Fethullah Gülen (HIZMET)

Joshua Hendrick



1938 or 1941 (April 27):  Fethullah Gülen was born in the northeastern city of Erzurum, Turkey.

1946-1949:  Gülen received an elementary school education in Turkey’s state-administered education system. Gülen did not complete his elementary education, but later completed an exam equivalency.

1951-1957:  Gülen studied Islam under the tutelage of several different Hanafi religious masters and community leaders including his father, Ramiz Gülen , as well as Haci Sikti Effendi, Sadi Effendi, and Osman Bektaș .

1957:  Gülen’s made his first acquaintance with Turkey’s Nur Movement (Nur Hareketi, i.e., followers of Said Nursi) and with the Risal-i Nur Külliyatı (RNK, Epistles of Light Collection – the collected teachings of Said Nursi).

1966:  Gülen moved to İzmir, Turkey where he worked as a religious teacher at Kestanepazarı Mosque as an employee of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).

1966-1971:  Gülen’s popularity began to grow, and a community of loyal admirers emerged.

1971 (March 12):  Turkey’s second military coup since the establishment of the Republic (1923) took place. Gülen was arrested for being the alleged leader of an illegal religious community, and although released within days, he was briefly barred from public speaking.

1976:  The first two GM institutions were established – Turkish Teachers Foundation (Türkiye Öğretmenler Vakfı) and The Akyazılı Foundation for Middle and Higher Education (Akyazılı Orta ve Yüksek Eğitim Vakfı).

1979:  The first GM periodical Trickle (Sızıntı) was published.

1980-1983:  Turkey’s third military-led coup d’état and junta occurred.

1982:  Yamanlar College (high school) in İzmir and Fatih College (high school) in Istanbul became the first “Gülen-inspired schools” (GISs) in Turkey.

1983-1990:  Institutional growth and expansion of GM-affiliated education movement in Turkey (private, for-profit schools and central exam preparatory centers with an emphasis on mathematics and natural/physical sciences) took place.

1986:  GM affiliates purchased Zaman Newspaper.

1991-2001:  GISs opened in countries outside Turkey (throughout post-Soviet Central Asia, Russia, and post-Cold War Balkan countries, and later throughout South and Southeast Asia).

1994:  The GYV, Journalists and Writers Foundation (Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı) was established in Istanbul following the “Abant Platform,” a GM-organized conference that brought rival public intellectuals together for several days of “dialogue.” Fethullah Gülen was made the GYV’s honorary president.

1995-1998:  Gülen was active in Turkish public life and opinion and, more widely, established himself as an influential religious personality in Turkey.

1994:  IȘHAD, The Association for Solidarity in Business Life ( İş Hayatı Dayanışma Derneği ) was established by a group of small to medium, export-oriented GM-affiliated businessmen.

1996:  Asya Finans (now Bank Asya) was established by a small group of capitalists affiliated with Fethullah Gülen.

1996-1997:  Turkey’s Islamist RP, Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) came to power in a coalition with the center-right True Path Party. The RP’s Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey’s first “Islamist” Prime Minister.

1997 (February 28):  Turkey’s third military-led intervention into politics occurred. Known infamously as Turkey’s “post-modern coup.” RP was forced from power and Erbakan was banned from politics for life.

1997-1999:  Turkish state crackdown on religious community activity took place. The GM was scrutinized for being a clandestine religious community with alleged ulterior motives.

1998 (September 2):  Gülen met with Pope John Paul II for a discussion about world relations between Catholics and Muslims.

1999:  Gülen traveled from Turkey to the United States, according to spokespeople close to him, for medical necessity.

1999:  A video was broadcast on Turkish television showed Gülen allegedly instructing his followers to “move into the arteries of the system until you reach all the power centers . . .”

2000:  Gülen was indicted on conspiracy charges in absentia, and an arrest warrant was issued.

1998-present:  GISs opened throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Western Europe, and the United States.

1999–present: Gülen has resided in the United States, most recently in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.

1999: The Rumi Forum was established in Washington, D.C. as the first (of many) interfaith and intercultural GM-affiliated outreach and public relations institutions in the United States.

2001 (April): The first academic conference organized by GM-affiliates about Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement was held at Georgetown University.

2002 (November): The “Islamist-roots” AKP, Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) came to power in Turkey.

2002–2011: An unofficial alliance between the AKP and the GM was formed, constituting “new Turkey’s” conservative coalition.

2003– present: Countrywide expansion of GM-affiliated public charter schools in the United States. As of July, 2014, approximately 150 publicly chartered GISs were operating in twenty-six U.S. states and, most recently, in Washington D.C.

2005: TUSKON, The Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (Türkiye Iş adamları ve Sanayiciler Konfederasyonu) was established under the leadership of the GM-affiliated IȘHAD. It became Turkey’s largest business-related non-governmental organization.

2006: Gülen was acquitted of conspiracy charges in Turkey.

2007 (January): The GM-affiliated Today’s Zaman was first published as Turkey’s third English-language news daily and immediately became its largest in circulation.

2007 (January): A cache of military-issued arms was found in an apartment in Istanbul. This eventually led to the “Ergenekon investigation” into an alleged network of retired and active military personnel and social/business elites who conspired to topple the AKP government.

2007-2013: Ergenkon trials took place in Turkey. 275 people, including several retired Turkish generals, were issued sentences. Nineteen people were sentenced to life in prison. Additional alleged plots to overthrow the AKP and to stir up social tension (e.g., Sledgehammer, Glove, and Cage) rolled into the Ergenekon trial.

2007: The Gülen Institute was established at the University of Houston in Houston, TX.

2008: Fethullah Gülen was named Prospect and Foreign Policy magazine’s “World’s Most Influential Public Intellectual” via the results of an online poll. Editors at the two magazines ran series of articles attempting to explain how and why Gülen won.

2008: (November): Gülen won a long legal battle over his immigration status in the United States and was granted permanent residency (“green card”).

2011: A schism between the GM and Turkey’s governing AKP began.

2011 (January): The State Senate of Texas (USA) passes Resolution Number 85 recognizing Fethullah Gülen “for his ongoing and inspirational contributions to the promotion of peace and understanding.”

2013 (June–July): Popular protest known as the “Gezi Park uprising,” which began in Istanbul, spread to over sixty Turkish cities. Turkish police forces put the protest down with heavy force, which received international condemnation.

2013 (November): The GM-affiliated Zaman Newspaper reported on the AKP’s intention to reform Turkey’s education system by closing all standardized examination prep schools. The widespread perception was that this was an AKP-led attack on the GM whose affiliates control many of these institutions.

2013 (December 17 and 25): There were arrests of family members of high-ranking AKP officials on charges of bribery, corruption, and graft. These were framed by Prime Minister Erdoğan and interpreted by Turkish public opinion as retaliation by GM loyalists in Turkey’s police forces against the AKP.

Present: There is ongoing legal, media, and political conflict between AKP and GM forces in Turkey.


For years, actors associated with the community of Fethullah Gülen have referred to themselves by the marker Hizmet, the Turkish word for “service” [to/for others]. Critical observers, by contrast, have preferred to designate Gülen’s followers as “the Cemaat ” (Jamaat], an Arabic-derived term meaning community or assembly.

Due to the loaded connotation of both terms, since the early 2000s more dispassionate observers (be they academicians, journalists, politicians, or policy analysts) have preferred a more general term, “the Gülen Movement” (GM). Known by all three titles, Hizmet /the Cemaat /the GM refers to thousands of institutions and millions of individuals in Turkey, together with their affiliates in over 120 countries throughout the world. Although anchored upon a foundation of math and science-focused private (or privately managed) education, the GM also comprises initiatives in mass media, international trade, finance, information communication technologies, construction, legal services, accounting, and outreach/public relations. And although currently the target of a self-described “witch hunt” perpetrated by Turkey’s ruling AKP, Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Parti), the fact remains that since its modest beginnings in the late 1960s, the GM has grown to become Turkey’s largest and most influential religious community.

The GM began as a splinter group of a pre-existing community, the Nur, who are followers of “Wonder of the Age” (“Bediüzzaman”) Said Nursi (d. 1960). As a teenager, Fethullah Gülen was exposed to Said Nursi’s commentary on the Qur’an, the RNK, Epistles of Light Collection (Risale-i Nur Külliyatı). Composed of essays and answers to questions written in the form of letters to his students, the RNK espoused a modernist interpretation of Qur’anic teachings. Among the most central of these teachings was an articulation of the inherent harmony between Islam and modern science, together with an emphatic plea for Muslims to become educated in modern knowledge, albeit with grounding in Islamic morality (Mardin 1989). Composed of several thousand pages, the RNK became a central source of knowledge for millions of pious-minded Turks who were subjected to Turkey’s process of social secularization during the formative decades of the Republic (1923-1950). By the time of Nursi’s death in 1960, the Nur represented millions of people in a number of major cities. In the RNK, and in the social networks created by Nur reading groups (dershane), followers of Nursi forged a collective source of identity that allowed them to harmonize their conservative identities as rural to urban migrants with the demands of modern Turkish nationalism and a growing industrial market economy.

After Nursi’s passing, the Nur splintered into several groups, each contesting with others about how best to disseminate Nursi’s teachings. Although among the youngest of the Nur offshoots, by the late 1980s Gülen’s admirers had rearticulated much of the Nur’s organizational habits and had applied them toward the establishment of a countrywide education, business, financial, and mass media network. By the late 1990s, the GM had become, according to some observers, the largest and most influential of all Nur communities (Hendrick 2013; Yavuz 2003a, chapter 8; Yavuz and Esposito 2003, Chapters 1-2; Yavuz 2013) and according to others, a distinct socio-political entity (Turam 2006).

Known as “Esteemed Teacher” (“Hocaeffendi”) to those who revere him, Fethullah Gülen was born in 1938 or in 1941 in the Northwestern Turkish City of Erzurum. The year of his birth is under contest, as a number of internally produced sources indicate 1938, while a number of others indicate 1941. Loyalists point to this discrepancy as being of little consequence by suggesting that his parents were late registering their son’s birth, and that his age is of little importance.

Hendrick (2013), however, discusses this discrepancy as merely the first instance of an entrenched pattern of “strategic ambiguity” that is employed GM activists when discussing their leader and his organization (Chapter 3 and Chapter 8). How and when Gülen is to be considered a community leader, how and when he is to be considered an intellectual, a teacher, a social movement figure, or simply a humble and reclusive writer changes with circumstance. Similarly, when a person, a business, a school, a news outfit, or an outreach organization is to be either highlighted or denied as being part of the GM depends not only upon context, but also upon who is inquiring and to whom. Discussed in more detail below, the ambiguity with which individuals and institutions connect with one another in a worldwide social network is at the same time one of the GM’s primary strengths as well as one of its inevitable weaknesses.

Although beginning in the late 1960s as a splinter group of Nursi followers, by the late 1970s, Fethullah Gülen was attracting large crowds to his public sermons. Around this time, his followers operated several student dormitories in İzmir and Edirne in Western Turkey, and audiocassettes of his sermons were becoming more widely disseminated. Between 1980 and 1983, during modern Turkey’s longest military junta, Gülen’s followers found opportunity in private education (Hendrick 2013:Chapter 5, Yavuz 2003: Chapter 8). In an effort to avoid state suppression as a clandestine religious community, they restructured a number of pre-existing dormitories to function as private, for-profit educational institutions. In 1982, Yamanlar High School in İzmir and Fatih High School in Istanbul became the first “ Gülen-inspired schools” (GISs) in Turkey. Over the course of the 1980s, dozens more institutions were opened. In addition to private elementary and secondary schools, the GM enterprise expanded quickly into the field of standardized examination preparation. Called “lesson houses” (dershaneler), the GM eventually cornered a niche in cram course curriculum (Hendrick:Chapter 5). When students at GM-affiliated dershaneler began to routinely test well on Turkey’s centralized high school and university placement exams, and when high school students began to routinely win national scholastic competitions, it became difficult for critics in Turkey to support their claims of religious brainwashing at GISs, or for them to support their accusations that the GM was nothing more than a clandestine Islamist group aiming to overthrow Turkey’s secular republic (Turam 2006:Chapters 1-3).

Success in secular math/science and exam-based education created opportunities to expand into other sectors. A youth-oriented organizational model blossomed in the 1980s when hundreds of thousands of bright students were recruited into the movement through the mechanism of exam prep schools. Aspiring university students were encouraged by “older brothers” (“ağabeyler”) to dedicate much of their time toward preparation for Turkey’s centralized university entrance exam. Students with ties to the GM network had access to instruction outside class at GM-affiliated student dormitories and apartments called “houses of light” (işık evleri). If they scored well on the exam, students would earn a spot at a Turkish university. After doing so, students were contacted by their former cram course teachers (or perhaps by a house ağabey) about their plans for room and board while at university, wherein, they were offered subsidized living at a GM-affiliated işık evi. While living at an işık evi, university students were not only encouraged to keep up with their studies, but also to acquaint themselves with the teachings of Fethullah Gülen and Said Nursi.

Connecting students to a growing network of schools, education-related businesses, media companies, information and communication companies, publishing firms, exporters, finance sector workers allowed the GM to create for itself a growing pool of human resources from which to draw to create a vast economic network of suppliers, clients, and patrons. Collectively, the GM’s success in a variety of sectors created a successful variation of “market Islam” in Turkey (Hendrick 2013). GISs were not only outfitted with teachers via a vast social network, but also with media and IT equipment, textbooks, and stationary goods via affiliated firms. Owners of these firms maintained close social ties to the GM and, more often than not, they supported the GM’s mission by subsidizing student rent at işık evleri, by providing scholarships to students to attend a private GIS, or by providing startup capital for a new GM venture. In 1986, for instance, GM-affiliates bought a pre-existing newspaper, Zaman Gazetesi, and once Turkey liberalized broadcast media in the early 1990s, the same media firm began its first television venture, Samanyolu TV. Both ventures were begun with start-up capital secured via GM social networks orbiting GM-affiliated schools, dorms, and apartments.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the GM took advantage of the Turkish state’s effort to cultivate relations with post-Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Balkans. GISs were begun with Turkish start-up capital throughout both regions, and affiliated business ventures followed. To facilitate trade with these regions, an export-oriented trade association emerged, IȘHAD, The Association for Solidarity in Business Life, est. 1994 (İş Hayatı Dayanışma Derneği). A shipping and transport firm was established around the same time, as was an “Islamic” (interest-free, profit sharing) financial institution (Asya Finans, now Bank Asya, est. 1996).

With greater size and influence came with it a greater need to frame a public image that could be perceived as productive and worthy of social prestige. In a public relations campaign that began in 1994, another wing of the GM’s operational ethos was born in the Turkish mountain town of Abant. There, a group of GM-affiliated outreach activists gathered together a number of Turkey’smost widely read news journalists and opinion columnists, as well as a number of academicians and writers from a variety of fields. Known thereafter as “the Abant Platform,” this meeting was envisioned as an opportunity for a diverse group of thinkers to discuss some of the more troubling aspects of Turkish political society. It spawned the emergence of the primary GM-affiliated think tank and outreach organization, The GYV, Journalists and Writers Foundation (Gazeticiler ve Yazarlar Vakfı). Every year since, and often several times a year, the Abant Platform and the GYV have organized a variety of policy-oriented discussion forums and academic conferences on a wide range of topics. Making overtures beyond Turkey, in 1997 Gülen arranged a meeting with Pope John Paul II to discuss Muslim/Christian relations. Images of this meeting became a symbolic reference for Gülen’s handlers to point to when they discussed their sincerity in the fields of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

The GM’s expansion in the 1990s came at a time when a more traditional variation of “political Islam” was on the rise under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan who led his RP, Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) to a number of municipal electoral victories in 1995 and to national victory in 1996. The RP formed a coalition government with the center right True Path Party, and Erbakan became Turkey’s first “Islamist” Prime Minster. Focusing its efforts outside party politics, the GM was able to navigate RP’s rise and abrupt fall during Turkey’s “post-modern coup” in 1997. Notwithstanding, the GM did not come out of this period unscathed. In what became infamously known as “The February 28 process,” Turkey’s military forced Erbakan from power by threatening a military coup. In the two years that followed, the state cracked down on all forms of faith-based social and political organizing. In this context Fethullah Gülen fled to the United States in early 1999. According to his spokespeople, the reason was for medical treatment for a chronic condition. Whether for medical reasons or not, shortly after his departure from Turkey, Gülen was indicted in absentia for being the leader of an alleged criminal organization that aimed to overthrow the Turkish state. He has lived in the U.S. ever since.

Shortly after Gülen’s move to the U.S., GM activists created GYV-modeled outreach and dialogue institutions throughout the country. Now found throughout the world where the GM manages GISs and where GM-affiliates do business, the U.S. hosts the most influential of these institutions outside Turkey (and the most in number). They include the Rumi Forum in Washington D. C. (est. 1999), the Dialogue Institute in Houston (est. 2002), the Niagara Foundation in Chicago (est. 2004), and the Pacifica Institute in Southern California (est 2003). Representing the regional leadership of dozens of similar institutions throughout the country, these organizations are collectively organized by the GM umbrella organization, The Turkic American Alliance.

In 2008, a federal court in Pennsylvania granted Gülen permanent residency in the U.S. in a decision that overturned a previous denial by the Department of Homeland Security. In the same year, Gülen was named “the world’s most influential public intellectual” in an online poll conducted by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. Although critiqued b y the editors of both magazines as illustrating little more than a keen ability to manipulate the outcomes of an online poll, between the years of 2007 and 2012 the GM reached an apex in prestige and influence in Turkey and in countries around the world.

Indeed, throughout the 2000s, efforts on the part of GM activists in the U.S. and Western Europe to present Fethullah Gülen as a viable alternative to more confrontational articulations of Muslim political identity produced much reward. Employing tactics detailed by Hendrick (2013:Chapter 8), GM activists made thousands of personal visits to people of influence in American and European academia, mass media, faith communities, state appointment, elected politics, and private business. They organized subsidized leisure travel for groups of these people to Turkey, where professors, politicians, journalists, and religious congregation leaders toured Istanbul, İzmir, Konya, and other places rich with Anatolian culture and history. During these trips, however, these “recruited sympathizers” also learned about the contributions made by the Hizmet (Service) movement of Fethullah Gülen in education, media, and business in Turkey. Nancy Gallagher, a professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains how she was invited on one of these trips as follows:

Toward the end of March 2009, I received an email message from a colleague inviting me to join a group of traveling to Turkey under the auspices of the Pacifica Institute. . . we would only have to pay our airfare, and would be hosted by Turkish families in various Anatolian cities (2012:73) . . . I accepted the invitation and in June 2009 traveled to Istanbul with a groups of 10 Middle East Studies specialists, church representatives, and elected officials (2012:78).

Gallagher learned that the funding for her travels, and for dozens other trips that brought prominent people of influence from California to Turkey, was a Turkish business association that also provided scholarships for GM-affiliated Turkish students to travel to the U.S. for study, and that provided the funds necessary for the organization of academic conferences that focused on the contributions of the Gülen Movement to interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Gallagher’s essay on the organization of these trips was included in a volume that she co-edited with Sophia Pandya (2012), which was produced after one such conference took place in Southern California late 2009. Exemplifying a grassroots strategy to recruit sympathy from people of influence, by 2012, the GM had subsidized over six thousand trips to Turkey from the U.S., and had organized over a dozen conferences whose contributing authors wrote essays promoting the GM’s efforts. The majority of these conferences resulted in book publications (Barton, Weller, and Yılmaz 2013; Esposito and Yılmaz 2010; Hunt and Aslandoğan 2007; Yavuz and Esposito 2003; Yurtsever 2008).

In addition to overseas travel, the GM regularly sponsors conferences and workshops, Turkish and Ottoman themed cultural festivals, invited keynote speeches given at GM dialogue organizations, annual fast breaking (iftar) dinners, and other activities. Collectively, these practices have helped to promote Fethullah Gülen movement to eager foreign audiences.

In addition to its nearly one thousand private schools in over 120 countries, its mass media and entertainment ventures in print, television, and online, in trade and finance initiatives, and its lobbying and outreach work, the GM runs a successful first respondent relief organization, Kimse Yok Mu?, a number of modern hospitals in Turkey, and over 150 publicly funded charter schools in the United States. In April, 2013, TIME Magazine named Fethullah Gülen one of the world’s most influential people (Kinzer 2013).


Gülen’s teachings are disseminated in print and online via hundreds of books, essay collections, periodicals, and websites. Although the entirety of his teachings is available in print in Turkish, a large body of his work (although often incomplete) is translated into English, and to a lesser degree into dozens of other world languages.

The central refrain in Gülen’s articulated worldview is a need for “volunteers,” who are “filled with love for all of humanity,” “ideal humans” who represent what Gülen calls “the generation of hope.” This generation’s task is to cultivate a future “golden generation” (altın nesil) that will usher in a time love, tolerance, and harmony, and by default, that will create the conditions for Day of Judgment:

What we need now is not ordinary people, but rather people devoted to divine reality . . . people who by putting into practice their thoughts, lead first their own nation, and then all people, to enlightenment and to help them find God . . . dedicated spirits . . . who wander like Israfil . . . on the verge of blowing the last trumpet in order to prepare dead spirits for the Day of Resurrection . . . This can be regarded as our final attempt, our advancing to our true position, as well as being seen as an alternative message of revitalization addressed to humanity. As a matter of fact, nations that have been wrung with various crises have also been awaiting such a breeze of hope. How fortunate are the blessed cadre to be the fuse to such an event. And, again, how fortunate are the ones whose breasts are receptive to this breeze (Gülen 2004:105-10).

GM-affiliated teachers, donating businessmen, outreach activists, journalists, and others constitute Gülen’s “blessed cadre” whose members are asked to dedicate their time, money, and efforts to create the conditions for the coming of the golden generation. Throughout his many essays on the topic, Gülen refers to the current “generation of hope” as an “army of light” and as “soldiers of truth.”

The “truth” that Gülen’s soldiers promote is parallel to the “truth” promoted by religious revivalists the world over. Gülen views humanity as having strayed from the path of morality and divinely-inspired wisdom, which he views as a crisis stemming from empty consumerism (materialism), carnality, and individualism. Helping Turkish and world society recover from moral decline requires humans of action (aksiyon insanları) and humans of service (hizmet insanları) who can offer the coming generation moral guidance (irşad). Such guidance is presented at the micro level by elders (ağabeyler) and young people in the Gülen community, at the mezzo level in classrooms and in community social groups (sohbetler), and at the macro level via publishing and mass media. Collectively, the math and science-based education delivered at GISs in Turkey and around the world, the news and entertainment media published and broadcast via GM-affiliated media brands, the financial products offered by Bank Asya, the relief work provided by Kimse Yok Mu? and the thousands of services provided by GM-affiliated businesses and commerce groups collectively constitute service (hizmet) to humanity. This is precisely the reason why GM-affiliates prefer to designate their congregation, Hizmet (as opposed to the cemaat or the GM).


Turkey is a majority Sunni Muslim society, and “official” Islam is state-sanctioned in accordance with the Hanefi (Hanafi) legal school. Underneath the state’s official Islam, however, is a deep-rooted tradition of Sufism in Turkey. The Nakşibendi (Naqshbandi), the Mevlevi, Rifai, and others all have long histories in Anatolia. Both facets of historical Islam inform much of the worldview, organization, and ritualistic practice employed by Fethullah Gülen and the GM, but much of its collective practice is also emblematic of “invented tradition” that is somewhat unique to the GM case.

Teachers, authors, editors, journalists, businessmen, and bankers closely associated with the GM more often than not live modern, but pious lifestyles. Most GM-affiliated individuals and institutions thrive in Turkey’s competitive market economy, and its schools have established a brand for themselves by emphasizing math, science, and business-related education. That being stated, different levels of affiliation in the community illustrate different levels of religiosity. Whether or not an individual prays five days a day (namaz; salat), whether or not he attends Friday prayers, avoids social vices like smoking cigarettes, or (if a woman) chooses to cover varies throughout the GM community. The more “connected” someone is, however, the more likely he or she is encouraged to lead a more conservative lifestyle. Such encouragement happens but way of example set by others and typically begins when individuals are recruited to live in an işık evi while attending university. It is at these houses where someone typically attends his or her first sohbet.

In Islam, sohbet (pl. sohbetler) historically refers to a religiously oriented conversation between a Sufi sheikh and his disciple. The term has a pedagogical connotation, and the aim is typically to inculcate correct interpretations about living in accordance with Divine Will. In the GM, however, sohbet refers to the practice of meeting regularly in small groups to read the teachings of Fethullah Gülen and Said Nursi. The GM sohbet is, in many ways, a reformulation of a practice begun by followers of Said Nursi who, during the middle part of the twentieth century, would meet in small groups for reading and discussion of Nursi’s banned RNK. Not to be confused with exam prep schools in Turkey, Nur reading groups were called “dershane” and over the years became a regular identifying practice of the Nur. Continuing this practice as sohbet, the GM rationalized dershane meetings by gender and age, and repurposed them as spaces for socialization (Hendrick 2013:Chapter 5).

Sohbetler are administered by senior students at GM işık evleri, by “spiritual coordinators” at GM-affiliated companies, and by respected elder brothers/sisters (ağabeyler/ablalar) and teachers (hocalar) in neighborhoods throughout Turkey and among GM communities throughout the world. Sociologically, “the GM sohbet reproduces an alternative public sphere that links individuals in Istanbul and London, Baku and Bangkok, New York and New Delhi, Buenos Aires and Timbuktu in a shared ritual of reading, socializing, money transfer, and communication exchange” (Hendrick 2013:116).

Hizmet and Himmet: The GM aims to cultivate approval seeking from God (eihlas) among all people for all daily actions, Yavuz (2013:77) explains that “Gülen not only seeks to mobilize the hearts and minds of millions of Turks but also succeeds in convincing them to commit to the mission of creating a better and more humane society and polity.” This means that GM loyalists strive to mold individuals into agents of social change in accordance with socially conservative Muslim values and ethics. Gülen teaches that such change necessitates passive engagement with the social and political world, and in so doing; he asks people of service (hizmet insanları) to convince others of the “truth” by acting as models for emulation. The Turkish concept that anchors this method of recruitment to the GM mission is temsil, which Tittensor (2014:75) translates as “representation.” How best to “represent” what Gülen calls “ideal humanity” is to offer service (hizmet) to others as an actor in the GM network.

In addition to “serving” the community through hizmet, individuals are also encouraged to serve the community though religiously motivated financial donation (himmet). In a refrain uttered throughout the community, individuals “give according to their means,” which refers to the fact that a while an editor at a GM-affiliated publishing firm may donate the equivalent of $300 a month to the “spiritual coordinator” in his company, a wealthy business owner may donate ten or twenty times that amount at a himmet donation gathering (Ebaugh 2010; Hendrick 2013:Chapter 5).

The practices of himmet and hizmet are most vividly exemplified by university graduates who “volunteer” to teach at GISs in countries around the world. Now a common option for young post grads in Turkey, GM teachers typically travel to teach for comparatively little pay and are expected to work long hours, extra hours, and on weekends, and although paid a salary, they are sill expected to regularly donate himmet. Likely having received some benefit from the GM earlier in life, however, (e.g., free tutoring, subsidized rent, etc.), teachers at GISs often report that they are not only willing, but honored to “serve” as teachers throughout the world and to donate some portion of their income back to the community. In his writings, Fethullah Gülen often refers to teachers as GISs in Turkey and around the world as “self-sacrificing heroes.”


Leadership in the GM is administered via a gendered, elder-based, and ethno-nationalist system of authority that extends throughout its worldwide network. At the top is Fethullah Gülen who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania on a multi-house compound called the Golden Generation Retreat and Worship Center in the Pocono foothills. From Pennsylvania, Gülen administers the GM as a passive charismatic leader who maintains direct communication only with a relatively small number of close confidants and students. These men, together with a number of senior figures at GM institutions around the world constitute the core of the GM’s organization. Affectionately called teachers (hocalar) these leaders comprise the GM’s core community (cemaat), a worldwide social network of totally devoted students of Hocaefendi Fethullah Gülen. In addition to those who remain physically close to Gülen in the Poconos, others direct or manage one of the dozens of dialogue and outreach organizations in the U.S., Europe, or Turkey. Some are writers who author books about Fethullah Gülen, while others organize the various efforts of the GYV in Istanbul, or publish regular columns in Zaman Newspaper (Hendrick 2013:Chapter 4). All are men, and most trace their connection to Gülen’s early community of loyalists in Edirne and İzmir.

Although thousands of women identify with the GM, teach at GISs, and participate in various aspects of social and business services at one or another GM-affiliated institution, the cemaat level of affiliation maintains a rather strict degree of gender privilege (Turam 2006). Moreover, despite its transnational engagement and despite the thousands of non-Turkish friends and admirers, the cemaat level of affiliation also maintains a strictly Turkish and Turkic bias.

A once-removed level of affiliation consists of a wide network of GM “friends” (arkadaşlar). This level of connectivity includes hundreds of thousands of businesses that engage with GM institutions in the marketplace as patrons and clients. A large portion of their employees (although not all) donates regularly to the movement (himmet), and many regularly attend a sohbet. Although loyal to the movement, however, arkadaş social networks extend in unaffiliated directions thus distinguishing this level from the cemaat. Although business owners are likely to maintain very close relations with the GM, there is likely not to be a coordinator who collects himmet from employees. Indeed, some employees may have very little to do with the GM at all. At this level, himmet is donated at regular collection meetings that is organized via social networks, rather than at a place of business, and hizmet is likely conceptualized less as a totalizing responsibility. Arkadaşlar might be businessmen, policemen, lawyers, academicians, or journalists. Some are employed in international trade, while others own small shops or restaurants, or perhaps work in information technologies, engineering, or government. Larger in size, the arkadaşlar level of affiliation constitutes the majority of people who received an exam prep education at a GM cram school, who lived in GM-affiliated işık evleri while attending university, and who the GM relies upon for himmet.

Beyond arkadaşlar is a level of GM supporters and sympathizers (yandaşlar). This level of affiliation consists both of Turks and non-Turks. Many are politicians; others are academicians. Some are journalists or appointed state bureaucrats; others are students or parents of students at GISs; some might be people who benefit from GM-facilitated foreign trade. From education to intercultural outreach/dialogue, from journalism to relief services, yandaşlar support the GM’s efforts wherever they live. Although not necessarily totally devoted, many offer assistance however they can. This may come in the form of an education board member voting in favor of a charter school application in Toledo, Ohio after visiting Turkey on a sponsored dialogue tour, or it may come in the form of a labor rights attorney agreeing to write a sympathetic account of Gülen’s legal struggles in Turkey and the U.S. (Harrington 2011). Whoever and wherever they are, yandaşlar promote the collective action of Turkey’s GM because they agree that the service (hizmet) GM activists provide for world society is commendable.

The final stratum of affiliation is perhaps the largest, the weakest linked, and the most important for the GM’s continued expansion. This is the level of the unaware consumer. Most students at GISs in countries around the world, most readers of English language journalism produced by GM media firms, and countless numbers of Turkish and transnational consumers of products manufactured on the GM commodity chain remain completely unaware of the GM as a social entity. Hendrick explains as follows:

She may be a student of the Turkish language at Stanford who uses Dilset textbooks, but she is likely has no idea that Dilset is produced by a GM-affiliated firm. Or maybe she is an importer in Thailand whose employer recently signed a long-term deal with a GM-affiliated exporter from Turkey, but has no idea about that company’s social ties to the GM-affiliated trade federation that facilitated the deal’s fruition. The unaware consumer may know little of Fethullah Gülen, but he supports the GM just the same (Hendrick 2013:121).


Since the GM’s inception, a number of Turkey’s news columnists, public intellectuals, and politicians have asserted that GISs function as institutions for brainwashing Turkey’s youth in the interests of Gülen’s Islamist agenda. Turam (2006) begins with an exemplary narrative of this long-standing tension in Turkish public discourse (chapter 1). The old (and recently revived) claim is that Gülen emphasizes education because in order to achieve his aims, he requires loyalists to infiltrate the Turkish military, the country’s police forces, the judiciary, and other strategic institutions of state so as to purge the Turkish Republic from the inside out. In order to find their way into these institutions they need to compete in a competitive labor market, which requires an education centered network of schools, media, cross-sector service providers, and effective public relations.

Over the years, Gülen and his loyalists have refuted these accusations by claiming that in a democracy anyone should be able to pursue his career objectives according to his skills and interests. If policemen, lawyers, judges, and other bureaucrats personally affiliate with a religious community or social network, that should remain their personal business and should not implicate them in clandestine behavior. Despite such statements, however, arguably the most difficult challenge for Fethullah Gülen and the GM has been to maintain its stated “non-political” identity. This task proved especially challenging when the GM formed an alliance with the AKP in the 2000s to instigate Turkey’s conservative democratic revolution.

In this context, it is important to emphasize that the AKP and the GM emerged as a coalition of like-minded social forces whose leaders pointed to the same historical enemies (e.g., secular Kemalists, leftists, etc.) as having stalled the political, economic, and social agency of their respective constituents (i.e., pious Turks). Indeed, until recently, AKP leaders like Bülent Arınç, Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan, and even Prime Minster Erdoğan regularly endorsed GM-sponsored events (e.g., the Abant Platform, The Turkish Language Olympics) and regularly praised the achievement of GM-affiliated “Turkish schools” on the visits to Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere. Likewise, until recently GM affiliated media and outreach organizations regularly voiced support for AKP-led political initiatives as representing the maturation of Turkish democracy. Before 2013, a number of mid-level AKP deputies were known to have very close ties to the GM and business connections between affiliated companies were widespread.

After the AKP’s third electoral victory in 2011, however, overlapping interests between the GM and the AKP (e.g., conservative social politics, economically liberal development views, interests in removing the Turkish military’s oversight in Turkish politics and society) were no longer enough to hold the two entities together as a conservative coalition. The result was the initiation of a bureaucratic, legal, and public relations war between the two sides that has continued with no end in sight. According to a number of observers, the beginning of the conflict extends back to 2010, while other point to one or another significant event in 2011 or 2012. One example of tensions that are often pointed to include Gülen’s public disagreement with the AKP’s handling of the infamous “Mavi Marmara Incident. The Mavi Marmara Incident refers to an event that transpired in 2010 when a flotilla of aid ships led by a Turkish religious charity sought to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in Palestine. An international collection of activists boarded ships in an attempt to deliver food and aid. When the flotilla entered Israeli waters, Israeli commandoes boarded one of the ships, and opened fire on the unarmed activists, killing nine people. All were Turks and eight were Turkish citizens (one was a Turkish American). It took over two years for Israel to apologize for the event, and Turkish-Israeli relations have never fully recovered. Other examples include the subpoena of Hakan Fidan (the AKP appointed Chief of National Intelligence) in 2012 by prosecutor with alleged ties to the GM, and public disagreement between Gülen and Prime Minster about the handling of the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013. Merely three of the most often cited moments of tension, speculation about a brewing feud was proven correct toward the end of 2013 when the two forces more forcefully collided with each “side” threatening to destroy the other. A very brief account of ongoing friction is as follows:

