Imam in the Middle | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Imam in the Middle

Photo by Kristin Brenemen

In June 2007, I took a once-in-a-lifetime 12-day trip to Turkey. During our stay, our group visited multiple historic and religious sites. We visited Greco-Roman amphitheaters and the ruins of the former port city of Ephesus. We marveled at the mosque of 13th-century Islamic Sufi mystic and poet Rumi in Konya, and Byzantine Christian churches carved out of rock chimneys in Cappadocia. There, ancient murals depicting Bible stories covered every inch of the indoor surfaces. On the outside, nothing hinted at the beauty within.

What made this trip different from a typical tourist agenda was that we also visited schools, hospitals and businesses, and met with students, teachers, doctors and entrepreneurs. The Institute of Interfaith Dialog, a non-profit educational group led by Turkish Americans, planned, led and heavily subsidized the trip. I was part of a group of about 20 people from Jackson.

In each city, Turkish citizens invited us into their homes and lives, warmly greeting and embracing us. They made sure we were amply fed and well lodged, patiently answered our questions and showered us with small gifts.

Jackson businessman Jack McDaniels has been to Turkey with the IID numerous times, helping the group choose participants and plan itineraries. He met Sabri Agachan, then the Mississippi representative of IID, at Sunday school class in 2005 at Northminster Baptist Church where Agachan was invited to speak to the members.

"I got to know him quite well," McDaniels says.

He has returned to Turkey with the IID every year since he met Agachan, except in 2006. "The Turkish people are the kindest, most generous people I know," he says, providing hospitality that makes the Hospitality State pale in comparison.

McDaniels listed some of the other Mississippians who have visited Turkey with IID: former Gov. William Winter; Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann; state Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson; Tougaloo College assistant professor of religious studies Loye Ashton, who is writing a book about Gulen; and Andrew Mullins Jr., chief of staff to the chancellor at Ole Miss and associate professor of education.

Christians, Jews and Muslims share numerous Old Testament Bible stories and prophets, including Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah and others. "All of us have roots in the Abrahamic traditions," McDaniels says, but the Institute warmly welcomes people of other faiths, such as Buddhists and Hindus. People of all faiths "walk the path of peace and harmony," he says.

Turkish Muslim scholar, writer and educator Fethullah Gulen is the inspiration behind the Houston, Texas-based IID, which began in 2002 and now has offices in five states, including the Raindrop Turkish House in Jackson. Gulen is also the inspiration for the many schools and businesses we visited in Turkey, in addition to hundreds of schools and a number of universities around the world.

The Gulen Movement, a loose network of Gulen's followers, generates a lot of money—and some say political influence—through businesses that include Istanbul-based Asya Bank; Zaman, Turkey's largest daily newspaper; and Ebru-TV, a New Jersey cable TV network.

Yet, the man who inspired all this academic and entrepreneurial fervor is not exactly what you'd call a newsmaker, although he has generated a lot of controversy. And he doesn't live in Turkey.

Who is Fethullah Gulen?
Born in 1941 in a rural Turkish village, Gulen reportedly received no more than a rudimentary formal education. His informal education as a Muslim cleric earned him his license to preach when he was 21. His followers say he became a hafiz, one who has memorized the Quran, at 12, and preached in his village from age 14. A voracious reader with an insatiable curiosity, Gulen devoured classical works of literature, philosophy and science along with the traditional Muslim spiritual works.

Turkey stands alone among countries with majority Muslim populations in having a secular government, independent from its Islamic roots. In 1922, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became the first president of the newly independent Republic of Turkey after four years of war against the allies of World War I. Practically overnight, he dragged his country into 20th century Europe, banning the use of Arabic writing, for example, in favor of the Roman alphabet.

