American sociologist Joshua Hendrick stumbled into the U.S. branch of the Fethullah Gülen Movement by agreeing to attend a 2005 conference about the Turkish Muslim leader in Houston.
Expecting a standard academic conference, what he found instead was a "two-day promotion of Fethullah Gülen and the schools and social network that associate with his teaching."
All the presenters' expenses were covered, and each received a $500 honorarium. Awards of $1,000 were offered for the best graduate-student papers, and reporters were flown in from Istanbul to cover the event.
Hendrick, now at the University of Oregon, went on to write a Ph.D. dissertation on the Gülen movement in Turkey, where the secretive preacher has over decades become one of Turkey's most powerful political figures. The Gülen movement is the key force supporting Turkey's ruling AKP Party, a conservative religious party that competes for power with the country's strongest traditional force - the military.
Along with the military and the AKP, the Gülen movement is Turkey's "third force," the major British consultancy IHS Jane's reported last year.
But defining the movement is difficult because it is "part spiritual, part commercial, part Islamic, part education, part political," Bill Park, a lecturer in defense studies at King's College London, said via e-mail.
Gülen's followers and the leader himself use "strategic ambiguity" in talking about the movement, Hendrick wrote in his 2009 dissertation, "Globalization and Marketized Islam in Turkey: The case of Fethullah Gülen."
"Gülen was born both in 1938 and in 1941 … Gülen is both the reason behind his schools and he has nothing whatsoever to do with them," Hendrick wrote. And when asked about the connections between Gülen-supporting organizations and the movement itself, Hendrick repeatedly heard the same answer: "There is no organic connection between these institutions."
The ambiguity makes some sense in historical context. The Turkish state established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s imposed secularity in the public sphere and put religion under state control. Today the struggle persists between a secularist military and religious forces, with the Gülen movement strongly on the religious side.
The movement "would like to see Islam play a more dominant role in public life," said Hakan Yavuz, a native of Turkey who is a professor of political science at the University of Utah. "The movement is today a religio-political movement similar to Opus Dei in the Catholic Church."
Yavuz continued, "The movement is not a fanatic movement. It's also not a terrorist movement either. But it is a conservative communitarian (movement) and to some extent authoritarian."
The movement also celebrates the Turkish nation and culture, even in some foreign countries where it has established schools, posting portraits of Atatürk and teaching the Turkish national anthem, Park reported in a 2007 paper, "The Fethullah Gülen Movement as a Transnational Phenomenon."
"The movement's philosophy fuses its brand of Islam with a Turkish nationalism," he wrote in a 2007 paper.
Gülen's conflict with the military peaked in 1998, when he was charged with attempting to subvert the secular government. He fled to the United States, where he began living in exile on a retreat in eastern Pennsylvania.
In the United States, Gülen began emphasizing interfaith dialogue, and his followers set up institutions dedicated to that pursuit throughout the country. One, the Foundation for Inter-Cultural Dialogue, is based in Phoenix and annually sends Arizonans on trips to Turkey.
Gülen's presence in the United States inspired some Turkish analysts to begin thinking of him as an American ally. However, the U.S. government has long had close relations with Turkey's military.
The multifaceted picture of Gülen's relationship with the U.S. government became clearer in 2007. That year, Gülen sued the Department of Homeland Security, arguing that it should act on his application and award him permanent residence based on his extraordinary ability in education. The department fought him, arguing that he is not an expert in education.
But eventually the department lost, and Gülen got his green card.
Among those who wrote letters in support of Gülen were George Fidas and Graham Fuller, both former Central Intelligence Agency officials.
"The U.S. has accommodated Fethullah Gülen himself (a source of irritation to Kemalist/secularists in Turkey) and the movement's schools, colleges, dialogue associations, as has the U.K. and other Western democracies," Park said via e-mail. "This is though less the doing of the U.S. government, narrowly defined as of U.S. society, the U.S. way of doing things."
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org