»Cemaats« – Islamic-Sufi communities – are sub-organizations and remnants of the once powerful brotherhoods of the Ottoman Empire. For over five centuries, close to the ear of the Sultan, they were expropriated and forbidden and their sheikhs executed with the Ataturk Cultural Revolution. But the orders and cemaats were firmly rooted. Especially in the rural population, leaders like Sheikh Said Nursi (1877-1960), founder of the Nurcu (light) movement, or his student Fethullah Gülen (born 1941), found followers who focused the strictly conservative path on imitating the Prophet and continued training for the next generation.
Especially from the 1980s onwards, they regained their place in politics and the public as “cultural associations”. According to a study published in 2018 by the educational scientist Esergül Balci, 30 brotherhoods with 400 sub-organizations are active in Turkey today. Since the labor migration of the 1970s, numerous centers and cultural associations – little noticed by the public – have also founded offshoots in the German association landscape. Scientists identified 17 different Cemaats in Germany in a study at the end of the 1990s. What they have in common is a conservative, sometimes revolutionary Islam, strict gender segregation, sect-like internal structures and a veneration of their respective heads as renewers of Islam or end-time redeemers.
While most of the Cemaats – including the Süleyman-Hilmi-Tunahan congregation with its Association of Islamic Cultural Centers – founded mosques and religious dormitories in Germany, Gülen built up a kind of religious market with a lot of patience in order to promote the “golden generation” for the world and educating the future: corporations from many branches of industry, academics, journalists and lawyers joined him and built up companies and a total of 1000 schools in Asia, Europe, Africa and America within 40 years. Before 2016, the movement is said to have had seven million followers in Turkey alone, and ten million worldwide.
Murat, a young German with Turkish roots should also become part of the “golden generation”. His observations show an isolated world in the middle of Germany that does not correspond to the glossy image presented at dialogue dinners and award ceremonies. He experienced pressure, bullying and internal control, abuse of power and personality cult. Even today, he says, not a day goes by on which he does not think soberly of the disappointments and emotional stresses of that time.
First he went to the house of light for tutoring. The grandparents he grew up with thought it was good. Education was important, and the “Abis” (big brothers) provided a morally upright in a Muslim environment. The salutation Abi and Abla (big sister) in Turkish stand for respect, recognition and – especially in religious contexts – obedience to the authority of the elderly.
The Abis told him to keep records of the daily prayers, the days of fasting, his reading of the Quran, and the Gülen sermons that he heard. He also had to take part in the subscription sale of the newspaper »Zaman«, the mouthpiece of the movement. Being Muslim is part of his identity, but the personality cult around Gülen already struck him as ridiculous. “We watched his sermon videos. If he hunched over, the Abis said that it was proof that the prophet was driving into him and that he was in direct contact with the prophet,” he recalls. Nor did he buy the sleep deprivation order from the student’s Abis in his shared apartment. You should only sleep four hours to have more time for “Hizmet” and the subscription sales. “Hizmet” means service and is the Gülen movement’s name. Gülen has not lived in Turkey since 1999. He fled to the US from the Turkish judiciary, which accused him of infiltration and the planned overthrow of the state. There he founded the “Golden Generation Foundation”. He lives with his closest companions and a varying number of students on a compound called the Golden Generation Camp in Saylorsborough, Pennsylvania.
“We took advantage of the children and families, also financially,” a follower in Germany says and is amazed at the support the movement enjoys in Germany today. “The gender segregation in the Cemaat is extreme. We never had contact with women, we were told that they were to blame for everything bad, such as our nightmares. There were extra prayers for that in the morning,” he reports. He was active for the movement in the Rhineland for six years, then went to Turkey in 2006, where he is now doing his doctorate.
When he was 16, he began secretly dating a car dealer’s daughter and broke several prohibitions with the relationship. The strict gender segregation was one thing. But her father was also the most important sponsor of the movement in the region. Murat was monitored, harassed, and even family and friends were spied on until it was found out who the girl was. The Abis forced him to separate, even to move to another city. “It was very bad. I had trusted them since I was 13, and then they attacked me. One of the Abis even wanted to beat me up, but I resisted.” The girl was brought to Turkey, he says.
In the movement, marriages are usually endogamous, i.e. internally. The German spokesman of the movement denies this. But it can be assumed that even today wives are strategically mediated. A teacher reported that a 16-year-old girl feared being married through the intermediary of an imam within the local Gülen network and came to him for advice.
Houses of Light and dormitories are central places to socialize young people. “The students in the houses are building the next generation of the movement,” a scientist explains. The informal sohbet, which is held separately by gender, also serves this purpose. “Both trusting relationships and authority play a major role here,” she says.
She has also experienced that the Gülen movement publicly asserts transparency, but seals off its internal hierarchy and youth work. She examined eleven Gülen schools in Tanzania between 2013 and 2015. “It was said that everything was transparent. But it wasn’t until a year and a half later that I found out that religious meetings were being held in the schools in the afternoons for high school students, in which Gülen videos were discussed,” she reports. “These forms of secrecy are quite characteristic for the movement.”
