[Opinion] Why does Fethullah Gülen matter to the world?

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Dr. Kashif Hasan Khan*

Mr. Muhammed Fethullah Gülen is not an unknown name. He is among the world’s most well-known religious leaders. TIME magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2013. Gülen was born in 1941 in Turkey; he is a follower of the neo-Sunni movement of Islamic scholar Said Nursi and started a movement of his own called “Hizmet” in the late 1970s. He has been living in the US for more than two decades.

Once an admirer of Gülen — relations between the Turkish government and the Hizmet Movement date back to the premiership of Turgut Özal, who took office in 1983 — President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, along with his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), accused him of orchestrating a coup attempt in July 2016, and since then, thousands of his followers have been imprisoned without a fair trial and tortured. Erdoğan asked the Obama and Trump administrations to hand Gülen over to Turkey, upon which his government was asked to provide sufficient evidence to justify the request, which Turkey failed to do. After declaring a crackdown on Hizmet followers in Turkey, Erdoğan expanded his domestic agenda of imprisoning innocent Hizmet followers into the “extradition of Hizmet followers” abroad. Immediately after the coup attempt, he began giving warnings to world leaders about Hizmet followers running educational institutions in their respective countries. However, democratic countries, including those in the West, India and others, refused to pay any heed to Erdoğan’s accusations and warnings regarding Gülen followers. Nevertheless, some poor countries acting out of financial need or religious motivation like Pakistan acted on Erdoğan’s demands. They either shut down Hizmet schools and universities or sold them to local organizations, or they were taken over by Turkey’s Maarif Foundation, which was set up a month before the abortive putsch in 2016. One of the main objectives of this foundation is to take over Hizmet schools in Turkey and abroad.

It was believed in 2016 that Erdoğan was carrying out a witch hunt to drive Hizmet into the ground so as to completely erase its history in Turkey. However, that witch hunt never seemed to stop. In fact, it continues even today. The most recent examples are Kenya and Kyrgyzstan.

On May 31, 2021 Turkey’s national intelligence agency MİT “captured” Selahaddin Gülen, a nephew of Fethullah Gülen, in Kenya and brought him to Turkey. Erdoğan had reportedly been constantly pressuring the Kenyan government to hand over Gülen followers. “When the Kenyan government didn’t do so, the pressure was indicative of Mr. Erdogan’s influence and how far he would go to break up the Gulen movement,” said The New York Times in a May report. On the same day, in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, Orhan İnandı, the founder and president of the prestigious Sapat network of Kyrgyz-Turkish schools — run by Hizmet followers — was kidnapped. İnandı has been a Kyrgyz citizen since 2012.

He was advised by the National Security Committee to hire bodyguards against the threat of kidnap, but as of the time of writing, it has already been more than two weeks since his disappearance. Claims suggesting that he was kidnapped by criminals for ransom make no sense. Moreover, Turkey had earlier demanded the extradition of İnandı as well.

It is obvious from the AKP’s ongoing crackdown on Hizmet that the group matters more to Erdoğan than anything else. Apart from this, “saving Muslims all over the world” is more rhetoric that he uses. He spares no efforts to portray himself as the savior of Islam and wants to make Turkey Ottoman again. Historically, Hizmet and the AKP were not always enemies. Their differences increased after the 2011 elections but actually began in 2007, when Hizmet followers and sympathizers grew significantly in number and challenged AKP corruption. According to The Guardian one Turkish government official said: “Let me put it this way. Nobody, I mean nobody, was aware at the time that the Gülen movement had a secret agenda. Let’s keep in mind that [in 2007] it was a very different situation, with the armed forces openly threatening to overthrow the government.”

Erdoğan never looked back after 2011, and his political vendetta reached its zenith.

Gülen’s philosophy of education and integration

Gülen has a very clear stance on the question of democracy, and he is a staunch supporter of pluralism. He categorically condemns any kind of radicalization. In one of his interviews, he stated that “In contrast to claims by political Islamists, Islam is not a political ideology, it is a religion. It does have some principles that pertain to governance, but these account for, at most, five percent of all Islamic principles. To reduce Islam to a political ideology is the greatest crime against its ethos.”

The times we are living in have been hijacked by crony capitalism. As is held by the classical/realist tradition of politics, “Humans always try to maximize their benefit at the expense of others.” If a foundation based on morality and integration is not inculcated in students early on, there can be a loss of ethical and moral standards that might lead this world to anarchy and a struggle for power to rule over others. The main objective of educational institutions must be twofold: inculcate up-to-date education so that students are able to find good jobs and at the same time learn how to be peaceful, harmonious and tolerant towards different religions, cultures and races.

Regardless of the political situation and whoever wants to gain power, the one thing that is beyond belief are claims that Gülen wants to be the most powerful man in Turkey. Gülen is 80 years old, his health is fragile, and he has no reason to seek power. He is known as Sufi among his followers. He has more than 100 books on spirituality and interfaith dialogue to his credit. A leader can be judged by his writings and speeches. Gülen is not someone who preaches in seclusion. In fact, his writings and opinions are spread around the world and have been translated into several languages. From his books one can easily see that Gülen’s teachings are very modern and based on non-violence. He has repeatedly mentioned and praised the ambassadors of a peace-loving world such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela in his speeches and books.

Gülen and his institutions have organized numerous gatherings and exchanges between groups that are normally distant from each other such as Alevis and Sunnis, secular and pious people, Kurds and Turks. In Europe and the US, Hizmet followers have played the same role, welcoming devout figures from various religions to engage in exchanges in an effort to develop a common understanding.

Hizmet schools and universities are located in a number of countries, but not a single student from these schools and universities has been accused of engaging in terrorist activities. In the last five years dozens of Gülen-linked schools and other educational institutions have been shut down in Turkey and abroad. It appears that Kyrgyzstan is now Erdoğan’s next target. He seems to say non-stop that Hizmet followers may become involved in terrorist activities. However, the Hizmet schools are the best schools in Kyrgyzstan and have been there for three decades, and their graduates work at top companies. The Kyrgyz are a peace-loving people and known for their pluralistic attitude. Unlike countries that have reacted positively to Erdogan’s demands, the rule of law is very strong there. It remains an open question as to how the government of Kyrgyzstan will respond to Erdoğan’s baseless accusations.

*Dr. Kashif Hasan Khan is director of the Silk Road Research Center, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He writes on Central Asia, India and the European Union.

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