Turkish cleric offers food for thought
By Fazile Zahir
FETHIYE, Turkey - It has been a good week for Fethullah Gulen. According to a poll in the British-based Prospect magazine he is the world's number one intellectual thinker.
The monthly magazine specializes in politics and current affairs and first received worldwide attention in October 2005, when it published its list of the world' s top 100 public intellectuals. The inaugural list was won by American linguist, philosopher, political activist, author and lecturer, Noam Chomsky. The magazine ran the same competition this year and is receiving plenty of publicity because the top 10 sages were all Muslim, and Gulen the champion among them.
Gulen is a Turkish cleric, and after serving as a state imam for 20
years, he finally broke away from state-sponsored Islam to found his own movement. Strongly inspired by Sufi thinking, he places Islam at the heart of every person rather than at the heart of the state or government, and is inspired by divine love.
Popular with middle-class Turkish intelligensia, he is admired for his peaceful pronouncements on the Islamic religion and has won world-wide support for his message of tolerance, mutual understanding and respect. For example, on the contentious subject of jihad (so often interpreted as the holy war on infidels by Muslims) Gulen's interpretation is typical of his emphasis on the personal rather than the political, the gentle way rather than the militant.
For him jihad is the individual's struggle against Satan. "Jihad is purification and seeking perfection to please God; cleansing the mind, by means of Koranic verses, from false preconceptions, thoughts and superstitions; expelling impurities from the heart through prayer; asking for forgiveness; austerity [riyada]; and studying the Book, wisdom and other knowledge with a purified heart and mind." This is how Gulen described it in an interview with Italian Journalist Michele Zanzucchi.
Despite his popularity with some groups, others are highly suspicious. They see Gulen as a deceiver preaching "Islam lite" as a front for other overreaching purposes. They claim the thousands of private schools he has established throughout Turkey, Central Asia and as far away as Kenya and Cambodia, are hot houses for a new generation of Gulenci thinkers whose aim is to infiltrate every part of their national society in preparation for the anticipated Islamic revolution.
Gulen is no stranger to such criticism. On Tuesday, following a protracted legal battle, the scholar was cleared by Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals of all charges stemming from an accusation in 2000 that he established "an illegal organization in order to change the secular structure of the state and found a state based on religious rules."
Gulen's schools are the best in Turkey, academically outperforming all other sectors of public and private secondary education. Many non-Gulenci parents vie to get their children enrolled as students in much the same way that lapsed Christians in Britain find a sudden interest in Catholicism when it comes to getting their children places at the best religious schools.
Not satisfied with the stealth factor involved in long-term education programs, his opponents highlight the fact that the movement controls charities, real estate and companies worth several billion dollars, as if this in itself were threatening.
The Gulen movement has its own universities, business unions, lobbies, student groups, radio and television stations and the Zaman newspaper group. Turkish officials concede that Gulen's followers in Turkey number more than a million and Gulen's backers claim that number is just the tip of the iceberg.
Certainly under the stewardship of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of Gulen's most prominent sympathizers, tens of thousands of other Gulen supporters are believed to have entered the Turkish bureaucracy. On the other hand, perhaps these men and women are the most capable and best-trained administrators the country has. After all, they are by and large the products of the best schools in Turkey.
Despite the internal debate about the relative merits of Gulen and his philosophy, how did he come to be voted the world's greatest public intellectual?
Tom Nuttall of Prospect Magazine explains, "The early running this year was made by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, and Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster turned anti-[Vladimir] Putin dissident. But then, about a week into the process, Fethullah Gulen rocketed to the top of the list overnight - and stayed there. Something had clearly happened: votes were pouring in for Gulen at a staggering rate, and continued to do so for the duration of the poll.
"Initially we were convinced that a tech-savvy member of the Fethullah's ... had hacked into the system and set about auto-voting for his hero. The truth turned out to be more interesting. On May 1, Zaman - the highest-selling newspaper in Turkey, with a circulation of over 700,000 and a string of international editions - ran a story on its front page alerting its readership to the appearance of Gulen on the Prospect list, and to the fact that we were inviting people to vote. The poll was also noted in other Turkish newspapers, as well as on every single Gulen website, official and unofficial, we were able to find."
The results are interesting not just because the poll was hijacked but because it displayed the phenomenal networking of Gulen's supporters and the devotion of the Turks to becoming number one (there was a similar event when Time magazine nominated Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as their man of the century which he subsequently won).
A Bulgarian newspaper ran a similar campaign for their man, political scientist Ivan Krastev, but the public was not roused. Similar campaigns in Indonesia, Canada, India and Spain also had little impact. At a time in history when Islam is misunderstood and vilified, it cannot do any harm to have one of its positive proponents in the headlines. If every Prospect reader takes the time to study Gulen's philosophy, the world might be a more enlightened place.
Fazile Zahir is of Turkish descent, born and brought up in London. She moved to live in Turkey in 2005 and has been writing full time since then.