|Recep Tayyip Erdogan|
Aside from these drastic changes in political developments, perhaps an even more interesting development during the same time frame is the emergence of what can be called a Turkish 'civil Islam'. This is most prominently exemplified by the initatives deployed by the so-called Gülen Movement, led by Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941). This former mosque Imam gives direction to a somewhat amorphous and multifarious organisation involved in reshaping Turkish civil society through wide-ranging activities in the fields of education, media, charity and philantropy. His influence has been so pervasive that in a 2008 survey by Prospect Magazine, Gülen surfaced as the most influential global public intellectual. The movement does namely not limit its activities to only Turkey, but is also involved on the international scene, especially in Central Asia, Southeastern Europe, and Western countries with Turkish communities or substantial numbers of citizens of Turkish descent.
|Fethullah Gulen with Pope John Paul II|
One such international exponent is the UK-based Dialogue Society. Established in 1999, it recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. During the first decade of its existence it has been highly successful in networking with the political establishment, supporting the foundation of a number of private schools, deploying initiatives towards community cohesion, and organising academic seminars, workshops, and round-table discussions in which politicians, civil servants, academics, social activists and journalists are brought togehter to discuss issues affecting pluralist societies such as those emerging in the UK, in particular in the London area.
The Dialogue Society also facilitates trips enabling participants in its various activities to gain first-hand experience of current developments in Turkey. During a recent visit to Istanbul, I was thus in a position to become acquainted with some of the projects initiated, supported or inspired by the Gülen Movement. Meetings and discussions were held with, for example, representatives of the charity organisation Kimse Yok Mu ('Is Anybody Out There?'), which had started out as a TV programme to raise funds for earthquake victims and quickly developed into a prominent disaster and poverty relief agency.
Media form a very important part in the network of Gülen Movement-associated organisations. These include the Samanyolu TV Station and Zaman Media group. Samanyolu operates a network of satellite stations in Kurdistan, Istanbul and the United States, where it broadcasts as Ebru TV.
The Zaman group publishes an English-language edition known as Today's Zaman. Numerous leading political commentators and academics, including Şahin Alpay,Kerim Balci and Ihsan Yilmaz write columns for this periodical.
On the intellectual front, the Journalists and Writers Foundation connects a plethora of forums and platforms engaged in such activities as interfaith dialogue, gender issues, and the facilitation of relations between Turkey, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. One of its most prominent initiatives is the Abant Platform, envisaged as an alternative to the annual Davos World Economic Forum.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Gülen Movement is its worldwide network of private schools, ranging from nurseries and primary education to academically rigorous and highly successful high schools and colleges, and even universities, such as Fatih University on the outskirts of Istanbul. The entire system is privately funded, not only relying on fees, but also on large-scale donations from an increasingly affluent and assertive middle class, with roots in the socially conservative provincial cities and towns of Anatolia and the Black Sea area.
(Photo above) Dr Ihsan Yilmaz during a frank discussion on the careful navigations required for operating a private university associated with the Gülen Movement in Turkey. (Photo below): Final reflection and discussions with political commentator Kerim Balci.
|Kerim Balci (R) and Carool Kersten (L)|
Recommended readings on recent developments in Turkey and on the Gülen Movement: