Is the Gulen Movement a cult?
Is it the right question to ask?
June 24, 2012
The Gulen Movement is often referred to as a cult, or as cult-like.
- 60 Minutes, May 13, 2012: Leslie Stahl, interviewing journalist Andrew Finkel, asks "Would you call it a personality cult?" Finkel answers: "Yes."
- Los Angeles Times, Feb 19, 2012: Jailed journalists a sign of declining press freedom in Turkey "Others include investigative reporter Nedim Sener, who has been writing about government corruption for 20 years, and Ahmet Sik, who has written about how a cult-like Islamic movement has found its way into the state security forces." (The reference here is to Sik's book, "The Imam's Army," about the Gulen Movement.)
- Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010: Reclusive Turkish Imam Criticizes Gaza Flotilla "Mr. Gulen's detractors see him as a cult-like leader whose empire aims to train an Islamic elite who will one day rebuild the Turkish state."
- Rice University press release, Dec 3, 2010: "The movement founded by Fethullah Gulen has enjoyed worldwide success as a result of its expansive educational network. Though it has been criticized by some as a cult-like organization with ulterior motives, many praise the movement for its academic achievements and as a model of moderate Islamic thought."
Is there any way to objectively assess whether the Gulen Movement is, in actuality, a cult?
First, what is a cult? Is there a widely-accepted definition?
For many, the word "cult" triggers images of the ATF siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993, or the mass suicide-by-koolaid in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. These events received widespread publicity and had a major effect on the public perception of fringe religious movements, but were very extreme cases (furthermore, the real-time press coverage of the Waco incident has subsequently been criticized as seriously biased). Most groups that are referred to as "cults" are far less sinister. Yet while many may feel intuitively that "I know one when I see one," trying to pin down precisely and objectively what makes a group a "cult" (in the negative sense) turns out to be impossible.
Scholars have debunked all proposed definitions of the word "cult" by showing that they can apply just as easily to religions or other benign groups accepted by the mainstream. For example, in Chapter 10 of their book Cults and New Religions (Blackwell, 2008), Cowan and Bromley examine, and show the logical flaws in, the characteristics listed by the ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) for identifying cults. Charismatic leaders? How about televangelists, or Pope John Paul II. Mind-numbing practices? What about praying the rosary for hours, or chanting sutras for lengthy periods of time. Marc Galanter, in his book Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, makes the important observation that “The intense psychological forces found in the more harmful cults apparently operate in a modified form in a number of spiritually oriented groups directed at relieving the burden of illness,” and he cites Alcoholics Anonymous as a case in point.
Some examples of how "one man's cult is another man's religion" are given in J. Gordon Melton's article "Perspective: Toward a Definition of 'New Religion'" (Nova Religio 8(1):73-87). Melton notes "For example, in the United States the United Methodist Church is one of the dominant religious bodies. In Greece, the government cited it as being a destructive cult." Perhaps even more striking, at the same time that a Mormon is a serious contender for US President, articles appear in mainstream media outlets debating whether Mormonism is a cult or a religion (Washington Post May 21, 2012; Daily Beast, June 21, 2012). If the word "cult" had existed in the 1600's in the sense it does today, the dominant Anglican church of England would probably have applied it to the Puritans that came to settle our country. It must never be forgotten that the American concept of freedom of religion, one of the most free in the world, is not restricted to the right to belong to the mainstream group of one's choice - it means the freedom to belong to any group, however "weird," as long as the law is not violated.
To avoid the perils of subjectivity, the trend is now for scholars to use the term "New Religious Movement" rather than cult. We believe that the Gulen Movement is best described as a New Religious Movement, and that labeling it as a cult is a matter of personal opinion, but not something that can be substantiated in any rigorous way.
Indeed, discussions about whether or not the Gulen Movement is a cult distract from the key point: does this particular New Religious Movement represent any sort of threat to society?
A different approach: consider what characteristics of a group or movement (religious or not) make it harmful to society
James R. Lewis is an author and academic whose 1999 book Cults in America was well-received. (The Australian-based Choice Magazine gave it an award for Outstanding Academic Title.) In this book, Lewis writes "...'cult' is a socially negotiated label that often means little more than a religion one dislikes for some reason. ...The proper question to ask, then, is not whether some particular group is or is not a cult (in the sense of a 'false religion') but, rather, whether or not the social-psychological dynamics within a particular religion are potentially dangerous to its members and/or to the larger society."
Lewis then lists 5 traits or warning signs of a harmful religious group. He apparently arrived at this list after a lengthy study of commonalities among groups that had bad outcomes - that is, that eventually performed serious illegal acts endangering or harming their own members, outsiders, or society in general.
We now consider whether the Gulen Movement displays any of these traits. We are copying the traits verbatim from Lewis' book.
1. "The organization is willing to place itself above the law."
1. CHECK. Gulenists have flaunted special education law, charter school law regarding admissions, legal requirements for open bidding for contracts, anti-discrimination laws, and many other state and federal laws regarding the operation of schools. To cite just one example, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story on June 5, 2012 entitled "Audit reveals ‘egregious' conduct by charter school." The audit in question was of Fulton Science Academy Middle School, and the article states that "Auditors from IAG Forensics said that when they went to the school to examine records they were met by an 'environment of resistance and obstructionism.' ” Lou Erste, the director of the charter school division of Georgia's Department of Education, is quoted as saying “I’ve not seen anything quite like this.”
Ilhan Tanir, in a 2009 column in Turkey's main English-language daily newspaper Hurriyet, wrote "...the movement justifies any conduct to achieve its ends at any cost. For instance, if passing school entry test questions to the movement’s pupils is a justifiable way to ride into any kind of school that is important to attend even it can be done for years, even if it means usurping the rights of other pupils. But again, others are just others."
