GÜLEN AND POLITICS 1
In recent months, the well known scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen has become a target for criticism from certain Turkish political figures. In this article, I will attempt to explain Gülen’s position as regards political issues and how he has become a political instrument for the current government.
Historically, people with Islamic concerns have chosen different ways to survive (or struggle) with the secularist reforms of Kemalist Turkey. The early reforms laid down legislation that outlawed all Sufi orders and their activities (tariqas), and abolished most other religious organizations and committees, as well as denying access to or dismantling religious sites such as graveyards of the saints and Companions.
Under this strict ban, one set of religious groups either continued their activities in secret (the Qadiris, Naqshbandis and Mawlawis); a second set abolished their services (this included most of the Zaviyas and some other social centres such as food houses or asevleri).
Other scholars chose to take part in politics or the bureaucracy and to serve society as civil servants, mostly as heads of the newly established Diyanet institution (Religious Affairs).
A fourth set of scholars decided to stay away from the political sphere and bureaucracy and worked within society. Said Nursi, for instance, deliberately kept himself at a distance from politics and concentrated on writing and educating within the fields of Islamic theology and philosophy. Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan concentrated his efforts on teaching the Qur’an to the next generation. Both scholars managed to establish slow and steady community support for their causes and this transformed their communities into movements which later contributed to the development of Turkish society.
Gülen and Politics
Fethullah Gülen belongs to the same tradition as Nursi and Tunahan. Gülen encouraged his listeners to undertake responsibility for three major needs within society, namely, the need for education, the need for dialogue and the need to give in charity. His choice to remain detached from active political life does not, however, mean that Gülen has ever been apolitical or anti-political. He has, in fact, always valued the right to vote as a citizen and encouraged people to take responsibility in elections by fulfilling their duty as citizens. He has also encouraged his listeners to use their rights as citizens and to take part in all sectors of life and society, be it public or private. One could therefore safely say that he is an individual who supports the political process as a duty of citizenship. What he has avoided himself and counselled those engaged in civil society projects to avoid is partisan politics.
Gülen’s position can be summarized as open support for democracy, as well as advocating a liberal secularism where people are free to exercise their religious or non-religious activities. He has consistently maintained an “equal distance from all political parties”, ensuring he was in conversation with all in an effort to serve society by always striving to gather support for the Hizmet movement’s education projects both in Turkey and abroad.
In 1995, when Gülen stated that “democracy is an inherent value of our culture”, political Islamists challenged and criticized him. For instance, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as a young politician and a representative of political Islamism, explained at that time how he saw democracies (and elections) as mere vehicles to assume power. In contrast to Gülen’s view of democracy as a modern reflection of a value with deep cultural roots, Erdoğan stated publicly that one should know where to get off the democracy train after reaching the desired “destination”.
The only time that Gülen has made a specific political appeal was when he called on his listeners to vote for greater freedoms in the referendum on reforming some articles in the constitution. The current constitution still reflects the fact that it was prepared by a military regime in 1982, and there have been many amendments during the long and slow process of the democratization of Turkey. Moreover, as it provides guidance for the further democratization of the country, Gülen is also in favour of Turkey’s European Union membership process.
Gülen is in favour of secularism if it is defined as the religious freedom of the individual rather than state-controlled religion, the latter being the case in Turkey at present. He is confident that Islam can flourish comfortably in a free environment where no religion is favoured or oppressed. This form of secularism can be observed in the educational practice of Hizmet schools in Turkey and abroad.
To reiterate, Gülen is not against politics, nor a political system; however, he consciously refrains from involving himself in active politics where one seeks public support by elections to influence political life. Instead, Gülen prefers to concentrate on social projects within civil society and encourages voluntary public support for projects around education, dialogue and charity.
Not being party-political is one thing, having political influence is another. As a public intellectual, Islamic scholar and philanthropist Gülen certainly has credibility and spiritual influence among the masses, giving him some incidental political influence. Gülen’s call for Muslims to take part in every sphere of life and his encouragement of the development of educational activities not only resulted in the establishment of the Hizmet Movement, but has also influenced and changed other religious movements and their modes of working. A prominent example of this is in Erdoğan’s apparent shifting of his political stance from Necmeddin Erbakan’s political Islamism (the views typical of the Milli Görüs movement) towards that of a Muslim-democrat in 2002, the latter stance being more in line with Gülen than Erbakan.
Gülen’s followers are undeniably amongst the most educated religious community in Turkey. The majority of Gülen’s followers are university graduates with a very high number of them also holding post-graduate qualifications, and there are many of them who are professionals in various sectors, such as business, media, health, education, engineering and academia. The current Prime Minister, Erdoğan, is well aware of Gülen’s influence, and has, through the media, called upon Gülen to motivate his followers to support the government on several issues, including the Kurdish peace talks and the latest referendum.
Some degree of political influence can be rightly attributed to Gülen; however, with the March 29 local elections, it became evident that although the movement is still strong enough to survive and motivate participants, its political influence is limited.
Erdoğan now seems to have realised that the Hizmet movement, as a loose network of people with limited political influence, and Gülen, as a ‘silent opponent’, can be very useful as a political tool he can exploit to avoid corruption allegations and implement his own agenda in the “New Turkey”. He has increased the stridency of his tone and his efforts in such a way that they seem to target the Hizmet movement but his actual aim is clearly to redefine the future of Turkish democracy on his own terms. In this process, he is dividing conservative Muslim society in Turkey into two camps that he sees as “for us” and “against us”.
In my next article, I shall look further at how Gülen and Hizmet became a political tool for Erdoğan to frighten the voters and make it possible to legislate some of the most authoritarian laws in Turkey in recent months and the dangers of these events.