WORLD DECEMBER 26, 2013
The prime minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, has spent the last week caught in a corruption scandal that may take down his government—yesterday he replaced ten ministers in his cabinet, one of whom called for Erdogan himself to resign. Erdogan is blaming the bribery and corruption investigation on the supporters of a rival Islamist leader, who doesn't even live in Turkey: Fethullah Gulen. In 2010, journalist Suzy Hansen visited Gulen on his Pennsylvania farm and investigated the reach of his movement inside the United States and beyond.
The leader of what is arguably the world’s most successful Islamic movement lives in a tiny Pennsylvania town called Saylorsburg, at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, otherwise known as “the Camp.” The Camp consists of a series of houses, a community center, a pond, and some tranquil, woodsy space for strolling. From this Poconos enclave—which resembles a resort more than the headquarters of a worldwide religious, social, and political movement—Fethullah Gülen, a 69-year-old Turkish bachelor with a white moustache, wide nose, and gentle, sad expression, leads perhaps five million followers who, in his spirit if not his name, operate schools, universities, corporations, nonprofits, and media organs around the globe.
Last spring, I visited the center and was warmly shepherded around by Bekir Aksoy, the president of the Camp. Just past a checkpoint, a portly Turkish man in a “Sopranos”-esque tracksuit was stretching, preparing for a jog. Along a road leading to the pond, we encountered a group composed mostly of Turkish men who had come from Japan to see Hocaefendi, as Gülen is respectfully called by his followers; they had been escorted onto the premises by a Columbia University student in a white Mercedes. The guest of honor for the day was a professor from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was fishing for trout.
The three-story building where Gülen lives resembles a cozy ski lodge. The first floor features a large, sunny breakfast room with a number of long tables. Three men sat at these tables, quietly talking. One greeted me and introduced himself. He was a journalist for a once-admired, now-defunct, Turkish political magazine; the others were Turkish businessmen.
Upstairs, on the hushed second floor, about 15 young men sat on divans against the windows and on the carpeted floors, reading. One had a laptop; he looked up and smiled, as did some others, but a few scowled at me. We were clearly disturbing them. When a young man suddenly stood up and whispered something to Aksoy, I could have sworn he was complaining about my presence. Aksoy seemed to admonish him. Later, I asked, “Was that young man upset that I was there?” “Our people do not complain,” Aksoy replied. “They obey commands completely.”
Fethullah Gülen lives on the third floor of the lodge, but I hadn’t come expecting to see him. Gülen is ill, I was told, and only sees journalists when he has something specific to say. He stays abreast of the news through summaries that are provided to him each day by assistants. Sometimes, these assistants, fearful of upsetting him—Gülen is famously sensitive—try to shield him from the harshest events. Yet despite his limited contact with the world, a sense of his wisdom persists. “He knows everything,” Aksoy told me.
In a 2008 online poll devised by the British magazine Prospect and the American magazine Foreign Policy, Gülen was voted the most significant intellectual in the world. Graham Fuller, a former CIA agent and the author of several books on political Islam, says that Gülen is leading “one of the most important movements in the Muslim world today.” Yet there is much about him that is not known. One of the biggest mysteries is how much sway he holds over his followers. Some visit Pennsylvania as much as once a month; what do they want from their visits? At the end of my tour, as Aksoy was driving me back to a McDonald’s near the Camp where I had left my car, I asked him whether Gülen tells people what to do.
“He would never tell; he suggests,” Aksoy replied. “And then what do people do with that suggestion?” I asked. “Let me put it this way,” he said. “If a man with a Ph.D. and a career came to see Hocaefendi, and Hocaefendi told him it might be a good idea to build a village on the North Pole, that man with a Ph.D. would be back the next morning with a suitcase.”
Like many foreign journalists based in Istanbul, I first became acquainted with the Gülen movement through a group called the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF), which invites foreign journalists to seminars on political topics and generally serves as the Gülenists’ unofficial p.r. firm. At the time, new to the country, I didn’t know the JWF was a Gülen-linked group. (In fact, Gülen serves as its honorary president.)
