Tag Archives: Fethelulah Gulen

Gulen Movement – Part 2

Continued from part one here. Read part one before you read part II.

I am now asked to comment and tell people what I think of the Gulen movement. The people in the Gulen movement themselves ask me what I think about the movement. Before are some first thoughts – still not organized- still not fact checked- treat it as first impressions. Coming from my knowledge of the Jewish community, I can only evaluate them based on analogy to Jewish parallels.

My basic questions for evaluating the Islam of the Gulen movement is what will the next generation look like. Even knowing that next generations can turn out the opposite of the prior ones, the vantage point of projection allows evaluation. This is where I am stumped as to how to evaluate my experiences.

Vignette 1 –I am speaking to a 21 year old economic major who describes how the movement took Islam from the folkways and tradition in his small town and made it into a religion. Now the religion of Islam that he follows is by conscious choice and he sees that it can be treated as Turkish-Islamic culture. This would sound like a religion of self-conscious traditionalism. Their own newspaper quotes the anthropologist Ruth Benedict that “Our faith in the present dies out long before our faith in the future.” They are a transition that is still taking place in which the plausibility structure of the past has died and the Gulen movement offers the potential of a future plausibility structure that works.

Vignette 2- I am speaking to an 18 year old recent graduate of the Gulen boarding prep school in CT. He explains to me how Islam was not part of the curriculum but they have prayer and chaplains. He tells me that he is going to study Political Science and pre-law in a major Midwestern mega-university. I wonder how is he going to keep his Islam on a college campus? Will he change due to the influence of the Muslim-chaplain on campus? Will be forced to either assimilate or stake out a more public form of Islam to maintain his identity? What can I use to evaluate this kid as a success story of Gulen Islam?

Vignette 3- I am speaking to a 50 year old teacher of the movement. Someone shows him a keychain and asks: what is written on it? He says he thinks the first Sura of the Koran but that he cannot translate it and would need to look up its meaning. Since the first Sura is known to every school child who learns Koran-and even to any Jewish studies teacher who has ever taught the second Sura because of its Judiac sources- what do I make of his lack of knowledge of the Koran? it is not hard to remember
In the name of the merciful and compassionate God.
1 Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds,
2 he the merciful, the compassionate,
3 he, the ruler of the day of judgment!
4 Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid.
5 Guide us in the right path,
6 the path of those Thou art gracious to;
7 not of those Thou art wroth with; nor of those who err.

In general, they say to trust one’s own heart in religion. Don’t be a hypocrite and try to be sincere in your practice. They have created an Islam of knowledge of the basic rules and Mosque etiquette but no real learning of Islamic sources. They say to trust the heart for matters of interpretation. Imama, kadis, and scary sources of authority do not play a role in their thinking. How can I evaluate if the next generation will return to sources of authority and which ones they will choose?

They affirm the need for salat (worship) five times a day, yet they also say that God wants you to be engaged in medicine or business or community work so that if you miss some of the prayers it is OK. Once or twice a day is enough is one is busy with other service of God such as helping people. There is a form of osek be mitzvah patur min hamitzvah and rahmana leba bai.

When asked about restrictive fatwas, salafi interpretation or about Islamic reformers, they tend to shrug it off and say: Dont question others or engage in polemics- love all – don’t fight with the right or the left.

So how do I evaluate them? Where will they be in 20 years? 40 years? Are they like the Conservative movement of 1940’s – traditionalists following accepted practices of the people? Are they renewal and romantic for their setting as their base a universal reading of Sufism as tolerance, love, and intercultural understanding? Are they Modern Orthodox for their insistence on women covering their hair and everyone only eating OU kosher as their halal– both inside and outside the home? (There is money to be made by the OU giving them seminars in what to look for in ingredients and how to navigate American Kashrut.)
What happens when the kids open the books? Will they?

To offer a comparison: Teaneck has a new Muslim Mayor affiliated with the local Mosque and Muslim day school. In the Teaneck al-Ghazzali school they have half a day religious studies and half a day general studies. The Gulen schools all have only secular studies and one period a week of religion. To teach classes in al-Ghazzali, they sometimes have less than modernist teachers and the textbooks are produced in Pakistan. In the Gulen school, every teacher is bright-eyed and supportive of Gulen’s vision of love, tolerance, and purity of the heart. Here in Teaneck, the Muslim women do not all cover their hair but in the Gulen movement they do.

So how do I evaluate the movement? How are they similar or difference than the American Jewish entrance into modernity? Where will they be in 20 years?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

The Gulen Society as Modern Orthodox- Part One

I am back from Turkey or as they keep telling me I am in the Anatolian peninsula and Turkey is the greater vision of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I had a Jewish-Christian conference here followed by a whirlwind tour provided by the Gulen Movement started by Fethelulah Gulen.

The Gulen organization steers its followers between a state mandated modernism without religion or an Islamic totalizing embrace of religion. In Turkey, a country where the public school and society does not teach Islam, the Gulen society advocates a completely secular curriculum under religious auspices and the keeping of the practices of one’s youth. In the US where it is permitted to teach religion in a private school, they only teach secular studies in their charter school in NJ and their private boarding school in CT. They only have a chaplain on campus and one period a week of religion (like the old Episcopal prep schools). With the Gulen Society’s help, they send first generation students to a good colleges and then medical school or other professions. It produces a modernized Islam that keeps the commandments but has little to do with the vast corpus of Islamic works since they do not study them. The only Islamic teaching that they study are the writings of Fethelulah Gulen, who defines Islam as love, tolerance, interfaith and cultural dialogue, science, and caring for others. Numbers of adherents are hard to come by and vary from 500k to 10milion. The Gulen movement is one of the many emergent faces of 21st century Islam and you will be hearing much about them in the future.

