The New Turkey
Gulen movement: Turkey's third power

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Gulen movement: Turkey's third power

Released on 2012-03-07 14:00 GMT

Email-ID 1532300
Date 2009-11-18 01:35:26

Gulen movement: Turkey's third power

Gulen movement: Turkey's third power

| Key Points |
| |
| * Turkey's Islamist Gulen movement, while a powerful political force, |
| is largely an unfamiliar entity to the West. |
| |
| * The movement's extensive operations in various fields, including |
| education and media, give it unique access and influence. |
| |
| * While secular Turks and the military continue to have serious |
| reservations about the movement, its relationship with other |
| Islamists is also complicated. |

Despite its political influence in Turkey, the Gulen movement has a low profile in the West. Jane's charts the group's rise to prominence, examines its current activities and assesses its relationship with secular Turks, as well as the country's military and other Islamists.

Turkey's Fethullah Gulen Community (FGC), also known as the Gulen movement after its founder and leader Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim preacher, often escapes scholarly attention. Yet no analysis of Turkey is complete without due attention paid to the FGC; a highly co-ordinated and centralised movement with many well-positioned followers, known as Gulenists. Some Turks deridingly refer to the movement as 'F-type' or 'Fethullahci' (followers of Fethullah).

According to FGC members, the organisation controls millions of dollars and has many organisations, including a network of high schools across the world that serve as signpost FGC institutions. In addition, the FGC owns universities, banks, non-governmental organisations and television networks in Turkey, as well as other countries. What is more, the FGC appears to have influence over the Turkish National Police (Emniyet), including the police's powerful domestic intelligence wing.

The FGC's political power renders it a taboo topic in Turkey where many people shy away from discussing the group publicly. The Turks have a polarised view of Gulen: some see him as a political leader such as Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, while others view him as the face of modern, non-violent, even reformed Islam. This and the FGC's political power makes the organisation worthy of closer scrutiny in an effort to map out its structure, global reach, message, political influence and future in Turkey.


The FGC is considered a modernist off-shoot of Sufi Nurcu tariqat (religious order) in Turkey. The movement aims to transform Turkey through conservative social values. Many academics describe the FGC as a neo-Nurcu movement. Gulen, a spiritual and charismatic preacher who has been known to cry during interviews and public sermons, is the founder and leader of his own branch of Nurcu Islam.

The movement emerged in the late 1970s in Izmir, coalescing around Gulen's personality in the late 1980s in big cities. Initially, Gulen espoused a tactical view of democracy in Turkey, saying that in order to reach the ideal Muslim society "every method and path is acceptable [including] lying to people". Gulen added that in reaching the movement's final goal, "service on behalf of the movement would be discreet and quiet", and that this stance constituted the "founding philosophy of his movement".

In the late 1990s, Gulen clashed with Turkey's secular democracy. At this time, Turkey had a brief experience with Islamist government. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi: RP) came to power in a short-lived coalition government in 1996. Subsequently, Turkey's secular forces, including the military, forced the RP to step down.

Following the demise of the RP government, Turkey cracked down against Islamist movements and tariqats, including FGC, bringing a court case against Gulen on grounds that "he was working to overthrow secular government in Turkey".

In 1998, Gulen was forced to leave Turkey to avoid prosecution on charges he was involved with anti-secular activities. He took refuge in the United States and starting running his organisation from the suburbs of New Jersey and then Pennsylvania through senior aides in various outlets he controlled.

In the US, Gulen's message subsequently went through a significant transformation. He rejected some of his earlier rhetoric on dismantling the secular state, turning instead to emphasising tolerance in Islam, as well as interfaith dialogue with Judaism and Christianity, and shunned violence.

In the late 1990s, he told his male followers their wives could uncover their hair. While part of the Islamic law, he said this issue of head covering was futurat (among the details of Islamic jurisprudence).

This stance widened his appeal for the liberal Turks who thought of the Gulen movement as a more tolerable version of Islamic fundamentalism. Although the majority of Gulenist women continued to cover their heads, this verdict has sweetened his appeal for students in Gulen's network of schools across the world, as well as middle-class conservatives.

Global network

The precise number of FGC members is difficult to estimate since some publicly deny affinity or membership with the movement. They do not mention his name openly, but may refer to him as 'hocaefendi' (master hodja) or 'he'.

Although the movement emerged from Turkey, today it has a global reach. Gulen continues to live in the US and obtained US residency in 2008. Since Gulen's arrival there, FGC is known to have supported the election campaigns of various US politicians. It has also sought their blessing by asking them to appear at FGC events.

For instance, Hillary Clinton is known to have attended FGC events in the US, including a September 2007 Ramadan breakfast organised by the Gulenist Turkish Cultural Center in New York City. The FGC's new found base in the US has earned Washington enmity inside Turkey, with some secular Turks, including many in the military, concluding that the movement is backed by the US as a form of moderate Islam to dilute Turkish secularism.

Gulen and other FGC leaders' freewheeling presence in the US is a major source of anti-US feeling within the ranks of the Turkish military.

The FGC exerts influence globally through means of modern communication, including its flagship newspaper and television networks, respectively Zaman (Time), and Samanyolu (Milky Way) - galactic, cosmic and temporal names are tell-tale signs of FGC institutions.

The organisation has numerous other media arms, including Ebru TV (Water Marble) in the US, as well as Mehtap (Moonlight) TV and Cihan (Universe) news agency, and Today's Zaman, an English language newspaper that mirrors Zaman and serves as the FGC's window to the English-speaking world. Zaman also publishes local versions in a number of countries, including the US, Turkmenistan, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

Many organisations fall under the FGC umbrella, including hundreds of boarding schools in Turkey, as well as the US, Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. These schools provide full scholarships, excellent facilities and high-quality education, training the children of the elite in the third world and the children of FGC members in the West. In Turkey, the schools perform both functions.

The movement also has universities, including Fatih University in Istanbul, and Virginia International
University in the US, a 'Gulen-sourced' school according to an FGC website. The schools represent the movement's charity arm, an FGC trademark. Its schools and other public arms are funded by regular
donations from FGC members.

In Turkey, the FGC appeals to students across various educational institutions. First come high schools, including elite FGC Samanyolu High School in Ankara, which offer scholarships and stipends. At least some of these students are known to join the FGC. The movement also runs cramming schools, such as Turkey-wide FEM and ANAFEN, preparing mostly poorer high school students and FGC sympathiser students through the necessary cramming practice for college entrance exams.

This is done often in dormitories and again with full scholarships. Graduates of the cramming
schools usually go on to become lifelong sympathisers, members or workers of the movement. The FGC also runs boarding homes (Isikevi-light houses) for poorer college and high school students who are then provided with stipends and scholarships.

The FGC schools, cramming schools and Isikevis fall under a centralised organisation. The FGC schools and educational endeavours are academically thriving environments and also provide a soft passageway into the movement. Teachers and FGC member students extoll the virtues of Islam in non-Muslim countries and virtues of the FGC movement in Muslim countries, pulling in more members.

A number of wealthy Turks, and many mid- and small-sized business owners organised under the Turkish Industrialists Confederation (TUSKON), form the FGC's business arm. The movement also has financial institutions, including Bank Asya that provides interest-free Islamic banking; insurance company Isik Sigorta (Light Insurance); and investment arms, including Asya Finans (Asia Finance), a finance firm.

FGC has think-tanks, including Washington-based Rumi Forum, and is known to be supporting programmes on Turkey at a number of prominent Washington think-tanks. Finally, the FGC has global charities, such as Kimse Yok mu (Is Anybody Out There), which provides disaster relief and religious giving across the world.

It is possible to think of the FGC structure as three concentric circles comprising of sympathisers, members and workers.

The outermost circl
e has sympathisers, including people who attend weekly discussion sessions held at FGC homes and others, such as the high school students, who receive FGS services and charity benefits.

The middle circle
has members, including businessmen whose donations support the outer circle's activities, as well as pay for the salaries of the inner circle.

This inner circle includes workers, such as teachers, journalists, lobbyists and executives who work
in FGC schools, think-tanks, lobby and business groups, and media arms, among others. The workers are mostly committed members of the movement. Some of them seem to have joined the FGC through the group's cramming schools, high schools and boarding homes in the 1970s and the 1980s when
Gulen was a preacher in Turkish mosques. Known as the Altin Nesil (Golden Generation), this group can be considered Gulenist disciples.

The three circles are enmeshed into one another. For example, FGC businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions.
Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.

One voice, two messages

The FGC rose to global prominence in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. The movement takes pride in promoting tolerance towards and inter-faith dialogue with Christianity and Judaism, which are considered by Muslims as faiths of the book - religions recognised by Islam.

The FGC relays its brand of tolerance and ecumenical dialogue through conferences at prestigious institutions, FGC and non-FGC alike, as well as coverage in FGC media and through meetings between Gulen and Jewish and Christian religious leaders. The FGC takes the Islam-wide characteristic of tolerance towards Christianity and Judaism, marketing it as an exclusive trademark of the movement.

The FGC's three messages of ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and tolerance matured after Gulen left Turkey for the US to escape political persecution. Since then, the movement has explicitly stayed away from anti-Americanism, a telltale sign of Islamist movements globally.

The movement's three messages, communicated through English language outlets such as Today's Zaman have been welcome in the West, including in the US and the UK. The FGC promotes inter-faith dialogue and ecumenism also in Turkey, sometimes to the ire of hardline Islamists.

However, the movement's English language outlets serving the West, such as Today's Zaman, and Turkish language press outlets serving Turkey, such as Zaman, have different editorial lines on the FGC messages. While Today's Zaman stays loyal to this message, Zaman often strays away from it.

For example, on 15 October 2008, Zaman ran a news story alleging that the current global economic downturn started when USD40 billion was transferred from Lehman Brothers to Israel.

Although Zaman and Today's Zaman are twin papers, this important allegation did not find room in Today's Zaman. In this regard, examples hinting at two FGC voices, an external one for the West, and an internal one for Turkey, are plenty.

On 8 November 2008, Zaman ran a story about a Jewish family in Istanbul that has converted to Islam. The story suggested that the family had been painfully ostracised from the Turkish Jewish community, casting that community in an unsympathetic light. That story was also not featured in Today's Zaman read in the West. Likewise, the two papers diverged in their coverage of the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza war.

On 31 December 2008, Zaman ran a story with the headline: Children hauling garbage are being targeted with missiles, while this headline or its story was entirely missing from Today's Zaman on the same day, or subsequent days.

FGC, AKP and the military

Traditionally, the FGC has supported many political parties and stayed non-partisan. However, since 2001, following the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi: AKP), the movement has provided solid support to the AKP. While this has led many people to associate the movement with the AKP, that appears to be a false premise.

Although the AKP and FGC both stand for socially conservative values and mix Islam and politics, they are competing political organisations. Moreover, there seems to be at least some ideological competition between the AKP and FGC. The AKP cadres view the FGC's singular emphasis of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue as insincere, while FGC members view the AKP as a coarse movement.

Still, the goal of holding political power in Turkey unites the FGC and the AKP in an alliance of convenience. For analytical purposes, it could be said that currently the AKP and the FGC are in a symbiotic co-existence.

The AKP provides the FGC with an important asset, a ruling party that facilitates the appointment of FGC members to key bureaucratic positions, as well as the sheltering of FGC institutions. For example, during his term as Turkey's foreign minister, President Abdullah Gul issued a classified circular to Turkish diplomatic posts, encouraging them to attend events at FGC institutions and help such organisations.

Meanwhile, the FGC provides the AKP with money, media support and voter mobilisation.

Since the AKP came to power in 2002, FGC members and sympathisers are known to have been appointed to a number of important positions in Turkish government, including ministries, as well as key positions in the Turkish police, while many lower level and non-strategic positions in Emniyet remain in the hands of non-FGC people. In this regard, some in Turkey believe the FGC controls the technologically apt intelligence branch of the police, as well as the strategic personnel and overseas relations departments.

The FGC's influence in the Emniyet and a significant part of Turkish domestic intelligence apparatus is a contentious issue, challenging the movement's claim to be a spiritual organisation.

Critics and opponents of the FGC and the AKP, even some top brass in the Turkish military, fear that they are under surveillance by the FGC through the Turkish police. Giving credit to such claims, intelligence leaks involving the Turkish military often start in FGC-owned newspapers, such as Zaman.

Meanwhile, some alarmist secular Turks assert without proof that the FGC is funded by the CIA to promote moderate Islam in Turkey as well as in Central Eurasia - it is interesting to note that in 2007, Russia started a crackdown on FGC infrastructure for its 'extremist' nature.

The FGC has a tense relationship with the Turkish military. Despite its presence in the Emniyet and across the Turkish bureaucracy, the FGC lacks representation in the Turkish armed forces. This is because the Turkish military bi-annually reviews its staff, discharging personnel associated with Islamist groups and tariqats, most notably the FGC. The military's hardnosed attitude to FGC members has turned the FGC into its critic.

Since 2007, FGC-owned media has been lambasting the Turkish military. This media has been prominently featuring allegations against the military, as well as leaks from Emniyet about the likely involvement of retired and active duty military personnel in a coup plot against the AKP government
in the Ergenekon case, an investigation of the clandestine nationalist Ergenekon organisation that is currently being reviewed in a Turkish court.

In July 2008, using intelligence files leaked from Emniyet, Zaman and other FGC-owned media gave prominent coverage to Ergenekon-related news, implicating the military's hand in the alleged coup plot.

Turkey's third force

Lately, while pro-AKP newspapers have shunned criticising the military, the FGC-owned media continues to take issue with it. This suggests diverging views of the Turkish military between the AKP and FGC. Whereas common wisdom suggests thinking of Turkey as a bipolar world of the 'Islamist block' led by the AKP and the 'secularist block' led by the military, it might be useful to think of Turkey as a three-pronged country composed of the military, the AKP and the FGC.

The consolidation of political and economic power in the FGC's hands and the movement's evolving relationship with the AKP and the Turkish military make such an analytical view more plausible. With its own growing base, the FGC might soon feel comfortable to rethink its seven-year symbiotic relationship with the AKP. The FGC seems to want a bigger share of Turkey. The movement will keep confronting the military more vigorously until it manages to get its members and sympathisers into the military.

On the other hand, there are at least some signs that on the eve of Turkey's nationwide local elections to be held in March 2009, the FGC might extend limited support to parties other than the AKP in an effort to re-diversify its political base as a choice political strategy should the AKP slip politically. However, this does not mean the FGC will burn bridges with the AKP.

Rather, looking at the benefits of a symbiotic relationship with a powerful political party, the movement will continue to support the AKP. In fact, in the unlikely event of a future showdown between the military and the AKP, the FGC would quickly close ranks with the AKP as it did in 2007 when the military issued a warning against the AKP on its website.

The FGC is perhaps the best organised grass roots movement in Turkey. Moreover, the group has a vast social and economic organisation, intelligence assets, a global network and a message that appeals to the West, even if that message appears to be mostly for international consumption. The FGC is effectively a third force in Turkish politics, and the world will hear a lot about it in the years to come. 

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