But it wasn’t just the JWF. As I became more acquainted with Turkey, it began to seem as if everything there was somehow linked to Gülen. Not only NGOs, businesses, and schools, but also people. “This article is good,” I would say. “Yes, but you know, that writer is Gülen,” would come the reply. Sometimes, calling someone “Gülen” seemed to reflect fear or prejudice, and pinning down whether or not any given organization was tied to the Gülen movement was rarely a simple matter. As someone at the Rumi Forum in Washington—another organization where Gülen serves as honorary president—put it, “If you say you are in [the Gülen movement], if you say that at 12:20, and say you are out at 12:21, you are out.” One Turkish acquaintance joked to me, “Who knows? Every day, when I go to the bakery or get my groceries, I could be giving money to Gülen. Who knows!” “They’re everywhere” is a common refrain. At times, suspicions about the Gülenists sound like anti-Semitism—they run the media, they’re rich, they stick together, they only help their own.
If you ask Gülenists—who blanch at the words “follower” and “member,” as well as the term “Gülenist” (in Turkish, the term is Fethullahçı, referring to his first name)—they will call themselves a “faith-based, civic society movement” or a “volunteers movement” made up of people who admire the thoughts and writings of Gülen. They are an organic network of people, they say, whose goal is to do good works at Gülen’s noble behest while spreading his message of love and tolerance, as well as his vision of Islam. According to academics who have studied the movement, there are, more or less, three levels of involvement: sympathizers, who admire Gülen; friends, who, to some degree, support or work for the movement; and the cemaat, or community, the core adherents who are closest to Gülen himself.
The Gülen movement reminds people of everything from Opus Dei to Scientology to the Masons, Mormons, and Moonies. Mark Juergensmeyer, an expert on international religious movements, says that the Gülenists echo the Muhammadiyah of Indonesia, the Soka Gakkai of Japan, and various Indian guru - led or political-religious groups. I’ve seen Gülen referred to as the Turkish Billy Graham. “If you look at some of their educational work, they remind me of Quakers and missionaries who went off to Africa,” says Bill Park of King’s College, London, a scholar who has written about the group, “but if you go all the way to the other end, it is a political movement as well.”
Gülen’s views are moderate and modern. He is fiercely opposed to violence and enthusiastic about science. According to Gülen, “avoiding the physical sciences due to the fear that they will lead to heresy is childish.” He is emphatically not a radical Islamist. “The lesser jihad is our active fulfillment of Islam’s commands and duties,” he has written, and “the greater jihad is proclaiming war on our ego’s destructive and negative emotions and thoughts ... which prevent us from attaining perfection.” He has exhorted women to take off their headscarves, a ritual he considers “of secondary importance,” in order to attend university in compliance with Turkey’s secular laws. His followers run nonprofit organizations that promote peace, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue, and Gülenist businessmen devote their resources to building secular schools.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gülen has many admirers in the West. “It’s a civic movement,” says Islam scholar John Esposito, one of many American academics who praise the Gülenists. “It’s an alternative elite within Turkish society, as in many Muslim societies, that can be modern, educated, and successful, but also religiously minded.” Particularly after September 11, Gülen’s movement had a lot of appeal in the United States, which was suddenly desperate for “good Muslims.” “It was 2003, two years after 9/11; we were just in the beginning of the Iraq war, and here’s this ecumenical Muslim movement that seems to be open to modernity and science and is focused on education,” said one senior U.S. government official who has had dealings with Gülenists. “It seemed almost too good to be true.”
Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 in a village outside of the eastern city of Erzurum. He began praying when he was four years old, and learned Arabic from his father. At school, he met students of the Kurdish intellectual Said Nursi, and effectively joined Nursi’s movement, which was similar to a Sufi brotherhood. He became a state-licensed imam in 1958, and, after his military service, moved to İzmir. In 1969, he began preaching his own version of Nursi’s ideas. Soon, he acquired a following.
With the help of Turkish businessmen, Gülen began building dorms, or “lighthouses.” At the time, Turkey was urbanizing at a breakneck pace. Country kids often floundered, socially and financially, when they moved to the big cities. The “lighthouses” provided a religious community for these young people, one that offered help with academics and didn’t, say, watch porn or get carried away with leftist causes.
Within these safe havens, the Gülen movement introduced the pious to the possibilities of modern life. “My father was a teacher in a primary school. His father was a stonecutter,” says Kerim Balcı, a journalist who works for the newspaper Zaman, which is owned by Gülenists and claims to have the largest readership in Turkey. “And here I am a Ph.D. student, columnist, and academician probably earning my father’s yearly salary in a month.” Balcı’s life story—he hails from the small Black Sea city of Samsun, yet went on to receive his master’s from a university in Israel and is working toward his Ph.D. from Durham University in Britain—echoes the trajectory of many middle-aged Gülen followers from conservative families. The Turkish state had been founded on the notion that modernity meant rejection of religion—and, for a long time, it was dominated by a military and a political class that enforced this ideal, sometimes harshly. Gülen suggested there was an alternative path. “It may be possible to be both religious and a TV commentator,” Balcı says.
Gülenists also started to found schools. Students at these schools needed books and other materials, and from İzmir, the Gülen community began building publishing companies and creating audiocassettes of Gülen’s sermons. Stores that are now called “NT” started to sell these materials; today, there are 110 such stores in Turkey and other countries. By the 1980s, the statist economy had opened up and restrictions on religious groups had eased. The Anatolian middle class began to start businesses and make money. Gülen encouraged his people to go abroad and get doctorates in science. He instilled in his followers an almost Calvinist work ethic. To this day, even detractors of the movement will talk about how hard Gülenists work.
Their achievements have been remarkable. In 1983, Gülen’s followers founded a conglomerate called Kaynak Holding, which today includes some 15 companies involved in the retail, I.T., construction, and food industries. The main division, Kaynak Publishing, maintains 28 publishing labels. It produces hundreds of books per year on and by Gülen, in addition to books on subjects like Sufism and Ottoman history. Kaynak Publishing’s office, a beautiful white stone mansion and mosque that sits on a hill on the Asian side of Istanbul, also houses Akademi. According to the sociologist Joshua Hendrick, who spent eleven months researching the Gülen movement and whose dissertation is perhaps the most comprehensive independent analysis of it, Akademi constitutes the movement’s “central ideational node,” the intellectual leaders closest to Hocaefendi himself.
In 1986, Gülenists acquired Zaman. Feza Media Group, which publishes the newspaper, also operates an English edition, Today’s Zaman, a news agency, and the magazine Aksiyon. In addition, Feza is connected to Samanyolu Broadcasting, which operates several TV stations. (Here is how a spokesman for the JWF describes the relationship between Gülen, Kaynak, and Feza: “Kaynak Holding and Feza Media Group can be considered Gülen-inspired companies. None of these companies are controlled by Gülen or have any direct link with him. As with all Gülen-inspired projects, Gülen simply provides inspiration, motivation, vision, and some guiding and overarching principles.”) In 1996, according to University of Houston sociologist Helen Ebaugh, who has studied the movement, men encouraged by Gülen established Bank Asya, now Turkey’s largest Islamic bank, with billions of dollars in assets. Meanwhile, TUSKON, a Turkish businessmen’s association, boasts 50,000 companies as members. (“Most of our members admire Gülen,” says Hakan Taşçı, the group’s Washington, D.C., representative.) In 2002 came a charity called Is Anybody There?, which distributes international aid—and whose sponsors include Zaman, Bank Asya, TUSKON, and other Gülen-inspired groups. According to Ebaugh, Gülenists generally give between 5 percent and 20 percent of their income to the movement’s projects; she met one businessman who gave $3.5 million annually. Every year, something called the International Gülen Conference takes place in a different city; in November 2010, the Niagara Foundation, whose honorary president is Fethullah Gülen, with the help of an assortment of universities, will sponsor the event at the University of Chicago. These conferences are often keynoted by respected intellectuals such as Reza Aslan, the popular writer on Islam.
Even as the movement has sprouted numerous organizations and companies, the schools have remained at the center of the Gülen orbit. Starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Gülen dispatched his students to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, where he rightly suspected that they might find some post-communist youths in need of religion. But it is not just Central Asia that hosts Gülen schools. They also exist in far-flung Muslim countries like Indonesia, Sudan, and Pakistan, as well as mostly non-Muslim countries like Mexico and Japan. In total, according to Ebaugh, Gülenists operate over 1,000 explicitly secular schools and universities in more than 100 countries. They emphasize science and technology, teach the Turkish language, and, by many accounts, are very good schools. Gülenist businessmen build these institutions and sponsor scholarships to them. Whenever you ask who’s funding anything, Gülenists reply “a group of Turkish businessmen,” “a Turkish businessman,” “a Turkish-American businessman,” or “our Turkish friends.”
