Understanding Structure and Hierarchy in the Gulen Movement – 2

The Gülen Movement is not centrally organized or hierarchically structured, either formally or informally. There is no chain of command, or top-down management style or system. There is the inspiration to engage in positive works, which flows from Fethullah Gülen’s teaching and lifestyle and the works and example of the people he has motivated

In my previous blog, in an effort to understand and explain how the Gülen Movement (also called Hizmet) operates without a top-down organizational structure, I looked at Gore Inc, a privately owned high-tech company producing over a thousand products and an annual turnover of $2.5 billion with over 9,000 employees and factories in more than 30 countries. Gore Inc operates as a flat lattice organization without any organizational charts, without a hierarchy of managers and fixed lines of communications between them, without a chain of command and pre-assigned lines of authority and without bosses or titles. So I asked this straightforward question: if this huge, extremely successful international high-tech company can run its business on the basis of a flat lattice structure, then surely it should come as no surprise that a non-profit social movement could also do its work, and do it equally successfully, on the same basis – that is, without a central, hierarchical organization.

The fact that a social movement is by its nature and purposes more suited (than a profit-oriented high-tech company) to operate as a loose network of teams of well-motivated and committed individuals, does not necessarily mean that it does operate in that way. My point in making the comparison was to get away from the preconception that any movement as large, coherent, and successful in so many areas as Hizmet is, must be centrally managed, even if that alleged central management is invisible.

In this follow-up, I want to take the next step and look at how the Gülen Movement really operates. I want to go behind the visible entities that run specific operations, like schools, dialogue communities, local clinics, etc. Such entities are formally structured – for example, the schools have a governing body (board), a head and deputy or department heads, and so on. I want to look behind these visible structures at the decision-making dynamics, the ‘invisible’ energy, that brings these structures into being and then keeps them interconnected and functioning in a coherent way. Put differently, I want to look at how the Movement functions as a whole, rather than how any of the parts within that whole do their particular business.

What I have to say is based on substantial discussions with practitioners within the Movement and on extensive observations over a long time of how they work, including taking part in some of their activities and events.

Fethullah Gülen, through his speeches and writings, provides the religious and philosophical discourse that serves to attract, inspire and guide those who participate in the Movement. This discourse also shapes their general attitudes and dispositions, like, for example, being pro-active, non-reactive, non-partisan, etc. But Gülen’s ideas are very general in nature (“Let there be no troubled souls to whom you do not offer a hand”) and do not constitute specific directives. The Movement has a horizontal, even bottom-up (introverted pyramid) structure, without formal membership. Being “in” the Movement is not a meaningful description of affiliation to the Movement, which is described simply as sympathy and support for what it strives to achieve.

Anyone who takes an active interest in and supports the Movement is called a gonullu. This term (literally, it means “volunteer participant”) is used of someone who is committed to participating as a volunteer in the Movement. A gonullu includes those who donate money, goods, time or expertise to the work of the Movement. Gonullu is the only recognized title within the Movement, including for Fethullah Gülen himself. The same term is used of participants who are paid a wage provided their primary motivation is not paid employment but to support the Movement regardless of pay.

The Movement’s participants network among themselves and others through regular meetings called sohbets. A sohbet (literally, “religious circle”) is usually held weekly and attendants number between 7 and 15 people. The circles last a few hours and consist of discussions on faith, religion, society and new and ongoing projects. The main function of these gatherings is to inform and invigorate belief, to develop social responsibility and to move awareness towards activism. Thesohbet therefore serves as an information-hub: it is where new acquaintances are made and new ideas aired. These meetings enable the Movement’s participants to network and exchange information about Hizmet-related projects that they know about or are involved in.

Out of these sohbets, smaller informal groups emerge, called istishare (literally, “informal meeting, mutual consultation, deliberation”). Istishares are held meet regularly alongside or outside of the sohbets (circles) to discuss, develop and deliver particular on-going projects or to start up new ones.

As the idea for a project develops and as the idea begins to be implemented, a formal management committee for the project emerges and, as appropriate in the particular case, may take the form of a muteveli (literally, “board of trustees or directors”). In most cases it is possible to trace the formation of a muteveli back to the informal discussions during the istishare, which in turn evolve out of the weekly sohbets attended by gonullus.

