By Roman Muzalevsky (09/01/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Fethullah Gulen movement, originating in Turkey and with activities in 110 countries, has established a particularly strong presence in Central Asia. It promotes tolerance and inter-faith collaboration through secular educational institutions. But while secularism, democracy and the non-political nature of the movement are part of Gulen’s personal lexicon, the situation in Central Asia may indicate not only the leader’s political agenda of promoting moderate Islam and Turkism in the region, but also a gross misapplication of his expressed ideas by adherents on the ground. The newly independent Central Asian states, struggling to create their own identities amidst the influx of fundamentalist movements, face the question of whether the Gulen movement is a blessing or a curse. 

BACKGROUND: The Gulen movement started out in the late 1960s in Turkey as an Islamic-based and officially non-political project. The modernist Islamic thinker Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the founder of the Nurcu sect, influenced Fethullah Gulen. The Gulen movement promotes inter-faith dialogue and common values, with its leader adhering to Sufism, seemingly being nostalgic about the heyday of the Ottoman Empire and eager to repay a debt to Central Asia for the latter’s contribution to civilization in Turkey. Numbering millions of followers globally, it is represented by foundations, businesses, media outlets, and educational institutions. It provides heavily subsidized, science-oriented and above-average education that is nevertheless criticized for being narrow-minded and uncritical. In Central Asia, the movement has created high schools and universities to educate the future regional elite. The institutions train future generations of leaders that are susceptible to display loyalty to Gulen, the movement at large, as well as Turkey – itself home to growing numbers of Gulen disciples within the official ranks.

However, its numerous critics, including in Turkey that is amidst its own identity crisis spurred by clashes between the ruling Justice and Development party and the secular segments of the society and state, have accused the Gulen movement of having a hidden political agenda of promoting Islam by stealth. The movement is hierarchical within its core but decentralized in its periphery and somewhat secretive. Although it has pursued active educational programs in the region, it has been obstructed in one way or another by authoritarian governments mindful of regional extremist movements, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and more broadly Salafiyya missionaries.

That does not imply, however, that the movement’s entities have been totally unsuccessful across the various republics. The Gulen universities and high schools operate well in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. They were banned in Uzbekistan in 2000, however, because of fears of Islamic fundamentalism and due to tense relations between Turkey and Uzbekistan. And although regional authorities preserve “democracy” and secularism by strictly monitoring this and other movements, they nevertheless send their children to Gulen and Nurcu schools.

Turkish companies in Central Asian capitals serve as intermediaries between educational institutions and the companies’ headquarters in Turkey, Western Europe and elsewhere. Following fundraisers through Himmet, or ‘donation pledge’ meetings, the affiliated businesses sign agreements with authorities to provide education. Most of the teachers are Gulen followers coming from Turkey. There are also tutors, who usually fail university entrance exams in Turkey but are recruited for an educational mission to enlighten the fellow Turks in Central Asia. Housed in dormitories, the tutors provide overall guidance to students, help with homework, and directly affect students’ private lives, including their religious matters.

The movement’s ideology is promoted through subtle means. While the schools are nominally secular institutions, they promote Muslim religious education and Turkism indirectly during classes and ‘class hours’ (to use the Soviet term of ethical education delivered in addition to regular classes). There are also tea gatherings in dormitories, or sohbetler, with discussions on Islam and various topical issues. Most important in this regard are the private apartments, or isik evleri (houses of light), which the movement operates and which house young minds from these educational institutions. In these, movement representatives provide the students with free housing and food, teach them to read the Quran, and to pray. It is through these houses that many young men and women are turned into Gulen’s followers, known in Turkish as Fethullahç?. Outside the classrooms anti-Semitic, anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric is not uncommon. This is puzzling given Gulen’s own pro-secular stance, and his calls from his Pennsylvania residence to followers for tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.

IMPLICATIONS: The movement’s secretive nature, and the inconsistency betweens the leader’s messages and the practice of his followers has led to growing reactions across Central Asia, where it has generated accusations of hypocrisy and ill will. The secrecy, which may appear unnecessary if the movement is truly democratic and secular, can partly be explained by the difficulties imposed on the movement by authoritarian governments. Nevertheless, its secrecy has fed those critics that accuse it of advancing a hidden agenda in Central Asia. 

Whether or not the movement engages in Islamic proselytism and the promotion of Turkism, it poses a challenge to the national-building processes in the region. Having a rich history of imperial domination, the independent states of Central Asia have struggled to create their own identities, often finding themselves embroiled in patterns of identities and ideologies transcending national borders. Untangling or weaving these identities, including by the governments themselves, is a difficult and risky process, which world experience has shown to be prone to conflict. The Gulen movement interjects itself in precisely this ongoing process, where its ingredients of Turkism and Islam could prove to be volatile aspects of the regional identity making.

The relationship between Turkey’s aspirations in the region and the movement’s related contribution also begs further inquiry. The movement helps Turkish foreign policy along linguistic, cultural and economic lines, but it is also seen as a threat to Turkey’s own secular establishment. The latter nevertheless uses the movement’s influence to its advantage in Central Asia. Further, the “Elder Turkic Brother” mentality evident within the movement’s educational institutions may also help promote the Turkish model of development in the region, notwithstanding the movement’s own problems with the Turkish state. It thus appears that the movement, and Turkey’s policies, assists the regional states in their educational and economic development. Yet they also contribute to already uneasy relations between secular and Islamic forces within national politics and societies, and complicate the nation-building processes.

Finally, the movement and Gulen as phenomena are illustrative about the geopolitics of Central Asia. Gulen, unlike most Islamic groups, has always emphasized the non-political nature of the movement and supported nation-states as sovereign entities of the international system. However, he appears to view them as functional rather than transcendental categories in the context of religion and faith. What Lari Nyroos calls a “resurgence of religion that transgresses Westphalian borders” therefore requires further analysis of the impact of religious and social movements, including Gulen’s, on the existing structures of nation-states and the international system. “Dissident geopolitics,” Nyroos would tell us, could be a way to start doing just that.

CONCLUSIONS: Central Asia is historically old and diverse, yet its modern states are entities in their political infancy. This partly explains some of the recent inroads of various ideologies and movements, including Gulen’s, into the cultural and political lives of the region and the latter’s largely ambiguous response. Were the states truly democratic and with strong institutions, the political competition and pluralism in the already diverse environment could be healthy, even for the Gulen’s movement itself. But the secular states face challenges in the area of nation building, in which Islamic ideology is a potent challenger. Given the secrecy of the Gulen movement, discrepancies between its message and practice, and its contentious influence on Turkish and Central Asian politics, the skepticism it faces is understandable. The challenge, indeed the imperative, is to promote secular rather than religious features in regional governance, while also providing incentives for long-term democratic transformation in Central Asia.     

AUTHOR’S BIO: Roman Muzalevsky is an international affairs and security analyst on the former Soviet Union, Caucasus and Central Asia. He holds MA in International Relations from Yale University with concentration in Security and Strategy Studies.