Ali Bulac: Gulen movement wants to participate in the globalization

Ali Bulaç
Ali Bulaç


Date posted: June 10, 2013

Ali Bulac*, “if there had not been opportunities to become a community and join a community, Turkey would have ended up in a far more complicated and problematic situation. Community protects [individuals] from culture shocks, provides dynamism, and produces a new human being. In this respect, the Gulen movement is the most successful community.”

Thinking again…

Ali Bulac recently published “Religion, City, and Community: Fethullah Gülen’s Example” bears the attributes of sociology of the city and religion. He gives practical examples while criticizing those approaches that restrict religion’s meaning and domain. He combines the current living process with history, builds cause and effect relationships, and emphasizes the struggle of understanding the phenomena, instead of “thinking in the difficult area” and approving them. We also need to understand what is religious, what is civil, and what is secular. While analyzing a movement that has a high religious motivation, no positivist, modernist, or political reading can lead us to the truth. The “Gülen reality” is something beyond these. Those who look at it from outside and refuse to accept it, as well as those who look at it from inside with envy, unite at the same point. Bulaç’s book forced me to re-examine the movement that I thought I knew so well. The “reality” and the “depth” are not always as we know them… We are often shallow, and there is a lot to learn …

Your latest book is “Religion, City, and Community: Fethullah Gülen’s Example.” A Western-style reading of the nineteenth century kept claiming that religion has withdrawn from public life and lost its meaning…

They claimed that religion would withdraw from public life. However, after the 1950s we saw that the flow of history does not reflect what was predicted. This is not the case just for us; also in the West, religion was understood to be the most important factor influencing the social life, politics, and masses.

Return to religion…

It happened so for the Westerners. For us, it did not go anywhere.

Turkish intellectuals do not think deeply about religion; either they narrow down its meaning and scope or completely deny it.

Social scientists in Turkey are not ready to accept the fact of religion. Since the philosophical base of our modernization project is positivism, it is assumed that religion is unable to make any positive contribution.

Do you think that what is being reflected as a conflict between religion and state is, in fact, the manifestations of a conflict between intellectuals and the public?

There is still continuity between Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Under the Ottomans, the seyfiye (army and administration), ilmiye (religious, educational, and judicial authorities) and kalemiye (bureaucrats) controlled the center. There was a center but not a centralist government, as well as a strong civil society on the periphery. In addition, there was no conflict between religion and state. After Tanzimat, the actors in the center changed and a centralized structure emerged. Under the Republic, the military and civil bureaucrats, judiciary, universities, capital, and state artists formed the center. The ilmiye was replaced by the media and [secular] intellectuals.

[Secular] Intellectuals come from the society, don’t they?

If that were the case, they would not have taken their place next to the center at times of historical turning points. [Secular] Intellectuals never defended the values of society; rather, they acted on behalf of the state and undertook the mission of transforming society. However, after 1950 religion and [religious] communities emerged with a mission to modernize society and, as a result, Turkey’s modernization project was turned upside down.

After 1950, what lead to the disruption in the modernization paradigm?

The most important factor that led to the emergence of [religious] communities in Turkey is the major changes in demographics. Community is a phenomenon that belongs to the city, and therefore communities emerged with migration. Political Islam is also a product of city and migration. The state cared about this migration, since it believed that the city could modernize the masses. But the migrants saw the segregation there and started to look for new channels.

Did [religious] communities take on the mission to absorb [culture] shocks?

Yes, they performed many great functions. Since the state and society swallow the individual, it can only protect itself through communities. Communities in the West are non-governmental organizations. The most important factors behind their continued viability is their representation of the Anatolian people’s energy and economic rationality. In today’s world, it is rational for an individual to belong to a community. The immediate future is the period of communities.

The Gulen Movement has an all-encompassing heritage. You’ve analyzed the Gulen movement as an example…

The Gulen movement is a product of Turkish sociology and thus contains all ethnic groups. It would be wrong to call the movement “Turkish Muslim” or “Anatolian Muslim,” for the all-compassing heritage of the Ottomans is more pronounced in it. It resembles the movement that led to the establishment of the Seljuks. Back then, the great economic activity in central Anatolia was motivated mainly by religion. The Gulen movement attracts similar energy from Anatolia.

It is hard to contain the movement, so it spreads out, you are saying.

Just like the Seljuks and the Ottomans emerged and spread to the Balkans and the Middle East, the Gulen movement repeats the same experience in a different form – by participating in globalization. Globalization shakes the nation-state, dissolves society. The Gulen movement, despite being part of globalization, also protects the individual from the resulting side effects.

Does the movement have a founding attribute?

