Altruistic Society or Sect? The Shadowy World of the Islamic Gülen Movement
August 9, 2012
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.
Some experts reach similar conclusions. Dutch sociologist Martin van Bruinessen sees parallels between the Gülen movement and the Catholic secret society Opus Dei. American historian and Middle East expert Michael Rubin likens the Turkish preacher to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. According to a diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks in 2010, US diplomats consider the Gülen movement to be “Turkey’s most powerful Islamist grouping.” The Gülen movement, the cable continues, “controls major business, trade, and publishing activities (and) has deeply penetrated the political scene.”
Only very few former members are prepared to talk about their time in the movement, and those who do insist on not being identified by name. They are afraid of Gülen and his people, afraid for their jobs, their health and their families.
Like in Prison
One of these former members, who agreed to speak with SPIEGEL under a fictitious name, is Serkan Öz, who lived in a “house of light” in a major German city for several years. He moved into the facility immediately after graduating from a German high school. He had been attracted by Gülen’s sermons, which he saw on the Internet, because he felt that they reconciled Islamic piety with Western modernity.
Both the furnishings and everyday life in the residence, says Öz, were more evocative of the frugality and rigidity of a monastery than the relaxed atmosphere of a student dormitory. There were only men living in his house, and both alcohol and visits by women were prohibited. A supervisor, who all residents referred to as “Agabey” (“elder brother”), determined the daily routine, dictating when it was time to work, pray and sleep. “We were guarded as if we were in prison,” says the former member. Öz read the Koran and studied Gülen’s writings every day.
The houses of light are the foundation of the movement, where young “Fethullahcis” (as followers of Gülen are called) are taught to become loyal servants. The residences exist in many countries, including Turkey, the United States and Germany. There are two dozen in Berlin alone. The cemaat offers schoolchildren and university students a home, often free of charge, and in return it expects them to devote their lives to “hizmet,” or service to Islam.
In his book “Fasildan Fasila,” Gülen writes that a pupil must be “on the go day and night” and cannot be seen sleeping. “If possible, he sleeps three hours a day, has two hours for other needs, and must devote the rest entirely to hizmet. In essence, he has no personal life, except in a few specific situations.”
Residents of the houses of light are also expected to proselytize, and Gülen even offers advice in his writings on how to go about it. The students, he writes, should befriend infidels, even if it means having to hide their true motives. “With the patience of a spider, we lay our web to wait for people to get caught in the web.”
Banned from Watching TV
The more Serkan Öz lived his life in accordance with Gülen’s rules, the “Hizmet düsturlari,” the fewer freedoms he had. For example, the cemaat tried to dictate to him which profession he was to choose. He had almost no friends left outside the movement…