Gülen-Inspired Hizmet in Europe

The Western Journey of a Turkish Muslim Movement

by Gürkan Çelik (Volume editor) Johan Leman (Volume editor) Karel Steenbrink (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 311 Pages


The Hizmet Movement initiated by Fethullah Gülen in Turkey in the 1960s is today active in more than 160 countries. The participants of Hizmet are often less visible among the Muslim minorities in Western societies. They do not build mosques or hold regular prayer meetings like institutional Muslims or Sufi masters, but establish emancipatory schools without religious instruction, cherish networks of business people, publish the newspaper Zaman in various national editions, and run dialogue charities for intercultural and interreligious encounters. Small groups come together in private houses to hold sohbets, that is spiritual talks on faith, religion and society, and to discuss Hizmet-related projects in the light of teachings articulated by Gülen in his books and talks.
This book provides a broad presentation of Gülen’s thought and practice. These issues are discussed in the first part of this book. The second part presents six case studies from countries where the name of Gülen has been attached to a great variety of social activities in the field of education, media, business, dialogue, and the support of integration and defence of human rights. These countries are Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Albania as the centre of Muslims in the Balkans. Although the participants of Hizmet are quite small in number and work in an extremely decentralised way, they are among the best educated and most socially active of the Turkish-speaking communities in their countries. This is therefore an important study of a group of Muslims who cannot simply be categorized as «conservative» or «progressive», «pietistic» or «political».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Fethullah Gülen, Hizmet, and Gülenists. A Bibliographical Essay
  • The Intellectual Format of the Hizmet Movement. A Discourse Analysis
  • Theological Keywords of M. Fethullah Gülen
  • Ethical Priorities of Gülen. The True Middle Road
  • Financial Dimension of the Gülen-Inspired Projects
  • The Socio-Political Dimension of the Gülen Movement
  • Diasporic Faith, Faith in Diaspora. Turkish Women’s Public Spheres Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
  • Belgium’s Gülen Hizmet Movement. History, Structures and Initiatives
  • The Hizmet Movement and the Integration of Muslims in Germany
  • Gülen in the Netherlands between Pious Circles and Social Emancipation
  • Hizmet in France. Negotiation of Multiple Identities in a Secular Context
  • The Gülen Movement in the United Kingdom
  • Turkish Schools and More. Hizmet Networks in the Balkans
  • Concluding Reflections
  • Bibliography
  • List of contributors
  • Index

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This book discusses the western journey of a modern Muslim movement. It is a worldwide movement organised by a group of Turkish people inspired by M. Fethullah Gülen (Turkey, 1941), a contemporary Turkish Muslim scholar of the Sunni tradition. The movement he inspired originated in Turkey in the 1960s and expanded throughout the world from the mid-1980s. Today the movement – often referred to as “The Gülen Movement” or “Hizmet” in the media and academia – coordinates thousands of educational institutions in more than 160 countries, mobilises numerous volunteers and professionals for educational, cultural and media enterprises, and employs new networks for the ongoing realignment of public, private and civil society groups.

The followers of Gülen are a small and often less visible group among Muslim minorities in Western countries. They do not build mosques or hold regular prayer meetings like institutional Muslims or Sufi shaikhs, but establish emancipatory educational institutions, cherish networks of business people, publish the newspaper Zaman in various national editions, and start dialogue centres for intercultural and interreligious meetings. Small groups come together in private houses to hold sohbets, meals and spiritual talks on faith, religion and society and to discuss Hizmet-related projects, often while listening to speeches or watching podcasts of Gülen’s speeches from his home in Pennsylvania where he has resided since 1999.

This book provides a broad presentation of Gülen’s thinking and practice, as it was gladly received by some Muslims (mainly Turkish) in Western countries, but also neglected or even suspected by others. The activities of the movement also found support from Western governments, churches, and social groups. Some individuals even became active sympathizers, without embracing formal Islam. Other observers in the West, both Muslims and non-Muslims, continued to have reservations about some practices and fear of a ‘hidden agenda’. The major themes of Gülen’s thinking are discussed in detail in the first part of this book. The second part presents case studies from European countries where the name Gülen has been attached to a great variety of social activities in the field of education, business, media, dialogue, and the support of integration and defence of human rights. These countries are Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Albania as the centre of Muslims in the Balkan region. Although ‘participants’ of the loosely organised ‘Gülen Movement’ are relatively few in number and ← 9 | 10 → work in an extremely decentralised way, they are among the best educated and socially most active of the Turkish community in their countries. They are very active in social life and have a range of people from all walks of society. This is therefore an important study of a group of Muslims who cannot be placed in simple categories such as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, ‘pietistic’ or ‘political’.

The present volume was first planned in 2010 on the occasion of a conference in Amsterdam about the recent developments of the Gülen Movement. This conference was held on October 7th 2010, entitled “Mapping the Gülen Movement: a multidimensional approach”, in the classical Felix Meritis (‘Happy By Doing Good Deeds’), a civil society building for science and the arts, first used in 1788. A ‘multidimensional’ approach to the Gülen phenomenon was presented by most of the scholars, who also contributed the chapters for the first part of this volume. Professor Johan Leman from Louvain gave an introduction to the Gülen presence in his country, Belgium, and for the further elaboration of the theme in a book we decided that we should also concentrate on collecting more European presentations. We are proud to see here, in the second part of the book, six national or regional studies, once the first part has presented the more general dimensions of the Gülen Movement. The introductory and concluding chapters comment on the character and the current situation of the Gülen Movement inside and outside Turkey – the cradle of the movement – which we can find in the various case studies throughout.

We thank the presenters of the 2010 academic meeting for being willing to adapt their original papers to the more specific focus of this book. We realised during this long process that we wanted to write about a movement that is still ongoing, and that we have to write with caution, however, we are also conscious that these observations of the ongoing process are valuable in their own right. We give thanks to readers who provided detailed, critical and insightful comments on the original proposal for this book. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Thomas Goldberg and Simon Rae for their correction of our English without pushing us into uniformity.

In this book, any reference to Gülen schools, institutions, organisations is actually a shorthand reference to Gülen-inspired schools, institutions or organisations. Gülen does not formally own or run these initiatives; rather they are the work of Hizmet, the movement he inspires. Furthermore, the terms “Gülen Movement” and “Hizmet Movement” are used interchangeably in this book. ← 10 | 11 →

Note on spelling and transliteration

In this book many Turkish names and words are used, as well as Muslim terminology that has it origin in Arabic. The Turkish alphabet has 29 letters with a number of differences from the common Latin alphabet as used for English. To give some examples: C and Ç, i and ı both indicate two different pronunciations. In European and American publications, as well as in private correspondence, especially in modern media such as Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, a simplified spelling is used. Sometimes we follow this easy use, as our sources do. There is an established practice of the transliteration of Arabic Muslim terminology into Turkish, but here we also find many inconsistencies with authors who write for the Western market. In this book we do not try to invent a purist practice, but we follow the spelling as used by our sources. In this way we join the hybrid practices of the Gülen people in Europe.

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Fethullah Gülen, Hizmet, and Gülenists

A Bibliographical Essay


Fethullah Gülen does not dominate the picture of Islam in European countries. It is quite the opposite: someone like the flamboyant sociologist Nilüfer Göle never mentioned the movement in her 2011 book Islam in Europe, although she received the first award accorded by the Gülen inspired Journalists and Writers Association (initiated in 1994) in 1995. In many other recent books on Muslims in Europe, there are no references to the movement. A recent book on Muslims in Germany of 591 pages, only has a half sentence about the ‘conservative, religious’ Gülen newspaper Zaman (with 22,000 subscriptions far below the more than 100,000 for Kemalist Hürriyet).1 Another comprehensive book on ‘Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in Europe’ totally neglects the Gülen Movement.2 In a recent work on Muslim youth in Norway there is only one short reference to Gülen, in combination with another ‘emotional preacher’, for whom ‘feelings prevail over law in order to achieve repentance and return to a true faith’.3 Should these omissions be interpreted as caused by the absence of Gülen people in the more strictly religious field, because of their concentration on social and educational affairs?4 Is it caused by its closed character? Or is it just a warning that despite the abundant concentration on expressions of the Gülen Movement in this book, we should never forget that it is just a ‘Gülen corner’ amidst a vast number of other groups, representing the immensely diverse Islam and the Muslim community?

Still, during the last fifteen years a large number of books, academic articles, reports in newspapers, besides much debate on the internet and elsewhere in the media have shown a quite intense discussion about the character of this Islamic movement. Not only among European citizens ← 13 | 14 → of Turkish offspring, but also among non-Muslim citizens of European countries supporters and opponents can be found. There are few Muslim movements or individuals, so warmly praised, but at the same time heavily criticized or suspected. This bibliographical essay wants to picture this debate in English, Dutch and also some French and German publications.

