Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15th, the name of a Turkish cult leader has frequently been heard: Fetullah Gulen, a 75-year-old US-based Turkish national. He is the founder of an organization called Hizmet (Service) and now faces the charge of ordering the coup. Following a National Security Council meeting in May 2016, the Turkish government declared the organization as terrorist and gave it the name Fetullah Gulen Terror Organisation (FETO). It is now a matter of public knowledge that followers of Gulen infiltrated state institutions and tried to overthrow the democratically elected government in December 2013.
Gulen established the cult starting from the 1970s in Turkey and then it became international in the 1990s. Today the cult is said to have an extensive network throughout the world. They have national and international educational centers, non-govermental organizations, television channels, hospitals, even a bank and several insurance companies belonging to the movement. The existence of this large network poses a number of questions: Who is Fetullah Gulen, the man believed to be behind the coup? Through what mechanisms has this network of institutions from schools to banks and insurance companies grown nationwide and globally? How big is it?
Fetullah Gulen was born on 27 April 1941 in the eastern city of Erzurum, Turkey. He started primary school in 1946, but three years later his formal schooling came to an end when his family moved to a village for his father’s appointment as an imam. In the village, he received Islamic education in a madrasah until 1959. He memorized the Quran at the age of 10. He was appointed as the main imam in the city of Izmir in 1966 and stayed there for five years. During his time in Izmir, he delivered Islamic speeches in various cities in the Aegean region in the west of Turkey. He was arrested in 1971 by the post-coup junta and spent seven months in prison, charged with reactionary activities. He worked as an imam in various cities in the following years. In 1979, he started to write editorials for the monthly Sizinti (Fountain) magazine, published by his followers.
He retired as an imam from the Presidency of Religious Affairs, an official state institution, in 1981. The emergence and evolution of his movement correspond to the 1980s and 1990s with funds collected from his followers and articles distributed across the nation. The movement established its own educational institutions, media outlets, nongovernmental organizations, banks, insurance companies and business associations in the following years until the movement was accused of infiltrating important state institutions such as the judiciary, the police and security forces, and the military.
The primary unit of the cult, called Houses of Light (Isik Evleri), was founded in Izmir by Gulen himself through funds collected from the community attending the mosque at which he worked. Students were permitted to stay in these houses on the condition that they followed a number of written rules determined personally by Gulen. In 1970, the number of these houses had already risen to 12. The first school, Yamanlar High School, was founded in 1982, the first newspaper Zaman was taken over in 1986, the first international school was established in Azerbaijan in 1991, the first TV channel Samanyolu TV started broadcasting in 1993. A year later Cihan News Agency was added to the newly blossoming Gulenist network. The following years witnessed the large expansion of the network, which is elaborated here.