Gülen movement has a dark side, former members in Germany say

The Gülen movement, a Turkish Islamist group blamed for the 2016 coup attempt, runs schools, publishers and many other businesses in Germany with authoritarian discipline and often pressures families to put the network first, young former members told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ).

In 2016, a young Turkish-German student named Serkan unknowingly moved into a "lighthouse", a student residence that is part of the religious and social network around Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, seeking nothing more than tutoring, according to SZ.

He said he soon noticed strange men living there, and later learned that they, and the head of tutoring and the residence, were followers of Gülen.

“The Gülen movement, which calls itself ‘Hizmet’ (service), has been active in Germany since the mid-1990s,” SZ said in a report this week. “Here, as in Turkey, it has spun a network of companies, schools, clubs, lighthouses, kindergartens, publishers and a newspaper.”

Officially these are presented as independent entities, as leaders deny to local officials and to the media that they belong to an international network, according to SZ.

This changed in July 2016, after the coup attempt in Turkey. Ankara blames the network for the failed coup and views the movement, which is said to have some 7 million followers worldwide, as a terrorist organisation. Gülen, who now lives in the United States, has denied any involvement in the coup attempt. 

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once allied to the Gülen movement, has since the coup attempt dismissed some 130,000 civil servants for alleged links to the group and thrown some 50,000 alleged members in jail. On Wednesday, Erdoğan said Turkey’s state institutions had not yet been fully purged of Gülenists.

Outside of Turkey, officials take a different view. The head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, Bruno Kahl, has described the movement as a "civil association for religious and secular education", according to SZ.

As a result, Gülenists are treated like anybody else in Germany. The number of Turkish nationals applying for asylum in Germany increased more than 25 percent last year, from 8,483 in 2017 to 10,655.

Turkish officials say some 14,000 Gülenists are now in Germany, and has urged Berlin to help round them up. Turkey’s intelligence agency has detained and returned to Turkey more than 80 suspected members of the movement around the world. German officials have accused Ankara of establishing a spy ring in their country, and German authorities last year investigated a Berlin police officer for spying for Turkey.

Every major German city has at least one lighthouse, according to SZ, but how many there are is unknown, as they are registered merely as a public living space. Residents are seen as Gülen's "Golden Generation", a Muslim elite that aims to improve the world, said SZ.

Daily rituals include prayer and conversation, Quran study, lectures, and reading Gülen sermons. Serkan sat through hours-long Islam classes everyday, and was once upbraided by his supervisor, or “Abi”, for spending time with an unmarried young woman and missing the daily conversation, said SZ.

The Dialogue and Education Foundation, which oversees Serkan’s lighthouse, denied any knowledge of the incident and told SZ that all lighthouse activities are voluntary.

During Serkan's two-year stay, the rules tightened, according to SZ: chatting with classmates and unannounced visits by friends became prohibited. Serkan was told that when outsiders asked what he does in the lighthouse, he should tell them he studies, relaxes and plays football.

Some 80 girls attended a Gülen school in Bavaria, according to Aişe, a former teacher. She created a competition to encourage the girls to recruit new students, and would present single men from Turkey as possible husbands, according to SZ.

Aişe helped the movement grow, recruit members and raise money. "The principals gave me telephone lists, (and said) I should recruit five families every week,” she told SZ.

After eight years, the pressure and criticism became too much and the network seemed like a sect, Aişe said, so she quit. Even after that, recruiters came to her son’s school and sought to recruit him for the movement’s Islam class with praise and attention. Now she is considering moving to another city, said SZ.

Deniz, now 18, started taking part in Gülen activities at age seven, receiving free gifts for quietly reading Gülen books. He soon learned the slogan: "Whoever lies, goes to hell". The Dialog Foundation told SZ that this did not "fit the pedagogy and values of our institutions".

Ayhan, now 16, was nine when he was selected for the lighthouse, and looked forward to visiting the student flat. "I felt at home there, because everything, the kilims (rugs), the pillows, was Turkish,” he told SZ.

When he was 11, he wanted to stop attending because he felt stressed by the organised meetings with girls. But his deeply religious father insisted that he continue his visits to the lighthouse.

When Ayhan decided to leave the movement, his father turned violent, and he only escaped thanks to his mother’s help. "My mother was so brave, I could not have done it without her, but my family is destroyed," Ayhan told SZ.

Ayhan estimates that his father gives about 50 percent of his wages to the Gülen movement. A tutor told SZ that he was advised to donate 40 percent of his pay to the movement. The Islamic alms commitment provides a secure basis for funding the movement.

Deniz also left the movement with the help of his mother, who soon divorced his father. "He sacrificed us for the network,” said Deniz.