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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
ORGANIZATION SPECIFICS AND LOBBYING
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.
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.