The broad canvas of Islam in Turkey from about 1850 to 1950 can be reduced to a thumbnail sketch. The sprawling Ottoman Empire, with the sultan as caliph of the Islamic world, became the superstructure of economic and social stagnation. Its last props were kicked away following Turkey’s defeat in World War I and the rise of Kemal Ataturk, who decreed a secular civil society. Sufi brotherhoods were banned, mosques were put under state control, and those who attempted to revive free expressions of religion became straw men to justify curbs on speech and assembly. This was to be a brave new world. Schools were founded, industries mushroomed and Turkey ultimately reentered the world as a member of NATO. But in sweeping away what they derided as backwardness and dogmatism, the Kemalists sentenced a people saturated with religion to the temptations of consumerism under an elitist rule unable to define the ultimate meaning of existence.
Growing numbers of individuals became convinced that they had to develop their own religion through personal renewal in small communities in the hope that these, in turn, might indirectly affect the society at large. They attempted to counter secular normlessness by giving young men and women a scientific education combined with moral values. In the past 25 or so years, the movement has established a half dozen widely circulated newspapers and magazines, a television and two radio stations, and has also founded more than 300 schools and study centers in Turkey and several hundred similar institutions in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans and as far away as South Africa, Russia and Mexico. This is the Islamic brave new world. Instead of rejecting the West as evil, as Muslims previously did, the movement’s publications support Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union.
Theorists define social movements as weapons of relatively powerless groups seeking to remedy the wrongs of a society without seeking political power for themselves. Such movements require a constancy of discontent, political opportunity and framing. It is inaccurate to speak of leaders. The movements arise when inspired individuals are able to frame an issue in such a way that others are inspired to acts of courage and selflessness. An ability to change tactics and directions as the times require, without losing sight of their purpose, is their major strength.
As a social movement, this Islam is without an organizational chart or dues paying members. It does not have a leader in the sense of someone shaking hands, making speeches and presiding over meetings. It does not even have a formal name. Instead, it is called the Fethullah Gulen movement, using the name of the man who currently frames its goals. In essence, Gulen does not want to confine Islam to a private domain but stresses a public religion in the formation of ethics, identity and community.
Gulen is often termed charismatic, but that seems inappropriate for someone who lives and dresses simply, including never wearing a tie. For the past 25 years, he has seldom appeared in public, except for ceremonial occasions, and has seldom been interviewed. Instead, he spreads his message through a Web page or the movement’s various publications. He became even more remote in 1999, when, because of a heart condition, he exiled himself to the United States. Exactly where is never publicized.
One of the movement’s publications is The Fountain, a quarterly magazine in English. In the July/September 2003 issue, Gulen wrote:
Our spiritual life has been to a large part extinguished for many years; our religious world has become dysfunctional . . . . [B]igotry has been built instead of firmness of character, strength of religion and perseverance in truth. . . . Many eras and lands have seen movements that claimed to be reformations and reconstructions.
Such claims have always been controversial. One domain is now ripe for genuine reformation that will embrace all creation: the Muslim World.
For the traditional Salafi (purist) guardians of Islam, reformation is a forbidden word. They insist that the Quran and the teachings of the early caliphs are perfect and need no reformation. But Sufis have always experimented with the many paths to God. They were also conscious of the world around them and ready to proffer advice or reprimands to rulers. The educational and scientific reformation that Gulen advocates has its origins in Sufism and the teachings of Said Nursi.
THE WONDER OF THE AGE
Nursi was born in 1877 to a Sufi family in a village in the Eastern (Kurdish) provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After five years of Arabic studies in traditional medreses (religious schools), Nursi completed higher studies in only three months and challenged his teachers to debate him on any subject. When he was about 15, he absorbed whatever he could find of the scientific and philosophic teachings of his times to the extent of memorizing about 40 books and was given the sobriquet Bediuzzaman (wonder of the age). He began to frame concepts that would challenge the intransigence of the entrenched ulema. Instead of rejecting modernity, he embraced science and reason as evidence of the greatness of God.1
When he was 19 or 20, Nursi moved to the eastern city of Van. As a known scholar, he was invited to live in the house of the provincial governor, Tahir Pasha. One day, Tahir Pasha pointed out a newspaper article with a purported quotation from William Gladstone, the British colonial secretary: “So long as the Muslims have the Koran, we shall be unable to dominate them. We must either take it from them, or make them lose their love of it.”
