The original interview was published in German on Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a famous daily newspaper in Germany.
The Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen has been living in the United States for 13 years now. An extensive network of supporters has developed there, serving in projects under his name.
There is no sign on the road to indicate the exit and the dirt track which leads you through a foggy broadleaf forest, coloured in all the shades of autumn, to an estate with eight houses. Thirteen years ago, the most influential preacher of Turkish Islam Fethullah Gülen retreated to this secluded place. Back then, the still powerful military had driven him out of Turkey. Stricken with illnesses, he decided to undergo surgery in American hospitals. Since then, he has rarely left the estate despite being issued a visa and a residence permit by the United States.
The voice of the 74-year-old Gülen sounds more powerful than ever, even from afar. It was his voice which has transformed the Muslims of Anatolia into a dynamic middle-class during the past decades. Gülen is the voice of these “black Turks”. Many movements have challenged Kemalism, the ideology of the “white Turks”. The urban, educated and secular upper-class of Istanbul – and later also of Ankara – have for decades ruled over Turkey. They looked down with contempt upon the uneducated, rural, poor and religious people of Anatolia. Inspired by Gülen’s teachings, many of these Turks sought education and became wealthy, yet remained religiously devout. As Gülen effectively challenged the Kemalist elite, he was declared as an enemy of the state. If Gülen was to return to Turkey, it would open old wounds. This is why Gülen, who shies away from conflicts, has decided to stay in Saylorsburg.
The 5-and-a-half hectare estate does partially resemble Gülen’s native region of Turkey. He was born in 1938 in Erzurum, in the remote eastern part of Anatolia. Saylorsburg is a place dominated by nature, where deer roam the forest and from time to time brown bears are seen. Soon, the snow will pile up, just as it will in Erzurum. When Turkish entrepreneurs bought the estate for $175,000 in 1993, under the name “Golden Generation foundation”, only a few log cabins were there. The foundation built eight stone houses, created the park, and invited Gülen to settle down here in 1999.
Down at the lake, the visitors’ children are playing football. At noon, everyone gathers in the clearing at the köşk – a type of garden pavilion in which Ottomans used to dine while in the countryside. Traditional Turkish cuisine is on the menu: lentil soup, vegetables pickled in olive oil, köfte meat balls with rice, tea in small curved glasses. Gülen cannot walk even this distance these days. After several bypass operations, his knees trouble him now. He leaves the estate only for medical exams and treatment at the hospital nearby. Gülen takes a life away from people, but his message is reaching millions.
A lift goes up to the first floor of the house which resembles a simply yet elegantly decorated Ottoman house which does not need more than a minimum of furniture. This is the floor on which Hocaefendi -- as he is reverently called by his followers -- lives and works. At his side always is his personal doctor, as well as a few other people in whom he trusts and confides. He very rarely gives interviews. This morning, a normal one, he taught a dozen young theologians who are his personal students. Twice a week, his sermons are recorded and uploaded onto the internet (www.herkul.org), from which TV stations will rebroadcast.
Our interview has been scheduled to take place after the Islamic midday prayer. That is when Gülen receives guests. He specifically asks them about what is going on in the world outside and always has follow-up questions. After this he will read again, write and pray. He is said to get by on very little sleep. Every day is minutely structured. He instructs his followers to use their time well and practises as he preaches, without rushing. His followers say that he combines humility with charisma. On the wall behind him, a clock ticks softly. It is never switched to daylight savings hours. “The [real] time is always the same,” says Gülen.
Beautiful calligraphic writing decorates the walls, complementing Gülen’s words. He does not speak a sober modern Turkish. The Ottomans would have understood him perfectly. It is a challenge for many Turkish people to understand him. In long sentences, he intertwines chapters from the Quran with sayings by the Prophet, the experiences of the mystics with the requirements of the modern world, and unites the world of faith with the reality of life. He explains the relevance of education and success in business, the compatibility of Islam with the modern age and democracy, as well as the incompatibility of Islam and violence. His followers are supposed to create employment and prosperity with their own hands, and should not forget to distribute it among those who are in need.
