A week in Istanbul can hardly fail to be an enriching experience for the intellectually curious visitor - even more when this great city, and Turkey generally, is at the heart of so many of the world's shaping concerns of faith and politics. This was certainly the case for me, when I stayed in Istanbul as a guest of the London-based Dialogue Society which supports the ideas and aims of the influential Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen.
These days of intense and enjoyable discussion
- against the backdrop of escalating legal and political dispute in Turkey -
took place in a conference room, in mosques, and over meals in people's houses.
The participants were around forty in all; almost all the visitors were academics. The Turkish
hosts were the majority; the guests came northern Europe and the United States,
and included people from a variety of Christian denominations as well as
atheists. The atmosphere was informal.Max Farrar
is a sociologist at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the author
of a book about Chapeltown in Leeds, The
Struggle for ‘Community' in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner-City Area ( Edwin
Mellen Press, 2002 )Also by Max Farrar in openDemocracy:
"Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs" (22 July 2005)
"In search of British Muslim identity: responses to Young, Angry and Muslim" (28 October 2005) - part of an online symposium
Our common interest lay in examining the ideas and practices that flow from Fethullah Gülen's thirty years of searching for truth through incremental renewals of the Islamic faith (see M Hakan Yavuz & John L Esposito, eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State, Syracuse University Press, 2003).
The western media coverage of Gülen and his movement (such as it is) has concentrated on two questions: whether they really are as good as they seem, and whether this is the "moderate" bulwark against the Islamists that "the west" so desperately seeks. The first is an important issue because the Kemalite Turks who have ruled the country since the republic's foundation on 29 October 1923 are certain that the movement's real aim is sinister: to overturn Kemal Atatürk's secular constitution and impose a form of Islamic fundamentalism (see Erik J Zürcher, A History of Modern Turkey, IB Tauris, 2004).
Is there a hidden agenda? The Dialogue Society has been working with my university in northern England for almost two years now with the explicit, agreed aim of subjecting the Gülen movement to academic scrutiny. The latest gathering was designed both to further the intellectual debate initiated at an international conference in 2007 and to bring the media and business arms of the network into full view.
The wealth and the spirit
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 organisations - 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.
If there were any secret and "bad" funding it is near-certain that the Kemalites would have unearthed it by now. After all, the state agencies' intelligence-gathering is a central feature in the alleged "Ergenekon" plot against the Gülen-influenced government which is now in its trial stage (see Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's ‘deep state' in the light", 7 August 2008). But, if the Gülen movement really is what it claims to be - a tolerant, pro-democracy, socially conservative, European Union-oriented movement which promotes modern, secular education and favours advanced business methods - the Kemalites must be very worried about it. It has, after all, displaced them from their position at the centre of Turkish cultural life by democratic means. But if they are what they claim to be, they are no threat to secularists who respect moderate forms of religious practice.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on
Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)
Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)
George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)
Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)
Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)
openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007) - a statement by leading European intellectuals
Hasan Turunc, "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: the politics of military action" (25 February 2008)
Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's ‘Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)
openDemocracy, "Turkey's risk, Europe's role" (2 April 2008) - a second statement from a group of European intellectuals
Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)
Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008)
Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's ‘deep state' in the light" (7 August 2008)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.
The Gülen people seemed at peace with themselves. There was no sign of what Pamuk describes as the "spiritual void" in the elite among whom he grew up - whose privileged children n public talk of mathematics and football, but "grapple with the most basic questions of existence...in trembling confusion and painful solitude".
A tradition in focus
In my view, the movement is what it says it is. The encounter with it raises in my mind three issues, more interesting than the questions posed in much of the western media.
The first is the way the movement responds in practice to those who criticise Islam's patriarchal bias. The women we met from the Gülen movement were as impressively intelligent, as fully engaged in public life and as confident and outgoing as their equivalents in the west (see "Sex and Power in Turkey: Feminism, Islam and the Maturing of Turkish Democracy", European Stability Initiative, 2007). Women compose about three-quarters of the workforce at the Zaman media group, whose publications - such as the impressive Today's Zaman - are close to the movement.
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).
The second issue is the way the movement places itself in the context of Islam as a whole, not least given its strong commitment to changing Islamic practice, The movement resists the idea that it is reformist. "Renewal" is as far as Fethullah Gülen himself will go, because he insists that he is absolutely rooted in the Qur'an and the hadith.
These roots in tradition are the only thing they have in common with the salafi current of rigorous ("fundamentalist") Islamism that has widespread influence in Saudi Arabia. It is precisely in sharing and being part of this tradition, and having a recognised scholar of Islam at its head, that gives the movement such potential to rally influence Muslims worldwide (see Ehsan Masood, "A modern Ottoman", Prospect, July 2008).
To the outsider, it looks like major developments are taking place. The movement deliberately builds schools, rather than mosques; its educational model may be elitist, but it offers bursaries for the poor, and girls and boys are equally welcome. In justification, they reiterate that the Prophet Mohammed insisted that all people must develop and use their powers of reasoning (see Patricia Crone, "What do we really know about Mohammed?", 31 August 2006).
In public discourse, the Gülen movement accuses the Kemalites of "fundamentalist secularism" - since the Kemalites use secularism as a stick to beat down the supporters of Gulen. But the movement strongly supports a western-style secular state, on two grounds: this is the model that truly separates the state from religion (rather than subordinating religion to the state, as in modern Turkey under the Kemalists); and it guarantees freedom to worship in any way that people choose (thus making "no compulsion..." a reality).
In deciding which political system should be favoured, the movement's method is an artful fusion. The Qur'anic past is again invoked to establish the movement's theological credentials (it invokes the prophet's introduction of inclusive decision-making in Medina as its model), but this sits alongside a passionate advocacy of democracy (a radical break here with the salafi denunciation of "man-made laws").
Fethullah Gülen is in the centre of Islamic belief that the Qur'an is the revealed word of God, and thus cannot be modified. But the prophet's own practice, he goes on, initiated the processes of interpretation that have been continuously developed for the past 1,400 years. These processes are influenced by the conditions of their time, and their geographical location. The implication could be drawn that this - Turkish and modern - movement is developing an Anatolian Muslimhood which might influence other formations of Muslimness.
The constraints of character
The third issue the encounter led me to reflect on is the rather quaint notion of "character" (especially in light of recent discussion on this topic in the British context about the search for public policies that can enforce "pro-social behaviour"). It is instructive in this respect to note the character of the people I met in the Gülen movement (students, journalists, business-people, academics and volunteers) did appear to embody the movement's values of sincerity, openness, respect, empathy and concern for the other. Their warmth and care shows every sign that this is indeed a movement producing thinking, compassionate human beings.
These kind people are, though, just as committed to neo-liberal capitalism as the western leaders - politicians, financiers, central-bank governors - who are currently engaged in frantic efforts to consolidate it in face of systemic crisis. Fethullah Gülen may have created a fascinating variant on Max Weber's message about the Protestant ethic's symbiosis with the spirit of capitalism, yet he emphasises none of Weber's darker messages about modernity (see "Islamic Calvinists: Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia", European Stability Initiative, 2005). In the end, therefore, what I think we were witnessing in Istanbul was the emergence of yet another effort by spiritual people to humanise a monster. It is probably the best organised and most coherent effort yet; but, as with all the world's religions, this movement seems unable fully to confront the massive injustices and inequalities that capitalism engenders.