The Gulen society is trying to create a modern-orthodox Islam in Turkey. They don’t trust the airlines when they say it is halal and women refrain from shaking men’s hands. (But men will shake women’s hands in a business context.) Women are encouraged to cover their hair. They wear Western dress and push for secular university study and want to blend into American democracy. Their NJ charter day school emphasizes the study of science and that you will get into a good college.

Turkey is officially a secular country maintained by the military. It has a prime minister who is head of the ruling religious party (but a PM even if religious cannot enforce religion or else he will be ousted by the military). The Gulan society is trying to create a middle ground between secular and Islamist and is supported by the police and the businessmen. There is a whole class of newly minted doctors and factory owners who support the movement. Fethullah Gulen himself is in exile in PA since he was seen as promoting religion in Islam, which is illegal.

I am not talking politics, but religion. So limit your comments to his modern religion. Nevertheless I must point out that he was on Israel’s side against the current PA flotilla disaster. I repeat please deal with the politics elsewhere.

Reclusive Turkish Imam Criticizes Gaza Flotilla
SAYLORSBURG, Pa.—Imam Fethullah Gülen, a controversial and reclusive U.S. resident who is considered Turkey’s most influential religious leader, criticized a Turkish-led flotilla for trying to deliver aid without Israel’s consent. Mr. Gülen said organizers’ failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”

Fethullah Gulen is a liberal hanafi imam when it comes to law, (think of Rav Uziel or Rav Nissim) and he is against the strictures that has emanated from the influence of Salafi (Wahabi) Islam or from the Brotherhood in Egypt. While denying to actually follow Sufism, Gulen is a neo-Sufi- following and modernizing their ideas (Think, neo-hasidism). Gülen was a student and follower of Sheikh Sa’id-i Kurdi (1878-1960), also known as Sa’id-i Nursi, the founder of the Islamist Nur (light) movement. In contrast, Salafi Muslims, for example the Saadis, consider all forms and ideas of Sufism to be Baadah- innovation, changing the tradition, not binding, heresy.

Now for some of the interesting points. Once again, like Centrist Orthodoxy or Evangelicals, the community is linked to success and making money.

The movement appears to be very rich, leading to questions about the source of its money (with the implication that if the money is “bad”, then the movement must be too). The answer seems to be: voluntary donations, largely from rich businessmen. The Gülen network’s organizations – mainly schools, based in over 100 countries – are publicly registered and subject to legal scrutiny. Their members are also highly motivated, as reflected in the fact that Fethullah Gülen was (in July 2008) voted the world’s most significant intellectual in the respected intellectually monthly journal Prospect.

At the event, we listened to the stories of men from humble backgrounds who had after years of work and investment recently become rich; they now supported the movement’s drive for an ethical capitalism. They seemed to personify the argument of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk (in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City) that the elite’s cosiness with the Turkish Kemalite military is based on the shared fear that people rooted in or close to the great unwashed mass of urban and rural (and Muslim) working people are on the verge of gaining power- more here

On woman’s issues they are in favor of woman’s equality and entering the modern world but they are against woman’s prayer quorums or female imams.

The Qur’anic verses which insist on women’s equal human status with men really do seem to operate in the movement. The women (choose to) obey the injunction to dress modestly; at the same time, the verse “(there) is no compulsion in religion” seems to operate as strongly on this question as it does in the movement’s relations with people of other faiths. But, as the Muslim feminist Kecia Ali points out, the Qur’an does not propose full social equality, however ‘complementary’ men’s and women’s roles are seen to be (see Sexual Ethics And Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, Oneworld, 2006).

On questions of globalization, interfaith, and modern vales they are of the same cloth as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks because of their emphasis on the Neo-Sufism to create a vision of love, brotherhood of man, and natural human piety. The Gulen Society’s motto is “All is based on Love.” Rumi for a modern age.

The movement builds on Sufism; they define their Islam with pithy paragraphs like this one.

On the basis of Sufism lies a struggle with the self, a purification of the heart, and a feeding of the soul. This is accomplished with prayers and remembrance, and with increasingly extra forms of worships. If the methodology of fıqh constitutes a fundamental part of Islamic civilization, social mind, worship, and transactions; Sufism should be viewed as the most important manifestation of Islamic spirituality. Sufism is not solely a lifestyle. It is at the same time a special perspective that determines how the Sufi should establish relations with his Lord, with himself, and with the whole universe and all its contents. But this perspective is a perfect worldview in wider and philosophical meaning. – more here.

The Gulen society is not into theological dialogue and they rarely discuss Islam or even mention that they are Muslims. They advocate friendship dinners where you have a evening where clergy of all faiths, along with politicians and government officials meet and deliver fellowship speeches. (They hold three a year in NJ). For example, you can find on the web a speech by Bill Clinton at one of these dinners. They also advocate joint visits to religious sites and religious ruins- let’s bring Jews, Muslims, and Christians to ruins in Ephesus or to see the synagogues of Istanbul. They have contacts with Jewish organizations and are playing an increasing roll in local and US politics.

IF you have any thoughts on their brand of modern Islam, their religion, or their means of interfaith then please leave a comment. If you are coming to preach politics of Islamophobia please go elsewhere.

This post was written before spending 12 days with them, it was modified slightly after seeing them in the field. I will have a follow-up post(s) on their religiosity, and some of the cultural elements brought up by Thomas Friedman’s recent op-eds.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved