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What Happens When Fethullah Gülen Dies?

The reclusive Islamic philosopher Fethullah Gülen has been in the limelight recently. Last month, CBS’s “60 Minutes” did a report on his movement’s growing network charter schools in the United States. While some describe Gülen as a modernist dedicated to peace and tolerance, others suspect darker motives about his outreach. There is evidence enough to support both viewpoints. There is absolutely no doubt that many of Gülen’s schools—especially in the developing world—offer the best available education. In recent months, however, the Turkish government sought to confiscate a book manuscript which alleged that Gülen’s followers had created cells within the Turkish police.  While I recognize the sincerity of many Gülen movement members, as I have explained to some followers who have asked me, I remain suspicious of any movement that shrouds itself in such secrecy and troubled by the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which seem to permeate many of his news outlets, especially in Turkish.

As reports increase that Gülen is unwell—his aides often use his health to excuse his refusal to speak at any length to those invited to his compound—one question which remains unanswered both among Gülen’s admirers and his detractors is what happens when the aging movement’s leader dies? The movement’s website says the Gülen movement is not a Sufi tariqa. In most Sufi orders, the sheikh will nominate his successor, but if Gülen does not envision himself as a Sufi master then the tradition of naming the successor while still living is moot.

There is no denying Gülen’s political influence and his empire could be worth billions of dollars. Yet succession over his interests remains unclear. Perhaps it is time for Gülen to name the person or people who will inherit his empire. Only then will the direction of the Gülenists become clear.


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