Nov 21 2017

The Gülen movement: two autopsies

Turkey’s Gülen movement, blamed for last year’s failed coup, was damaged by its lack of democracy, transparency and openness to new ideas, concluded two academics linked to the group led by U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Academics affiliated with the movement should have been more active in cultivating its wider sense of social responsibility during the height of its power, Ebubekir Işık, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, wrote in the Huffington Post. Those academics were still abdicating responsibility from exile overseas through their silence in the face of the persecution of those back in Turkey, he said.

Işık asks academics linked to the Gülen movement who are now criticizing the movement for lacking a culture of free-thinking why they did not raise their voices earlier. He says he even went through these critical academics' past writings and social media posts to see if they leveled some criticisms in the past but did not find any critiques of the movement prior to 2010. 

Savaş Genç, a visiting scholar at the University of Heidelberg, asked why the Gülen movement was never able to become the Islamic civil society movement many expected it to be, arguing that if it “had been able to establish modern structures with more transparent actors and decision-taking mechanisms, with election of offices and therefore a responsibility towards its own members or base, it would have been a much more effective, trustworthy organisation, easier even in the most difficult times for other sections of society to defend”.

Genç argues that by appointing loyalists over capable candidates to key positions within the movement, it pursued its own agenda rather than focussing on the issues of various social, ethnic and religious groups. "The movement's engagement with the Justice and Development Party during Turkey's EU accession talks did the most damage" Genç says, arguing that if organisations cannot establish their own internal democratic and accountable mechanisms, this limits the democratic culture of the country itself. 

Both articles said the movement had become cut off from Turkish civil society by being uncritical of the government, and both see the rot as having set in much earlier than the movement’s problems with the government.

Işık placed the blame on passive academics who enjoyed the fruits of the movement’s closeness to the government without considering its social responsibilities:

One can argue that these quiescent thinkers did not really want the movement to develop further and evolve into a healthy social entity. Yes, they did not want it! Because we have neither heard of nor observed an attempt prior to 2010 by these academics to initially counter certain problematic views and practices in the movement, then alienate them, and finally re-codify them.

Genç, however, sees the movement as a whole as having isolated itself at a relatively early stage by “placing its love of education and its identity as a civil society movement in the background for the sake of politics”.