Serendipitous Consequences of the Turko-Islamic Gülen Movement


Contemporary social movements such as the Gülen Movement (GM) make an impact
globally and build networks locally. Adherents share Fethullah Gülen’s vision, which
seeks to transform collective values by invigorating them with spiritual traditions.
Its mission amplified through media and computer technologies, the Movement has
grown in Anatolia and abroad since 1980. GM’s educational initiatives, interfaith
dialog, and commitments to peace and justice nurture spiritual awakenings in individuals
as the Gülen Movement underwrites efforts to promote the common good.

Taking cues from Rumi, this paper treats the Gülen Movement as “this dance [which]
is the joy of existence.” It analyzes GM’s developments from several angles. It
first puts Gülen’s “modern” social movement into historical context. Islamic teachings
and practices, which extend from the Qu’ran through Rumi and Nursi to the present-day,
envelop the Gülen Movement. Fethullah Gülen’s spiritual wisdom, intellectual acumen,
and educational insights enabled him to draw a blueprint for action that was neither
fauxwestern nor anti-modern. While Turkey’s postwar political economy sometimes
posed challenges for the leader and his followers, GM’s broad goals, organizational
dynamics, and operational features resemble those other social movements.

A case study follows of the dialog between a U.S. public university and a private
Turkish-American foundation. The partners aspired, in the spirit of mutual tolerance,
to meld American-style pedagogy with GM’s educational opportunities into the Gülen
Institute at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. U.S. and
Turkish students, eager to broaden their cultural competencies, ideally would gain
access to persons and experiences that would enrich their perspectives on ways of
serving others, especially people from different backgrounds.

Taking serendipity seriously, I argue in the final section, enhances global theories
about modern social movements like GM. Serendipity brought together people in Houston
wishing to create better communities in a more just world. They found common ground
despite differences in background and intent. After all, poems of a 13th-century
Sufi mystic rarely appear in U.S. professional school curricula; social work is
nascent in Turkey. Rumi’s poetry was a bridge: it stirs imaginations through a universal
language of love, forbearance, and graphic portrayal of human longings and foibles.
In travels to Turkey and exchanges over food in Houston, students and faculty learn
to integrate spirituality into their professional practices and daily lives. A broad-based
social movement bears fruit in an unexpected setting. The children of Abraham,
Buddhists and Hindi, as well as agnostics, and atheists become partners in a dance
full of joy, aware of their responsibilities as citizens in an increasingly interdependent
and fragile world.

Pay attention to those
who want to change so badly they cry
and dissolve into loving kindness and freedom.
–Rumi, “A Dying Dog,” in Barks, p. 333

Scholars postulate that reliance on technological innovations (notably in the
field of communications) and organizational interdependencies (particularly transnational
boundaries) are integral to collective enterprises that historically foment(ed)
social change.[1] Peasant
riots, urban uprisings, and revolutions since the early modern period are characterized
as “social movements.” Hence Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared in the Communist
(1848) that “all previous historical movements were movements of minorities.”
Two years later German sociologist Lorenz von Stein deployed the term “social movement”
in the title of his book-length analysis of popular political striving. J. Franklin
Jameson’s The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (1925)
remains a classic in U.S. historiography, a study of changes in social status, land
ownership, and beliefs that flowered after the Declaration of Independence. Nineteenth-century
abolitionists, feminists, and temperance crusaders relied on newspapers, telegraphs,
and alliances on both sides of the Atlantic to effect change; these reform efforts
rightly should be interpreted as social movements.

Fethullah Gülen launched a modern-day social movement

Theorists distinguish between the vision and modus operandi of modern
social movements from past ones. Historians and social scientists contend that contemporary
social movements assumed novel forms after the widespread unrest and grassroots
upheavals that shook the world in the 1960s. Catalysts for change differed from
place to place—student riots in Europe, assassinations in the U.S., liberation theologies
south of the Equator. With modern-day environmentalism, for instance, the widespread
commitment to save the earth manifested itself not only in autonomous local communities,
but gave rise to political organizations like Green parties in Germany and elsewhere.
What commonalities, if any, exist among modern-day social movements?

The extent to which “all social movements are born seeking change…engaged in
sustained campaigns of collective action to secure claims or other concessions”[2]
is the most salient feature. Passion animates modern-day social movements. People
get so involved in a specific cause, such as fighting for equal opportunities and
rights for women and minorities, that it transforms their ideas about themselves
and others. Participants’ engagement empowers them to join kindred spirits and activists
equally fervent about remedying inequities–while maintaining their social bonds
and jobs.

