Will the Arab Spring have a negative impact on Fethullah Gülen’s Muslim missionary movement?

Fethullah Gülen

By Dr. Aland Mizell:

Most of the Muslim world has been enslaved for decades by strong-man dictators, supported by the West. Several countries have revolted and overthrown their former dictators, such as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, while in Syria thousands of opponents continue to defy the brutal oppression of the Assad regime. Some countries have called the Arab Spring an Islamic awakening.

The reason that many dictators do not let Muslim groups come into power is because they fear political Islam and because most of the leaders of Islamic groups in Arab countries embrace a political view of Islam and reject secular forms of government.  The West also feels these groups are anti-Western and anti-secular forms of government. That is why most of these seemingly radicalized groups have not been very successful or are short -lived. So why has Fethullah Gülen’s Islamic missionary movement been successful? And why is the West, and particularly America, supporting him and his movement?

Of course, if you ask the devotees of this Turkish imam’s organization these questions, they will say that God is on their side, that they are followers of Mohammed, that this Dava or Hizmet has been  given to them, and that Turks are the chosen people; therefore, they have been successful. But if you ask sceptics why this ideological system has expanded more than any other Islamic fundamentalists, they will say that it is their method of disseminating Islam and conducting their mission. The other Islamic movements use reactionary methods, not using Gülen’s methods of secrecy, prudence, caution, indoctrination via education, and selective truth according to whenever they feel they can tell the truth, based on conditions related to when the time is right and when the moment is appropriate.

This contrast in methods is the reason that for a long time terrorism has helped the Gülen movement, because Gülenists told the naïve westerners that these other groups do not represent Islam, claiming instead that they were the only ones speaking on behalf of Islam. The Gülenists argue, “Look, we advocate education, and we are secular but Muslim.” That is a complete fallacy. It is impossible to be a Muslim and at the same time be secular; either you are Muslim or secular.  That’s why today the West and America accept their ideals, support the movement, and want other groups to be like them. In reality Gülen himself is not tolerant, but, on the contrary, he is very authoritarian with no room for criticism and no room to object to him or his vision.  His decrees must be met.

This kind of ideology is one of the most dangerous kinds.  However, for a long time violence and terrorism have helped Gülen, but with the Arab Spring this may change, because, according to democratic theory, democracies do not fight each other, so if all Muslims and Middle Easterners become democracies, they will respect the rule of law and solve their disputes in a democratic way. The reason the West and America support Gülen and his missionaries is not because Gülenists are very tolerant and peace loving or save humanity, but because America and the West do not have any alternatives, and they cannot go against the 1.3 billion Muslims. Therefore, they have to choose and support one group over the other groups.

Since Gülen is using capitalism in conjunction with an Islamic spirit to mask his true goals, he pretends to advocate primarily tolerance, interfaith dialogue, education, science, and technology. For the West and America there are three options: one is Iran’s version of Islam, which is Shia; the second option is Saudi Arabia’s fundamental sects of Islam called Salafis; and the third is Gülen’s brand of Sunni Islam. Therefore, it is not surprising then that Gülen has many admirers in the West and particularly in America because the West posits, “It is a civic movement and Gülen’s views are moderate and modern. He is fiercely opposed to violence and enthusiastic about science. He is not a radical Islamist.” Gülen has written, “The lesser Jihad is our active fulfillment of Islam’ commands and duties,” adding, “and the greater jihad is proclaiming war on our ego’s destructive and negative emotions and thoughts which prevent us from attaining perfections.”

Gülen is very opportunistic. When Central Asia first gained its independence, he ordered his followers to go there to get power and influence among those countries because the door soon would be closed. Also, at that time Gülen was criticized for teaching the English language, and for that decision some of his critiques accused Gülen of working for the CIA, but Gülen is not working for CIA; instead, he is using the CIA for his purposes. The reason Gülen’s schools give instruction in English is to create the alternative to American schools teaching there. When he initially sent his missionaries to Central Asia, he told them, “If you don’t go there, Christians will go, they will open schools, and they will teach the youth; they will give them an education, so you must go and teach them English in order to provide them with a good education, so that those governments will no longer need other schools, and you will block the Americans from teaching in the former Soviet countries. “

From its early journey into the Central Asian countries to its worldwide dominance today, the Gülen movement has sought opportunities to advance, shifting to borrow a country’s palatable values and retaining successful ones to augment its base. Countries that have weak civil society structures but authoritarian regimes are prone to become fertile grounds for terrorism and violence, but recently things have changed. Now some of the groups in the Middle East, for example, the Brotherhood in Egypt, argue that the religious ideals within Islam always favor democracy.

Today Muslims are weakening, thanks to western technological inventions, and now they are able to take advantage of technology to disseminate the truth and learn the truth about what its right and what is wrong rather than rely entirely on imams and their interpretations. Muslims argue the Qur’an contains a number of ideas that support democratic ideals. In fact, Shar’ia applies to all aspect of religious, social, private, and political life. Now the hard core Islamists realize and agree that political Islam has all the democratic norms, so they are trying to adopt new ideas and policies while maintaining religious and cultural identity. The Muslim groups now hold that the abuse of human rights in the Muslim countries does not come from Islam but is derived from economic, political, social, and educational forces. To maintain such a balance, the Muslim groups, leaders, intellectuals, and mostly those who have studied in Europe or in the United States have been at least exposed to ways to maintain that balance between Islamic values and social norms in a manner consistent with the modern and internationally recognized principles of human rights.

That is what Gülen is advocating- –a spiritual balance– and that is what is very saleable in the West, so now hopefully, the global community will have this balance in the Middle East and thereby will reduce the value of Gülen ideology. Today Muslim leaders in the Arab world see Islam as a set of norms and ideas that emphasize the equality of people, the accountability of leaders to community, respect of diversity, respect for other faiths, and defense of the rights of minorities– all principles fully compatible with democracy. For example, the Egyptian newly elected President Morsi stated that Egypt would honor its international commitments, even though the status of the peace treaty with Israel is still not clear. Neither the West nor America has reason to stand against these values.

Therefore, this will reduce the role of the Gülen movement in the region and around the world and will help balance the power of Islamic sects in the Middle East. Consequently, the Arab Spring could be a blessing for Gülen as well a curse. It could be a blessing because no such model exists in the twenty-first century, and so far Gülenists have been successful in Turkey, which will help them to spread their influence in the region.  However, it also could be a curse because now Gülen and his followers advocate not only education, modernization, economic development, and religion values, but also his movement advocates nationalism and the Turkification of Islam. This could be a curse to the Arab nationalism of Islam, because Gülenists believe that Islam is best represented by the Turks, and that Iran and the Arabs fail to represent the true Islam.

Islam, thus far, has not represented this true Islam for several reasons. First, Muslim groups have to this point rejected the notion of democracy, tolerance, and minority rights within the majority rule, choosing hostility instead. The second reason these groups use the method of violence to spread Islam is that it is a more traditional way of representing Islam and doing this without any secrecy or prudence; and third, they openly declare Israel their enemy, but do not realize that Israel is doing well economically and also is allied with strong countries. Muslims were not doing well economically, so if they openly declared Israel their enemy and attacked Israel without gaining power, of course the West, especially America, would stand by Israel, and Israel’s allies will do all they can to protect Israel.

With the help of the West and the Americans, dictators have either jailed most of the Muslim leaders or exiled them to the West or to America, including Fethullah Gülen, who was exiled by the Turkish secular military in 1999, for attempting to replace the secular government with an Islamic one.

Why then has the Gülen movement become so powerful domestically as well as internationally? Why and what make Gülen so powerful and other groups not?  And how will this new Great Middle East project affect Gülen’s missionaries?  The reason his followers are successful compared to other Muslim groups in the region and around the globe is the method and representation of Islam, in other words, the methods Gülen is using to spread and to represent Islam.  Gülen has used Saidi Kurdi’s idea of education and science. For Saidi Kurdi the reason the West is ahead of Islam and economically doing well is not because Islam is not compatible with science and technology, but because of lack of ignorance. Said Kurdi predicted the future of Islam and believed that some day – that once Muslims took on the positive Western values, such as science and technology – then they would be a super power. Thus, Gülen implemented Said Nursi’ s ideas about education and science and about using the method of secrecy, caution, and prudence to become successful.

For profoundly anti-democratic goals, they use America’s values of freedom of speech, political correctness, tolerance, and multiculturalism as tools for disseminating his ideology and becoming very successful. According to Gülen, “You move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers, until the conditions are ripe; if you do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads. The time is not yet right. You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey. The work to be done is in confronting the world. Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all in confidence trusting your loyalty and secrecy.” Thus, Gülen used the method of denial as well. For the other Muslim groups, they confronted and declared the most powerful institutions and country as their enemy prematurely and, in Gülen’s view, are thus being crushed. For Gülen, he always allied himself with the most powerful institutions and countries. Instead of criticizing them and being against them, he allied himself with them and praised them. For example, in Turkey, Gülen allied himself with the Turkish secular military and never criticized the military or the founder of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, until recently when his mentees took all the power. Now the Gülenists’ media and NGOs are attacking the military and declaring it the number one enemy. Why? They have demonized the military because at last they have gained power, and because the conditions are ripe, a time Gülen had urged his followers to wait for.

Also, Gülen publically does not declare America a number one enemy even though behind the door he considers America and the Vatican the cause of all the problems that happen in the Muslim world.

As mentioned, Gülen is an opportunist, trying to create an alternative for his movement and its ideology to be the model. But after 9/11 the world system has gone through a paradigm shift.  President Bush declared a global war on terror but failed to end terrorism, so the United States needs an alternative way to persuade the Muslim world to reject the idea of fundamentalism, and the United States seeks an Islamic group as a model for the rest of the Muslims to follow or to embrace.  Now the US has realized that politics should be war without violence and needs to engage in politics in the region to compel them to reject the jihadism as a path to overcome western domination and help them to adopt democratic principles and individual freedoms. Therefore, under the new Great Middle East Projects, America is trying to install democracy in the Middle East and in Muslim countries to prevent fundamentalism and terrorism from spreading.

Not long ago the Middle East’s most popular leaders were Hezbollah, Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Hamas, and some other fundamentalist groups who were standing up against Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, against the American policies in the Middle East, and against the American interests by using terrorism and violence. The US government gave its support to Gülen, because it mistakenly believes that Gülen’s missionaries are less harmful compared to the Iranian Islamic movement Hezbollah, the Saudi brand of Islam Wahhabism, or other fundamentalist groups. The US thinks that Gülen’s movement could be managed in the right way by using it to suit American purposes. Because many naively believe that Gülen preaches nonviolence and dialogue between the western and Muslim worlds, they let their guard down and fail to see the reality behind his proclaimed agenda.

Because he is wearing a moderate Islamic mask and because he is using education as his front, he is perceived as less dangerous and therefore as an alternative to fundamentalism, but let’s see how long this honeymoon lasts between Gülen and America. The more Middle Eastern countries embrace democratic values, the more the role of Gülen’s missionary movement will be reduced, because in the West especially in America, Gülen’s movement is under scrutiny, and the public is beginning to understand its real agenda. The American government has failed to acknowledge that in the Middle East Gülen’s missionaries will be a future threat to American national interests.  Gülen and his followers are thirsty for power, because with that power, they will be able to do anything and thereby accomplish their objectives. Actually terrorism and fundamentalism help Gülen to gain momentum internationally and domestically because Gülen masks himself as more moderate, tolerant, and receptive to interfaith dialogue. Domestically, the public already understands how tolerant and moderate they are, especially toward the Kurds and secularists who criticized them and as a result are in jail, so anyone who really has researched Gülen closely comprehends that he is not tolerant at all; he is an authoritarian and a one-man rule. No one dares to object to his view, his decrees must be done, and he is the absolute authority.

In summary, for a long time Gülenists enjoyed being seen as the rational alternative to the overtly radical groups. However, simultaneously as Gülen extends his command in the US, he enlarges his movement across the globe to give an alternative to the West and to America to support his movement rather than those who use force to advance their cause. Gülen knows the West and America cannot be an enemy of Islam because of the world’s political climate, but that these world powers want some kind of modern Islam that will embrace peace rather than violence. Gülen used the same tactics in Turkey to down the secular military and thereby gained power in Turkey; first he praised the military and allied himself with it. For example, in the 1997 coup, Gülen praised the military for ousting the Muslims’ party leader Necmettin Erbakan. Gülen had less than optimal relations with him, not talking to him, even though Gülen advocated tolerance and love. Gülen and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) wanted to be the leader of the Muslim world and are trying to get the sympathy of the Arabic public by showing it, “Look, your leader failed to show support for Palestine and proved unable to show muscles to Israel, so we are doing that now.“ By this posturing, they hoped to get Arabs to invest oil money in Turkey and to gain support of Muslims in Turkey to ensure their own re-election.

Gülen believes reactionary movements cannot be successful, no matter how powerful they are, because a balance cannot be maintained; on the contrary, they prove to be a more harmful threat to other people, and as a result will cause reaction on the other side. In his view, extreme religious indoctrination has harmed the genuine revival of universal Islamic values. Therefore, he is well aware of the weaknesses of other religious movements of his many predecessors to uphold the moral and ethical values derived from Islamic scriptures. However, like many Arab countries and Iran, Gülen also wants to build a prosperous modern state based solely on nationalistic ideals and thus tends to show a discriminatory attitude toward all kinds of minorities, leading to the Turkification of Islam.

Gülen’s gospels claim Gülen is a voice of moderation and a juncture of dichotomies of Muslim polity and the ideological struggles between extreme forces in the Muslim world. While these extremists are trying to gain power, Gülen is secretly rising to the pinnacle. In Gülen’s thinking, these fundamentalists spoil the bright appearance of Islam, and they create a dirty image of the religion, especially the Arab countries and Iran, so presumably he and his followers are appointed by God to fix the spoiled image of Islam. Gülen says, “We will tell about this dirty view of Islam everywhere in different platforms. We will write books about it; we will say that this is not Islam.” Today, Gülen’s movement represents an Islam which is secular and tolerant; one in favor of Turkey’s joining the European Union, and concurrently pretending to favor modernization reforms, America, and even Israel. Gülen believes the best way to defeat the enemy is with the enemy’s method.

Ironically, the enemy’s method is democracy, tolerance, rule of law, technology, and economic development. For a long time Muslim society has been forced to accept modernity and secularization, via secularist authoritarians and with the help of Western interventions, thereby creating more fundamentalism. Now the West is changing its stance and has realized the mistakes they have done, and the Muslims also have realized that violence is not a very favorable method to spread Islam– image is important. With the Arab Spring, regional opinion has shifted toward prioritizing civil rights and democratic reforms, and Westerners are supporting them in this realization. If the change does materialize, then this will mean a decrease in the Gülen movement’s hegemony, especially in the West and then around the world.

Dr. Aland Mizell is with the University of Mindanao School of Social Science, President of the MCI and a regular contributor to The Kurdistan Tribune, Kurdishaspect.com, Kurdish Media and Mindanao Times .You may email the author at:aland_mizell2@hotmail.com

5 Responses to Will the Arab Spring have a negative impact on Fethullah Gülen’s Muslim missionary movement?
  1. David
    July 21, 2012 | 16:40

    Thanks Dr. Mizell, another good article about Gulen’s movement. I do believe People soon realize Gulenists Masks. press on

  2. Mahdi
    July 21, 2012 | 21:05

    So what in your mind is the movement doing wrong? If they provide education and bring alternatives then what’s the problem? In the states, they have so many schools that are very organized with so many non Muslims taking their kids to. To be honest I don’t know much about this movement but it seems like you just wanted an article to express your hidden hate for the group. To be scientific and objective? I would’ve loved to see a sound argument by you whereby you state to us, the ignorant about this movement, why you think they are a bad group and bad influence???

  3. mustafa_gun@rocketmail.com
    July 22, 2012 | 13:30

    In my last day in Vietnam, all I wanted was to be alone. I tried to meet no one so that I will be all by myself during the entire day. Except for the evening encounter with S. L. and her baby daughter at the garden of Huong Vuong 2, my plan went successful. I only talked with the bank teller in the bank (for the money transfer), with the real estate agent (for deposit) and the girl at Indian restaurant who took my order for dinner. But in the night, I had trouble in sleeping. My mind was not at ease so I kept rolling in the bed for long time. I don’t remember exactly what time I fell in sleep but I am pretty sure that I fell in sleep and woke up several times till morning. My mind was full of questions which come to haunt me whenever my feet are off the ground. I guess this must be a good time for those unanswerable life-threatening questions to come over me, to pass through me and leaving very little to me to breathe on. I slept, woke up, slept again, woke up again, slept again… Finally found the time 5:30, decided to get up.

    This is why at Bangkok airport, I felt sleepy all the time. When I enter the airplane, I sat on my seat only to realize that the guy across my seat was reading Bangkok Post. It is important for me to confess that B. P. has a special place in my personal history. It is the first English newspaper I started reading regularly and when I lived in Thailand, I kept reading it almost every day in order to get the glimpse of Thai nation and Thai people. It helped me to start writing some stories and also helped me to correct my thoughts about Thai people or Thai traditions. Some of my short stories are actually written after reading the news about ghosts hunting ceremonies in North-East temples or political turmoil in South Thailand. I somehow didn’t see the newspapers at the entrance of the airplane so I had to spend time with my kindle until the guy across from me finished with his paper. Then I asked him to hand me the paper if he has done with it. He gave me the paper and this is how I read Sanitsuda Ekachai’s column on Fethullah Gulen movement.

    In the article which has a title of “Islamic Scholar gave Buddhist point to ponder”, she talks about her trip to Turkey. Apparently, along with many other Thai journalists, she has been invited to visit Turkey and many businesses/schools/media organizations belong to FG movement. I can imagine how and why these things are being done. As usual FG movement needs support from all over society and they start this with intellectual layer after covering some part of business and education areas. In Thailand, they have a school older than 10 years and they have a sort of chamber of commerce for Turkish and Thai business people. The next level should be then to win the hearts of Thai journalists, Thai intellectuals, make them admire the work of FG and enjoy presenting articles like Ms Ekachai’s to the opponents of FG movement in Turkey. The idea is to tell them “Look, even a Thai columnist admires our work, our way of re-organizing the entire society.

    However, what she doesn’t see is the hidden agenda behind this colorful, modern-looking, post-modernly relativist pictures. She doesn’t know how the middle school students are forced to enroll in military schools so that one day military will obey to FG more than they obey to their generals. She doesn’t know how the students in the movement are guided through judiciary system clandestinely so that one day the judiciary system too will be in their hands. She doesn’t see the hundreds of students and journalists are imprisoned for the most obtuse reasons… If she doesn’t know this, what kind of journalism is this? Why did she even go to Turkey if she doesn’t want to give voice to those who are suffering in an unnamed war against freedom and justice? She doesn’t know that the ultimate aim is to create a society with Islamic rules where freedom and justice will be in the hand of a few “wise” men. They never say it, never mention it, and never talk about it. However, you don’t need to be genius to see where Turkey is now heading towards if we just look at the political struggles we are having. The loyal disciples of FG movement do not shake hands with women (if they do, they do it with remorse), they are against education with girls and boys sit in the same classroom (if they allow it in their educational institutions now, it is because right time has not come yet), they are 100% against letting youth to choose their own future (they must be guided by their talented elder-brothers), they are against teaching evolution in schools (quite a large amount of FG-based literature is on denying evolution in the name of creationism), they are in favor of putting religion in laboratories so that scientists will never discover things against the religious dogmas (their popular science magazines like “Sizinti” and “The Fountain” are good examples for this.)

    I don’t deny their achievements all around the world but this is nothing more than a missionary work and all is done on the shoulders of the young, energetic university students or graduates who are real devotees in this long lasting project of changing Turkey. Surely they don’t teach Islam in their schools but these schools are working for two purposes: Firstly they create a huge amount of advertisement for the movement. One should look at the International Turkish Language Olympics that they hold in Turkey every year. If they have schools all around the world, why don’t they do the organization in different countries every year? Wouldn’t it be better in order to know other cultures? But no! It cannot create the same advertising effect if they do it in Mongolia, Vietnam or Egypt. They do it in Turkey so the bureaucrats, mayors, popular singers/show men can be audiences and praise them on Turkish TVs.

    The second purpose of the schools is to initiate the first contact with other countries in terms of business. Many high school graduates who couldn’t pass University Entrance Exam in Turkey are sent to far countries to study the language of that country and study university in that country. These young disciples are now fluent speakers of Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, Arabic, Lao, Khmer, Tagalog, Korean, Japanese etc. And of course they create a reliable bridge between Turkish business people and the business people of their host country when required. In every country, besides having schools, they also have trade agencies which help business people to have connections with local counterparts. This way, the business people make more money and eventually donate more money to the movement.

    More things can be written about the FG movement but I am not writing this blog entry to discuss the real goals of FG disciples. For those who wish to know how I know their real agenda, my answer would be very simple: I was one of them. I spent 10 years of my life with them and I reached to certain levels that very few disciples know that they ever exist. My judgment is personal but my personal history is real, not fake at all.

    My advice to Ms Ekachai will be this: Buddhism doesn’t need such a project to be praised as a peaceful religion. Buddha never wanted to build a religion or never asked for his image being spread all around the world. His thoughts are the most-revolutionary among other religious prophets as he only says “Anyone wants to join, s/he is welcome. If not, it is also fine.” No exclusivism in Buddhism and this only is enough to make it a unique path for its followers. What today’s Thai people need is not to spread Buddhism all around but to de-institutionalize the religion so that it will go back to its roots. Society can function in its best performance if people’s minds are free from the intimidation of religious zealots and if a secular moral philosophy is constructed within people’s hearts, with or without the need of a Buddha living there.

    With these thoughts, some are angry as my country is straying away from freedom and justice, some are hopeful as I am going back to try to make some changes, if they let me, some are pessimistic as the freedom in Turkey is becoming a privilege a few can enjoy these days, some are scary as many journalists, writers, academics, soldiers are put on trials for some imaginary excuses only to intimidate the secular powers in the country and to show them who is the new owner of the nation, I flied over the clouds and drank my second cup of coffee…

    I arrived to Khon Kaen with this chaos of thoughts in my head, not relaxed at all, not at ease. J was waiting for me at the gate so we hugged, put the bags in the car and set on the road once more. After talking to J, I started seeing things around me better, with more light shedding on them. At least that dark pessimism lifted itself from my head and let me enjoy the moment for a while. Maybe this was the optimism of “getting back home” or the funny tickling that only love can handle…She drives the car so I just sat at the front seat and watched the road rolling under my feet. Before heading home, we went to a Tesco Lotus in order to buy things for the party. She told me that there will be a reunion party as I am coming back and we are leaving Thailand for Turkey soon. All uncles and aunts will be at our house. So we bought beer, snacks etc and got back to the road again. The highway from KK to Banh Then (It is funny because a few days ago I was riding my motorbike near Ben Thanh market in HCMC and now I am riding in a car through Banh Then, a district in Chaiyapum province) is large and smooth. J can easily go with 120 km/h but she drives slowly as there are many vehicles on the road, many getting back home from their work in KK.

    We see a car-crash scene but we did not stop as the police was already there. The sun is close to setting in front of us, J is happy that I am back in Thailand, I am happy that things so far went according to plan. Once I look at my watch as if I worry about time and she realizes this. She says “Don’t worry. I will take you home before the sunset.” I look at the speedometer and also at where exactly we are and say “It is ok. Take me home before sunrise, that will be enough!” We both laugh and keep sailing towards sun, towards home.
    ali – Ban Then, Chaiyapum

  4. cemil
    July 22, 2012 | 14:59

    @ mahdi, the movement seems to be an islamist movement together with the fact that it centers its idea on turk-islam synthesis. To illustrate, gulen schools teach turkish, not arabic. They recite some hadits about how turks are superior nation etc. Even, i was told that: “prophet Mohammad reported that only turks can be the leader of islam” Gulen is in search of money, power hust via religion. Thats all.

  5. Amir Bawan
    July 23, 2012 | 20:57

    A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
    Thats what he is

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