The Muslim Billy Graham?
In this piece from The New Republic, writer Suzy Hansen profiles Fethullah GĂŒlen, a religious leader operating schools and non-profits globally and portrayed as a âTurkish Billy Graham:â
The leader of what is arguably the worldâs most successful Islamic movement lives in a tiny Pennsylvania town called Saylorsburg, at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, otherwise known as âthe Camp.â The Camp consists of a series of houses, a community center, a pond, and some tranquil, woodsy space for strolling. From this Poconos enclaveâwhich resembles a resort more than the headquarters of a worldwide religious, social, and political movementâFethullah GĂŒlen, a 69-year-old Turkish bachelor with a white moustache, wide nose, and gentle, sad expression, leads perhaps five million followers who, in his spirit if not his name, operate schools, universities, corporations, nonprofits, and media organs around the globe.
Last spring, I visited the center and was warmly shepherded around by Bekir Aksoy, the president of the Camp. Just past a checkpoint, a portly Turkish man in a âSopranosâ-esque tracksuit was stretching, preparing for a jog. Along a road leading to the pond, we encountered a group composed mostly of Turkish men who had come from Japan to see Hocaefendi, as GĂŒlen is respectfully called by his followers; they had been escorted onto the premises by a Columbia University student in a white Mercedes. The guest of honor for the day was a professor from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was fishing for trout.
The three-story building where GĂŒlen lives resembles a cozy ski lodge. The first floor features a large, sunny breakfast room with a number of long tables. Three men sat at these tables, quietly talking. One greeted me and introduced himself. He was a journalist for a once-admired, now-defunct, Turkish political magazine; the others were Turkish businessmen.
Upstairs, on the hushed second floor, about 15 young men sat on divans against the windows and on the carpeted floors, reading. One had a laptop; he looked up and smiled, as did some others, but a few scowled at me. We were clearly disturbing them. When a young man suddenly stood up and whispered something to Aksoy, I could have sworn he was complaining about my presence. Aksoy seemed to admonish him. Later, I asked, âWas that young man upset that I was there?â âOur people do not complain,â Aksoy replied. âThey obey commands completely.â
Fethullah GĂŒlen lives on the third floor of the lodge, but I hadnât come expecting to see him. GĂŒlen is ill, I was told, and only sees journalists when he has something specific to say. He stays abreast of the news through summaries that are provided to him each day by assistants. Sometimes, these assistants, fearful of upsetting himâGĂŒlen is famously sensitiveâtry to shield him from the harshest events. Yet despite his limited contact with the world, a sense of his wisdom persists. âHe knows everything,â Aksoy told me.
In a 2008 online poll devised by the British magazine Prospect and the American magazine Foreign Policy, GĂŒlen was voted the most significant intellectual in the world. Graham Fuller, a former CIA agent and the author of several books on political Islam, says that GĂŒlen is leading âone of the most important movements in the Muslim world today.â Yet there is much about him that is not known. One of the biggest mysteries is how much sway he holds over his followers. Some visit Pennsylvania as much as once a month; what do they want from their visits? At the end of my tour, as Aksoy was driving me back to a McDonaldâs near the Camp where I had left my car, I asked him whether GĂŒlen tells people what to do.
The entire article is only available to subscribers, and the portion available tells little about Gulen. Nevertheless, the idea of a mainstream Muslim leader within the West is very tantalizing.