Of course – the drive to put Turkey at the center and gather the hinterland around this center of attraction.

Is the participation in globalization specific to the Gulen movement?

All communities have it to some degree, but in the Gulen movement it is larger, faster, and more successful.

Is this a secular movement?

No. Such an entity is not possible in Turkey anyway. [Secularity] is something we made up in our imagination, a domain with which religion does not interfere. According to us Muslims, no area is outside of the divine will and power, and hence secularity is impossible.

The Gulen movement is not against the state.

What is it then?

It is a civil movement characterized by a high degree of religious motivation. [Religious] communities in Turkey serve three functions: they democratize society, help society participate in modernization, and civilize society. This situation baffles social scientists and secular intellectuals. In 1950, 1970, and between 1990 and 1994, Turkey experienced three large waves of immigration. [Religious] communities adjusted the immigrants to city life and made them belong to the city. They didn’t confine themselves just to abstract activities, but also engaged in economic activities and produced job opportunities. If Turkey hadn’t been a fertile ground for [religious] communities, it would have ended up in a far more complicated and problematic situation. The Gulen movement is neither against the state nor an extension of it.

What does the movement teach?

It teaches society, rebuilds social relationships from scratch, and produces a new person. The Gulen movement has a vein of social Islam.

The notion of community is being seen as a protectionist, not an open, structure.

This is a deeply rooted misconception. Communities are open to the outside, and all members are free to enter and exit as they wish.

What makes a community meaningful?

It adds something to a person’s spiritual world.

What is the Gulen movement’s capital?

Its human capital. In the movement, sacrifice, living for others, serving, sharing, helping, and even making a commitment is a basic code of behavior. According to Francis Fukuyama, the West, despite its scientific accumulation, technological advancement, and material wealth, does not possess this “social capital.” Without it, social peace and tranquility cannot be sustained.

Gulen has understood his era very well.

What conditions helped Gulen emerge?

His life consists of three periods: local, national, and global. It is a line that starts in Erzurum and extends to America.

What did these eras change?

The material world, financial circumstances, or conditions that the world goes through affect an individual. According to Gulen, Turkey will rise again due to its individuals, but first these individuals have to be groomed or, or in other words, there is a need for a “golden generation. “Gulen read the changes in the region and the world in an accurate and timely manner, and took an appropriate stand. The movement has renewed itself over time. This is what makes Gulen stand out. There are other movements, but they were using the political language of the Cold War. After the 1990s, globalization brought a new culture and new social relations. As those other leaders could not read these developments, they were gradually pushed aside.

How did Gulen manage to read his era correctly?

Gulen differs from other community leaders, scholars, and academics because he has a good madrasah education and a solid knowledge of Islamic sciences. This is an important advantage. He follows the modern world closely and has insights into the social sciences as well. I see Mr. Gulen as a typical example of the ulama-aydin (scholar-intellectual) tradition. Besides such depth, he is also a “man of action.”

“Service” sustains the Gulen movement.

What keeps the Gulen movement together?

Service. There is a grand ideal, an ideal that was offered to and accepted by society. Otherwise, you would not have a student who graduated from the Bosphorus University working in obscure locations all over the world.

Does the concept of community intimidate individuals?

The individual is the essence, and thus this concept cannot deny individuality. Individuals have a role within a community and think they are realizing themselves. And so they are happy. In Turkey, communities are building civil society.

Lack of intellectual stock.

What do you think of the movement’s intellectual level?

Unfortunately, Gulen’s brilliant intellectual performance is not reflected by his followers at the same level. The biggest problem here is the community’s inability to produce intellectuals. One is the leader for two reasons: (1) his influence on his followers’ minds, even though he does not desire it, and (2) the style of work: they are continuously in action.

Is there pressure from the leader?

There isn’t, yet he sets (is) the horizon that is hard to surpass (him). I think Gulen is aware of this problem. Until the 1990s, the positive sciences were the focus; now, the social sciences are being emphasized. Of course, the intellectual stock needs to be increased.

People have described Gulen as a reformist, a revolutionist, or the Calvin of Islam…

I have been following the movement since the 1970s. Many people in Turkey paint him that way, and yet he has never been interested in such titles. First of all, he is bound to traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Second, he is bound to Islamic methodology (usul). Third, he is bound to the ummah’s main body and the Sunnah. We cannot call him a reformist, but rather a mujaddid. The legitimate concepts in our history are those of mujaddid (renewer), tejdid (the act of renewing), ihya (reviving), and islah (rehabilitation).

On the one hand, Gulen seems like a historical figure representing the tradition; on the other hand, he is leading a project that seeks to influence the global process. Such a situation is hard to understand.