Religious people wanting to live their faith far away from the vibrant cities were always drawn to the State of Pennsylvania. The early immigrants that settled on the fertile grounds of Pennsylvania must have been religious people. If you set out west from Philadelphia towards Saylorsburg, then you will drive through Quakertown and Emmaus. Road signs indicate exits to Hamburg as well as Lebanon and also to New Tripoli. The road to Saylorsburg also leads you through Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Manhattan is only a few hours drive away from Saylorsburg. And yet there are worlds between them.
Alp Aslandogan is looking down from the sixth floor onto the urban canyon out of stone in the 5th Ave. In 1991, he came to New York from Turkey to do his PhD in IT and today he teaches at a university. In his spare time, he works many hours on a voluntary basis for “hizmet” [service] – which is how Gülen’s followers describe their movement. The movement, which in Germany is known as the Gülen movement, is also growing in the United States. Entrepeneurs close to Gülen have founded more than a thousand educational institutions in 130 countries, including Germany and the United States. Aslandogan founded the “Milky Way Foundation” in 1993 to help tutor children of Turkish immigrants on the weekends, so that they could succeed in school. In 1999, the foundation became a private school.
“We neither wanted to emulate the dominant culture, nor isolate ourselves from it to preserve our roots,” says Aslandogan. “We wanted to help parents to understand the American culture, and the children to preserve their parents’ values, but also be productive citizens of this country.” Over two decades, activities such as these in New York turned into an extensive network of diverse social activities. The Turkish Cultural Center in Manhattan and the Peace Islands Institute are two examples.
The cultural centre, for instance, organises English and Turkish language courses, prepares children for exams, helps adults to register themselves as voters and assists those who are self-employed to find success. After a large forest fire in Israel, it helped reforest the area, and built a new school in Haiti after the earthquake. After the terror attacks on September 11th, the Pacific Islands Institute was founded as a platform for dialogue. Under its framework, American politicians and foreign ambassadors have met, rabbis and Buddhist monks talk to each other, and Muslim families invite non-Muslim families home.
The cultural centre and the Pacific Islands Institute are two of the 218 social organizations which are associated with Gülen in the United States, which have united in May 2010 under the umbrella organization, the Turkic American Alliance. Its main offices are in Washington DC, between Capitol Hill and the CNN studios. Just as in its New York offices, the personality cult around Atatürk has vanished, and there is no relief on the wall depicting the forever-smiling founder of the republic. What importance the umbrella organization has already gained can be seen by the fact that at a recent gala evening, seven senators and 53 members of the Congress were present. Fevzi Bilgin, a 38-year-old political analyst and former professor at the University of Pittsburgh, compiles studies about relevant issues in Turkey and the Middle East and assesses the American political sphere in his work. He is the head of “Rethink”, the only private Turkish think tank in the United States.
Emre Çelik, an Australian IT specialist of Turkish descent living in the United States, is another strong supporter of Gülen. He started two decades ago in Sydney, trying to give Turkish youngsters a jump-start in subjects such as math, physics and chemistry in garages. Today, he is in charge of the Rumi Forum, named after a Turkish saint, which is located a stone’s throw away from the White House. On its board sit Jews as well as secular Americans. Prominent politicians or diplomats often speak at luncheons held at the forum, broadcasted by four TV channels.
Çelik considers himself to be a “mainstream Muslim” and this is the type of Islam he wants to foster in the pluralistic society of America. Initially in Australia, he was fascinated by Said Nursi (1876-1960), a spiritual mentor for Gülen. Nursi introduced to Islam raising scientific questions and doubt, taught his students to see the good in Western civilisation and adopt it, and called them to overcome the three basic evils of poverty, division and ignorance. “What Nursi formulated in theories, is carried out by Gülen in practice”, says Çelik. He considers the concept of pleasing God to be the decisive contribution of Gülen. By this, Gülen motivates people to act in this world, in order to gain rewards for the hereafter.
The movement is being attacked from two sides, says Gülen. Gülen describes those who equate the activities of “hizmet” with Islamism as ignorant. When it comes to other Turkish critics, he can only shake his head. They accuse him of being “a traitor to Islam, being a slave of the United States and Israel as well as carrying out propaganda for Christianity and Judaism”. A public prosecutor in Turkey once called him even a secret cardinal in the service of the Pope. The biggest accusation against the Movement is that it wants to carry out a revolution in Turkey, through cultivating a secret Islamist elite. It is also claimed that the movement is not transparent and works as a secret society. These kind of critics of the movement assert a hierarchical structure which does not exist. They attribute this claimed hierarchy to an asserted Islamic sufi lineage. During recent decades, periods where Turkey was ruled by generals, such a structure could be dangerous. “My life and my work are open to everyone”, asserts Gülen. “Nothing is kept secret.” The activities of “hizmet” are carried out in public with people from the entire spectrum of life, from all countries and religions. They have been observed and even under the control of public authorities. “I would like to know what is not transparent.”
Education and building schools are issues particularly close to his heart. He says it is through education that a human being contributes in the most constructive manner to his or her family, society and humanity. "I am convinced that we as God’s creatures will only achieve our full individual maturity through worldly and spiritual education." He has been promoting this idea his entire life, as well as through the construction of schools, which are built by companies that claim to be inspired by him. His name appears neither as a founding nor board member on any of the institutions ascribed to him.
The continuous reference to entrepreneurs does not mean that everything is related to money, but he advises his followers to be successful. A major Turkish business association is ascribed to Gülen. The economic boom in Anatolia is linked to his name. "I have always called for a sincere entrepreneurial spirit," says Gülen. He advises entrepreneurs to carefully assess risks, and encourages them to invest and expand abroad. “I always remind them of their social and societal responsibilities.” And he reminds them to adhere to ethical principles: to avoid involvement in fraud, speculative or black-market trading, stand for trust and reliability, not to display greed and squander God’s riches while enjoying them, to show respect for the rights of employees, not to forget that the society they live in should also benefit from their benefits and to live aware of the fact that ultimately everything is given by God.
Tevfik Emre Aksoy is one of those businessmen who seeks God’s pleasure following Gülen’s advice. He made his fortune as a building contractor in Brooklyn, New York City. Self-employed and successful people like him donate a considerable share of their income to the "hizmet" movement and finance many projects. He is a board member of the Amity School in Brooklyn along with four other businessmen. Tuition fees only partially cover the costs of running the school. The rest comes from supporters like Aksoy.
Yet despite his generous donations, he does not interfere in the day by day operations of the school, whose principal is Cengiz Karabekmez. Founded in 1999, 300 students attend the school. One hundred live in the adjacent student hostel. They come from 17 countries, and represent five different religious faiths. The majority are of Turkish descent. The school advertises that for many years all students have been accepted to college. The best go on to Harvard, Columbia and Yale. “Last year’s 25 graduates got scholarships in the amount of 4 million dollars”, Karabekmez says proudly.
The focus, as with all other “Gülen schools”, is on teaching sciences. “We do not compel religion upon our students”, stresses Karabekmez. “We are not a religious school.“ The course on “personality development” teaches universal values such as respect, altruism and work ethics. Most of the 36 teachers are American citizens. “Language barriers?” Andrea laughs. "Sure, many parents speak only a little bit of English", says a teacher. “But the school community ensures that everyone speaks English very well, starting from year one.”
The English teacher, Adamir, knows Germany and the United States well, but he does not know Gülen. His parents fled the war in the Balkans, and along with their children, went first to Germany, and then settled down in New York 12 years ago. He had never heard the name of the “hizmet” movement. He opted for the Amity School because he has more opportunity to express himself as a teacher than at other schools. Worship of God is not compelled. “God loves everyone”, Aksoy asserts. “God loves in particular good deeds.”