Over half a million people voted in our poll. But of the many voting campaigns mounted, only one had a decisive impactby Tom Nuttall / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
When Prospect and Foreign Policy drew up our list of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals a few weeks ago, none of us expected a Turkish Sufi cleric, barely known in the west, to sweep to victory. Nor did we expect every name in the top ten would be from a Muslim background. (Noam Chomsky, who won the last poll in 2005, led the west in 11th place this time.)
The early running this year was made by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, and Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster turned anti-Putin dissident. At one point Al Gore was on course to add the top intellectual gong to his Nobel peace prize and Oscar. But then, about a week into the process, Fethullah Gülen rocketed to the top of the list overnight—and stayed there. Something had clearly happened: votes were pouring in for Gülen 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 Fethullahçi—the collective noun for Gülen’s millions of worldwide followers—had hacked into the system and set about auto-voting for his hero. We would identify the culprit, discount his votes, normal business would be resumed and Chomsky would grind his way to another victory.
The truth turned out to be more interesting. On 1st May, 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 Gülen on the Prospect/FP list, and to the fact that we were inviting people to vote. Zaman is known to be close to the Gülen movement, and over the coming weeks the paper made regular reference to the cleric’s appearance on our list. The poll was also noted in other Turkish newspapers, as well as on every single Gülen website, official and unofficial, we were able to find.
The efficiency and discipline of the Fethullahçi is legendary—so in retrospect, for them, a poll like ours was simple to hijack. The temptation for Gülen’s followers to elevate their man to the top of a poll organised by two influential western magazines will have been a strong one. In one respect, then, Gülen’s crushing win tells us little about what the world thinks about its intellectuals; it merely exhibits the organisational ability of one movement’s followers. On the other…