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A response to Rachel Sharon-Krespin’s ‘Fethullah Gülen’s Grand Ambition: Turkey’s Islamist Danger’
My heart sank as I read the recent article by Rachel Sharon-Krespin, "Fethullah Gülen's Grand Ambition: Turkey's Islamist Danger" (Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2009, pp. 55-66).
If she is right, then we might as well abandon all reasonable hope of seeing progressive civil society organizations emerging in the Muslim world anytime soon. Judging from this piece by Sharon-Krespin and earlier works by her colleagues Michael Rubin and Daniel Pipes at the Middle East Quarterly, these commentators appear to have been uncritically swayed by the views and dark fears of secular ultra-nationalists when it comes to their assessment of Turkish affairs.
Rubin and Pipes are smart guys, and I agree with much of what they write in other contexts. Nevertheless, I take a generally more optimistic position on contemporary Islamic movements than they do and am not at all persuaded that we are witnessing a "clash of civilizations." I think that it is a mistake on every level to live in such fear of Islam that we see danger in every corner, even where it does not exist, and fail to see the good that plainly does exist. Even so, I see myself as a realist -- I am no fan of Islamist politics and activism in any form -- although I would argue that some forms are preferable to others -- and would be the first to be concerned if I thought that what Sharon-Krespin was arguing was indeed true.
I loathe the violence and hatred of the militant Islamist groups that have arisen out of the Muslim Brotherhood and regard jihadi terrorism as a real and continuing threat. I am not, however, convinced that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is in fact Islamist (I would see it being better understood as being post-Islamist) in the manner of Necmettin Erbakan and the Milli Görüş movement that preceded it. But I would not claim to be an expert on Turkish politics and have not studied matters carefully enough to form a proper assessment of the AK Party.
When it comes to the Gülen movement, however, I feel a good deal more confident in my reading of the movement's true character and intentions. And, frankly, I am simply not persuaded by the Sharon-Krespin line. She certainly writes sufficiently well that were I completely unfamiliar with the issues I might be inclined to believe her. The 58 footnotes accompanying her article give it an air of substance and credibility. But on closer examination the article appears to be little more than a pastiche of partisan and prejudiced assertions and the references don't offer the academic support that their sheer volume initially suggests.
I have done a moderate amount of research on the Gülen movement over the past five years, in the context of spending 20 years studying similar Islamic movements in Asia, and feel, to my own satisfaction, that I have obtained a fairly good understanding of the movement. Like virtually everything of consequence in Turkish society, Fethullah Gülen and the movement associated with him attracts diverse responses from a nation still recovering from a turbulent history marked by deep polarization. The ultranationalist right, including elements of the military, views civil-sphere movements in general, and religion-based movements in particular, with deep suspicion. Moreover, the somewhat fractured and polarized nature of Turkish society, though considerably moderated now, manifests itself in reports in the newspapers and other organs of the various camps habitually identifying vast conspiracies and hidden agenda linked to rival camps. It is not surprising then that Gülen continues to be viewed with suspicion by some within the Turkish establishment. But basing a scholarly article, even in part, on sensationalist stories run in staunchly secular newspapers like Cumhuriyet and ultranationalist tabloids like Milliyet and Hürriyet is misleading.
For what it is worth, the following are my brief responses to some of the key assertions made by Sharon-Krespin, in the order in which they appear in her article:
The Gülen movement has been comparatively well studied over the past decade and has become increasingly self-reflexive. I have found the movement to be remarkably open and have not found research access at all difficult, nor have I ever felt pressured to take a particular line in what I write or say about it. If the movement really was hiding dark secrets and conspiratorial ambitions then I think that I would have discovered at least a little about them by now. Just as importantly, there is nothing I have seen that would lead me to describe it as being an Islamist movement. It is clearly, in certain respects, a socially conservative and pietistic movement, but it nevertheless stands diametrically opposed to Islamism. The fact that Gülen was openly critical of Erbakan as prime minister, disagreeing with the (relatively soft) Islamist policies of the Virtue Party (FP) and the Milli Görüş (National Vision) movement associated with Erbakan is but one of many pieces of evidence pointing to his aversion to Islamist ideas.
Translating hocaefendi as "master lord," as is done in this article, is a bit misleading -- teachers are regularly referred to as "hoca" in Turkish Islamic circles and "effendi" is used freely in conversation in much the same way as the word "sir" is in America. Certainly, Gülen is regarded with great respect and affection within the movement, but this is in keeping with the pattern of pious Muslim society in Turkey and across the Muslim world, and parallels common Christian and Jewish practice.
In my observation, the Gülen movement's commitment to dialogue and tolerance is profound and genuine. In fact, I know of no other large Islamic movement anywhere that is so consistently and convincingly committed to dialogue. After years of interaction with them, I can't believe that this is all merely part of some vast charade or a stalking-horse for political ambition. I would suspect that the vast majority of Gülen movement members are personally supportive of the AK Party (after all, Turkish citizens have to vote for one party or another and the AK Party is no doubt felt by many to be the best choice available) -- but this is very different from saying that the movement, despite its frequent denials, is in fact party-political. I simply don't see any compelling evidence that the movement wants "to become the government."
The figures quoted of Turkey having 85,000 active mosques -- one for every 350 citizens seems plausible, if a little on the high side, but it needs to be understood that Gülen himself has for 30 years encouraged his followers to use their charitable giving to build schools rather than mosques on the grounds that Turkey already has plenty of mosques but lacks as sufficient number of good schools.
Moreover, conflating the position of Gülen and the Gülen movement with the policies and (alleged) intentions of the AK Party government, as this article does repeatedly, is neither fair nor reasonable. The dynamics here are altogether more complex than that, and speak as much to the relative robustness of democracy in Turkey today as they do to its weakness.
Importantly, more than ever, what is happening in Turkey gives us hope for the potential of Islam to support liberal democracy. It is not sufficient to merely assert, as Sharon-Krespin does, that "it is not clear whether the Fethullahist cemaat [community] supports the AKP or is the ruling force behind the behind the AKP. Either way, however, the effect is the same."
Similarly, it is all too easy to simply assert of Gülen that "he is a financial heavyweight, controlling an unregulated and opaque budget estimated at $25 billion." The claim is followed by a footnoted reference to an academic paper that not only gives no evidence for the fantastic figure of $25 billion quoted but rather makes a nuanced and convincing argument about how that pattern of philanthropic giving within the Gülen movement conforms to the general patterns on social and religious philanthropy in the West, as well as confirming with traditional Turkish Islamic conventions.
It is deeply misleading and offensive to claim that "Fethullah Gülen is an imam who considers himself a prophet." This is a very strong assertion but the evidence given in support of it does not go beyond hearsay and is certainly entirely out of keeping with the vast corpus of material published by and about Gülen.
Were it to be true it would involve both a vast conspiracy of silence and profound doctrinal deviation on the part of the millions involved with the movement. This is frankly not plausible.
It is also misleading to say that Gülen's "formal education is limited to five years of elementary school." It is true that his early classroom education was cut short when his family moved to the village of Alvarli in the impoverished province of Erzurum. Conditions in Turkey's mountainous far east in the 1940s was difficult. But it is noteworthy that Gülen went on to complete the official imam hatip exams and graduate from secondary school. Gülen certainly benefited from his studies with well-established Islamic scholars, but he is also a voracious reader and autodidact. A prolific author accomplished at writing for both ordinary laypeople and for scholars his Quranic scholarship and studies of Said Nursi are highly regarded by academic experts.
By any measure he is not just one Turkey's most significant contemporary intellectuals but also one of the world's leading modern Islamic intellectuals. It is, of course, reasonable to disagree with him, but it is foolish to dismiss him as a lightweight.
Sharon-Krespin makes brief reference to Nursi. She is correct in associating Gülen with Nursi's legacy, but the way in which she discusses Nursi's views suggests either deep prejudice or deep ignorance.
It is not clear where Sharon-Krespin gets the ideas that Gülen's followers "even refrain from marrying until age fifty per his instructions." Her account suggests a dour and joyless community earnestly following their leader's instructions without thinking for themselves. As a scholar of religion, I fully acknowledge that such groups do exist (including within the world of Protestant Christianity with which I am associated), but in my observation the Gülen movement is not such a group. In my dealings with members of the movement, I am struck by their consistent good humor and occasionally even mischievous sense of fun. These are people who love life and enjoy each others' company. Yes, they do tend to dress in a more conservative fashion -- although not exclusively so -- which is hardly surprising given the social origins of the movement and, like the vast majority of observant Muslims around the world, they do not drink alcohol. But to spend time in their company is to be reminded that one needs neither alcohol nor secular cool to enjoy laughter and good humor. Social conservatism is not necessarily a sign of fundamentalism.
The Gülen movement's contributions to education are indeed impressive but seem more than a little exaggerated here. And presenting them as being part of an "education jihad" based on indoctrination is more than a little unfair as it grossly misrepresents the consistently secular content of what is taught in the classrooms and the overall ethos of the schools. Different scholars will, naturally enough, have different positions on this. My own position, having observed the movement over the past five years is that it represents precisely the sort of non-Islamist, progressive, civil society movement that Muslim world needs at this point in history if it is to engage with democratic, secular, modernity. In my reading, the educational programs can be understood as broadly paralleling earlier examples of Christian and Jewish educational philanthropy in the West.
Perhaps this makes me a non-credible observer as one of the many "friends, ideological fellow-travellers, and co-opted journalists and academics." If that is the case, it would appear that I am in good company.
[*] Professor Greg Barton is a Herb Feith research professor for the study of Indonesia and acting director at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World.