chapter  12
The Fethullah Gulen movement (and Turkish Al Qaeda) as transnational phenomena
Pages 19

Recent years have witnessed an upsurge of curiosity about the Turkish Sufi scholar Fethullah Gulen and his legion of followers, known as Fethullahci, both in his native country and abroad. One factor contributing to this attention was Gulen’s summer 2008 election as the world’s leading intellectual in a poll organized jointly by the British Prospect magazine and the US publication Foreign Policy, in which over half a million votes were registered for a candidate who had hitherto been unknown to Prospect’s editor (Tait 2008). Prospect’s analysis of the poll identified in Gulen’s victory the emergence of a new kind of intellectual, ‘one whose influence is expressed through a personal network, aided by the internet, rather than publications or institutions’ (Nuttall 2008). Prospect additionally noted how votes for Gulen mounted in the wake of publicity for the poll in the Gulen-inspired Turkish newspaper Zaman and a host of other Gulen websites. This appeared to testify to the legendary ‘efficiency and discipline’ and ‘organizational ability’ of the Fethullahci. These observations offered an insight into the mechanisms of Gulen’s

influence and the nature of the Gulen movement, and into the way in which it is sometimes regarded. There is a hint of something sinister in this interpretation of Gulen’s victory, implying as it does central direction rather than spontaneity. Secular Turks share such suspicions, and conspiracy theories abound in Turkey concerning both the source and level of the movement’s funding and the nature of its ultimate ambitions. Indeed, both are obscure. A trawl of the web reveals allegations that the Gulen movement receives funding, either alternatively or simultaneously, from the CIA, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Turkish state, and from Bill Gates and Walmart.1 Certainly the financial resources at the movement’s disposal are considerable. Many would probably concur with The Economist, which has noted that the West’s security services ‘have not detected any hidden ties with extremism’ and that the Gulen movement generally receives a good reception in Europe and the USA.2 On the other hand, according to the American neo-conservative Michael Rubin, if Gulen does return to Turkey ‘Istanbul 2008 may very well

look like Tehran 1979’ (Rubin 2008). Rubin anticipates millions turning out to greet Gulen on his return to Turkey, his issuing of fatwas designed to distance Turkey from its official secularism, the restoration of the caliphate, and the subversion of the rule of law ‘to an imam’s conception of God’. Similar alarm has been expressed, albeit in more measured fashion, by Hakan Yavuz, a US-based Turkish scholar of Islam in Turkey, who has been quoted as asserting that the Gulen movement is ‘the most powerful movement right now in the country [ … ] The point where they are today scares me. There is no other movement to balance them in society’ (Hudson 2008). Clearly, Gulen and the Fethullahci are divisive domestically, but they were

also described by the same article in The Economist as ‘one of the most powerful and best connected of the networks that are competing to influence Muslims round the globe’. However, the movement’s activities abroad also arouse suspicions (Park 2007). For example, the Russian authorities, fearful of any indications of Islamic or pan-Turkic revivalism within their borders, have closed down Gulen schools as part of a wider campaign against the movement’s activities and influences, a campaign that has included bans on the works of the Sufi teacher Said Nursi, from whom Gulen draws much of his inspiration (Fagan 2007).3 Unease concerning the proliferation of ‘Turkish schools’ has been recorded in Georgia,4 central Asia (Najibullah 2009) and elsewhere. In the USA, the newly formed (in 2010) and Gulen-inspired Assembly of Turkic American Federations (ATAF) appears to aim at lobbying for Turkish interests (as interpreted by the Gulen movement) in Washington.5 It is too early to assess its impact, but the signs are that it will be politically active and seek to lobby US political circles and influence US policies towards Turkey. It will be interesting to see how the American reaction to this evolves.