose subjects were considered “Osmanli (Ottoman), whatever religion or creed they hold.” The constitution further affirmed “all Osmanli are equal before the law… without distinction as to religion.”

What is striking about these events is the fact that the Ottoman Empire — an Islamic state, which many Muslims around the world still respect — gave full citizenship rights to Jews and Christians. These would create a precedent for the ecumenical approach towards Jews and Christians that would be articulated in Turkey’s Republican era by scholars like Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen.

One crucial point was that the Ottoman Empire wasn’t abandoning Islam by reforming the sharia laws. It was rather modernizing itself from within the tradition. The Qur’anic verse “There is no compulsion in religion” was stressed by the Ottoman religious elite to justify the reforms. Under the auspices of Sultan Abdulhamid II, Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, an Ottoman bureaucrat and an Islamic scholar, prepared the Mecelle, a new legal code which was based on traditional Islamic law but which also included many important modifications with the idea of updating the sharia according to “the requirements of the time.”

The Ottoman Islamic modernization ended with the demise of the empire in the First World War. From its ruins, what we now call the Middle East arose-with a doomed legacy: All post-Ottoman states, except Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were colonized by European powers, a phenomenon that would soon breed anti-colonialism and anti-Westernizm throughout the entire region. That was also one of the reasons of the end of what the great historian of the Middle East, Albert Hourani, called the “liberal age” of the Arab world — which was, basically, the Arabic counterpart of Ottoman modernization.

The Two Trends

The Ottoman reforms were articulated and carried out by the intellectual elite of the empire. Most of these men — and some women —spoke English and French, and were very well versed in European thought, not to mention the Islamic tradition. Among them were different trends, but to generalize, we can speak of two main camps.

One of these was what one can call the “modernization within the tradition” camp. Its proponents realized the need for reforms, but were hoping to realize these without abandoning traditional values, and especially the religious ones.

The second trend was what one can call the “modernization despite the tradition” line, which found its most radical expressions among some radical Young Turks such as Abdullah Cevdet. “The Young Turk Weltanschauung, as it developed between 1889 and 1902,” according to historian Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University, “was vehemently antireligious, viewing religion as the greatest obstacle to human progress.” In later years, the Young Turks played down their secularist views for political purposes, but the Weltanschauung remained intact.

During Turkey’s War of Liberation (1919-22), both of these intellectual trends — and all other segments of the society, which included Islamic clerics, Kurdish leaders, and local notables — were united against the occupying powers and under the roof of the Turkish Parliament. But even during those years, the two different political lines became evident within Parliament. “The First Group” consisted of the enthusiastic supporters of Mustafa Kemal, the leader of the War of Liberation who was also a follower of the secularist and revolutionary line of thinking. “The Second Group,” on the other hand, included those who had reservations about Mustafa Kemal’s increasing political power.

The Fate of Progressive Party

When the war was won and the Republic was announced in 1923, the First Group turned into the People’s Party (“Halk Fırkası”), which was directed by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his closest ally, İsmet İnönü. About a year later, The Second Group established the Progressive Party (Terakkiperver Fırka), whose leaders were also war heroes such as Kazım Karabekir, Refet Bele or Rauf Orbay.

There were three main differences between the conservative Progressive Party and the revolutionary People’s Party:

i. The Progressive Party believed in free markets and individual entrepreneurship, an idea that had been advanced by Prince Sabahattin, the nephew of the late Sultan Abdulhamid II. The People’s Party, on the other hand, held a more “statist” approach towards the economy, which would carry corporatist tones in the 30’s.

ii. The Progressive Party was friendly to religion. Its founding document included the famous Article six, which read, “We are respectful to religious ideas and sentiments.”

iii. On political issues such as the fate of the Kurds, the Progressive Party was tolerant and liberal. Kazım Karabekir, its leader, prepared a detailed report arguing that Kurds needed to be integrated into Turkish society gradually by encouraging agriculture and trade, and by keeping the spirit of common Muslim values. The People’s Party, on the other hand, believed in what its leader İsmet İnönü called the “Turkification” of the Kurds, by using authoritarian methods such as banning their language and destroying their culture.

Yet the disagreement between the parties would not last long. On June 5, 1925 the Progressive Party was closed down by the regime. The party was actually able to survive for only six months and two weeks. Then, not only was it destroyed, but also its leaders were excluded from politics. Its top figure, Kazım Karabekir, lived under house arrest for many years. All of his works were collected and burned on the orders of the government.

The announced reason was Article six in its program: the “We are respectful to religious ideas and sentiments” clause. For the new regime, this was a statement that encouraged “backward minded thought and action,” and which could not be tolerated.

The Post-1925 Trauma

From 1925 to 1950, Turkey lived under a “single party regime,” which was characterized by its self-style secularism. Unlike the separation between church and state, which defines the American version of secularism, the Kemalist model was “based on the radical Jacobin laicism that aimed to transform society through the power of the state and eliminate religion from the public sphere.”

This effort had the negative effect of establishing the perception that religion and modernity are incompatible. Turkey’s practicing Muslims felt themselves forced to abandon the former for the sake of the latter. The authoritarian secularist effort also drove Turkey into an acute version of the problem that Richard John Neuhaus points out to: The vacuum created by absent religion was filled by ersatz religion. In just a decade, Islam was replaced by a new public faith based on Turkishness and the cult of personality created around Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. “Let the Ka’aba be for the Arabs,” wrote poet Kemalettin Kamu, “for us, Çankaya is enough.” That new shrine was Atatürk’s residence.

The people who bought into this new faith became known as the “secular elite.” They were a small minority in a very traditional society. That’s why they have decided that they have no time to lose with democracy. The people needed not to be represented and served, but to be ruled and indoctrinated. That’s why, unlike the American Republic, which is traditionally defined as “a government by the people, for the people, of the people,” the Turkish Republic was defined in its early decades as a government “for the people, in spite of the people.”

The two main segments of the society that the Republic acted “in spite of” were practicing Muslims and Kurds. Both groups were suppressed. The former got their religious institutions destroyed, the latter got their language and identity banned. Not surprisingly, both of these alienated groups had a hard time in digesting this undemocratic republic, and instead hoped for a democracy through which they could realize their longing for freedom. In the first free and fair elections in 1950, they brought the Democrat Party in power, whose motto was, “Enough! The nation has the word.” The first thing the DP did was to set the Muslim call for prayer (the daily “ezan”) free, and to ease the burden in Kurdish areas. It also brought some suppressed Kurdish leaders to the parliament. Moreover it put Turkey into NATO, accepted the Marshall Plan, and brought in Western capital, which many “Republicans,” who had socialist views, saw as “imperialism.”

The democratic honeymoon did not last long, tough. In 1960 the military staged a coup, closed down the DP, and, after a controversial show trial, executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two of his ministers.

Said Nursi and His Heritage

The iron hand of “the Republic” led some Kurds to initiate a terrorist war against it (carried out by the bloody PKK and its forerunners), but the reaction of the practicing Muslims has been peaceful. After all, Turkey does not have a tradition of Islamist violence and there is a synthesis of Islam and democracy that goes way back to the Ottoman Empire.

Thus, instead of fighting against “the Republic”, practicing Muslims have preferred to vote for conservative parties that would soften its autocratic nature. Some of them hoped to bring an “Islamic rule” via elections, while others only demanded a democratic rule, which would respect their religious freedom. A very prominent name in the latter camp would be Said Nursi (1878-1960), whose treaties on Islamic faith and morality has created Turkey’s most important Islamic movement.

Turkish scholar Yasin Aktay defines Nursi as a “very apolitical, other-worldly and loyal character,” the latter feature referring to his allegiance to Republican Turkey. Unlike Sheik Said, another Kurdish Islamic leader who led a popular but unsuccessful revolt against the secular Turkish Republic in 1925, Nursi rejected political radicalism and focused his energy to articulating a godly worldview and moral code compatible with the modern world. According to Aktay, he, in his books, developed “a very elective and appropriate combination of the elements of the popular culture, mystical discourses, orthodox Islam and science and rationality.

In his thought, Nursi was closer to someone like C.S. Lewis — the Oxford professor who is widely regarded as one of the most important Christian apologists of the 20th century — than to Muslim contemporaries such as Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. His enemies were not Zionism or Western imperialism but materialist philosophy and communist ideology, and he saw the Christian West as an ally against both. In 1951, Nursi sent one of his books to the Vatican, along with a letter in which he called for an Islamo-Christian alliance against atheism. During the Korean War, which Turkey joined as an American ally, Nursi encouraged his followers to enlist in the army to fight against the communists.

Nursi’s millions of followers who constituted the Nur (“Light”) movement, have always steered away from Islamist political parties and voted for center-right parties, which promised not sharia but religious freedom. According to Hakan Yavuz, Nursi, unlike the Young Turks and Kemalists who praised the state, “treated the state as the servant of the people and argued for a neutral state without any ideology.” Moreover he was very much in favor of modernizing Turkey, and the Islamic world in general, by importing Western science and technology.

The Rise of the Gülen Movement

After the death of Nursi in 1960, his followers divided into several camps with differing views on how to interpret his legacy and, also, how to engage with politics. In the 70’s a cleric in Izmir who had been influenced by some of Nursi’s ideas but also who had new approaches of his own, started to attract attention and following. He was Fethullah Gülen, whose popularity and influence would soon exceed those of all other Islamic movements in Turkey. According to Aktay, Fethullah Gülen, as a preacher famed in İzmir, following the same path of the Nur movement in that sense, seems to have been discovered by the state at least since the mid-eighties. He left the mainstream Nur movement at the early seventies. After leaving the mainstream movement, he found an alternative community, which depended on his personal charisma achieved by his strong ability in preaching and organizing, and of course, on his deep intelligence.

Gülen had a vision that would take him and his followers to a point where no other Muslim community in Turkey even dreamed of. Instead of simply trying to create a limited living space for itself in public life, like many other Islamic groups do, Gülen movement decided to engage with society and create publications and institutions that would appeal to people from all walks of life. Their newspapers and TV channels, such as Zaman or STV, are not in-house community outlets but they speak to the whole society. Their schools, which are famed for their high education quality and moral integrity, have students with diverse backgrounds.

Their initiatives such as the Abant Platform or Intercultural Dialogue Platform — which are both supported by the Journalists and Writers Foundation, whose honorary president is Fethullah Gülen — address not sectarian issues, but deal with virtually all social problems of Turkey.

Moreover, since the mid-90’s, Gülen movement started to become a global phenomenon. They first started by opening schools in ex-Soviet Republics, which proved to be a very successful enterprise. Soon the schools spread out to four corners of the world, ranging from South Africa to Mongolia, or from Australia to Denmark. Gülen’s move to United States in late 90’s also contributed to the globalism of the movement. And while the movement was hoping to help changing the world for the better with all these activities, they were also being changed by the world for the better: Their engagement with different cultures, and especially that of the West, helped Gülen’s followers to develop a more liberal and cosmopolitan mindset and discourse.

Incorporating Capitalism

Today the Gülen movement represents the most powerful element of the rising “Muslimhood” of Turkey, as sociologist Jenny B. White defines as an alternative to Islamism. This Muslimhood is in favor of democracy, secularity, pluralism and even capitalism — something, which even many modern Muslims perceive as alien to Islam.

Some striking examples of the latter phenomenon have emerged in Turkey in the past two decades. Turkey is not the richest country in the Islamic world, but it is arguably the most developed. The richest are the oil-rich Arab nations, most of which, despite their petro-dollars, remain socially pre-modern and tribal. Regrettably, oil brings wealth, but it does not modernize.

The late Turgut Özal, one of Turkey’s wiser Presidents was a pro-Western politician and a Muslim believer. His revolutionary, Reaganesque reforms during the 1980s transformed the Turkish economy from import subsidization to free markets. In this new setting the conservative Muslim masses of Anatolia have found fertile ground for a socio-economic boom. Thanks to their astounding successes in business, they have been called “Anatolian Tigers.” They constitute a new class that rivals the long-established, privileged, highly secularized and utterly condescending “Istanbul bourgeoisie.”

The European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based think tank, conducted an extensive study of the “Anatolian tigers” in 2005. ESI researchers interviewed hundreds of conservative businessmen in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri. They discovered that “individualistic, pro-business currents have become prominent within Turkish Islam,” and a “quiet Islamic Reformation” was taking place in the hands of Muslim entrepreneurs. The term they used to define these godly capitalists was also the title of their report: “Islamic Calvinists.”

Some of these “Islamic Calvinists”, apparently, are also the followers of Fethullah Gülen. Gülen movement is well known for its success in business, which create financial support for the movement’s cultural and educational institutions.

This amalgamation of Islamic values with the practical rationality of the free market indeed reminds of the spirit of the real Calvinists, who, according to sociologist Max Weber, spearheaded the rise of capitalism in the West. Interestingly Weber was not very hopeful for Islam in this regard. For him Islam was an obstacle to capitalist development, for it could foster only aggressive militancy (jihad) or contemplative austerity. However, one of the greatest Turkish sociologists, Sabri F. Ülgener — both a student and a critic of Weber — argued that Weber, despite his genius in analyzing the origins of capitalism in the West, misjudged Islam and overlooked its inherent compatibility with a “liberal market system.”

The rise of an Islamic entrepreneurial class is a remarkable phenomenon, because it marks the beginning a whole new stage for Islamic civilization. People understand religion according not only to its textual teachings, but also their social environment. As for Islam, this environment has been feudal, imperial, or bureaucratic. But now, in Turkey and in a few other Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Islam is being transformed into a religion of the middle class and its rational, independent individuals. And the Gülen movement plays a leading role in this silent yet crucial transformation.

The Rediscovery of the West

A related aspect of the new “Muslimhood” in Turkey, and that of the Gülen movement, is its growing advocacy of Western-style democracy. One reason of this phenomenon is a significant discovery that Turkey’s observant Muslims — especially the ones who had a chance to know the West, such as the Gülen movement — had in the past quarter century: that the West is better than the Westernizers.

What this means is that they recognized that Western democracies give their citizens all the religious freedoms that Turkey has withheld from its own. In fact, no country in the free world has secularism as illiberal as Turkey’s self-styled laicité. Any society or club, which has an Islamic name or purpose, is illegal, and religious education is very limited. A woman wearing a Muslim headscarf has no chance of any kind of learning in Turkey, whether in public or private schools. There is also the bitter language used the by secular elite towards observant Muslims.

For many decades, devout Muslims in Turkey have perceived this entire secular fundamentalism as a product of the West, and hoped that de-Westernization would end their feelings of being “a pariah in their own land,” as the late Islamic poet Necip Fazil once put it. Yet, the more they learned about the West, the more they realized that the problem is in Ankara — not in Washington, London, or Brussels. In Europe and North America, one can establish Islamic centers, Sufi clubs, and independent mosques, none of which are allowed in their homeland. It is possible to attend American or European universities with the headscarf, while it is banned by law in Turkey.

All those facts transformed the way Turkish Muslim perceive the West. Having realized that the real West is preferable to the caricature of it they have at home, they have re-routed their search for freedom. Instead of trying to Islamize the state, they have decided to liberalize it.

In this regard, Gülen’s comments about his own discovery of the West, which he made during an interview in 2000, is quite illuminating:

We all change, don’t we? There is no escape from change. By visiting the United States and many other European countries, I realized the virtues and the role of religion in these societies. Islam flourishes in America and Europe much better than in many Muslim countries. This means freedom and the rule of law are necessary for personal Islam. Moreover, Islam does not need the state survive, but rather needs educated and financially rich communities to flourish. In a way, not the state but rather community is needed under a full democratic system.”

The line of reasoning that Gülen articulates — the argument for an Islam, which demands a liberal democratic, not Islamic, state — also explains the remarkable alliance in today’s Turkey between Muslim conservatives, and especially the Gülen movement, and the secular liberals. Their coalition is in favor of the EU bid and democratization, whereas the nationalist front—which includes die-hard secular Kemalists, ultra-right wing Turkish nationalists, and hardliner Islamists—abhors both of those objectives. It is no accident the daily Zaman and its English-language sister publication, Today’s Zaman — which both belong to the Gülen movement — hosts many liberal columnists.


In today’s Turkey Gülen movement represents an Islam, which is liberal and tolerant, which is in favor of the country’s EU bid and democratizing reforms. And this means that it is a “modern” movement. Yet this modernity has not been achieved by the authoritarian secularist policies of the state. It has been achieved thanks to Turkey’s heritage of Ottoman modernization, engagement with the Western world, and its social progress.

The experience of Turkish Islam also hints us how the much-sought renaissance of the Islamic world will come about: through the flourishing of democracy, freedom and economic opportunity. Only these social dynamics create individuals and communities who are willing to adapt to modernity. On the other hand, if Muslim societies are forced to accept modernity — through, say, secularist tyrannies or Western military interventions—they simply react to it, and the backlash fuels radicalism.

Just remember the fact that Christianity surpassed its dark ages thanks to its godly—not secular—renovators. Islamic civilization needs to follow a similar route to accomplish its renewal. And the Turkish experience, and in particular the Gülen movement, hints that there are reasons to be hopeful.

Source: Summarized from What Made the Gülen Movement Possible? byMustafa Akyol

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.

Mustafa Akyol (graduated from International Relations and Political Science Department of the Bosphorus (Boğaziçi) University; MA in modern Turkish history from the same university’s Atatürk Institute): columnist and editor in the Turkish press: deputy editor and a regular columnist for Turkish Daily News, Turkey’s foremost English language daily. His op–ed pieces have also appeared in international publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune and many others. He has given seminars on issues relating to Turkey, Islam and modernity for various universities and think-tanks. He has also written (in Turkish) ‘Rethinking The Kurdish Question: What Went Wrong? What Next’ (2006), in which he offered a liberal solution to Turkey’s long-standing ethnic conflict.