The Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, winner of our intellectuals poll, is the modern face of the Sufi Ottoman tradition. At home with globalisation and PR, and fascinated by science, he also influences Turkish politics through links to the ruling AK partyby Ehsan Masood / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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Is it possible to be a true religious believer and at the same time enjoy good relations with people of other faiths or none? Moreover, can you remain open to new ideas and new ways of thinking?
Fethullah Gülen, a 67-year-old Turkish Sufi cleric, author and theoretician, has dedicated much of his life to resolving these questions. From his sick bed in exile just outside Philadelphia, he leads a global movement inspired by Sufi ideas. He promotes an open brand of Islamic thought and, like the Iran-born Islamic philosophers Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Abdolkarim Soroush, he is preoccupied with modern science (he publishes an English-language science magazine called the Fountain). But Gülen, unlike these western-trained Iranians, has spent most of his life within the religious and political institutions of Turkey, a Muslim country, albeit a secular one since the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s republic after the first world war.
Unusually for a pious intellectual, he and his movement are at home with technology, markets and multinational business, and especially with modern communications and public relations—which, like a modern televangelist, he uses to attract converts. Like a western celebrity, he carefully manages his public exposure—mostly by restricting interviews to those he can trust.
Many of his converts come from Turkey’s aspirational middle class. As religious freedom comes, falteringly, to Turkey, Gülen reassures his followers that they can combine the statist-nationalist beliefs of Atatürk’s republic with a traditional but flexible Islamic faith. He also reconnects the provincial middle class with the Ottoman traditions that had been caricatured as theocratic by Atatürk and his “Kemalist” heirs. Oliver Leaman, a leading scholar of Islamic philosophy, says that Gülen’s ideas are a product of Turkish history, especially the end of the Ottoman empire and the birth of the republic. He calls Gülen’s approach “Islam-lite.”