By Dr. Syed Amir
17 Jan 2014
Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania
Known for his contribution to modern education, the reclusive Fethullah Gulen is being accused by the Turkish prime minister for conspiring against him
It sounds incredible that a reclusive Muslim Sufi and charismatic scholar living quietly in the peaceful foothills of the Pocono Mountains in the US state of Pennsylvania commands a vast following in Turkey, his country of birth, and exercises significant influence around the Islamic world. Fethullah Gulen, 72, has lived in the US for about seventeen years, yet most Americans have never heard of him and his name is rarely mentioned in the news media. An aura of mystery and enigma surrounds him. He came to America in 1999, seeking medical treatment and while here was accused of plotting to overthrow the secular form of government in Turkey and replacing it with an Islamic one. He never returned, even though he was subsequently exonerated of all charges.
Born near Erzurum, Eastern Turkey, into a family entrenched in Sufi traditions; Gulen is often described as a charismatic, self-effacing preacher. As a young cleric, he served at various mosques in Turkey, but soon developed a philosophy of his own that emphasized the synthesis of faith with modernity and secular education. He is believed to have drawn inspiration from the ideas and wisdom of past Sufi scholars, especially Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), and Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1877-1960). The latter was a Kurdish theologian, known for his extensive commentaries on the Quran and advocacy of the teaching of modern sciences, technology and secular education in all religious institutions. In his preaching, Nursi emphasized that Muslims should not devote energies to building more mosques, but rather to building more schools and universities.
Borrowing from Nursi, Gulen stressed the importance of acquiring western knowledge that he perceived essential for the survival and advancement of Muslims in the contemporary world. His ideas won many followers in Turkey and beyond, especially in the newly independent Republics of Central Asia. His message, which he communicates primarily through his website, is usually delivered in a subtle, gentle manner. According to some estimates there are more than 1,000 schools in many different parts of the world, including Pakistan and the United States, that blend the teaching of religion and modern sciences and are inspired by and affiliated with the Gulen movement.
In Pakistan, Turkish schools have been operating is seven cities for some years and provide intense courses in mathematics and physical sciences. They stand out in sharp contrast to antiquated madrasas that focus on religious and eschatological studies, and generate mostly unemployable, radicalized youths with no saleable skills. In 2012, a student at a Turkish school in Pakistan won the championship in mathematics in an international competition conducted by Cambridge University, highlighting the success of these institutions.
The Turkish model has also been successful in the US. According to a report aired in May 2012, by a popular weekly news program, Sixty Minutes, there were 130 charter public schools in 26 states in the US, providing high-quality, state-of-the-art science education. Competition for admission is fierce, and many of the students are drawn from underprivileged segments of society. The achievement of these schools has aroused some suspicion in this country as to the real motives behind the Gulen movement. Some have accused them of surreptitiously spreading religion and importing Turkish teachers on visas obtained on dubious grounds. None of these accusations, however, have ever been substantiated.
The Gulen movement has especially flourished in Turkey. Besides controlling a vast network of businesses, hospitals and academic institutions, it owns an Islamic bank, with assets in billions, and the country’s largest newspaper, Zaman. Many of its members occupy powerful positions in the country’s police and judiciary. Consequently, while living five-thousand miles away in self-imposed exile, Gulen exerts powerful influence and casts a long shadow on the political landscape of his homeland. He and his movement has been much in the news lately, because of their embroilment in a quarrel with the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan is currently battling an existential threat to his political survival as some of his close associates have been implicated in corruption and bribery scandals. In December, police found 4.5 million dollars concealed and stuffed in shoe boxes at the home of the manager of the state-owned bank, Halkbank. Then, the public prosecutor, Zekeriya Oz, charged the sons of three cabinet ministers with bribery and corruption that led to the resignation of their fathers. Many influential members of Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been arrested on various charges of corruption and misconduct in awarding Government contracts. Angered by the widening net of graft investigation, Erdogan fired the public prosecutor, who is believed to be a supporter of the Gulen movement and removed hundreds of police officers from their posts, causing a furore.
Erdogan has accused foreign forces of conspiracy against his government, specifically naming Gulen and his supporters, who occupy key positions in the country, blaming them as the source of his mounting troubles. He accused them of “seeking to create a state within a state.” Gulen, however, has denied any involvement in the brewing crisis. This is an interesting turnaround in Turkish politics. Paradoxically, Erdogan and Gulen grew up with similar progressive Islamic traditions and were close allies. They cooperated for years in removing the involvement of the Turkish military from the body politic of the country, while striving to moderate the aggressive secular policies of the government.
The relations between the Gulen movement and AKP became strained last November, when the government announced the closure of Gulen education centres in Turkey that have been a significant source of income for the movement. The two powerful political movements, with Islamic orientation, have now become bitter rivals. The turmoil in Turkey is still unresolved, and has the potential to tarnish Erdogan’s luminous legacy. He has a track record of many accomplishments and remains a popular figure. However, he is facing the second major challenge to his authority within a year. Last June, his government was badly shaken with huge demonstrations against his plans to restructure a popular park in central Istanbul and had much difficulty in quelling the opposition.
Many political observers believe that Erdogan may be suffering from a familiar syndrome that commonly affects authoritarian rulers, however capable, who stay in power for too long – alienation from reality and a belief in their infallibility. He has already been in power in Turkey for eleven years and has no plans to step down until 2023, the centenary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.