The Muslim Martin Luther?

Fethullah Gulen Attempts an Islamic Reformation

Fethullah Gulen in his Pennsylvania home. Courtesy Reuters

In a video posted on his Web site last December, the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen called on God to curse Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gulen, who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999, declared in a sermon broadcast on Turkish television, “Those who don’t see the thief but go after those trying to catch the thief: may God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities.” This went far beyond the normally secular bounds of political debate in Turkey. 

But to fixate on Gulen's lack of political polish is to miss the point. Gulen and Erdogan have been described in the West as political rivals, but there has always been more at stake in their clash than earthly affairs. Whereas Erdogan may frequently indulge in Islamist political rhetoric, it is Gulen that has tried to make actual contributions as an Islamic intellectual and develop a genuinely modern school of Islam that reconciles the religion with liberal democracy, scientific rationalism, ecumenism, and free enterprise. Regardless of who wins the battle for Turkey's political future, it is vital that Gulen's religious legacy be preserved.


Erdogan has repeatedly portrayed Gulen, and his religious movement, known as Hizmet (which translates to Service), as part of a political conspiracy, calling it a “parallel state” responsible for initiating a series of corruption investigations against his administration. These accusations are impossible to substantiate. Hizmet has no formal membership, no headquarters, and no hierarchy, which makes it impossible to know whether Gulenists are overrepresented in law enforcement and the judiciary, let alone orchestrating a putsch. There are many civic organizations in Turkey that are explicitly linked to Gulen, but, in keeping with Gulen’s teachings, they neither endorse nor reject any political party.

Although Gulen has always assumed that pious Muslims would be drawn to politics, he has long warned against allowing religion to be used as a tool to pursue political power. In this sense, Gulen has

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