But Turkey's idea of secularism isn't what Americans know, Loye Ashton said. Instead of religion and government existing side-by-side, under Atatürk, Turkey's government became hostile to religion. It abolished the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim caliphate, a political and religious system headed by dynastic clerics who had ruled Turkey for six centuries (similar to Italy's Papal States under the rule of the Pope), and banned most traditional Islamic practices from public life, including religious classes from public schools. Atatürk gave Turkish women the vote and expanded their educational and professional opportunities, but not if a woman wore hajib, the traditional Muslim head scarf and dress. He formed a national Department of Religion to oversee the activities of imams and dictate their Friday sermons.

After centuries of life where religion and politics were inextricably intertwined, Atatürk ripped the two apart. Inevitably, such forceful change—Turkey only had one political party until 1950 and strong military rule for long thereafter—bred discontent among many Turks.

Since 1960, Turkey has experienced three military coup d'etats and has banned numerous political parties because of their ideologies. The country solidified its secular government in its constitutions, the latest adopted in 1983. But rifts remain.

Turkish courts ruled in 2001 that the Virtue Party, for example, was unconstitutional and banned it due to its religious dogma; however, the party of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, the reformist Justice and Development Party, grew out of the Virtue Party. Turks voted Erdogan in by a landslide in 2002.

It was into Turkey's political and religious volatility that Gulen began to develop a following through his sermons and writings. Muslims must learn to thrive in a modern technological society, he said. Progress for Turkey depends on education—not at the expense of faith traditions but in addition to them.

"Turkey was in chaos," for decades with numerous factions fighting for control, says Fatih Ozcan, Mississippi representative of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog. "Gulen was in the center of it. ... He was basically giving the criteria of being a truthful person, using the right way to express yourself. Just blaming the others or bombing is not the way."

Ozcan also said that Gulen always took the side of the secular government, not speaking against it, and emphasizes to this day that there is no going back.

Gulen told his followers that science and Islam are not in conflict, nor is there conflict between Islam and other faith traditions. In fact, he said, the Quran teaches religious tolerance, advocates education, and the right way to live and operate in society. It does not mandate a political system.
Turkey already has enough mosques, Gulen said. Instead, build more schools, more hospitals and universities.

For some Turks, this was a radical message. Nationalists accused Gulen of attempting to subvert the government. Islamists accused him of being too accepting of a political system that they felt had excluded them.

Similar accusations have followed Gulen to the present day, and are just as far apart, depending on who is doing the criticizing and where the criticism appears in the press. Some critics say the American CIA supports him, while others say it's the Russian KGB. In Turkey, his accusers tell the Turks he is a puppet of the Pope and a secret Cardinal, while in the United States, detractors say he is an Islamist terrorist whose ambitions mirror those of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

"Both literature review and the statistical analyses show that the defamation of Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement is strategically operated," writes Dogan Koc in "Strategic Defamation of Fethullah Gulen: English vs. Turkish," published in the European Journal of Economic and Political Studies earlier this year.

"Gulen is simultaneously portrayed as an Islamic danger who is secretly trying to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate and as an American and Zionist puppet who is destroying Turkey and Islam with his 'moderate Islam.' ... While the depiction of an Islamic danger who is secretly trying to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate is more alarming for English-language readers, the depiction of an American and Zionist puppet who is destroying Turkey and Islam with his 'moderate Islam' is likely aimed at manipulating Turkish-language readers."

In 1999, Gulen came to the United States for treatment of his many health issues (he is a diabetic and has heart problems). Accused of attempting to overthrow Turkey's government in 2000, he was tried in absentia and acquitted in 2006. The Turkish Supreme Court threw out the case in 2008.

"There was no crime," Ozcan says.

Ashton maintains that an economic and political power struggle motivates those behind Gulen's persecution. The rise of an educated middle class poses a threat to nationalists and the military who held power until recently.

"It's completely baseless," Ashton said of the criticism.

Gulen lives quietly in Saylorsburg, Pa., where he writes and teaches as his health allows. The United States granted him permanent residency in 2006.

The Gulen Movement
Gulen is nothing if not prolific. Though he formally ended his career as a cleric in 1991, he has written more than 60 books, most of which are available in English. It's likely that an equal number of books have been written about Gulen or the movement he inspired. The man and the movement are subjects of myriad dissertations and scholarly treatises.

