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Fethullah Gulen – Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

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Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

By Daniel Deiss and Edwin Watson in collaboration with Vladimir Avatkov

Fethullah Gulen, an imam of Turkish origin currently residing in the US, has officially been accused by Turkish authorities of organizing the July 16 military coup in Turkey. Even though an extradition treaty exists between Turkey and the US, the State Department cited the absence of clear evidence of Gulen’s complicity in the coups preparation and refused to turn him over to Turkish authorities. Over a year has passed since the original accusations were made; however, Gulen’s name has practically vanished from Turkish and US media. But what about his influence? Who is he, and what does the shadowy global organization he created represent?

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

July 16, 2016

Gulen’s adherents declare him none other than a 21st century humanitarian who opposes the clash of civilizations theory with practicing dialogue and mutual understanding among them. Gulen’s critics claim he is yet another populist attempting to establish a personal following by destroying the foundations of Islam. Others assuredly assert he’s an agent of the world government working to strengthen US and Israeli dominance in the world order.

“US is the captain of the ship, none of the organizations attempting to oppose it can hope to succeed” –Fethullah Gulen

Many believe that Gulen, being a follower of Said Nusri, a contemporary of Ataturk and his main political foe, is against Ataturk’s idea of a secular Turkey. At the same time he is representing a modernist faction of Islam which opposes the radicals.

“I said it before and will say it again: republican form of government and secularism which serve good purposes, have God’s blessing.” – Fethullah Gulen

It would appear that these assessments are polar opposites when attempting to deal with the Gulenist idea of building “a new world” in peace and in a symbiotic relationship with Islam. The Gulenist concept actively and successfully works with the changed learning style of youth in the Global Era. The concept effectively exploits both modern and traditional trends.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

A man holds a placard reading, “Take your hands of Turkish democracy” with Gulen’s portrait, in Istanbul on July 20. (Berk Ozkan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The word “effectiveness” is at the center of Gulen’s practices, while surrounded by a multitude of lovely words dear to Eastern thought. Gulen’s movement is called “Hizmet”, which can be translated loosely in English as “attendance” or “service”, but the actual meaning of this word best conveys the word “allegiance”, or more accurately, allegiance to the effectiveness of the Movement through the personal effectiveness and success of each member of the Movement.

Interestingly, it is the Hizmet movement which facilitated the current Turkish leader Erdogan’s career, his victories over opponents.

Gulen’s organization (FETO, Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü, as it is called by official Ankara) has no formal structure, cells, or written rules.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Source: AP Photo

The organizational structure has often been described as a “flexible organizational network.” Membership is not clearly defined. It exists on the boundary between education, economic relations, and religious doctrine. The organization is a huge network of large and small structures, firms, and civil initiatives, which are not formally tied to one another, but in actuality are part of the same “pyramid.” The pyramid’s foundations are education, economy, and religion. Due to the specific approaches and methods used by FETO, some experts refer to it as “Islamic freemasonry.”

Gulenists themselves claim they number 5 million members all over the world.


Gulen’s adherents place a major emphasis on education. Gulen made it a priority to raise what he describes as a “new golden generation”. In the 1960s he opened his first schools in Izmir, beginning an educational network that would expand rapidly over the next 40 years. The organization’s foundation is anchored by the thousands of schools scattered around the world, mainly in countries with a strong Islamic tradition and sizable proportion of Muslims. In most cases, these schools are not formally subordinated to Gulen and not connected to each other in any clear way.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

Click to see the full-size image

These schools are usually opened in underprivileged areas or neighborhoods, where they attract the most gifted children. Countries of Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus with a predominantly Turkic language—speaking population are a particular focus. Gulen exported his idea of private education to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. Such schools also exist in Kenya where they are called the Academy of Light, in Pakistan—Pak-Turk, and in Kyrgyzstan—Sebat. There are 25 such schools with 12.5 thousand students in Kyrgyzstan, which has a total population of 6 million. Schools of this kind, until recently, operated in 164 countries scattered across the globe.

By some estimates, Gulen’s educational empire is estimated at between $20 billion and $30 billion.

Parents prefer to send their kids to Gulenist schools with new computers and classrooms which offer free trips to Turkey and instruction in several foreign languages, rather than normal schools which are in a terrible state of underfunding and mismanagement. Gulenist schools are boarding schools. Students become drawn to the teachers who influence their charges using a variety of means. These means include joint picnics, talks, and family visits.

Many people believe that the teachers write classified evaluations of students and put together dossiers in the interests of Gulen’s organization. The students are later aided in getting accepted into good universities. Some of them go to Turkey, often to the Gazi University, while others remain in their native countries.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

Gazi University

Those who leave for Turkey represent part of the “brain drain”, and are pressured to return back home. Those who remain in their home countries are “raw material” for preparing a lobby within that country. They are the subject of intensive work. Often the graduates are not aware of the attention and help, and therefore are unaware of being part of a huge “pyramid” of Gulen’s influence.

