On this day of April 2007, on the banks of the Bosphorus, a small group of French people are engaged in a heated debate. Some of France’s well-known intellectuals are present: the historians, Jean-Pierre Azéma, Philippe Roger and Olivier Wieviorka, Olivier Roy a specialist on Islam, the former superintendent of the Catholic Institute of Paris Joseph Maïla, the philosophers Dominique Bourel, Michel Marian, and Joël Roman, the geographer Michel Foucher, the editor Jean-Louis Schlegel, Frank Debié a specialist in Political Sciences…
They were invited to Istanbul to debate with Turkish academics and intellectuals in a luxury hotel . The topic? ‘The Republic, cultural diversity and Europe’.
This is what is troubling the small group: were they right to accept this invitation? At the origin of this question : the dinner on the first night at the Dolmabahçe Palace, where alcohol was forbidden, and more importantly, the contents of the presentation brochure placed on the nightstands in the hotel rooms. ‘Did you read the demonization of blasphemy it contains? cried out Phillippe Roger, particularly vigilant and watchful. We have accepted the invitation of a society which criminalizes blasphemy…’
Indeed, as the French intellectuals just discovered, behind the ‘Abant platform’ which gave out the invitations, there is the large Gülen Neo-Brotherhood which ‘often does not present itself as such, and puts forward key figures who are not always members of the society’ explains Olivier Roy to his peers.
A two level movement
In the last couple of years, this neo-brotherhood has appeared as a two level movement.
On the one side, a vast network of pious and very active Turkish Muslims, involved and devoted ‘to serve’ (Hizmet in Turkish) civil society. Inspired by the thought of the imam Fethullah Gülen who is living in exile in the United States since 1999, they condemn violence and terror; promote entrepreneurship, education and interreligious dialogue.
On the other, a strong presence, a ‘core group’ according to some observers, at the heart for the police and the justice system, which allied to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power since 2002, helped the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to get rid of de political wardship of the army through hundreds of arrests and sensational trials.
The movement is established in 150 countries, including France since the 80s – incidentally, Fethullah Gülen visited Paris and Strasbourg in 1990. Europe in contrast to Africa and Asia has so far not constituted a priority for the movement. However, in the last ten years the latter has quickly grown.
Since 2007, other guests have followed the steps of our Parisian intellectuals: academics, councillors, journalists, activists…Many French people discovered Turkey thanks to this peculiar ‘sponsor’. How many exactly? ‘We do not keep such records’ answers Nihat Sarier, the president of the Parisian Platform, who defines his society as ‘a centre for reflexion, debate and social action inspired by the ideas of Gülen’, before admitting ‘it is true that it organized several thematic trips to Turkey, focused on secularism, minorities’ rights, women’s rights, in partnership with French institutions’.
Just recently, in December 2013, during a dinner at the National Assembly, a French MP praised the appeal of the town of Konya which he had just discovered thanks to the society.
To this day, only one academic has published a study which begins to seriously consider the Gülen movement in France: Erkan Toguslu, researcher in anthropology, who holds the Gülen Chair for intercultural studies at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and who dedicated a chapter of the book he coordinated Société civile, démocratie et islam (L’Harmattan, 2012) to movement’s educational experience in Paris.
Not easy to define
One has to admit the movement is not easy to define. With its determination to get involved in the public sphere with secular motivations, it has something of the Freemasons and the Jesuits. Yet, the diversity of the activities it proposes makes one think more of the Rotary. From all of these it takes a taste for secrecy – or prudence – which provokes suspicion and brings to mind the Opus Dei.
With its religious basis, its prayer circles, it places itself in a Turkish (and Muslim) tradition, that of the tarikat (brotherhoods), while at the same distinguishing itself by its openness to the world and its involvement in civil society.
The structure of the movement, floating and lose, is based on strong personal relations, sometimes volunteers, and very decentralised more than pyramidal. The funding of its activities is based on the anonymity and discretion of himmet (monetary donations in particular during the month of Ramadan) which does not make it very transparent. In France, ‘Muslims are perceived either as terrorists or unemployed. Fethullah Gülen’s message allows us to live our faith while getting involved in society and gives us back a certain pride’, explains one of its members.
In 2009, the most active members had nonetheless made efforts to gain exposure. ‘However, they remain relatively mysterious’, according to the political scientist Louis-Marie Bureau who studied the ideas of the one who inspired them and who has been criticized by some of its followers who did not appreciate one of his articles. ‘As a general rule, they are completely sincere in relation to the laws of the Republic even though their speech in France has nothing to do with the one they put forward in Central Asia or in Azerbaijan – where they easily invoke ‘Pan-Turk’ links whereas in France, they place the emphasis on citizen responsibility and secularism. Yet, they think that presenting the movement as monolithic could create difficulties for them. That is why they remain vague about their links to Fethullah Gülen.’
‘I have nothing to hide. I accept completely that I be presented as a follower of Gülen and his ideas, but my life does not limited itself to that. I retain my critical thinking which is why I cannot stand it when people call us ‘Gulenists’, clarifies Emre Demir, head of Zaman in Paris, the movement’s Franco-Turkish newspaper which is printed every week.
‘House of light’
There would be among the members of the Gülen movement in France tens of students, including a little less than ten Turkish or Franco-Turkish doctoral students – among which a few girls. To obtain a scholarship, sponsored by Turkish entrepreneurs living on French territory, one must agree to have the family’s budget examined in minute detail. Expenditures deemed excessive, a car, holidays can quickly get the candidate eliminated.
In France like in Turkey, the students who are sympathizers of the Cemaat (an other name for the movement, means community) often form a group to share an apartment, also known as a ‘house of light’. A spiritual community which satisfies some while others denounce the risks of indoctrination.
In private, several French academics praise the ‘diligence, proactivity, conscientiousness and thoughtfulness’ which characterise these young people. In the last couple of years, numerous students have started working on the Gülen movement, but a great many of them share its ideas which could in the long term distort the studies on the subject. ‘Research on the movement is dominated by students who are close to it and the latter sponsors their fellowships. Not to mention that a researcher who has not received the movement’s approval will find it very difficult to have access to the schools, the activists, etc’, notes a French researcher in Political Sciences Elie Massicard, linked to the Ceri (Centre for the study of international relations).
The two schools, in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges and Strasbourg, founded by families who are supporters of Fethullah Gülen count less than 300 students in total. They are for the moment private schools independent from the state, funded by donations and the school fee (5.000 euro per student per year), each of which represent half of the school’s total funds.
In addition to these institutions, there are around twenty societies which provide ‘support in the social and educational field’. Finally, the movement organizes ‘dinners to live well together’, sometimes in partnership with French associations such as the Red Cross or the Restos du Coeur as it was the case on January 11 of this year at Clichy-sous-Bois.
The choice of integration
Since 2010, another big event of the ‘living together’ initiatives, organised and sponsored to a great extent by societies of the Gülen movement is the Festival of Franco-Turkish Culture. Its objective explains one of the organisers is ‘to help young Franco-Turks who are interested in French regional culture to gain active citizenship.’ This year a regional final took place on 22 February in Strasbourg in the presence of the mayor of the city, Roland Ries (Socialist Party), and several officials.
Furthermore, Platform Paris offers many conferences and debates on questions crucial for French society, often little discussed in other circles. This meeting, for example, at Pantin on 18 October 2013 between Tareq Oubrou, chancellor of the Great Mosque of Bordeaux , and the priest Christophe Roucou, head of the National Service for the Relations with Islam in the Catholic Church; or the one on 31 January of this year, with Kamel Meziti, author of the Dictionnaire de l’islamophobie.
Transnational, the Cemaat has chosen to promote integration in the host country of which it adopts the norms and rules. With its strong Turkish roots, it needs, in order to expand itself in France, to attract immigrants, or French citizens of North African origins with whom Turks must not be confused specifies Abdurrahman Demir, the head of the school in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges:
‘What makes us different from North Africans is the fact they are turned away from their culture because the message of their imams and their parents does not correspond to the realities of contemporary life. As a result they become frustrated and violent. Whereas us Turks, move forward with our culture, our history, and thanks to the Gülen movement we do not retreat into solitude.’
Links with the American religious right
If the ‘Gülen transplant’ has trouble taking roots in France, it is maybe because there is something very American about this movement where the cultural merges with the religious. ‘There are ideological links between Fethullah and the American religious right’, describes the academic Jean-François Bayart who went to present his book on republican Islam at Platform Paris and who evoked in an article the links the Gülen movement supposedly maintains with the CIA.
Moreover, Fethullah Gülen’s supporters, like the majority of Americans and Turks are creationists. ‘We find the same literature of devotion, the same methods in education, information, business, social and charitable activities as in the United States’, continues Jean-François Bayart. As well as the same desire to make it an interest group, which in the French context means they come up against a certain number of obstacles. ‘In France, we have a lot of difficulties establishing direct links with ministers and influential political representatives’, laments Abdurrahman Demir, previously based in Brussels.
Yet, one of the greatest achievements of the French branch of the movement takes place every year at the heart of the representation of French politics, at the National Assembly, during the dinner of the Group of Franco-Turkish Friendship chaired by the socialist MP Christophe Bouillon. On that evening, it is the Federation of Entrepreneurs and Leaders of France (Fedif) which hosts and pays for the dinner.
However, unlike the majority of the Turkish guests, the French MPs present on 10 December 2013 were not aware that these Franco-Turkish entrepreneurs were in fact members of the Gülen Cemaat. Did they even know it existed? In their defence, the French ambassador in Turkey, Laurent Billi, did not make a visit until 2012, to the ‘Foundation for writers and journalists’ in Istanbul, the organisation recognized, since 1994, as the most legitimate one to talk in the name of Fethullah Gülen.
Lobbying, infiltration, or proselytism?
Lobbying for Turkey? Infiltration by the Turkish community? Proselytism? What are the aims of the Gülen movement’s implantation in France? ‘The priority of the movement in France is to remove the stigma which Turkish immigration carries via young people’s education. Thus, the movement pursues a community focused approach but not necessarily communitarian’, answers Emre Demir.
According to the researcher Louis-Marie Bureau, the movement could be “dangerous” if one does not know ‘who he is dealing with, if one thinks that it is a community for which the only thing that matters is interreligious dialogue and academic success. The movement is expanding quite quickly and it answers its founder’s call encouraging its members to obtain influential positions, and in particular in the administration’.
Sometimes the current events in Turkey catch up with the supporters of the movement on French territory. Thus, on 15 February 2012, several militants of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK, party of Marxist-Leninist inspiration, mostly atheist) got inside the offices of the Zaman newspaper in Pantin and destroyed 30.000 euro worth of material. The PKK does not welcome the growing social and religious influence of the Gülen movement in the Kurdish zones of the South-Est of Turkey. Moreover, the Gülen movement does not approve of the negotiations which the secret services and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are undertaking with the PKK.
Being at the time on a visit to Ankara, the Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant, informed almost in real time by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, dispatched the prefect of police of Seine-Saint-Denis and had the building protected. The newspaper moved to Paris and for several months, an unmarked police vehicle kept watch over the coming and goings in front of the new building.
Insult e-mails and unsubscriptions
Since mid-December, it is not the Kurds of the PKK, but the supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP who, as if in echo to the open confrontation between Islamists which is taking place in Turkey, threaten them on French ground: insulting e-mails, unsubscription from Zaman, et more rarely, children are withdrawn from the movement’s two schools or from the educational support programs…
Already not particularly inclined to admit their affiliation, Fethullah Gülen’s sympathisers are becoming more and more tight-lipped. They are even frankly scared at the idea of being named: ‘there is a real witch hunt going on…’, say several of them. For to be called a ‘Gulenist’ is to risk being put on a ‘black list’ and maybe even forbidden from working in certain positions in the public service in case of return to Turkey…
The morale is low for the most active members of the Gülen movement in France. Far away from their Turkey of origin, which some do not know that well, they fear their work in the field, the sincere contacts and networks in French civil society which they patiently build for years will be washed away by the violence of the war between Islamists.
 The professor of International Relations Tulin Bumin, the sociologists Niyazi Oktem and Levent Yilmaz, the historian Mete Tuncay, the philosopher Kenan Gürsoy, the economists Cengiz Aktar, Ahmet Insel, Eser Karakas and Asaf Savas Akat, the journalists Mehmet Altan, Ali Buraç, Murat Belge, etc. Some of these professors teach at the Francophone University of Galatsaray.
Translation from French: Suzanne Compagnon
Editor’s note: HizmetNews reaffirms its non-endorsement policy of the various viewpoints expressed throughout the articles that are solely shared for the convenience of the readers.