Caroline Tee: The Gülen Movement

Dr Caroline Tee is a social anthropologist based at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. Her last project was entitled ‘Cultural Contingency in the Science and Islam Debate: The Case of the Gülen Movement’, which resulted in the recently published monograph ‘The Gülen Movement in Turkey: The Politics of Islam and Modernity’ (I.B. Tauris, 2016). Here we discuss her fieldwork on the Hizmet (Gülen) Movement, its intellectual origins, Gülenist educational institutions, the role of science, and its place in contemporary Turkish politics.

– What is the Hizmet (Gülen) movement?

Caroline Tee: The question of, ‘What is the Hizmet movement?’ is a complex one at the moment, because different people have different answers depending on their perspective.

As a scholar and outsider, I would say that the Hizmet movement is a social and religious movement that has been inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, who is a US-resident Turkish imam. It has been active in various areas of civil society in Turkey and around the world in a bid to accrue influence and to bring an Islamic flavour to Turkish society, but without doing that through party political channels. It has been a very significant actor in Turkish society and Turkish politics, but it has done so from behind the scenes over the last fifteen to twenty years.

Others, such as the Turkish government, would say that the Hizmet movement is a terrorist organisation that seeks to infiltrate the Turkish state and to overthrow Turkish democracy through violent means.

Insiders themselves would say that they are not actually part of a movement. They are just inspired by the altruistic, Sufic teachings of Fethullah Gülen to improve society wherever they are. Their motivation is in their faith but their public activities are not defined by their faith.


– How did you become interested in the Hizmet movement?

Caroline Tee: I was doing my PhD research in Turkey during 2009-2010, and I was working on the Alevis, who are a Muslim minority there. While in Turkey, I became aware that the religious landscape is dominated by the Hizmet movement, and so I moved on to focus on them for my first postdoc.


– How did you design your research?

Caroline Tee: I wanted to use primarily ethnographic methods, so I spent periods of between three and seven weeks over a total period of two years in Turkey, focusing on Hizmet educational institutions. I embedded myself in a small group of schools in two cities, where I then spent a lot of time with teachers in their classes, in their breaks, talking to them with their students, observing their lessons, and interviewing them, as well as participating in activities with them outside of class. Additionally, I undertook some focused interviews with some research scientists, because the focus of the project was to look at how Gülenist thought and practice engages with science and science education. I wanted to find out at the research level how did those committed to Fethullah Gülen negotiate the science/Islam interface. And then I also interviewed a number of high profile leaders within the movement as well, both in Turkey and the UK.


– What are the Hizmet movement’s intellectual origins?

Caroline Tee: They go back to a paradigmatic thinker in Turkish Islam, Badiüzzeman Said Nursi (1877-1960), a Kurdish Turkish thinker. Fethullah Gülen took on his ideas and popularised them and became the catalyst for turning them into a very widespread and quite powerful movement, but he himself is not the original thinker. Nursi developed the idea of what is called ‘positive action’. This concept suggests that, in order to instigate the Islamic revival, Muslims need to cultivate individual piety in order that they then influence society in positive ways. This focus on civic activism, charitable work, altruism and so on, is what we see in parts of the Hizmet movement. So, it’s a different kind of ‘Islamism’ than the models proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb. It influences the political sphere, but it doesn’t work through public political channels.


– Can you tell us more about your ethnographic research on the everyday life of Gülenist educational institutions?

Caroline Tee: The schools are very interesting. From the outside, like a lot of things with the movement, you don’t know that they are Gülenist. There’s no logo, or central affiliation that makes it apparent that they are a part of the Gülenist movement. They look like fairly prestigious, private, fee-paying schools.

In the classroom, there is no great difference from any other Turkish private school. They teach to a high very standard. The teachers are very highly trained and experienced and committed. Outside the classroom, there is a very big difference from other private schools in Turkey, which tend to be secular in orientation. As for the Gülenist context, I’d say 85%-90% of the teachers of the schools I was in were core followers of Gülen, and they were very pious in their religious practice. This would manifest itself through, for example, their clothing. Turkey has very clear dress codes that designate you as religious or non-religious in various different ways, and these teachers were all very clear in their comportment that they were personally pious. They would pray regularly throughout the day, there was a prayer room in the school that some of the girls would go to as well.