“Don’t hurry to take power. We’ll wait, and will gather ripe fruit in 20 years. You should move through the system’s arteries so that nobody notices we exist until you reach all the centers of power. You should wait until you take the whole world on your shoulders and carry it. Until then, each step would be premature—you will simply break the egg, before the chick is hatched after 40 days.” – Fethullah Gulen


As far as economy is concerned, organizations and companies which are part of Gulen’s network get help in opening or developing their businesses, receive interest-free loans, and assistance in securing investments or contracts, but with the condition that the recipients of such assistance will help with educational or other Gulen-linked projects. Many members of that structure often are not even aware of their membership. They have links to only one layer of the pyramid and don’t suspect others exist.


With religion the situation is more complex. Gulenism is a branch of Nursism, whose aim is to change the society’s consciousness. It is also permissible to segment one’s followers and offer each group a different explanation of religious norms, and to demand different standards of discipline when practicing religion. Gulenist ideologues don’t really work on “peaceful coexistence of religions and their adherents” but rather re-interpenetration and creating a new religion for a new era.

In practice, many become part of the organization thanks to economic and educational prospects combined with liberal views and the general spirit of freedom. Gulen, after all, publicly defends Israel, allows women not to cover their heads and wear short skirts, and allows men to drink alcohol. But Gulen’s structures also actively work with another segment of society, a more conservative one, which is attracted by what they view as Gulen’s “correct” interpretation of Islam.

“Those who reject religion gradually lose respect for such values and concepts as honor, family, nation.” –Fethullah Gulen

The most staunchly believing children are segregated into separate groups, often with their own dormitories, where they receive special attention. The graduates of such dormitories often appear among the ranks of various extremist groups. This seemingly contradictory nature of means and methods leads the critics of Gulenism to believe that “Gulenism is not really a religious movement but rather something akin to a Masonic lodge, a chameleonic movement with changing interests and flexible means of reaching its aim.”


Concerning Gulen himself, he is a very clever individual. He spells everything out, while leaving things unsaid. For example, when Gulen was accused of organizing the latest coup in Turkey, he responded that he has never supported military coups. Is that true? Yes, it is apparently true that Gulen never supported coups in the past, having always opposed them, and fought against the secular regime. But, he also tried hard not to call the events of the summer of 2016 a coup.  Gulen called it all manner of things including national anger, but not a coup. These details are worthy of attention.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

Turkish soldiers secure the area as supporters of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul’s Taksim square, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Gulen categorically denies any political ambitions, always speaks of himself as a religious and civic leader, even though it’s clear he’s a political player. Considering his active ties to various US groups of influence, and the fact that he does enjoy political asylum in the US, which was obtained after his prosecution was launched in Turkey, his ability to influence the political and social situation in Turkey are irrefutable.

“No citizen or civic group can be fully isolated from politics, because political decisions impact their lives. Civic organizations having a specific role in politics is a norm in democratic societies, but that doesn’t make Hizmet a political movement.” – Fethullah Gulen

Interestingly, immediately following the Turkey coup attempt, a theory surfaced stating that the Russian SU-24 shot down over Syria was not downed on Turkish government orders, but by Gulenist pilots acting independently. “It was the ‘parallel state’ that damaged our relations with Russia. It was an incident in which one of the pilots of that structure was a participant. We did not reveal it before, we kept it to ourselves. But I, Melikh Gekcek, am saying that our relations were damaged by these evildoers,” said the mayor of Ankara.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

A protest banner shows President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (centre) and cleric Fethullah Gulen (R) at a demonstration on December 30, 2013 in Istanbul (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

In addition, there exists an opinion that was outlined by several US authors, that Gulen was one of the founders of the currently ruling Party of Justice and Welfare, and that Erdogan and Gulen were unwilling to share power within it. Indeed, initially the party was a collection of political, moderate Islamic, and conservative groups. In 2012 Erdogan called Gulen a “teacher” and even called on him to return to Turkey stating, “Being abroad causes yearning which is hard to cope with. The separation should come to an end. Your current attitude shows that you, like everyone, want that yearning to end. I understand it. Let the yearning end.”


Organizations tied to Gulen are most dangerous, because they are difficult to identify as such, exercise their influence indirectly, and their actions cannot be easily anticipated. Gulen is at the very top. Immediately under him are subordinated the so-called Council of Seven, which deals with all the organizational matters, including the spreading of Gulenism. Each country has imams of various levels. They are responsible for contacts with the police, state institutions, and ensuring that the organization’s members are embedded in these governmental and civic structures. There is also a strict administrative hierarchy: city imams, who answer to the country imam, but exert power over district imams.

Fethullah Gulen - Wielding Power and Influence from the Shadows

Hizmet supporters in Istanbul protesting the government’s harassment of journalists. (Photo Credit: Sedat Suna/European Pressphoto Agency)

The formation of parallel state and lobby groups gradually spread to other countries, post-Soviet states being first among them. At first these were de-facto Turkish lobby groups, because Gulen had active ties to Erdogan, but then they became his private empire which has links to the US, pan-Turkists, and Turkish nationalists. For example, after some negative incidents involving Gulen school graduates, Uzbekistan fully forbade them on its territory; however, Uzbekistan is an exception, because Gulenist graduates are free to operate in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Most of Gulen’s schools have been closed in Russia. Azerbaijan has also begun initiating active countermeasures against Gulen’s structures.


In spite of Gulen’s advanced age, he has many followers who will seek to lead this post-modern empire or divide it into parts. These people will have colossal influence, given their ties in business and politics, and also their ability to influence national institutions. It’s quite apparent that Gulen is seeking his ideology’s dominance on the territory of Turkey at a minimum, on the territory of Turkic-language states and parts of Russia as preferable, and even on a more global scale if possible. He and his organization are taking measures to ensure these aims are being fulfilled. There are certain results being achieved, not only in the post-Soviet space. Most of the Turkology in Europe, the discipline of humanities sciences focused on the study of Turkey, is one way or another tied to the Gulen organization. There is a similar situation in the US, where most of the graduates of the so-called Gulen schools already work within US governmental structures, and where most research on Turkey is being conducted by people close to or linked to Gulen organizations.

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s Slippy

A very well written article!

The crackdown on the Gulen movement is in full swing right now, the turkish government alone has seized assets of Gulen for more 11-13 billion dollars (depending on sources). I have to applaud Erdogan, he managed localize the primary tumor, cut of its blood supply while turning this event into a national holiday. Thus being adored while simultaneously making nationalism soar at an all time high.

But lets not forget, what Erdogan did was the equivalent of Trump jailing all the Zio-congressmen for treason. The west will not sit idly by as he defects from their agenda (how the coup was reported on speaks volumes). Europe still on its knees from all the economic migrants coming from Libya trembles by the mere thought of Erdogan letting in a horde of 3+ million Syrians and other migrants into their land as it inevitably would be the end of Europe as we speak.

Erdogan has Europe by its balls and they know it.

Well done mr Erdogan, your ottoman predecessors would be proud… Jesus christ


your comment is quite interesting, however Erdogan´s gov is repressive, that you cannot deny. I am not Turkish so I wont refer Erdogan more, but if Gulen supports Israel and Zionists, then he is no good man either

Maty Simpson

I would like to share this article, however it is a bit light on the sources. For such a divisive character, I think there needs to be more citation, otherwise it could be easily labelled anti-Gulen propaganda. Is there a chance of a more thoroughly sourced version coming out?


Dear friend, thank you for the feedback. Feel free to Google any quotes that you think are needed here. Otherwise, the article provides many facts that are hardly can be found in the media. The source of these facts is a communcation with members of the movement. However, there are a number of analyses about Gulen’s movement in English. Some of them could be found online. If you believe that you have what to add to our article or even expand it, we will be glad to to release your expanded version. We want to ask you to use carefully the word propaganda. You should understand the difference between propaganda and an opinion of the author. SouthFront has been repeatedly blamed for being pro-Russian propaganda, anti-Erdogan propaganda, pro-Trump propaganda, anti-Russian propaganda, pro-Iranian propaganda etc. Now, you say that SouthFront provides pro-Erdogan and anti Gulen propaganda. In reality, SouthFront provides real facts and points of view of the project’s participants. Sincerely yours, SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence

Maty Simpson

I definitely did not call this article propaganda. I said that critics could call it propaganda. You cannot say SouthFront provides “real facts” but provide no sources. You also appear to have blocked my computer’s IP address so I could not reply. Consider my Patreon subscription cancelled. I’m not giving money to a group which accuses me of things I haven’t said and then stops me replying.


You say that your IP is blocked, but your comment is here. Don’t you think that this sounds strange?

Maty Simpson

I was unable to post from my computer, I had to post from a different IP address

Maty Simpson

But my point remains the same. In your reply, you say:

“Now, you say that SouthFront provides pro-Erdogan and anti Gulen propaganda.”

Can you clarify for me where in my post you think I accused you of saying you provide pro-Erdogan propaganda? You can see my original post. It doesn’t even mention Erdogan

My other point remains too. You state:

“In reality, SouthFront provides real facts and points of view of the project’s participants.”

However, as I point out, you don’t provide any sources.


1) If you are really blocked, you will not be able to write your comments here. 2) As to your question about the sources, we kindly recommend you to read carefully our answer above.


Everything is clear. He is Muslim Soros.


This is an informative and long-overdue profile of a shadowy figure on the world stage about whom little of real substance has been written. I was disappointed, however, that several issues were not addressed. First, his reputed involvement in the attempted coup in Turkey – tangentially addressed in the piece but no direct address to Erdogan’s accusations. Second, as you no doubt know, Sibel Edmonds has discussed him extensively and labels his movement a ‘terrorist organization’ and alleges he, and it, have been involved in numerous terrorist activities, in concert with the CIA, over many decades as part of the ‘Gladio B’ network. Some comment on these allegations would have been welcome. Third, and last, much is made of his extensive network of economic and political interests but, to what end? He does not seem to espouse any particular religious or ideological goals. Other than accruing wealth (evidently quite successfully), what’ the point? As always, many thanks for your (all’s) excellent work.

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