The Fethullah Gülen Movement on the International Arena

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Dr. Fernando Rosa, visiting scholar at Asian Studies Center, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

Editorial Remark
After the failed military coup in Turkey last July, the goal of the Turkish Government is to purge the country from their prime suspects, followers of the Fethullah Gülen movement, and ‘pull them up by the roots’, as it has been declared. Fernando Rosa, Anthropologist and Africanist at present working in a “Central Eurasian” environment at Boğaziçi University, considers this to be a very hard, if not impossible task, when looking at the presence of this movement in the international community.

A reflection on the international reach of the Gülen movement after reading Bayram Balcı’s contribution concerning Central Asia and the Caucasus

I found Bayram Balcı’s full article in French as well as his shortened summary of it on the SIPCATS Blog quite useful. It is mostly about Gülen’s movement in Central Asia, but there is a very important part about the influence of Gülen’s acolytes in sub-Saharan Africa. Both Senegal and South Africa are briefly mentioned (there is also a great picture of a school interior in Senegal right in the beginning of the article, with Atatürk’s photograph next to that of a Senegalese statesman). I’m originally an Africanist, and therefore am very green in what concerns Turkey, let alone Central Asia.

While reading Balcı’s article, I found it particularly interesting to learn that Turkey’s economic clout in Africa is originally largely linked to Gülen’s influence there.

One amazing detail that comes out of this whole story for me is that Gülen’s influence has extended from China’s Central Asian borders all the way to South Africa. This is truly amazing. We should also remember that Gülen’s movement is well-represented within the US, too. His schools have been teaching Turkish to thousands of Americans in the US.

His schools and universities in particular are often quite popular because, as Balcı points out, they provide seemingly secular (sic!), Anglophone education, at an international level, to people and places where that has not been necessarily easily available.

Gülen’s influence is therefore based on a shifting, curious mix of fairly traditional Pan-Turkism, twenty-first century internationalism, a kind of Protestantised version of Islam, American-inspired Anglophony, all closely packed together somehow.

It definitely has pretty secretive dimensions to it, but is also very much out in the public eye. In fact, what is amazing is its incredible plasticity: it is able to cross borders, spread itself, and gain adepts in all kinds of places (either full adepts or merely people who are loosely inspired by it, as Balcı indicates).

Note also the very important capitalistic dimension to it: corporations such as Turkish Airlines entered parts of Africa on its very footsteps, according to Balcı. This is food for thought.

It is also clear that movements such as Gülen’s are so multifaceted, tentacular, and organisationally truly chameleonic, that it is impossible to eradicate them entirely. Balcı shows that they have already taken root and metamorphosed themselves outside of Turkey in ways well beyond the control of Turkey’s government, and even of Gülen himself!

This incredible capacity for “indigenization” is also food for thought, in my opinion.

The current attempt of Turkish diplomacy to undermine Gülen’s movement abroad, pointed out by Balcı, is therefore probably both futile and even possibly counter-productive. The results of the spread of Gülen’s movement are too multifarious, as Balcı suggests, for us to believe that eradicating it might be possible. Even in Turkey, in the long run, “eradication” will most probably only mean driving it underground rather than really uprooting it.

This story also makes me think that there are many people in the world who are in need of concrete means and avenues for personal (spiritual included), social, and economic advancement; are hungering for cosmopolitanism of some sort; and are ambitious and curious enough, not to mention needy enough, to try new opportunities that open up for them. It was also interesting to learn from Balcı’s article that at certain moments even the elites in Central Asia have felt attracted to Gülen’s movement.

I’m not going to go here into the merits and demerits of Gülen’s movement. Nonetheless, it is really astonishing how it has spread and changed itself over time, over such a large swathe of the globe, impacting quite a few people.

Of course, the issue of religion also comes up here in a very strong way. Organised religion has a way of impacting the political realm when least expected, and not only in largely Islamic countries. An important part of the (highly successful) political movement to oust President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, for instance, was generated within the ranks of powerful evangelical politicians and their allies.

It is also good to remember that the right in the US has traditionally been enmeshed with conservative Christian communities.

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Prospects for Democracy in Turkey

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Patrick Hällzon, MA, Research Assistant, SIPCATS

Editorial remark
The number of questions about the future development of Turkey as a democratic state keeps growing after the failed military coup last month. The SIPCATS Research Assistant Patrick Hällzon reminds us of previous support for the Gülen movement across a broad section of Turkish political and professional elites, which has now been replaced by much confusion and doubts as to the sincerity behind the ongoing purges and declarations of an allegedly “national unity”.

Prospects for Democracy in Turkey

Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Turkey profiled itself in its relations with the newly independent Central Asian states as a role model: a modern Muslim country – Turkic-speaking like most of the Central Asians – with a secular system of government and market economy.

Diplomatic relations were established and interstate organizations such as the Turkic Summits, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency were formed, as reported by Igor Torbakov in one of the books under revision for the present SIPCATS discussion forum, Prospects for Democray in Central Asia.[1] Turkish TV started transmitting programs in Turkish and students from Central Asia were given special scholarships for university studies in Turkey for the sake of creating and strengthening cultural bonds between the countries.

In addition, a large number of schools were set up in all of the Central Asian states by individuals inspired by the so-called Hizmet movement, also known as the Gülen movement, which was active in non-Muslim countries as well, outside of Turkey and Central Asia. This movement worked hand in hand with local authorities and with strong economic support from networks in Turkey.

Barış köprüleri – Bridges of Peace
Keeping the current state-of-affairs in Turkey in mind it is hard to imagine that just a decade ago the establishment of Gülen-inspired schools was cherished by leading figures in Turkish society, not only members within the ruling AKP party but also influential persons from other walks of life and political backgrounds. By contrast, the Gülen movement was looked upon with great suspicion by a great majority of the Turkish army and the “secular elite”, who did not trust the movement’s intentions to educate the poor and to advocate secular strategies in terms of modern education.[2]

In the book Barış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları [Bridges of peace: Turkish schools opening across the world], which was published in the same year (2005) as the above-mentioned Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia,[3] influential people from the whole political spectrum in Turkey expressed their common support for the schools’ activities. While some supported the movement for religious reasons, others favored the Gülen movement’s educational enterprises as vehicles for spreading Turkish culture and language to the world. One supporter was, for example, the well-known politician Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006), leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and subsequently the Democratic Left Party (DSP). Although he was not in favor of the religious motivation behind the educational activities of the Gülen movement, he supported the idea of teaching Turkish at these institutions.[4]

Recent events in Turkey
As of today, it would be impossible to publish a book like Barış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları in Turkey, where Gülen supporters have now been pointed out as the masterminds behind the failed military coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Although the founder, Fethullah Gülen, has condemned the coup attempt, the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has demanded his extradition from the USA, where he has been residing since 1999. There have even been insinuations from Turkish government circles that the USA would be behind the coup attempt. However unlikely this may seem, there are many who support this idea.

After the declaration of a state of emergency in Turkey, more than one thousand schools, 15 universities, various businesses, media outlets, schools and medical establishments believed to have links with the movement have been shut down. Furthermore, tens of thousands of people associated with or merely suspected of having contacts with the movement have lost their jobs and several thousands have been detained. It is unclear how many of these people arrested were actually involved in the attempted coup. In the current turmoil it is extremely difficult to get a clear picture of what is “really” going on in Turkey.

The recent developments raise many questions about democracy and freedom of speech in Turkey. Even before the failed military coup last month, Turkey was already one of the countries with the highest number of journalists jailed in the world. The recent closure of universities and newspapers and the increasing number of imprisoned academics and other people critical of the government will be another great blow against political pluralism in this country.

The European Union is concerned but remains surprisingly modest in its reactions to Turkish policies, while at the same time President Erdoğan is signaling that he might change his mind as regards the agreement on the readmission of refugees to Turkey, if the EU fails to meet Turkey’s demands on visa-free travel to EU countries for Turkish citizens.

The political chessboard keeps changing. What is Erdoğan’s ultimate goal? He has been quoted saying that democracy is a like a tram; “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”[5] What does this signify for the future prospects for democracy in Turkey?

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[1] Torbakov 2005:120
[2] Yılmaz 2005:397
[3] See e.g. Şen 2005 in this volume.
[4] Ecevit 2005:17-26
[5] Cook 2013.


Balcı, B., 2003, “Fethullah Gülen’s Missionary Schools in Central Asia and their Role in the Spreading of Turkism and Islam”, in Religion, State & Society 31: 2, Carfax Publishing.

Cook, S., 2013, “Keep Calm, Erdoğan: Why the Prime Minister has Nothing to Fear”, in: Foreign Affairs, June 3, 2013, (retrieved 02/08/2016).

Ecevit, B., 2005, “Türk Okullarının Türk Dili ve Türkiye’ye Katkısı” [The Turkish schools’ contribution to the Turkish language and Turkey], in T. Ateş, E. Karakaş, & I. B. Ortaylı (eds), Barış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları [Bridges of peace: Turkish schools opening across the world], İstanbul: Ufuk Kitapları, pp. 17-26.

Kramer, H., 1996, Will Central Asia Become Turkey’s Sphere of Influence?, (05/04/2011).

Levinskaya, V., 2007, “Resemblance of Fethullah Gülen’s Ideas and Current Political Developments in Uzbekistan”, in İ. Yılmaz et al. (eds), Peaceful Coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s Initiatives in the Contemporary World, London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, pp. 331-344.

Şen, M., 2005, “Turkish Islamist Entrepreneurs in Central Asia”, in B. Schlyter (ed.), Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia, Transactions 15, Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, pp. 253-264.

Torbakov, I., 2005, “Turkey and Post-Soviet Eurasia: Seeking a Regional Power Status”, in B. Schlyter (ed.), Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia, Transactions 15, Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute, pp. 117-128. 

Yılmaz, İ., 2005, “State, Law, Civil Society and Islam in Contemporary Turkey”, in The Muslim World. Special issue. Islam in contemporary Turkey. 95: 3, Hartford & Connecticut, pp. 385-412.

A response to Bayram Balcı’s paper on the Gülen Movement in Central Asia and the Caucasus

H22 A comment for the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Patrick Hällzon, MA, Research Assistant, SIPCATS

For a comment on the contribution by Bayram Balcı to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum, “The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Central Asia after the Failed Military Coup in Turkey”, I would like to highlight one aspect that may be of importance when analyzing the future prospects for the hizmet-schools in Central Asia and elsewhere. This is finance. Even if the Central Asian governments might want to continue to support the schools, it is well known that the human and financial capital invested directly from Turkey has played an important role in the establishment of these schools.

In one of the books revisited for this discussion forum, “Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia (2005)”, there is a chapter on “Turkish Islamist Entrepreneurs in Central Asia”, where the author, Mustafa Şen, speaks of the important role that so-called ‘follower entrepreneurs’ have played in the establishment of Turkish businesses and schools in Central Asia.[1] The atmosphere of good will surrounding the opening of schools helped promote business opportunities for small scale Turkish entrepreneurs supportive of the movement. Thus an important question is what will happen to the schools when individuals in Turkey supporting the movement are increasingly monitored and prevented from donating money to these establishments.

Bayram Balcı writes in his contribution to the discussion forum that “there is an economical and practical reason for local countries to defend the schools set up by the Gülen movement”. However, it is not likely that the future of the schools only depends on ‘sovereign state policies’ in Central Asia vis-à-vis Ankara.

On the contrary, current developments in Turkey will most likely also affect the hizmet-schools in Central Asia, especially from the point of view of financial support. Firstly, teachers from Turkey will find it increasingly difficult to go and work there. Secondly, Turkish businesses linked to individuals within the movement will be prevented from continuing their activities in Turkey, and as a consequence of that they will no longer be able to provide economic resources for the schools.

[1] Şen, M. 2005. Turkish Islamist entrepreneurs in Central Asia. In: Schlyter, B. (ed.) Prospects for democracy in Central Asia. (Transactions 15.) Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. 253-264.

To The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Central Asia after the Failed Military Coup in Turkey
by Bayram Balcı

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The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Central Asia after the Failed Military Coup in Turkey

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Bayram Balcı, CERI Sciences Po, Paris

Editorial remark
In our ongoing SIPCATS Forum for discussions on sociocultural and political developments forming the so-called Central Eurasia Discourse, the failed attempt at a coup d’état in Turkey last July is of immediate concern. Its consequences for the Turkish society as well as its repercussions on the political status-quo in adjacent Central Eurasian regions and at a still broader international level are yet to be seen.

Bayram Balcı, CERI Sciences Po, Paris, a participant in our discussion forum in his capacity of author in one of the anthologies presently revisited by the SIPCATS Forum (”Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia”), has written an English summary of his own recent article “Quel avenir pour le mouvement de Gülen en Asie centrale et dans le Caucase depuis le coup d’état manqué”.

Comment by Patrick Hällzon
Comment by Fernando Rosa

The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Central Asia
after the Failed Military Coup in Turkey

There is a huge consensus in Turkey that the main actor behind the failed coup d’état in Turkey was Fethullah Gülen, or rather, the organization represented by him. More than anyone and long before what happened on the night of the coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has entertained a harsh campaign to eliminate this movement and to uproot it in Turkey. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s all-out war against the Gülen movement is not limited to Turkey. Well aware of the wide-ranging international network of this organization and its influence in other parts of the world, the Turkish president has exported this war abroad agitating against the Gülen movement since the first overt clash between the government and the Gülen movement in December 2013 and urging Turkish embassies to take measures against this movement. Two regions that will for sure be affected by this campaign are Central Asia and the Caucasus. In terms of political influence and geopolitical strategy, from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, this mainly Turkic sphere is of great significance to Turkey. It was also in Central Asia and the Caucasus that the Gülen movement started its transnational strategy and implementation after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is the sphere, more precisely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrghyzstan, where the Gülen movement has made its best achievements with at least 3 universities, more than 60 high schools, and dozens of business companies established in the aforementioned countries.  As can be expected, the Turkish government will increase its influence and pressure on local authorities, in order to eliminate the Gülen movement in these and other countries. However, this may not be a very easy task. It is not certain that Central Asian authorities will satisfy Erdoğan’s demands, for at least the following reasons :

1)      Sovereignty is the first obstacle to Erdoğan’s campaign. In Kyrghyzstan, for example, it has been indicated, with reference to the country’s sovereignty and independence, that good relations with Turkey does not necessarily mean that the Kyrghyz are willing to take part in what they have called “a Turkey Turkish war”.

2)      In addition to the principle of sovereignty, there is an economical and practical reason for local countries to defend the schools set up by the Gülen movement. The education provided in these schools is modern and secular, with all kinds of facilities and equipment, up-to-date laboratories, etc. These schools are also attractive to the elites, who send their kids to these schools, first and foremost because the education is in English and enhances the children’s chances to be accepted at prestige universities.

3)      Last but not least, shutting down these schools will create more problems than resolving them. These schools were established in Central Asia and the Caucasus just after the end of the Soviet Union, 25 years ago. This is a very long period during which new elites have been formed and now constitute an important part of society. For 25 years, these schools were legal and it may seem awkward to suddenly make them illegal, especially as long as there is nothing concrete to replace them with.

For such reasons, it is difficult to predict the end of the Gülen schools in Central Asia, where – and this is another reason for the local authorities to maintain them – the Gülen movement was never as much infiltrated in the state apparatus as it has been in Turkey. In Turkey the official government, and Erdoğan himself, as he confessed recently, contributed to the infiltration of the movement in Turkish state organs. In Central Asia, the local authorities have always been very clear about the mission of the Gülen schools restricting their activities to education only.

My full article in French on this topic can be retrieved from

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