The “golden generation” is primarily formed through the implementation of Gülen’s moral concepts. These include not only the classic Islamic code of conduct, but also unconditional loyalty and self-sacrifice for the Cemaat. Anyone who deviates or wants reforms is against divinely legitimized duties, against Gülen himself and threatens the community. In contrast to Western intellectual history, which with the Enlightenment accepted man as a subject independent of God, who can also act reasonably detached from God, with Gülen man remains – in classic Islamic terms – above all a “servant to God”. This overemphasis on morality, if it is not based on people but on sacred script, can reveal a totalitarian aspect of social control and can be used accordingly: Outwardly, the movement demonstrates acceptance for religious beliefs, sexual orientations or even for women without a headscarf. Inwardly, however, only Islamic rules of conduct that are restrictively demanded apply.
Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey, in which members of the Gülen movement are said to have played a key role, the movement has been subjected to merciless persecution. According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, investigations have so far been initiated against 500,000 people of the so-called “Fethullahist terrorist organization”, and 38,000 supporters are mostly illegally detained. Reports from victims about torture, relatives who have died in custody, and about dramatic escape scenes are piling up on social media.
The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Germany does not keep statistics on reasons for asylum. However, the voluntary information on “ethnicity” when submitting the application in connection with the recognition rate provides information. A total of 44,000 Turkish citizens applied for asylum between 2016 and December 2020. Around half stated that they were “of Kurdish ethnicity”. Their recognition rate was only in the low double-digit range. The other half ticked the voluntary statement that they were “Turkish”. This group received around 80 percent recognition in all federal states. It stands to reason that the majority of them are Gülen supporters.
10,900 of the Turkish citizens were assigned to the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, including 6,520 with “Turkish ethnicity”. Only in this group did the recognition rate jump from ten percent in 2016 to 82 percent in 2017 – and remained at this level. On the other hand, applicants with »Kurdish ethnicity« were only recognized by an average of 20 percent.
North Rhine-Westphalia has long been a hotspot for the German Gülen movement. An evaluation of numerous Twitter accounts from people who have apparently fled and sympathized with the movement shows that the Gülen structures in the state are ready, are quickly applying for certificates for integration courses and are setting up low-threshold German courses and other meeting formats. More than 60 individual organizations are active there. Never in the past 30 years have they publicly declared themselves or been identified as a network. It was only last year that the associations appeared on the website of the Düsseldorf Association of Committed Civil Society (VEZ). This has existed since 2014 and – unlike its member associations – describes itself as »Hizmet-nah«.
The network is particularly deeply rooted in the Ruhr area. The “Rheinische Dialog- und Bildungsverein” (RDuB) has been running the private Kant vocational school in Duisburg-Hamborn since 2016. The agency receives 340,000 euros per year for their operation. The mayor of Hamborn praised the school and said it increased identification with the district. He does not mention the school’s Gülen connections, nor are they easy to identify. During an on-site research last year, school principal Hartmut Feldwisch stated that it had nothing to do with a religious network. But he reported on cooperation with the House of One in Berlin: Its imam from the Gülen-related »Forum Dialog« had led workshops at the Kant school. An excursion to this Christian-Jewish-Islamic place of prayer was also planned.
The RDuB is very successful in the acquisition of tax money, as shown by listings of the Rhineland Regional Council (LVR). 145,000 euros flowed into youth projects in the last two years. There was also money for long-distance travel: in 2019 there was an excursion entitled “Helpful Youth in North Rhine-Westphalia”. On the club website, the educational goals stated are »empathy for other lifestyles, sensitization, education, tolerance, respect and recognition of new cultures«. The goal was Nigeria, cooperation partner the Nile University.
According to the LVR, the excursion was subsidized with 18,200 euros. Six young people and two supervisors took part. The network in Nigeria is one of the wealthiest of the Gülen movement in Africa, including the Nile University, founded in 2009 with its 3,500 students. It is headed by a Turkish economics professor, who previously made a career at the Gülen universities in Turkey. In addition to Nile University, there are ten schools, business associations, a hospital, travel agencies and the Ufuk Dialogue Foundation. On the website of the university in November 2019 you can see pictures of six young men who will be presented as “Students of the University of Duisburg Essen”. The RDuB does not answer the question of whether girls took part in the trip.
Gülen associations from other German cities planned further youth trips to maintain their international contacts with the help of the public sector. Their applications have been approved for 2019 and 2020. Destinations: Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Egypt and Bosnia. Total funding: 135,600 euros. The network is strongly represented in all of these countries, including the five cooperation partners named by the associations in their applications.
In Berlin, however, things are going well. The federal government and the state are making a big contribution to the House of One – a Judeo-Christian-Muslim place of prayer in which a dialogue association of the Gülen movement is the only Muslim partner. Ten million euros come from the federal government, another ten from the state of Berlin. A recognized French political scientist who has been researching the Gülen network worldwide since the late 1990s, is appalled. “The movement may not be militant, but it is essentially a sect. It has an Islamist agenda that it does not disclose and claims sole representation for Islam. It is not a cooperation partner for governments,” he says. He finds it “embarrassing” that Germany has also financed youth trips abroad for supporters for two years.
In the worldwide raging conflict between the Turkish state and the Gülen movement, the African continent is also a front line. It was only this summer that the Turkish secret service in Kenya kidnapped a relative of the preacher Gülen to Turkey. And in Ethiopia, German Gülen entrepreneurs are now facing the Turkish state. According to the Turkish media, a Berlin association took over the five »Intellectual Schools« in Ethiopia in 2018. They are currently preparing for the status of “German school abroad”, the application to the German Foreign Office is ongoing, reports the school website. It would be a strategic mistake to give the school this status. The Foreign Office would thereby strengthen a party in an international conflict and exacerbate a security problem inside and outside Germany.