Another Monday, another post about 60 Minutes. Last night’s segment of interest was on Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement, and centered on the growing number of Gülen charter schools in the U.S. The gist of the report was that Gülen is himself a secretive figure whose true motivations cannot be entirely ascertained, but that he preaches a tolerant brand of Islam focused on education and social mobility and that his Harmony Charter Schools are by all accounts doing great work while at the same time stirring up controversy by appearing to skirt immigration laws. On the whole, the segment’s tone was a positive one, and in a lot of ways it painted Gülen as a cleric who fits in well with the general American creed of hard work, education, and capitalist ethos leading to success. The Gülenists, who can be notoriously thin-skinned, have to be happy with 60 Minutes for portraying them in a good light.
Far more interesting to me is not what 60 Minutes reported but what it didn’t report. All Turks of every political stripe would find it inconceivable that a major American network did a profile on Gülen and his followers without one mention of either Prime Minister Erdoğan or the AKP. In fact, someone with no prior knowledge of Gülenists at all would have thought after watching the report that the Gülen movement has little role in Turkish politics and is nothing more than a somewhat shadowy business conglomerate. The reality is that the Gülenists and the AKP have long been intertwined in many ways with their twin rises coinciding with each other, and the AKP’s decade in power has led to Gülenists now filling many high posts in Turkey’s judiciary and police. Gülen and his followers are not easily separated from politics and their many business interests are not the only part of the story. Gülen media organs, such as Zaman, championed Erdoğan’s rise and now consistently back him, and it has been alleged that the Ergenekon investigation is a reward to the Gülenists as a way for them to get back at the military that oppressed them during the 1980s. While recently there have been rumblings of a power struggle between the Gülen movement and the AKP, the fact remains that it is difficult to discuss one without discussing the other, yet this is the very feat that CBS managed to pull off. For someone who studies Turkey, it came off as a very strange omission.
One thing to give 60 Minutes credit for is that it did not give undeserved airtime to those arguing that the Gülen schools represent a secret plot to introduce creeping Islamization or sharia into American society. To begin with, while the Gülenists are controversial in Turkey because they often come off as a personality cult, there is little question that Gülen preaches tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and a distinctly non-confontational brand of Islam. The folks who rail against Gülen and his schools on ideological grounds have a problem with Islam in general and not with anything that Gülen is saying. There is also the inconvenient fact that the schools are all public charters, which means that like any other public school in this country, there is no religious instruction or school-supported religious activity of any kind. Opening a group of public charter schools would be a pretty boneheaded way of trying to carry out a program of religious indoctrination given that there is literally zero space or opportunity for religion to be pushed, and whatever else people may think of Gülen and his followers, stupid is one of the last words that comes to mind.
Most people who saw the 60 Minutes report probably came away with the impression that Gülen is a secretive guy who genuinely believes in promoting math and science education and whose followers are looking for creative ways to come to the U.S. and carry out this message while simultaneously making money. I don’t think this is a bad read on the situation at all, but given the fact that Lesley Stahl went to Turkey to see what was going on for herself, the absence (aside from a few seconds from Andrew Finkel) of any reporting related to the movement’s political activities in Turkey and the intense controversy that it has stirred up surrounding the prosecution of the military and its critics – no doubt Ahmet Şık would have had something interesting to say on the matter – was odd to say the least. Does this mean that CBS and 60 Minutes are naive or guilty of sloppy reporting once again, or is this more fodder for those who conspiratorially proclaim the awesome and secretive power of the cemaat to silence its accusers? Given what we saw from 60 Minutes a few weeks ago, I’d vote for the former, but no doubt the latter explanation will quickly gain currency among those who see Gülen’s hand in everything that goes on related to Turkey.