This began to shape Nursi’s mission. He declared: “I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Koran is an undying, inextinguishable sun.” He decided that the apparent weakness of Islam was due to ignorance, particularly of modern sciences. In 1907, he moved to Istanbul to persuade Sultan Abdulhamid to open a university in the eastern provinces. Once there, he found the intelligentsia mesmerized by Auguste Comte and “scientific positivism.” Nursi saw this as mere irreligious skepticism and joined an organization called the Society for Muslim Unity. He wrote: “The reason for our worldly decline was failure to observe our religion. Also, we are more in need of moral improvement than government reform.”
In 1909, there was a military rebellion. It was quickly suppressed, and Nursi was arrested on a charge of inciting revolt. He was brought before a military tribunal fully expecting that he would join the corpses hanging from a gallows in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square. In his defense, Nursi insisted that he was following the liberal principles of his accusers and that, as a constitutionalist, he was free to proclaim his beliefs. This was accepted, and he returned to his Eastern provinces to persuade the tribes that they too should accept the values of constitutionalism.
By then, his reputation as a religious scholar was firm. In 1911, he went to Damascus to deliver a sermon at the huge Umayyad Mosque, offering “remedies from the pharmacy” of the Quran for the moral strengthening of Islam. For the “sickness” of despair, he prescribed hope because Islam fostered progress. For the “sickness” of deceit, he prescribed honesty. For enmity, he prescribed love, brotherhood and affection. For disunity, his medicine was Islamic brotherhood. For despotism, it was Islamic dignity, and for individualism, consultation. “Beware, my brothers,” he added, “do not imagine that I am urging you with these words to busy yourselves with politics. God forbid! The truth of Islam is above politics.”2
When Nursi first arrived in Istanbul, he wore the flowing robe of a tribesman with a pistol and a dagger in his sash. The onset of World War I and the invasion of the Ottoman Empire by a combined Russian Armenian army triggered a defensive jihad for which Nursi was appointed to raise a militia. Captured when his leg was broken in battle, he was imprisoned in a camp at Kosturma in far northwestern Russia.
Nursi escaped during the Communist revolution, found his way to Germany, where he was welcomed as an Ottoman ally, and sent back to a hero’s welcome in Istanbul in 1918. When Ataturk shaped the boundaries of the new Turkey, he invited Nursi to join the government in Ankara. Once there, Nursi, the untiring defender of Islam, argued that the government was moving toward skepticism. He was soon convinced of the futility of his protests and, in 1923, returned to the eastern city of Van.
His life from then on might best be summarized by what he termed a manevi jihad, a “jihad of the word” or “moral jihad” for the renewal of faith. To preserve the purity of this jihad, he taught that followers had to remain separate from politics or “material” struggle.3 These are among the concepts that would later shape the Fethullah Gulen social movement.
Nursi exchanged his Kurdish-style dress for the robe of a religious scholar and lived for three years in a cave high in the mountains, coming down only in the winter months. Nevertheless, in 1926, he was falsely accused by one of the many Kurdish tribal leaders of supporting a revolution and was ordered into exile in Barla in the mountains of western Turkey. This was the start of 24 years of prison or house arrest. In Barla, a village reachable only by foot or donkey, he found the seclusion he sought. Sometimes he perched on a platform in a high tree. These platforms would become a feature of his life; favorable “for reading the book of the universe.” With this peace, he wrote thesis after thesis to interpret the Quran’s inner roots: on the creator and the created; on life, death and the hereafter; on God’s place in the world; and on love and service. These would form his magnum opus, Risale-i Nur (The Treatise of Light).
His writings, in the Arabic script that had been replaced by Turkish in a modified Latin script, attracted students (Nursi called everyone who helped him a “student”), who copied them to be secretly hand-carried to other places and more copies made. This passing on of papers in the banned Arabic script could not be ignored by the guardians of Turkey’s secularism. Two officials were assigned to keep visitors away and to watch Nursi’s every movement. When he first arrived, he had repaired an old mosque. Now it was raided even during prayers and finally closed permanently. He wrote to one of his students that things had become intolerable: “I can’t even go out into the countryside. I live in my damp room as though living in the grave.”
The letter was shown to the governor of the province, who ordered Nursi to be taken to the small city of Isparta. As usual, he was kept under tight seclusion, so his nine-month sojurn was one of the most fruitful periods for writing large segments of the Risale. Again, despite constant surveillance, they were spirited away to be copied and distributed for more copies to be made.
