Tag Archives: modernist islam

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