The first issue in this debate is about the name. The oldest references talk about one or even several Neo-Nur or Neo-Nursi/Nurcu movements. After the death of Said Nursi in 1960 his network of admirers, based on the readership of his Risale-i Nur, produced several groups of followers and new institutes also in the western world (Berkeley, Cologne), but there was no true successor for this inspiring thinker. The doctoral dissertation by Nico Landman of 1992, perhaps the first discussion of Fethullah Gülen in a European publication, mentions a group of Nurcu people who supported the political party of Erbakan. There was also a different group:

Another rearrangement took place under the preacher Fethullah Gülen who estimated that these yeni asyalılar had estranged themselves from the truth of their faith by political engagement. The organisation that rose around him, commonly called fethullahcılar keeps away from party politics and is mostly active in education. In publications of fethullahcılar like the monthly Sızıntı the polemics with Western atheists is a central issue. They do not like to show their group in public, because Fethullah is very keen on preventing problems with the government. They will never make a reference to Said Nursi in publications and public speeches. Fethullah even repeatedly condemned public demonstrations of Islamic groups and justified harsh government measures against them.5

Some other observers follow this label of the Gülen Movement as a neo-Nur movement.6 One may be surprised to see this connection between two quite different persons: Said Nursi wrote in very sophisticated and quite philosophical discourse, while Gülen has a very easy and accessible style, much closer to pastoral psychology than his learned predecessor. Nursi also constructs and preaches in detail the harmony between theology and modern science, while Gülen presents only the general doctrine of the harmony between the two and promotes modern schooling in physics, medicine and science, without too detailed religious reasoning. But apparently the two have a similar style of involved and emotional preaching. From the 1990s on the comparison of Gülen with Nursi has more and more disappeared from the discourse about Gülen. Still, a comprehensive connection has been given in the account of an interview with Gülen, as published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, ← 14 | 15 → 9 November 2012. ‘What has been formulated in a theoretical framework by Said Nursi, has now been put in action by Fethullah Gülen.’7

From the first name of Gülen, Fethullah, the word fethullahcılar is formed, that is often taken as an outsider’s label with a negative connotation.8 The word ‘Gülenist’ is even more often a defamatory qualification and only used by ‘outsiders’.9 Internally quite often the word Hizmet is used, in English translated as ‘the Volunteers Movement’. The authors of a book that was published in the USA in 2012 introduced the neologism ‘the Gülen Hizmet Movement’ or GHM “which incorporates not only the two best known labels for the organisation but also allows focus on both the ideas behind it, drawn largely from Gülen, but also the action that results from those ideas.”10

There exists no formal or official institution or body such as a Gülen or Hizmet Movement, Society, Institute or Organisation. There are hundreds perhaps even thousands of foundations, schools, societies and institutes that work ‘in his spirit’ or ‘are inspired by Gülen’, but no formal single body for these activities exists.

Many books on Gülen and the Gülen Movement are collective books.11 In Western languages also a good number of monographs are published: Carroll 2007 is a philosophical dialogue with Gülen; Ebaugh 2010 is a comprehensive social analysis of origins, activities and membership; Harrington 2011 is a warm defence for Gülen related to his trial in Turkey during the previous decade; Koç 2012 is a quite uncompromising polemic in his analysis of the negative publicity in Turkey and abroad. Yavuz 2013 is an overall presentation by a social scientist who has been a long time observer of the movement. There are at least five doctoral dissertations devoted to this religious leader: Kim 2008, Çelik 2008, Hendrick 2009, Toguslu 2009, Çetin 2010. As can be expected from a modern movement, there is ample material available on the internet. ← 15 | 16 →

As may be seen from these lists and even more clearly from the inventory of internet sites, there is a forum for strong supporters as well as strong opponents. Turkish authors are roughly two third of those who wrote about the movement in Western languages, but nearly one third are Western and non-Muslim authors. Quite a few of these outsider-observers at the conferences that were held since 2005 as what may be seen as a global presentation of the movement, may have felt it difficult to make a distinction between etic and emic, between the questions of the outside observer and the convictions and perspectives of the insiders. Was it a clear strategy of the volunteers of the movement to involve unbiased but also somewhat ignorant westerners in their policy? Or was it an honest effort to start the dialogue between religions and civilizations as promoted by Fethullah Gülen himself, and in this case along the social conventions of the Turkish community in combination with a Western culture of academic conferences?


There is no critical, well documented biography of Fethullah Gülen. About the first fifty years of his life and work, we have to rely mostly on information that is included as an introduction to a presentation of his movement. It is often plucked from fragments of interviews with Gülen himself or with followers.12

1941-1959 Youth and Education. Gülen was born in 1941 in Korucuk, a small village of farmers in the district of Hasankale, some 40 km from Erzurum, East Turkey.13 His father was imam in the local mosque. Fethullah followed the three years of primary school. After he had finished this quite simple basic education his father, Ramiz Effendi, was moved to another place, Alvar, to work as an imam. In this place no further education was available and the young Fethullah learned Arabic and Persian here from his father who was fond of books. Gülen told later ← 16 | 17 → that he learned Qur’ān recitation from Haci Sidki Efendi of Hasankale, 7 km from Alvar.14

In the house of his parents many learned visitors were welcomed and in his own memory the young Fethullah was not so often playing with other children, but he rather joined the learned discussions between his father and the guests who visited their house. Besides lessons from his father, he learned basic elements of Islamic doctrine from his mother Refia Hanim who in a clandestine way taught the children of the village, as well as from his grandfather Samil Aga.

It is suggested that his family could claim a direct lineage from the prophet Muhammad.15 Outside his family one mystic teacher, Shaykh Muhammad Lütfi Efendi, is mentioned as an important spiritual teacher. He introduced Fethullah Gülen to the writings of Said Nursi (1876-1960), the famous author of the Risale-i-nur that try to create a harmony between traditional Islamic doctrine and modern science. Lütfi Efendi died in 1956, when Gülen was still a teenager.16

After the death of Lütfi Efendi, Gülen moved for some time from one teacher to another, staying in mosques. He first was in Kemhan, then in Tasmescid. Then he moved to Edirne, studying with Osman Bektas. In this period he also became known as a gifted young preacher, especially also for the month of Ramadan.

1959-1970 Early Career within the Diyanet Structure. – On 6 August 1959 Gülen became assistant imam in the Üçşerefeli mosque in Edirne, moving from East Turkey to the utmost north-western town, close to the border with Greece. He worked here as an official within the bureaucracy of Diyanet, the religious administration of the Turkish state. Koç mentions a state exam to be passed for this nomination. This was a position he held for more than two years, until he had to enter military service on 10 November 1961.17 After military service he returned to Edirne and opened a Qur’ān reading course in Edirne, in mid-1964. Edirne and Izmir were the two most important places for Gülen in the 1960s. Both towns were majority Greek until 1923 when the end of the Ottoman Empire and the transition to the Kemalist rule caused the religious/ethnic cleansing of the towns. The towns were re-populated with Muslim/Turkish refugees from Greece and migrants from East Turkey. There is not much reflection on this painful history in the writings of the movement. This region was ← 17 | 18 → quite different from the closed and conservative region around Erzurum. Hakan Yavuz writes about Gülen in Edirne:

He interpreted the liberal lifestyle of young women there in terms of their being ‘free and easy’ an outcome of lack of Islamic beliefs. The young Gülen tended to be uncomfortable around women and his conservative religious worldview conflicted with the emerging secular-modern lifestyle of Edirne and Western Turkey in general and this in turn seemed to encourage a more ascetic personal lifestyle.18

On 31 July 1965 he was transferred to Kirklareli, a smaller town in the same border region as Edirne. On 11 March 1966 he moved to Izmir “holding on to a managerial position there close to five years at Kestanepazarı, staying at a small shack and not accepting any wages for his services.”19 Gülen would stay for five years in Izmir. These years in Izmir are seen as ‘the founding years of his community’. From the mid-1960s on Gülen’s duty in Izmir was not as an imam to a mosque but as a teacher and director in the Qur’ānic school, training youngsters to learn religion and eventually to become an imam. He travelled quite often to nearby places, creating a network of friends and sympathizers.20

1970-1982 Light Houses, Dormitories. Educating a ‘golden generation’ in a secular environment with a touch of spirituality. – In the aftermath of the military coup of 12 March 1971, Gülen was arrested, accused of an attempt “to change social, political, and economic base of society in Turkey”, but he was released without conviction after six months and could return to his position in Izmir. Not much is known about the effects of this period of detention for his religious and social-political ideas.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Western journey of a modern Muslim movement Turkish Muslims in Western countries: a multidimensional approach to the Gülen Movement The Hizmet Movement in European Socie-ties.
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 311 pp., 1 graph, 4 tables

Biographical notes

Gürkan Çelik (Volume editor) Johan Leman (Volume editor) Karel Steenbrink (Volume editor)

Gürkan Çelik, Professor of Cross-Cultural Entrepreneurship at Inholland University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands. Johan Leman, Emeritus Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Social Sciences at KU Leuven University, Belgium. Karel Steenbrink, Emeritus Professor of Intercultural Theology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands.


Title: Gülen-Inspired Hizmet in Europe