Helen Rose Ebaugh & Dogan Koc
Questions regarding the financing of numerous and expensive projects of the Gülen movement are periodically raised by both critics of the movement and newcomers to the movement who are invited to Gülen related events. Because of the large amounts of money involved in these projects, on occasion people have raised the possibility of collusion between the movement and various governments, especially Saudi Arabia and/or Iran, and including the Turkish government. There has even been suspicion that the American CIA may be a financial partner behind the projects. Aware of these criticisms, in a recent comment to a group of visiting followers, Fethullah Gülen indicated that a priority must be proactive financial transparency.
The question many times asked is “where does the water for this mill comes from,” a Turkish expression meaning what is the source of all the money behind the Gülen inspired projects. Gülen admitted that he has been asked this question many times by Turkish people who assume that there are self interests or hidden plans behind the movement’s projects. He says that there are many people who would not give you a cup of tea without guaranteeing that they will get two cups of tea from you in return. However, Gülen contrasts these people with those who are devoted to supporting the good works inspired by his teachings. Of them, he says, “Those are our people who give and give. You could say they are addicted to giving. If you tell them ‘not to give’, they will be sad and unhappy.” He goes on to tell the story of a retired man to whom he spoke before a fundraiser. The man could not give anything because he had very little. When Gülen was leaving the building, the man caught him on the stairs and handed him a set of keys and said, “These are the keys of my house. I don’t have anything to give other than that house, please take these keys.” Gülen gave back the keys and told him not to worry but to give when he had something to give. Gülen went on to praise the people of Anatolia as miraculous people who support projects that they see as worthwhile and that help to solve the problems of the world and the future of their nation. He commented that the leaders of Turkey have not been able to use this potential in their people.
Gülen himself has never had personal wealth to be able to sponsor projects. Gülen was so poor that for a number of years he lived in a corner of a local mosque with barely enough space to lie down. In addition to never having any personal wealth, he prayed for his relatives to remain poor so as not to raise any suspicions of gaining from his influence. He has appeared at many fund-raising dinners and visited wealthy individuals to try to convince them to support excellent and modern education. Apart from encouraging people to donate money, Gülen has remained distanced from all financial involvements and instead has encouraged those who sponsor projects to oversee the use of their contributions. This stance has built trust and confidence in Gülen’s honesty and integrity.
The success of Gülen projects relies on the numerous circles of businessmen in Turkish cities, towns and rural areas. Many of these businessmen are very successful; hence the Gülen movement is known as the richest religious community in Turkey. These circles typically consist of businessmen and professionals from the same line of business who meet together once a week to share ideas, discuss the works of Gülen and consider local projects that they might sponsor. As one businessman explained,
“Being in the same type of business means that we have a strong basis for coming together and understanding one another. We also network and refer customers among us. Then we have a basis for discussing projects that need doing in our community and how we can help with these projects. We also see the results of our efforts, which encourage us to be even more generous.”
In the city of Mardin, for example, a circle of local businessmen met over a three-year period (1988-1991) and came to realize that the state was unable to provide the necessary education for students not only in their city but also throughout southeastern Turkey to compete on university entrance exams. Most of the businessmen had been attending Gülen’s public sermons, in which he emphasized the importance of education and called for the building of modern schools. These businessmen were inspired by the success of the Gülen schools in Izmir, Istanbul and Gaziantep in distinguishing themselves from their counterparts by their research-based education and unprecedented success in international science competitions. During visits to these schools, the men witnessed that the people who donated to the schools included not only businessmen, but also workers, teachers, and civil servants.
Upon their return to Mardin, they reached out to more and more people with whom they shared the educational vision and whose help they solicited in sponsoring the schools. Some pledged money, some promised to seek individuals who would pledge to contribute money, others offered to procure construction materials and equipment as donations from their suppliers, and still others committed an amount of physical work in the construction effort. Currently in the Gülen-movement schools in Mardin, every teacher supports the monthly expenses of at least one secondary or high school student.
In a focused interview with a dozen businessmen involved in the small textile industry in Ankara we heard many stories about how the businessmen first became involved with Gülen inspired projects. For example, in 1985 an imam came to a local mosque and asked the businessmen there for help to open a school for children in the city. After he left, the men gathered together twice every week to discuss the matter. The group made a commitment to assist with the building of the school. Some gave money, others solicited pledges of financial support from other businessmen in the city and others provided goods and services such as concrete, desks, and even volunteer labor. Within a short time, Samanyolu College opened its doors to the first high school class. The group of businessmen continued to meet routinely, to monitor the needs in the school and to initiate additional projects that they supported.
In 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a massacre in Azerbaijan. People there needed help. The Gülen community in Ankara responded; 18 businessmen from different parts of Ankara went to Azerbaijan to deliver money and goods that they had gathered from Gülen-inspired people in Ankara. As one of the businessmen said in the interview,
“That was an important trip for me. I learned a lot from those people in our group. They were very different people, most of them were not educated like me, but they all affected me in their understanding of Gülen’s teachings and in their lifestyles. Since that trip I am very involved in the Gülen movement.”
Another businessman in the focus group told a story that typifies the way in which many people get involved in the movement. One day in 1988 he met a law student who was being financed by one of the businessmen that he knew in his living complex. He asked the businessmen to introduce him to some of these underprivileged law students who could not afford law school. Several days later, a group of law students showed up at his store. However, they did not ask for money but talked about country and world problems. A few weeks later they invited the man to their house where 10 law students gathered from all over Turkey, most of them from poor families. Still there was no talk of money. Some of the students again visited his store and met his son who was having difficulty in school. They offered to tutor the son whose grades improved dramatically with tutoring. There was still no talk of money. The man, after a year of knowing these students personally, initiated scholarships to help them complete law school. He continues since 1988 to provide such scholarships to needy law students.
The above story typifies actions of Gülen himself in the 1970s and 1980s when he lived on or near university campuses throughout Turkey. He served as a teacher for a time and spent many years supervising students in high school and university settings.
In Bursa we interviewed a gentleman in his 60s who, along with his brother, shared a house with Gülen while he was attending university in the 1960s. He recalled the many university students who would visit Gülen in his second story apartment for tutoring and encouragement. He commented that, in his opinion, this cadre of university students who gathered around Gülen was the beginnings of the Gülen movement in Turkey.
We asked the group of a dozen businessmen in Ankara whether each of them contributes financially to Gülen-inspired projects and, if so, approximately how much they give each year. Each of the 12 men said that they contribute as they can to the movement projects. Amounts of contributions varied from 10%-70% of their annual income, ranging from $20,000-$300,000 per year. One man, in particular, said he gives 40% of his income every year, which is about $100,000. This group of businessmen consisted of older men who have been together as a group for many years and have accomplished numerous Gülen-inspired projects in Ankara as well as in other countries. Currently, each of them has managers in their stores who carry on the daily business affairs. The business owners spend 2-3 hours in their stores every day and then come together almost every day to discuss issues related to the projects they are supporting. The group, therefore, provides a tight community of like-minded individuals working for common causes.
Another very successful businessman in Istanbul whom we interviewed provided insight into the sums of money being contributed by the supporters of the Gülen Movement to local projects. He is 48 years old and is in the textile business. He contributes 20% of his 4-5 million dollar yearly income to movement-related projects. 80% of his good friends are also members of the movement and contribute as they can to projects. He says he has established very sincere and fortunate friendships through participation in activities in the movement. He learned of the movement when a friend in 1986 invited him to a ‘sohbet’ where people come together and have discussions, both about Gülen’s writings and about local projects that need support. Asked what benefits a person gets from supporting Gülen inspired projects, he replied,
“I do not get any worldly benefit by supporting the Gülen Movement. If I receive anything in the hereafter, we will see that over there. I hope that I will be able to please God through these activities and the time that I spend with these beautiful people. Other than this, neither I nor other volunteers have any other expectations. After giving your heart to these charitable activities, God never leaves you in trouble. We give and he gives more back to us. He multiplies what we have in our hands. I don’t think my contributions are big and enough, however, in the sight of God, there is nothing small and valueless if you do that for Him and for humanity.”
The 48-year-old businessman in Istanbul had this to say,
“People in the Gülen movement turn their ideas into projects, they tell how they accomplished their success. People trust them, if they ask for help for a project, they do expect it from the Creator, not from creatures, and that’s why I believe they reach success. If anybody from the movement comes to my city and asks for help, I try my best to help them and I encourage my friends around me to do the same.”
He went on to say that such giving is done in a spirit of serving the Creator by serving his people and that often a result of such giving is that strong ties are developed among the givers.
Based on the scant literature that exists on the funding of Gülen-inspired projects and our own interviews conducted with members of the Gülen Movement both in Turkey, it is evident that the money behind the movement is provided by millions of people the world over who are committed to the ideas and ideals promoted by Gülen. The basic money-raising strategy in the movement consists in the establishment of local circles of businessmen, teachers, principals, professionals, and students who meet together regularly to discuss the works of Gülen and consider how his ideals can be applied in their local communities.
A major strength of the local circles is the constant discussions of these concepts based on teachings and works of Gülen. The circles, therefore, provide the spiritual motivation for giving and remain far more than simply money raising venues. Whether consciously or not, the structure that has evolved within the Gülen movement is rooted in sound organizational principles and is reflected in the growth of the movement worldwide.
The Gülen Movement sets an example in the Muslim World not only with its activities but also how it generates financial support for these activities.
Summarized from the paper “Funding Gülen-inspired good works: Demonstrating and generating commitment to the movement” by Helen Rose Ebaugh & Dogan Koc
This paper was presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London. Click here to visit the conference web page.
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