Second, power, resources, and information in contemporary social movements flow
to and from local centers of activity amidst a global network. Social movements
typically lack a coordinating board operating through a central bureaucracy. Charismatic
figures may draw adherents to a cause, but social movements are less concerned than
other societal institutions with grooming successors to take the helm. Bottom-up
developments tend to be messy. Commitments vary among volunteers and stalwarts who
make up the rank and file. Still, depending on how they respond to a natural disaster
or cries for help, movements can grow significantly. Framing the common interest
mobilizes grassroots support for reforming conditions at home and abroad.

Third, social movements deploy media to transmit their message, recruit members,
and relay information to “insiders” and “outsiders.” Producing and disseminating
knowledge, the coin of the realm these days, depends on worldwide mass communication.
CDs, radios, videos, movies, television, and computers bring far-away events to
individuals everywhere. Ideas that incubate in remote areas can circulate around
the globe. Mass media at its best shapes opinions and sways hearts, prompting intelligent
discourse and reformist actions.

Contemporary social movements, fourth, level (and sometimes democratize) the
playing field. Scholarly critiques diverge concerning the power experts wield in
setting agendas for social movements, and disagree about the influence ordinary
people have in shaping mass cultures.[3]
The debate assumes that individuals and entities must mobilize resources to survive.
But how seriously are the voices thundering south of the Equator to be taken? Do
pleas from the oppressed have persuasive powers? Can any individual or group striking
the right chord mobilize support for collective goods or actions that might directly
or indirectly benefit the common good?[4]

Fifth, historically novel paradoxes pervade contemporary social movements. On
the one hand, social movements produce a groundswell of civic virtue at the very
time in which the perimeters of “the commons” (as demarcated by labor unions, political
parties, and state-based religions) are diminishing. Meanwhile, those who wish,
say, to reverse global warming face stiff competition from entrepreneurs, evangelists,
and social engineers who convey alternative messages through the same media outlets.[5]
The salience of “identity politics” obscures as it dominates grassroots interdependencies.
The very multiplicity of demands on time and commitments often refract and impede
cultivating bonds that might transcend parochial or demographic loyalties.[6]
This underscores the first priority of any modern social movement: Noble aims founder
without a clarion vision that sustains attention beyond its following.

What Makes the Gülen Movement a Modern Social Movement?

Be like a compass:
Stand firm on one foot, well established in the center of the circle and travel
with your other foot with people of 72 nations.[7]
–Rumi (

GM satisfies the same five criteria for a modern social movement just stipulated:

1. Gülen’s message of tolerance and loving
kindness offers a vision of change

“Those who want to reform the world must first reform themselves,” declares Fethullah
Gülen, identifying “Love, Compassion, Tolerance, and Forgiving” as his building
blocks. “Interfaith dialogue is a must today…giving precedence to common points,
which far outnumber polemical ones.”[8]
Those who want to change the world must first regenerate themselves in acts of loving
kindness and generous forgiveness in order to enter into purposive dialogues suffused
with a spirit of tolerance for others. Gülen had in mind very concrete goals: (1)
to raise people’s consciousness, (2) to conjoin religion and science as a counterpoint
to materialism and positivism, and (3) recover the power of Islamic tradition.[9]
Herein lay the Rumiesque center of GM’s spiritual compass.

GM tries to transform hearts and minds through education: Schools “lay the foundation
for a more humane, tolerant citizenry of the world where people are expected to
cultivate their own faith perspectives and also promote the well being of others.”[10]
Justice and human rights languish where ignorance reigns supreme, Gülen argued;
conversely, those imbued with the spirit of inquiry, logic, and compassion become
engines for reform. Since the 1960s, Gülen Movement participants have established
more than 300 learning centers—elementary and secondary schools, preparatory colleges
and universities—in Turkey (many in remote, underdeveloped regions) as well as in
Central Asian republics, North America, western and eastern Europe, and parts of
the former U.S.S.R. with large Turkic minorities. Thanks to high admissions standards
and rigorous curricula in languages, sciences and arts, Graduates from Gülen-inspired
institutions have won prizes and scholarships for advanced degrees.

2. The Gülen Movement’s translocal and transnational

Gülen described GM as “islands of peace, which we can call invulnerable castles
of harmony and stability.” He dedicated his article, “A Movement Originating Its
Own Models” to “countless educational activists who have gone all around the world
to provide quality education and to promote peace between different nations and
cultures.”[11] Because most
of GM’s initiatives and budgets are determined locally, volunteers at the grassroots
level bear fiscal responsibilities for carrying out most educational and social-service
initiatives. With one foot firmly on the moral compass, as Rumi prophetically imagined,
GM reaches out worldwide, to at least 72 nations.

A movement wherein the parts often seem greater than the whole subjects GM to
all sorts of criticisms. Some opponents charge that Gülen has designs to “Islamicize”
Turkey’s secular state; local residents accuse officials of Gülen-inspired institutions
in Central Asia of favoring the offspring of government officials and the affluent
over the children of the poor.[12]
Little attention has been paid to grooming Fethullah Gülen’s successor, leaving
open how GM will sustain its charismatic leader’s gifts for resource mobilization.
GM members, in presenting counter arguments, underscore one of the truly novel features
of modern-day social movements: it is possible, even desirable, to privilege autonomous
structures over hierarchal power arrangements in order to empower Gülen adherents
to negotiate freely necessary terms of endearment.

Translocal strategic synergies afford GM transnational flexibility in times of
crisis. A cyclone in Myanmar that left thousands dead and at least a million people
homeless in 2008 demanded significant foreign assistance from abroad. Myanmar’s
regime impeded relief efforts. Delays cost lives.[13]
The Gülen Movement, which had schools in the area, mobilized its global network
to deliver food and supplies. Decentralized social movements like GM through its
own apparatus can invent new pathways to achieve objectives.

3. GM is a pacesetter in using the media

Like other modern social movements, the Gülen community constructed a media network
to deliver its message. GM created Zaman, one of the most profitable, large-circulation
dailies in Turkey. At the same site the movement supports Today’s Zaman,
which publishes articles on local and international affairs, politics and economics,
technology, and science every day for English-reading audiences. In addition to
a television channel, a radio station, and an advertising agency, the Gülen Movement
chartered a bank to finance projects in Turkic republics and other outreach initiatives.
Various Gülen foundations maintain computer networks and websites to keep members
and visitors connected to educational initiatives, opportunities for interfaith
dialog, and social-service activities.[14]
GM reaches vast audiences worldwide who rely on the latest technologies for news
and information.

Participants in the GM know how to use the media to advance their cause. In a
poll conducted by Foreign Policy, a distinguished U.S. periodical, Fethullah
Gullen was named first among a 100 of the world’s foremost intellectuals; the Turkish
educator attracted more than 500,000 votes. Gülen, author of five dozen books and
cassettes that swayed cohorts of Turkish youth, surely deserved international recognition
for his influential ideas on tolerance, love, forgiveness, and compassion. That
said, the extent of his acclaim may be due to followers who saw the poll publicized
in Zaman, a notion that the newspaper’s editor-in-chief challenged.[15]
In any case, Gülen’s media hits bolster GM’s credibility—critical in a postmodern
world where “the medium is the message.”

4. GM’s mission and operations level the participatory
playing field

In the 1960s, as Turkey experienced large-scale modernization, Fethullah Gülen
launched a movement that in a few decades altered Anatolia’s social and educational
landscape. Graduates from Gülen-inspired schools gained positions in the judicial
system, military, government, medicine, business, education, and media. Scholarships
were provided to children from disadvantaged families. Insofar as educational opportunities
promote social mobility, GM “has a potential of generating significant degree[s]
of social and spiritual capital as manifested through its national, regional and
global networks, various civil associations, the media outlets, educational institutions
which are inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gülen.”[16]

It matters less and less in a postmodern milieu whether a movement starts at
the center or periphery of urban nubs. People who, through good works and sophisticated
communication, can persuade others that major social challenges and opportunities
cut across heretofore closed ethnic enclaves and national borders can position themselves
to transform hearts and summon widespread courage to transcend fears and prejudices.
Modern social movements attest to the democratization of access to ideas. The leveling
of playing fields gives preachers and teachers in Izmir and elsewhere a chance to
be heard.

For so many years, our spiritual life has to a great extent been extinguished;
our religious world has become dysfunctional; the tongues of our hearts have been
tied by making people forget intense love (ashq) and ecstasy (wajd);
we have perverted all minds which read and think into hard positivism; bigotry has
been installed in the place of firmness of character…and perseverance of truth.[17]

Even with alien keywords, Gülen’s message has gained followers and supporters
who have never been to Turkey, are not Muslim, but heed its universal appeal.

5. GM and the new “Identity Politics”

Just as social movements have changed since the 1960s, so too have the ways that
participants identify themselves as belonging to various demographic groups. Muslims
whose families have lived in Madrid for five generations, for instance, struggle
to be considered “Europeans” rather than “immigrants” or “outsiders.” Blacks and
Spanish-speaking peoples likewise hyphenate their names to distinguish their origins
from other groups. Gays and lesbians, often outspoken in cities, remain closeted
in rural communities and countries. Today’s elders are more vital and vociferous
than the old were a century ago. A multiplication of political identities affects
the composition and flow of social movements. First, there is more cacophony and
dissent. Second, even-handed treatment tends to equalize the freedom to speak and

Identity politics altered the Gülen Movement over the past 25 years as its influence
spread, but the changes have mainly served to reinforce Mr. Gülen’s founding principles.
GM promotes what M. Bakhtin calls “dialogic” relationships, which build off synergistic
dualisms that never totally coalesce. Dialogic bonds promote several types of discourse.
The Movement affords “Muslims a way to live out Islamic values amidst the complex
demands of modern societies and to engage in ongoing dialogue and cooperation with
people of other religions…an avenue wherein the non-Muslim can join with Muslims
in the greater journey of the dialogic quest.”[18]

Fethullah Gülen’s message–blending his reading of classical humanistic texts
(western and eastern) and Islam-based spiritual values with the fruits of modernity
(through science and technology) while insisting upon tolerance and civility in
word and deed—accounts for GM’s diffusion beyond Anatolia. Gülen’s insistence on
focusing on common bonds has proven durable in a world torn by division, bigotry,
and ignorance.

That said, to claim that the Gülen Movement builds on commonalities does not
mean that its principles and strategies resonate universally. Understanding GM’s
development as a modern social movement requires us to explore the historical context
in which it took shape. This entails examining how Gülen and GM reworked fundamental
Islamic values amidst concurrent transformations in Turkey and other nations.

An Islamic Spirituality Lies at the Heart of the
Gülen Movement

Muhammad, in the presence of Gabriel,

Let me see you as you really are. Let me look
As an interested observer looks at his interest.”

“You could not endure it. The sense of sight
is too weak to take in this reality”…..

Muhammad stared, senseless.
Gabriel came and held him in his arms.

Awe serves
for strangers. This close-hugging love is for friends.

–Rumi, “The Private Banquet” in Barks (259-60)

References to ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and Bacon, and French intellectuals
sprinkle Fethullah Gülen’s speeches. Still, in formulating his message, Gülen relied
primarily on the Qu’ran, the hadith (sayings, actions, reactions about Muhammad
and companions), and writings from the Sufi tradition (especially Rumi). His explication
of these Islamic texts attracted many adherents in Izmir’s mosques in the 1960s
and 1970s. Gülen’s sermons and commentaries also appealed to young people from rural
settings whose dreams of middle-class lifestyles were frustrated after moving to
cities.[19] GM became a
social movement in a nation whose population is 99% Muslim: Fethullah Gülen accepted
Islam as a pathway both complementary to and critical of both tradition and modernity.
Islam is “‘the middle way’ of absolute balance—balance between materialism and spiritualism,
between rationalism and mysticism, between worldliness and excessive asceticism,
between this world and the next—and inclusive of the ways of all the previous prophets,
makes a choice according to the situation.”[20]

Over time Islam has offered many pathways, however. Gülen could have crafted
an Abramic image based on the lives of Prophets in the Qu’ran– Moses, Joseph, David,
Jesus and Muhammad. Gülen might have drawn parallels between present-day conditions
in Anatolia and other Islam-based traditions elsewhere.[21]
Instead, Mr. Gülen reinterpreted the stories, folktales, and faith-inspired texts
of his locale, recognizing that at least 85% of all Turks were Sunni and that his
most likely followers were familiar with values and mores associated with Anatolian Sufism.

All strands of Sufism celebrate the creation. Sufi teachings lead people to a
“God [who] enjoins justice, kindness, and charity to one’s kindred,”[22]
lifting them into perfect, universal love. A Sufi spirituality establishes “the
sacredness of everyday life in the face of increasing challenges to our humanness,”
observes Kabir Helminski. It is “the integration or synthesis of the mystical and
the prophetic consciousness, of ecstasy and practicality, of enlightenment and maturity.”[23]

Anatolian Sufism provided an ideal sacred canopy for Fethullah Gülen’s ministry
of morality and spiritual practice. It penetrated Islam’s soul while enunciating
those educational principles necessary for self-critical learning, scientific inquiry
and preparing for a life of service. Gülen’s two volumes on Key Concepts in the
Practice of Sufism: Emerald Hills of the Heart
invites followers to reorient
themselves to values such as surrender and serenity, freedom and self-supervision,
altruism and resignation, wisdom and discernment, poverty and richness as they continue
on the journey of life.[24]

The poems and discourses of the poet, mystic and teacher Mevlana Jalauddin Rumi
(1207-1273) who lived in Konya remain guides to those ecstatic joys and yearnings
found everyday and everywhere in the ordinary. Fethullah Gülen and other observers
note that “Rumi has become emblematic of [GM’s] position of dialogue and tolerance.”[25]
Rumi’s words transcend time and place (the United Nations proclaimed 2007 to be
the Year of Rumi), thus transporting readers and listeners from a particular moment
to a dance in the cosmos. Like the depiction of Gabriel and Muhammad, whose eyepenetrating
gaze and friendly embrace frame this section of the essay, Rumi presages Gülen’s
vision of love and tolerance for those who soberly choose to abandon themselves
to quaff divine wine. GM entices people to use all their thoughts, senses, emotions,
and deeds as they take great risks to recapture universal truths in their lives.

Turkey’s modern-day political economy encompasses
the Islam-based GM

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated…

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

Rumi, “The Reed Flute’s Song” in Barks, 17-18

The insights of Said Nursi (1877-1960), also known as Bediuzzaman “the Wonder
of the Age,” bridge Rumi’s milieu and GM’s modus operandi. Pivotal concepts
to Nursi such as “justice” and “self-realization in relation to others” became a
conduit “for the transition from tradition to modernity, from oral to print culture,
and from a rural to an urban environment.”[26]
Having integrated his studies of physics, mathematics, and physics, Nursi despaired
when modern sciences were dropped from religious-school curricula during the declining
days of the Ottoman Empire. Like Rumi’s reed, Nursi longed for science’s modernizing
impact on religion. Nursi’s lexicon shaped Gülen’s vocabulary. GM in its formative
years was considered one of several reformist Nur (Light) movements to spring up
in Kemalist Turkey.

Mr. Gülen acknowledges his intellectual debt to Said Nursi, although the men
never met. As GM formed its own identity, Gülen denied discipleship “in any sectarian
sense.”[27] The distancing
is especially apparent in the educational sphere: After 1980 Gülen’s listeners founded
elite secular schools, staffed by religiously committed teachers. Furthermore Mr.
Gülen sought to expand his circle through praxis-oriented results: “Although Nursi
was focused on personal transformation, Gülen has focused on personal and social
transformation by utilizing new liberal economic and political conditions…to bring
just and peaceful solutions to the social and psychological problems of society.”[28]
Gülen’s movement, unlike Nursi’s, addressed the challenges of postmodernity. Changes
in Turkey’s political economy facilitated and constrained GM’s development.

Turkey’s location as a gateway to the East and West reinforced the Anatolian
peninsula’s reputation as a mecca for cultural syncretism and multifaith tolerance
not seen since medieval Spain.[29]
Its proximity to Greece, Russia, and the Middle East puts Turkey in line of enemy
fire while remaking the country’s value to superpowers and in regional alliances.
(The struggle for full EU membership symbolizes the extent to which European misperceptions
clash with Turkish nationalism.) Episodes of terrorism and bureaucratic malfeasance,
threats of military intervention, the Kurdish question and xenophobia, as well as
endogenous/exogenous economic swings have complicated the nation’s road to liberal
democracy since Ataturk assumed power in 1923.[30]
Instability in Turkey made GM’s founder controversial: Gülen has been taken into
police custody. Accused (without grounds) of political ambitions, Gülen’s views
on tolerance, even his meeting with John Paul II, earned him critics.

Turkey’s recent history has validated more than hurt GM’s reputation as a modern-day
social movement. Gülen began reformist calls in the 1960s in a climate permitting
political discourse; the nation’s youth culture, media network, and voluntary associations
became more conducive to forces modernizing the political economy. The 1980 coup
suspended unions and purged faculty members, but made it possible for Gülen to advance
his education programs.[31]
Affluent participants, who were comfortable with Islam and modernity, contributed
generously to build schools and underwrite welfare at home and abroad. GM’s so-called
“‘cultural third way’ that is neither Kemalism nor Islamism but a mix of ‘Turkishness’,
Sufi thought…globalization”[32]
has flourished amidst Turkey’s liberalizing transformation. Gülen successfully carved
a niche by articulating a communal vision integrating tradition and modernity—a
song to satisfy the longing of Rumi’s reed flute. GM joined global voices while
imagining anew the values and language of Islam as heard by Turks.

Part Two: How GM forged a partnership between Houston
and Konya

Listen to presences inside poems,
Let them take you where they will.

Follow those private hints,
and never leave the premises.

–Rumi, “The Tent” in Barks, p. 99

A forty-year academic suffered a health crisis that nearly killed him. As he
recovered, the man took stock of his life. A gerontologist entering Dante’s woods
saw his survival as a gift from God, an invitation to “follow those private hints.”
He waited, prayed, and listened, not knowing what lay ahead. Serendipitously, the
man was invited to give a talk at an interfaith conference on “spirituality and
aging.” The gathering drew kindred spirits–mostly middle-aged U.S. participants
pursuing spiritual dimensions of their beings. The academic felt at home in the
midst of estimable persons sharing intimacies about how their inner lives. Eager
to learn more about spirituality, he wanted to embark on his own path. The experience
changed the man’s life: I know, for I am he.

A cradle Episcopalian, I initially turned to spiritual giants of Anglicanism.
It is not surprising that I, who read Eliot and Auden in moments of stress and distress,
found the vivid imagery and spiritual longings of George Herbert (1593-1633) especially
moving. Poetry stirs my imagination, uplifts my spirits, and makes me long for the
Ineffable. My horizons broadened: from Catholic and Orthodox spirituality, I delved
into classic meditations from the East. One day a friend gave me a copy of Coleman
Barks’s translation of The Essential Rumi. I pondered and listened “to presences
inside poems.” An ecstatic sojourner and worldly sage, Rumi spoke about serenading
the Divine and struggling on earth with intimacy. His verses address the suffering
and yearning on the journey of life. I was struck by Rumi’s ecumenicalism: Jesus’s
life and ministry is the subject of several poems; he embraces Jews and Parsi as
well as Muslims in his fold.

By the time Rumi had become an integral part of my meditations, I had moved to
the University of Houston (UH), survived another set of health-related incidents,
and begun teaching in UH’s Graduate College of Social Work. I required students
in a course on “spirituality and aging” to read Rumi. We drank in his universal
message of love, and discussed how a mystic poet might inform their social-work
practices. Each time that I introduced Rumi to aspiring social workers required
leaps of faith (amidst much doubt) on everybody’s part. I asked students to pick
a verse, a quatrain, or a poem from Barks’s collection and tell us what they heard,
what they learned. Midway through class I would raise the stakes: I selected a passage
that related to my own life history. Forced to trust one another made all of us
more honest. The verses of a 13th-century mystic pierced the hearts of professionals-in-the-making
whose primary mission is to serve others.

Once again, serendipity enters this essay: over lunch a dear colleague suggested
that I join her and a dozen other academics on a trip to Turkey. I accepted the
invitation at once when she said that itinerary included a stop in Konya, where
Rumi taught, planting the seeds for a school for Whirling Dervishes, and died. Surely
the trip’s most powerful memory was my pilgrimage to Rumi’s grave. I stood for an
hour, by turns giving thanks for the privilege to meditate in Rumi’s shadow and
observing others (Muslims, Japanese, Indians, Hispanics, and Anglo-Americans) who
had stopped to pay their respects. In a way that I had never experienced quite the
same before, I became a citizen of the world, spiritually and otherwise. There was
no turning back.

Back in Houston, I met with members of the Institute for Interfaith Dialog (IID),
the local GM chapter that had generously underwritten my trip to Turkey. Investigating
the connection between Gülen and Rumi, I learned that Gülen, characterized by some
as “a modern-day Rumi,” considered Rumi a saint. I noted that Rumi was the best
selling poet in the U.S. Aslandogan informs us that “the compilation of [Rumi’s
works by] C. Barks has drawn attention to the spiritual tradition of Islam…The interest
in Sufism was renewed after the tragedy of 9/11 as both Muslims and non-Muslims
sought to highlight the inclusive, peace and love-focused essence of this faith.”[33]
Rumi’s writings, I realized, provided a platform for interfaith dialog across centuries
and continents. If so, then Rumi’s legacy should offer common ground for bridging
cultures in an academic setting.

As a member of a faculty advisory board to the Institute for Interfaith Dialog,
I decided to introduce members of IID’s administration to my dean. Both sides realized
that a partnership would prove mutually beneficial. From GCSW’s perspective there
was, after 9-11, a growing awareness that U.S. students and faculty need better
understanding of the Muslim world than is afforded through mainstream media. Many
students come from Turkey and from Islamic communities to UH for graduate and professional
training. The Affiliation and Cooperative Agreement that Institute for Interfaith
Dialog signed with GCSW attests to IID’s stake:

The primary goal of IID is to help bring together communities of diverse faiths
and cultures in order to promote mutual understanding, empathy, peaceful coexistence,
partnership, cooperation and community service through interfaith dialog and conversation.
IID is dedicated to encouraging the study of the global communities’ spiritual traditions
from the vantage point of respect, accuracy, and appreciation.[34]

GCSW agreeg to provide space for the Gülen Institute; IID agreed to underwrite
scholarships and other educational expenses that fit the Institute’s goal.

Fruits of the partnership were evident even the first year. IID invited faculty
and students from UH and other colleges and universities to join business and political
leaders at lunches keynoted by Mayor Bill White, former Secretary of State James
A. Baker III, and several local Member of Congress. Staff and faculty GCSW attended
a banquet marking the end of Ramadan. Perhaps the most ambitious project was the
design of a 12-day trip to Turkey that highlighted social services, hospitals, and
professional training in that nation. Dean Colby, four faculty, and twelve students
(selected by a joint IID-GCSW committee) accompanied Dr. Aslandogan and me on the

Conclusion: The Importance of “Serendipity” in Explicating
Social Movements

Gamble everything for love
If you’re a true human being.

–Rumi, “The Three Fish” in Barks, p. 193

Initially it seemed odd that leaders of a social movement originating from a
Turkish-Muslim would choose to become partners with a social-work college in Houston.
Despite the rapid shift from an agrarian- to urban/industrial based economy, accompanied
with upheavals in traditional family networks, there are few social workers in Turkey
to deal with social dislocation, mental illness, child welfare, community development,
or the geriatric needs of an aging population. The development of social work as
a profession in Anatolia does not yet offer the elaborate training, licensing, and
credentialing options found in North America, western Europe, or (former) Commonwealth

Yet the history of the Gülen Movement indicates a tendency to “gamble everything
for love,” to go about its business in a genuinely human way to achieve its objectives.
So its leader did not muster support for his cause by adhering to interpretations
of Islam that he had been taught. Instead, Mr. Gülen invoked the Prophetic tradition
and Turkish cultural history (including Nursian folktales) to move individuals’
hearts to transcendent concepts of love, peace, tolerance, and forgiveness. Unlike
many faith-based organizations in Anatolia, GM flourished in a political economy
driven by secularism and modernity; it showed by its achievements that science and
technology were compatible with Mr. Gülen’s interpretation of Sufism. There is no
way to track GM’s full cadre of participants and volunteer associations, but its
founder’s longterm commitments and objectives have been clear and consistent from
the outset:

Gülen’s immediate concern is not to achieve changes on the macrolevel; rather
he focuses on the spiritual and intellectual consciousness of the individual. He
stressed the role that technology and new global networks can play in articulating
a newly formed Muslim consciousness, which he feels has a mission to fulfill. He
is extremely optimistic about the impact of new information technology in empowering
power and consolidating democracy.[36]

Administrators and faculty at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of
Social Work after due diligence concluded that the opportunities offered by the
Institute for Interfaith Dialog were compatible with its own mission. GCSW wants
to equip students with the necessary conceptual and technical skills as well as
sufficient training in the field to make them able to think critically and to act
compassionately in a profession that serves others. The scope of social work in
the U.S. and abroad has changed significantly over the past century; it remains
underestimated and misunderstood.[37]
Nonetheless the desire of its practitioners to empower individuals to be “truly
human beings” is palpable. I have accompanied social workers as they visited destitute
elders and took remedial action; GCSW faculty coordinated relief efforts for homeless
people from New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina; they teach and supervise students
from developing nations for careers that in big ways and small will foster peace
and justice locally and globally.

Readers might conclude that a set of lucky coincidences and circumstances brought
IID and GCSW together. I suspect, however, that something deeper— serendipity—was
at play. Here is how the English writer Horace Walpole (1717-97) explicated the
concept: “Serendipity…You will understand it better by the derivation than
by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of
Serendip’: as their Highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by
accidents and sagacity, of which they were not in quest of.”[38]
Chance occurrences happen all the time, but they rarely lead to formal partnerships
between such disparate organizations. In this case a few actors grasped for the
universal in the particular, much as Rumi foretold:

A westerner dwells in the west and an easterner comes to the west. The “stranger”
is the westerner. What sort of stranger is he who comes from the east? Since the
whole world is no more than one house, he has simply gone from one corner to another.
Is he not still in the very same house?[39]

There are risks when strangers from the east and west meet. Strangers view each
other as aliens. So what makes strangers operating in terra incognita take

In my opinion, modern social movements like GM depend in part on “serendipity”
to advance their cause. GM’s engine operates at the grassroots level: Volunteers,
friends, and supporters in the local community decide how to set priorities and
allocate resources. Yet any bottom-up initiative (like affiliating with GCSW) must
be congruent with the movement’s broad mission, linking GM’s universal compass with
partners’ humanistic traditions (in this case, their classical-democratic values).
The Turkish-Muslim originated effort to educate people to promote peace and tolerance
depends on the power of ideas and the fruits of global capitalism. For the followers
of Mr. Gülen this means deploying pragmatism and idealism, as well as scientific
inquiry and normative standards as it redefines tradition for a modern era.

Sometimes ideas conveyed through communication networks go awry. John Kerry’s
presidential chances were sabotaged by a book (falsely) impugning his Vietnam-war
record and his capacity for leadership.[40]
In a world in which many ideas, visions, and books potentially command worldwide
attention, sensational lies and cynicism often outsell integrity and truth. Honest,
objective messages and integrity can fall flat.

“In Gülen’s writings, tolerance is compassion and compassion is love.”[41]
Love, Rumi exclaimed, is the ultimate thing worth gambling for. The turns of the
Whirling Dervishes, whose joyful dance animates Rumi’s message that “the nation
of love differs from all others/Lovers bear allegiance to no nation or sect,”[42]
becomes a metaphor for a modern-day social movement in motion, a paradigm for how
its local and global spheres can transform individuals by empowering them to risk
softening their hearts for the sake of a wounded world-community in search of comity.
Serendipity advances GM’s cause because its mission is so central to the human situation
and accessible to anyone receptive to its message.


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[1] For more, see McCarthy and Zald (1973), McAdam et al. (2001), Tilly (2004), and Achenbaum (2008).

[2] Amenta (2006): 14, 17.

[3] Smelser (1962), Aronowitz (1992), and Edelman (2001).

[4] Luders (2007).

[5] Measuring outcomes remains problematic. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest and wealthiest social institution in the U.S., cannot count on the faithful adhering to teachings about sexuality and other matters. AARP, the second largest American organization, attracts members through discounts on travel and prescriptions, but cannot deliver its constituency when Congress deliberates policies for the aging.

[6] Singh (2001), Kenny (2004), Taylor (2004).

[7] The number “72” refers to verses 2, 19, 21 of Sura 72, which is part of the numerical representation of Rasha Khalifa as the name of God’s messenger encoded in the Qu’ran. The number also has ecumenical import. Jesus sent out 72 disciples (John 10:1); it is also the number of oxen won for booty (Num. 31:38)

[8] Gülen in Unal and Williams (2000): 244-5, 256; “The [Four] Pillars of Dialogue” appear on p. 253.

[9] Agai in Yavuz and Esposito (2003): 57.

[10] Kurtz (2005): 380. Gülen’s views rest on such Sufi educational premises as the need to educate the soul, to conduct education and training with others, and to empower teachers who have the wisdom, guidance, and inspiration to educate those honest and committed enough to change. See Helminski (2000): 32; Michel (2002); and Aslandogan and Cetin (2006).

[11] Gülen (2004): 210, 213.

[12] Park (2007): 54. On democratic leaders’ assessment of GM, see Fuller (2007): 59. On Gülen’s mode of servant leadership, see Cetin (2007): ch. 5.

[13] Goodman (2008).

[14] Maigre (2007): 37.

[15] Tait (2008). It is worth noting that the top 10 intellectuals were all Muslim.

[16] Kuckcan (2007): 193; see also Park (2007) and Cetin (2007).

[17] Gülen (2005): 26

[18] Pratt (2007): 406; see also Gurbuz (2007): 104. For the touchstones that reach non-Muslims, see Carroll (2007) and Tuncer (n.d.).

[19] Maigre (2006); Penaskovic (2007): 414.

[20] Gülen quoted in Michel (2005): 353; see also Kuru (2005).

[21] On the Abrahamic Prophets, Schimmel (2001): 118-20 and Smith (1994: 157) on similarities among the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; On Ismaili history, Virani (2007). Other options existed elsewhere; see “Global Islam” (2008).

[22] Qur’an 16.90

[23] Helminski (2000); 181, 222; see also, Smith, 175.

[24] Gülen (2004 and 2006); see also, Michel (2005): 348; Kurtz (2005): 377; Schuon (1998): 37.

[25] Hermansen (2007): 64. “We are travelers in the world, writes Mr. Gülen (2005: 100). Rumi “says each individual is like a flute made of a read separated from its group. We continually groan with the pangs of separation from the real Owner and our native land.” Lines of this poem frame the following section.

[26] Yavuz (2003 and 1999); see also, Krause (2007): 165 and Vainovski-Mihai (20007): 423-4.

[27] Cetin (2007), ch. 2:13; Atay (2007): 459

[28] Yavuz (2003): 3; Graskemper (2007): 625); Eldridge (2007): 525.

[29] Menocal (2002). Mango (2004: 249) sees resemblances among Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Iberia.

[30] Lovatt (2000); see also Harris (1985) and Keyman (2007).

[31] Cetin (2007): ch. 4, p. 62; Mango (1994): 14, 24.

[32] Maigre (2007): 37; see also Aras and Caha (2000), Kiline (2007): 137 and Lorasdagi (2007): 154.

[33] Aslandogan (2007): 664; see also, Celik et al. (2007): 249, Gülen (2005a): xv and Gülen (2005b): 100, 303. And Turkish immigrants in Houston remained interested in political developments in their homeland (Balkan, 2008:6).

[34] University of Houston (2007).

[35] Bulut (2003); Libal (2008).

[36] Yavuz (2003): 29; see also Cetin (2007).

[37] Ginsberg (2001)

[38] Shapiro (2006): 796. For a theory of “serendipity,” see Merton and Barber (1958) and Merton (1985).

[39] Thackston (1994): 55.

[40] Corsi (2004) and (2008).

[41] Schlubach (n.d): 4

[42] Friedlander (2003): 153.

by Dr. Ali Ünsal