Gulen, Hizmet Movement and the Cemaat


In the retrospect, one can reasonably argue that neither some, nor most, but all accounts of the Hizmet phenomenon, including those by this author, have in varying levels been flawed. The critics have viewed it as a secretive, or to say the least elusive, formation. Taking criticism as step further, secularist antagonists of the Hizmet phenomenon have accused it of undermining secular nature of the state and society, while at the same time Islamist antagonists have ironically accused it of doing the same to Islam. On the other hand, its sympathizers have viewed the Hizmet phenomenon as a unique worldwide civic initiative, aspiring to tackle social problems the world is facing. Taking that favorable perspective as step further, protagonists have thought of it to have a divine nature, even a prelude to the end times, and a sign for the resurrection of the old glory of the Islamic civilization.

Although they have diverged as to what to make of the Hizmet phenomenon, both opponents and proponents have converged in their common failure to distinguish between Fethullah Gulen, Hizmet Movement and the Cemaat (Community, formed by the adherents of the movement). They have rather viewed all three as one, and referred to them interchangeably, thereby inevitably subduing their accounts of the Hizmet phenomenon to their feelings about one, two or all of the three. In the aftermath of the so-called July 15th coup attempt, it is ever more crucial to clearly distinguish the three from one another.

It is important to do so first and foremost in order to be able to address objectively so many pressing questions about the Hizmet phenomenon, some of which are the following: Is Fethullah Gulen a villain or hero? Is the Hizmet movement a threat to society and state? Was the Community (Cemaat) behind the so-called 15 July coup attempt? Was the Community running a parallel state structure in Turkey? Was it involved in numerous alleged crimes, including espionage, bureaucratic nepotism, and attempted coup.

Gulen the messenger

Is Gulen an evil mastermind as alleged by the antagonists? Or, as argued by the protagonists, is he a saintly figure, who has devoted his whole life to addressing humanity’s ills and problems?

As far as the public information accessible to average man is concerned, Gulen has always been a public figure, prolific writer, and influential thinker. He is one of the rare figures, perhaps the rarest, in the sense that it is possible for anyone to scrutinize his ideology and trace variation, abnormality, extremism, if any, simply because he has been writing and speaking publicly ever since early 1960s.

If it is too burdensome of a task to do so, one can reason as follows: People inspired by his message have established schools in some 170 countries all across the world, starting as early as 1992. So, for the past quarter a century, these institutions and individuals associated with them must have been naturally under scrutiny of the intelligence services of the countries in which they operate. Plus, given that each country would have at least three intelligence services, civilian, police and military, then Gulen himself, individuals he inspired and institutions alleged to be affiliated with him must have been regularly and consistently monitored by more than five hundred intelligence services.

Obviously, at least one of them would have raised flag on Gulen, if he were believed to be a threat, let alone terrorist. As far as the public information is concerned, none of them has ever done so. As a matter of fact, major Western intelligence services disclosed to the public in various ways their conviction that to the contrary to the Turkish government’s claim; Gulen was not behind the so-called July 15th coup attempt.

If that is not good enough reasoning to warrant Gulen’s innocence, then one will alternatively have to believe that Gulen is capable of commanding, and securing complicity of, every country’s intelligence services allegedly to conspire against Erdogan’s Turkey.  

Hizmet the message

What is clear however is a message that Gulen has persistently been trying to get across to whoever is listening to him. He calls on everyone to adopt a way of life, which he calls Hizmet (service): a way of life that is centered on the ideal of “living to let live”. According to Gulen, in pursuit of helping others live a better life, one should forget his or her own self.

Gulen puts forth a number of principles that may help one pursue such a lofty ideal. There principles are respectively as follows: (1) Ihlas (purification of motives and intentions to seek none other than pleasing God), (2) Mesuliyet Duygusu (sense of duty and responsibility to self-mobilize without any external push), and (3) Verme Tutkusu (passion for self-sacrifice and charitable giving). While as an Islamic scholar, Gulen derives these principles from Islamic teachings and the Prophet’s tradition; these principles are more or less prevalent in every faith tradition. Plus, when Ihlas is replaced with satisfaction of conscience, one may see all three in non-religious traditions as well. Although these are noble principles, enabling one to live to let live, in the absence of due vigilance, they may also become a tool of mass manipulation.

Community/Cemaat as an agent

In this regard, the Community/Cemaat is where it gets controversial. It goes without saying that every social movement comes into being with a community of individuals, who are otherwise unrelated, but unite in their belief in and dedication to the ideals, goals, and simply to the cause of that movement. In that sense, the community is not only the audience, but also the agent of that cause, which carries it to ever-wider audience.

According to Mancur Olson, author of The Logic of Collective Action, every social movement starts around a cause that is powerful enough to gather volunteers together in a selfless manner. Initially, every individual gets attached to the collective action because of his or her belief in the merit of the cause. At this stage, everyone is equal.