When I recently visited Afghanistan, I was surprised to learn that Turks had been operating schools there since the ’90s, even during the Taliban era. They currently have schools not just in Kabul, but in Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Shebhergan, and Kandahar. Behind the lovely painted-pink school in Kabul were dorms where kids from all over the country sat outside, some of them eager to say hello in English. Every Afghan I spoke to in Kabul, from politicians to cooks, told me that “the Turkish school” was the best in the city. As we left the premises, the teachers gave my Afghan translator some books by Fethullah Gülen.
In February 2009, the Texas finals for the Turkish Language Olympiad took place in Houston. Hundreds of students were competing to land spots in the final round, which is held annually in Ankara, and attracts contestants from 115 countries. In the George R. Brown Convention Center, 2,500 spectators cheered and waved American and Turkish flags. The hosts of the competition, two Fox-affiliate TV personalities, were both decked out in “traditional Turkish” costumes. “How do you like my outfit?” Mike Barajas called out to the crowd. “He looks like a king, doesn’t he?” Melissa Wilson drawled. “We will have four students reciting poems,” Barajas said. “In Turkish. How about that.”
Barajas and Wilson enthusiastically mispronounced Turkish words but did much better with the names of the young contestants, mainly because many of the Texas kids participating in the event—singing Turkish ballads, performing Black Sea folk dances—were Latino and black. As one of the young contestants, Dante Villanueva, recited a very long Turkish poem—earnestly and fluently teasing out the awkward 35-syllable words—middle-aged Turkish men in the audience wept.
There’s a decent chance that Dante Villanueva, like many of the other kids in the competition, attended a Gülen charter school. Such schools—many with fuzzy-happy names like Harmony, Magnolia, Pinnacle, and Amity—are only part of the cornucopia of cultural offerings that the movement has brought to the United States. Houston, one of the country’s major Gülen hubs, is home to the Gülen Institute; the Raindrop Turkish House, which sponsors the Olympiad; and the Institute for Interfaith Dialog. (“Many participants of the Institute’s activities are inspired by the discourse and pioneering dialogue initiatives of the Turkish Muslim scholar, writer and educator Fethullah Gülen,” is how the interfaith institute’s website explains the connection.) There are similar organizations across the country. Both Raindrop and the interfaith institute are housed in a 30,000-square-foot building called the Turquoise Center that looks like something you might see in Istanbul. Inside, photos of Madeleine Albright, Kofi Annan, and James Baker—all of whom have participated in the Gülen Institute’s luncheons and lectures—proudly hang on the walls. At the back of the building is a mosque. Last year, the building hosted a Houston mayoral debate.
Alp Aslandoğan and Ali Candir—respectively, the president of the interfaith institute and the executive director of Raindrop—took me on a tour and showed me the sketches for their new facilities. Among other things, they planned construction of a mosque, a synagogue, and a church, as well as replicas of the library from Ephesus and the Trojan horse of Troy. All it needed was a sign that said TURKEYLAND on it, and they could start charging. “Who’s paying for all this?” I asked. “A Turkish businessman,” they replied.
I asked to see a Gülen-affiliated charter school and was brought to the Harmony Science Academy, a K-12 school and one of 33 charter schools operated across Texas by a group called the Cosmos Foundation. (At both Harmony and another charter school I visited in Washington, D.C., people told me they were nervous about having their schools labeled Gülen institutions. At the same time, almost all of the Turkish men I met at these schools said they sympathized with or were followers of Gülen.) “Did you wonder why this school was founded by a bunch of Turkish men?” I asked the three mothers who’d been dispatched to give me a tour. “Totally oblivious, didn’t even think about it!” a tall, energetic woman named Colleen O’Brien immediately replied in her undulating Texas accent. In a subsequent e-mail, O’Brien would tell me that she was “aware that some of the Harmony staff believe in the teachings of Gülen,” but said she had been involved in the school for four years and had never seen any evidence of a “hidden agenda.” Indeed, each of the mothers was completely enthusiastic about Harmony. And the school was lovely. The couches in the foyer were unmistakably Turkish; I had seen ones just like them in homes in Istanbul. Everything was strikingly clean. I noticed that one of the Turkish teachers spoke rather broken English, but this hardly seemed to matter. “My kid will know better than to schedule a business lunch during Ramadan!” said O’Brien at one point. “I didn’t even know what that was until now!”
