Son of an imam, Gülen was born in Erzurum in south-eastern Turkey, in 1938. A great disciple of Said Nursî, a mystic of Kurdish origin who died in 1960, he is in favour of a conservative and orthodox vision of Islam without rejecting modernity which he believes must be addressed.
In the 1970s he organised summer camps in Izmir to teach Islamic principles, setting up the first student or ‘light’ hostels. Still tolerated by the state he began building his first schools, then a university, mass media, groups and associations to breathe life into “modern Turkish Islam” whereby religion and nationalism could be one.
Because of some statements, Turkey’s National Security Council condemned in 1998 for ”trying to undermine the country’s secular institutions, concealing his methods behind a democratic and moderate image.” For this reason he has been living in voluntary exile in the United States since he was sentenced in absentia.
From his headquarters in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), he continues to build his empire, which includes a network of more than 300 private (Islamic) schools in Turkey and 200 abroad (from Tanzania to China, Morocco to the Philippines and former Soviet Republics with large Turkic minorities), a bank, various TV stations and newspapers, a 12-language website and many charities, a virtual business empire worth billions of dollars.
The key to his success lies in the work of thousands of members of his movement, who are willing to volunteer their time and energy promote education, especially where there are few institutions and limited economic means. Indeed Gülen’s ideas have attracted intellectuals and diplomats who have become his promoters because they see him as a promoter of peace and inter-faith dialogue.
In the 1950s Gülen’s mentor Said Nursî preached that Muslims should join Christians against atheism, trying to contact Pope Pius XII and Patriarch Athenagoras. Following in Nursî’s footsteps, Fethullah Gülen began promoting inter-faith dialogue in Turkey. Stating that his only goal was to “honestly serve humanity,” he developed ties with all Christian Churches in Turkey, including relations with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and Armenian Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan. He sought an audience with Pope John Paul II which was held in Rome in 1998, and met the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron.
Officially his movement has about a million followers, including tens of thousands of public sector employees in Turkey who are protected by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (one of Gülen’s best known sympathisers).
In 2006 a Court in Ankara acquitted him from charges of creating an illegal organisation for the purpose of overthrowing Turkey’s secular state and replacing it with one based on the Sharia. But despite that and his large following, he has been criticised by a large number of secularists who believe that underneath a veneer of humanist philosophy, Gülen plans to turn Turkey’s secular state into a theocracy.
Secular Kemalists have compared him to Khomeini and fear that his return to Turkey might turn Ankara into another Tehran. The governments of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also weary and suspicious of his “Turkish schools promoted by Islamic missionaries.”
At the basis of Gülen’s teachings is the notion that state and religion should be reconnected as they were in Ottoman times and that Turkey should play the role of beacon for the Balkans and the republics in the Caucasus. Through him a “neo-Nur” philosophy is integrated into Turkish, if not pan-Turkic nationalism, which explains his success among ethnically related Turkic peoples in post-Soviet Central Asia.
Through hundreds of private schools operating in the Central Asian republics the Gülen movement is giving Turkey a new strategically significant cultural and economic role and leading communities who lost their own identity with the fall of Communism back to their cultural and religious roots in Turkish culture and Islam.
Following this approach Turksoy, an “International Organisation for Development of Turkic Culture and Art”, was set up in Ankara in 1993. Created by the Turkish Ministry of Culture its goal is to sponsor and coordinate initiatives within the “Turkic world.” It came into existence after the culture ministers of Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkish Republic of Cyprus as well as the autonomous Russian republics of Tatarstan and Bašqortostan signed an agreement of cultural cooperation.
According to the agreement, the new organisation was established as a function of new emerging international relations in order to back cultural restructuring in the Trans-Caucasus region and around the world. More specifically, Turksoy’s goals are: to establish friendly relations among Turkish-speaking peoples and nations; explore, disclose, develop, and protect the common Turkic culture, language, history, art, customs, and traditions as well as pass them down to future generations and let them live forever; and develop an environment that allows Turkic peoples to use a shared alphabet and language.
Given Turkey’s predicament today, the country appears even more divided between secularism and political Islam, torn between a desire to turn towards Europe and the dream of becoming a pan-Turkic regional power.