The 'ally' to 'enemy # 1': Gülen Movement (1)

In Turkey, the term "cemaat" - which roughly translates to "community" - has become synonymous with the Gülen movement. Although the Gülen community was the result of a decades-long process, the movement only came to light politically and socially at the end of the 1990s when Fetullah Gülen, founder of the Gülen Movement, was seen photographed with then-prime minister Tansu Çiller.  

Gülen was born in Erzurum, in Turkey's northeast, in 1941 and was raised in a conservative environment. His childhood and formative years were crucial in shaping his future teachings on Islam. Erzurum remained immune from the radical modernist reforms of the 1930s, and traditional Islamic culture played a significant role in everyday life.

Academic Şerif Mardin coined the term "daily Islam" to describe how Islamic traditions shaped everyday life. The Gülen community stems from the Nur movement as Gülen was heavily influenced by the teachings of Said-i Nursi (1874-1960), who was a significant Islamic thinker.

The Gülen movement was formed in the 1970s on the foundation of incorporating traditional Islam into daily life with communal living - the tenets of which were laid out in Nursi's seminal work, Risale-i Nur.

Gülen took Nursi's concepts as a basis for his intellectual teachings, particularly in forming a group identity. In this way, the Risale-i Nur serves as a means to protect Gülen and his followers from the negative aspects of modernity as well as a bridge between contemporary Muslims and Islamic tradition. At the time Gülen founded the community, he spent time with each of his students, went to camps with them, began forming an intellectual basis, and first expressed what he wanted to do.

The community named itself the "Service Movement" (Hizmet Hareketi) during the 2000s. Barış Müstecaplıoğlu, formerly a member of the Gülen community, said the movement had a hierarchical structure.

"The movement has a hierarchical structure like in every major company (that can be categorised as a consultancy). The details are unknown and change with the movement's development, but there are imams (administrators) responsible for various groups of countries followed by imams responsible for countries.

“Imams in charge of cities in Turkey report to the imam in charge of Turkey. Each city is divided into regions based on their size, and the regions are divided into neighborhoods, each of which has a separate authority. Beneath neighborhood imams are imams in charge of houses and dorms that are part of said neighborhood.

“Everyone meets with their superior for a weekly consultation to discuss developments of their followers, give reports on subscriptions to their magazines or newspapers or donations made, as well as talk about project-based issues such as collecting animal hides during the Feast of the Sacrifice or about an organisation at a school.

“During these meetings, orders and recommendations are shared with the whole congregation in a hierarchical fashion from those higher up going down from imam to imam. This is where common attitudes about politics and the country's agenda are passed down, and these ideas are then further shared with the pupils at the homes and dormitories. They are also organised at every school."  

The terminology used by members of the community provides insight into the structure of the movement:

  • Risale-i Nur: This refers to the books written by Said-i Nursi, who was the founder of the Nur movement. They are even more important than the books written by Gülen, particularly as Gülen often takes ideas from Nursi. Followers believe that these books reveal all the facts of the Quran. They also read these books more than the Quran as they believe that reading the Quran by itself risks misinterpretation. True believers think that Allah commanded Said Nursi to write Risale-i Nur.

  • Bediüzzaman: Nickname used by followers to refer to Said-i Nursi. It is used to mean "wonder of the age."

  • Şakird (Disciple, Follower): This is how people of the Gülen community address themselves, and it is used to refer to disciple, pupil, and student. Male and female disciples live far away from each other.

  • Hizmet (Service): This is the name given to the effort to Islamicise society and the people, as well as the community itself. The people in the movement who understand "hizmet" strive to live their lives in accordance with religious rules.

  • Ağabey (Big Brother): This is the name used to refer to older disciples within the community by younger pupils.

  • Sohbet (Conversation): This refers to sessions in which followers read and discuss sections from books written by Fethullah Gülen or Said-i Nursi. During these talks, the ağabeys also discuss how to apply these principles to daily life and answer any questions that students might have about religion.

  • Istişare (Consultations): These are meetings held by imams of houses or dorms to discuss sensitive issues related to the organisation. These consultations are typically held daily or weekly and address topics such as reading competitions or worship assignments. The imams also consult with higher imams that they report to and talk about more important topics. Everyone meets with their superior in a sort of staircase fashion, with topics of concern beginning at the bottom transmitted to the top until they are shared in Gülen's consultation.

  • Country/Territory/District/Home Imam: This is the person responsible for disciples in a certain place. He is also a disciple but older and more experienced. These imams are selected by the service they have performed up to that point and how easily they have been able to carry out orders from their ağabeys above them. They are assigned to more important roles through promotion.

  • Esnaf (ArtisanEsnaf): Businessmen who are able to provide financial support to the movement are called esnaf. Some are engaged in smaller trading activities, and some are owners of big holding companies. They finance schools, provide scholarships to children, and then put them to work in their companies. They also provide funds for big projects carried out by newspapers, television companies, and financial institutions.

  • Dost (Friend): This refers to people who are not followers of the Gülen movement or who have not adopted principles set out by the community but who are sympathetic to the cause. They support the community by having similar thoughts such as that the schools abroad are beneficial to the country. Most are atheists or Christian priests. Most do not know about the inner workings of the Gülen community.

  • Nurcu: Followers of Said Nursi and Risale-i Nur. Undoubtedly, the Gülen community is the most significant among them.

  • Müspet: This term refers to people who bring earning potential to the community, and there are different levels to this as well.

  • Ehl-i Dünya: The name given to anyone who has not placed religion at the center of their life.

  • Himmet: Donations made to the community.

  • Işık Evler (Light Houses): This is a kind of nickname used for communal houses.

  • Ilgilenmek (Care): This is a follower who has dedicated their life to keeping track of people (generally children) who could contribute to the community. At the weekly consultation, this carer reports to the imam on the people they are responsible for on whether or not they prayed, which conversations they went to, which books they were given to read, and what they did during the week. Sometimes, younger disciples will joking use the term "kafalamak" amongst themselves, which means "to convince someone".

Some of the biggest investments made by the Gülen community are in the field of education. These schools - which are known as Gülen schools and can be found throughout the world - are private and encompass all levels of the education system, including pre-school, primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Gülen schools operate in 140 countries and are estimated to number at more than 11,000. Even though they are independent of each other in terms of name and legal status, they are known to have originated from the Gülen movement. These schools offer classes in the language of the country they are in, the most commonly used foreign language where they are based (mostly English, Russian, Persian, or French based on the location), and in Turkish as an elective.

Teachers at these schools also teach Turkish culture (Turkish folk dances, poetry, songs, theater, etc...). The International Turkish Olympics, which was supported by Turkey's incumbent party at one point in time, is one of the most important activities organised by these schools. In 2012, the 10th annual competition was held in Türk Telecom Arena Stadium in Istanbul and attracted 100,000 spectators. The closing speech was made by Turkey's then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


To be continued…