Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement (Book Review)

Date posted: May 27, 2013


Ten years after co-editing his first book on the Gülen movement, Hakan Yavuz, a leading scholar on Turkish society, brings his academic prowess and careful observations to bear on this dynamic phenomenon in Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gülen Movement.1 This well-timed book not only provides an update on the growth of the movement over the last decade; it also offers the deepest view yet of its roots. To observers, it is “liberal yet communitarian; cosmopolitan yet puritan; both a source of hope and a source of fear”(11).

This phenomenon has led many scholars to focus on various aspects of the movement rather than its whole structure. The majority of works about it have been published as conference proceedings; only a few monographs have covered its dynamic and complex structure. This book is so far the most extensive.

In the book’s introduction, Yavuz reminds readers of the diverse views among Muslim scholars, then introduces two competing schools of thought: the “literalists/fundamentalists,” who stress that the Quran and hadiths alone suffice for Muslim daily needs and refrain from interpreting original sources, and the “modernists/reformists,” who believe in the need for the constant renewal and reform of Islam according to changing times and conditions. The author places Fethullah Gülen and his movement in the latter group, pointing out that the former group has been more influential in the Arab world. Yavuz makes a distinction between Enlightenment and its by-product, positivism, sending a critical message to those who contend that Enlightenment itself has brought about a marginalization of religion. Yavuz insists upon the compatibility of Enlightenment and religious thought.

Yavuz states that both Gülen and his ideological father, Said-i Nursi (1876-1960), sought to integrate values of the Enlightenment such as reason, science and progress into Islamic thought. They believed in the compatibility of reason and science with revelation. Yavuz posits that Islamic Enlightenment does not mean embracing Western ideas, but rather fusing them with ideals in the local cultures. Gülen’s recipe for progress is a gradual transformation of one’s self through education, which integrates both secular and religious knowledge. Yavuz finds Gülen more successful than secular scholars, because Gülen adopted an Islamic rhetoric to convey the Enlightenment ideas to Muslim masses.

Turkey’s modernization efforts date back to the early nineteenth century; its “powerful state tradition provided the necessary institutional basis for these ideas” (9). That is why, Yavuz explains, the Islamic Enlightenment grew in Turkey, but not in other Muslim countries. He categorizes the literature on the movement into four parts: academic, journalistic, promotional and Kemalist/Islamophobic. The main thesis of the book is that by building bridges — between science and revelation, the secular and the religious, Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, Islam and capitalism, Muslims and non-Muslims — the Gülen movement transformed not only those it interacted with but also itself, paving the way for its own secularization. Each chapter explicitly or implicitly covers this mutual transformation or “cross-fertilization.”

The first chapter highlights the milestones of Gülen’s intellectual formation. Yavuz states that the borderland patriotic culture of Erzurum, where Gülen was raised, affected his approach to the state and nationalism. The dwellers of the border regions regarded the state as their protector from Russian expansion, rather than an oppressor. Yavuz explains the influence of Said-i Nursi on Gülen, but omits crucial information: Nursi turned against politics after a futile involvement in his youth. While Nursi aimed to make Muslims religiously aware, Gülen expected to see them contribute to society. This necessitated social, cultural and intellectual interactions with others. He further states that unlike Nursi, who set religious salvation as the final destination, Gülen sets a more earthbound goal: to create a politically and economically competent Muslim generation. Thus, Yavuz regards the contemporary Gülen movement not as an extension of Nursi’s Nur Movement, but as “a secular modernist movement recasting Islam to conquer the sources of worldly power” (32). He later clarifies that the movement is not “fully liberal-democratic or secular” (65). This assessment will certainly bring out further discussion about the Gülen movement and its internal secularization of Islam.