We need to accept that he is a very different and well-equipped person. He comes from a very remote location in Anatolia and has succeeded on the global level. This shows what a great potential Allah has put into each human being. Anyone can achieve a great success, although success of this caliber cannot be bestowed upon everyone.

Is it hard to understand Gulen?

No. He says that he is a plain person, and he really is. Even his language is plain. One just needs to follow him attentively, read him, and make a sincere attempt to understand him. He is one of the people who use Turkish most eloquently. People act with prejudice. Even some people in other religious groups are prejudiced against him. Academicians are jealous of him to a great extent, because, they say, “an imam’s job is to preach, so why does he concern himself with such issues?” He speaks on numerous subjects that are the expertise of academicians of various disciplines, and he speaks deeply. Because he is interested, he is reading, continuing the tradition, and is aware of all domains. Another of his characteristics, along with this comprehensive intellectual repertoire, is that he is a man of action who does not choose to live in an ivory tower.

Some “Islamists” say that Gulen is degenerating Islam.

Gulen is not a theoretical Muslim, but a person who practices what he preaches. He is extremely careful in his religious practice. I stayed close to him for eight days, and I have never seen a person pray with such a deep reverence. It is astounding. Everyone may have a different perception of Islam, but for it to be legitimate it has to be in accordance with Islam’s foundations: the Qur’an and Sunnah. Gulen thinks and lives according to these foundations.

The movement is contributing to globalization via its schools. What does the movement say to the world?

Globalization’s major handicap is the ambiguity of its actors. The movement says: “I don’t have the power to resist the wave of globalization. If I do so, it will eliminate me quickly. Therefore, being part of the process and affecting it to the degree I can is the best way to go.”

How does it contribute to the (globalization) process?

By its businesspeople, culture, and schools. Of course, just like with Seljuks, it is an economic power. The movement’s base is small- and mid-size Anatolian businesspeople. They finance a school in Kenya and a school in Chile. There isn’t another example like this in Turkey or in the Islamic world.

In this context, don’t you find objections like, “when people are dying of hunger in Diyarbakir, Turkey, what are you doing in Kenya?” substantive?

No. Turkey is exposed to globalization in every aspect. To not perish, you need to participate consciously. Otherwise, it sweeps you along and you become a passive object.

In this case…

Since you participate consciously, you are an active subject. You are instructing all basic sciences in Chile, Kazakhstan, the United States, Germany… You are teaching English, but at the same time you are teaching Turkish and carrying your culture there. While you are giving, you are also taking; this is an interactive relationship. If you have nothing to give, you are in great danger. Turkey’s greatest response to globalization is these Turkish schools.

Does globalization have any adverse effects on the movement?

It may have. Globalization has a transformative effect. Without necessary discretion, it may transform religious life into a visual show. For example, the spirit of semah (whirling) has been substantially emptied in this process. If we can question globalization while we are in it, we will not face this danger. I am optimistic on this issue; Gulen’s life is very straight, pious. Those who stumble should look at him.

The state itself is also pro-[Kemalist] community.

In the context of the Gulen movement, schools have been opened within and outside the country, a mass that is interested in the world is formed, and they become involved in trade and convey our culture abroad. And yet despite all of this, there is a systematic [negative] attitude toward the movement.

Those who take a [negative] stand perceive this civil movement as a rival. The state is also pro-community, a Kemalist community, one that attempts to manage all social and administrative relations through a centralist base. It sees all civil communities as rivals. In addition, the center sought to modernize Turkey based on its own views; however, it failed to do so because the public chose independent modernization over “state imposed modernization.” Parents want their daughter to wear hijab, but they also want her to become a computer engineer. The “core” that controls the state is against the movement.

Is this a conflict of values?

Yes, as well as a conflict of classes.

In the final analysis, what is the movement’s goal?

This is a struggle for existence. How can one live like a human being today in this modern city life? This is the goal of the movement, as well as the goal of Islam, for Islam is a way of being a good human being.

Does it have an aspect concerning the state?

The movement should stay civil. It has a right to affect the state and politics, but it wouldn’t want to be the state. It doesn’t have a principle to rule the state, for it is focused on helping human beings live as Muslims in civil society. This is a democratic, civil, fair, and innocent demand.

Source: YeniSafak, 5 May 2008

Disclaimer: The original article is in Turkish. Slight deviations from the original meaning may have occurred due to the difficulties in translating phrases and idioms. PII volunteers translated the article.

* Ali Bulac is a sociologist, journalist and writer. He writes regularly for Zaman daily and Today’s Zaman. He focuses in his writings on the contemporary Islamic world, its intellectual problems, and societal change and renewal.


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