Millions of Muslims around the world idolize Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who likes to present himself as the Gandhi of Islam. His Gülen movement runs schools in 140 countries and promotes interfaith dialogue. But former members describe it as a sect, and some believe the secretive organization is conspiring to expand its power in Turkey.
The girl is singing a little off-key, but the audience is still wildly enthusiastic. She is singing a Turkish song, although her intonation sounds German. The room is decorated with balloons, garlands in the German national colors of black, red and gold, and crescent moons in the Turkish colors of red and white. Members of the audience are waving German and Turkish flags.
The Academy cultural association is hosting the preliminaries of the “Cultural Olympics” in a large lecture hall at Berlin’s Technical University. Thousands of people have come to watch the talent contest. They applaud loudly when a choir from the German-Turkish Tüdesb school sings “My Little Green Cactus.” And they listen attentively when a female student recites a poem, while images of women holding children in their arms appear on the screen behind her. The poem is called “Anne,” the Turkish word for “mother.” The name of the poem’s author, Fethullah Gülen, appears on the screen for a moment.
Everyone in the auditorium knows who Gülen is. Millions of Muslims around the world idolize Gülen, who was born in Turkey in 1941 and is one of the most influential preachers of Islam today. His followers have founded schools in 140 countries, a bank, media companies, hospitals, an insurance company and a university.
The cultural association hosting the contest at the Berlin university is also part of the Gülen movement. Hence it isn’t surprising that many participants attend Gülen schools, that companies associated with Gülen are sponsoring the cultural Olympics, and that media outlets with ties to Gülen are reporting on it.
The images from the evening show Germans and Turks learning from one another, making music together, dancing and clapping. The obvious intent is to emphasize the peaceful coexistence of different religions. “We are the first movement in the history of mankind that is completely and utterly devoted to charity,” says Mustafa Yesil, a Gülen confidant in Istanbul.
A Sect Like Scientology
People who have broken ties to Gülen and are familiar with the inner workings of this community tell a different story. They characterize the movement as an ultraconservative secret society, a sect not unlike the Church of Scientology. And they describe a world that has nothing to do with the pleasant images from the cultural Olympics.
These critics say that the religious community (known as the “cemaat” in Turkish) educates its future leaders throughout the world in so-called “houses of light,” a mixture of a shared student residence and a Koran school. They describe Gülen as their guru, an ideologue who tolerates no dissent, and who is only interested in power and influence, not understanding and tolerance. They say that he dreams of a new age in which Islam will dominate the West.
The Gülen movement has two sides: One that faces the world and another that hides from it. Its finances are particularly murky. Rich businessmen donate millions, but civil servants and skilled manual workers also contribute to the financing of Gülen projects. Fethullahcis donate an average of 10 percent of their income to the community, with some giving up to 70 percent.
Gülen likes to portray himself as a modest preacher akin to a Muslim Gandhi. One of his mantras is: “Build schools instead of mosques.”
But before he moved to the United States, Gülen treated the West as the enemy. “Until the day of judgment,” he wrote in his book “Cag ve Nesil,” “Westerners will exhibit no human behavior.” Gülen condemned Turks who embraced Europe as “freeloaders,” “parasites” and “leukemia.” In a November 2011 video message, he called upon the Turkish military to attack Kurdish separatists: “Locate them, surround them, break up their units, let fire rain down upon their houses, drown out their lamentations with even more wails, cut off their roots and put an end to their cause.”
Calls for a New Muslim Age
Gülen grew up as the son of a village imam in Anatolia. He studied at a mosque in Erzurum, a city in eastern Turkey, together with Cemaleddin Kaplan, who would later move to Germany where he was known as the “Caliph of Cologne” because of his radical preaching. At the same time, Gülen encountered the teachings of Said Nursi, a Kurdish Sufi preacher, and joined his community.
When Ankara, in its fight against communism in the 1980s, invoked the ideology of the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” Gülen seized the opportunity. He founded schools in Turkey and abroad, and he became an adviser to the strictly secular prime minister, Tansu Ciller.
In one of his sermons, he called upon his students to establish a new Muslim age. He advised his supporters to undermine the Turkish state and act conspiratorially until the time was ripe to assume power. “You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers … until the conditions are ripe, they (the followers) must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere. (…) You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power (…) Until that time, any step taken would be too early — like breaking an egg without waiting the full 40 days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside.”
When a recording of this speech was leaked to the public in 1999, Gülen had to flee from Turkey. He claims that his words were manipulated. He has been living in exile in the United States ever since.
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