Said Nursi & the Gulen Movement

20 07 2016
Said Nursi

Said Nursi


Fethullah Gulen

Last year, I got a journal article published in the Air and Space Power Journal, entitled “The Post-secular Republic:  Turkey’s Experiments with Islamism”:

ASPJ Africa & Francophonie – 2nd Quarter 2015

In this article, I present details about the background, evolution, and “founding father” of the contemporary Gulen Movement.  The source of inspiration for this Islamic ideology is a man named Said Nursi.

I’m posting an excerpt of this article here, and please go the URL link provided above to read the whole article.  This is NOT meant to promote/support any ideology, but it’s purely intended as background information and knowledge about the Gulen Movement that we see so much in today’s headlines.  All views expressed are personal.


Despite Atatürk’s legacy and deeply entrenched and enforced secularization of the Turkish republic, elements of Islamism—or Islamist ambitions—have persisted since the post-Ottoman era. Stephen Dale describes this seemingly paradoxical reality in Turkey:

“Yet in spite of the juggernaut of Kemalist secularism, not only did Islam survive but some Turkish Muslims dedicated themselves to its revitalization. One of the most influential of those who sought to revivify Turkish Islam was Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a precocious Muslim autodidact from Turkish Kurdistan. Nursi established an organization known as the Risale-I Nur (The Prophecy of Light), dedicated to renewing Islamic piety and individual spiritual perfection at the grassroots level, avoiding religious political activism in an era of state secularism.  Nursi’s program had a certain general resemblance to the Deoband Madrasa in late nineteenth-century India, to the extent that both movements operated within secular environments, emphasized individual spiritual revival, and abstained from political activism.  In the early twenty-first century the democratic election of a religious political party demonstrates that in Turkey, as well as in Pakistan, the question of the relationship between religion and the state is still unresolved, and in fact may never be definitively settled, even to the limited degree it has been in the world’s two largest secular democracies, India and the United States.”7

Turkish secularists—especially the protectors of Turkish secularism in the military—  viewed Said Nursi as an “anti-Kemalist” threat. Nursi’s popularity grew throughout Turkey, and he became increasingly revered as an Islamic scholar and mullah. In fact, many people cite Nursi as the “most influential theologian of the Turkish Republic.”8

The Turkish military became so alarmed at Nursi’s magnetism, even after his death as mourners in the thousands paid homage to his shrine in Urfa, that on 12 July 1960, “soldiers forced their way into the shrine, smashed open a marble tomb with sledgehammers and removed a shrouded body. The body was lifted onto an army truck, driven along heavily guarded streets to an airfield outside town, loaded onto a military plane and never seen again.”9  It is believed that the military reburied him in a secret grave. This military maneuver marked the first coup d’état in the republic’s modern history, exemplifying the military rulers’ fears that “Nursi would become a symbol of dissent, his grave a shrine to anti-Kemalism.”10 Demolishing Nursi’s shrine proved ineffective. Even today, Nursi is revered and respected, and recently the Turkish parliament set up a special commission for investigating military coups in Turkey and for revealing the location of Nursi’s secret tomb.11  His following is alive and vibrant, and with the military subjugated at the hands of the AKP and Erdoğan, his followers are emboldened.

Those followers still visit the empty tomb in Urfa and his house in Isparta; they “even [flock] to the Urfa hotel room he died in, piously preserved in its original state by the hotel owner right down to the light bulb.”12  Nursi followers are called “Nurcu” or “followers of the light,” and some people estimate their numbers in the millions. This fact is important because the threads of the religious fabric of Turkish public, political, and religious leaders increasingly strengthen. Consider what Mustafa Akyol, an expert on Turkish Islam, says about the Nurcu: “About half the Islamic movement in Turkey, meaning the pious, conservative segment of society, are literally direct followers of Nursi, while the other half also respects him.”13

Additionally, “the Nurcu community includes the sizable Gulen movement, named after the currently U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, as well as several other movements and a separate Kurdish following, all of them distinct, but united in their allegiance to Mr. Nursi’s teachings.  Modernity, science and rationalism play key roles in his teachings, as does the individual, distinguishing the Nurcu movement from other currents of Islam.”14

While the concept of “Islamic democracy” is endlessly debated since the puzzle of the compatibility between Islam and (liberal) democracy has never been completely solved, Islam in Turkey has not only survived over the decades but also thrived. The Fethullah Gülen movement offers yet another snapshot of the power and influence of “Islamism” although this is a more subtle, grassroots-based brand of Turkish Islam. The movement’s power is growing, some say to the extent of establishing “a state within a state” although Turkish people, analysts, pundits, and scholars repeatedly point out that such growth is extremely hard to prove. The certainty lies in the fact that it is a lucrative and popular global movement, with Gülenist schools proliferating in numerous countries, and it has an eccentric, elderly spiritual leader at its helm.

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All views expressed are personal


The Implications of Turkey’s Failed Coup

19 07 2016

The views expressed are personal

turkey flag

Turkey coup pic

The recent failed coup d’etat in Turkey has sparked a whirlwind of speculation, conspiracy theories, and anxiety about: who was behind it; the AKP and Fethullah Gulen and his movement’s respective agendas; and the implications of this domestic turmoil for regional and international relations. One thing is clear: in the aftermath of the poorly executed coup President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP loyalists have gained and wielded tremendous extrajudicial power. Erdogan, in particular, is enjoying a substantial boost in popularity and loyalist support. The fact that all he had to do is verbally request his supporters via the Internet to spill into the streets and fight against the coup plotters is a remarkable illustration of his power. Plus, Erdogan is extremely shrewd in his ability to exploit political Islam, Turkish patriotism, and passionate nationalism by merging all three together. He’s no Qaddafi. Nor is he a Saddam. And he’s definitely not a Morsi.

The events of July 15, 2016 and the fallout especially for the secularists and accused “Gulenists” in Turkey have profound implications for the country’s future, the region’s political dynamics and affairs, and even international relations pertaining to Turkey and some of the precedents that these events have generated. Beginning with international politics, these developments illustrate a distressing pattern in the post-Cold War era. That pattern is the desire of some world leaders to follow what I call the “Putin Model” of political autocracy. Increasingly, it seems that a number of heads of state, like Erdogan, seek to achieve political resilience and entrenched power for the long term by replicating some of the methods that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has utilized.

For example, Erdogan served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, and then switched to running in elections for the presidency. Hence, he has been in power in Turkey since 2003. Putin did something similar with the Prime Minister title and then switched to the presidency; he served as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2000, and then President from 2000 to 2008, and then back to Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012; and in 2012 he was reelected as President for a third term, although not without facing allegations of election fraud. However, Putin’s political success in exploiting the titles of Prime Minister and President has been significant, as he was the first to do this in the post-Cold War era, and no doubt many heads of state envy this and wish to replicate it within their own political arenas.

Erdogan is one such leader who has succeeded in doing so, and in the process he has secured a powerful support base over the thirteen years he has served in political leadership in Turkey. The country is ideologically divided, mainly between two major fault-lines: Turkish Kemalist secularists, and pro-AKP/Erdogan Islamists. However, when the news broke about the attempted coup in Turkey a few days ago and while events were still unfolding, I was not convinced that the coup would succeed, despite numerous military coups succeeding in the past. Having visited Turkey in 2010 and 2013, I noticed that, although the divisions between the secularists and Islamists are sharp, it’s undeniably clear that Erdogan still enjoys a powerful and loyal support base in many pockets of Istanbul, Ankara, and especially in the more conservative parts of the country, like Konya.

Another Putin-modeled move that Erdogan has employed in Turkey is silencing journalists and the media. Putin has blocked numerous online news sources in Russia, he has arrested and harassed journalists, and a number of journalists have even been murdered. Freedom House ranks Russia among the lowest in the world for press freedom. According to Freedom House 2015 world rankings, Russia tied with Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia for number 180, not free, out of #199 (North Korea). Turkey’s rank that year was 142, tied with Malaysia and Pakistan, and also labeled “not free.” In Russia, at least 34 journalists have been murdered since 2000, according to combined data from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Moscow’s Glasnost Defense Foundation (see Linda Qiu, “Does Vladimir Putin Kill Journalists?” PunditFact, January 4, 2016:

Turkey has one of the world’s worst records for jailing journalists. According to the Economist (“Turkey is Sending its Journalists to Prison,” May 10, 2016), “These are dark days for journalism in Turkey. The latest press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders puts the country in 151st place, between Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Censorship is the industry standard. […] Journalists are routinely sacked or dragged through the courts.” Clearly, Erdogan is using the Putin playbook.

He is not alone, as a number of Middle Eastern countries are doing the same and using the similar terminology to conveniently label and implicate the media and journalists as co-conspirators with terrorists and/or foreign entities (i.e., mainly Western powers like the United States and others) who are supposedly trying to undermine the state and its leadership. Erdogan’s allegations of the Gulenist movement pulling the strings in the attempted coup manifest this tendency, especially when he pointedly said in his post-coup speech that, “This is not a country that can be run from Pennsylvania,” referring to Fethullah Gulen’s residence in exile in the Poconos.

Egypt’s dictator General Abdel Fattah El Sisi routinely demonizes the media and journalists, and countless bloggers and journalists continue to languish in Egyptian prisons. Mona Eltahawy’s New York Times oped (November 23, 2015, “Sisi’s War on Reporters”) provides details about how the Sisi regime “has thrown thousands of people from across the political spectrum into jail. And it knows that the mere suggestion that someone belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood — regardless of any evidence — means a loss of public sympathy.” Egypt has imprisoned an estimated 40,000 political prisoners. She goes on to report that, “With a regime as paranoid and brittle as this, it is not hard to anticipate its actions. A recent Sunday this month was typical: An investigative journalist was detained and interrogated by military prosecutors, a businessman and his son were arrested, and a TV anchorwoman was suspended from her job. […] According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, there are 62 media workers in Mr. Sisi’s jails.” Once again, we see a regional dictator using the Putin playbook.

What is very interesting about the two cases – Turkey and Egypt – is that, since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings and revolutions, and the military coup in Egypt that brought Sisi to power in summer 2014, Erdogan and Sisi have been enemies. Sisi has viewed Erdogan as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, and since the latter supported the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who Sisi ousted and imprisoned, there is truth in this allegation. The fantastic irony here is that both Sisi and Erdogan are using the Putin playbook domestically. And, since Erdogan has not only survived the coup attempt at home, but he has in fact consolidated his power and is in the process of purging the government, military, judiciary, and any other entity that he deems suspicious, of his enemies – perceived and real – Egypt’s Sisi has no choice but to accept that Turkey’s Islamists have won the day, and, that too, with help from secularists!

When President Morsi won the Egyptian election after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, many Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere suggested that Egypt, under Islamist rule, could adopt the “Turkish Model,” that is, a political system that harmonizes Islam with democracy as Turkey under Erdogan purports to achieve. That has now changed to the “Putin Model,” in both Turkey and Egypt, although with different ideologies inspiring their respective political systems. But, Turkish democracy, even symbolically, remains a sacred variable. This is illustrated in how both pro-Erdoganists and pro-secularists have collectively crushed the coup attempt. This is in contrast to Egypt, which has never tasted democracy in its entire history.

This collective rejection of the coup attempt in Turkey has added salt to Sisi’s wounds, and many Turks have cited the Sisi/Egypt case as the primary reason not to allow Turkey’s military coup to succeed. Yet another irony is that in both cases – Egypt’s coup success and Sisi’s empowerment, and Turkey’s coup failure and Erdogan’s continued leadership – have placed both countries, respectively, on a path towards authoritarian rule while undermining democracy. The major differences lie in the ideological and political orientation of both country’s leadership, and Erdogan’s reality, which countless activists in Turkey will assiduously remind him, that he is still bound by the country’s constitution, which upholds democracy. How Erdogan proposes to deal with that will be another (future) chapter in this intriguing story, bearing in mind that Erdogan once said, “I do not subscribe to the view that Islamic culture and democracy cannot be reconciled.”

Erdogan’s domestic, regional, and international strategies have been curious and interesting. First, upon coming to power, the AKP cut off the legs of the powerful military, arresting the top ten percent of high-ranking officers in the context of various coup-suspected scandals. This includes the “Ergenekon” case and the “Sledgehammer” conspiracy; however, Turkey’s appeals courts just recently overturned hundreds of convictions pertaining to both. Second, Erdogan just achieved rapprochement with Israel and Russia, and he was in the process of renewing ties with the Syrian government. With an estimated 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey (as of June 2016, according to the UNHCR), Erdogan is in an extremely tough jam. The once thriving economy is struggling, and the influx of Syrian refugees, the increase in terrorist attacks inside Turkey by various terrorist groups including ISIS, the PKK, and others, and the plummeting tourism industry are all negatively affecting Turkey’s economic health. Surely, the Turkish people are eager to see Turkey return to days of peace, economic progress, and security.

At the regional and international levels, a number of countries and organizations will need to view Turkey through different lenses now, and what they see might not be very palatable to them. NATO and Europe will need to get used to political Islam (also called Islamism) at their doorstep. This is distinctly different from Islamic terrorism. Here, I am referring to a political system that is based on Islamic principles and laws, which is perhaps what Erdogan and the AKP are striving for in post-coup Turkey. Given the coup’s failure, they are likely closer to achieving this than in the past.

The United States, in particular, will need to deal with this new reality in Turkey, and simultaneously it will need to devise an effective strategy to handle the Fethullah Gulen dilemma, as well as the integrity and security of the Incirlik military base.

Mustafa Akyol has written an excellent assessment in the New York Times about the failed coup in Turkey and its meanings and implications: July 17, 2016: In it, he mentions that, “The Gulenist movement is widely suspected of infiltrating and plotting to exploit state institutions for its sectarian purposes. Its involvement in the coup attempt seems very likely and the American government should take note.”

Gulen has not exactly been an asset to the United States. Following the failed coup in Turkey, the Incirlik base plunged into chaos, and the authorities cut its power and simultaneously demanded that the U.S. extradite Gulen to Turkey. U.S.-led anti-ISIS air strike operations from Incirlik came to a halt. The United States cannot afford to be caught in such a “catch-22” situation, especially with so much at stake concerning the Incirlik base and its operations.

Dealing with these issues, and especially Incirlik, must be wisely strategized as soon as possible. With ISIS cells scattered throughout Turkey, and still very active, along with Al Qaeda, in Syria next door, there is no room for error or lax preparations regarding this matter. This must be a top priority for U.S. policy makers and strategists. Also, effective U.S.-Turkish diplomacy is crucial, especially now that Erdogan has made amends with Putin and is reaching out to the Assad regime as well.

These days we certainly cannot envy the Turkish people, as they are faced with stark realities, limited choices, and seemingly perpetual uncertainties and anxieties. However, there’s a chance that Erdogan will surprise us by formulating a new “Turkish model” of Turkish Islamic democracy. Whether the world will respect or revile the new model will be up to Erdogan’s decisions and actions in the coming weeks and months. For now, the world is watching, while Erdogan takes his gloves off in the domestic arena. On the one hand, who can blame him? On the other hand, he’s the one to blame.


Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.