When the enigmatic Turkish Islamist leader, M. Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the U.S., published, in the September 27 London Financial Times, an op-ed column with a clumsy turn from benevolent moderation to hard Islamist ambitions, he revealed his authentic character.
The topic was, probably predictably, the latest outburst of terrorism in Muslim countries, along with the pretext of indignation against a crude video made in the U.S. and which insulted Muhammad. The op-ed, entitled, "Violence is not in the tradition of the Prophet," emphasized, in the first seven (out of nine) paragraphs, that Muslims should not react to insults against Muhammad by destructive protests: "The violent response," he wrote, "was wrong… Muslims …must speak out [against] violence… The question we should ask ourselves as Muslims is whether we have introduced Islam and its Prophet properly to the world. Have we followed his example in such a way as to instill admiration?... [A Muslim] should respect the sacred values of Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others as he expects his own religion and values to be respected." So far, so good.
The true outlook of Fethullah Gulen, however, was revealed in his last two paragraphs: "Hate speech designed to incite violence is an abuse of the freedom of expression... [W]e should appeal to the relevant international institutions, such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] or the UN, to intervene, expose and condemn instances of hate speech. We can do whatever it takes within the law to prevent any disrespect to all revered religious figure, not only to the Prophet Muhammad. The attacks on the Prophet we have repeatedly experienced are to be condemned, but the correct response is not violence. Instead, we must pursue a relentless campaign to promote respect for the sacred values of all religions," Gulen proclaimed.
Gulen proposes, in so many words, adoption of international laws against blasphemy as an alternative to homicidal outbursts. And what would a "relentless campaign" involve other than disrespect for free speech? Presenting terrorist mobs and blasphemy codes as the principal alternatives for redress of offended Muslims' grievances is hardly reasonable, and conflicts with the reputation Gulen has sought to construct for himself and his followers as dedicated adherents to interfaith dialogue and tolerance of religious differences.
Gulen leads a massive, worldwide religious, journalistic, and educational network, known as Hizmet (Service). His movement is associated with the Istanbul daily newspaper Zaman (Time), which claims to be Turkey's largest in circulation. Zaman produces an English online edition, Today's Zaman, as well as media aimed at the overseas Turkish communities in Germany and Australia. Zaman also appears in locally-edited versions in countries, from the Balkans to Kyrgyzia, which possess either Turkish minorities, or are viewed as part of a pan-Turkish cultural sphere. Zaman has no problem with restrictive press rules under notorious dictatorships, such as, for example, that of the former Soviet Muslim republic of Turkmenistan, under the eccentric, coercive, and energy-rich regime established by its post-Communist autocrat, Suparmarat Niyazov (1940-2006). Zaman Turkmenistan, following the prevailing rules, has refrained from reporting news unfavorable to Niyazov's regime and its successors.
Gulen is doubtless best known outside Turkey for a system of science-oriented primary, secondary, and higher education institutions across the globe, including many operated as "charter schools," with local public financing, in the U.S. The Gulen school system in America – 120 establishments in 2012, according to The New York Times – has been questioned for its odd characteristics. These include recruiting American students of non-Turkish descent to learn Turkish – hardly a likely first choice for American learners of a second language – and participating in competitions for the mastery of Turkish culture. Turkish-Americans, however, according to the reliable estimates, account for fewer than 150,000 people out of the total population, thereby depriving the Gulen program of an argument for multicultural representation in public school curricula of a significant minority culture.
Further, in the last two years, mainstream media have reported U.S. federal and state investigations of the Gulen charter school system. These have focused on charges of diversion of local government money to Gulen-controlled businesses and abuse of "H1B" work visas for teachers brought from Turkey and Central Asia who have substandard qualifications, while American teachers with superior credentials suffer unemployment. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that three Gulen schools in the American state of Georgia (he has many more schools in the former Soviet republic of Georgia) had defaulted on bonds, and that an audit had disclosed improper contracting for services with Gulen enterprises.
The Gulen movement's American branches additionally offer speaking platforms and tours of Turkey to influential Americans, with considerable success. Gulen, who began his professional life as an imam, has enjoyed the support of America's premier academic apologist for radical Islam, Professor John Louis Esposito of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, as well as other prominent figures. Through them, he has projected himself as a preacher of moderate, spiritual Islam related to the Sufi tradition and particularly to that of Said Nursi (1878-1960), who advocated a fusion of science and faith. Gulen has been especially identified by his defenders with mutual respect between religions and as an advocate for secular education, an opponent of terrorism, and, in effect, a lover of all humanity.
Inside Turkey, Gulen and his movement have a different image. They inspire considerable fear. Gulen's followers have been accused of an elaborate strategy of infiltration of state institutions, including the army, police, and judiciary. Ahmet Sik, a Turkish journalist who wrote an expose of the movement, The Imam's Army, was charged with participation in a nebulous "conspiracy" called "Ergenekon," organized ostensibly by a "deep state" within the Turkish institutions. Sik was released in March 2012 after more than a year in prison. The Imam's Army is banned in Turkey and has yet to be printed as a book there, although it, and excerpts translated into English, have been posted on the internet.
On his release from Silivri prison near Istanbul, the valiant Sik declared "The police, prosecutors and judges who plotted and executed this conspiracy will enter this prison. Justice will prevail when they enter here. The culprits of this affair are [certain] figures in the bureaucracy and the police connected to the [Gulen] community, and the true culprit is the government of the AKP (Justice and Development Party)." The latter is headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, discreetly allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, and described typically as "neo-fundamentalist." This led to a new indictment of Sik, although a hearing on it, scheduled for September 12, was postponed to December 4.
The ingenious imam may convince readers in Europe, where laws against hate speech are in force in some countries, that such sanctions are the sole alternative to brutal Islamist outbursts. Finally, the proposition has the flavor of ideological blackmail. But the imam and his army should follow their own advice: respond to insults against Muhammad or other non-violent attacks on Islam by presenting a better example of Islam, rather than by attempting prior restraint on free expression. As my colleagues and I in the Center for Islamic Pluralism have repeatedly stated: If we are firm in our religion, no insults or other negative commentaries, if not inciting violence, can harm us. Gulen has managed a two-faced campaign of outward moderation, while concealing his goal of political power, with great success. But the rest of the world is not Turkey; and Gulen, along with the OIC – headed by a Turkish academic, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and lately committed to reviving such a scheme – cannot impose legal regulation of debate about religion on the entire planet.