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Turkey’s Enlightened Moderation: A Bridge between Islam and the West
Muzaffar K Awan

With ancient heritage, sprawling land, and fascinating people, Turkey is literally at the crossroads of East and West. Sitting astride the Bosporus, Turkey bridges Asia and Europe. Modern Turkey is not only situated in two continents but also historically has been the centre for the physical and intellectual struggle of two civilizations: Islam and the West. It has been an uneasy actor balancing between Western secularism and traditionalist Islam since Kemalist revolution.

Over three-quarters of a century ago Mustafa Kemal, launched a sweeping Cultural Revolution in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, abolishing the Caliphate and other Islamic institutions to create the modern secular Republic of Turkey. Ever since, this has often provoked anti-Kemalist Islamic resurgence and counter movements against the Kemalist trajectory of nation-making, leading eventually to the institutionalization of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis in the state structure. An ongoing shift to an Islamic conception of nationhood has had its origins in the Ottoman Empire. The objective was to re-establish Islamic sources of nationhood in modern Turkey. Over the decades, through the consistent attempts and by analyzing the world-view of Islam from a civilizational perspective, the Turkish Muslim scholars/intellectuals have laid the foundations for a true revival of moderate Islamic enlightenment thought in Turkey. The notion is indeed civilizational: the scholars see Islam not just as a religion and culture but as a civlization (political structure, social organization, a way of knowing – science, a way of doing – technology, a way of being – art and culture) intact and waiting to be rediscovered. Moreover, they regard Turkey as the arena where the battle between the civilizations of Islam and the West originally started and will be eventually settled through a dialogue.

Over the decades since the Kemalist revolution, there have developed two competing concepts of modernity/secularism in Turkey. One is top-down concept known as Kemalism, the ideology of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. This ideology has had nationalism and extreme secularism as its pillars. Kemalist secularism has been equated with modernization and Westernization that was very much laicism in the French secular sense. This meant that there was no room for Islam in the public sphere; and the public domain needed cleansing from Islam. Science was to become the sole guide, while Islam was something negative and to be gotten rid of. Kemalism thus became the legitimizing ideology of the governing elite. But as it increasingly came to define the identity of the ruling elite, it generated major reactions from the Turkish masses and the periphery. This reaction articulated itself against secularism.

The second conception in Turkey has been a bottom-up modernity/secularism that is neither alien nor negative. Most Turks have welcomed it, but it has been negotiated and redefined. It has been also internalized by the masses rather than imposed by the state from within or by the West from without.

This bottom-up modernity/secularism – allowed space for Islam in the public sphere. This conception of secularism was in line with the Islamic notions. Here Islam has been seen as a source of morality and ethics. It did not see Islam and politics as being necessarily in conflict or mutually exclusive. However, it did not want Islam to become a tool of corrupt politics.

The Nursi Islamic movement, over the decades, has emphasized Islam to remain above politics. Nursi was concerned that politics would corrupt Islam. Badi‘ al-Zaman Sa‘id Nursi (1873-1960) was a prime-mover, and one of the most influential intellectuals in Islamic thought early in Republics history. He attempted to empower Turkey’s Muslims by updating Islamic terminology and language.  He tried to provide them with a new vocabulary in order to allow them to participate in modern discussions and debates on issues like constitutionalism, science, freedom and democracy. So one of his primary goals was to empower Muslims with a new cognitive path. Secondly, he tried to provide a new, flexible Muslim identity. Thirdly, he stressed the idea that sacred and science were not in tension or mutually exclusive, but were to be integrated. In a way, he tried to vernacularize science and modern discourses in an Islamic idiom to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge in Muslim countries. These were the goals of Sa‘id Nursi’s works.

In the recent decades, Fetullah Gülen (b. 1938) has emerged as one of the manifestations of Sa‘id Nursi’s legacy in Turkey. Gülen very much represents this approach, and he remains an agent of this newer societal transformation. He has played a key role in transforming people’s minds, and has led them to a newer understanding of bottom-up modernity. The Gülen movement emerged very much out of the Nursi’ movement, and yet there are certain new characteristics that Gülen has brought to the movement. I call this new movement a Nursi- Gülen movement1. In terms of nationalism, Gülen is a bit more Turkish nationalist (in a Pan-Turkish context) in his thinking. Also, he is somewhat more state-oriented, and is concerned with market economics and neo-liberal economic policies. These are then the major characteristics of the Gülen movement.

The Gülen movement has been moving from ideas to practice. Practice was important and thus action has been very significant. In its view, Islam was not only about praying five times a day and reading Islamic books, but included acting, doing and creating institutions. In that sense, the Gülen movement is worldlier as it wanted to create heaven here and now – education system, hospitals, institutions, and so forth. So whereas Sa‘id Nursi stressed cognitive understanding, Gülen was action-oriented. Gülen has developed a tremendous network of such institutions not only in Turkey but also in numerous other Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

In Turkey, the pendulum has been swinging toward a bottom-up conception of modernity, and a new vision of secularism over the decades has evolved.

This writing is an attempt to look at Turkey’s islamization example of over half a century. The most important link in this context has been the Nursi-Gülen Islamic intellectual thought and movement.

Turkey has become increasingly interesting to scholars of Islamic studies. It was the only Muslim nation in NATO, and has now started full membership negotiations with the European Union, where it can certainly bridge Islamic and Western civilizations. There is no doubt that Islam constitutes one of the most essential elements of Turkish culture. Ninety-nine percent of the Turkish population is Muslim. The influence of Nursi-Gülen discourse on the Turkish public sphere has been paramount.

However, the main subject of this writing is Fethullah Gülen. He is an influential Islamic personality in today’s Turkey and perhaps in the world. His influence not only comes from his charismatic personality and his intellectual wisdom but also from the large numbers of educational and social institutions that have been established by his numerous admirers who take his advice and recommendations very seriously. Recently, the Muslim World journal2, dedicated a special issue to Fethullah Gülen and his civic movement that would contribute greatly to the understanding of modernities in Turkish-Islamic context.

Although Gülen is an Islamic intellectual/scholar, his accomplishments and interests have gone way beyond the field of theology. He is well versed in Islamic sciences and at the same time is also knowledgeable of Western thought. Gülen has read Hafiz as well as Goethe. He has knowledge of Peyami Safa, a well-known Turkish novelist, and Dostoyevsky. Having studied Islamic sciences in his youth, he has a great talent for memorization as well as synthesis. Even today, at the age of sixty-six, he is able to recite the whole Qur’an by heart. He is also versed in the field of hadith, the sayings of the Prophet (sws). It would not be an exaggeration to say that Gülen has also more than ten thousand ahadith memorized in the original Arabic language.

Fethullah Gülen managed to establish a vast civil society movement through his inspirational speeches and writings. Since late 1960’s, his movement has gradually evolved and grown in various areas of social life. Avoiding partisan politics, the movement developed an enlightenment project to fight the social ills. It includes the establishment of hundreds of modern schools and several universities inside and outside of Turkey, a media network (such as a TV national channel, a weekly news magazine, Samna, a leading daily newspaper), and business organizations. Influenced by Sufi traditions, the Gülen movement’s precepts of Turkish culture of tolerance have been criticized by both extreme secularists and Islamic groups. Journalists and Writers Foundation is Turkey’s first and foremost NGO; its honorary chairman is Fethullah Gülen. This NGO effectively deals with interfaith dialogue and searches for common ground.

A reputable academic journal published in the US, “The Muslim World” in its July 05 issue, examined the views of Fethullah Gülen and his civil society movement formed around him.

This special edition ran the headline “Islam in Modern Turkey: Contributions of Fethullah Gülen” and included articles on Gülen written by academics such as Sidney Griffith, Zeki Saritoprak, Mucahit Bilici , Lester R. Kurtz, Elisabeth Özdalga, and Thomas Michel.

Here the readers will find brief summaries of the articles from this reputable journal in the US. There was also an in-depth interview conducted with Gülen by the journal that I will not be able to include in this writing. The articles for this special issue elaborate various aspects of Gülen’s personality and endeavors from different perspectives.

In the very first paper featured in this special issue, Osman Bakar3 focuses on Gülen’s approach to the relationship between science and Islam, examining Gülen’s understanding of the nature of religious and scientific truths in a comparative way. He argues that in contemporary Muslim discourse, it is uncommon to find serious scholars among theologians who reflect on issues of Islam and science. He contends that Gülen belongs to this very small group of committed theologians. Osman Bakar describes Gülen as an Islamic scholar, whose roots lay in the traditional Islamic sciences, and who at the same time is quite familiar with modern Western science. Bakar notes that Gülen’s ideas on this matter have been shaped by its deep faithfulness to Sufi intellectualism, even though he is not an initiator of any Sufi order. Pointing at Gülen’s efforts to reconcile Islam and science, Bakar indicates that Gülen’s teachings seek a sincere dialogue not just between Islam and other faiths, but among religious men and scientists from different societies as well. In this regard Gülen’s views are important for the contemporary world in multiple aspects, notes Bakar.

Lester Kurtz’s4 article examines Gülen’s paradox of combining personal commitment to Islamic religious principles with a strong engagement with pluralism. He argues that Gülen has managed to fuse theory and practice. Referring to certain theological foundations on which Gülen has grounded his ideas of tolerance, Kurtz cites Gülen: “One cannot be a Muslim unless one believes in the pre-Islamic prophets.” Lester Kurtz, who starts with the supposition that loyalty to faith and tolerance are distant and contradictory notions, concludes that Gülen has reconciled these. Noting that Gülen encouraged others to practice tolerance, not in spite of, but as a consequence of his loyalty to Islam, Kurtz points at the schools as one of the most important areas in which this reconciliation has taken effect. Indicating that these schools constituted a form of humanitarian service, designed for education in the general sense of the term, and in order to avoid Islamic propaganda, and he says that if humanity is to live for another century, the voices coming from such faith communities as Gülen’s would undoubtedly play a very important part in it.

Thomas Michel’s 5 article explores the relationship between Sufism and Modernity in the teachings of Gülen. He also explores how Gülen successfully followed the teachings of Sufism without being caught by the legal regulations of the Turkish state which had banned the Sufi institution of tariqah. Michel speaks of three main influences that shaped the thought of Gülen: Orthodox Sunni Islam, the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, and the Nursi movement. A great portion of this article examines Gülen’s approach to modernity and his influence on contemporary Turkish thought.  Thomas Michel, who studies how “sufism” and “modernity” are reconciled in Fethullah Gülen’s thoughts, points at an educational philosophy that is reflected in the hundreds of schools established in Turkey, and throughout the world as the most reliable evidence for this.

Michel says that given the lack of integration between scientific knowledge and spiritual values, Gülen and his companions introduced a new style of education which reconciles the two. According to Michel, Gülen neither proposes rigid traditionalism that completely rejects modern values, nor a nostalgic return to the madrasah type education of Ottoman times. Rather he finds an Islamic middle ground that stands in a critical engagement with modernity. In opposition to modernist social planners he regards the real goal of the nations as the renewal or “civilization” of the individuals and the society through moral action and mentality. Michel characterizes the schools established with this philosophy in mind as one of the most impressive and promising educational enterprises that is currently taking place.

Elizabeth Özdalga6 wrote an article on the Gülen movement to attract attention to the “other faces of Islam”. She examines the Gülen phenomena, which she terms as “the most influential revival movement in modern Turkey” from the theoretical framework discussed in Sociologist Norbert Elias’ book titled “Modernization Process”.

Özdalga analyzes the Gülen community from a sociological perspective. She suggests that when public institutions fail to integrate citizens, the demand on other organizations and communities to fill this void increases. The Gülen community plays a significant role at this juncture. She mentions the experiences of several female members of the Gülen movement and emphatically suggests that the Gülen community is not a tariqah (Sufi order), but rather a civic community. Referring to Elias’s analytic framework, Özdalga examines the relationship between the Turkish establishment and the Gülen movement.

 Özdalga sees the Gülen movement as being one of the civil interim networks undertaking the role of “mediatorship” and filling the gaps where public institutions have difficulty in integrating citizens with the system during the process of being a modern nation-state.

Terming the Gülen congregation as a “social network” being different from other traditional congregations, Özdalga says, “The Gülen movement, which attaches so much importance to education, makes a remarkable contribution to the formation of values and identities, which lead to a deepening of the roots of the construction of the nation-state process.”

According to Özdalga, it is not religion but the fear of “settled ones” regarding the change in the balance of power in favor of “those coming from outside,” just as Elias mentioned the basis of the reaction towards Gülen.

Sidney Griffith and Zeki Saritoprak7 explore Gülen’s idea of interfaith dialogue. This article attempts to find the roots of Gülen’s approach by referring to early Islamic figures such as al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) and Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), and Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (d. 1276). Gülen also avidly read the more recent works of two Indian writers, Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (1564-1624) and Shah Wali Allah al-Dihlawi (1703-1762) as well as some Western classics such as Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, and Honore de Balzac. The article argues that “Bismillah,” the first verse of the first Qur’anic chapter, constitutes the starting point for Gülen’s understanding of inter-religious dialogue. Furthermore, the article elaborates on Gülen’s meeting with Pope John Paul II and the reactions of various Muslims to this meeting as well.

 The article examines the theological roots of the peace and anti-violence rooted in Islam; and gives examples of the representatives of this tradition in Turkey such as Suleyman Hilmi Tunahan, Mehmed Zahid Kotku, Badi‘ al-Zaman Sa‘id Nursi and Fethullah Gülen.

These people made an important contribution to the formation of a safer and peaceful atmosphere in the country thanks to their loyalty to the principle of “being against violence despite the pressures imposed by extreme secularists,” according to Saritoprak.

Indicating Gülen’s personal experiences that he gained during the “anarchy and military coups” processes that play an important role in his anti-violence attitude, Saritoprak says, “For a peaceful world in the future, Gülen encourages his fellow citizens to establish schools in Turkey and abroad.”

Gülen strongly defends “freedom of faith” for non-Muslims as well, says Saritoprak, concluding that Turkey’s experience of an anti-violence attitude in the frame of Islamic teachings is a valid solution in a period when Islam is identified with violence and barbarism.

Mucahit Bilici approaches the Gülen movement and its politics of representation more critically. His article examines the activities of a Turkish institution called The Journalists and Writers Foundation, of which Gülen is known as its honorary president, as well as other fields of interest in the Gülen movement. Bilici finds that this organization is working to prevent the fulfilment of Huntington’s prophecy of a “clash of civilizations.” Also, he maintains that Gülen owes a great deal of his intellectual background to the teachings of Sa‘id Nursi, although he differentiates between these two. Bilici presents Gülen as a modern Ottoman, and expounds on several terms that are popular within the Gülen movement, such as khidmat (service), and himmat (support).

Finally, Ihsan Yilmaz’s8 paper examines the transformation of Islam in modern Turkish history, especially after the establishment of the modern Turkish state. Within this context, he differentiates between civil Islam, represented by Gülen, and state Islam, for which Yilmaz coins the term “Lausannian Islam.” Yilmaz also focuses on the influence of Gülen’s discourse on the Turkish public sphere, and compares the movement to other Islamic political parties established in Turkey.  Yilmaz while examining the secularism process in Turkey explains in his article how non-official Islam is being lived although the Turkish state claiming a “secular mujahidin” role wanted to establish the understanding of Lausanne Islam. He exemplifies the National View’s movement of political Islam and Fethullah Gülen’s movement of Anatolian Islam. Advocating that the Gülen movement, which he also defines as the largest civilian movement in Turkey, made transformative influences on society, nationalist Islam and political Islam as well; Yilmaz considers Gülen’s discourse in the “moderate Islam” category. Yilmaz depends on Gülen’s use of a flexible language on some issues relating to the authoritarian state not showing tolerance to any rival in the social arena. He exemplifies the efforts of secularist and nationalist circles that could not digest Gülen’s meeting with Pope John Paul II under the context of dialogue among religions, to make the Department of Religious Affairs take on that role.

This special issue of “The Muslim World ‘‘publication, I believe provides an interesting understanding of Fethullah Gülen and his contributions which have increasingly received the attention of academic scholarship of the Muslim and the Western World. With a charismatic personality, his ever multiplying admirers, and his tremendous openness, Gülen and his civil society movement can contribute to the development of positive relationships between Islam and the West. A close examination of Gülen’s thought shows that he is one of the foremost Muslim scholars of the present day Islamic World, who has been promoting dialogue and tolerance between the Muslim communities, who differ among themselves in many important ways, as well as between Muslims and the adherents of the other religious traditions.




1. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 24:2 (2004), 213-232.

2. The Muslim World, July 2005 - Vol. 95 Issue 3, 325-471

3. Bakar, Osman,  Gülen on Religion and Science: A Theological Perspective, The Muslim World 95 (3), (2005), 359-372.

4. Kurtz, Lester R., Gülen’s Paradox: Combining Commitment and Tolerance. The Muslim World 95 (3), (2005), 373-384.

5. Thomas Michel, S. J., Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Gülen. The Muslim World 95 (3), (2005), 341-358.

6. Özdalga, Elisabeth, Redeemer or Outsider? The Gülen Community in the Civilizing Process. The Muslim World 95 (3), (2005), 429-446.

7. Saritoprak, Zeki & Griffith, Sidney, Fethullah Gülen and the People of the Book: A Voice from Turkey for Interfaith Dialogue. The Muslim World 95 (3), (2005), 329-340.

8. Yilmaz, Ihsan, State, Law, Civil Society and Islam in Contemporary Turkey. The Muslim World 95 (3), (2005), 385-411.

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