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Peaceful Movements in the Muslim World

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Cover: Religious Pluralism, Globalization, and World Politics[...] The second transnational Islamic movement to be studied is that associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen, who is simultaneously the founder, leader, and teacher of the movement. Like that of the readers of the Risale-i Nur, the Gülen community is also inspired by the thoughts and writings of Said Nursi, but there are some significant differences between the two movements.

Like Said Nursi, Fethullah Gülen was born and educated in the far eastern region of Anatolia, in the city of Erzurum. He began his career as a teacher of religion and a preacher in the mosques, fi rst in eastern Anatolia and then in Izmir. In 1958, at the age of twenty, Gülen became aware of the writings of Said Nursi, which had a formative infl uence upon his thinking.19 Another scholar has noted that the encounter with Nursi’s thought enabled Gülen to transcend the Anatolian issues that had previously dominated his thinking: “He [Gülen] became aware of Nursi’s writings in 1958, which facilitated his shift from a particular localized Islamic identity and community to a more cosmopolitan and discursive understanding of Islam. Nursi’s writings empowered him to engage with diverse epistemological systems.” (M. Hakan Yavuz, “The Gülen Movement: The Turkish Puritans,” in Turkish Islam and the Secular State, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003, p. 22)

Gülen became a teacher of Qur’an studies in the Mediterranean city of Izmir, and it was in that modern, cosmopolitan environment that the movement had its origins. In the 1970s, by means of lecturing in mosques, organizing summer camps, and erecting “lighthouses” (dormitories for student formation), Gülen began to build a community of religiously motivated students trained in both the Islamic and the secular sciences. In the highly polarized atmosphere of the time, the community took on an anticommunist stance and espoused a conservative brand of Turkish nationalism.


The importance that the lighthouses (ısık evler), residences (yurts), and dershanes play to this day in the formation and cohesion of the movement must not be underestimated. Students not only supplement their secular studies in high school and prepare for university entrance examinations but also form friendships and a network of social relations; in addition, they receive spiritual training through the study of the Qur’an and the Risale-i Nur and pursue their educational goals in a social environment free from the use of alcohol, drugs, smoking, premarital sex, and violence.

The Gülen community gradually began to move in a direction distinct from the original thrust of the Risale-i Nur movement, as Gülen himself produced new ijtihads that distinguished the community from that of the original students of the Risale-i Nur. Nursi had focused on personal renewal of the Muslim through the study of the Qur’an and wanted to help the modern believer move beyond the dichotomies omnipresent in Turkish society of his day through a spiritual transformation that would come about by the study of the Risale-i Nur.

By contrast, for Gülen and the community associated with his name, personal transformation is secondary to social transformation. In both cases personal transformation is oriented toward reforming and reshaping society, but while for Nursi the emphasis is on the individual Muslim who must be changed through an enlightened encounter with the Qur’an in the Risale-i Nur, in Gülen’s vision it is the social effect of conscientious, dedicated, committed Muslim social agents that is the key to renewal of the Islamic umma. Whereas for Nursi the key term is “study,” the central idea of Gülen is “service.” Members of the Gülen community hope to change society through a holistic pattern of education that draws from and integrates disparate strands of previous pedagogical systems. Although Nursi was already aware of the limitations of traditional systems of education available to Muslims in Turkey, it was Gülen and his movement that gave their time and energy to working out an effective alternative.

From Turkish Student Initiative to Transnational Movement

In the new social and economic climate that emerged in Turkey during the presidency of Turgut Özal, the Gülen movement grew from a small number of students in a few cities like Izmir to a huge educational endeavor with important business and political links. Although stemming from a broadly conceived religious motivation, the schools are not traditional “Islamic” schools but secular institutions of high quality, as shown by the performance of students in science olympiads and the like.

In the 1980s, the community moved beyond its schools into the media with the publication of a daily newspaper, Zaman, and a television channel, Samanyolu. Today Zaman is published in twenty countries with an average circulation of a half million. In all, about thirty-fi ve newspapers and magazines in various languages are projects of the Gülen community. The monthly journal in Turkish, Sizinti, the longest continuously published Islamic magazine in Turkey, with a circulation of more than 500,000, has enjoyed uninterrupted publication since 1979; the English version, Fountain, has worldwide circulation in the tens of thousands. The infl uential weekly newsmagazine Aksiyon is a Turkish equivalent of Time or Newsweek. In addition, the community puts out a number of professional journals, for doctors, engineers, teachers, and so forth.

The movement has addressed the thorny question of the secular state in Turkey. The Writers’ and Journalists’ Foundation, which is associated with the Gülen movement, set up in the 1990s the Abant Workshops in which Turkish intellectuals, politicians, and journalists from every ideological stance were brought together to study and discuss issues related to Turkish state and society. These Abant sessions were intended to “head off sociopolitical polarization and to search for a new social consensus in Turkey. The annual workshops have included about fi fty Turkish intellectuals from sharply different ideological backgrounds.” (Kuru, “Reinterpretation of Secularlism in Turkey,” 141)

After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1989, the Gülen community was a key player in fi lling the gap in the educational system. Hundreds of schools and universities were set up throughout the former Soviet republics, both within the Russian Federated Republic (particularly in its predominantly Muslim regions such as Tatarstan, Yakutia, and Chechnya), in the newly independent nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the predominantly Muslim and pluralist regions of the Balkans such as Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Moldova, Bulgaria, and Kosovo. Television programs were prepared that were destined to be aired in the vast reaches of Central Asia, and scholarships were granted for study in Turkey.

The new century saw a further expansion of the educational activities of the Gülen community as it moved beyond the boundaries of Muslim-majority regions into China, Western Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The primary but not exclusive focus was on educating migrants from Turkey and other Muslim countries. Here the pedagogical approach underwent some adaptation. In many parts of Western Europe, the economic and bureaucratic diffi culties of opening and supporting new schools discouraged and often prevented this activity. Moreover, in these regions, the movement often encountered a level of education of high quality. The educational task became not so much one of competing with the existing national public school systems but that of ensuring that immigrant Turks and others would have an adequate educational background to be able to compete and succeed in the government schools. Thus, in many parts of Western Europe, the Gülen community in its educational efforts has focused on weekend classes and tutorials aimed at supplementing the instruction given in the state schools and at preparing for standardized exams.

In the schools associated with the movement in the United States, located mainly in regions with a high concentration of Turkish Americans, the challenge has been to provide an opportunity for students to attain a high level of academic achievement. In fact, particularly in scientific fields, in states like New Jersey and Texas, educational institutions run by members of the Gülen movement have been among the most highly awarded schools in the state. These are not “Islamic schools” in that even though their inspiration is found in enlightened Islamic ideals, both the teaching and administrative staff and the student body are made up of the followers of other religions as well as of Muslims. In some cases, religious instruction is offered once a week, whereas in other cases religion is not taught in the schools.

The most recent fi gures show more than 600 schools and six universities, in seventy-five countries on five continents. (Ahmet T. Kuru, “Fethullah Gülen’s Search for a Middle Way between Modernity and Muslim Tradition,” in Turkish Islam and the Secular State, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 116) The schools do not form a centralized “school system.” Each school is established and run by individual members of the Gülen community in a privately registered and funded foundation. The teachers receive a common spiritual training and are sent to wherever the need is considered the greatest, but there is no central governing board that sends out instructions on educational policy, curriculum, or discipline. Rather, each school is “twinned” with a particular city or region in Turkey, which undertakes fi nancial responsibility for the new school.

Gülen’s genius does not lie so much in reinterpreting the teaching of the Qur’an as in applying traditional Islamic prescriptions in entirely new ways to respond to constantly changing social needs. According to the Albanian scholar Bekim Agai:

The schoolteacher becomes a prophet who fulfi lls Islamic principles by imparting knowledge. The key point for Gülen is that the Islamic principles are unchanging, and yet must be given concrete form in each new era. Once, a Qur’an course might have been the best way to invest Islamic donations, but [today] other Islamic activities take precedence. He succeeds in gaining support in conservative Islamic circles for new Islamic fi elds of action by using traditional Islamic terminology and defi ning his terms conventionally, but at the same time furnishing them with innovative implications for the present day. He argues that questions of morality and education are more essential for today’s Islam than are political issues, and that presentday Muslims are confronted with entirely different problems than the question of whether or not to introduce the shari’a.(Bekim Agai, “Fethullah Gülen: A Modern Turkish-Islamic Reformist?” Dialogue with the Islamic World, 28 December 2004)

Commitment to Dialogue

The community inherited its commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation from the writings of Said Nursi in the Risale-i Nur, but this commitment has been renewed and given new impetus in the writings of Fethullah Gülen. In his speech in 1999 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Capetown, Gülen presented an optimistic vision of interreligious harmony: “It is my conviction that in the future years, the new millennium will witness unprecedented religious blooming and the followers of world religions, such as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others, will walk handin- hand to build a promised bright future of the world.” (Fethullah Gülen, “At the Threshold of a New Millennium,” in Parliament of the World’s Religions (Capetown: n.p., 1999), 12)

Already beginning in 1911 and repeatedly down to his death in 1963, Said Nursi called for “Muslim-Christian unity” to oppose godless tendencies in modern societies. While endorsing Nursi’s appeal, Gülen goes beyond Nursi’s view in two important respects. First, dialogue and unity are not limited to “the good Christians,” as Nursi had proposed, but are now to be extended to the conscientious followers of all religions. Second, the motivation for this dialogue is not simply a strategic alliance to oppose atheistic and secularizing tendencies in modern life, as Nursi had held, but is called for by the nature of Islamic belief itself:

The goal of dialogue among world religions is not simply to destroy scientifi c materialism and the materialistic worldview that has caused such harm. Rather, the very nature of religion demands this dialogue. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Hinduism and Buddhism pursue the same goal. As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and Books sent to different peoples throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim. (Fethullah Gülen, “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: A Muslim Perspective,”in Parliament of the World’s Religions (Capetown: n.p., 1999), 14)

To further its pursuits of interreligious dialogue, the Gülen movement has created the Intercultural Dialogue Platform (IDP) as a project of the movement’s Istanbul-based Writers and Journalists Foundation. The IDP has been particularly active in sponsoring and organizing “Abrahamic” encounters with high-ranking representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Gülen movement also organizes associations for the promotion of interreligious activities at the local and regional level, such as the Cosmicus Foundation in the Netherlands, the Australian Intercultural Society in Melbourne, the Friede- Institut für Dialogue in Vienna, the Interfaith Dialog Center of Patterson, New Jersey, Houston’s Institute of Interfaith Dialog, and the Niagara Foundation of Chicago, all of which take independent initiatives toward promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation.


Excerpted from:
Thomas Michel, S J’s article “Peaceful Movements in the Muslim World” in “Religious Pluralism, Globalization, and World Politics” (Edited by Thomas Banchoff), Oxford University, New York: 2008, pp. 239-243