There is strict gender segregation, so most of the pupils I was working with were girls. Ethnographically, it proved easier to be in an all girls’ school than an all boys’ school, on account of being female myself. This religious atmosphere permeates the building but is kept out of the classroom, if you like, apart from through the figure of the teacher herself. While she’s teaching secular knowledge – according to the Turkish national curriculum – she is doing so as an embodiment of personal piety. She is someone the students will know is personally pious, because she is always striving to include them in her piety, to model it to them. This is the sort of way that religion and secularism are perhaps negotiated in the classroom setting. It is not a verbal thing, it is not made explicit, but it is the embodied figure of the teacher herself who brings religion into the classroom.

One thing that strongly characterises the schools is that they are competitive. They focus on science and mathematics for various reasons, and they have succeeded at this, not just in the Turkish context but internationally. They enter these competitions called the International Science Olympiads, which are prestigious international events where children who perform the best in the sciences, mathematics and computer science, receive medals. What I observed in the schools where I undertook fieldwork was a great intensity with which students were prepared for these Olympiads. It was quite extraordinary, and I think quite unlike any other comparable school in Turkey, state or private.

So the desire to succeed is an incredibly strong motivator in these schools, and the way they get there is through various strategies. One is work ethic – the teachers are incredibly motivated to work much harder than is normally required of a schoolteacher. They will work evenings, weekends, summer holidays. They will give their own time to give extra tuition. And this is explained by reference to the commitment to Fethullah Gülen. He generally talks of teaching as a religious service. It is something for which you can accrue reward in heaven for doing, and is therefore not a purely secular task, if you like. They also have other strategies for recruiting good students and providing scholarships them, which perhaps predispose them for success in these competitions. So the competitive ethos is an absolutely key aspect.

The universities are quite different from the schools in that they are not distinctive in their own right as universities, so you could be in any private vakıf (foundation) university in Turkey, be it Gülenist or be it not. It does not really make that big a difference. It is more to do with who is providing the funding, and who is providing the administration. So those whom I would describe as the core affiliates of Gülen will probably not be in the academic faculty, but they will undoubtedly be in the offices running the institution. And this is something they have been very good, very efficient at – administration. It has been a marriage of convenience because the investors who themselves are generally quite pious people – big business figures who are sympathetic to the broad aims and ambitions of the Gülenist project in as much as it seeks to bring Islam back into the public sphere in Turkish life. They benefit from having a cadre of very competent administrators who are going to work very hard, and be very dedicated to their jobs. So it works for everybody.

Of the academics themselves, only a minority are followers of Gülen, so it opens itself up to a far more competitive market. In the universities where I undertook research most of the academic staff had PhDs from the US, and quite a high proportion had Ivy League PhDs, so they were very high-achieving academic staff. So it seems the agenda for the movement in higher education until very recently was to compete at the highest level, and in that sense it seems that the universities serve a slightly different purpose to the schools.


– What significance did gender have for your fieldwork?

Caroline Tee: There is strict gender segregation in the movement, which is unusual for Turkey. When I started my research with the movement, I was quite surprised, having previously lived in Turkey for five years and been fairly familiar with norms in various different social circles. For instance, I had never encountered where a man would not shake my hand – but that is normal in movement circles. This kind of segregation permeates everything: separate seating, separate working environments, and very close adherence to incredibly modest forms of dress, which of course is a form of segregation.

It impacted on my research in that my most insightful periods of research were with women. But equally, the movement is very adept at negotiating international spaces, so as a western female researcher, I was welcomed by senior members of the movement in big cities, at the top of dialogue organisations, and they were happy to be interviewed by me, to talk with me. At a more grassroots level, doing participant-observation, that was much easier with women, and I wasn’t really so welcome in an all-boys’ school for example where most of the teachers and administrators were male.


– The domain of ‘Science and Islam’ has recently received new scholarly attention. Can you map out this field of academic interest?

Caroline Tee: Science and Religion as a broader field has been established for quite some years. But it has been almost entirely dominated by Christianity. Not only that, but it has also been dominated largely by Theology and Philosophy. So, Sociological studies of Science and Religion are relatively limited, even in the Christian context. When we move onto the field of Islamic Studies, there is less Theology and Philosophy of Science and Religion. There is History of Science and Religion, a strong body of literature, but there is little else.

This is something that has come to scholars’ attention in the past ten-fifteen years. What we know about how science is received and interpreted and practiced in the Muslim-majority world – as vast and varied as that is – is really, really tiny. We don’t really even know what in particular countries or particular societies attitudes towards human evolution are. There are loads of broad assumptions that are made, but we don’t have much empirical data to back any of that up. So, it’s become a growing field because of an increasing awareness of this huge gap in our knowledge.


– Why is science such a focus within the Hizmet movement?

Caroline Tee: Science is significant within the Hizmet movement because it is seen as a signifier of modernity. In this sense, it is helpful to go back to Said Nursi who came up with the ideology of the movement. During the 1920s and 1930s when Atatürk and his associates were at the height of their power in Turkey and secularism really was a powerful force that was imposed, a large part of the ideology that supported the Kemalist project was the import of western science from Europe. Scientific Positivism or Materialism really fed into the secularist vision for Turkey. And this is something that Nursi recognised; if he wanted to combat it, he was going to have to come up with his own philosophy to engage positively with western science, rather than reject it outright.

One of the key foci of his life’s work, the Risale-i Nur, is the reconciliation between modern science – not science in a general sense – and largely western science, with Islamic piety. Having successfully reconciled these two, he provided a recipe, if you like, for successful engagement in the modernising world off the back of this comfortableness with science and scientific progress.

In the study of the Gülen movement, it is a key element of understanding how they have succeeded as ‘modern Muslims’, how they have engaged so effectively with so many institutions of modernity – not just science, but democracy, secularism, dialogue, all of these things have come almost secondarily to the engagement with science.


– What does it mean to speak of Hizmet as a ‘movement’?

Caroline Tee: It’s becoming more and more apparent that it is a movement. Insiders themselves are even talking in terms that implicitly recognise that there is a very clear-cut structure of authority and accountability. It goes back ultimately to Fethullah Gülen in Pennsylvania, and trickles down through a hierarchy of perhaps three stages. The first stage will be a group of very close disciples who live with Gülen on his compound, and take instruction from him, very much in the manner of traditional Islamic learning with a Sufi sheikh. They are all male, and they are predominantly scholars of Islam.

The second tier comprises males and females. They are committed followers of Gülen, working in the schools, dialogue organisations, financial institutions, or charities, and their lives are permeated through their connection to Gülen. They are the core affiliates, if you like.

A further tier from them are the people who consume Gülenist products, such as their educational products or their media products. And of course I’m talking now in the past tense because all of these things have recently been shut down. These people might not be aware that they are Gülenist in orientation, but they are consuming products that are created the movement.

The way that authority works in that structure is through a system of abi and abla (big brother and big sister in colloquial Turkish) relationships. In the Gülenist terminology it means somebody that has a certain amount of responsibility for a certain number of people within the hierarchy. At its most grassroots level, it will be a male or female student who is responsible for a small house of perhaps four or five other students at a university or tutoring centre, and then they will have an abi or abla above them to whom they are accountable, who then has a slightly wider network of people that they are responsible for.

So, the internal structure of the movement is really all but invisible to the outside eye, but within the movement it’s pretty apparent that things are organised through a top-down chain of command. People are rotated, for example, between different institutions, apparently without much willingness on their own part. They are transferred fairly regularly because a higher power has decided so.

At its peak, the Hizmet has been spread across 120 countries around the world. This is diminishing now, because some governments are shutting down Gülenist enterprises in their countries at the Turkish government’s request. We’re not yet clear about the pace at which this is happening. There are certain countries that are doing this, but others are happy to ignore these diplomatic requests and so let the Gülenists carry on operating. Certainly in Turkey, they have suffered massive losses in the few weeks and months, and it is hard to see that they have a future there at all.

In terms of unity, there has been no evidence of splinter groups emerging, so it would be speculative to say anything about that. At the moment, it still seems that there is a body of support behind Gülen as leader.


– What effects have the politicization of the Hizmet movement had on your research?

Caroline Tee: The obvious milestone event was the attempted coup of 15th July this year, but the more significant milestone event for my research was 17th December 2013. This was an attempt by certain prosecutors loyal to Fethullah Gülen to publicly shame the AKP Government and particularly [then-Prime Minister] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, through the publication of allegations of serious fraudulent embezzlement of public funds, apparently in an attempt to bring it down.

It failed, for various different reasons, largely because of the way Erdoğan was able to turn the narrative around and retain popularity in the face of the allegations. He concentrated on the illegality of the means through which the conversations had been eavesdropped. So rather than the content of the conversations themselves being the problem, it was the issue of the illegal wiretapping that became the focus of public concern, and he managed to turn that around and carry on winning elections.

That affected my research because I had started my fieldwork in March 2013. Fortunately, by that point I had established a core group of contacts with whom I had already spent a fair amount of time, so I was able to carry on with them. But, I think if I had entered the field after December 2013, it would have been almost impossible to do the same kind of research using ethnographic methods because I don’t think I would have been welcomed in the way that I was before when the movement was less nervous and less defensive. It then became increasingly more so until this summer, and now everything has changed comprehensively.


– There have been a number of claims and counter-claims regarding the responsibility of the failed coup in July 2016. Can you map out how you see the various opinions on the role of Gülen in these debates?

Caroline Tee: The first thing to say is that the perspectives from within Turkey and outside Turkey on this issue are really different, and I think still generally quite misunderstood. When the coup was still happening in the early hours of the Saturday morning, 16th July President Erdoğan immediately, publicly, pinned the blame on Fethullah Gülen. There really wasn’t much of a pause before that narrative was adopted by a great number of people in Turkey.

What constitutes public sentiment in Turkey at the moment is largely government supporters – since government detractors don’t have much of a voice just now as most of the mouthpieces for dissent have been shut down – and they are a good majority, or just about a majority. They are convinced that the coup was a plot devised entirely by Gülen, with support from the CIA or America in general. This is a very popular narrative in many quarters just now, and it is exacerbated by the frustration felt in Turkey with the way the coup was reported by the Western media. It wasn’t the coup itself that was seen as a great threat, and it wasn’t the fact that the coup was repudiated that was celebrated.

Rather, the Western media seemed focused on the risk of human rights violations in its aftermath. In that sense, it was more in defence of the coup perpetrators than it was in defence of the government or the people on the street who died trying to fight the rebel soldiers. So, there has been an accumulation of a lot of frustration within Turkey about foreign commentary on the coup, which is linked to a much longer tradition of suspicion towards the very cordial relationship between the Hizmet movement and Western centres of power. The Hizmet movement has made a real point of homing in on certain places – and in particular Washington D.C., which is quite close to Pennsylvania where Gülen lives. They have established a number of quite influential platforms for dialogue and policy and lobbying, both in the domestic context within the US and internationally. On the whole, there has been a pretty warm reception for Gülen and his kind of ‘moderate’ Islam, which has been used a great deal in this whole ‘good Muslim’/‘bad Muslim’ face-off. All of which causes great frustration by those who understand the Turkish political context a bit more, and recognise that there is more going on in the Hizmet movement than a sort of soft, peaceful, Sufic-inspired Islam that serves as a helpful and convenient foil to violent extremism.


– In light of recent developments, what do you see as the future of the movement?

Caroline Tee: I think it is pretty clear that the movement can’t continue in anything resembling its previous form in Turkey. It has made an arch-enemy of an increasingly powerful President, so its institutions have now – as far as I’m aware – all been shut down or re-appropriated. Its people have gone way below the radar. A lot of them are reported to have fled to other countries. It doesn’t seem that the Hizmet movement is going to be able to carry on there in any shape or form.

It is less clear how it will carry on in other countries, and this is something that depends on each individual government, how close it is to the Turkish government, and how much it is willing to act on its wishes. Azerbaijan was one of the first to shut down all the Gülenist schools and universities, at the request of President Erdoğan. There is a very close relationship diplomatically between those two countries, and so that makes sense. But it remains to be seen whether the movement will be able to do better elsewhere, and perhaps to carry on in some form as an educational movement that still finds an inspiration in religion and has found a model of transnational science education that works.

The jury is out on what actually has happened in Turkey, how much the movement was implicated, and how much it was genuinely intent on a violent overthrow of the government. If the Hizmet movement was involved, then this is very serious because – for as long as the movement has existed, and Nursi before them – non-violence has been absolutely key to Gülen’s teachings, and the activities of his followers. If it does turn out that violence was intended all along, then there will need to be a major re-think in scholarship on the movement.


(September 2016)


Gulen Movement in Turkey