x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Faith community

World Piotr Zalewski considers the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, the exiled preacher at the centre of the escalating conflict between Turkey's traditional secular elite and its newly prosperous Islamist leaders.

A computer lab at Fatih College in Istanbul, one of 300 schools worldwide run by followers of Fethullah Gülen. Aside from a focus on science, these schools are known to place a strong premium on conservative values.
A computer lab at Fatih College in Istanbul, one of 300 schools worldwide run by followers of Fethullah Gülen. Aside from a focus on science, these schools are known to place a strong premium on conservative values.

Piotr Zalewski considers the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, the exiled preacher at the centre of the escalating conflict between Turkey's traditional secular elite and its newly prosperous Islamist leaders. Over the past three years, relations between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the country's secular-minded military leadership, never good to begin with, have begun to resemble a staredown contest. In 2007, the army tried (and failed) to block the AKP's choice for president of the Republic. A year later, after intense controversy over the government's proposal to allow the female headscarf back onto university campuses, Turkey's constitutional tribunal came close to outlawing the party altogether. This year, things came to a head on June 12 when Taraf, a liberal newspaper, published details of a secret plan, allegedly drawn up by the military, to crack down on what many secular Turks have come to refer to as their country's "creeping Islamisation".

The document, seized during the course of an investigation into Ergenekon - an ultranationalist organisation with links to intelligence services, the criminal underworld, and elements in the Turkish army - described a plan with two objectives. The first was to undermine support for the AKP and its popular leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan. The other was to tarnish the image of Turkey's biggest and wealthiest religious community, led by the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen: "We will enable the discovery of weapons, ammunition and documents at the addresses of Gülen's followers as if they were members of a terrorist organisation," the plan read.

A number of commentators have alleged that the document was a fake, and that Gülen sympathisers within the police had planted it in the house of an Ergenekon suspect to stir up resentment against the army. On 24 June, an internal investigation - never mind the irony of a military that carried out four coups over the past 50 years investigating whether, by any chance, it may have been plotting a fifth - found that no department of the General Staff had any role in preparing the memo. The AKP government has since called for further investigations.

Hoax or not, the incident only confirms the controversial status of the exiled 68-year-old spiritual leader. To his supporters, Gülen, with his faith in democracy and his focus on education, tolerance, brotherly love and a higher visibility for Islam in the public sphere, is the new, benign face of 21st-century Islam. To his detractors - including the army and much of the older secular elite - he is the second coming of Ayatollah Khomeini, his avowedly peaceful movement hiding a nefarious secret agenda to transform secular Turkey into another Iran.

Gülen, however, is a distinctly Turkish figure, who draws on the multicultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire to support his belief in the value of interfaith dialogue. (Free and democratic society, runs Gülen's credo, requires public morality - and morality cannot be effective without religion. Gülen says no to an Islamic state, but yes to a state of good Muslims.) Islam, Christianity and Judaism, he emphasises, have common values - but they also have a common responsibility to uphold them. For Muslims, shouldering that responsibility - and meeting the need for performing good works - means counselling the young. Just as wealthy Italian merchants built churches in the renaissance, and just as wealthy Arabs raised mosques, says Gülen, today's Muslim entrepreneurs should build schools.

And so they have. Using religious taxes and donations from followers, the Gülen community has founded over 150 private schools in Turkey, including Istanbul's Fatih University. Religion might have no place in the classroom in secular Turkey, but Gülen school students, often from poor, traditional families, are often encouraged to follow a regime of fasting and prayer, writes Hakan Yavuz, a Turkish expert on political Islam. Following graduation, increasing numbers go on to join the ranks of the national bureaucracy - precisely the sort of "infiltration" that Turkish secularists make a show of fretting about.

Gülen followers also run more than seven universities and 300 schools abroad, mostly in the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia, but also in the UK, Europe and the US. Aside from a focus on science, technology and languages, which has earned them a solid academic reputation, the international schools are known to place a strong premium on conservative values. But, interestingly, not on religion: Islam is largely absent from the classroom.

The new focus on schooling, says Yavuz, means a shift in priorities - from a conservative religious community to an educational movement with global ambitions. It also marks a decentralising trend. As Gülen himself has acknowledged, over the last decade the movement has taken on a life of its own. Since his self-imposed exile in America, Gülen has stopped pulling the strings, having consigned himself to the role of a spiritual figurehead. "Gülen in Turkey was one thing," says Yavuz, "and Gülen in America is another."

In addition to the schools, the Gülen movement runs a bank, an insurance company, several think tanks, media outlets, associations and charities, and a finance company. Given its loose structure, however, the movement's total wealth and assets are impossible to determine. Each of the movement's ventures, explains Bill Park, a lecturer at King's College London, is individually financed by sympathetic businessmen and run on a voluntary basis by followers.

For an entire generation of religious Turkish entrepreneurs, Gülen - open to science and modernity - has reconciled Islam and capitalism, giving his followers free rein to prosper in the name of God, like a Muslim John Calvin. Allah's will is impossible to know, Gülen teaches, and his predetermined fate for each believer cannot be foreseen. In the face of such uncertainty, true Muslims must "tremble with the fear of God, full of anxiety and hope concerning their final goal and pursue His pleasure by seeking to please Him and living in a way that shows their love for Him". Good works being genuine expressions of faith, says Gülen, Muslims must work tirelessly to please their creator.

Gülen's star began to shine in the late 1960s. At the age of 25, educated as a preacher just like his father, Gülen earned a posting as a state-employed imam in Izmir, a city on the Aegean shore. It was there that he began to attract an enormous following, earning praise for his emotionally charged sermons - Gülen would often break down in tears while reciting the Quran - and his efforts to arrange housing for underprivileged students.

In 1971, in the wake of an army coup, Gülen was imprisoned on charges of running clandestine Islamic summer camps for members of his young flock. Out of jail after seven months, he began to steer clear of the sort of political rhetoric with which he had earlier infused his sermons. If and when he did talk politics, Gülen did his best to follow the official line. That, in effect, came down to doing just one thing: denouncing communism.

For a quarter-century, the formula worked. Thanks to an unwritten agreement between the army and the fethullahci (as his followers are known), Gülen became an establishment favourite. The courtship began with a military coup. On September 12, 1980, a junta led by General Kenan Evren seized power. Martial law was declared throughout the country, the government abolished and the Constitution suspended. Over the next few months - between sending thousands to jail and dozens to the gallows - Evren's cabal unleashed an ideological offensive stressing Turkish identity, militarism and national unity. And religion. The perfect antidote to the wave of political violence that had swept through Turkey in the 1960s and 70s, the generals figured, was Islam. Not the radical Islam of Khomeini, of course, and not the medieval Islam of the Afghan mujahideen, but home-grown Turkish Islam, moderate, open towards science and technology, and devotedly nationalist. Gülen's background and his instant support for the military coup rendered him a perfect spokesman for the cause. "Always on the side of the state and military," as he himself put it, Gülen answered the call. Said to be drawing votes away from doctrinaire Islamists like Necmettin Erbakan, he was soon to become known as a respected luminary, feted and praised by political leaders of all stripes.

It was with Erbakan's rise to power in 1996 that Gülen's honeymoon with the establishment began to come to an end. Trying to reorient Turkey away from the West in favour of a union with the Muslim world, Erbakan quickly fell out with the army leadership. Almost exactly a year becoming prime minister, he was out of a job, strong-armed by the generals into resigning the premiership in June 1997. Though he had criticised Erbakan and supported the military intervention, Gülen was to go down with him. The generals' patience for political Islam, be it radical or enlightened, had given out.

In June 1999, the Turkish media, probably tipped off by the military leadership, published transcripts of audio recordings of a 1986 Gülen sermon. "The existing system is still in power," Gülen was heard saying. "Our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so that they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a nationwide restoration." The army and the secular media immediately demanded Gülen's head on a platter. A warrant for his arrest on charges of plotting to overthrow the state was issued but then rejected, the evidence against him having been judged insufficient. Gülen, who was receiving medical treatment in the United States when the tapes first appeared, chose not to come back to Turkey. To this day he remains in America, living alongside a small circle of male followers on an estate in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, population 12,000.

Since his arrival in America, Gülen's focus on intercultural dialogue and tolerance has become visibly more pronounced. Unlike many Islamists, Gülen has traditionally steered clear of anti-Americanism. In the aftermath of September 11, however, Gülen must have sensed an additional advantage in aligning his philosophy with that of American policymakers, smitten as they were with the idea of promoting "moderate Islam".

The western fixation with "moderate Islam" and its spokesmen, so easily tapped into by people like Gülen, certainly does not make objective analysis of his movement any easier. But neither does the widespread western suspicion, just as easily exploited by opponents of Gülen and the AKP, towards Islamist movements in general - as well as the tendency to lump all of them together. The failure to acknowledge that Islam might be different things to different people is, after all, a convenient way of overlooking "details" like Gülen's open disapproval of dogmatic interpretations of his faith. It is also a way of intimating that the Gülenists' focus on peace and brotherhood is nothing more than a convenient cover for secret plans to impose sharia rule in Turkey and beyond.

Admittedly, the language often used by Gülen and his supporters to describe the movement's objectives, high on principle but low on substance, readily exposes itself to accusations of disingenuousness. Citing the reasons for the movement's appeal among Turks, Mustafa Erol, president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (of which Gülen is an honorary chairman), mentions the emphasis on intercivilizational dialogue, education, charity, tolerance and the fight against child poverty. Not once does he mention the word "Islam", however. As hypocritical as it may sound for the leaders of a religious movement to distance themselves from the idea of promoting religion, their tendency to do so is, at least to some extent, a defence mechanism. In a country like Turkey, where secularism is defined not as the division between religion and the state but as control of religion by the state, the Gülenists can preach values and morals - but they can't preach Islam. Doing so would mean encroaching on the state's turf. And that, as Gülen himself has learnt, means trouble.

His movement having been dealt a heavy blow during the backlash against the Erbakan government, Gülen was initially disinclined to support Erdogan and the AKP. Many of the new party's key members, including Erdogan himself, were, after all, drawn from the ranks of Erbakan's Welfare Party. Gülen warmed up to the AKP, however, once he had realised that it had genuinely ditched Erbakan's Islamist agenda in favour of a more pragmatic, pro-European approach. The subsequent alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement has worked to the advantage of both. The movement has profited from the AKP's ascendancy, claiming more breathing room and visibility than ever before. The AKP, meanwhile, has tapped into the Gülen network's resources, both material and human, and learnt to rely on it for media support and voter mobilisation. "The new government doesn't have its own elite," explains Yavuz, "which is why they've relied on the Gülen movement to provide it with new members of the bureaucracy." Never before has the movement been so wedded to the fate of a political party, he says. "Whoever comes to power next," therefore, "their first target will be the Gülen community."

While fears of an Islamist takeover are misplaced and purposefully exaggerated - Gülen has no interest in fomenting revolution and Turks have no interest in supporting one - the secular establishment has plenty of reason to believe that the rug is being pulled from under its feet. The social and political structure to which many of its members owe their standing and wealth is clearly coming apart. And this, perhaps, provides the best explanation of the overheated suspicion and hostility directed at Gülen and his followers: The rise of the Gülen community, they realise, given its influence in education, media and politics, marks the emergence of a rival elite: a highly educated, defiantly religious Muslim middle class.

"They're horrified", says Tugce, a 25-year old student, speaking about the monied elites of Istanbul, "watching headscarved women, the type who used to clean their Bosporus villas, now driving luxury SUVs and donning Prada bags at their shopping malls."

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul.