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.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

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