Turkey’s Gülen: Opposition movement or cult?
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The movement founded by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, with its effective communication strategy and connections to police, has emerged as a powerful enemy of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
With several of his ministers resigning in the wake of a corruption probe, Erdogan seems to have hit a rough patch – and a major factor behind his troubles is a feud with the influential Gülen movement.
The group once supported the prime minister’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP), but became openly hostile toward its former political allies in November, when the government announced a plan to ban several private schools run by the Gülen network.
According to Fatma Kizilboga, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Turkey, the government’s proposal was intended to weaken the Gülen movement by depriving it of future converts to the modern, moderate brand of Islam the network favours.
Shrouded in secrecy
Bolstered by powerful connections to Turkey’s police departments and court system, and financed by rich businessmen, the Gülen movement is a force to be reckoned with in Turkish society. Erdogan has expressed deep discomfort with the network’s far-reaching influence, calling it “a state within a state”.
Alongside the major tenets of Islam, the Gülen movement – often called “Hizmet” (which means “The Service”) by its followers – also preaches Turkish nationalism, interfaith dialogue and the teaching of creationism.
While it has an estimated 3 million official members and 10 million additional supporters, the group’s inner workings are shrouded in secrecy. “It’s organised like a cult,” a French researcher told FRANCE 24, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In certain places where they meet in Istanbul, it really feels like you’re in a Scientology centre. Leaders make speeches about universal love, and distribute pamphlets with photos of celebrities on them. Private classes are given, but we don’t know if the teachings are religious or not.”
The movement’s leaders are indeed known as masters of discretion. “They are very concerned about their image, which they control entirely. Most members are not even allowed to talk about the movement,” the French researcher explained. “The way it functions is totally opaque, which is reminiscent of Freemasons.”
Gülen the ‘guru’
The movement was founded by Fethullah Gülen, an imam who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, where he is little-known.
But even without its top leader present on Turkish soil, the movement has thrived, as the 75-year-old Gülen continues to deliver sermons and teachings via the Internet. Moreover, Gülen’s absence has done little to diminish his influence; he was cited in TIME magazine’s list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People for 2013”.
Conscious of Gülen’s power, Erdogan reached out to him last spring, encouraging him to return to Turkey. Gülen refused the invitation, which was seen by his supporters as an attempt to keep closer tabs on the leader.
The imam’s insistence on living outside Turkey is indicative of the movement’s international ambitions. In the 90s, the network opened hundreds of schools throughout the world, particularly across Africa and Asia. In Turkey, meanwhile, it offers scholarships for foreign students, most often from sub-Saharan Africa. “When they go home after studying in Turkey, these students become disciples of the Gülen movement,” the French researcher said.
Roughly 10 percent of the Turkish population is estimated to support the network, which also has its own union, TUKSON (Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists), as well as several media outlets, associations, and a social networking site.
Turkey’s ‘imaginary enemy’?
The Gülen movement has used its publication, Zaman, to defend itself against what it sees as slander on the part of the government. An editorial published on December 25 called the movement’s leaders “imaginary enemies serving as scapegoats in Erdogan’s strategy of covering up the revelations of the corruption scandal”.
Still, some remain skeptical about the trustworthiness of Gülen and his followers as an opposition movement. As Dorothée Schmid, a Turkey specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) put it: “Turkish democracy is in danger if we’re counting on a movement without any transparency or political legitimacy when it comes to contesting the authoritarian tendencies of the power in place.”