Following the cessation of Turkey’s Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials and the subsequent subordination of the Turkish military to civilian authority, the GM and the AKP both sought to fill Turkey’s power vacuum. In allegations that are emphatically denied by GM leaders and in GM media sources, GM affiliates are believed to control much of the Turkish judiciary and police forces throughout the country. Following the end of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, GM forces in both institutions are believed to have shifted their investigative attention from the old guard to the AKP. When Prime Minster Erdoğan discovered wiretaps in his office in late 2012, it was widely assumed that the GM was somehow involved.

Rumblings of tensions became deafening in November of 2013 when the GM-affiliated Zaman newspaper published a story about the AKP’s plan to close all standardized exam prep schools as part of the government’s larger education reform efforts. As the primary source of recruitment for the GM’s collective organization, this move comprised an existential attack on the GM’s ability to sustain itself in the long term. On December 17, 2013, Istanbul prosecutors with alleged links to the GM retaliated by arresting the sons of three AKP cabinet ministers, as well as a number of state bureaucrats and businessmen on charges of graft and corruption. Also arrested was an Azeri-Iranian businessman who was accused of orchestrating a gold smuggling operation between Turkey and Iran. Evidence included shoeboxes of cash found in suspects’ homes, and phone recordings that, among other things, implicated a number of AKP officials, including Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son.

2014 began with Erdoğan lambasting what he called “the parallel state” (referring to the GM) for attempting a coup against the AKP. In the months that followed, hundreds of policemen were fired or reassigned in precincts throughout the country, and dozens of prosecutors were removed from their posts. Having stalled the investigation into AKP corruption, much of the audio-recording evidence that led to the December 2013 arrests was leaked to an anonymous source that posted numerous voice recordings on Twitter that implicated more AKP officials (including Erdoğan himself) of graft, bribery, and corruption. With municipal elections upcoming in March, Erdoğan defended himself by proclaiming daily that it was not his regime, but democracy that was under siege in Turkey: “December 17 is a black stain on Turkey’s democratic history . . . It has surpassed all previous coup attempts and has been recorded as a betrayal of the state, democracy and the nation” (Resneck 2014).

Shortly before the elections, Erdoğan cited Twitter as a menace to society, and blocked Turkish access to the social media site for two weeks. Although the ban was overturned in early April, the March 30 elections came and went, and Erdoğan was able to claim an overwhelming victory for the AKP (forty-six percent) in local polls throughout the country.

Since March 30, Erdoğan has taken his fight against “the parallel state” to new heights. His regime has continued to purge police departments and prosecutors’ offices, encouraged public divestment from the GM’s Bank Asya (and have recently sought its nationalization), blocked state contracts with GM-affiliated firms, and canceled the state’s support for GM-sponsored events (e.g., Turkish Language Olympics). More personally, Prime Minster Erdoğan has filed civil lawsuits against a number of GM-affiliated journalists for libel.

For his part, Gülen initially responded to these events with emphatic denials that he or his admirers had anything to do with illegal wiretappings, with stirring up public unrest, or with orchestrating criminal investigations, etc. GM-affiliated media, specifically Zaman and Today’s Zaman newspapers, shifted much of their focus to reporting on the topic at the expense of other news reporting.

Indeed, an overwhelming amount of the news and editorial space of both papers remains dedicated to denying Erdoğan’s allegations and to painting the leader as an authoritarian who is trying to consolidate his power by crushing dissent. (See Sezgin 2014 for an English language account of this struggle from the GM’s perspective). There is also an interview with Fethullah Gülen that was conducted by a GM-affiliated journalist and published in Zaman and Today’s Zaman about this saga (Dumanli 2014).

Somewhat confusing for some, it is important to emphasize that the GM and the AKP maintain closely aligned worldviews to the point that “Gülenism” has become official state ideology in Turkey (Tuğal 2013). This is important because it highlights that the current fissure is far more about power than philosophy, and is best interpreted as a struggle between like-minded elites who have outgrown each other’s cooperation, and who refuse to heed to the other’s consolidated influence.

Whatever the outcome, the GM remains second only to the AKP in Turkey in defining conservatism and national identity for pious Turks. Moreover, unlike the AKP the GM continues to expand its influence beyond Turkey where its actors compete for the hearts and minds of non-Turkish observers who look to Turkey as a model for sustainable “East/West,” Muslim/Christian, pious/modern civilizational relations. And although there is no end to the GM/AKP conflict in sight, GM activists hope that their expansion abroad has solidified their influence for years, if not generations to come, and that Fethullah Gülen remains as one of Islam’s most influential leaders.


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Post Date:
22 August 2014



Updated: — 4:55 pm


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