The Intellectual Crisis of the Gülen Movement

The major promise of Turkey’s Gülen movement, blamed for the 2016 failed military attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was to contribute to the renewal of the Islamic tradition, but its failure is a reflection of the intellectual crisis at its core.

As allies of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) that came to power in 2002, followers of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, many of them graduates of the movement’s hundreds of schools and universities, took up posts in the civil service, judiciary, police, armed forces and media from where they exerted considerable power and influence.

But the uneasy alliance between the AKP and Gülen broke down finally at the end of 2013 when prosecutors and police linked to the movement arrested dozens of figures close to the government on corruption charges.

During this time, the Gülen movement all but gave up on its original promise of Islamic renewal and instead became a defender of the Islamic orthodoxy.

Seen in this way, it could be argued that the root cause of the Gülen movement’s crisis is its surrender to the Islamic orthodoxy. To put it differently, the Islamic orthodoxy that insistently prevents new interpretations and solutions on major issues such as democratisation or gender issues in a vast Islamic geography from Egypt to Malaysia has also swallowed up the Gülen movement’s renewalist enthusiasm.

How has this happened and how has the Gülen movement surrendered to the Islamic orthodoxy?

In the very beginning, the Gülen movement appeared on the scene of Islamic activism by articulating itself with the Nurcu movement, a Turkish-Islamic religious movement whose key principle is abstention from party politics. The chief ideologue of the Nurcu movement was Said Nursi, a man of the literary tradition, who authored many influential books on the aspects of Islamic thought.

Despite following Nursi, the charismatic Turkish cleric Gülen was never a man of the literary tradition. Instead, Gülen was a man of the oral tradition; thus, he attempted to construct his theoretical framework through his speeches rather than books. Save one or two exceptions, Gülen has not written books where he proposed a systematic and sophisticated discussion of a major topic. Many books by Gülen available in bookstores are in fact the printed and slightly edited versions of his speeches.

Gülen’s insistence on the oral tradition eventually brought his movement one step back from even Nursi’s literary legacy. Yet, the oral tradition has gradually been amplified within the movement so far as to recognise written notes from Gülen as the major intellectual framework to lead his followers.

Naturally, such a model built on a predominantly oral tradition has never been a satisfactory method to generate a vibrant intellectual revivalism.

In this vein, another relevant factor is the movement’s “epistemic kitchen”, a metaphor I use to describe the small number of agents who have produced Islamic knowledge within the Gülen movement. Since the very beginning, the “epistemic kitchen” of the Gülen movement has been dominated by a small group of people. Sharing almost the same intellectual and socio-cultural profile, these people usually recognise a quite Salafi interpretation of Islam. They rarely open the doors for people with alternative interpretations.

As a strategic choice, the movement has never referred to alternative names as intellectual role models to its followers. The agents of the movement’s “epistemic kitchen” monopolised the intellectual climate that reigns over their followers.

Thus, unlike many other left-leaning or right-leaning social movements in Turkey that have their renowned intellectual names, the Gülen movement has never tolerated the emergence of such independent intellectuals who could directly connect with the followers of the movement.

The intellectual configuration of the movement was always simple: Gülen was at centre and everyone else’s mission is nothing but to interpret Gülen’s opinions.

Yet, the agents of the “epistemic kitchen” gradually developed an ideological authority over all movement-linked institutions: These agents, mostly coming from the same theological background, quickly dominated various key institutions such as Gülenist publishing houses and television channels. It was not even possible to sell a book in a movement-linked bookstore if these agents did not endorse it.

The prime source of these agents’ legitimacy was their connection with Gülen. Since its first days, Gülen formed his movements based on theologians, i.e. people who have degrees from theology schools. People with other degrees such as in economics, sociology or even engineering have never been allowed to hold such intellectual roles within the movement.

However, these mullahs – as they are named within the group – are quite Salafi in their interpretation of Islam, yet, they usually believe that the religious texts they hold are satisfactory to generate the operative knowledge that is needed in the outer world.

As a result, the Gülen movement has gradually lost its ability to generate and even to acquire the needed knowledge in various material fields. In the end, the centre of the Gülen Movement yielded to a very closed model of knowledge generation and transmission that depends on only certain selected religious texts. Naturally, such a model has sidelined various modern methods including social sciences.

Today, the Gülen movement does not even have one name other than Gülen that it can refer its followers to as an intellectual role model.

Gülen first came to the fore with his intellectual salvos to the traditional Islamic thought in the 1990s. However, they stayed as instantaneous intellectual bursts. Instead, Gülen has never been interested in developing them to become systematic intellectual frameworks to challenge Islamic orthodoxy.

In a sharp contrast, the new generation of theologians that arose around Gülen later adopted a quite Salafi line. Looking at the practices within the group, it is very obvious that the Gülen movement has repeated Islamic orthodoxy on many issues like the status of women or in-group critical thought. Despite several conjectural changes in the narrative, the movement has been a loyal follower of Islamic orthodoxy. Even speaking according the criteria of present day Turkey, for example, theologians affiliated with the Gülen movement are among the more conservative group.

Undoubtedly, it was Gülen who demanded his movement follow such an intellectual configuration. Though he has always been happy to appear reformist flag before the public, he built the inner dynamics of his movement in line with a very conservative interpretation of Islam. In this process, he always preferred to work with certain people who share such conservative thoughts.

However, such a preference has given way to a peculiar in-group atmosphere that always prevented professional/secular knowledge and simultaneously resulted in the alienation of successful and young followers who are more interested in alternative intellectual trajectories.