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The Gülen movement: how it has developed and what it aims at

Against the background of a politically troubled Turkey, the personal experience of a member of the movement founded by Fetullah Gülen sheds light on how it spread, how it works and what holds together those who choose to belong to it.

The experience of Kerim Balcı, editor-in-chief of the Turkish Review.



Our movement Hizmet (literally “service”) is perceived in roughly the same way as Opus Dei in the West: people do not know what their members are doing, there are rumors that they want to change government, maybe the Pope belongs to them etc. Due to a perceived lack of transparency, you can easily create stories about Opus Dei. For Hizmet it is similar: people do not know what Hizmet does and we have failed to open our doors to everybody so as to explain our cause. People do not understand why we open schools and then do not care what happens when young people graduate and, say, become bureaucrats. They say that if we open schools from which brilliant students graduate, we are certainly looking for something in this world. When we say that we are looking for something in the hereafter and, since we sincerely believe in the hereafter, we hope to get a reward there, as this is about faith rather than politics, people are not ready to believe it. Their experience with religiously motivated groups is completely the reverse. They have in mind Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which try to change the regime. They do not understand our position.



My personal experience with Hizmet goes back to 1982, when I was a child. I went to Anadolu Lisesi in Samsun, an American-run high school that, one year after I had started, was nationalized and turned into a State school. Nonetheless, the language of instruction was English. It was one of the best schools in Turkey. I came from a village in the mountains and I saw the city of Samsun for the very first time when I walked to it on the day of the exam. The journey on foot took me about two hours.


Samsun was not a big city, but it was a city of immigration from North-Eastern Anatolia: it was the Istanbul of Eastern Turkey. For a village boy, of course, it was not easy to adapt to city life, especially in a school where the language of communication was English. Moreover, while in general in Turkey people play soccer, we used to play American football. We were in a way cut off from the society. In such a different atmosphere, I met some people from the Hizmet movement, who were older than me and had already gone through this experience. They asked me if I needed someone to chat with or if I needed help with my studies. I found a kind of family in this group. I was a child at that time and I didn’t really feel part of Hizmet. However I was coming and going to houses of university students where they used to read from books like Risâle-i Nur [Epistles of Light] by Said Nursi and listen to sermons by Fethullah Gülen.


A similar experience happened to me again in 1989 when I entered the Bosporus University in Istanbul. Once again it was a shock for me: Samsun, compared to Istanbul, is a village. Here I had my second contact with Hizmet, right in the Bosporus University that was considered a secularist fortress. Unlike other immigrants who moved to big cities to find a job, I didn’t move to the suburbs, but to the city center, where I found again that Hizmet was waiting for me, to provide a dormitory first and then a proper house. I automatically went on to help others coming after me and I believe this is the way most volunteers met the Hizmet movement.



Speaking in social terms, two big mobilizations occurred in Turkey between 1983 and 2007. A horizontal mobilization, from smaller city centers to larger cities, from the periphery to the center, and a vertical one, in terms of social classes. The members of Hizmet adapt easily to new circumstances because they can rely on people being there ready to help them, while they move up from lower classes. I myself experienced this double shift, horizontal and vertical: my grandfather was a stone cutter in an Anatolian village, my father got a high school diploma, with which he was able to teach primary school students, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in Istanbul. I have probably seen more countries than my father saw cities. Other people in Turkey had the same kind of horizontal mobilization like me, but did not have the chance to experience the vertical change: they moved from villages to larger cities, they entered into smaller businesses, some of them succeeded, others didn’t, some advanced their education also, but even when they came to city centers, mentally they were still in the periphery. And people who lived in the suburbs became marginal: rightists became marginal right-wing, leftists became marginal left-wing. They both looked with hatred at my neighborhoods, where the so-called “white Turks” lived.



The difference between political Islam and Hizmet Islam is basically this: we do not hate secularists, we live with them, we are friends with them. On the other hand, people who moved horizontally but not vertically in Turkish society developed a sort of anti-establishment ideology, which finally gave birth to the Islamist trend.


I have made a little survey in the building of the Zaman group where I work and I have found out that 95% of the editorial board’s fathers came from small villages. Just two of them lived in Istanbul already and none of our fathers earned more than us or had a better education. Hizmet had an immense influence on this mobilization. There were other religious communities involved in this process, but my experience is with Hizmet: if it weren’t for them, I probably would still be in the village.


Most people think that the movement developed thanks to Gülen’s charisma and his new teachings, but this is not the case. Fethullah Gülen does not say anything new in Islam, he repeats what has already been said, for example, by Said Nursi and other people. We are not reformists: the main sources of Fethullah Gülen are Ghazzali and Rabbani (Ahmad Sirhindi), great masters of mainstream Islam. If there is something really new in the Turkish tradition, this is not Gülen, but Said Nursi’s perception of wealth as something good. In the Turkish Sufism before Said Nursi, poverty was venerated. We were told that only poor people would be admitted in heaven, while the rich will have to carry all their wealth on their backs. Because of this load, they will not enter the doors of heaven, which are too small for them. Therefore our families taught us that it was good to be poor. When Said Nursi said that poverty was one of Turkey’s three main problems – the other two being illiteracy (or ignorance in general) and internal strives in the Muslim world – this was revolutionary. He was the first man who maintained that poverty was a problem.



According to me, what is unique in Hizmet compared to other religious communities is the higher level of continuing voluntary activities: other communities help students coming from villages to big cities as long as they study, but when they finish their education, they leave the community. In our case, about 80% of the students who finish their studies continue working for the cause of Hizmet. Some of them work directly in Hizmet institutions; others support Hizmet financially or by sparing time to spread the word of Hizmet. This is also the case with me: twice a week I organize meetings or conversations in small groups.