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Gulen Movement

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Insurgency Overview

The Gulen Movement, or Hizmet, is the name given to the global network of followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Sunni Imam who is currently claiming asylum in The United States. Gulenists are against secularism but believe in a “tolerant Islam” where a society is run by Islamic values but is also open to other cultures and religions. (1) It is also characterised by a belief in forward progress in science, culture and art. At its core it wants to show that Islam can be modern whilst also keeping its culture and traditions. Gulen opened his first school in 1966 and since then has opened over 1000 schools in 100 different countries around the world. These schools are not necessarily Islamic schools but are high quality schools which teach a range of subjects to students of all religious backgrounds. The core belief behind these schools is that education and progress in the world is a holy thing. The group is active all over the world, however it is recognised as a terrorist organisation in countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. (2)

The Gulen Movement does not have a centralised structure but rather sees itself as a network or community of people and organisations who subscribe to the teachings of Fethullah Gulen.

The Gulen movement is widely believed to have been behind the failed 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey though the evidence around this is murky. They were originally seen as a missionary and charity organisation since 1982 and were not seen as a controversial or even militant group until their split from Turkey's ruling AKP Party in 2013. (3)

The Gulenists are widely seen in Turkey as being part of a sort of parallel state or deep state that holds positions of power in all the country's major institutions such as education, the military, the police and the judiciary. This was another reason the group was accused of the 2016 military coup. The Gulen Movement holds significantly less power and influence in Turkey since the failed coup due to the mass purges and arrests which followed it. (4)

History & Foundations

Fethullah Gulen was born in Turkey between 1938 and 1941, it is not known for certain. He was born into a fiercely secular Turkey in which all forms of public religious expression were banned. He became a licensed Imam in 1958 and followed the ideology espoused by Kurdish cleric Said Nusri who believed that Islam should embrace modernity. (2)

The movement's origins come from Gulen setting up reading and discussion groups in the early 1960s. In 1966 Gulen started building his first boarding schools and gaining a bit of a following due to his preaching. Throughout the 1970s he continued to build schools, charities and other civil society organisations whilst his following and influence continued to expand into a movement. They began building schools internationally, generally in majority muslim soviet countries and then eventually expanded globally into more countries such as Europe, The United States, Korea and Australia. (2)

In 1980, following a military coup in Turkey by a military who claimed they were defending secularism, there was a crackdown on high profile religious figures and Gulen went on the run before being arrested and sentenced to jail for 6 years.

Gulen settled in the United States in 1999 and has been there ever since. The Gulen movement began growing closer ties with Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). The two organisations worked together to strengthen Islam within Turkey with The AKP focusing on political Islam and The Gulen Movement focusing on social Islam. (5)

In 2003 The AKP came to power in Turkey and set about solidifying Islam's place within Turkish society. A big goal of The AKP was to lessen the Turkish military's influence over domestic affairs as they were seen as the defenders of secularism and had regularly initiated coups to tackle islamists in government in Turkey.

Rifts began to grow between Erdogan and Gulen as they both wrestled for power over the country. Gulen had supporters in many high up places within Turkish society Erdogan felt that he was running his own parallel state. This included having Gulen supporters holding positions in the judiciary, police, media and in Turkish universities. (6) They both used their power and influence to commit tit-for-tat acts against each other. In 2010 Gulenists were believed to be behind the corruption allegations that were put on high profile members of The AKP. In 2013, Erdogan announced the closure of hundreds of private schools in Turkey – most of which were a part of The Gulen Movement. In May of 2016, Erodgan officially declared The Gulen Movement as a terrorist organisation and demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gulen from The United States to Turkey. The US government refused this on the basis that there is no actual evidence to suggest he has committed any crimes or is a terrorist. (7)

On the 15th July 2016 there was an attempted military coup in Turkey by a small faction of soldiers within the military. They tried to seize key government buildings in Ankara but the coup was quickly put down by Turkish civilians and the majority of the military who were loyal to the state. Erdogan immediately blamed the Gulenists for this coup whilst Gulen and his followers denied any involvement. Gulen slammed the coup as undemocratic and needlessly violent. He stated that “Through military intervention, Democracy cannot be achieved”. Gulen himself has stated that he believes the coup was a false flag operation run by Erodgan himself in order to justify a purge of the military. The soldiers involved in the alleged coup released a statement in which they called themselves “The Peace at Home Council” and this is a reference to a famous quote from the Turkish Republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Attaturk so it seems very unlikely that Islamist Gulenists were behind this coup attempt. (5)

Following the coup, mass purges began in Turkish society. A state of emergency was declared and thousands of military officers, judges, journalists, officials and Gulen supporters were arrested.

This massively harmed the movement within Turkey but the organisation's international presence grew as thousands of supporters fled to countries such as Germany and The Netherlands.(6)

Ideology & Objectives

Gulenists believe in spreading a form of tolerant and progressive Islam. On the movement's official website they claim not to support political Islam but this has been widely debated. The movement started by building schools and hospitals but many anti-gulenists believe that these were potentially a front in order to cement itself further into Turkish institutions and society so that they may one day take power. Gulens schools are all completely secular within the classroom and school day but offer a wide range of extra curricular activities that promote Islam and Turkish culture. In Europe the schools mostly cater to Turkish immigrants but they are open to everyone. The fees for Gulenist schools are generally very low as they are subsidized by his supporters.(8) The Gulenists also have progressive views towards the role of women in society and strongly believe in women receiving an education. (8)

In 1999 Gulen controversially said “move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers”. This pushed the idea that the Gulen Movement was trying to create its own sort of parallel state by installing its own people in positions of power before it took over the country.

The movement has been very critical of Turkey's ruling AKP party but yet it has never pushed itself to get directly involved in politics, this is one of the many reasons why it is suspicious that Erdogan claims the Gulenists were behind the 2016 coup attempt.

Many believe their objectives to be unclear and this is possibly down to the fact that the group does not have a stated end-goal and publicly, is trying to spread education. It is curious that a group who are so often accused of trying to take control of the Turkish State have never once attempted to run someone for office. Speaking to the BBC, Turkish Journalist Fehmi Koru stated that “I know that their interest in education is not enough for them, they want more, but what? I suggested in my columns that they set up their own party and ask for a mandate to run the country. They did not.”(5)

Military & Political Capabilities

The military abilities of The Gulen Movement are widely contested. The movement was of course accused of staging a military coup in 2016 but it does seem unlikely that this was the case. The Gulenists had many people high up in the apparatus of the Turkish state including judges, police and civil servants, however, they do not exercise as much control in the military as is claimed by AKP supporters. The Gulenists are after all, pro Islam whereas the traditional role of the military in Turkey since its foundation in 1924 has always been to defend secularism. (9)

The Gulenists political capabilities took a massive hit after the 2016 coup and the purges that followed. Following the coup over 90,000 people were arrested and around 1,500 businesses and organisations shut down for having ties to The Gulen movement. Thousands of Gulenists fled the country and it became unsafe to openly declare yourself as a Gulenist. Thus the power the Gulenists now hold in Turkish parliamentary politics or in civil society is effectively non-existent and it is impossible to run in Turkish elections as a Gulenist. Whilst the movement never placed a strong emphasis on gaining political power, it would have had many supporters and sympathisers in the parliament before the purges. (4)

Approach to Resistance

Gulen and his supporters have opened thousands of institutions such as schools, hospitals, businesses and charities. The reasoning behind this approach is disputed. Gulen has claimed that through education and charity you can uplift and empower people to turn Islam into a religion of progress and modernity. This is different to how his critics will claim that these institutions he has set up are a plot in order to get his own people into positions of power within Turkey.

Gulens schools are not managed or controlled by Gulen himself but are rather schools set up by people who follow Gulens teachings and philosophy. Throughout the world The Gulen Movement has sponsored a number of Turkish businesses. The pre-coup Gulenists also owned many newspapers and magazines, many of which were expropriated and put under pro-erdogan control following the coup. (10)

International Relations & Potential Alliances

The Gulenist Movement is often seen as quite isolated from any wider Islamist movement. It is distinctly Turkish and generally is strongest in countries with a large Turkish diaspora population such as Germany or The Netherlands. Gulen has often placed a strong emphasis on Muslim immigrants assimilating into European society so perhaps this can explain why the Gulenists have often been reluctant to form too many ties with other, overtly Islamic groups. (7)

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - 2016. Glenn, Cameron “Profile: Fethullah Gulen”. Wilson Center.

(2) - 2008. Celik, Curkan “The Gulen Movement: Building social cohesion through dialogue and education”

(3) - 2016. Nakhoul, Samia and Yackley, Ayla Jean “Turkish president gains upper hand in power struggle” Reuters.

(4) - 2023. “Turkey’s Crackdown on the Gülen Movement: 2022 in Review” Stockholm Center for Freedom.

(5) - 2016. “Turkey coup: What is Gulen movement and what does it want?” BBC News.

(6) - 2016. Matthews, Dylan. “Turkey's coup: the Gülen Movement, explained” Vox.

(7) - 2021. Tee, Caroline “The Gulen Movement: Between Turkey and International Exile”

(8) -

(9) - 2000. Aras, Bulent and Caha, Omer “Fethullah Gulen And His Liberal "Turkish Islam" Movement” MERIA.*

(10) - 2016. Gumuscu, Sebnem. “The Clash of Islamists: The crisis of the Turkish state and democracy”

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