It reads like something out of a John Le Carre novel: The charismatic Sunni imam Fethullah Gülen, leader of a politically powerful Turkish religious movement likened by The Guardian to an “Islamic Opus Dei,” occasionally webcasts sermons from self-imposed exile in the Poconos while his organization quickly grows to head the largest chain of charter schools in America. It might sound quite foreboding—and it should, but not for the reasons you might think.
You can be excused if you’ve never heard of Fethullah Gülen or his eponymous movement. He isn’t known for his openness, despite the size of his organization, which is rumored to have between 1 and 8 million adherents. It’s difficult to estimate the depth of its bench, however, without an official roster of membership. Known informally in Turkey as Hizmet, or “the service”, the Gülen movement prides itself on being a pacifist, internationalist, modern, and moderate alternative to more extreme derivations of Sunni Islam. The group does emphasize the importance of interfaith dialogue, education, and a kind of cosmopolitanism. One prominent sociologist described it as “the world’s most global movement.”
Much of the praise for the Gülen movement comes from its emphasis on providing education to children worldwide. In countries like Pakistan, its schools often serve as an alternative to more fundamentalist madrassas. Gülen schools enroll an estimated two million students around the globe, usually with English as the language of instruction, and the tuition is often paid in full by the institution. In Islamic countries, where the Gülen schools aren’t entirely secular: The New York Times reported that in many of the Pakistani schools, “…teachers encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set the example in lifestyle and prayers.” But the focus is still largely on academics. Fethullah Gülen put it in one of his sermons, “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping Allah.”