In recent months, some Gülen schools in the United States have attracted bad press in local papers, amplified by Islamophobic hysteria on blogs. But both Houston and Texas charter-school officials told me that they had not received any complaints about Gülen charter schools, and, in fact, many of the schools were high performers compared to others in the state. The public funding of charter schools prohibits religion classes, and the Houston Turks I met seemed careful to leave their beliefs at home.
On the way to the airport, Ali Candir, the Raindrop Turkish House director, tried to explain his own motivation as a Gülenist. Candir had married a Mexican Muslim when he was establishing a secondary school in Mexico City, an experience he spoke of with sincere and touching nostalgia. “Hocaefendi used to say the idea was that Turkey was once very successful, and then it became so badly considered in the world,” he said, echoing the painful feelings of lost empire that so many Turks nurture. “You had to do something. You cannot expect to sit in one place and things will change. You have to go off and try and represent your culture and values in a good way.” Candir’s statement captured a decency that characterizes many of Gülen’s followers. Why, then, are so many Turks so wary of them?
In April 2010, I went on a JWF-sponsored jaunt to Adana, a city in Turkey’s south, with a group of journalists who had, a month earlier, taken a trip to Senegal on the JWF’s dime. Our bus arrived at the offices of a local health care NGO; there, we were greeted by some 15 men in suits who proceeded to show us a film about hospitals they were sponsoring in Senegal and Congo. The film was set to melodramatic music and ended on an image of a small black child holding a red balloon with a crescent and star on it—the colors and symbol of the Turkish flag. We then visited a massive high school and a tutoring house in a poor Kurdish neighborhood; had lunch with a group of 20 businessmen who donate $12,000 per month to Senegal; stopped by the local Gülenist newspaper offices; and listened to a panel about media and Turkish society. Everywhere we went, we were given some sort of trophy or vase or sweet.
The last event on the agenda was billed as a “dinner,” but, when we arrived, I realized it was more of a convention sponsored by a TUSKON-affiliated group. About 400 people—almost all of them men—were seated at dinner tables in a ballroom. A large stage and screen had been set up at the front. I was seated at one of the only female tables, a half-empty one. Another film with maudlin music boomed to life.
Suddenly, I heard my name. The woman next to me pushed me to get up. Stunned, I stumbled to the front of the room, and found myself shaking hands with some Turkish businessman while I accepted another gift, cameras flashing. I suspected that, someday, this photo would pop up in a Gülenist brochure, with me heralded as another of the movement’s many sympathizers. I turned, exasperated, to a JWF representative. He laughed at me. “Oh, no, now you’re part of the movement too!” he joked. “It might ruin your career!”
At that moment, I viscerally understood why the Gülenists make so many people in Turkey uncomfortable. It wasn’t a question of their religious beliefs, or even their earnest, if perhaps overdone, sense of Turkish patriotism, which sends them to Texas and Senegal to promote their culture. No, it was something else: something about the way they have gone about accumulating and wielding power, while setting up what many Turks see as a parallel society.
In 2000, Fethullah Gülen was charged with running a covert operation that threatened the integrity of the Turkish state. The year before, a video had surfaced in which Gülen said: “You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. ... You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey. ... Until that time, any step taken would be too early, like breaking an egg without waiting the full 40 days for it to hatch.” Gülen denied the charges, and claimed the video had been tampered with. (His defense was certainly plausible, given the military’s crackdown on various religious groups in the late 1990s.)
Around that time, Gülen, who was suffering from health problems, left for America, where he has lived ever since. In 2001, he applied for a green card. After much wrangling with the Department of Homeland Security, and with the signed support of American luminaries like former ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz, he got it. He was acquitted of all charges of conspiracy in Turkey in 2006.
By then, the tables had begun to turn in Turkish politics. The authoritarian heyday of the secularists and their allies in the military was over. With the rise to power of the religious Justice and Development Party (AKP)—and, in particular, its charismatic and savvy leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—the secular elites were now on the defensive. Erdoğan was not himself a Gülenist. But both he and the movement had a common enemy in the old elites. Theirs was a natural alliance. And so the Gülenists, once a target of the Turkish state, now found themselves in a position of power—or so it seemed to the many secular Turks who would, in the years to come, gradually grow more and more paranoid about them.
In 2007, Turkish police began arresting members of something called the Ergenekon organization for planning to foment chaos that would bring down the AKP government. More than 200 nationalist and secularist characters—from ex-military officers to journalists to university rectors—were arrested, and many of them are still in jail. Newspapers reported that Ergenekon had plotted to kill Armenians, Kurds, religious leaders, and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, among others. The AKP, the Gülenist media, and many liberals—who were tired of the way the secular nationalists had thwarted democracy for generations—welcomed the trials.
And many of the accused were, in fact, thugs who had long terrorized Kurds, Armenians, leftists, and others with their uniquely insane brand of Turkish ultra-nationalism. But some argued that among the accused were innocent targets of the AKP, which was trying to strike a final blow against the secularist elite. When policemen raided the house of Türkan Saylan—a doctor, feminist activist, and staunch secularist who at the time was dying of breast cancer—suspicions about the investigation intensified. Moreover, none of the people arrested as part of the investigation has ever actually been convicted. Turkey scholar Gareth Jenkins has argued that there is no proof that the Ergenekon organization “as described in the indictments actually exists.” Yet since Ergenekon, there have been other similar cases, mostly targeting former military officers.
There was no evidence that the Gülenists had played any role in the Ergenekon arrests, but that did not stop many Turks from being suspicious. The Gülenist media were some of the loudest champions of every odd detail propagated about the Ergenekon gang. Meanwhile, it became conventional wisdom in Turkey that there were significant numbers of Gülenists in the police force. “It is no secret that politically-motivated judicial cases such as the Ergenekon investigation are primarily driven by members of the Gülen movement, both in the police and the judicial system and in the media,” argued Jenkins.
The senior American government official who described the warm reception given to the Gülenists after September 11 says that while the movement seemed benevolent at first, “then it became clearer they had penetrated the intelligence apparatus of the Turkish National Police and that they were using it for some purpose, clearly for wiretaps and leaks to newspapers.” “There has been, or is now, a long march through the institutions,” says Bill Park of King’s College. “Even in places like the foreign ministry, it seems that Gülenists are starting to appear. What a lot of people tell me, in a way that I am starting to believe, is that they set up parallel structures within government institutions which might sometimes bypass the official structure of which they are part.”
The Gülenists deny these allegations, claim to support the Ergenekon arrests in the name of democracy, and suggest that there is nothing suspicious about the fact that followers of Gülen now work inside the state apparatus. And indeed, it often seems that both sides in Turkish politics—the old secular elite and the new religious elite—are given to paranoid thinking about their opponents.
What is undeniable, though, is that the Gülenists have not helped their case by eschewing transparency. So little is known about how the movement is structured, or whether it is structured at all. “No society would tolerate this big of an organization being this untransparent,” says Hakan Altınay, the former executive director of the Open Society Foundation (OSF) in Istanbul. “There needs to be more information about who they are, what they are doing—mission statement, board, and some kind of financial statement.” Columnist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, who praises the Gülen-linked schools and the movement’s moderate version of Islam, nevertheless notes that “they’re not a political party, so I can’t vote them in and vote them out.” Süheyl Batum, an expert on constitutional law and the former president of Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University, puts it this way: “I don’t think a group this influential and closed is good for democracy.”
Gülenists have a number of replies to these complaints about transparency. Some admit that the movement may need to become more transparent, but others take a harder line. When I told a group of men at the JWF that their critics wanted them to properly label themselves as part of the Gülen movement, one of them replied heatedly, “Why? I support the ideas of Gülen, and I support the ideas of Kant. Should I wear a sign that says I support the ideas of Kant?” Sometimes, they also justify their evasiveness by citing a fear of persecution. But that defense seems left over from an earlier time, when the secular elites had far more power than they do now.
