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date: 01 March 2024

Religious Frames: The Gülen Movementfree

Religious Frames: The Gülen Movementfree

  • Etga UgurEtga UgurSchool of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Tacoma


The Gülen movement is a transnational social movement with presence in more than 120 countries. The movement emerged out of Turkey’s informal Islamic sector in the 1960s and combined elements of Turkish patriotism, Islamic revivalism, Sufi mysticism, interfaith outreach, activist pietism, and conservative modernism. The initial focus on faith-based community-building gave way to a broader “presence movement” in the public sphere. The movement is organized around clusters of non-governmental institutions, including schools, tutoring centers, universities, business associations, community organizations, humanitarian aid, healthcare, and media outlets. Its organizational structure resembles concentric circles of volunteerism with varying degrees of commitment and contribution, with a core of dedicated full-time “elders” (abi/abla) and more specialized contributions in the periphery. Despite its transnational presence and growth, the structure of the movement retained its reliance on the charismatic authority of the movement’s founder, Fethullah Gülen, and a core group of the elders. The participants call the movement simply the hizmet (service), emphasizing its functions as opposed to its identity or leadership. As the community evolved from its early Muslim restorationist identity in the Turkish periphery, it has gradually widened its appeal, incorporated an increasingly universal-humanist language, and achieved a considerable global reach since the 1990s. The movement found a niche in interfaith/intercultural dialogue activism in the public sphere and allied itself with other civil society actors in various countries. The movement schools and services assumed bridge-building roles across ethnic and religious lines in divided and conflict-prone developing countries. These peace-building and civil society–organizing roles in turn helped the movement mobilize its members and promote its legitimacy in the public sphere, and offered layers of protection against its opponents. In Turkey, however, the movement became much more entangled in the state bureaucracy and politics, turning its civil society–based service profile into a controversial organization. Despite achieving a high-profile public presence, the movement’s politics remained informal, its positions on social and political issues vague, and its structure amorphous for much of its existence until the mid-2000s.

The changing balance of power between Turkey’s Kemalist state establishment and the Islamists under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) offered a major opportunity for the Gülen movement to increase its access to power between 2007 and 2013. Many affiliates of the movement assumed key positions in the Turkish bureaucracy and the business world. During this period, the AKP gradually dismantled the Kemalist establishment. However, instead of a liberal democratic order, the “new” post-Kemalist Turkey witnessed a power struggle between the former allies. The mistrust between the Gülen movement and the AKP ultimately led to an all-out war, with battles around high-stakes corruption and graft investigations against the AKP government, followed by mass purges of Gülenists from the bureaucracy and crackdown on its economic and human resources, and finalized by criminalization of all movement activities after a coup attempt that implicated Gülenists in the military. The Turkish government extended its crackdown abroad and pressured other countries to declare the movement as a terrorist organization, shut down or transfer its schools, and extradite its leadership to Turkey, with mixed success. The movement is challenged by the conflicting imperatives of self-preservation under existential threats and the need for critical reflection on its relationship with power. It is likely to experience a period of soul searching while its center of gravity shifts away from Turkey. An integrated approach from social movement theory sheds light on how motives, means, and opportunities account for the rise and decline of the Gülen movement, with implications for Islam and modernity, religion and democratization, and state-society relations.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Groups and Identities
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies


The Gülen movement comprises of a network of transnational institutions and linkages that aim to cultivate a combination of modern and traditional Muslim identities by actively engaging with social issues and offering a series of social services in the public arena. Social movement theory offers a useful framework to understand how motives, means, and opportunity influence religious actors’ involvement in politics (Wald, Silverman, & Fridy, 2005). In the case of the Gülen movement, the clues to its motives can be found in its world view and philosophy. Within the context of modernization from the late Ottoman Empire to the Republican Turkey, the movement’s ideology was influenced by the faith-based renewalist tradition of the Nur movement, Sufi spirituality and philosophy of service, and the civilizational synthesis of Turkish-Islamic patriotism.

To realize its particular goals of social and political transformation, the movement effectively used a combination of ideational and material resources, including charismatic authority, religious sermons and lectures, the media, institutions of education, business associations, humanitarian aid organizations, and social/cultural platforms. Wary of the secular establishment, the movement invested in cultivating relations with influential allies from the political and civic leaders since its early years. It used opportunities presented by Turkey’s economic and political liberalization in the 1980s to reach out to the emerging class of Islamic capitalists and use their financial support to gradually build a powerful private media and school network. The leadership has also been quite conscious of public relations management and tailoring its message in accordance with the context. As the movement became more transnational after the end of the Cold War, the pro-state conservative patriotism of its early discourse was replaced by a more liberal democratic human rights discourse. As a result of its expanding economic, social, and human capital and savvy politics, the movement seized the opportunities in Turkey and abroad to become one of the most influential modern Islamic movements. However, a major power struggle between the movement and Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) after 2013 quickly reversed the movement’s fortunes. As many of its leaders and participants were purged, imprisoned, exiled, or went into hiding, the future of the movement remains uncertain. The five-decade-long trajectory of the Gülen movement suggests that a social movement theory perspective that integrates the role of motives, means, and opportunities proves useful to understand and explain its politics of religious representation in the public sphere.

Background: Beginnings and Philosophy

The immediate intellectual roots of the Gülen movement is in Turkey’s faith-based renewalist teachings of Said Nursi (1878–1960) and his text-based Nur movement (Sahin, 2011; Vahide & Abu Rabi, 2005). Nursi revolutionized Islamic commentary literature by offering a novel form of Quranic interpretation, compiled as Risale-i Nur Külliyatı (Epistles of Light Collection). His writings were comprised of short lessons directed toward the average Muslim, rather than the traditional tafsir discipline’s comprehensive commentary on the entire Quran, accessible primarily to the learned scholarly (ulama) community. The contents of his writings were based on practical themes for the average Muslim who was increasingly challenged by the questions of modernization: how to understand Islam in relation to the advances in scientific knowledge, technological developments, and secular nationalist politics.

Nursi went through stages of personal transformation as he witnessed the colonial penetration into Muslim societies, the collapse of the last Muslim Empire, the Ottomans, and the subsequent turmoil many Muslim communities experienced as they experimented with various forms of nation-state-building. During the early stage of his life, he engaged with reformist Islamic and liberal circles to challenge the absolutism of the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II (1876–1909). He recognized the changing context of Muslim politics and the need for modernization and political reform. He advocated replacing the compartmentalized communalism of the Ottoman millet system with an inclusive merit-based constitutionalism to embrace the multiethnic, multireligious nature of the society. He later became disillusioned with politics as he witnessed rising nationalism and authoritarianism of the Young Turks, whose alliance with the Germans during World War I proved disastrous for the Ottoman Empire and its subjects. Even though Nursi supported Mustafa Kemal in his leadership of the Turkish War of Independence, he became critical of the top-down secular nation-building process that attempted to create a homogenous nation, discriminating against non-Muslims and restricting the Islamic and Kurdish identities in public life. Nursi developed a form of passive resistance to the secular revolution by contesting its legitimacy, and dearly paid for his opposition by spending the rest of his life in courts, prisons, and exiles.

Fethullah Gülen was born to this environment of antagonistic state-society relations in 1938 in the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum. Having taken the paternalistic last name of Atatürk (“father of Turks”) Mustafa Kemal had drastically changed the ideological references of the state from the guardians of the Sunni-Islamic tradition to the enforcers of Turkish-secular nationalism. After Atatürk died in 1938, İsmet İnönü succeeded him and his leadership of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which controlled Turkish politics until the end of World War II. The community in which Gülen spent his early childhood was marked by fear of state repression under President İnönü for teaching and practicing religion, as well as the anxiety and hardship surrounding World War II. Gülen received training in the classical Sunni ulamas’ (learned ones’) scholarly tradition from the remaining networks of the madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), which were outlawed and went underground after the Turkish state took all institutions of education under its control in 1924 (and closed down the alternative Imam Hatip schools in 1930).

Gülen was also exposed to Sufi mysticism and the master–disciple relationship under one of Erzurum’s prominent sheikhs, Alvarli Efe, again through informal networks, as Sufi lodges were also banned by the government. The turning point for Gülen came when he was introduced to a local reading circle formed around Nursi’s ideas in the 1950s. Even though they never personally met, Nursi’s blueprint for developing a modern Muslim identity resonated with Gülen’s dreams about an Islamic revival. They both understood revival first as a form of individual spiritual awakening and empowerment, followed by a broader socioeconomic and political transformation. Nursi talked about the stages of renewal, starting from faith and moving onto the social and political life, but he never articulated how the following stages would come about. For Gülen, Nursi’s grand ideas had to be put in practice by a “golden generation” of modern Muslims present in all aspects of life. Even though Gülen respected the elders of the Nur movement, his vision of popularizing Nursi’s ideas through mass media and other platforms gradually drove him apart from the rest because they did not share his outlook and saw his ideas as deviating from Nursi’s text-based individualist approach to renewal.

Gülen’s early life experience with being circumspect about his religious identity, as well as his informal madrasa and Sufi connections, deeply influenced the operational culture of the movement he founded in the coming decades.

A Presence Movement

Gülen adopted Nursi’s description of his duty to be in the service of God and his religion, hizmet, and gradually expanded it into what can be described as a presence movement. Gülen’s philosophy was rooted in a strong conviction that if there would be a Muslim revival, this would not be through withdrawal from the secular public sphere. He understood the importance of Nursi’s ideas and reading circles in forming Islamic counterpublics as a form of passive resistance to the state-dominant Kemalist secular public sphere. Nursi’s passive resistance and that of other Islamic movements had paid off and preserved a strong Muslim identity in the periphery. The success of the Democrat Party (DP) against the Kemalist CHP after Turkey’s transition to multiparty politics demonstrated that the Kemalist revolution was far from winning the hearts and minds of the majority of the populace. Under the DP rule, Turkish-Islamic conservatism became a major intellectual influence against Kemalist secular nationalism.

In addition to Nursi, Gülen was influenced by the leading intellectuals of this Turkish-Islamic conservatism, such as Sezai Karakoç, Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, and Nurettin Topçu. These intellectuals offered an alternative form of modernity, one that blended Islamic and Turkish identity, against the Kemalist model that aimed to combine Western and Turkish identities. Shaped by the emphasis of this conservative movement on reclaiming the Turkish Islamic civilization against the Kemalist goal of integrating Turkey into the Western civilization, Gülen came to believe that Muslims should be present in all facets of the public sphere and everyday life. As the DP government lifted many of the restrictions on religion in public life, Gülen gradually challenged elders of the Nur movement to expand their functions beyond reading and disseminating Nursi’s Risale-i Nur Külliyatı by publishing periodicals and opening student dorms. In effect, Gülen was looking to replace Nursi’s passive resistance strategy under the one-party rule with an active presence strategy under multiparty politics. In the next five decades, Gülen’s ideas and leadership would form a movement that was first and foremost about community-building: locally, regionally, nationally, and transnationally.

