The Gulen Movement has become Turkey’s most significant export

Prof. Ergil: The Gulen movement has become a global movement. In other words, it is Turkey’s most important export. When you cross boundaries, you have to watch the balance.
Prof. Ergil: The Gulen movement has become a global movement. In other words, it is Turkey’s most important export. When you cross boundaries, you have to watch the balance.

Date posted: December 6, 2013

Neşe Düzel

Monday Talks, June 14, 2010 (PART I)

– In order to calm Washington down, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) delegates went to the United States. A prominent deputy told me: “Either Netanyahu or we will go.”

– “Fethullah Gulen warned the Turkish government, not the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). Gulen is in touch with numerous people [from Turkey]. Even at the time of the flotilla’s departure, he told his inner circle: “This is going to cause big trouble.”

– The Gulen Movement has become Turkey’s most significant export. The group has gained an international depth. Religion is becoming cultural. Gulen says that any religion that cannot accommodate modernity will radicalize.

* * *


Fethullah Gulen, who is thought to be influencing about 2 million people, rarely gives interviews. However, he recently made two important statements about (1) Mr. Deniz Baykal’s scandal setup video and (2) the aid flotilla (Mavi Marmara) to Gaza that Israel had attacked. While Turkey was in deep conflict with Israel, Gulen surprised everyone by declaring that the aid flotilla should have secured Israeli permission [before setting sail]. His statement led to an uncomfortable discussion within conservative groups. Why did he make such a statement? How did the movement’s volunteers take it? To whom did he intend to give such a message? Why did he talk about the IHH in that way? Why does Gulen want Turkey to have no problems with Israel? What does he foresee for Turkey? How is his philosophy, which recommends obedience to the state, changing? How does the movement frame the state? Is the timing of Gulen’s warning important? Does his comment affect the government’s foreign policy? Is Turkey going to have serious internal problems while trying to play an effective international role? How does foreign policy affect internal politics? Does the AKP win or lose with this risky policy? Are the United States and Israel attempting to intervene in Turkey’s domestic affairs? Will the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) carry its terrorist activities to the city centers? What is the future of the AKP’s relationship with Israel? What is the future of the Middle East?

We asked all of these questions to Dogu Ergil, the prominent sociologist, social psychologist, and political scientist. He has just published two books on these issues. One is Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement in 100 Questions (Blue Dome Press, 2012),” which he wrote in two-and-a-half years and based on face-to-face interviews with Gulen himself, and Kurdish Report (Timas Publishing: 2009).

Nese Duzel: While Turkey was in deep conflict with Israel, Fethullah Gulen made an unexpected comment in the Wall Street Journal. He said that the aid flotilla should have taken permission from Israel. Why did Gulen make such a comment?

DE: Fethullah Gulen is worried that the flotilla event might change the dynamics of Turkish politics. He does not think it will benefit Turkey to have such a great tension in which war with Israel is spoken of, because both the United States and influential Jewish lobbies back Israel. Besides, we should not forget that even if the Arabs on the street condemn Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the Gaza Strip blockade, the Arabs in the palaces [royal families] approve of Israel’s actions.

Why do they approve [of this situation]?

Because Palestinians are the only Arab people who govern themselves. Arab leaders are against Hamas, which has been elected in Gaza. Not only are they against Hamas, but they also oppose the nationalist Fatah political party that governs the West Bank because it is Islamist and has moved from being leftist to Arab nationalist. Both threaten the power of Arab dictators and royal families.


Hence, Arab governments are among Israel’s un-announced allies. Even if Erdogan’s stand is very popular in the Arab street, this is not the case in real politics. Arab leaders are acting with the American-Israeli camp. For that reason, Turkey will surely have to pay for Erdogan’s radical discourse.

According to you, does Gulen think that Turkey is undergoing a major shift in its political stance?

I do not call it is an axial shift, but rather a political shift. Fethullah Gulen is in contact with numerous people. Even at the time of the flotilla’s departure, he foresaw the consequences and told his inner circle: “This attempt might have negative outcomes.” Gulen does not criticize its goal; he criticizes the conflictual method. To me, Gulen thinks that the AKP’s tough politics and its radical reaction would ruin Turkish diplomacy and harm the country.

Do you think Turkey is undergoing an axial shift?

I have never thought of Turkey undergong such a shift. On the contrary, Turkey has diversified its foreign policy by moving beyond its traditional Western-European alliance. In fact, Turkey seems to be more Middle Eastern, more Islamic, and more pro-Hamas and Iran. This is the Western countries’ perception. Gulen says this is not Turkey.  Listen…. On the plane, I interacted with a delegation going to Washington in a great hurry.

What delegation?

In order to calm Washington down, a delegation from the government flew to the United States last Thursday. Its members comprised ex-ministers, deputies, and advisors from the AKP.

Why did they go to the United States?

The government has just realized [the seriousness of] the situation. They went to calm the Americans down. A prominent deputy told me: “Either Netanyahu or we will go.” They are aware of the fact that this incident is quite serious. But the AKP brought it to this point.

Back to Fethullah Gulen… Did he not predict that his comment on the flotilla would disturb people in Turkey, especially those who are conservative?

It obviously disturbed them. Gulen thinks in this way: If religion cannot accommodate modernity, it will eventually radicalize and become dogmatic.

Did Gulen criticize the government?

Yes. His statement went beyond the IHH relief organization. What he really did was to warn the government: “This is going to put Turkey in trouble. Are we aware of that?”

Gulen said he did not know about the IHH. Why did he say that?

He must have heard the name IHH. His saying that he hasn’t heard the name might be designed to show his distance from it.

Recently Gulen made two political statements: (1) “We are not a part of the plot against Mr. Baykal” and (2) “We are not a part of the flotilla incident.” Are these messages for the Turkish opposition, Israel, the United States, and the world, respectively?

Yes, because the Gulen Movement has become a global movement. In other words, it is Turkey’s most important export. When you cross boundaries you have to watch the balance. His statement on the flotilla incident was both domestic and international. However, we must not forget that Gulen does not recommend that people fight those in authority. His statements disturbed both the government and the conservatives in Turkey.

What did the Muslim community think?

In the Muslim community, there is a view: “We Muslims are brothers. Whatever the consequences, we should help each other. In the end, this is the right attitude toward non-Muslims and Zionist Jews.” This is the first time that someone from the Muslim community has stood up and said: “This might give you [some] psychological satisfaction, but it will harm Turkey and Muslims a lot.”

How would the flotilla case hurt Turkey and Muslims?

The Western press considers risking death for humanitarian purposes to be a radical action designed to support Hamas. The religious groups and governments that support these groups in Turkey are thought to have shifted toward radical Islam, and that’s why Ankara is said to be supporting Iran and Hamas. I mean, there is an increasing perception around the world that Turkey is undergoing an axial shift in its foreign policy. I think Gulen warned the government and religious groups on this issue. He tried to express his concerns like “Both the government would be overthrown and the country could become a pariah.”

Gulen also said that since the flotilla did not get Israeli permission, its members were defying the state. Why did he emphasize obedience to the state in this manner?

Gulen’s philosophy opposes any conflict with the political authority. According to him, transforming society begins not by fighting the top, but by convincing people from the bottom.

Does Gulen want Turkey get on well with Israel?

Gulen doesn’t want Turkey to have difficulties with any country. While writing the book, I understood from my long conversation with him that he wants everything to be organized by diplomacy and wisely.

Does he think that Turkey will be punished because of this clash?

I don’t know what he thinks, but I can tell you my interpretation. Turkey can face an extensive opposition and a hostile front because there are those who oppose the AKP – like the Great Wall of China – not just America, but also the Jewish lobbies (and other groups that they influence) and the Arab monarchs.

What other forces?

The opposing parties, the bureaucracy, and, believe it or not… their sworn enemy the PKK and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). All of them, for their own reasons, want the AKP to go away. Internal opponents are because they are political competitors… the bureaucracy, because the AKP is willing to demolish the [military] tutelage regime… and the outsiders want the government to collapse because it has started being too Islamist and Middle Eastern. Indeed, the AKP doesn’t have enough power to cope with so many enemies.

Do you think the world really thinks Turkey has started to become Islamist and Middle Eastern?

A leading AKP representative, who said “Either Netanyahu or we will go,” told me that a poll conducted in the United States revealed that 49% of Americans think that Turkey is an Islamist country. Only 19% thinks that it is not. Clearly, 49% is a rather significant proportion.

What do you think about the timing of Gulen’s statement regarding the flotilla?

That interview was done beforehand. The questions were written and answers were taken. When this incident happened, they also asked about it over the phone. In my opinion, Gulen used his answer to warn the government.

What do you think his followers thought about this statement?

Of course they were surprised. They got confused… I wrote my book about Fethullah Gulen in two-and-half-years by conducting interviews with him. My observation, of course from the outside, is that the [Gulen] community is waiting for a second explanation about what he meant. Gulen would also want to resolve the community’s ensuing confusion. We may not hear it, but Gulen will explain it to them. This statement has also made one more thing clear: the Islamic community’s mentality is not monolithic. Also, it has been noted that Muslims can criticize even those people who are considered the most important, including Gulen himself.

Has the Gulen Movement’s attitude toward the state always been that of obedience?

In the Sunni tradition, not opposing the central authority is a general principle; however, non-aggressiveness, tolerance, dialogue, reconciliation, and obedience to central authority are found in Gulen’s nature. His philosophy is founded upon tolerance, dialogue, and peace. At this point, obedience to the state shouldn’t be perceived as acquiescence to all iniquities. The Gulen Movement has chosen the path of influencing politics by transforming society rather than changing society via opposing the state.

How does it transform society?

What is the Gulen movement doing? It educates people and thereby helps them become wealthier, makes them world citizens, and influences them according to its worldview. As this influence spreads, society will be transformed. This, in turn, will affect the central authority and the society will eventually be transformed. As a matter of fact, people whose education level and income increase will not support [military] tutelage. The Gulen movement is a pro-peace and transformative movement carried out by civil society.

What does Gulen say about obedience to the state?

He says: “It is an obligation to obey the state. Not opposing it is mandatory” and “Do what you want by following the laws. Society is already changing and becoming worldly anyway. The ruling political powers cannot stay outside of this transformation.”

The Gulen movement is the group that most disturbs the military. Why would the latter fear a group that cares so much about obeying the state’s authority?

Because, unlike us secular democrats, they don’t object to the system “being dragged into the courts.” This is why “hegemons of the state” cannot tear down this movement. Also, think about this: At a time when the state’s power is shrinking politically and financially, a non-governmental organization is growing and becoming international. Also, everything in Turkey is linked with the state. This movement is completely civilian and independent. Since it does not expect or receive anything from the state, the state cannot control it. Our state, on the other hand, would consider anything that it cannot control as dangerous, be it civic, secular, or democratic.

Gülen hareketi dinin gücünü de yanına almış bir hareket değil mi?

Evet ama… Eğer bir din moderniteyle uyumlu hale gelmişse, artık insanları katı emirlerle ve dogmalarla etkilemez. Din moderniteyle uyum sağladığında, kültürel özellikler öne çıkar ve insan davranışlarını daha çok ruhani olarak etkiler.

Doesn’t the Gulen Movement have the power of religion on its side as well?

Yes, but… if a religion has become compatible with modernity, it wouldn’t be able to influence the people through rigid orders and dogmas. Once religion becomes compatible with modernity, cultural features become prominent and affect human behavior mainly in spiritual terms.

Doesn’t the Gulen movement’s non-transparent structure contribute to the suspicion surrounding it?

Communities are more transparent than tariqahs (Sufi orders), because one can join or leave a community. I know a few engineers and doctors who have left the Gulen movement. They thought that they were not fit for it not only because it is a religious movement, but also because [they thought] it is dominated by rural culture. I mean the guy wants to dance; he does not want to worry if the meat he is eating is halal or not. In reality, there is no attitude in the movement against transparency; however, they shy away from being continuously being analyzed and criticized. This is what I felt about them as an outsider.

Isn’t that the problem? What members of such [religious] groups say among themselves differs from what they say outside. Knowing that they are members of a [religious] community that has a high political potential, isn’t it disturbing to have no idea of what they say among themselves? Are people wrong for being suspicious?

First of all, such a large community is not uniform. As a matter of fact, if Gulen had wanted to he could have influenced politics a lot. But he has never interfered with politics directly. He keeps his movement away from politics. The movement is very influential not because Gulen is a genius, but because it has a significant amount of cultural, economic, and educational power. Its members are carrying out Gulen’s suggestions in the best possible way.

What type of suggestions are we talking about?

For example, he recommends and says: “If Turkey stays introverted, it won’t be as influential. Spread throughout the world.” And they [Gulen Movement followers] do so. If you say this somewehere else, who would take you seriously? But his followers take it seriously. This is awesome! As the saying goes: “Hodja won’t fly, but his followers make him fly.” They made him fly. This shows us the potential of civil society in Turkey, for these people achieve what the state can’t achieve. I wish that the state’s pressure on civil society was reduced so that others would also achieve such things. This group is educating so many, investing so much, opening so many schools that it makes the state scared. There is an alternative Turkey out there.

What do you mean by “an alternative Turkey”?

Besides high schools, the movement has six or seven universities outside of Turkey. The students who study in them are the children of those countries’ political figures and businesspeople. Now, they have graduated and started working in their own state’s institutions. They are all friends of Turkey.

So, again, if we go back to Gulen’s statement of “Israel’s permission should have been asked,” about Israel’s attack on the aid flotilla… How did the other religious groups react to this?

Some of them did not approve of his statement for two reasons: (1) It would legitimize Israel’s illegitimate aggression and (2) “There is a needy and oppressed Muslim community over there. Being Muslim requires opposing it. We should have been in solidarity with this situation.” But my impression is that Gulen is aware of many things and, since he is considered an important person, is being provided with information through every channel.

Would Gulen’s statement affect the government’s foreign policy?

Judging by the government’s rush in sending a delegation to the United States, it is in a state of panic. At least there is a perception of urgency. They are asking such questions as “Did we go too far? If a turning needs to be made, how much of it would the United States want to be made?” A prominent AKP deputy words that “either Netanyahu or we will go” shows such a state of panic. Based on the negotiations in the United States, the AKP government will know who will go and will act accordingly.

Source: Taraf newspaper, June 14, 2010

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. The Peace Islands Institute volunteers translated the article.

Read Part IIGulen wants Anatolian [interpretation of] Islam

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