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Interview with Prof. Niyazi Oktem on This Meeting

by Prof. Niyazi Oktem on . Posted in Meeting with the Pope John Paul II

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Q: According to you, what do Fethullah Gülen's efforts for dialogue import in Turkey?

A: In my view, both economic and ideological differences lie behind the conflicts and clashes in the world. Ideological conflicts originate from the [opposing] sides not knowing each other. Thus, I regard Mr. Gülen's efforts as of great significance, as he calls everyone to accept the other as it is and respect each other's views and identity. His inclusion of international figures in his quest for dialogue means a lot for Muslims [in Turkey] particularly. Especially so in the present circumstances, when both Muslims and the Turkish governments have for so long been rather sensitive [on the issue of] foreigners and representatives of non-Muslim religious communities. Until. Gülen started meeting with those representatives, it was unusual for a Muslim to engage in dialogue with a Christian or Jew. I myself took part in the first Religious Counsel held in 1992 and, together with Ethem Ruhi Figlali, dean of the Faculty of Theology at Mugla University, found it very difficult to include the word dialogue in the final declaration. People feared that Christian missionaries would come and poison our people. Why should Muslims convinced of the truth of Islam be afraid? Gülen does not entertain such a fear, and therefore, as a Muslim with full conviction, opens the doors of dialogue to everyone. He has full confidence in his religion.

Q: Some people in Turkey, albeit few in number, speculate that Mr. Gülen is after power. Do you think that?

A: I can never accept that such an important social phenomenon as dialogue should be reduced to something explicable by conspiracy theories. We have no right to judge anyone by what we produce in our imaginations. Disapproval of an idea or initiative gives no one the right to condemn it. They cannot see the good behind Gülen's attempts at dialogue. We should consider the atmosphere of peace and love that dialogue can engender. Gülen had met with Patriarch Bartholemeos I before. I regarded that meeting as one of the most important events in the [recent] history of the Turkish Republic, for our Muslim and Orthodox citizens had [hitherto] regarded each other as enemies. That meeting has paved the way for a better understanding and coming together. His meeting with the Pope is certainly much more important than that.

Q: Why is that meeting so important?

A: It is of global import. First of all, the West has a very negative image of Muslims. In their eyes, Muslims are unproductive, consumers [only], implacable, and inclined to terrorism. And [they see] Islam as the religion responsible for such vices. So, a religious leader's meeting with the Pope at just this time means that he is ready to enter a dialogue with Christians and that Islam is not closed to dialogue. This meeting also contradicts those Europeans who allege that Muslims are too radical to enter a dialogue and offer that as an excuse for not allowing Turkey to join the EU.

Q: Some question Mr. Gülen's status [his worthiness] to meet with the Pope.

A: This is a matter for the Pope not us. But it seems that the Vatican knows Mr. Gülen better than us. The Pope does not accept everyone's request for a meeting. Besides, his appointments are arranged years in advance. Mr. Gülen's meeting with the Pope was arranged last year, which shows that the Vatican considers him an important person.

Personally, I regard this meeting as one of the most important events of the twentieth century. Although at first glance it seems to be a simple event, it will have far-reaching consequences, for positive, important changes in world history [often] have been started and realized by those wholly dedicated to a cause, not the official actors in state structures. Those people may not have official titles, but they have a power resting upon the love of their followers. Gülen has a large following. People agree with him on his initiative. I wish the state would give him greater support. I worry about certain fundamentalist movements in Turkey. Gülen's calls for dialogue make the atmosphere more peaceful and propitious for the coming together of opposing groups. Our ambassador's welcoming him shows that important power centers in the state support him.

Q: Ertugrul Ozkok, editor of Hurriyet has commented that Fethullah Gülen is becoming an international figure. Do you agree with him?

A: Yes, I do. Ideologically Turkey is a Western country, but Islam is still a very important social phenomenon. This phenomenon has long been exploited for political ambitions and, due to this misrepresentation, has been misunderstood. Gülen and his group give priority to its main elements: love, dialogue, respect for others' rights, and human rights. Gülen's movement is undeniably loyal to the essence of Islam, but this does not prevent its members from understanding contemporary values. They give the society the idea that it is possible to live together no matter to what group, faith, or ideology one belongs.

Q: Do you agree that religion is becoming increasingly influential in international relations?

A: Religion has been always been influential. However, many intellectuals cannot see this mission of religion. Economics and religion are the two main factors that have roused peoples to war. Why should it not be possible to use such a powerful factor to bring about peace? Teaching believers that religion can be a means to bring about peace, and that it is not a religious requirement to be enemies with followers of other beliefs, can help eliminate enmities. Also, dialogue between religions can remove the influence of religious differences in international relations.

Q: What do you think about the proposals Mr. Gülen made to the Pope?

A: It is very meaningful that Muslims and Christians celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth. As Jesus has a significant place in the Qur'an and Islam, cities such as Antioch, Ephesus, and Jerusalem have a great deal of meaning to both Muslims and Christians. Gülen suggested to the Pope that they visit those cities together. He proposed that Jerusalem be a city that the followers of the three religions could visit without a visa, and that they hold conferences in different cities. He also proposed opening a university or a faculty of theology in Urfa, where scholars from the three religions would teach and students would study. All of these offers are of great significance for promoting dialogue, peace, and mutual understanding.