Who Is Fethullah Gülen? Muslim Preacher, Feared Turkish Intriguer and ‘Inspirer’ of the Largest Charter School Network
With the American economy in shambles, Europe imploding, and the Middle East in chaos, convincing Americans that they should pay attention to a Turkish preacher named Fethullah GĂĽlen is an exceedingly hard sell. Many Americans have never heard of him, and if they have, he sounds like the least of their worries. According to his website, he is an “authoritative mainstream Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader and educational activist who supports interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and opposes violence and turning religion into a political ideology.” The website adds that “by some estimates, several hundred educational organizations such as K-12 schools, universities, and language schools have been established around the world inspired by Fethullah GĂĽlen.” The site notes, too, that GĂĽlen was “the first Muslim scholar to publicly condemn the attacks of 9/11.” It also celebrates his modesty.
Yet there is a bit more to the story. GĂĽlen is a powerful business figure in Turkey and—to put it mildly—a controversial one. He is also an increasingly influential businessman globally. There are somewhere between 3 million and 6 million GĂĽlen followers—or, to use the term they prefer, people who are “inspired” by him. Sources vary widely in their estimates of the worth of the institutions “inspired” by GĂĽlen, which exist in every populated continent, but those based on American court records have ranged from $20 billion to $50 billion. Most interesting, from the American point of view, is that GĂĽlen lives in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos. He is, among other things, a major player in the world of American charter schools—though he claims to have no power over them; they’re just greatly inspired, he says.
Even if it were only for these reasons, you might want to know more about GĂĽlen, especially because the few commentators who do write about him generally mischaracterize him, whether they call him a “radical Islamist” or a “liberal Muslim.” The truth is much more complicated—to the extent that anyone understands it.