Before addressing the above question it’s important to first put things in perspective. The Hizmet movement (a transnational faith inspired human centric movement inspired by the Turkish Islamic scholar and peace activist Fethullah Gülen) enjoys huge support and sympathy among the Turkish people in mainland Turkey and among communities around the world where it operates. It could not otherwise deliver the services that it does – a thousand schools; even more dialogue organisations; clinics; media outlets; humanitarian aid and other charitable NGOs – in over a 130 countries around the world. Operations on this scale require a massive amount of human and financial resources, inconceivable without the sustained commitment of its participants and the support of sympathisers. Empirical research tells us that participants in Hizmet donate between 5 and 25 per cent of their annual income as well as a considerable amount of their time and know-how to Hizmet services. Others have suggested that 84 per cent of Turks have a favourable opinion of Fethullah Gülen and the the movement hr inspires. Both the sheer size, scale and variety of the movement’s activities and empirical research into its resource mobility prove that Fethullah Gülen and the movement enjoys the support and sympathy of the majority of the Turkish people.
Those who are critical of Hizmet cannot have it both ways – arguing that on the one hand the movement is “big and everywhere” and, on the other, that a large sector of the Turkish people are fearful of it. The movement could not be “big and everywhere” unless the vast majority of the people were in favour of it.
This clarification is not an attempt to undermine or disregard the views and sentiments of the minority. I am simply stating an increasingly overlooked fact. Having made that point, I now turn to the question of where the minority in Turkey stand, vis-à-vis Hizmet? The minority falls somewhere along the wide spectrum of ‘indifferent’ on the one end to genuinely ‘fearful’ on the other. It is this fear of Hizmet that I wish to describe and try to understand in this blog. The fear is attributable to one or a combination of factors: attitudes towards religion in general (though Islam particularly); scepticism about (even disdain for) altruism; concern about the sheer size of the movement; and, for particular elitist groups, anxiety about loss of control over the people.
The modern Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 in part on the basis of the expulsion of religion from the public and sometimes even from the private sphere. The modernising elite regarded religion as the source of the Ottoman State’s stagnation and decline and were determined to eliminate it from the Republic’s future. The script in which Turkish language was written was changed from Arabic to Latin, and an effort made to purge from it words of Arabic/Islamic origin. All Sufi orders were banned; religious attire was forbidden; the teaching of the Qur’an was prohibited and for over a decade the call to prayer (Adhan) was read in Turkish as opposed to Arabic, the original form in which it has and continues to be read for the past fourteen centuries from the minarets of mosques. Any form of religious activism was labelled as “reactionary” (irtica) and considered Turkey’s number one threat (the second being the PKK terrorist activities which cost over 30,000 lives). Given this background and the relentless media campaign about the threat of religion, there are those in Turkey who genuinely fear ‘religion’, and for some among them this fear becomes an explicit loathing or Islamophobia. Since Hizmet is perceived (rightly or wrongly) by these people as religious, there fear of religion is automatically extended to the movement. Thus it is not the movement itself or its activities, but the fear of religion coupled with the perception of the movement and its activities as religious that prompts this fear.
The particular direction and expressions of capitalism that people have settled into over the last century or so have entrenched the assumption that only selfish motives are “true”, that self-interest is the only reliable basis for understanding and regulating social and economic relationships. This has led to the cynical expectation that if people appear to be acting out of good will and benevolence, then, beneath that appearance, there must be some hidden agenda, some striving for selfish advantage in wealth or status or power. We’ve all heard the common expression that there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ and that if something sounds ‘too good to be true’ then perhaps it is just that: untrue on account of being too good. This cynicism applied to Hizmet leads some people into misjudgements, to which they cling despite all the evidence. For over forty years the volunteers in Hizmet have been active in providing a broad range of services subject to the supervision of the diverse legal regimes of many different countries, with not a single instance of seeking economical or political advantage for themselves, still less of any wrongdoing. The activists say their motivation is to help build a more humane, loving and peaceful world. But those who are attuned to the modern capitalist ethic and its entrenched cynicism cannot rid themselves of their prejudice; they cling to the view that a self-funding grassroots movement simply cannot be professional and effective on the scale of Hizmet. Their own attitudes lead them to suppose that, somehow, there must be a hidden agenda, a secret conspiracy, a plot… Necessarily, such prejudice engenders anxiety and fear; indeed the absence of evidence to support the prejudice reinforces the need to imagine a conspiracy, which in turn aggravates the anxiety and fear.
Size matters; it always leaves an impression. For some, the sheer scale of Hizmet is, in and of itself, a cause of concern, regardless of what that movement does and is all about. A transnational civil movement in its millions, however good and laudable its aims and activities, is seen as suspect, merely on account of its numbers and reach. What makes the movement so large and extensive is its integrity and effectiveness in pursuing worthwhile aims, which attract the mass support. Here again, the cause of concern is not whether the movement is a force for good or evil, but simply that it is a force at all.
The ill-founded and non-rational fears so far mentioned are at least based on genuine emotional reactions. However, within the minority in Turkey who oppose the movement, there is a small but powerful set of interlocked elitist groups, whose opposition is far from sincere. Until recently these groups controlled and manipulated Turkish public discourse, politics and thereby people. These were the kingmakers, the puppeteers who pulled the strings behind the scenes, often referred to in Turkish idiom as the “deep state”. They dominated state machinery, military, politics, media, economy and academia. Turkey’s 1982 constitution (drafted by the military) and the various institutions and controls it created, was formulated by these groups so as to maintain their control over the government, whichever party won power through elections. This deep state (pruned, yet still active today) continues to oppose Turkey’s accession to the EU, further democratisation, a civil constitution, greater rights and freedoms for ethnic minorities, freedom of speech and religion, because each of these would erode its hold over power in Turkey.
This deep state is deeply unhappy with Fethullah Gülen and Hizmet he inspires for the same reason that it is unhappy with Turkey’s accession to the EU and the shift towards greater democracy. The deep state believes that Gülen’s discourse and the movement’s activities strengthen civil society, empowers individuals and the periphery, and further democracy and rule of law. Gülen’s work also helps break down barriers between classes and ethnic groups, making it more difficult for the deep state to manipulate the tensions in Turkish society. A stronger, more united society with greater demand and respect for democracy and the rule of law, means a weaker and far less effective deep state. That is why this deep state is afraid of Gülen and the movement he inspires. To fight its corner, it has been conducting a systematic campaign of character assassination and defamation against Fethullah Gülen and Hizmet, manipulating in particular the three points of fear as explored above. This campaign and the techniques deployed have been extensively documented and exposed in Dogan Koc’s ‘Strategic Defamation of Fethullah Gülen: English vs Turkish’.
Understanding the fears about Hizmet is the first step towards defeating the prejudices that give rise to those fears, at least so far as ordinary people are concerned. The irony is that the genuine fear felt by a very small minority as a result of their underlying concerns with religion, altruism and size is based on prejudice and is by and large misplaced in relation to the movement. The fear and anxiety however felt by those connected to the deep state is more sinister yet nonetheless much more appropriate since the work and efforts of Fethullah Gülen and Hizmet are indeed helping Turkish society become much more democratic, empowered and progressive, thereby ridding itself of control of the deep state.