Bediuzzaman usually kept himself indoors, but one day in April 1935 he went to a mosque for Friday prayers and thousands of people poured into the streets to see him. The town’s governor sent urgent wires to Ankara saying: “Bediuzzaman and his students have taken to the streets. They are storming the government building.” Newspapers reported that a “network of reactionaries” had been uncovered. Troops were sent and Nursi and 31 of his students were handcuffed in pairs and forced into trucks at bayonet point. People, weeping, gathered in the streets, certain this foretold their execution. They were taken to a prison at Eskisehir in the then-desolate uplands of Central Anatolia while the police searched for other “conspirators.” One hundred and twenty of his students were imprisoned, among them an optician who had treated one of the actual students, for which Bediuzzaman wrote a note of thanks. That was enough to be put in the hell of Eskisehir.
Nursi was held in solitary confinement while the others were herded into a large ward. A hole was dug for a toilet. Amid cockroaches, fleas and stench, the students were convinced they were awaiting the gallows. But later the students were taken to separate wards. They would rise early for the first of the five daily prayers and begin the day with a complete recital of the Quran, rotating by sections of a thirtieth part. From time to time a hoja (learned man) among them would sing, and then the readings would resume so that the Quran was recited several times a day.
Nursi and the others had been arrested for, among other things, exploiting religion for political ends and organizing a group that might be harmful to public security. After about a year they were tried and acquitted, but Nursi was immediately tried on different charges and kept in confinement for another eleven months. After a new acquittal, he was released in 1936 and sent to Kastamonu in the mountains south of the Black Sea, where he spent seven and a half years under constant surveillance and harassment, still writing ceaselessly. The cadre of high-school and university-educated students was growing. Hundreds were willing to risk arrest by copying, distributing and studying the ever growing Risale message of an acceptance of modern science.
Again, this could not be ignored, and Nursi was arrested in 1943 along with another 126 students on the same charges that had previously resulted in acquittal. They were taken to a prison in the town of Denizli in the mountains of the southeast and put in damp, airless, mosquito- and lice-infested cells with high, small, heavily barred windows. Low-wattage electric bulbs, even when on, left the cells and dormitories in perpetual gloom. Nursi’s cell was so small a bed could scarcely fit into it, with one small window overlooking the exercise yard for long-term prisoners. When the prisoners had to appear in court, they were handcuffed in pairs in a long line between gendarmes with fixed bayonets and marched between rows of the people of Denizli who lined the route. They were convinced that Nursi was a miracle worker. Rumors had spread that he appeared at the mosque for evening prayers while his jailers insisted that he never left his cell.
Prison conditions eased when the effect that Nursi and his students had on the other prisoners was noticed. Hardened criminals began to pray and study the Quran. One man, who had murdered four people, memorized the last 22 suras and thereby earned the right to lead others in prayer.4
After nine months, in 1944 all were acquitted. Nursi, however, was kept under house arrest in the small town of Emirdag. Guards were posted at his door and windows, but a secret entrance was opened through a hole cut in the wall of a shop next door. By then, the students had discovered mimeograph machines to copy and distribute the continually expanding Risale. Nursi asked them not to resist the government but to create an inner dimension beyond the reach of the state. The mere fact of their existence, however, was enough to excite suspicion of a political threat.
Nursi was imprisoned for a third time in 1948 in the town of Afyon along with 45 of his students. Conditions were harsh. The weather was freezing. He was over 70 years old and weak. He was kept in solitary confinement, yet his students managed to care for him and carry away his writings. The new arrest actually helped his cause. By the end of World War II, the literacy rate had soared so that his defense speeches could be read throughout Turkey, with growing sympathy for him and for Islam.
He was released from Afyon prison late in 1949 after serving 20 months. Eight months later, in the general elections of 1950, the Republican People’s party, which had been in power for 25 years, was defeated by a huge majority and replaced by the Democrat party of Adnan Menderes, who began to dismantle some of the restrictions on religion, including repeal of the law banning the Arabic call to prayer.
Nursi, who had hardly read a newspaper during his years of jail and house arrest, began to take an interest in life around him. As a prisoner-of-war witness to the birth of Soviet Communism, he wrote letters to members of the government saying the Risale would strengthen defenses against Communist atheism. He supported the government’s 1951 decision to send troops to fight the Communists in Korea and similarly supported the 1955 anticommunist Baghdad Pact. Another reason he gave for favoring the pact was that it fostered the “friendship” of the Christian West. Earlier, in 1950, he had sent a book of his writings to Pope Pius XII and received back a handwritten note of thanks. He also visited the Greek Orthodox Christian patriarch of Istanbul to urge unity between Christians and Muslims against “aggressive atheism.”
