Fethullah Gülen (b. 1938) is a prominent Turkish Islamic scholar and founder of the international Gülen Movement, which evolved from the Nur Movement in the 1960s. Gülen stresses education as the vehicle for transforming the contemporary world. Where Said Nursi emphasized personal transformation as a means to effect social change, Gülen looks both to personal transformation and social and political activism, and fully embraces Turkish nationalism—the defining characteristic of which is Islam, not nationality—and economic neoliberalism while stressing continuity with Turkey’s Ottoman past. Gülen has also been a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue.
Gülen’s early years in Eastern Turkey were shaped by unofficial Sufi networks and teachers, including his mother. He became a religious scholar and as a young man worked in a Qur’anic school in Izmir, Turkey, traveling frequently and sharing Said Nursi’s ideas. While he is most prominently a “Nurҫu,” or follower of Said Nursi, he has incorporated ideas of a variety of Turkish nationalist intellectuals, and underscores that Islam has a place in the public sphere and is a fundamental aspect in the creation of an ideal society. His emphasis on the role of the state and neoliberalism are legacies of the changing nature of the late Ottoman state from the vantage point of the east, including conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans and, later, the expansion of the Soviet Union and the threat it posed (many of Nursi’s followers were involved in anti-communist activism, and are markedly pro-American).
Affiliates of the Gülen Movement run an international network of private and public schools inspired by Gülen’s teachings, with over 1,000 in Turkey and abroad. The schools are typically started by businessmen, and maintain rigorous academic standards that follow secular curricula established by the state, with an emphasis on moral and ethical development. The teachers, who are expected to be role models for their students, are usually selected from among Gülen’s followers. The Gülen-inspired schools in the Balkans have been instrumental in reifying a Turkish nationalist Islam, while in the United States they follow an entirely secular and notably science and math-heavy curriculum. However, the American schools have been targeted based on xenophobic assumptions that they are crypto-religious schools that seek to spread Islam, and some have faced intense scrutiny for granting construction contracts to businesses owned by members of the Gülen Movement, favoring Turkish over local American instructors, as well as redirecting public funds towards the Movement’s uses. Gülen currently lives in the United States.
Though Gülen claims that he is uninterested in politics, he and his followers have been instrumental in supporting the rise of the AKP and Erdoğan (who himself is not a “Fethüllaҫi”). The Gülen Movement has thrived under the AKP, to such an extent that Prime Minister Erdogan was rumored to seek limitations on their power. Gülen followers, who are believed to be well-represented among the police and judiciary, were implicated in handling of Ergenekon, a coalition of ultra-nationalists seeking to incite a military coup to bring down the AKP. Rumors also abounded during the 2013 corruption scandal implicating the AKP government that it was the Gülenists who exposed AKP politicians and business affiliates, initiating an investigation that led to the arrests of several prominent figures.
The Turkish public has mixed perceptions of Gülen and his followers. While many are sympathetic, the movement has been criticized in recent years on account of its lack of organizational and financial transparency, and for this reason both Turkish secularists and some Turkish Muslims are wary of Gülenists.
Helen Rose Ebaugh, The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam (New York: Springer, 2010).
The Economist, “Turkish Politics: Justice or Revenge?” The Economist, August 10, 2013. Accessed November 1, 2013.
Suzy Hansen, “The Global Imam,” The New Republic, Vol. 241, No. 19 (2010).
Stephanie Saul, “Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas,” The New York Times, June 7, 2011.
M. Hakan Yavuz, “The Gülen Movement: The Turkish Puritans,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement, eds. M. Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), pp. 19-47.