Yavuz elaborates that, in the 1970s and 1980s, Gülen took the side of the state-sponsored Turkish-Islamic Synthesis (TIS), which embraced an ethnic nationalist model and supported the 1980 military coup (39). Indeed, Gülen did explicitly support that coup for security reasons, but his support for TIS is dubious. He took a clear position against ethnic nationalism as early as 1969, attracting the fury of nationalists. After that, he took a circumspect approach and did not criticize nationalism, as it would have weakened the conservative-nationalist camp in the Cold War struggle against communism. Furthermore, through covert communication, Gülen asked his adherents to cast a vote against the undemocratic 1982 constitution, which was largely created by the Intellectuals’ Hearth Association (Aydinlar Ocaği), the institutional body of TIS.2 Yavuz argues that Gülen abandoned his nationalist and statist rhetoric in favor of universal concepts of democracy, human rights and interfaith dialogue after he moved to the United States in 1999, calling it “forced liberalization” (41).

Yavuz writes about the trial of Gülen, quoting from an alleged tape recording. However, he does not use James C. Harrington’s detailed book (2011) on the subject, nor does he mention the 2003 court decision that discarded this video recording as a fabrication. Yavuz approaches the issue as a matter of freedom of expression and presents the defamation of Gülen and his movement as part of an ongoing effort by the Turkish Kemalist establishment to vilify Islam.
In the second chapter, Yavuz examines Gülen’s key ideas: the theology of action, national identity and democracy. Gülen’s contextual theology encourages Muslims to be active believers and serve humanity; his theology of action requires his adherents to reach out to others, reinforcing mutual transformation. In his thinking, individual interests are not as valuable as the interests of the community, and this commitment to community helps to improve the human condition and strengthens democracy through civic engagement (54). According to Yavuz, Gülen’s concept of nationalism is based on neither race nor ethnicity, but rather on Islamic identity. Being Muslim is a prerequisite for being a Turk. In a personal interview with Yavuz, Gülen makes it clear that his vision of identity is not national but religious: more akin to the religiously based Ottoman millet system than modern nationalism. “The definition of Turk, for Gülen, is not limited to race or ethnicity….Those ‘Muslims who live in Turkey, share the Ottoman legacy as their own, and regard themselves as Turks should be considered as Turks’.” (57). In regard to the movement’s approach to democracy, Yavuz stresses that, until the 1997 soft coup, Gülen was in favor of a strong state; afterward, he had a change of heart, as the Kemalist establishment directly targeted the movement. Since then, Gülen has felt the urge to strengthen civil society and expand freedoms. While Yavuz highlights Gülen’s belief in the compatibility of Islam and democracy, he does not mention the role of Said-i Nursi in the formation of Gülen’s thought on freedom, which Nursi regarded as a condition of faith. Yavuz criticizes the movement in two areas: first, despite Gülen’s emphasis on individual reason, some of his followers have not developed critical thinking and have even openly opposed it; and second, Yavuz finds Gülen’s argument that Islam was the origin of universal human rights unproductive because it is not persuasive to secular Turks.

Perhaps the most original chapter of the book is the third, covering the structure of the movement and explaining how it functions. In Yavuz’s view, what makes Gülen a significant religious figure is not simply his religious and intellectual knowledge, but his ability to convey his message to the masses with a fresh and contemporary interpretation. Gülen’s unique upbringing helped him to combine religious authority with Sufi humility and reason. Yavuz’s description summarizes a leadership style that resembles neither Martin Luther King, Jr., nor Mahatma Gandhi; Gülen stands back rather than leading. “Gülen represents the evolution of a new Islamic religious authority that blends alim, intellect (aydin), and leadership in a socioreligious movement” (74). The Islamic concept of ihlas (doing good deeds purely for the sake of God) is the guiding principle of the activists and sponsors of the movement (76).

Yavuz examines the movement qualitatively as a political scientist but uses an anthropological method in his interviews with the employees, sponsors and adherents of the movement, whose identities he does not reveal. His interviews show that adherents have different understandings of hizmet (service), which he defines not only as service to humanity, but also as a social catalyst that brings people together for a common goal. Yavuz gives four main reasons why people donate to the movement: religion, patriotism, ego and social pressure (83).

Yavuz writes that the decision-making structure of the movement has three circles. The core includes Gülen, his few students and the elders. The majority in the core serve as top administrators, changing frequently according to need. The second circle includes donors and activists as well as mid- and low-level administrators, who organize local and state-level events. The largest circle, the third, includes a wide array of participants, both Muslims and non-Muslims. They may participate in the events of the movement according to their choosing. Akin to Sufi lodges, the events of the movement — from calligraphy to disaster-relief fundraising — are open to the public. Yavuz writes that the wealth and power the movement gained in the last decade turned it into a “power network.” He concludes, “The movement, which declares itself to be a spirituality based one, could not transform everyone who claims to be Gülenist by turning them into improved moral beings, rather it often provides the necessary means and networks to those who become more of what they already are” (91).

The fourth chapter covers the most successful Gülen enterprise, education. Yavuz elaborates on Gülen’s educational philosophy, which regards science and morality as its two indispensable aspects. Gülen expects the “golden generation” to mold these two facets into one. “He stresses the unity of theological, spiritual, and scientific knowledge, yet at the center of this knowledge is the power and presence of God” (97). The narrative traces the origins of Gülen’s educational activities back to the 1960s, from summer educational camps to student lighthouses (dershanes). The lighthouses are places where high school or college students are nurtured with the works of Nursi and Gülen, internalizing their educational philosophy and moral teaching. Lighthouses, dorms and schools also shelter students from the potential effects of modern life, but this protection, according to Yavuz, prevents them from discovering different forms of the “good life” and developing critical thinking. Yavuz stresses that the movement refrains from direct proselytizing, aiming to present good-mannered, exemplary Muslims. His interviews with non-Muslim students in the Gülen-inspired schools reflect the success of the method.

In the fifth chapter, Yavuz focuses on the convergence of Islam and capitalism in the Gülen movement, an embrace of Weberian inner-worldly asceticism that promises inner-worldly rewards, and hard work. Yavuz compares the movement to Calvinism: faith requires activism; hard work is an essential aspect of a believer; and believers are to follow a humble lifestyle. After a brief history of the Turkish transition to capitalism since 1980, Yavuz analyzes his interviews with two groups of movement-affiliated businessmen. The older ones are more concerned about their social and religious responsibilities than the younger, who are apparently in the movement for worldly rewards. While the movement takes a strong stance against state authoritarianism, it is not as vocal about the rights of minorities and workers. “The Gülen movement easily surrendered the Islamic public language of justice to market forces. Islamic discourses of justice, community and the well-being of the weak, have been either ignored or deliberately excluded from the public debate.” (128). Yavuz warns that as state mechanisms erode, market forces with weakened religious values may wall off minorities and the poor from state protection and create a more unjust society. To sum up, the cross-fertilization between the Gülen movement and capitalism has been beneficial to both sides, but in the last decade capitalism has been gaining more ground and gradually secularizing the movement.

In the sixth chapter, Yavuz narrates how the Gülen movement created alternative public spaces for conservative Muslims, despite the Kemalist state’s attempt to lock Islam into the private sphere and silence religious voices in NGOs, media outlets, schools and business associations. Creation of alternative public spaces through civic organizations and market forces, according to Yavuz, is a healthy development that fosters stability rather than chaos and radicalism. He compares Gülen’s endeavor to bring Islam into public discussion with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, but Habermas relied on liberalism, while Gülen has had to deal with an authoritarian state. For Habermas, there can be two public spaces: informal and formal. The Gülen movement has been successful at creating informal public spaces, such as the Abant Platform. The movement’s approach to different segments of society nurtured all sides, curbed polarization and delivered pluralization: “The case of the Gülen movement challenges the argument that Islam and modernity are inherently contradictory and antagonistic” (134). Relying on his interviews with participants, Yavuz finds earlier Abant Platforms intellectually richer and more satisfactory than the more recent ones, since the movement has drawn closer to the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government. Despite their shortcomings, Yavuz finds the public discussions between the secular and religious groups to be productive.

In the seventh chapter, Yavuz analyzes the correlation between science and religion, in general, and Gülen’s views on science, in particular. The Kemalist approach considered science and secularism to be inseparable. But Yavuz lists three competing approaches in the debate over Islam and science: science as religion, science as anti-religion and a balance between the two. Yavuz places Said-i Nursi and Fethullah Gülen in the third group. Both challenged the Orientalist vision of Islam as antithetical to science. Both argued for the compatibility of Islam and science, seeking to merge them through religious and rational arguments. Using scientific reasoning to explain Islam inadvertently applied scientific method to religious dogma and triggered the secularization of their thought. Yavuz is critical of both Nursi and Gülen for attempting to subordinate science to religion: “[i]t is more intellectually stimulating to think of religion and science as independent spheres that are nonetheless in dialogue to shed light on our quest for the origins and evolution of being and the universe” (160).

The Gülen movement started interfaith dialogue in the 1990s, and its efforts gained pace after the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent emergence of Islamophobia. In the eighth chapter, Yavuz uses Alan Race’s classification of participants in interfaith dialogue: exclusivists, who use dialogue to convert others to Islam or totally reject dialogue; inclusivists, who are engaged in limited dialogue with other faiths for the sake of some truths and who are convinced that salvation is possible only through Islam; and pluralists, who embrace the idea that all religions offer different paths to salvation. Yavuz places Nursi in the inclusivist group; he believed in the existence of different paths to salvation, though he still regarded Islam as the most suitable one. Nursi’s views on interfaith dialogue as well as the Turkish Sufi tradition helped to form Gülen’s views. Nevertheless, Yavuz places Gülen between the exclusivist and inclusivist camps; he changed his position according to conditions, moving gradually so that his adherents could catch up with him. Sociologically, Yavuz finds him to be a pluralist, advocating dialogue to address common human concerns. “Interfaith dialogue, for Gülen, is neither a ‘melting pot’ nor a mosaic of religions, but rather it is a toolbox for building bridges between humanity’s continents and isles” (181-82).

Four fundamental religious values form Gülen’s dialogue practice: love, tolerance, recognition, and a shared language of common concerns. After elaborating these values, Yavuz examines how they are put into practice. The movement is very pragmatic, taking steps to address common social problems. This practical dialogue includes laymen and targets common worldly concerns, as opposed to intellectual dialogue, which would involve theologians or clergy. In fact, according to the observation and experience of this reviewer, the movement primarily invites a selected group of people to its interfaith dialogue events: priests, pastors, rabbis, professors, mayors, politicians and local law-enforcement agents. The disparity between these observations may stem from the fact that the movement functions differently in different places. Yavuz lays out four major criticisms of the dialogue events and then elaborates on the root causes: first, the movement refrains from engaging with Shia or other sects of Islam; second, women activists are almost invisible in the dialogue initiatives and within the movement generally; third, the movement uses dialogue to promote Islam and itself; and last, the activists of the movement are uninterested in learning about other cultures.

Chapter Nine covers one of the most controversial aspects of the movement: its approach to politics and its relationship with the Kemalist establishment and the ruling JDP. According to Yavuz, the movement is neither apolitical nor bent on turning Turkey into an Islamic state (199). He asserts that the movement’s main expectation in politics is the preservation of its institutions in order to improve social conditions. It informally involves itself in politics through media, lobbying and civic institutions rather than creating a political party or explicitly endorsing one. The movement in the past has supported conservative, nationalist and even leftist parties. It tries to remove obstacles to a free society, where expression and open economic competition are assured for all citizens. “The Gülen movement used to be accused of being apolitical, ineffective and not sufficiently aggressive to challenge authoritarianism and human rights violations in Turkey. Today, many people claim that the movement is too political, confrontational and assertive vis-à-vis state institutions” (203).

Yavuz elaborates on why the movement has been targeted by the Kemalist establishment. First, it has demonstrated that modernity could be achieved without abandoning Islam. Second, the social and business networks of the movement have posed serious competition to businesses that enjoyed state favoritism. Third, the close relationship between the conservative Anatolian bourgeoisie and the movement has bothered the Kemalist establishment. Yavuz explains that the movement’s initial “appeasement” policy did not protect it from the Kemalist assault, so the movement gradually became more assertive. Moreover, he summarizes the Turkish military’s approach to Islam, in general, and the Gülen movement, in particular. To preserve its dominance in Turkish politics, the military attempted to marginalize and criminalize pious Muslims. The so-called February 28 process unseated an elected government in 1997, but this move united liberal and Islamic groups against the authoritarian establishment and paved the way for its eventual dissolution. The military has systematically labeled practicing Muslims as Gülenist or Islamist and arbitrarily fired them. Amid the mayhem, the Kemalist judiciary opened a case to frame Gülen as a criminal and silence the movement.

Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s JDP came to power in 2002, the Gülen movement has found a like-minded government that suffered assaults from the same undemocratic military-judicial establishment. Some generals set new plots to unseat the government and label the Gülen movement a terrorist organization, but this time they were revealed to the press. A major lawsuit, the Ergenekon case, began. Yavuz adds that, once the coup plots were averted and the culprits brought to court, the movement found itself in a stronger position than ever. While some critics claim that the movement controls the Turkish police, Yavuz disagrees, while acknowledging that it is certainly influential in the police force. With regard to the movement’s influence in politics, Turkish politicians and bureaucrats are not used to lobbying by nongovernmental forces; thus they complain that the movement intervenes in their affairs. The bureaucracy prefers a top-down decision-making process without public input.

In the tenth chapter, Yavuz examines arguments of Kemalist, leftist, Alevi, Kurdish and Islamist critics of the movement. Leftists, ironically, claim that the Gülen movement was created by the Kemalist establishment. Before explaining the Alevi critics of the movement, Yavuz gives a brief history of Turkey’s heterodox Alevi community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. While the majority of Sunni Muslims view Alevis as “heretics,” the Gülen movement has supported Alevis’ effort to obtain state recognition of their house of worship (Cem Evi). Still, Yavuz indicates, some in the movement point fingers at the Alevis in recent political skirmishes with the Kemalist “deep state.” According to Yavuz, the recent Sunni-Alevi tensions have been caused by the political struggle between the movement-backed JDP government and the Kemalist establishment, which was supported by some Alevi leaders. The Kurdish critics of the Gülen movement regard it as a major obstacle to Kurdish nationalism, as the movement strengthens Islamic brotherhood between Kurds and Turks. The movement provides educational and humanitarian services for the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq and does its best to fix what Kemalist nationalism ruined. Islamists mainly criticize the movement for being pro-American and pro-Israeli. It should be added that part of the reason the movement is blamed for being pro-American is that English is the preferred language of instruction in its schools.

In his final analysis, Yavuz compares two types of people in the Gülen movement: sincere believers, who value and live their religion; and posers, who use religion to satisfy their own desires. He argues that, as the power of the movement expands, the balance is tilting toward the latter. Gülen’s spiritual message to discard ego and self-interest conflicts with a capitalism that values consumption and individualism.

Perhaps the least improved side of the Gülen movement has been the status of women. The female-only events and activities of the movement make it difficult for male scholars to analyze them. Overall the book is concise and clear, though some sections require background knowledge. In terms of its scope and analysis, the book is of a high caliber and fills an important gap. It is suitable for graduate courses in Turkish and Middle East politics as well as religious and interfaith studies. Yavuz convincingly claims that the Gülen movement has entered into a secularization process. The next question for study is to what extent it has been secularized.

1 Yavuz’s earlier works on Islam are Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (Oxford University Press, 2003/2005); The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (The University of Utah Press, 2006); and with John Esposito, eds., I (Syracuse University Press, 2003).

2 Tamer Balci, “Islam and Democracy in the Thought of Nursi and Gülen,” 61-91 in Tamer Balci and Christopher L. Miller, The Gülen Hizmet Movement: Circumspect Activism in Faith-Based Reform (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).

Source: MiddleEastPolicyCouncil, Summer 2012

Reviewed by Tamer Balci, University of Texas-Pan American. Oxford University Press. 320 pages.

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