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Altruistic Society or Sect?

The Shadowy World of the Islamic Gülen Movement

Millions of Muslims around the world idolize Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who likes to present himself as the Gandhi of Islam. His Gülen movement runs schools in 140 countries and promotes interfaith dialogue. But former members describe it as a sect, and some believe the secretive organization is conspiring to expand its power in Turkey.

Wednesday, 8/8/2012   04:09 PM

The girl is singing a little off-key, but the audience is still wildly enthusiastic. She is singing a Turkish song, although her intonation sounds German. The room is decorated with balloons, garlands in the German national colors of black, red and gold, and crescent moons in the Turkish colors of red and white. Members of the audience are waving German and Turkish flags.

The Academy cultural association is hosting the preliminaries of the "Cultural Olympics" in a large lecture hall at Berlin's Technical University. Thousands of people have come to watch the talent contest. They applaud loudly when a choir from the German-Turkish Tüdesb school sings "My Little Green Cactus." And they listen attentively when a female student recites a poem, while images of women holding children in their arms appear on the screen behind her. The poem is called "Anne," the Turkish word for "mother." The name of the poem's author, Fethullah Gülen, appears on the screen for a moment.

Everyone in the auditorium knows who Gülen is. Millions of Muslims around the world idolize Gülen, who was born in Turkey in 1941 and is one of the most influential preachers of Islam today. His followers have founded schools in 140 countries, a bank, media companies, hospitals, an insurance company and a university.

The cultural association hosting the contest at the Berlin university is also part of the Gülen movement. Hence it isn't surprising that many participants attend Gülen schools, that companies associated with Gülen are sponsoring the cultural Olympics, and that media outlets with ties to Gülen are reporting on it.

The images from the evening show Germans and Turks learning from one another, making music together, dancing and clapping. The obvious intent is to emphasize the peaceful coexistence of different religions. "We are the first movement in the history of mankind that is completely and utterly devoted to charity," says Mustafa Yesil, a Gülen confidant in Istanbul.

A Sect Like Scientology

People who have broken ties to Gülen and are familiar with the inner workings of this community tell a different story. They characterize the movement as an ultraconservative secret society, a sect not unlike the Church of Scientology. And they describe a world that has nothing to do with the pleasant images from the cultural Olympics.

These critics say that the religious community (known as the "cemaat" in Turkish) educates its future leaders throughout the world in so-called "houses of light," a mixture of a shared student residence and a Koran school. They describe Gülen as their guru, an ideologue who tolerates no dissent, and who is only interested in power and influence, not understanding and tolerance. They say that he dreams of a new age in which Islam will dominate the West.

Some experts reach similar conclusions. Dutch sociologist Martin van Bruinessen sees parallels between the Gülen movement and the Catholic secret society Opus Dei. American historian and Middle East expert Michael Rubin likens the Turkish preacher to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. According to a diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks in 2010, US diplomats consider the Gülen movement to be "Turkey's most powerful Islamist grouping." The Gülen movement, the cable continues, "controls major business, trade, and publishing activities (and) has deeply penetrated the political scene."

Only very few former members are prepared to talk about their time in the movement, and those who do insist on not being identified by name. They are afraid of Gülen and his people, afraid for their jobs, their health and their families.

Like in Prison

One of these former members, who agreed to speak with SPIEGEL under a fictitious name, is Serkan Öz, who lived in a "house of light" in a major German city for several years. He moved into the facility immediately after graduating from a German high school. He had been attracted by Gülen's sermons, which he saw on the Internet, because he felt that they reconciled Islamic piety with Western modernity.

Both the furnishings and everyday life in the residence, says Öz, were more evocative of the frugality and rigidity of a monastery than the relaxed atmosphere of a student dormitory. There were only men living in his house, and both alcohol and visits by women were prohibited. A supervisor, who all residents referred to as "Agabey" ("elder brother"), determined the daily routine, dictating when it was time to work, pray and sleep. "We were guarded as if we were in prison," says the former member. Öz read the Koran and studied Gülen's writings every day.

The houses of light are the foundation of the movement, where young "Fethullahcis" (as followers of Gülen are called) are taught to become loyal servants. The residences exist in many countries, including Turkey, the United States and Germany. There are two dozen in Berlin alone. The cemaat offers schoolchildren and university students a home, often free of charge, and in return it expects them to devote their lives to "hizmet," or service to Islam.

In his book "Fasildan Fasila," (From Time to Time) Gülen writes that a pupil must be "on the go day and night" and cannot be seen sleeping. "If possible, he sleeps three hours a day, has two hours for other needs, and must devote the rest entirely to hizmet. In essence, he has no personal life, except in a few specific situations."

Residents of the houses of light are also expected to proselytize, and Gülen even offers advice in his writings on how to go about it. The students, he writes, should befriend infidels, even if it means having to hide their true motives. "With the patience of a spider, we lay our web to wait for people to get caught in the web."

Banned from Watching TV

The more Serkan Öz lived his life in accordance with Gülen's rules, the "Hizmet düsturlari," the fewer freedoms he had. For example, the cemaat tried to dictate to him which profession he was to choose. He had almost no friends left outside the movement.

Other former members report that they were pressured to marry within the Gülen movement. In some residences, there are rules that prohibit watching TV, listening to music or reading books that contradict Gülen's ideology, including the works of Charles Darwin and Jean-Paul Sartre. Some residents were coerced into cutting off ties with their families when the parents tried to resist losing their children to the cemaat.

Serkan Öz decided to move out of the house of light. Now he was a renegade, and the career doors that had opened up for him were suddenly closed. Öz became isolated, losing his friends and acquaintances, his religious home and, as he sees it today, his place in the world.

Germans have devoted a lot of attention to Islam in recent years. There are conferences on Islam and research projects on integration. But the German public knows almost nothing about Gülen and his movement, even though it has more influence on Muslims in Germany than almost any other group. "It is the most important and most dangerous Islamist movement in Germany," says Ursula Spuler-Stegemann, an Islamic scholar in the western German university city of Marburg. "They are everywhere."

Bringing Together Rabbis and Imams

Members of the cemaat run more than 100 educational facilities in Germany, including schools and tutoring centers. They have established roughly 15 "dialogue associations," such as the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue (FID) in Berlin. The associations organize conferences that bring together rabbis, pastors and imams, as well as offer trips to Istanbul.

Gülen supporters publish Zaman, the highest-circulation newspaper in Turkey, with a European edition and subsidiaries around the world, as well as the monthly magazine The Fountain. They operate TV stations like Ebru TV and Samanyolu TV. Barex, an employers' association consisting of 150 companies in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg, is also believed to be part of the network.

Rita Süssmuth, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and former president of the German parliament, is on the advisory board of the FID in Berlin. Other politicians, like Jörg-Uwe Hahn, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the justice minister of the western state of Hesse, prominent CDU politician Ruprecht Polenz and Social Democrat Ehrhart Körting, who was the interior minister of the city-state of Berlin for many years, have accepted invitations to events organized by the Gülen community.

One of the cemaat's biggest successes is the Tüdesb High School in Berlin's Spandau neighborhood. The school has a good reputation, with small class sizes, motivated teachers and modern equipment, and there are always several applicants for each spot. The students, most of whom are of Turkish origin, speak Turkish and German, lessons are based on the Berlin city-state's curriculum, and some teachers have never even heard of Fethullah Gülen. Others, however, are believed to surrender a portion of their monthly salary to the movement. For a long time, the school claimed to have no connection to Gülen, but now the chairman of the association that operates the school openly supports him.

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