Translated by: Translators for Justice
Source: Der Spiegel 32 / 2012
by Maximilian Popp
Millions of Muslims worldwide worship him: the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen stages himself as the Gandhi of Islam. His community keeps finding new supporters; even in Germany.The audience goes wild even though the girl is singing off-key. She is singing a Turkish song with a German-sounding accentuation. The hall is decorated with air balloons, swags in black, red and gold, crescent moons in red and white, the audience is waving German and Turkish bannerets.
The educational association Academy has invited to the preliminary of the “Cultural Olympiad” taking place in the Audimax (lecture hall) of the Technical University in Berlin. Thousands of people have come to watch the talent contest. As the choir of the German-Turkish Tübesb-School comes on stage to sing “Mein kleiner gründer Kaktus” the audience starts to cheer. And when a female student comes up to recite a poem the audience is listening devoutly. On the silver screen behind her pictures start to appear; pictures of women holding children in their arms. The poem is called “Anne”, which is the Turkish expression for “mother”. The name of the author fades in for just a moment: Fethullah Gülen.
Gülen is not just any poet. Everyone here knows him. Gülen was born in Turkey in 1941 and millions of Muslims worldwide worship him. He is one of the most influential preachers of Islam. His supporters have founded schools in 140 countries as well as a bank, media-houses, clinics, an insurance company, and a university.
The association of education that arranged the contest in the Berlin University also refers to Gülen. And this is why many of the participants attend Gülen-schools; companies that sympathize with Gülen sponsor the Cultural Olympiad and Gülen-close media covers it.
Germans and Turks that learn from each other, play music together, dance and clap – these are the pictures of this evening. They are supposed to announce the peaceful coexistence of religion. “We are the first movement in the history of mankind that solely stands for benefaction”, says Mustafa Yeşil, a Gülen-confidant from Istanbul.
People that have broken with Fethullah Gülen and know the inner life of this community tell a different story. They are talking of an ultraconservative secret society, a sect like Scientology. They are talking about a world that has nothing to do with the complacent pictures of the Cultural Olympiad.
According to them, the community (“Cemaat” in Turkish) trains its elite squat all over the world in so called “Lighthouses”, a mixture of flat-share and Qur’an School. Gülen would be their guru, an ideologue who doesn’t tolerate the slightest contradiction. His ambition would be power and influence, not understanding and tolerance. They say he’d dream of ushering in a new era, in which Islam rules over the West.
Experts come to similar assumptions. Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch sociologist, sees parallels between the Gülen-community and the catholic secret society “Opus Dei”. Michael Rubin, the American historian and Middle East-adept, compares the Turkish preacher with the Iranian revolutionary leader Ajatollah Chomeini. It is apparent from the embassy cables from the WikiLeaks 2010 that US-Diplomats believe the Gülen-community to be the most powerful Islamist grouping in Turkey: ”They control trade and industry and have deeply infiltrated the political scene.”
The fewest dropouts speak about their time within the movement. Those who do, insist not to be mentioned by name. They are scared of Gülen and his people; they fear for their jobs, their health and their family.
One of these dropouts – he has chosen the name Serkan Öz for the interview with the SPIEGEL – used to live in one of these lighthouses for years in a German city. He moved in right after his A-levels. He had read Gülens sermons on the Internet and they inspired him as he believed them to reconcile the Islamic religiousness and western modernity.
Furnishing and everyday life within the lighthouse rather equaled the penuriousness and rigor of a monastery than the easiness of a shared student house, says Öz. There were only men living in the house, no lady visitors and also no alcohol. A headman, who was called “Agabey” (big brother) by everyone, determined the daily routine – when it was time to work, to pray, to sleep. “We were guarded like in jail”, the dropout remembers. Öz used to read the Koran and studied Gülen’s scriptures on a daily basis.
The lighthouses are the fundament of the movement. Young “Fethullahçi“ are being trained to be faithful servants. There are lighthouses in many different countries: in Turkey, in the US, and two dozen in Berlin alone. The Cemaat offers a home for students, often free of charge, and expect in return that they consecrate their lives to “Hizmet” (service) and to the service of the Islam.
In his book “Fasildan fasila” Fethullah Gülen says that a student has to “be busy day and night” and may not be seen by anyone when sleeping: “If possible he sleeps three hours a day, gets two hours for other needs and has to spend the remaining time on Hizmet. Except for a few special situations he basically has no personal life.”
Lighthouse residents must also proselytize. In his scriptures Gülen offers advice for it: the students must make friends with nonbelievers, if need be pretend. “With the patience of a spider we place our net until people entangle within.”
The more Serkan Öz adapted his everyday life to Gülens rules, the “Hizmet düsturlari”, the less freedom he had left. The Cemaat wanted to predefine what job he had to pick. He hardly had any friends left outside of the movement.
Other dropouts reported about how they were pushed to marry only within the Gülen community. In some of the lighthouses it is forbidden to watch TV and listen to the kind of music (or even read the kind of books) that contradict Gülens Ideology – e.g. the works of Charles Darwin and Jean-Paul Sartre. Some of the residents were forced to break tie with their parents, as they fought against losing their children to the Cemaat.
Serkan Öz decided to leave the lighthouse. He now was a turncoat and the gates that had opened for his career where closing again. Öz was being isolated, he lost his friends and acquaintances, his religious home and as he sees it today, his spot in the world.
For the past few years the Germans have concentrated much time and effort on getting to know the Islam. There are Islam conferences and research projects on integration. The German public, however, barely knows anything about Gülen and his movement although hardly anyone has as much influence on Muslims as the Gülen-community has in this country. “It is the most important and most dangerous Islamist movement in Germany – they are everywhere”, says Ursula-Stegemenn, a scholar in Islamic Studies from Marburg.
Cemaat-supporters run more than one hundred educational institutions: schools and tutoring-centers. They have founded roughly 15 “Dialogue clubs”, the forum for Intercultural Dialogue Berlin (FID) for example. These associations organize trips to Turkey and conferences on which rabbis, pastors and imams can meet.
Gülen-supporters publish the “Zaman”, the most circulating paper in Turkey with a separate European edition and offshoots all over the world, as well as the monthly journal “Die Fontäne”. They operate the TV station “Ebru TV” and “Samanyolu TV”. The entrepreneur association Barex containing 150 companies from Berlin and Brandenburg is said to also belong to the network.
Rita Süssmuth (CDU – Christian Democratic Union), the former President of the German Federal Parliament, is a member of the advisory board of the Gülen-association FID in Berlin. Other politicians like Jörg-Uwe Hahn, the Hessian minister of justice (FDP – Liberal Democratic Party), Ruprecht Polenz, a christian democrat and the standing Berlin senator of the interior Ehrhart Körting (SPD – Social Democratic Party) accepted invitations for events organized by the Gülen-community.
One of the greatest achievements of Cemaat is the Tüdesb-Highschool in Berlin-Spandau. This school has a good reputation: small classes, motivated teachers, modernly equipped – school places are fought for by several applicants at once. The students, most of them with a Turkish background, speak Turkish and German. The tuition follows the Berlin curriculum, some of the teachers have never heard of Fethullah Gülen. Others however are asked to share a part of their salaries with the movement. For a long time the school had indicated not to have any connections to Gülen. In the meantime however the chairman of the Tüdesb support association openly avows the schools connection to Gülen.
The Gülen-movement has two faces: one that is turned towards the world and another that hides from the world. The finances in particular are nontransparent. Rich entrepreneurs donate millions, but also officials and craftsmen take part in financing Gülen projects. The “Fethullahçis“ among the community offer an average of ten percent of their income; some even up to 70 percent.
Fethullah Gülen himself likes to present himself as a humble preacher. He wants to appear like a Muslim Gandhi. His mantra is: ”Build schools instead of mosques.”
Before he moved to the USA himself, the West served Gülen as a concept of an enemy. In his book “Çag ve Nesil“ from 1979 he wrote that until judgment day, one will not see any kind of human behavior from “westlers”. Turks who open themselves to Europe denounce Gülen as “sponger”, “parasite”, and “bloodcancer”. In November 2011 Gülen prompted the Turkish military via video message to attack Kurdish separatists: “Locate them, surround them, burst their units, let fire rain on their houses, cover their cry of pain with even more wailing, crop their roots, and put an end to their case.”
Gülen also denies the theory of evolution; Claims it is “nonscientific”, an “illusion”. For him, scientific facts are only then true, when they agree with the Koran.
Gülen grew up in Anatolia as the son of a village imam. He was educated in a mosque in Erzurum, a city in the East of Turkey along with Cemaleddin Kaplan, the later “Caliph of Cologne”. At the same time he came across the doctrines of Said Nursis, a Kurdish Sufi-preacher, and joined his community.
When Ankara conjured the Turkish-Islamic synthesis in the battle against communism in the 1980s, Gülen seized the opportunity. He founded schools in Turkey and abroad and advised Tansu Çiller, a strictly secular prime minister.
In a sermon back then, he prompted his students to found a new Muslim era. He urged his supporters to infiltrate the Turkish state and to behave conspiratorially until it was time to take over power: “You have to penetrate the arteries of the system without being noticed. You have to wait until the right moment comes up before you can seize the entire power of the state. If you act too hastily, the world will smash in our heads and Muslims will suffer everywhere. It would be like breaking an egg without waiting the 40 days for the chick to hatch.”
When a recording of the speech leaked to the public in 1999, Gülen had to flee from Turkey. He claimed that his words were manipulated. Gülen lives in exile in the US ever since.
His movement does not have an address, a mailbox, a register, nor does it have a central account. Gülen-supporters do not demonstrate for Shari’ah and Jihad – the Cemaat operates in secret. Fethullah Gülen, the godfather, dictates the direction and orientation. Some members of the power’s inner circle have been serving Gülen for decades. They supervise the most important companies of the movement: publishers and foundations. In the Cemaat, “brothers” are in charge of every region worldwide, like Central Asia and Europe. Beyond national and local “brothers” the hierarchy goes on to every single district.
Gülens influence in Turkey grew when Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-conservative AK-Party won the Turkish parliamentary election in 2002. Observers believe that at first the two groups entered a strategic alliance. Gülen obtained votes for the AKP, while Erdogan protected the Cemaat. According to information by US-diplomats, almost one fifth of the AKP-representatives belonged to the Gülen-community in 2004: the ministers of justice and culture among them.
Many civil officers would act on orders of the “Gülen-brothers”, reports a high-ranking dropout. “They were our students. We trained and supported them. When these appreciative children take office, they still keep serving Gülen.” In 2006, the former police chief Adil Serdar Saçan estimated that the Fethullahçis would put more than 80 percent of the Turkish police in higher positions. “It is impossible to prove that members of the Gülen movement control the police”, says James Jeffrey, the US-ambassador in Ankara in 2009, “but we haven’t met anyone who denies it either.”
The face of the Gülen-community in Germany is called Ercan Karakoyun. The 31-year-old is in charge of the Berlin dialogue association FID, whose honorary chairmen is Gülen. Karakoyun, the son of Turkish immigrants, welcomes his guests in an office at the Potsdamer Platz. An office with plain, functional furniture, light blue carpeting, a shelf filled with Fethulla Gülens spriptures, “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl”, “The Bible in Fair Language”, a book by the protestant theologian Frank Zahrnt. The books seem to be well proportionally chosen: a little bit of everything but nothing controversial. They are supposed to tell the visitor: Look, we are the good Muslims. We grieve for the deaths of the Shoa, we are on the same level as the theological discussion in Christianity, we are democrats.
Karakoyun was a teenager when he found the movement via a “brother” who addressed him in front of a mosque in North Rhine-Westphalia. He then started to read Gülen’s books. He accompanied the “brother” to Turkey and got involved with the Cemaat. He recruited supporters at the university and at highschool. He climbed the hierarchy until he became a “brother” himself. In a fine German Karakoyun speaks of receiving letters, mails and phone calls (on every “event” they organize) from the “usual people” who regard him and his Gülen “brothers” as a sect an who want to damage the community. To him this is just a “conspiracy theory”.
The world of the Gülen-supporters in Berlin consists of two groups: the “critics” and the “sympathizers”. Islam-haters, Turkish ultra-nationalists and terrorists of the Kurdish PKK come to Karakoyun’s mind when it comes to examples for critics. To him, supporters are all of those people who are interested in “dialogue, tolerance and a peaceful coexistence to the benefit of all”.
That sounds inoffensive, very tolerant and peaceful. But in Turkey, Ilhan Cihaner experienced what can happen to critics: “Whoever messes with Gülen, will be eliminated”, says the former senior prosecutor. Among secular Turks, Cihaner is considered a hero ever since he investigated the Gülen-community in 2007. Cihaner said that he had received hints of illegal financial transactions within the Cemmat. However, due to pressure from the government, he was removed from the investigational process. He was arrested in 2010.
Cihaner was accused of being a member of an ultra-nationalistic conspiratiorial group, the “Ergenekon”-alliance, which was assumed to have planned to overthrow the government. Even political opponents of Cihaner believe these accusations to be absurd. In the past, the former prosecutor had particularly excelled at being a determined fighter against mafia-like networks. And suddenly he was supposed to have planned to place weapons in residential accommodations for Gülen-supporters in order to discredit the movement on behalf of “Ergenekons”. They based their lawsuit on the testimonies of anonymous witnesses. Due to lack of evidence, Cihaner was released from prison. Today he is a member of the opposition in the Turkish parliament.
Ahmet Şık, a journalist from Istanbul, had a similar experience to Cihaner. Right before his book about the Gülen-movement, “Imamim Ordusu” (the Imam’s army), was supposed to be published, the author was arrested in March 2011. The publishing house, the one he worked for, was being stormed by security forces and the book-manuscript, in which Şık described how the Gülen-movement had infiltrated the police and judiciary in Turkey, was confiscated.
The accusation: The investigative reporter is supposed to be a member of “Ergenekon”. In 2007 as part of the weekly magazine “Nokta” however, Şık of all people had together with his colleagues unveiled the secret plans of an “Ergenekon”- admiral to overthrow the government. And it was them who have always provoked the secret association for that matter. A few months ago, Şık was released from prison after international protests.
In September 2010, Hanefi Avci, a former Turkish police chief, was arrested and accused of having taken part in the “Ergenekon”- conspiracy. In a book he had blamed the Gülen-cadre within the police of illegally bugging phone calls of their opponents and manipulating court hearings, shortly before his arrest.
It is unverifiable if Gülen is behind all these arrests. He leads a solitary life in the mountains of Pennsylvania and pretends not to be concerned about it. He refused an interview with SPIEGEL.
Others speak in his favor. Mahmut Çebi, the former chief editor of the Gülen-close daily paper “Zaman” has his office in a building that belongs to the World Media Group in Offenbach. The journalist has organized the Europe-“Zaman” and has worked for the publisher as an author since April. In Germany, almost 30.000 subscribers obtain the European edition.
Çebi and the “Zaman” explain to the readers what the world looks like from the Cemaat point of view. The paper publishes Gülens scriptures and extracts from his sermons and poems. Critics blame the “Zaman” for spreading targeted hoaxes in order to harm Gülen-opponents. When a few weeks ago, politicians of the Party “Die Linke” (“The Left”) criticized Gülens statements about Kurds, “Zaman” accused the “Linke” of supporting the forbidden Kurdish labor party PKK. “The movement is bogged down by dirty intrigues”, says Dani Rodrik, professor for economic policy in Harvard. He said that “Zaman” supports this “mafia” with “lies, falsifications, and manipulation”. “There is no disinformation they would omit in order to campaign on their behalf”, says Rodrik.
Mahmut Çebi contradicts all accusations. His paper was geared to Gülens Ideals, wouldn’t receive any orders through him though. He says Gülen is no leader of a sect. “He is a philosopher like Habermas.”
The pillars of the Gülen-empire
Corporations and facilities that can be associated with the movement
– Schools: in more than 140 countries worldwide
– Further educational facilities: Tutoring centers and others, a few dozens in Germany alone.
– Fatih-University Istanbul
– Newspaper: “Zaman”, most circulating Turkish gazette, offshoot in Europe
– TV-stations: Samanyolu TV and Ebru TV
– Internet portal: “German-Turkish News”
– Bank: Asya, Istanbul
– Insurance company: Işık Sigorta
– Association: Barex e.V., 150 corporations in Berlin and Brandenburg
– “Lighthouses”: flat-share, two dozen in Berlin
– Aid organization: Kimse Yok Mu
– Dialogue association: a few hundred worldwide, 15 of them in Germany