Date posted: March 10, 2008
IT IS a long way from the Anatolian plains to a campus in the heart of London, where eminent scholars of religion deliver learned papers. And the highlands that used to form the Soviet border with China, an area where bright kids long for an education, seem far removed from a three-storey house in Pennsylvania, where a revered, reclusive teacher of Islam lives. A Turkish-based movement, which sounds more reasonable than most of its rivals, is vying to be recognised as the world’s leading Muslim network.
What links these places is one of the most powerful and best-connected of the networks that are competing to influence Muslims round the globe—especially in places far from Islam’s heartland. The Pennsylvania-based sage, Fethullah Gulen, who stands at the centre of this network, has become one of the world’s most important Muslim figures—not only in his native Turkey, but also in a quieter way in many other places: Central Asia, Indochina, Indonesia and Africa.
With his stated belief in science, inter-faith dialogue and multi-party democracy, Mr Gulen has also won praise from many non-Muslim quarters. He is an intensely emotional preacher, whose tearful sermons seem to strike a deep chord in his listeners; but the movement he heads is remarkably pragmatic and businesslike.
As a global force, the Gulenists are especially active in education. They claim to have founded more than 500 places of learning in 90 countries. A conference they staged in London last October was co-hosted by four British universities, plus the House of Lords. Its organisers produced a slick 750-page volume that included all the conference papers.
In its homeland, the Gulen movement is seen as a counterweight to ultra-nationalism. But in places far from home, the movement has rather a Turkish nationalist flavour. In the former Soviet south, it fights the “Turkish” corner in areas where the cultures of Russia, China and Iran co-exist uneasily. “If you meet a polite Central Asian lad who speaks good English and Turkish, you know he went to a Gulen school,” says a Turkish observer. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the movement runs a university and a dozen high schools, which excel in international contests. Even in Pakistan, pupils at Gulen schools learn Turkish songs, as well as benefiting from gleaming science labs.
Amazingly enough, the Gulen movement has built up a significant presence in northern Iraq, through schools, a hospital and (soon) a university. Although this arena of Turkish-Kurdish conflict is not the easiest environment for a Turkish-based institution, the movement has deftly built up relationships with all the region’s ethnic and religious groups.
The influence that the Gulen movement has quietly accumulated would be a surprise to some veteran observers of Islam. Asked to name the world’s most active Islamic network, many a pundit would think first of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose reach has extended a long way from Egypt, where it began in the 1920s as a movement of resistance to the twin evils of secularism and colonialism. And it remains true that in every Western country (including the United States) where Muslims are politically active, the influence of the brotherhood—or at least of movements that grew out it—is palpable.
Among the brotherhood’s ideological affiliates is the biggest Muslim group in France; a federation that aims to co-ordinate Muslim activities all over Europe; and a “fatwa council” that offers moral guidance to European Muslims. In Britain, the pro-brotherhood camp has split between a pietist wing and a more political one, known as the British Muslim Initiative, which is now busy organising protests against Israeli actions in Gaza. On the face of things, the Gulen movement seems more benign—from a Western point of view—than either the brotherhood or any of the other networks that compete for a similar role. Although the brotherhood tells people to take full advantage of secular democracy, it also insists that the ideal form of administration is an Islamic one. The Gulenists say their embrace of democracy is wholehearted, not tactical. If there is one group of people who doubt this, it is secular Turks; many view the Gulenists as “chameleons” who only show their true, conservative face in deepest Anatolia.
Still, if the Gulen message is well received in the West, that is partly because the message from other Muslim networks (leaving aside the ones that openly espouse terror) is often so dark. Take, for example, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which is active in at least 40 countries, including Britain and Australia. Its line is that Muslims should eschew electoral democracy altogether, on the ground that the only regime worth supporting is a global caliphate. Its maximalist stance, and the solidarity it proclaims with embattled Muslims across the world, can appeal to impressionable students. Yet another competitor is an Islamic revivalist movement, Tablighi Jamaat, rooted in south Asia but active in Africa and Europe, especially Britain. Compared with all these groups, the Gulen movement offers a message to young Muslims that sounds more positive: it tells them to embrace the Western world’s opportunities, while still insisting on Islam’s fundamentals.
This measured tone has won the Gulenists many admirers. But that does not mean that all Western governments automatically accept the movement’s claims of moderation. “We know we are under surveillance from Western security services,” laments a Gulenist insider. That is quite true, but so far those services have not detected any hidden ties with extremism.
Source: The Economist http://www.economist.com/node/10808408, Mar 6th 2008 | Bishkek and istanbul | from the print edition | International