A similar ends-justifies-the-means mentality can be seen in the standard Gulenist response to news articles about abuse of H-1B visas, insider deals, and legal compliance failures in charter schools - as long as they are providing a "high-quality" education and producing masses of awards, none of this should matter.
Another example of Gulenists believing their projects should proceed regardless of the law is the case of Adem Arici. Arici, who was a board member of the Turkish Cultural Center New York (an epicenter of US Gulenist activity and political lobbying) and who was also affiliated with the Sema Education and Health Development Co., Inc, a Gulenist corporation that forgave half of a $332,000 loan to Fulton Science Academy, was arrested on Dec 1, 2011 on federal charges of defying the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) and threatening a witness. The charges concerned millions of dollars invested in Cuba (it is unclear where the millions came from - Arici owned a few supermarkets in New York City). Arici claimed he was in Cuba only to fulfill religious obligations (to sacrifice 630 sheep). The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported: "The U.S. Justice Department’s Prosecutor Preet Bharara, however, issued a firm statement: 'As the charges state, the defense put their own business interests ahead of the embargo and then tried to cover it up. Now they will be held accountable for their crimes.' "
There is also substantial evidence that Gulenists working in US charter schools routinely drive without insurance and with expired plates. They have likely calculated that the cost of the few times they are caught is less than the cost of complying with the law. Kenan Gundogdu, a board member of the Triad Math and Science Academy charter school in North Carolina and an applicant for its proposed sister school Triangle Math and Science Academy, was arrested in February 2012 for missing a court appearance in connection with charges of driving with expired tags and without insurance. Gulenists in other states have also been cited for similar offenses.
In his book on the Gulen Movement, Ahmet Sik alleges that members who have infiltrated the police and judiciary use their positions to serve the movement, even if it contradicts the law. Sener also alleges that the Gulen Movement has been involved in the "Ergenekon" cases which have resulted in violations of due process for a number of people seen by the Gulen Movement or the AKP government as critics or as somehow inconvenient to them.
In a legal case involving several individuals affiliated with the Istanbul Center, a Gulenist organization in Atlanta, Georgia, these individuals were accused by Setanta Sports North America Limited of illegally intercepting a satellite broadcast signal of a soccer match and re-transmitting it to various cable and satellite systems.
The Gulen Movement appears to limit itself to illegal activities that it has good reason to believe it can get away with.
2. "The leadership dictates (rather than suggests) important personal (as opposed to spiritual) details of followers' lives, such as whom to marry, what to study in college, etc."
2. CHECK. In her book Between Islam and the State: the Politics of Engagement (Stanford University Press, 2007) Berna Turam, currently on the faculty of Northeastern University, writes of the Gulen Movement: "...if one chooses to be a part of it, there is not much negotiation over the ruling principles if life and morality. It is an all-encompassing package deal that cannot be chosen halfway....The pious private sites impose rigid restrictions on individual liberties. Depending on the context, the control of the devout may include even the arrangement of intimate issues such as marriage, friendships and hygiene by the Gulen Community. The Community also imposes traditional gender roles and explicit gender segregation and inequality,..." (Note of explanation: Turam makes an important distinction in her book between the "private sites" and "window sites" of the Gulen Movement. The window sites are what outsiders are supposed to see; the private sites are not. This is a crucial point to grasp in understanding the Gulen Movement, as it explains why so many people are deceived as to its true nature.)
3. "The leader sets forth ethical guidelines members must follow but from which the leader is exempt."
3. POSSIBLY...but not definitively Gulen's younger followers, while still in the "internship" phase, may be instructed to go found a school in some part of the world where living standards are low, health care is poor, and the environment may even be dangerous (e.g., war zones, areas of civil strife, etc). Gulen himself does not appear to have engaged in any such activities; he lives a reclusive life in a comfortable compound in Pennsylvania and before that is known only to have lived in Turkey. However modest his lifestyle is alleged to be, it is clear that it cannot compare to the life of a Gulenist teacher in, say, Western Sahara, Liberia or Papua New Guinea. However, we are unclear as to whether this distinction belongs under the category of "ethical guidelines." There is no evidence at present to suggest that Gulen's case compares with the hypocrisy of, say, some corrupt televangelists who have secretly cheated on their spouses and lived in opulence while exhorting their followers to be celibate and to donate all their worldly possessions to the cause.
4. "The group is prepared to fight a literal, physical Armageddon against other human beings."
4. NO. There is absolutely no evidence of this within the Gulen Movement.
5. "The leader regularly makes public assertions that he or she knows are false and/or the group has a policy of routinely deceiving outsiders."
5. CHECK PLUS! The Gulen Movement is distinguished by its propensity for deception and deliberate, strategically planned misinformation campaigns. Fethullah Gulen himself, his spokesmen, the websites produced by the Gulen Movement (many explicitly in Gulen's name) and the administrators of Gulen schools have publicly issued denials of the connection between the Gulen Movement and Gulen charter schools. These are outright lies.
There are many other cases of deception occurring within the Gulen schools and organizations. Some Gulen schools claim to be secular or "non-denominational" at the same time that they teach and explicitly promote one specific religion. Gulenists have released false statements to the press about the schools; on the rare occasions they are questioned, they claim these were "slip-ups" or "misunderstandings," but it is clear from the fact that the errors are always, without exception, in their favor that they are intentional.
Overall, then, out of 5 traits of harmful groups, the Gulen Movement scores a definitive "check" on 3 of them. Lewis writes: "a group possessing more than one or two of the above traits might well bear closer scrutiny."
Closer scrutiny - exactly what we are asking for.