The Gulen movement has generated broad support in Germany and across the world. Experts, however, have doubts over its image as the representative of “moderate Islam” in Europe.
European public opinion is divided on the Gulen movement, which the Turkish government holds responsible for the country’s failed July 15 coup.
The Gulen movement, classified as a terrorist organization in Turkey and labeled the number one enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is viewed as a moderate Islamic movement in Germany.
According to political and Islamic scientist Thorsten Gerald Schneiders, the primary reason for this perception is the lack of information about the Gulen movement itself in Germany. Scheniders says the negative image of Erdogan shapes this view.
“German assessments rise from the assumption ‘if Erdogan is bad then the Gulen movement must be good,'” he said.
There is little independent research on the Gulen movement, named after exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen (pictured at top). It has strengthened the past several years in Germany, a country with nearly 3 million people of Turkish origin. As fears of radical Islam and terrorism grow, many in Germany have a positive impression of the Gulen movement and its members, who have a modern appearance and are open to dialogue.
Schneiders, however, is doubtful the Gulen movement is simply an innocent group in opposition to Erdogan.
“I approach the Gulen movement with more skepticism,” he said. “At the least, there are statements from supporters of Gulen disseminating their own world view and ideology through somewhat mysterious and secretive means. Their statements also imply the infiltration of certain institutions to impose their ideology. All this needs to be questioned.”
Now a global movement
Designating his movement as a “Hizmet” (Service) Movement, the leader Fethullah Gulen has been living in the US state of Pennsylvania since 1999. He began his self-imposed exile after being indicted for attempting to topple the secular structure in Turkey and form a theological state. Gulen, however, maintains he moved abroad for health reasons.
After beginning in Turkey in the 1960’s, the Gulen movement has become global, with a presence in over 100 countries.
Some experts compare the Gulen movement to the Catholic institution Opus Dei or the Mormon Church, while others draw similarities with the Church of Scientology, which is monitored by Germany’s internal intelligence service.
Schneiders says you cannot directly compare the Gulen movement with Scientology. He urges, however, that it must be questioned whether a movement with a shady organizational and financial structure that clamps down on dissent is compatible with democratic values.
Migrant ties to Gulen schools
A major pillar of Gulen movement are its schools across the globe. The institutions have spread throughout Europe and the US over the past 15 years. Other countries, including Russia, have banned them for their supposed involvement in espionage activities and for promoting pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism.
The Gulen movement entered Germany in the early 1990’s. Today it has expanded its network in the country to 24 schools, with 150 support courses and nearly 300 non-profit organizations, including cultural, business and media groups.
Gulen schools in Germany have attracted migrant families of Turkish origin for many years.
“Most Gulen movement members are financially successful, have attained higher education and connect this image with their Muslim identity,” said Schneiders. “So being well-educated and professionally successful yet at the same time being close to religion and Turkish culture is very important for many families in Germany. It is clear why these schools are attractive centers, especially when there are negative and hostile discussions about Turks and Muslims in Germany.”
Schneiders says these sectarian schools should be scrutinized and monitored within the scope of German law, but cautions “this should be carried out discreetly and without hysteria.”
Gulen’s objective in Europe
Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist and anthropologist studying political Islam in Europe at the University of Vienna, calls the Gulen movement in Europe as a “conservative education movement.”
“Muslim societies are investing substantially in their future elites,” Schmidinger said. “Naturally this may include a long term political power element and naturally one may assume that Gulen movement schools… may simultaneously and subconsciously be relaying a political ideology.”
Schmidinger emphasizes that the Gulen movement is more of an “elite movement” than one which affects the masses and he believes this may have long term political consequences in Europe.
“At least until now, the [Gulen movement] in Germany has not aggressively targeted German politics,” he said. “So far the goal has been to solidify influence within Muslim communities. If there is a threat, the threat exists for Muslim communities.”
“No one within the movement distances his or herself from the major elements of Fethullah Gulen’s ideology, which include shaping the political system according to Sharia.” Schmidinger said, pointing to the secretive, cult-like, anti-democratic nature of the movement. “No one criticizes nor questions Gulen within the structure.”
The Gulen movement enjoys enormous economic power globally. Members donate a portion of their income. Anyone employed with the assistance of the movement donates their first month’s wages and large funds are collected when businesses win contracts. This financial clout is why some experts like journalist Ahmet Sik have labeled the movement “a mafia utilizing Islam.”
Schmidinger, however, disagrees.
“I would not exactly call it a mafia but may be a structure resembling a pyramid scheme,” he said. “The person that Gulen supports has to donate money for others to be supported. This is what makes the movement extensive and powerful.”