The Gulen Institute: The Traversing Foot of the Compass, By Burhan Erdem

Posted on April 8th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, On Campus

The Gulen Institute was established in 2007 as a non-profit, non-governmental educational organization and a joint initiative of The Institute of Interfaith Dialog (IID), based in Houston, and the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston (GCSW). IID is a civic organization whose aim is to facilitate the communication and collaboration of people of different backgrounds, so that they can contribute to the growth of peace and social harmony. Its collaboration with GCSW, which “advocates for innovative, collaborative, inclusive, and humane policies and solutions that promote social, economic, and political justice,” brought about the fruit of the Gulen Institute.

For those familiar with Fethullah Gulen’s work, the name of the Gulen Institute (GI) may evoke various areas of study, owing to his multiple roles as spiritual leader, author, and activist. Yet Gulen has most often been associated with ‘dialogue’. This is due to his earnest and persistent commitment to dialogue; one could even call dialogue the ‘sine qua non’ of his life. Gulen insists that religion itself calls for dialogue, and reminds his audience that the word Islam stems from the root slm, meaning peace. Excluding no single person, he is known for his singular efforts, institutionally represented in Turkey by the Foundation of Writers and Journalists, to establish dialogue among people of vastly different religious, cultural and political backgrounds. To fully understand the mission and activities of the Gulen Institute, it is important to gain an understanding of Gulen himself, as well as his intellectual perspective on dialogue.

The acceptance of others in their respective positions is the essence of Gulen’s view of dialogue. The word that he uses to describe this attitude, hoşgoru in Turkish, can be translated as ‘emphatic acceptance’. Possessing ‘openness to receive’ and being able to “open one’s bosom as wide as an ocean” is the prelude to engaging in meaningful conversation with anyone for the sake of mutual understanding and as a foundation for collaborative efforts in pursuit of solutions to universal problems. 

Gulen’s rhetoric reminds one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) imaginary talking lion, whom ‘one could not understand’ due to the lack of ‘shared human nature’ and Anthony Appiah’s cosmopolitan hope of being able to dwell together, of a world “in which individuals can give expression to a multiplicity of identities while building global community through dialogue and discovery.” Nevertheless, what distinguishes Gulen from others is the translation of his views and vision by the participants of a faith-based civic initiative (ie. the so-called Gulen/Hizmet Movement) into institutions and social projects around the world. 

Ironically, Mr. Gulen detests the association of his name with the social phenomenon in which millions of citizens are now participating and offers an alternative definition: a movement of humans gathered around high human values. He objects to the media’s overemphasis of his role in the movement, stressing that it may taint the efforts and altruistic actions of the millions of volunteers and supporters upon whose shoulders the various social projects, including the Gulen Institute, are built.  Dethroning himself from a leadership position, and calling himself one of the participants in the movement, he summarizes this social, humanistic, civic action as “having no expectation [worldly or even otherworldly]; human-oriented [not Islamic per se], purpose-driven.” 

The sensitivity, altruism, and dynamism of Mr. Gulen are deeply rooted in his integration of ‘Turkish Sufism’ and particular embrace of the teaching[s] of Rumi, orthodox Islamic belief and principal, and “the intellectual promise of modern science.” The Gulen Institute is yet another realization of Mr. Gulen’s dream to “raise a generation of young people [“a golden generation”] who combine intellectual ‘enlightenment’ with deep spirituality, wisdom, and activism.” 

The GCSW’s mission and approach so perfectly fits this ideal that Dr. W. Andrew Achenbaum, Faculty Liaison and Director of Master and Doctoral Programs related to the GI, states that

The Gulen Movement’s engine operates at the grassroots level:  Volunteers, friends and supporters in the local community decide how to set priorities and allocate resources. Yet, any bottom-up initiative (like affiliating with GCSW) must be congruent with the movement's broad mission, linking the GM's universal compass with its partners' humanistic traditions (in this case, the university’s classical-democratic values).

Rumi’s compass metaphor, to which Achenbaum refers, is that of an outstretched mathematical compass, one used to draw circles.  It means that the adherents and volunteers of the Gulen Movement encourage all kinds of positive local input (ie. stretch out one foot as far as possible), with the stipulation that other foot of the compass remain centered on the values dominant in Gulen’s discourse.

Dr. Achenbaum also thinks that institutions like the Gulen Institue can help to improve the “underestimated and misunderstood” status of social work. A quick glance at the recent calendar of events arranged by the Gulen Institue reveals the extent to which he may be correct.  Events include a presentation on “The Changing Face of Houston…” by sociologist Dr. Stephen L. Klineberg of Rice University; a presentation on “Solving 21st Century Problems” by U.S. Congressman, John Culberson’s; luncheon speeches by Madeleine K. Albright and James Baker III; contributions to international conferences; Congressional Friendship and Dialogue Dinners; and inter-cultural trips. These and other events have been so influential that during the 3rd Annual Friendship Dinner, held at the Turkish Cultural Center in New York City, both Hillary and Bill Clinton thanked Mr. Gulen and the movement for their contributions to world peace.

The Gulen Institute is rapidly becoming an impressive new intellectual arena.  Visitors, students and researchers who knock at its door will find opportunities to study, research and learn about a broad range topics in the fields of sociology, psychology, social work, social justice, politics and leadership, education, and health.  Interested researchers can make use of the GI’s global affiliations with educational NGOs and dialogue institutions, provided that their aim matches that of the GI: “to promote academic research as well as grass roots activity toward bringing about positive social change, namely the establishment of stable peace, social justice, and social harmony by focusing on the themes of education, volunteerism and civic initiatives.” You too are welcome to join in its pursuits. 

Footnotes, based on the order of quotations.

1. GCSW Website,

2. Ali Unal and Alphonse Williams, Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gulen (Turkey: The Fountain Press, 2000), 193

3. Ali Unal and Alphonse Williams, Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gulen (Turkey: The Fountain Press, 2000), 193.

3. Foreign Affairs, a-world-of-strangers.html.

4. Zaman Newspaper Website,

5. Robert A. Hunt and Y. Alp Aslandogan ed., Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World, Contributions of the Gulen Movement (New Jersey: The Light &IID Press, 2006), 4.

6. Ibid., 4

7. Nevval Sevindi, Contemporary Islamic Conversations, M. Fethullah Gulen on Turkey, Islam and the West (New York: Sunny  Press, 2008), 47.

8. Mehran Kamrava, ed. The New Voices of Islam, Rethinking Politics and Modernity (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 99.

9. Fethullah Gulen Official Website, Georgetown University Conference Papers, W. Andrew Achenbaum, Serendipitous Consequences of the Turko-Islamic Gülen Movement,

10. Ali Unal and Alphonse Williams, Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gulen (Turkey: The Fountain Press, 2000), 207.

11. Fethullah Gulen Official Website, Georgetown University Conference Papers, W. Andrew Achenbaum, Serendipitous Consequences of the Turko-Islamic Gülen Movement,

12. E.g. Pakistani-Turkish school headlined by NYtimes available at 

13. E.g. Rumi Forum, Atlas Foundation etc. 

14. Gulen Institute Official Website;

burhanBurhan Erdem is currently finishing his MA in Religious Studies at Hartford Seminary. He has served as a fellow for a number of organizations and conferences, such as the “Common Word Conference” at Yale, and is currently volunteering for The Institute of Interfaith Dialog and Gulen Institute in Houston, TX. In his free time, he is performing ‘literature surveys’ for various academic projects.

One Response to “The Gulen Institute: The Traversing Foot of the Compass, By Burhan Erdem”

  1. Zoe says:

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    Help put this idea, in time, to as many as possible, before “Clockwork Orange” (overpopulation), “1984” (high-tech dictatorship), cosmic collision, tectonic, economic or environmental collapse, or literalist contretemps. The cost of a full page national ad (sufficient to put RB to virtually all the world) would be repaid in no time, once all that money gets put to actual productive use, at pre-9/11 US annual defense spending of $10,000 per family. Ten to the power of ten (ten levels of groups of ten) would be sufficient to organize & unite all mankind.
    RB is very freeing. Because it always chooses the candidate in the middle, all those who support it are perfectly top-dead-center, with no more need to fear. Politics will become a family discussion around the kitchen table, with no more jumping back & forth between extremes, or absence of the economists’ requirement of predictability for growth. All that’s needed is to let go of the nut & get your fist back out of the knothole, to free yourself, & to rest in the knowledge that RB will give us perfect Freedom & perfect Justice, at one & the same time, even if not necessarily in the form imagined, as if anyone would then care. Good enough for New Zealand, Australia, Kerala India, Iraq, London, Ireland, Cambridge Mass, Burlington & 95% of the townships of Vermont, Pierce County Washington, St Paul & Minneapolis Minnesota, the Utah Republican Party for the selection of statewide candidates, numerous student bodies, the platforms of both the Green & Libertarian Parties & 50 college student bodies across the US with more places coming every year, but not good enough for the rest of us? It must be in somebody’s interest! How can we wish it of others if we do not have it ourselves? Having spent every spare moment from the invasion, to the vote on the constitution emailing every Iraqi I could find about RB, I would like to claim some little credit for the reforms they did adopt. No woman ever got pregnant to have an abortion. The only imaginable definition of Freedom (& Morality) is “Do as you wish, but harm no other”. The maker & sustainer of this world (& cosmos) could have no need of one bit of it. The fiercer the history of the planet, the sooner it would have been blissed out behind ethnic homogeneity, & thus democracy. Tax consumption, not investment, & spread the productivity around. All powers to their lowest appropriate level. All human evil is due to the out of phase fluctuation of population & food supply, so noone alive is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in, except what they do now. Justice is the redress of past violence, Freedom the current absence of violence & nonviolence the only basis of all Morality. Just go out & collect signatures, asking those who sign to collect them for you as well. The more the merrier. (The “additive” form of RB is to count the first choices & if noone has 50%, to add in the next choices, & so on until someone finally does.)