Over time, however, as the movement garners popularity, accumulates wealth and influence, and establishes institutions to command its capital, everybody remains equal, but some become more equal (!) That is to say, a form of power structure emerges gradually within the community of individuals who had long been volunteering for the common cause on an equal footing. These more equal ones administer goals, strategies, and day-to-day operations of the community. In order to secure their grip in their acquired domains within the community, they make sure that their cohorts, subordinates, and teammates are blindly loyal to them, and not necessarily to the cause.

How does one recognize these more equals? Their most visible characteristic is their purported closeness to the leader of the movement, and their seemingly deeper commitment to the cause. Their loyal cohorts, often through made-up stories, unverifiable rumors, and excessive flattery, continuously reinforce their images as such.

In the case of the Hizmet phenomenon, this is exactly where unwavering vigilance against and accountability for corruption had been required. Yet, in the absence of vigilance and accountability, and in the hands of more equals, “Ihlas” became a tool to silence any potential questioning of motivations, driving the collective action. Similarly, “Mesuliyet Duygusu” became an unlimited and effortless source of power to mobilize collective action. Last, but not least, in the absence of continuous oversight, persistent questioning, and measurable evaluation, “Verme Tutkusu” became a tool to generate abundant cash flow for the more equals to exploit.

While exploiting the true meaning of these principles, the “more equals” of the Community have deliberately portrayed Gulen, Hizmet, and the Community, not as separate, but as one and the same. Doing so provided them with the freedom to brush off any criticism against their actions by the Hizmet volunteers on the grounds that these actions were indeed sanctioned by Gulen himself; and those actions were in accordance with the Hizmet. By the same token, they maintained, any challenge to the established power structure within the Community would be detrimental to the Hizmet and would constitute defiance to Gulen.

Given the established operational dynamics of the Cemaat, Gulen appears not to have ever been the ultimate decision maker but the ultimate source of legitimacy, which the more equals have consistently exploited and utilized in order to justify their own decisions whenever they needed to do so. Therefore, it was only natural for the latter to spread and consolidate the notion of Gulen being the ultimate and absolute decision maker. At the end of the day, the stronger was that notion in the minds of the Cemaat affiliates, the less likely, if any, were they to question the decisions and actions of the more equals. Interestingly, portraying Gulen as the absolute decision maker has served the interests of the antagonists of the Hizmet movement as well because Gulen’s portrayal as such has made him more visible and easy target to attack.

Hizmet movement survives, only if the Cemaat does not

For any kind of social movement, be it religiously-inspired or not, it is only natural that over time as it accumulates certain level of power, influence and wealth, there would emerge a group of more equals who aspire to wield that power, exploit that influence, and appropriate that wealth. It is not the issue of if, but when such corruption will emerge, spread and metastasize that movement.

It has not been any different for the Hizmet phenomenon. In the case of the latter, the principles of the Hizmet, more precisely their masterful exploitation by the more equals, have precluded noticing the widespread corruption that had already festered. In addition, the constant portrayal of Gulen as the ultimate decision maker behind every action and decision made it impossible for the pious adherents of the Cemaat to see, let alone hold responsible, the real culprits.  

Infamous Adil Oksuz, the alleged mastermind of the July 15th coup attempt, was reportedly in bed with the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) since 2012, while at the same time maintained an appearance of prominence, like all other more equals, within the Cemaat. If true, this itself raises suspicion about each and every other figure within Gulen’s close circle, as well as all figures administering the Cemaat’s affairs.

Then, the following become ever more pertinent: How much of this corruption within the Cemaat was a result of individual temptations, and how much of it was by deliberate design? How many of those more equals have been instinctively tempted toward corrupt practices, as a natural result of power accompanied by their status in the Cemaat? How many of them had been motivated in the first place to get the Cemaat involved in corrupt and criminal activities? Who are the real persons behind the criminal activities, if any, which are attributed to the Cemaat? How are they able to stay at the helm no matter what? What are the true sources of their finances? Are all of their financial dealings legitimate and lawful? If they are not, what may be their possible implications for the Cemaat affiliates?

Whether it was instinctive temptation or evil design that led to the ill developments, which befell the Hizmet affiliates over the past years, and consequently tainted the Hizmet phenomenon altogether, from this point on, the survival of the Hizmet movement seems contingent to the demise of the Cemaat as it has used to be. The onus is on the shoulder of each and every Hizmet volunteer to question, question more, and keep questioning.

Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed in this analysis paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and/or position of IMESC, and their content is the responsibility of the writer. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any IMESC entity.

* Mehmet Kalyoncu, independent political analyst, and author of A Civilian Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: The Gulen Movement in Southeast Turkey (Paul & Co Pub Consortium, 2008), and Reflections on Turkey: The Turkish-American-Israeli Relations and the Middle East (Blue Dome Press, 2013). For any comment or feedback, please contact the author directly at