Muslims inspired by a Turkish scholar are challenging conservatives who have spread their teaching worldwide, in a struggle for Islam's future. Barney Zwartz reports.
TO ONE SIDE are the now familiar faces of Islam's radical extremists, men like Indonesian cleric Abu Bakr Bashir, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Egyptian-born supporter of terrorism Abu Hamza al-Masri, now jailed in Britain, all influenced by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi theology.
To the other is a Turkish scholar and philosopher, Fethullah Gulen. He may be little-known in the West, but in the global battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, the movement he founded is starting to make inroads against the hardline fundamentalism of the Wahhabis.
In the past 35 years, the oil-rich Saudis have poured at least $100 billion into exporting the exclusivist and puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam. This theology, which Wahhabis insist is the one pure Islam, has provided fertile ground for violent extremists worldwide, though it is far from the only source of radicalism.
By building mosques, schools, providing religious literature and training imams, they have fomented tensions in many areas with a history of a more tolerant Islam, such as Bosnia, Indonesia, Pakistan, the central Asian republics and parts of Europe. In Australia, where the Saudis have helped fund mosques and Islamic schools, senior Muslim leaders agree that Wahhabis, who comprise a minority of the local community, are those least inclined to integrate.
Now the Wahhabis have a rival for Islamic influence in the Gulen movement, a Turkish-based group shaped by the more reflective Sufi form of Islam, which is setting out to counter the Wahhabis.
Named for Fethullah Gulen, a 71-year-old Turkish Islamic scholar and philosopher, it has built about 800 schools in some 50 countries, several universities, and owns Turkey's highest-circulating newspaper, Zaman, television and radio stations, and a bank. Gulen was named the world's top public intellectual in a Foreign Policy magazine public poll last year, though this was heavily slanted after Zaman wrote about the poll on its front page and sparked hundreds of thousands of votes.
Foreign Policy noted: "Gulen is both revered and reviled in his native Turkey. To members of the Gulen movement, he is an inspirational leader who encourages a life guided by moderate Islamic principles. To his detractors, he represents a threat to Turkey's secular order. He has kept a relatively low profile since settling in the United States in 1999, having fled Turkey after being accused of undermining secularism."
His followers deny they proselytise, saying their schools follow the secular curriculum wherever they are based, which has led them to be welcomed particularly where Wahhabis are having an impact. Oil-rich Central Asia is a key battleground, and the outcome is critical for the West. A two-day international conference in Melbourne last week highlighted the importance of the Gulen movement as the only international Islamic movement aiming at dialogue, tolerance and modernising Islam.
Abdullah Aymaz, a senior Gulen leader and close friend of the founder, says: "When I was in Georgia (a Turkic republic) two years ago, the mother of the president came to me and asked us to open up more schools in this area to circumvent radicals.
"From the beginning we have avoided politics and business — it's about people. In Georgia, the politicians worried that we were missionaries come to take over. The students were asked, 'Is there propaganda?' There is none, and the people doing the teaching have high morals. The locals tested us, saying 'There's minerals here, business opportunities', but we said 'that's not why we're here'."
Monash professor Greg Barton, a specialist in new Islamic movements, compares the Gulen movement with other international reforming Islamic groups. He divides the reformers into reactionaries, trying to restore an imagined original 7th century Islam — "they are like the Amish, but without the sense of humour," he says — and progressives, trying to synthesise classical Islamic scholarship with modern critical thinking.
Reactionary reformers include most of the Islamist movements, such as the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. The only progressive international group is the Gulen, but it is serving as a role model for other groups, for example in Indonesia, Barton says.
Reactionaries build activist networks with a strong sense of purpose, usually framed in terms of struggle and combat. Most progressives do not build extensive networks, which is why the Gulen movement is important, Barton says. It is the only extensive transnational reformist Islamic movement, it is well-organised and effective, though Gulen himself is more a figurehead than an active leader.
The movement began in Izmir, Turkey, when local businessmen and others took up Gulen's ideas on education, philanthropy and public service. In the mid-1970s they began opening schools, combining his philosophy with a modern curriculum.
The big change, turning the movement into an ambitious international one, came with the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1991, Barton says. "The Turkic republics in Central Asia were in dire straits so they helped there, then moved on to Turkish youth in the West.
"It's a very simple model, easy to duplicate, like a business franchise. If you have an expatriate Turkish community, you look at what they did in Melbourne or Houston. But what we are seeing is the realigning of tradition along modern lines of engagement."
The movement arrived in Australia in 1981 with Turkish immigrant and Gulen disciple, Orhan Cicek, who started a drop-in centre and youth program for second-generation Turkish youth.
In the late '80s, a new group of urban, professional Turks settled in Australia, and the movement began to expand, opening reading groups, tutoring centres and student hostels.
Today it has several thousand Australian members in all state capitals, not all of Turkish background, and has opened 16 schools — eight in Victoria.
It became an early and important advocate of interfaith dialogue and bridge-building. Through its public arm, the Australian Intercultural Society, it has run conferences for Muslims, Christians and Jews, started or joined other interfaith programs, and hosted dinners during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. These range from massive affairs at State Parliament and Government House to small private dinners in family homes. It has hosted politicians, academics, police and journalists on subsidised cultural study tours of Turkey, and last year it endowed the chair in Muslim-Christian studies at the Australian Catholic University. All this is funded by the local Turkish community.
After 28 years in Australia, Cicek still has a thick accent and mangled syntax, but his energy is undiminished. He is now executive adviser to the six independent state organisations that make up the movement in Australia. He is proud that the movement here is one of the youngest yet most advanced. "Gulen-inspired schools make (a) way for Australian Muslims to integrate to society and be productive," he says.
English journalist William Dalrymple wrote this year of the need to stop the advance of Saudi-financed Wahhabism and anti-Western radicalism in Pakistan. "On my last visit it was very clear that while the Wahhabi-dominated North-West was on the verge of falling under the sway of the Taliban, the same was not true of the Sufi-dominated province of Sindh … Here, Sufi Islam continues to act as a powerful defence against the puritanical fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs, which supports intolerance of all other faiths."
Dalrymple says the Saudis have invested intensively in Wahhabi madrassas in the North-West and Punjab, "with dramatic effect, radically changing the religious culture of an entire region. The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism."
Wahhabism is not the only source of Islamic extremism, and many Wahhabis do not support violence, but it supports notions of intolerance and anti-Western fanaticism. Saudis have been strongly linked with financing international terrorism, something the Saudi Government has sought to tackle. There are also signs it is trying to foster a less militant religion, hosting an international interfaith conference in Madrid last year.
But, as US human rights group Freedom House reported in 2006, the Saudi religious education system "encourages violence towards others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the 'other'."
After 9/11, responding to complaints around the world that Saudi schools demonised the West, the Government pledged to reform education and claimed it had removed such material. But a secret investigation by Freedom House found they still propagate an ideology of hate towards "unbelievers" (Christians, Jews, atheists, even non-Wahhabi Muslims). And these teachings are contained in the literature donated to mosques, libraries and Islamic schools around the world.
It is not surprising that the hardest area for the Gulen ideology to exert influence has been the Middle East, where its challenge is exacerbated by traditional Arab-Turkish rivalry.
Arabs regard themselves as the guardians of Islam, with the Koran written in Arabic and the holy sites in Arabia, while the Ottoman Turks ruled most of the Muslim world for six centuries until 1923.
Abdullah Aymaz concedes: "Arabs say, 'Do we need to learn lessons from you? We know it better'. But we show them universities and newspapers, we introduce them to people with different views. We have started a paper in Arabic and hold seminars and conferences. The Muslim world needs the teaching of this movement, it's a very important role model."
Now, in a truly remarkable breakthrough, the Gulen movement has been invited to open a primary school in perhaps the most difficult nation to enter of all: Saudi Arabia. Aymaz says: "We want to reach everyone, be friends with everyone. We want to go to Madagascar, the Congo, Papua New Guinea."
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.
Posted July 22, 2009, The Age