Is Fethullah Gülen an Islamist?

Fethullah Gülen refutes in his speeches and writings Islamist claims for an Islamic political platform: “Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Instead, Islam established fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, leaving it to the people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances.”

Fethullah Gülen’s rejection of Islamism is not due to merely strategic considerations or even personal preference. Rather, it is based on the argument that the Islamist claims to have found political guidance in Scripture represent a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the Qur’an that dangerously distorts the believer’s approach to it. Gülen says, “Such a book should not be reduced to the level of political discourse, nor should it be considered a book about political theories or forms of state. To consider the Qur’an as an instrument of political discourse is a great disrespect for the Holy Book and is an obstacle that prevents people from benefiting from this deep source of divine grace.”[1]

Moreover, Fethullah Gülen rejects the totalizing ideological character of Islamist political thought and activism as totally foreign to the spirit of Islam. Islam advocates the rule of law and explicitly condemns oppression against any segment of society. Gülen holds that democracy and Islam are fully compatible and that Islam prescribes no particular form of governance, certainly not arbitrary rule, and that the central Qur’anic message is that Muslims must take responsibility for their own society. He teaches that Islam promotes activism for the betterment of society in accordance with the view of the majority. This activism complements democracy rather than opposing it: “This understanding of Islam may play an important role in the Muslim world through enriching local forms of democracy and extending it in a way that helps humans develop an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds. I believe that Islam also would enrich democracy in answering the deep needs of humans, such as spiritual satisfaction, which cannot be fulfilled except through the remembrance of the Eternal One.”[2]

In addition, Fethullah Gülen is critical of the instrumentalization of religion in politics, and has no direct participation in party politics because the modern world exists in a pluralistic experience rather than within an assumed homogeneity of truth. He is against those who have created a negative image of Islam by reducing Islam to an ideology. Through words and deeds he underlines the distinction between Islam, a religion, and Islamism, a profoundly radical political ideology that seeks to replace existing states and political structures, either through revolutionary or evolutionary means. He opposes the use of Islam as a political ideology and a party philosophy, and the polarizing of society into believers and nonbelievers. He calls for those who believe and think differently to respect and tolerate each other, and supports peace and reconciliation.

Modern Turkey is unique in the Islamic world in its aggressive, totalizing approach to secularism and secularization. Like many in Turkey, the Gülen Movement is deeply critical of the positivistic character, undemocratic impositions and non-egalitarian application and practices of Turkish militant secularism. But it is a major misreading to conclude that it is opposed to secularity and democracy. In fact, the Gülen Movement is precisely the sort of movement that offers Turkey’s best hope of reconciling Islam, modernization, and secular, liberal democracy.

The collective mobilization of the Gülen Movement continues to this day because the actor has succeeded in realizing – and through the course of action continues to realize – a measured integration or harmonization between many contrasting requirements. As long as secularism is understood and practiced in the best way, or at least as it is in the most industrialized democracies of the world, the majority of the Turkish population, including the Gülen Movement participants and supporters, will continue to support it.

Fethullah Gülen is non-political. He does not want to politicize Islamic values and is seen as a reformist thinker rather than a revolutionary. He seeks to address the spiritual needs of the people, to educate the masses, and to provide some stability in times of turmoil. It is wrong to accuse him of being Islamist or of seeking political power.

[1] An Interview with Gülen by Zeki Toprak & Ali Ünal. In The Muslim World Special Issue, 95(3), 447–67, 2005: 456.

[2] Ibid., 452.

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