Nursi died in March 1960. His only possessions were his gown, a watch and a few odds and ends. The following May, a coup overthrew the Menderes government. In July, Nursi’s tomb was smashed and his body flown to the mountains of Southwestern Turkey for reburial in a place that has yet to be made known. It was a fruitless thing to do. Traditionally, the tomb of a revered Sufi sheikh is where his memory and teachings are kept alive, but long before his death Nursi had symbolically renounced a cult center. He wrote, “The present age is not the age of the tariqa.” That is, believers should not isolate themselves around the tomb of a saint but should join the struggles of the world.
Nursi’s permanent memorial is in the more than 5,000 pages of his teachings. After a court in 1956 cleared the Risale of all charges, copies in the Arabic script no longer had to be reproduced by mimeograph. His followers, numbering in the thousands, printed it in the Latin alphabet of modern Turkish for mass circulation, a greater monument than bricks and mortar.
The Risale freed Turkish Muslims from stagnant traditionalism. Rather than expounding text or verse, Nursi extracted a composite message from hundreds of verses. He once explained that a 1926 treatise “consists of a few droplets filtered from hundreds of verses.” He held that the sciences must be read for deeper meanings. As he wrote, they “continuously speak of God and make known the Creator, each in its own particular tongue.”5
His followers gathered in study centers to seek to understand them, sharing insights and interpretations. This gave the Nur movement, as it had come to be called, a flexibility that widened its appeal. It made the text, not its author, the center of the movement. This was no accident. Nursi desired no personality cult. He spoke of a brotherhood: “It is not the means which is between father and son, or sheikh and follower.” And, “There can be no position of father among brothers, nor can they assume the position of spiritual guide.”6
A JOHN WESLEY ANALOGY
There is a danger of over-simplification in taking a term from one culture and applying it to another. The Reformation in Europe implies both an institutional and an individual renewal; just patching up Islam would not be a reformation. However, the validity of terming Said Nursi’s teachings as at least the beginnings of a reformation can be tested by citing analogies between his teachings and those of Britain’s John Wesley (1703-91). This would appear to show that a paradigmatic Protestant reformer and an equally paradigmatic Islamic reformer, living 150 years apart and displaying banners with different devices, marched to the beat of the same Drummer to give flesh to ossified revelations.
Nursi opposed the closed and isolated Sufi tariqas. Wesley, in a 1740 sermon titled Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount – Discourse IV, wrote,
Christianity is essentially a social religion, and . . . to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it. I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all, without society, without living and conversing with other men.
Nursi and his followers were jailed for conspiring to subvert the mandated secular society. Wesley and his followers were stoned and beaten for staging seditious meetings. In an April 1761 letter Wesley wrote,
This preaching is not subversive of any good order whatever. It is only subversive of that vile abuse of the good order of the Church whereby men who neither preach nor live the gospel are suffered publicly to overturn it from the foundation.
Nursi’s 5,000 pages of treatises and letters created a massive Muslim learning community just as Wesley’s more than 130 published sermons and 243 books and pamphlets created a Methodist learning community. The Nur movement consisted of communities, not individuals, gathered in dershanes to shape their lives through the study of the Risale. The heart of Wesley’s “United Societies,” (a name he preferred to Methodist) were class meetings where the devout sang, prayed and recognized the transcendental source of their well-being while sharing insights and practical wisdom.
Nursi taught that the function of the Risale-i Nur was to transform “imitative belief” into “certain belief.” In particular, he wrote that the function of the chapter titled the “Koran of Miraculous Exposition” was to advance through “the infinite degrees of belief.”7
An analogy for the change from imitative belief is Wesley’s “born again” experience. In a 1761 sermon titled “On Patience,” he wrote:
Whereas in that moment when we are justified freely by His grace . . . we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit. . . . There is, in that hour, a general change from inward sinfulness, to inward holiness. The love of the creature is changed to the love of the Creator; the love of the world into the love of God.
Nursi’s degrees of faith are Wesley’s (and the Bible’s) salvation, repentance, justification and sanctification. In a 1785 sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” he wrote,
[Salvation] begins the moment we are justified . . . . It gradually increases from that moment, as “a grain of mustard-seed, which, at first, is the least of all seeds,” but afterwards puts forth large branches and becomes a great tree; till, in another instant, the heart is cleansed from all sin and filled with pure love of God and man.