In 2008, readers of Prospect and Foreign Policy named Gulen the world's top public intellectual. He has visited with the Pope, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church, Jewish Rabbis and foreign dignitaries worldwide. Yet, the elderly man with white hair and vaguely sad, puffy eyes remains a simple Muslim cleric, he says, with no political ambitions.

"I have always tried to be a humble servant of God and a humble member of humanity," he told Foreign Policy in 2008.

"The Quran says that humanity has been created to recognize and worship God and, as a dimension of this worship, to improve the world in strict avoidance of corruption and bloodshed. It requires treating all things with deep compassion. This is my philosophy, which obliges me to remain aloof from all worldly titles and ranks."

The Turkish government suspects Gulen of having a hidden agenda, Ashton said, adding that it just isn't so. "He's real clear about never making any political statements," Ashton said.

Two main themes stand out in Gulen's works: First, he teaches that Muslims have a duty to perform services for the common good, known as hizmet; second, he teaches that interfaith dialogue is crucial to creating a peaceful and harmonious world. "The chief characteristic of the Gulen movement is that it does not seek to subvert modern secular states, but encourages practicing Muslims to use to the full the opportunities they offer," states a 2008 profile of Gulen in The New York Times.

"Peace is central to his philosophy," McDaniels says. "It's my idea of what Christianity ought to be doing, too."

Gulen's work and words have motivated an organic network of people who aspire to live up to Muslim ideals, Worldwide, the Turkish diaspora has enthusiastically embraced his moderate, modern interpretation of Islam. Because the movement is not hierarchical, it's impossible to estimate the number of Gulen's followers; however it's likely to be in the millions.

Hizmet, which has become synonymous with the Gulen Movement, often takes the form of education. Ozcan came to know Gulen through students who tutored him for free in his Turkish community. "I need to be like them," he remembers thinking at the time, even before he knew Gulen inspired them. "I admired them because of their service."

In Turkey, followers have opened hundreds of "Gulen-inspired" private schools, whose students include some of the best and brightest in the country, financed solely through private donations from Turkish citizens. Admittance is by testing, and more than 40 percent of the Turkish students receive full scholarships, according to Ozcan, with an estimated 90 percent of students going on to receive college degrees.

Ozcan and Ashton both made a point to separate Gulen, the man, from the Gulen Movement, which they say he does not lead. "He did not open the schools; he did not open the institutions," Ozcan says. "He writes and preaches and inspires people."

Gulen-inspired schools have opened in numerous countries, including in the United States, as well as Asia and Australia, and are typically supported by Turkish businessmen, who are, in turn, organized into various regional trade associations under the banner of the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists in Turkey, similar to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group's entrepreneurial and business-focus makes it a formidable financial powerhouse, which makes some Turks uneasy.

"The power comes from religion, but the institutions are secular," Ozcan says.

About Those Charter Schools
Gulen-inspired entrepreneurs have taken advantage of America's shift to charter schools, running about 120 schools in 25 states, including the 33 Harmony Schools in Texas, the subject of an investigation by The New York Times last June.

The story, "Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas," focused on the schools' use of public money and whether those funds are funneled into the Gulen Movement. Sonar Tarim, superintendent of Harmony Schools, denied any affiliation to Gulen. "I'm not a follower of anybody," he told the Times. Tarim did consult with Virginia International University in Fairfax, Va., "one of the private universities that lawyers for Mr. Gulen say were originally inspired by his teachings," the Times reported, but uncovered no other connection.

Using public taxpayer funds for schools or taking funds away from public schools is not the way of Gulen-inspired schools, Ozcan says. The U.S. charter-school operators may know of Gulen, and he inspires some teachers, but these are entrepreneurial endeavors, not Gulen-inspired private schools based on the Turkish model, he says.

In Turkey, Gulen's detractors imply that the schools are part of a nefarious plot to take over the country from the inside. Graduates have insinuated themselves into the highest ranks of the police force and the judiciary, in addition to being in other prominent positions of power in the government and the media.

Not so fast, counter his supporters.

"The Police Academy is one of the best and most prestigious education institutions in Turkey," the Rev. Thomas Michel told The New York Times in June 2010. Because Gulen-school grads do well on entrance exams, he said, they easily get accepted into the police force. In other words, it's not surprising that smart, well-educated people rise to positions of authority, implied the Jesuit priest, a former top adviser on Islamic matters to the Vatican.

"I've been in their homes and enjoyed their hospitality," McDaniels says. "... I doubt that any of the people writing these missives have ever done that, been in the Turkish homes of some of the followers of Gulen. I doubt they've been in a single home, and I've been in four-dozen. Never have I seen hate or exuding anything ... other than kindness, hospitality, peace and love toward humanity. That's been my experience."

Such counter arguments abound for every theory damning Gulen or the Gulen Movement. In "Fethullah Gulen's Grand Ambition: Turkey's Islamist Danger," a recent article in the scholarly journal Middle East Quarterly, author Rachel Sharon-Krespin writes that "Gulen and his backers not only seek to influence government but also become the government." She continues: "That the U.S. government and, specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency support the Gulen movement is conventional wisdom among Turkey's secular elite even though no hard evidence exists to support such allegations."

Sharon-Krespin cited statistics that don't appear in her references, according to Koc, author of one of her references. The majority are "from sources with no academic or scientific control for credibility" he says, including TV programs and blogs.

Koc, who countered Sharon-Krespin's article in the Fethullah Gulen Forum (, responded to each of the accusations "to show how biased, selective, misleading, misrepresentative and miscalculated" her data is.

To say that Gulen heads up the movement that carries his name or is somehow pulling the strings of the organization the way an American CEO leads a multi-national corporation is inaccurate, according to his followers.

Even calling it the Gulen Movement is disrespectful to the many people doing its work, Gulen said in the June 2010 interview with The New York Times. Instead, he preferred to call it the Volunteer Movement. Gulen also stood by his long-time ascetic lifestyle. His only belongings, he said, were "a quilt, bed sheets and a few prized books," adding that he did not know "how many countries this movement is active in, nor do I know how many teachers and students there are."

"My role in this movement is very limited, and there is no leadership, no center, no loyalty to a center and no hierarchy," he said.

Ashton, whose forthcoming book delves into the grassroots political and social impact of the Gulen Movement in Turkey, said that if he were to compare Gulen to another public figure, it would be activist nun Sr. Joan Chittister or Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh. Ashton has met Gulen, and said it's easy to see why he's inspiring.

"It's clear when you're around him that he has a spiritual gift," Ashton said, adding that through example, "he teaches me how to be a better Christian."

History will tell whether Gulen is a force for good or evil. Few writers seem to have a moderate opinion of the man or the movement. Perhaps, as Joshua D. Hendrick, assistant professor of sociology and global studies at Loyola University of Maryland, wrote in the Middle East Report this fall, it's true that the movement's "loyalists operate as private actors in a competitive global marketplace of goods and ideas."

"Continuing to refer to the Gulen movement as either a benign social network of 'selfless volunteers,' or as a clandestine 'radical Islamist' organization, is simplistic and counterproductive," Hendrick concluded in "Media Wars and the Gulen Factor in the New Turkey."

"Indeed, considering Turkey's emerging role as a political and economic power, a candidate for the European Union, a regional leader and an important ally of both Israel and the United States, the Gulen movement's transformative impact in Turkey is significant not only for the 79 million-plus Turks, but for the entire world."

"In the history of sociological movements, there is no movement that has not received criticism," Ozcan says.

"Big changes in society come with criticism all the time. ... I always ask (those who criticize): 'Have you read any of Gulen's books? Have you visited any Gulen-inspired schools or institutions? Have you listened to any of his sermons?' If not, read, visit or listen."

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