Book chapter

Religious Frames: The Gülen Movement (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

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.