In fact, a 2009 study published by the OSF and written by Binnaz Toprak, a respected sociologist, well known for her sympathy for the rights of religious people, collected hundreds of interviews with people across Anatolia, many of whom complained that those affiliated with the Gülen movement are discriminating against non-Gülenists. Businessmen feel obligated to be seen with Gülenist newspapers, and those who do not support the AKP or the Gülen community cannot win state contracts, some respondents alleged.
What do the Gülenists want? One Gülenist told me that the movement’s goal was the “betterment of humanity,” but that does not appear to be the whole story. In the beginning, it seemed that the movement was responding to a particular set of circumstances. Gülen discovered that at the center of the secular Turkish Republic was a desperate void. Much of the populace needed something besides Atatürk, or Western values, to believe in. The story of the Gülen movement is thus very much the story of Turkey’s evolution: religious Muslims using capitalist enterprise to establish a foothold in a country where they’d previously been left behind. These Turks were inspired by Gülen’s exhortation to assert themselves as full members of Turkish society. The movement’s “goal is not to establish an Islamic state,” writes Joshua Hendrick. “Such a development would be counter to its real aim, which is social power.” As one Turkish academic said to me back in 2007: “Why would they want to take over the state? They have media, schools, businesses, and the society. What do they need the state for when they have everything else?”
The Gülenists also seem motivated by a sense of nationalism and a desire to burnish Turkey’s image abroad. “What is the impact of, say, African kids learning the Turkish national anthem, of U.S. kids watching soccer games involving the top Turkish teams and being taken on trips to Istanbul?” asks Park. “Turkey doesn’t yet have the broader political, economic, and cultural footprint to follow through on this, but one can wonder whether there is a longer game being played—that the movement is putting Turkey on the map culturally and in advance of a greater Turkish economic and political presence in the longer term.”
Such nationalism may not be particularly problematic. What the Gülenists have yet to reckon with, however, is that when a relatively non-transparent movement starts asserting itself politically, it is going to make people nervous—even some inside the movement. And in recent years, Fethullah Gülen has indeed become a political force in Turkey—powerful and confident enough that he can even contradict his allies in the AKP. This summer, he spoke out against the Turkish flotilla that tried to sail into Gaza, unlike Prime Minister Erdoğan, who praised it. Erdoğan no doubt despised this challenge to his authority. Yet he needs the Gülen movement in his corner. Zaman, the TV stations, and the JWF all push the AKP political line, and they exercise a lot of influence. When an AKP-backed constitutional referendum passed two months ago—with strong support from both Gülen media outlets and Gülen himself—Erdoğan took care to acknowledge the endorsement he’d received from “friends across the ocean.” Everyone in Turkey knew who he was talking about.
Today, justifiably or not, the secularists of Turkey spend their days looking over their shoulders. I have encountered countless people who will no longer talk about Gülen on the phone. Opposition newspapers will not write critically about Gülen; what passes for conventional wisdom among some journalists at these papers will never make it into their pages. Maybe this is mere paranoia, but what I’ve seen across the faces of some secularist-liberals is something closer to fear. “It has become such a power in the government and law enforcement spheres that we in the mainstream media have become somewhat intimidated by this new mythological power they have,” says one Turkish columnist who writes for a major newspaper. “Since the Ergenekon trial, there is an unwritten rule not to criticize Gülen. We do not mess with them. There’s a feeling they can orchestrate a character assassination, and no journalist who cares about their image is willing to take this risk.”
This past summer, a former police intelligence officer named Hanefi Avcı published a book about the Gülen movement. Avcı’s children attended Gülen schools, and he himself had lived in their dorms. In the book, he alleged that the Gülen network had begun to set up a parallel state within the police and judiciary systems. The book caused a sensation. Avcı claimed he had documents to prove his case.
Then, in late September, Avcı was arrested on charges that he had connections to a fringe leftist organization called the Revolutionary Headquarters. Anything is possible, of course, and in Turkey it does seem like there’s always some crazy group waiting to claim new members. But at this point, for the first time, even some of Gülen’s sympathizers began to wonder, publicly, what the hell was going on. Some days later, from the placid Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center in Pennsylvania, came rare public comments from Hocaefendi himself. In the course of addressing a range of subjects, he responded to Avcı’s allegations, saying, in part, “May God forgive his sins.”
Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.