Nursi taught the unity of science and religion. Wesley, who lived at the dawn of England’s Age of Reason, refused to accept a dichotomized thought pattern with science and reason on one side and religion and irrationality on the other. In his Journal for November 27, 1750, he wrote, “I am for both; for faith to perfect my reason, by the Spirit of God not putting out the eyes of my understanding, but enlightening them more and more.”
Nursi introduced new methods of religious interpretation. Wesley too was not tied to the dogma of a purely literal reading of a text, reducing it to a historical document and depriving faith of its redemptive significance. In a 1748 letter to Victor Perronet reviewing the beginnings of his movement, he wrote, “The points we chiefly insisted upon were . . . that orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.”
Nursi, preaching to a congregation numbering in the thousands at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, offered remedies from “the pharmacy of the Koran.” Wesley’s prescription was love. “Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God,” he wrote in a June 1746 essay titled Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained. “This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disorderly world, for all the miseries and vices of men.”
Among Muslims, “pope” was a hated word. That Pope Urban II, who ordered the Crusades, did so in 1095 hardly mattered; all popes were anathematized. In 1951, Nursi initiated what would be a major attempt to slip the bounds of hatred by sending copies of his writings to Pope Pius XII in the Vatican. It was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that the assembled bishops approved a decree calling on Catholics to have “respect and esteem” for Muslims.
Wesley similarly reached out to Irish Roman Catholics when the wounds of a century and a half of religious wars still festered. In July 1749, he wrote a letter to Dublin titled simply “To a Roman Catholic”:
You have heard ten thousand stories of us who are commonly called Protestants, of which, if you believe only one in a thousand, you must think very hardly of us. . . . I do not suppose all the bitterness is on your side. I know there is too much on our side also – so much, that I fear many Protestants (so called) will be angry at me too for writing to you in this manner . . . . In the name then, and in the strength of God, let us resolve first, not to hurt one another; to do nothing unkind or unfriendly to each other . . . . Let us resolve, secondly, God being our helper, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other. . . . Let us, thirdly, resolve to harbor no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper, towards each other . . . . Let us, fourthly, endeavor to help each other in whatever we agree leads to the kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God.
When Wesley’s United Societies were transplanted to the United States in the form of the established Methodist church, they soon became the largest Protestant denomination. This was the all-embracing Christianity that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville, who reasoned that voluntary groups, whether in churches or businesses, were vital to the formation of American democracy. Fethullah Gulen’s teachings serve this function in Turkey.
THE FETHULLAH GULEN SOCIAL MOVEMENT
The Nur movement fragmented after Said Nursi’s death, for the lack of a designated successor. As offshoots appeared, prosecutors stamped them out. Between May 1960 and February 1965, court cases were filed against 352 identifiable targets.8 In addition, a weekly, Irsad (Guidance), which was started in Ankara in 1962, was closed. A weekly, Ihlas (Devotion), started in 1963, was also banned. When a weekly, Zulfikar (the name of Ali’s sword), was started in 1964, the government confiscated ten of its first eleven issues. A weekly, Ijtihad (Reason), was started in 1969 and banned by a military court in 1971.9 Only one publication, Yeni Asya (New Asia), started in 1971 for the limited purpose of disseminating the Risale, survives today with a modest circulation and an Internet website.
By the end of the 1960s, hopes for an Islam of science, peace and nonviolence had coalesced around Fethullah Gulen. He was born in 1938 in a village in the Erzurum Province of eastern Turkey. Upon graduation from a private divinity school in 1958, he obtained his license as a preacher and became a government-appointed trainer at youth camps, mostly for university students. In 1966, he was transferred to Izmir, the third largest province in Turkey, and began to travel from city to city to give lectures in schools and homes on basic Islamic principles and the writings of Said Nursi.
In the early 1960s, Gulen had organizational ties with a militant group known as the Association for Fighting Communism, thus sharing Said Nursi’s conviction that Communist atheism was a threat to Islam. Emerging Anatolian businessmen realized that Gulen and his followers were not only fostering an Islamic identity, they were also countering the almost solid grip of communist and socialist high-school and university teachers, who opposed religion in any form.
But by the early ’70s, Gulen realized it was an error to be so closely associated with politics in any form. With business support, the movement opened dormitories for high-school students from families flooding in from the countryside. Then it opened university preparatory schools specializing in science studies, and in 1979, the movement began publication of Sizinti (Disclosures) magazine to synthesize Islamic and scientific knowledge.
Although he kept his distance from politics, Gulen, after a military coup in 1971, was arrested on charges of seeking to “change the social, political and economic basis of the regime in Turkey and founding an association and secret community for this purpose.” He was released after seven months without punishment and continued to travel as a preacher from city to city. His sermons were distributed on about 250 cassettes. He began to be called hodjaefendi (honored teacher).
In 1980, after another coup, prosecutors initiated a new case against him, but this time he was not arrested, due to the junta’s relative tolerance for Islam as an antidote to fierce urban clashes between communists and rightists that were responsible for as many as 80 deaths a night in Istanbul. Still, his followers thought Gulen should drop out of sight. They provided him with modest homes in Izmir and Istanbul, where he could continue to write and teach.
In 1995, Gulen was once again charged with “activities against secularism and intention to set up a theocratic state.” An immediate arrest order was cancelled, but the years passed and the charges were like a scimitar hanging over his head. In March 1999, he moved to a small town in New Jersey.
His trial in absentia dragged on for years. In November 2001, Gulen responded to some of the charges against him in a deposition before a U.S. federal court in Newark. He said that in 1966, when he was 25 years old, he was offered a seat in parliament but, “I chose to be close to God, to do God’s will instead of taking that position.” In reply to a direct question: “Do you seek or have you ever sought to bring religion . . . into the operation of the government?” he replied: “Not in the slightest and quite on the contrary; I have deemed that to be disrespectful of religion.”
THE GULEN SCHOOLS
So many schools and other centers have opened in so many countries that repeated requests for accurate numbers and the names of all the countries involved are turned away with the explanation that they are part of a social movement with no established center to maintain records. The overseas schools are concentrated in the historic Turkish lands of Central Asia with, according to one study, 29 in Kazakhstan, 12 in Uzbekistan, 15 in Turkmenistan, 12 in Kyrgyzstan, five in Tajikistan and another 12 in Azerbaijan. Together they are said to have almost 20,000 students.10 The school buildings are supplied by the host countries, along with water, electricity and other utilities, and teachers for the local languages, geography and sports. The host country also mandates the curriculum.
The Gulen movement provides highly qualified teachers plus supplies for language, science and computer classes limited to a maximum of 25 boys or girls plus dormitory facilities. High school lasts five years. The first year is devoted mainly to learning English, since the computer and science classes are taught entirely in English. Students also learn, in addition to their mother tongue, Turkish and Russian, so that they graduate with an ability to speak and read four languages.
The schools and other institutions are organized under local Turkish entities such as the Turkish Bashkent Education Company in Kazakhstan or the Sabat Educational Institution in Kyrgyzstan, with a Turkish general director who is responsible for maintaining good relations with the host country and the movement’s representatives in Turkey.
Entrance is by a stiff examination. Tuition varies according to nation and location. Kyrgyzstan, on the border of China wedged between the towering Pamir and Tien Shan ranges, is an example of the Gulen movement’s far reach. Tuition in Bishkek, the capital, for separate high schools for boys or girls is the equivalent of $600 a year. In a smaller, more rural city, such as Jalalabad, it is about $250. A student who ranks first in the entrance exam is awarded a 50-percent discount, with lesser discounts for second and third place. Since a thorough knowledge of English and computer literacy is almost a guarantee for entry into a good university, the demand for places is intense. In 2002, 42,000 applied for the 1,200 places in the twelve Kyrgyz high schools. The schools are intensely competitive with quarterly tests. The standing of each student in a class is posted on a bar graph. Another quarterly graph rates each class. A final one ranks the comparative standing of all 14 high schools.
Students wear a uniform (a plaid dress and knee socks for girls, a blue jacket, white shirt and tie and tan trousers for boys) and must sleep in a dorm, usually on the third floor, even if their family lives locally. Students may not leave the school grounds without permission. After classes, they have three hours for play or music or art class followed by a meal and three hours of homework. A specially chosen university student lives with them in their dorm to help and guide them. Moreover, the computers are just downstairs, and they have 24-hour Internet access to search for answers in online encyclopedias or just to expand the horizons of their minds.
Living in a dorm with as many as twenty-five to a room shapes them into a community. The four languages teach them that despite surface differences, people are the same. Frequent competitive exams teach them to work hard. “We are preparing them for life, not only educating them,” one teacher said.
It is not just the curriculum that makes the schools so attractive for parents; it is also the discipline. A story, perhaps apocryphal, is told of a mother in Turkmenistan who begged and pleaded that her son be taken into a Gulen school. When asked why she replied, “I have a neighbor. Her boy was running around wild but since he went to that school he is an angel. I want my son to be like him.”
Sebat has also established a small university, a multi-level school for the children of diplomats and businessmen stationed temporarily in Bishkek and a general computer and language school for those who simply want to improve their job or life skills. In reply to a question, Orhan Inandi, the director of the Sebat Kyrgyz Institution, said the budget for these 15 institutions was the equivalent of $1 million a year, with 40 percent realized from tuitions and the other 60 percent from businessmen in Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands or locally.
What prompts such generosity? When asked, the head of a large Turkish corporation in Kazakhstan gave four reasons. The first was that the Quran taught him to give part of his wealth to those who need it. The second was ethnic: he saw Central Asia as the land of his remote ancestors. The third was patriotic: to increase the prestige of Turkey in the world. The fourth was pragmatic: he needed educated, English and Turkish speakers for his business.
Although the sponsors might be motivated by Islam, neither the Quran nor the works of Said Nursi and Gulen are displayed in these schools. Early in his career, Gulen concluded that a narrow focus on teaching religion in a secular society was fruitless, while the teaching of science could serve religious needs by forming a basis for social stability. He realized that a scientific, computer-based education would attract the sons and daughters of the elite, who would become a society’s future gatekeepers. In effect, he reasoned that if these young men and women were simultaneously motivated by conservative teachers to accept the values of hard work, non-violence and service to their country and community, they would embody the essential teachings of Islam and all other religions.
Another element of the social movement – the dershanes (study groups) – remains strong although seldom noticed. A young woman, now a school teacher, told of her experience as a high-school student about ten years earlier. A fellow student told her of a nearby apartment rented by the Gulen movement for students from rural areas. She went over and found new friends. The house mother read to them from the works of Said Nursi about life and death and living with God. She took it upon herself to recruit other girls from her school to attend the sessions until her mother found out and accused the house mother of misleading her daughter. The girl had to stop. “I have so many good memories,” she said. “I learned about God and the hereafter. I believe in God.” That was in the early days, when the movement rented apartments.
Another woman, a 22-year-old university graduate employed as a marketing assistant, wore the Islamic headscarf covering her hair and neck. She spoke English with an American accent. She explained she had been raised in Chicago, where her father, employed by the Turkish government, was stationed:
I was a kid when I heard about Fethullah Gulen. When we got back to Turkey, I started reading his books. There is one thing about Fethullah Gulen. He never says, this is my idea. He will die just like everyone else. It is not about himself; it is his message. I began to discuss him with friends. One of them invited me to come to her friend’s house. There were four or five girls there. If someone faced difficulties, we would talk about it and tell each other that we must be patient and that God will show us a way.
We talked about the universe and why we are here. Why do we have needs? What is it that makes us want to do something? What is the uniting force of life? The group began to make an analogy with the love that you feel for a person. You always want to be with this person. But when you see this person’s inconsistencies, you feel there is something missing and that love must be something bigger. It is infinite. Fethullah tries to make us aware that we are not here for nothing. If we talk about rationality, it would be unreasonable not to take heed of what God is saying.
As another example, about ten doctors gather every two weeks in rotation at one of their houses, among them a chief surgeon. All hold substantial positions. The meeting is in Turkish. A teacher reads from a book of Said Nursi and then from the writings of Fethullah Gulen, interrupted by questions from the doctors sitting in an open circle. One of the doctors later explained, in English, that the teacher had described the battle in each person’s heart between sin and wellbeing, between Satan and belief. He quoted him as saying that this continues as long as life continues, so that each Muslim should be ready at every minute for the Great Meeting, the time of death. There would be an examination or test. If they pass, they will go to Paradise.
Another doctor, speaking English, said he learned about Fethullah about 20 years earlier by listening to his cassettes. “They were very common in my school and neighborhood,” he said. Still another, also in English, said,
When I heard a lecture by Fethullah Gulen, I was impressed by his different approach. He explained Islam as a religion that you have to live every minute of your life. He made me think of the future of our nation and Muslims all over the world. He was talking about transmitting the message to other peoples in other countries. I felt I have to bring this message to other people.
FUNDING AND MEDIA
For any large social movement to survive and be effective it must have a positive attitude toward money. Here another analogy with John Wesley is helpful. Wesley did not believe money was the root of evil. He said the evil was in its use. In a July 1789 sermon titled “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” he stated three rules: “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can” and lamented that most Methodists observed the first two but only one in a hundred observed the third. Wesley, who led an austere life and kept no money for himself, was tireless in asking the rich to see themselves as custodians of God-given wealth with a duty to share it with the poor and thus store up rewards for the life to come.
Gulen’s attitude is the same. In his latest book, Kirik Testi (Broken Pitcher), Gulen presents a different concept of takwa (religious devotion). In the classical interpretation, takwa has been defined as a concentration on such practices as praying and fasting. Gulen maintains that takwa means a Muslim’s efforts in all fields, from economics to technology. Thus, he writes, it is takwa for Muslims to represent good administration and to work to improve health conditions. He also stresses financial competence. Despite the traditional understanding that money is a threat to a Muslim’s devotion, Gulen sees it as a neutral instrument that can be used for the good of society. With this reasoning, since the early years of the movement, he has invited his followers to become economically strong.11
John Wesley used every opening to gain a favorable press (to the extent of writing essay-length letters to publishers to counter criticism). The Gulen movement is similarly media-minded. It established the newspaper Zaman in 1986 with capital from businessmen. It has grown from a circulation of 2,500 to about 300,000, ranking about fourth among Turkish papers. In 1994, the owners started Aksiyon (Action), a news magazine like Time or Newsweek. Its circulation, 45,000 a week, is the largest in Turkey. A year later, they began a news agency on the order of the Associated Press. It supplies teletype news stories and video clips for television stations.
Another foundation operates the Samanyolu (Milky Way) TV station and two radio stations that are heard throughout the Middle East. The Turkish Teachers’ Foundation, another movement agency, publishes the monthly journal Sizinti and two academic journals, Yeni Umit (New Hope) and Fountain. The assistant managing editor of Zaman and associated publications is Eyup Can, who has a degree from Harvard. Dressed in black, he was serious and factual, like others with authority in the movement:
Fethullah Gulen was a preacher. He is extraordinary. When he asked businessmen to open schools, they were eager to do something not only for Fethullah Gulen but also something good for our country and our religion. Then he met businessmen and told them to start newspapers. We are a newspaper. Our owners like Fethullah’s ideas and are in touch with his thoughts, but they do not use editorials to teach these thoughts. This is a profitable and growing business-oriented, professional institution. We publish a daily newspaper under our name in Germany and small newspapers two or three times a week in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Bulgaria. We also have a website in English.
In reply to a question, he said Zaman had some restrictions on the stories covered or advertisements it printed. “We are trying to upgrade the quality of journalism in Turkey,” he continued. He opened Zaman to the final page:
Here we have an op-ed page. You don’t find this in other papers. This man (pointing to a picture) is a social democrat. This one (pointing again) comes from a leftist background and this one (pointing), is a conservative intellectual. We also have our own opinions. We are for joining the European Union because it is good for our country and it helps us to fulfill the needs of the people.
After Nursi’s death, Fethullah Gulen expanded and broadened the dialogue that Said Nursi had initiated. He called on the pope at the Vatican in February 1998 and has also met the patriarchs of the Turkish Orthodox and Turkish Armenian communities, the chief rabbi of the Jewish community and Cardinal John O’Connor in New York. He once told a reporter: “The interpretation of the Quran, in my view, tells us to embrace all human beings. The Turks have been interpreting Islam this way for nine centuries.” He has also said: “Let us not be manipulated by our differences. Today’s man is civilized. We can reach agreement by dialogue. Things could be explained logically, not by using force.”
1 This and the following are drawn from Sukran Vahide, The Author of the Risale i-Nur Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Istanbul, Turkey: Sozler Publications, New Revised Edition, 2000).
2 Ibid, p. 76.
3 Sukran Vahide, Said Nursi’s Interpretation of Jihad, in Islam at the Crossroads, ed. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi (Albany: State University of NY Press, 2003), pp. 83-105.
4 Vahide, The Author of the Risale i-Nur, pp. 279-80.
5 Sukran Vahide, “Toward an Intellectual Biography of Said Nursi,” Islam at the Crossroads, pp. 10-11, 13, 15-16.
6 Metin Karabasoglu, “Text and Community: An analysis of the of the Risale i-Nur Movement,” Islam at the Crossroads, pp. 275-6, 293.
7 Vahide, The Author of the Risale i-Nur, pp. 250-51.
8 Metin Karabasoglu, “Text and Community,” p. 293.
9 M. Hakan Yuvuz, “Nur Study Circles (Dershanes) and the Formation of New Religious Consciousness in Turkey,” Islam at the Crossroads, p. 315.
10 Bayram Balci, “Fethullah Gulen’s Missionary Schools in Central Asia and their Role in the Spreading of Turkism and Islam,” Religion, State & Society, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2003, p. 156.
11 Fetullah Gulen, Kirik Testi (Istanbul: Kaynak, 2003), pp. 298-304.