The real Fethullah Gülen
by Stephen Schwartz
Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish Muslim ideologue who claims to find inspiration in Islamic mysticism (Sufism), has had a busy summer. Following the hijacking by his many admirers of the Prospect/Foreign Policy global public intellectuals poll, on 24th June he was acquitted by the Turkish judiciary of charges of fundamentalism and terrorism. Then, some Turkish media reported that Gülen has been denied a "green card" for permanent immigrant status in the US and faces deportation.
Rumours had circulated for some months that Gülen, who resided for several years, while ill, in Pennsylvania, had already returned to Turkey following the election of the AK (Justice and Development) party, with which he is loosely connected. But the reports about Gülen's immigration case were false. No such decision has been made in the US, and no resolution of his status is expected in the short term. The lesson of this latest item, for opponents of Gülen, is that wherever he goes, media manipulation and disinformation follow.
Arguments for Fethullah Gülen are typically made with the belief that westerners can be fooled into thinking that Gülen and his alleged Sufism represent some profound breakthroughs in Islamic thought, when in fact they do not. Still, the effort often succeeds. Gülen was described by Tom Nuttall in his analysis of the poll results as "a new kind of intellectual— one whose influence is expressed through a personal network, aided by the internet, rather than publications or institutions." But the same could have been said, before the arrival of the internet, of the "new kind of religion" called Scientology, invented by L Ron Hubbard.
The Gülen movement has also been praised for establishing a business-oriented daily, Zaman (Today) with a large circulation and numerous international editions. But the non-Turkish incarnations of Zaman have included publications issued in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, benighted ex-Soviet dictatorships, the contents of which are identical in spirit with those of newsless sheets issued by the local rulers—crazies in Turkmenistan and bloodthirsty neo-Stalinists in Uzbekistan.
Gülen followers like to present him as a pioneer in interfaith dialogue, even a kind of Islamic pope or Dalai Lama. But Muslim interfaith encounters with Jews and Christians are rather old news. The commandment of respectful relations between Muslims and non-Muslims appears in the Koran, which honors the People of the Book, originally Jews, Christians, and a mysterious faith known as the Sabaeans, but later extended by Sunni Muslims to include Zoroastrians and Hindus.
There is also nothing new in Gülenist attempts to resolve conflicts between faith and reason. These issues have been discussed in Islam for a millennium, with much greater eloquence, and are basic to Islamic theology. Likewise, there is nothing new in the Gülenist enthusiasm for technology. Radical Islamists like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb called on the Muslims to embrace western scientific advances, and al Qaeda websites are far more ingenious and probably more successful than their anti-radical and official counterparts.
Further, there is nothing new in the designation of Gülenist belief as "Islam lite." If this rather offensive term has any meaning, it would presumably refer to moderate Islam, which has existed as a stream within the religion since the Koran (2:143) defined Muslims as a "community of moderation." Moderate Islam was spelled out in the 4th Islamic century by theologian Imam al-Tahawi, as follows: "Islam lies between excess and falling short, between comparing God with other aspects of creation and denying God's attributes, between fatalism and defiance of God's will, between certainty and despair." Muslims did not have to wait for the coming of the secularists or Islamists like Fethullah Gülen to find such a doctrine of faith.
There was something new and disturbing, and perhaps unintentionally revealing, in the Gülenist apologia offered by Ehsan Masood (Prospect, July 2008). The author referred to the followers of Gülen as "converts." The use of this word is bizarre. Presumably, Gülenists are already Muslims. They should not need to convert to Islam again. (This practice is, however, considered necessary by the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect based in Saudi Arabia. Sunnis who become Shia Muslims are also said to undergo a "conversion.") But perhaps Gülen has created not only a cult, as many observers including myself believe, or even a new Muslim sect, but imagines he can found a new religion based on worship of himself.
The Gülen movement's manipulation of the Prospect/Foreign Policy poll speaks for itself. Respected Muslim intellectuals will view this affair with contempt.