Gülen encouraged his followers to bring their best to their professions by emphasizing Sufi concepts of ihsan (integrity) and itkan (excellence). He maintained that excellence in one’s conduct comes out of internal peace, personal integrity, and spirituality.1 As he called upon Muslims to cultivate internal peace, aim for excellence, and engage in a new civilization-building mission, Gülen agonized about the decline of the Muslim civilization vis-à-vis the West, yet also dreamt about a brighter future. Concurring with Nursi’s analysis, he blamed violence, despotism, ignorance, and corruption as the root causes of Muslim underdevelopment while also insisting renewal was possible if Muslims embraced the spirit of Islamic teachings in light of modernity to support knowledge, hard work, and dedication (Gülen, 1998). He reappropriated and reinterpreted many Islamic concepts and developed a movement philosophy that emphasized activism, dedication, personal sacrifice, discipline, asceticism, and loyalty. He described social service activities and participating in the movement as the proper form of dawa and jihad: teaching Islam by example and striving for peace, justice, and excellence (Gülen, 1997).

Gülen strived to distinguish his hizmet philosophy from that of political Islamists by underscoring the primacy of the individual rather than the sociopolitical system and proactive engagement with the modern world rather than keeping a reactionary distance. Even though he criticized colonialism and postcolonial meddling in Muslim countries, he found admiration in Western advancements in science, technology, human rights, democracy, and freedoms. He observed that many Western democracies provide better opportunities to freely practice Islam compared to Muslim-majority countries.2 In line with his core belief that to transform society one must first transform the individual, Gülen’s sermons and lectures centered on raising an ideal “golden generation” that strives to balance the body, mind, and heart, and cultivates these qualities by going through a training comprising the discipline of the army, the science of the school, and the spirituality of the Sufi lodge.3 This three-prong strategy to revive and empower the Muslim individual would form the bedrock of the movement’s strategy to transform contemporary Muslim communities.

The idea behind the presence movement has roots in the Sufi philosophy of recognizing divine presence while being busy with everyday services (halk içinde Hak’la beraber). Instead of fully withdrawing from social life to find and experience the divine, practitioners must serve their community as part of their service to God. This also connects with Nursi’s philosophy of abandoning the world inside one’s heart instead of in one’s conduct (dünyayi kesben değil kalben terketmek) (Nursi, 2013, p. 229). In other words, people can make money, do business, and interact with others as long as their actions seek to please God and they do not get attached to the material world by turning these worldly pursuits into their “idols.”

As a movement with a goal of community-building and societal presence, Gülen’s followers in effect formed a Muslim outreach movement (Pandya & Gallagher, 2012). The movement’s beginnings in the 1960s in the most secular province in Turkey, İzmir, is particularly noteworthy. In the state-administered Kestanepazarı seminary, Gülen was the lead teacher, and he recruited a core group of disciples who would become the first elders (ilk abiler) to lead the subsequent outreach and institutional growth of the movement. With the help of the first cohort of the seminary graduates, Gülen initiated a series of youth activities, such as summer camps and conferences. Members of Gülen’s ideal “golden generation” were supposed to be at ease with modernity and their religious identity. Maintaining that the top-down project of building an Islamic state through the vanguard political parties and imposition of Islamic law would be counterproductive, Gülen believed that a bottom-up grassroots approach to raise well-educated, patriotic, and idealistic youth would be more effective for development of Muslim societies. Gülen revived and reappropriated the Islamic tradition of fundraising events, called himmet, to help with founding dorms and student apartments, and providing financial aid for students. In addition to pledges from wealthy businesspeople, movement participants at all levels adopted donating 10%–15% of their annual income as a norm (Ebaugh, 2009). Along with making time commitments to volunteer activities, donating to movement projects helped forge stronger bonds between the movement participants and its projects, and a sense of belonging to its communities (Kılınç & Warner, 2015).

Organization and Activities

Gülen had imagined a renaissance of Islamic civilization since his adolescence. Even though he was from the more traditional Eastern Turkish province of Erzurum, Gülen understood that his ideas had better chances of realization in the more modern yet also more secular western Turkey than the more pious yet also more traditional central and eastern parts. In some ways, this was an attempt to cultivate a modern Muslim public enlightenment (Yavuz, 2013). In western Turkey, Gülen quickly emerged as an enigmatic hocaefendi, a pious leader who combined a strong personal charisma with an effective sentimental and intellectual message. His sermons attracted massive audience outpouring, from the mosques to the streets, and he led this growing number of dedicated followers including college students, small business owners, and workers to establish student apartments, dorms, tutoring centers, and later private schools as the locus of movement’s inception. Gülen’s ideas struck a chord among the urban dwellers who were going through challenges of adapting their traditional Islamic identity to modernization. In contrast to many other Islamic movements of his time, Gülen was not asking his followers to build traditional Islamic centers of learning, such as madrasas or even the state-owned Imam Hatip schools or Quran seminaries, but modern schools that would teach modern subjects. The movement’s sophisticated use of intellectual, mystical, experimental, and affectional methods for recruitment and its emphasis on renunciation of the self kept it as primarily a charismatic movement with considerable control over participants’ lives (Tittensor, 2014, pp. 127–132).

Despite its moderate message and pro-systemic politics, the state closely monitored Gülen’s activities and saw his movement as a potential threat to the secular order. Gülen and his close associates had to spend time before the state security courts and in prison during military interventions of 1971 and 1980. In face of opposition and enmity from the secularist media and the state security institutions, Gülen devised strategies to protect the movement and its assets by gradually building influential allies in the state and the intelligentsia circles. The early decades of state suppression of religion under the Republican Turkey and the continued control under the secular state establishment made Gülen quite prudent in his approach. Even during times of boom, the movement continued its cautionary organizational and discursive strategies (Agai, 2003), thus opting for a “circumspect activism” (Balcı & Miller, 2012) rather than more assertive forms of human rights advocacy and political agitation.

Building on its growing human capital, the movement ventured into new projects, which in turn became opportunities to reach out to business owners. Most projects became self-sustaining after initial investments. As the movement pioneers arrived at other parts of the world, they created linkages between Turkish cities and the countries that these pioneers operated in. At first, these linkages were informal, but later volunteers and supporters of the movements founded their local, regional, and global business association and federations. TUSKON (Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey), AKSIAD (African Countries Cultural, Social, and Economic Development Association), and PASIAD (Association for Social and Economic Cooperation between Pacific Asian Countries) are some examples of organizations that created transnational linkages for movement participants and donors.

Over time, participation in movement-led social projects created entrepreneurial opportunities for businesses in the form of network capitalism. The movement encouraged creation of local business associations and umbrella federations to aggregate and represent business interests at local, national, and global levels. Institutionalization drove the movement’s transnationalism; local business associations developed a form of social business model (Tittensor, 2014) as they started supporting social projects in other countries. For example, business owners and investors from the Kirsehir province of Turkey organized under a local business association Kirsehir Gilded Businessmen’s Association (KAHIAD) would go to Niger and Burkino Faso in order to support movement schools as well as search for business opportunities.4 Such organizations created vertical and horizontal ties with other societal groups and political institutions, leading to various levels of social capital formation: bonding, bridging, and linking (Szreter & Woolcock, 2004). At the first level, horizontal bonding occurred among people of similar backgrounds and social positions, such as associations among students, businesses, workers, and academics. At a second level, the movement promoted vertical bridging roles across socioeconomic groups, societal identities, and ideologies. Students, teachers, business owners, and workers, with varying degrees of traditional and modern identities, established mutually reinforcing identities of service providers and receivers. At the third level, the movement facilitated linkages between the state and the society, as well as the elite and the masses, by forming institutions of horizontal and vertical representation such as associations of private schools, federations of business associations, labor unions, and dialogue platforms. Islamic identity played the role of connective tissue between different facets of social activism and services in the movement, and sustained the movement’s work ethic around an ethos of “activist pietism” (Özdalga, 2003).

Over three decades between 1985 and 2015, the movement effectively utilized the social capital it generated, and widened its areas of activity to include private high schools, tutoring centers, universities, intercultural and interfaith platforms, humanitarian relief, and hospitals. Following student housing and dorms, private colleges and tutoring centers operated by movement volunteers became one of the most prestigious educational chains across Turkey. Even though they primarily relied on tuition, they also offered sliding scales based on income and merit-based scholarships. One of the key reasons of success for the schools was their dedication to recruiting promising students from rural areas by offering them scholarships in the cities. As a result, many movement schools offered upward mobility and combined students from upper-middle-class and lower socioeconomic backgrounds under one roof.

The movement provided support and socialization for the graduates of its high schools and tutoring centers in college and sustained its networks in professional organizations after students graduated from college. As the movement’s activities and supporters grew, so did its influence. The growing number and influence of its media network, business associations, schools, hospitals, and worldwide connections gave the movement great stakes in policy. Throughout its five decades of social activism, the movement negotiated its autonomy with the state (Turam, 2007) and selectively engaged in politics to protect its organizational interests and build access to power. In order to maintain its growth, the movement promoted economic and political stability, rule of law, democracy, and a combination of realist balance of power politics and liberal internationalist foreign policy.

Calling it a movement of volunteers, Gülen (2016) believed that barriers to enter the movement should be minimal, and even non-pious people should be able to participate and contribute to movement projects and activities. Such an open-door policy resulted in a very amorphous structure with varying degrees of dedication and involvement. On the one hand, the movement’s outreach and openness broadened its public message and language. In his dozens of interviews to scholars and journalists since the 1990s, Gülen increasingly emphasized human rights, liberties, democracy, religious freedoms, and peace through dialogue and engagement (Mercan, 2016). On the other hand, the elders of the movement retained a more religious discourse in their closely guarded private circles, founded on shared pious Turkish Muslim identity.

Growth Stages of the Movement

In order to understand strategies of the movement in public affairs, one must understand its growth stages and the political and cultural context in which it operates. There are clear parallels between the interests and vision of the movement and its political preferences. Gülen’s ideas about politics are shaped by both the Ottoman state tradition and the post-Ottoman republicanism of modern Turkey. He does not sacralize the state; however, in general he sees the need for a strong state to provide security, order, and prosperity. When speaking about politics, he disdains politics of competing group interests and often makes references to national interest, public virtues, public order, and morality (Mercan, 2016, pp. 614–617). Gülen has resided in the United States since 1998, and his republicanism has been tempered with doses of political liberalism, likely due to the movement’s experience with the more rights-based, individualist, pluralist American political culture. In response to those who criticized the movement for infiltrating in the civil service, for example, he argued that the state should reflect the values of the society and maintain an environment to help the fulfillment of its citizens’ needs. Hence, citizens do not infiltrate; it is their right to seek employment in the public sector without ideological discrimination (Mercan, 2016, pp. 240–246).

In addition to the influence of prevalent political culture, Gülen’s engagement with politics was also influenced by the salient issues of the time and how he identified their root cause. At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s, he identified communism and anarchism as the main problem and adopted a pro-security and pro-public order stance on the increasing ideological polarization and political violence. In his sermons, he encouraged his audience not to accept forced closures of businesses and not to give in to terror.5 His pro-state stance, however, did not save him from the periodical wrath of the state after the 1971 and 1980 military interventions in politics.

Against the backdrop of violent left–right confrontations of the 1970s, the military junta leading the 1980 coup aimed to depoliticize the Turkish society and promoted Islam as an antidote to communism and as a source of public order and morality. The 1980s led to a flourishing of the movement, not only because the movement’s teachings were in line with the new Turkish-Islamic synthesis of the generals but also because Prime Minister Turgut Özal’s neoliberal reforms created opportunities for growth. Privatization and deregulation reforms gradually opened more space for private education, mass media, small businesses, and export-oriented industrial sectors. The beneficiaries of privatization and free-market reforms from Anatolia became key supporters for the movement’s activities in education and community organization (ESI, 2005).

The collapse of the USSR and the emergence of newly independent Turkic republics in central Asia created the early opportunities for the movement’s expansion abroad. Gülen sent a group of youth and businessmen to meet the state elite in the newly independent nations and to start schools. The premise of the movement schools was their combination of modern subjects with character education. The language of instruction was primarily in English and the national languages, whereas Turkish was offered often as an extracurricular subject and/or an elective course. Following the early model of the private high schools in Turkey, the schools abroad also invested in science, math, and technology. Thanks to dedicated teachers, many of whom came from top Turkish universities, the schools distinguished themselves in the developing countries and quickly achieved recognition in national and international competitions. The schools did not teach religion directly, but emphasized morality and character education often supported by the extracurricular activities of teachers, dorm advisors, and tutors. The schools were inspired by Gülen’s teachings about the importance of providing moral education, along with academics, and building productive relations between teachers and parents (Gage, 2013). In conflict-prone parts of the world, such as Bosnia, the Philippines, and Iraq, the movement schools aimed to educate children of different ethnic and religious groups under one roof and provide a model of peace-building and coexistence (Michel, 2014). Despite the movement’s own generally benign and altruistic narrative and carefully managed public image, recruitment techniques used during extracurricular activities by movement participants in some Central Asian countries reportedly bordered on being missionary work (Balcı, 2003).

In addition to its worldwide private schools, some movement volunteers also opened charter schools in the United States. These schools were publicly funded yet privately administered. In line with the movement’s educational philosophy and prior experience, most charter schools found a niche in the era of increasing emphasis on science and technology education in the United States. The schools often featured college preparation, after-school tutoring and extracurricular activities, intercultural trips, and close teacher–parent relations. Some of the school chains, such as Harmony Schools in Texas, received recognition for their academic success and contribution to underserved and disadvantaged urban communities in metropolitan areas.6 Despite their academic achievements and service to their communities, the charter schools, whose numbers approach 120 in the continental United States, have received more negative publicity because of questions about their connection to the Gülen movement and their financial practices.7

The Movement’s Politics in Context

One of the reasons for the movement’s growth success has been the leadership’s ability to read global context and situate the movement activities accordingly. As the world shifted away from the Cold War, the movement seamlessly modified its message away from pro-state anti-communist Islam to a civil Islam that engaged with interfaith dialogue, democratization, and conflict resolution. This engagement was shaped not only by the movement’s interest in utilizing the opportunities and openings created by economic and political liberalization, but also by an attempt to create a synthesis between Islam and liberalism (Kılınç, 2013). In the 1990s, Gülen and his deputies reached out to Jewish, Orthodox, and Catholic faith leaders. During this period, the Istanbul-based Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) became the public face of the movement’s promotion of dialogue and reconciliation.

The JWF organized a series of workshops under its Abant Platform to promote public engagement on divisive sociopolitical issues. The meetings first started in 1998 as a few days’ long retreat in one of Turkey’s recreational centers, Abant. The participants included academics, journalists, public intellectuals, politicians, statesmen, and civil society actors from different convictions and backgrounds, to discuss a timely topic. The themes were more tailored toward Turkey’s problems but over time became more inclusive of regional and international themes. The Abant Platform became the signature Gülen organization in the public sphere. Judged by the meeting format, themes, participants, and proceedings, the platform aimed to promote civic dialogue and remained quite distinct from typical interest group politics or issue-based advocacy organizations. The movement refrained from taking clear policy positions and operated more like an organizer of civil society (Ugur, 2013), emphasizing broad values, such as dialogue and reconciliation, and meta-political procedural goals, such as democratization, European Union (EU) membership, and the rule of law. The Abant Platform not only offered outreach opportunities to find allies in the society and the intelligentsia but also provided legitimacy to an amorphous movement in the public sphere.

The Abant Platform also helped the movement to challenge the Kemalist hegemony in the public sphere without confronting the Kemalist state establishment directly. Even though its leadership chose not to be vocal critiques of the state and tried to draw a low profile, there were still discontents of the movement in the state bureaucracy. Turgut Özal’s liberal policies (1983–1993) had empowered the civil society and expanded the private economic sector, yet the state remained the most powerful actor, even at the height of this liberal era. In face of the resurgence of the Islamist Welfare Party in local and national elections and the increasing intensity of the Kurdish insurgency, the military reasserted itself in the 1990s in the name of upholding the twin pillars of the Kemalist state ideology: secularism and nationalism. The movement’s activities had benefited from liberalization in the previous decade, and the movement strived to maintain its autonomy by relying on private funds and support. Even though there were no openly declared political endorsements, the community leaned toward supporting center-right parties, such as Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP) and Tansu Ciller’s Right Path Party (DYP). Gülen was clear in distancing his movement from the Islamist Welfare Party. However, his message of civil Islam did not satisfy the secularist military establishment. With the increasing state pressure against Islamic movements, Gülen decided to stay in the United States after a visit for medical care in 1998 and has since continued to lead his movement from a secluded compound in the Poconos (Pennsylvania).

After Gülen started living in the United States, the transnational wave that started in the 1990s gained more momentum. The movement intensified its interfaith initiatives after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, to signal its moderate stance and distinguish itself from radical Islamist groups (Kayaoglu, 2015). Movement participants founded the Alliance of Shared Values in the United States as an umbrella organization representing all of the movement-affiliated dialogue organizations and sought to fill in the void for representing the movement in the public sphere. Since its formative years, the movement prioritized establishing relationships with statesmen, politicians, and community leaders to present the movement and its activities first-hand. This was especially important in countries where the state remained the dominant actor in the public sphere. In countries with a well-established pluralist democratic system, the movement supplemented its strategy of nonpartisan civil society outreach with interest group politics and lobbying. In the United States, various branches of the Turkish-American Chamber of Commerce and regional Turkic Councils developed ties with the political and economic elite through luncheons, trips, and other events. The Washington-based Turkic American Alliance (TAA) became the representative umbrella organization for the regional Turkic Councils.

The success of the movement in expanding its activities globally and increasing its presence in the transnational public sphere underscores its ability to adapt its message and strategies according to the context. The institutional and discursive opportunity structures present in a context shapes social movement strategies and their potentials for influence (Koopmans & Statham, 1999). Framing their message according to the prevalent cultural context is critical for social movements’ legitimacy and success. During its first decade, the Gülen community frequently referred to national interest, public order, and Turkey’s international prestige and relative power in world politics as the higher goals that the service activities were meant to serve. During the early phase of the expansion to Central Asia, Turkish national interest remained the core reference, with Turkic solidarity (atayurt) added. As the movement extended its activities to non-Turkish and non-Muslim countries, the message became more universal, framed around themes of peace and human development. After the mid-1990s, the movement’s messages incorporated democracy and freedoms along with an emphasis on Islam’s compatibility with such modern constructs and practices.

Judging by its activities and discourse, the politics of the Gülen movement has been shaped by four main goals:


Survival and protection of the movement, its activities, and reputation


Advancement and expansion of its activities, outreach, and access


Promotion of a modern face to Islam through public platforms and everyday presence


Peace-building and conflict resolution through education and intercultural/interfaith dialogue

The movement’s caution and reliance on allies alludes to its enduring concern about survival of its activities. The movement leadership engaged in an outreach first toward Turkey’s bureaucratic and political elite, including presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors, and military generals, with assurances that movement participants were loyal to the state and their functions did not aim to create an Islamic state. With the Abant Platform, this outreach was expanded toward other ethnic and ideological groups, including Alevis, Kurds, and socialists in the 1990s. In order to appeal to the state elite and the larger Turkish public, the movement emphasized the importance of its activities for Turkish national interest, promotion of Turkish culture, peace and public order, and provision of public services. Movement institutions proactively cultivated relationships with key community leaders, intelligentsia, law enforcement, and politicians to provide a first-hand account of their activities, and worked with public relations professionals to frame their messages and protect the movement’s reputation.

Next, the movement encouraged its sympathizers to be present in every aspect of life, including bureaucracy and other state institutions. The movement was never seriously critical of the powers of the state vis-à-vis the society, but rather believed the state institutions were captured by a cabal of corrupt and unpatriotic bureaucrats (“deep state”) who manipulate ethnic, sectarian, ideological, and political divisions in the society to divide and rule the country and retain their positions of power and privilege. This view of the state was not confined to the Gülen movement, but was an extension of the Turkish political culture during the Cold War, shared by other Islamist and leftist groups. Many Turks believed that this deep state was behind clashes between leftists and nationalists in the 1970s, the rise of militant Kurdish separatist movement in the 1980s, the assassination of leftist journalists and intellectuals, and Islamist-secular tensions in the 1990s. Regarding who directs the deep state, many conspiracy theories were developed, ranging from counter-guerilla-type stay-behind forces of NATO, such as the Italian Gladio, to foreign intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, Mossad, MI6, BND, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The belief in the deep state and the fear of subversion made the movement leadership quite cautious about its network and organizations. Movement sympathizers often downplayed or hid their piety and identity to get in the bureaucracy. The military and the judiciary were particularly challenging as they were bastions of Kemalist secularism and there were very few pious Muslims in the higher echelons. The movement actively supported its growing recruits from student dorms, apartments, and tutoring centers to join state bureaucracies. The army’s recruitment, promotion, and retention system became more discriminatory in the 1980s and 1990s to counter the flow of Gülenists into their officer ranks. As the movement believed it needed to be cautious against its antagonists in the deep state, the state establishment saw deception and infiltration attempts to capture the state. This mutual fear and suspicion paved the way for a major factional rivalry within the state, ultimately leading to waves and counter waves of purges between 2007 and 2018. What appeared to be the movement’s victory by 2011 was short-lived, and a series of counter waves have targeted the Gülenists since 2014, especially after the 2016 military coup attempt.

The movement also spent considerable efforts to distance itself from political Islam and to present a more modern representation for Muslims in the public sphere. This was based on marking the ideational difference but also served the movement’s survival needs in face of secularist state policies that targeted activities of Islamist parties. The movement’s evolution as a loosely knit social network instead of a traditional Sufi order was also a response to the Turkish model of secularism, which aimed to exclude autonomously organized religion from the public sphere and control religious teachings and loyalty.

The Gülen movement was also quite pragmatic in party politics and kept a deliberate distance from the Islamist parties. Movement participants mostly supported center-right political parties and also cultivated relations with center-left parties. The movement refrained from vocally criticizing the state. As a result, many Islamists saw the movement’s approach as wishy-washy, too soft on criticizing the West and too nationalist. Despite a history of sour relations, incompatible world views, and political differences, the movement came to support the AKP. The RP and its successor, the Virtue Party (SP), had been closed by the Constitutional Court, under pressure from the secularist Kemalist establishment. The Islamists were split between traditionalists and reformers, and AKP was founded by the reformers on more of a generic, center-right, conservative political platform than an exclusively Islamist one. The Gülen movement had supported the AKP’s transition to a center-right political party and became one of the key supporters along with the liberals against the Kemalist establishment. The movement’s presence in the media, civil society, and the bureaucracy would prove quite critical in the AKP’s struggle to survive the Kemalist opposition from the state.

The Kemalists were weakened by 2010 through a series of political reforms, constitutional amendments, and legal campaigns known as the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. The trials were first seen as an opportunity to hold the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights violations (Sinclair-Webb, 2013), bringing civilian control over the military (Aydinli, 2011; Heper, 2011), but were highly politicized and divisive (Tas, 2014). Although the trials aimed to uncover the much speculated “deep state,” which allegedly comprised active and retired generals, police chiefs, organized crime, and supporters in the media and the intelligentsia, the merit of the case was marred by lengthy and arbitrary detentions, serious flaws in the indictments, and indications of tempered and fabricated evidence (Jenkins, 2009).

What began as an investigation into the deep state conspiracy against the civilian government quickly turned into a witch-hunt against the opponents of the AKP and the Gülen movement. The purging of scores of active and retired army officers and other prominent ultranationalists significantly weakened the Kemalist establishment’s power, although the convictions were later overturned by the higher appeals courts. Both the Gülen movement and the AKP benefited from the weakening of the Kemalist control over Turkish politics. The movement’s human capital provided useable cadres in the bureaucracy against other factions, as the AKP was far behind having loyal cadres of its own. In turn, the AKP’s rule in government provided protection for movement activities inside and outside of Turkey, and access to power. The power of the Gülen movement in the state bureaucracy, including the judiciary, the police, and the military, surpassed any rivals in this period. Even though there were bumps in the road, the two camps maintained their alliance for nearly a decade. Although many seculars saw this as a strategic alliance to end the Kemalist order, the relationship between the two most powerful Islamic actors was shaped by mutual suspicions and was at best a tactical alliance influenced by politics of democratization (Ugur, 2017).

The AKP-Gülen movement coalition fell apart in 2013 after a series of spectacular high-profile corruption and graft investigations that reached to the higher echelons of the government. Prime Minister Erdoğan, who would later become the president, came out defiant against the allegations and called them a “coup attempt” by a network of pro-Gülen loyalist bureaucrats in cahoots with foreign intelligence agencies. The AKP government started a crackdown against the Gülen movement, by first framing it as a campaign against a Gülenist rogue clique (“parallel state”) within the state; however, soon after the crackdown targeted the entire movement. Parliament created special “Peace Criminal Courts” with extended powers to investigate the “parallel state.” By 2016, scores of bureaucrats, especially from law enforcement and the judiciary, were purged; movement newspapers, TV stations, and publishers were shut down or confiscated by the government.

The crackdown turned into a witch-hunt after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The government blamed the movement for orchestrating the coup, and purged and imprisoned tens of thousands of alleged movement participants under emergency rule. The membership to the movement was criminalized, and people who worked in the movement’s schools, companies, and organizations not only lost their jobs but also faced popular hostility. A good portion of the leadership gradually left the country by 2016, and some members sought asylum in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Those who were not as fortunate, informed, or prepared took risky routes to leave the country. Some tragically died. The government also pressured other countries to shut down movement schools and organizations, with mixed success. The U.S. government resisted Turkey’s extradition request for Gülen and had taken no concrete legal steps as of early 2019.

The Future of the Movement

This intellectual, organizational, and contextual analysis of the Gülen movement underscores both the strengths and limitations of operating as a social movement for promoting religion in the public sphere. Its informal and amorphous structure provides it a degree of dynamism, fluidity, pragmatism, and adaptability against its more established opponents. Unlike revolutionary or political Islamists, the Gülen movement took the long view of generational transformation through individual empowerment and community-building, which may be called everyday activism. The movement also cultivated influential allies, mobilized resources from the emerging conservative bourgeoisie, engaged with the state, and retained its autonomy from political parties. Although its organizational and discursive strategies served the movement well against its opponents in the secular establishment, the movement became a victim of its success. As it acquired economic and social influence, gained access to political power, and outperformed other factions in the bureaucracy, some of its members’ behind-the-scenes Machiavellian methods came at the expense of suspicion, resentment, and alienation toward the entire movement’s promise of being at the service of others. The movement’s informal networks and funds, as well as the ambiguity of its public representation, became a liability in its struggle against a populist government, leading to a major government crackdown against the movement, with little sympathy from the larger society (Kuru, 2017). As the movement lost most of its signature schools, business ventures, and community organizations, which took more than three decades to build, a soul-searching is underway among the movement participants despite strong resistance from the senior leadership.8

The movement at its core remains a charismatic movement, despite the expansion of its activities worldwide, and is challenged by the need for rationalization of its authority. During its formative years, providing a common space for potentially conflictual Turkish–Kurdish identities, conservative–liberal values, modernist–traditional Islamic interpretations, local–global cultures, and various socioeconomic interests proved to be quite effective for the growth of the movement and its ability to reach out to many communities. However, after five decades of building these ties and kick-starting projects, the movement also faced challenges of substantiating its organizational accomplishments with intellectual depth, educational content, economic sustainability, and cultural vibrancy.

The Turkish government’s crackdown on the movement’s participants and institutions since 2014 also brought such challenges to the surface, and in many respects the movement is now at a crossroads. It has lost much of its popularity in Turkey except for a small core group of supporters. Its ability to raise funding and provide services has also been significantly circumscribed. This increasing pressure to dissolve the movement pushed the participants to rethink its identity and renegotiate it with other local, national, and global forces. One immediate result has been making the movement more transnational and its activities visibly less centered on Turkish culture. For example, the Turkish Olympiads have been renamed International Festival of Language and Culture since 2016, and were held in several countries. Many movement-affiliated institutions that relied on donations and full-time movement associates have looked for more sustainable financial arrangements. As times of crisis are also times of opportunity and renewal, the movement is likely to channel its grassroots energy toward more locally connected and sustained projects, moving away from its previous Turkey-centric stage of development. Its past in grassroots activism and community-building may be its future.

Further Reading

  • Hendrick, J. D. (2013). Gülen: The ambiguous politics of market Islam in Turkey and the world. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Marty, M. E. (Ed.). (2015). Hizmet means service: Perspectives on an alternate path within Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Tittensor, D. (2014). The house of service: The Gülen movement and Islam’s third way. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


  • Agai, B. (2003). Discursive and organizational strategies of the Gülen movement. In H. Yavuz & J. Esposito (Eds.), Turkish Islam and the secular state. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Aydinli, E. (2011). Ergenekon, new pacts, and the decline of the Turkish “inner state.” Turkish Studies, 12(2), 227–239.
  • Balcı, B. (2003). Fethullah Gülen’s missionary schools in Central Asia and their role in the spreading of Turkish and Islam. Religion, State & Society, 31(2), 151–177.
  • Balcı, T., & Miller, C. L. (Eds.). (2012). Gülen hizmet movement: Circumspect activism in faith-based reform. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars.
  • Ebaugh, H. R. (2009). The Gülen movement: A sociological analysis of a civic movement rooted in moderate Islam. New York, NY: Springer.
  • European Stability Initiative. (2005, September 19). Islamic Calvinists: Change and conservatism in Central Anatolia. Berlin, Germany; Istanbul, Turkey: ESI.
  • Gage, T. (2013). Gülen’s dialogue on education. Seattle, WA: Cune.
  • Giugni, M., McAdam, D., & Tilly, C. (Eds.). (1999). How social movements matter: Past research, present problems, and future research. In M. Giugni, D. McAdam, & C. Tilley (Eds.), How social movements matter: Social movements, protest, and contention (vol. 10, pp. 225–252). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gülen, F. (1997). İ’la-yı Kelimetullah veya Cihad. Istanbul, Turkey: Nil Yayinevi.
  • Gülen, F. (1998). Ruhumuzun Heykelini Dikerken. Istanbul, Turkey: Nil Yayinevi.
  • Gülen, F. (2016). Kirik Testi-7: Olumsuzluk Iksiri. Clifton, NJ: Blue Dome Press.
  • Heper, M. (2011). Civil-military relations in Turkey: Toward a liberal model? Turkish Studies, 12(2), 241–252.
  • Jenkins, G. H. (2009). Between fact and fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon investigation. Stockholm, Sweden: Central Asia – Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program.
  • Kayaoglu, T. (2015). Explaining interfaith dialogue in the Muslim world. Politics and Religion, 8(2), 236–262.
  • Kılınç, R. (2013). Muslims and liberalization: The case of the Gülen movement. In I. Yilmaz (Ed.), Muslim world in transition: The contributions of the Gülen movement (pp. 82–95). London, UK: Leeds Metropolitan University Press.
  • Kılınç, R., & Warner, C. M. (2015). Micro-foundations of religion and public goods provision: Belief, belonging, and giving in Catholicism and Islam. Politics and Religion, 8(4), 718–44.
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  • Nursi, B. S. N. (2013). Mesnevi-i nuriye. Istanbul, Turkey: Risale Press.
  • Özdalga, M. E. (2003). Worldly asceticism in Islamic casting: Fethullah Gülen’s inspired piety and activism. Critique, 17(Fall), 83–104.
  • Pandya, S., & Gallagher, N. (2012). The Gulen hizmet movement and its transnational activities. Boca Raton, FL: Brown Walker Press.
  • Sahin, M. G. (2011). Said Nursi and the Nur movement in Turkey: An atomistic approach. Digest of Middle East Studies, 20(2), 226–227.
  • Sinclair-Webb, E. (2013). The Turkish trial that fell far short. New York Times.
  • Szreter, S., & Woolcock, M. (2004). Health by association? Social capital, social theory, and the political economy of public health. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33(4), 650–667.
  • Tas, H. (2014). Turkey’s Ergenekon imbroglio and academia’s apathy. Insight Turkey, 16(1), 163–179.
  • Tittensor, D. (2014). The house of service: The Gülen movement and Islam’s third way. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Turam, B. (2007). Between Islam and the state: The politics of engagement. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Ugur, E. (2013). Organizing civil society: The Abant platform of the Gülen movement. In G. Barton, I. Yilmaz, & P. Weller (Eds.), The Muslim world and politics in transition: Creative contributions of the Gülen (hizmet) movement (pp. 47–64). London, UK: Continuum Press.
  • Ugur, E. (2017). Islamists and the politics of democratization: Evidence from Turkey. Contemporary Islam, 11(2), 137–155.
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