Who, within the Gülen Movement, has the authority to set up a circle (sohbet), meeting group (istishare) or management board (muteveli)? For outsiders to a social movement like Hizmet, it is hard to imagine anyone taking a lead role in a project unless they have first been “appointed” by someone “higher up” and given a “job-title” and “job-description”. But if we keep in mind that the Gülen Movement rests on faith-inspired activism, we can understand that responsibility comes to be allocated from within the group on the basis of a demonstration of individual inspiration and initiative. Since the circles are partly based on discussing religious matters, those who start up new circles are usually participants well-versed in Islam, though not necessarily with a formal religious training. Setting up or running a project is about taking initiative and demonstrating commitment and competence. Within the group certain individuals achieve the necessary credibility by (i) showing a sound grasp and appreciation of the principles and values of the Movement generally, and (ii) showing energy, competence and know-how relevant to the project in hand particularly. In other words, without any formal, written process or explicit conventions, project leaders, managers and co-ordinators emerge naturally from networking within the Movement: the formal structures running local projects are thus autonomous and self-organised.

In many instances those who start a new project are those who come up with the idea in the first place. They might raise the idea at the sohbet or on a one-to-one basis. The reaction provides the necessary feedback which gives the group some sense of the idea’s strengths and weaknesses. Either way, the person in question would have planted an idea into the group’s collective mind and, depending on his or her time and stamina and the group’s receptivity and motivation, the idea might grow into a more fully fledged project. In which case, whoever is leading on that particular idea usually, though not always, ends up as the one who sees the project through. Also fairly common is for the one guiding or leading the circle’s discussions to make a project-suggestion which others present respond to, and which, if the feedback is good, he or she then takes further. But leading a project really depends on the necessary skills and competence, as the following example will illustrate:

I spoke to a woman born and brought up in Lithuania who started attending a circle (sohbet) of Turkish-Lithuanian women in order to develop her knowledge of Islam. She was not a Gülen-inspired person when she joined the circle, which had been set up by a Turkish woman from Turkey who had lived in Europe for many years. The circle focused on religious issues and how these related to everyday life. The woman I spoke to said that they read and discussed Gülen’s writings on religion as well as the work of other scholars. After some time, perhaps influenced by Gülen’s emphasis on ‘positive action’ and ‘social responsibility’, members of the group felt motivated to organize events and activities outside their circle. To achieve this they all agreed to split the circle into two groups – one group dedicated to religious issues and the other to projects and activities. However, it soon emerged that the circle leader, who was well suited to leading and running the discussion of religious issues, was not as capable as others in the circle when it came to organizing social and charitable projects. As a result another woman took up that responsibility. Over time the two groups separated fully; now they meet on one evening for the sohbet (circle) and on another evening for the istishare (meeting).
Local or project leadership also emerges around the concept of abi (elder brother) or abla (elder sister). In Turkish tradition it is common to address even a slightly older person as abi or abla, and doing so is not considered ceremonial or artificial; on the contrary, it is normal everyday usage, expressive of respect for the older person.

The term abi/abla is also used in the Movement to denote a fellow-participant who is deserving of a degree of respect above and beyond the respect shown to someone simply because they are older. This respect, which indicates some measure of influence, does not derive from a formal title, position or status within the group or the Movement. Rather, such influence is accrued naturally over time. How that happens varies, but I have been able to identify a number of contribting factors: (i) being a good speaker and running interesting, inspiring circles; (ii) being well versed in and knowledgeable about religious issues; (iii) having a proven track record of success in the Movement; and (iv) being particularly competent or knowledgeable in a way relevant to the group’s projects. Individuals with one or more of these characteristics naturally stand out from among others. In addition, those who have been active in the Movement for 40 years or more, i.e. since its inception, are very few in number: they are shown a degree of respect by younger participants not afforded to others.

As I noted above, the only status within the Movement is that of gonullu (volunteer participant). The term abi/abla is not a job-title or job description. It is a courtesy title expressing respect; it is used acording to circumstance. Among younger participants an individual may be called abisimply because he is older. But among older participants he will not be addressed as abi. Among less experienced participants the more experienced individual is addressed as abi, while among equally or more more experienced participants he is not. The same individual will not be addressed as abi by all people in all situations. The term is also relative in that someone for whose views respect is naturally felt in one context – say, on account of their knowledge of the religion and capacity to articulate it – may not inspire the same degree of respect when expresssing their views on, say, how to run a magazine or school or other enterprise. Thus an individual is anabi/abla in their particular area of knowledge and competence for which they have gained respect and recognition.

What does an abi or abla do? Well, as already explained, there is no separate job description for an abi and abla. They are ordinary volunteers running circles or projects or organizations, who happen to be very good at what they do. The point is, once they earn the respect and recognition of their peers, they are more likely to be listened to and therefore more likely to take initiative in suggesting new ideas and leading more ambitious projects. For the same reason, they come to be more widely consulted and invited to different circles and meetings to benefit from their input. Accordingly, over time, it becomes likely that abis and ablas emerge as local mentors and local leaders within certain cities. Sometimes, they may be consulted by a number of organizations simultaneously and help with co-ordination and information flow.

With respect and influence comes responsibility: abis and ablas often feel that they have to help when called upon to do so. Depending on their expertise they may also end up interpreting Gülen’s talks (broadcast via his website). So it is possible to observe abis and ablas mentoring, helping, advising, consulting and suggesting new ideas to other participants of the Movement. It is more than likely that there are several abis and ablas in any given city at any one time. But, in contrast to the defined, hierarchical style of management we expect in other contexts, these abis and ablasdo not wield power or control over other participants. Their abi- and abla-hood is relative and their influence rests upon the perception of the participants around them – what they have is not institutional power but moral authority; that is personal credibility among others that makes their views persuasive.

This is really no different from our interactions with colleagues and friends in other settings. We naturally gravitate to people who are good speakers, or those who have a proven track record of success in the work that they do. At any board meeting you notice that certain people, regardless of their status, are listened to more intently than others and that is due to their personal character and credibility rather than their status (although those with status are often shown deference, deservedly or not).

The Gülen Movement is not centrally organized or hierarchically structured, either formally or informally. There is no chain of command, or top-down management style or system. There is the inspiration to engage in positive works, which flows from Fethullah Gülen’s teaching and lifestyle and the works and example of the people he has motivated. The core of the Movement’s energy comes from the sohbets (religious circles), which feeds into intishares (informal meetings), which develop into more formal structures such as mutevelis (boards). The activities of the Movement are managed bottom-up though local initiatives and coordination. Mentors and leaders (abis and ablas) emerge at the local level and naturally over time they prove themselves adept and competent. Other participants look to these local mentors/leaders for help with networking, coordination between projects and organizations, to channel feedback locally and from other projects and organizations elsewhere. Also, certain abis and ablas are admired for their knowledge of the religion and/or for being active in the Movement over many years so that they may also be looked to for guidance in interpreting Gülen’s articles and talks.

The lack of centralized authority, structure and hierarchy shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense. The Movement is successful in so many socio-economically and politically diverse settings precisely because it is locally oriented and its work is driven from the grass-roots. It is highly unlikely that a centralized system could be so effective in such diverse conditions. Secondly, the rate at which the Movement is expanding is also indicative of an absence of the kind of inhibiting bureaucracy associated with hierarchies. A top–down structure requires various layers of procedures, checks, committees, decision-makers, etc., which inevitably slow down decisions and stifle initiative. We see the opposite of that in this Movement. If anything it is too dynamic and sometimes acts ahead of its own thinking (a topic for another blog), adding weight to the argument that the Movement does not work through such bureaucratic procedures.

As Gore Inc has grown it has tinkered with its flat lattice organization. Extremely dynamic and fast-growing, the Gülen Movement is also adapting and evolving new ways of operating. For example, for the first time in its history the Movement is setting up national umbrella organizations. Previously, the Movement’s focus was on localism and as such any networking or structures were very local. Now however, while bottom-up and still very local and fluid, the Movement is beginning to make use of more formal regional networking structures for the purposes of information flow.

Of course the problem with discussing an informal, loosely connected movement is that its fluidity makes it difficult to define. The model on which the Gülen Movement operates is not something we are used to or easily understand and so we are disposed to doubt that it could operate successfully in the ways that it claims to operate. We impose on it our preconception of how such an extensive and vigorous Movement must be operating – we cannot easily accept that shared goals and principles, goodwill and high motivation are sufficient to compensate for the lack of centralization, structure and hierarchy. People who encounter the Gore Inc model for the first time apparently have the same reaction and feel the same doubts and bewilderment. But if we are willing to challenge our preconceptions and really try to understand the phenomenon – whether it is the Gülen Movement or something else – a pattern of working practices emerges that makes good sense and goes along way to explain the otherwise puzzling degree of success.

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies