How does Fethullah Gülen explain the differences between those who interpret Islamic teachings to justify violence and those who use the same sources but derive peace, brotherhood, and tolerance from them? How does he transcend this dilemma?

by Doğu Ergil on . Posted in Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement in 100 questions

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Fethullah Gülen

This question has two parts. First, it is directed to the religious interpretations of fanatics such as Osama bin Laden, who formed and continue to form their teachings and acts with a feeling of hate, jealousy and destruction of the “other” (and this “other” can be a Muslim) and Fethullah Gülen’s interpretation, which is based on a philosophy of life aiming at peace, tolerance, mutual understanding and living together. Second, it seeks to find the answers to these questions: Whether in the soul of Islam does it condone violence and hatred, which from time to time, comes to the fore with proper interpretations? On the contrary, is an interpretation condoning violence and hatred a total deviation from the spirit of Islam? The answers to these questions and Muslims’ criticism of their own faith are significant in that they offer an ontological proposition regarding humanity.

Fethullah Gülen initially responds that fanatics who resort to violence are a minority in Islamic societies:

It is possible to consider the emergence of such three or five bandits in the Islamic world of 1 or 1.5 billion as the secretion of the Islamic body … Besides; terror makes numerous innocents as victims. The terror activities filling the last 50 years of the human history, even if at the beginning, seemingly harming the subjects of terror [victims], in the final analysis, have always been harmful to the terrorists themselves. Terror cannot be used at all, especially for an Islamic cause. A terrorist cannot be a Muslim; a Muslim cannot be a terrorist. A Muslim could only be a symbol of peace, prosperity, and reconciliation. Even if there are 9 criminals and 1 innocent in a ship, Islam does not allow the murder of those 9, for the sake of one single innocent. In Islam, a right is a right. There can be no greater or lesser of it. The right of an innocent individual cannot be sacrificed even for the sake of the entire society.[1]

Then he discusses suicide bombers:

The people on the four corners of the world, for instance, the Palestinians … though they go through much painful days, suicide bombings would not be proper. To venture into attacks in which the target and who would be killed are not known; just in order to kill tying the bombs around the waist, and pulling the trigger among the people and innocent children, unaware of what is happening, cannot be an Islamic act. Islam has set forth some rules and regulations, even for the heated moment of a war, regarding how to be killed, whom to kill, and how to struggle against the enemy. There is no such a thing as killing women, children, or the people who do not participate personally in the war. Although I understand the hopelessness of the Palestinians, the fault of being drawn into such a struggle, and in the face of the conduct by some people, the condemnation of Islam and all Muslims I feel really sad.[2]

This assessment emphasizes that the use violence and suicide bombings as a vehicle of revenge, defense, or a political manifesto is not compatible with the religion of Islam. He stresses the peaceful aspects of Islam; its spiritual side, the human aspect, which opposes a radical stance loaded with violence.

The fanatics like Osama bin Laden might say that they base their views on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. If the practices of God’s Messenger and those of the Rightly Guided Caliphs are to be taken as a foundation, there you cannot talk of Bin Laden; what he does and the acts of God’s Messenger cannot be considered along the same line at all.

If we take the acts of the Prophet as a base, it would become obvious that Bin Laden is unable to look at the issue from a holistic perspective. He is not looking at the understandings, the viewpoints of the Book, the Sunnah and Salaf-i Salihin [the earlier generation properly practicing religion in the period of the Age of Happiness] with a birds’ eye, he is taking certain parts only.

There is an oft cited example: Without taking into consideration the context in which it occurs, people take the part from the verse, “Kill them wherever you may come upon them,” (At-Taubah 9:5) and reach similar faulty conclusions.

The meaning of this is that: “If there are people who accepted you, entering into your company, and later appropriating antagonistic behaviors, they betrayed the nation, then punish them.” Against this kind of rebellion every nation would defend and protect itself, and would punish the perpetrators. Many events of this sort occurred in the Ottoman period as well as during the republican era.

Continuing the subject, later comes back, prays, and fasts and if the old lines are, as it were extracted with tweezers, then considerations of Bin Laden and his likes take place.

In summary, there is a problem of methodology. The matter is approached from one perspective only. When it is said, “There they are the unbelievers, you have take a stand against them or against those who rule the world by oppression,” the matter changes form, loses its meaning, it becomes politicized. If we look at the acts of our Prophet, the acts of those Rightly Guided Caliphs ruling after him, the practices of the Salaf-i Salihin, as a recent example the practices of the Ottoman rulers, we will quickly find out they never acted in that way at all, on the contrary, they opened their hearts to the Christians, the Jews. Besides, they left their doors wide open to those under oppression in other countries, those who were subjected to massacres, they protected them. While others were killing them, these rulers spread their wings of compassion. Since the general consideration was to open arms to humans with love and compassion, they would not have been able to act otherwise, anyway.

With our rude and harsh conducts, which are not based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, we are doing harm to the religion. Whether today Bin Laden is alive or not is not known. I wish he would be dead, so that the Muslims could release themselves from such a distorted conception.[3]

Fethullah Gülen knows that fanaticism neither started with Bin Laden, nor will it end now that he is dead. The solution, he believes, is in the root causes of fanaticism; he provides the example of those who commit “murders in the name of religion,” declaring that they are doing so in an effort to release the Muslim nation from foreign occupation; they massacre thousands of their countrymen and fellow Muslims without any mercy:

Instead of fighting when necessary, you would kill there the innocent people in order to kick out the Americans, that cannot be. If the Muslims there are doing it, they must have been committing a serious murder. It is because of the dictum; “No soul, as bearer of burden, is made to bear the burden of another” (An-Najm 53:38) is one of the important principles of the Qur’an. Even if the whole members of a family commit a murder, save one, that innocent person cannot be touched, namely his blood, his honor, property are under protection, they cannot be sacrificed. It is not possible for them to reach an aim through this way. I do not see that it would be possible for one who believes in God, to perform these acts. He must be seeing red that he could do all these things.[4]

In Fethullah Gülen’s view, it is impossible to square Islam with terrorism. If violence cannot be justified with defense, what alternative road does Islam adopt? Fethullah Gülen answers this critical question as follows:

On the other hand, there are many conflicting interests in the Islamic regions, as well as many competing and clashing groups. Problems such as antidemocratic practices and human rights violations have resulted in the foundation of various disaffected and disenfranchised groups. Being ignorant and inexperienced, many of these groups can easily be manipulated and used by some. Some, manipulating these groups, have worked to reach their goals step by step. Moreover, there are multi-national covert or open organizations that have based all of their efforts on destruction and the creation of fear in society. To extend the borders of their activities, they agitate the unhappy segments of society by stirring up trouble and fomenting violence.[5]

So, in this case the first thing to be done is to expose this game and dissuade those local groups and organizations for their false causes.

He continues,

The role of the double standard in this terror game is also rather great. Although the big players of the world politics say, when it is convenient, “democracy, human rights, living in freedom,” if their interests warrant, they easily oppose the values they have been defending all along, and when necessary resort to brute force. When it is a matter of bleeding wounds, their disinterest is a clear proof of that, like the issues of Kashmir and Palestine.[6]

It is seen from these passages that Fethullah Gülen favors exposing this double standard and the two-faced ethics, as well as exposing their owners in the world public opinion.

Fethullah Gülen also offers to explain, in every occasion, how wrong it is to produce a global paranoia out of Islamophobia, and how harmful it is to set nations against nations: “It is both ironic and grave to observe that some of the rulers in the Islamic world believe in this enormous lie.”[7]

Fethullah Gülen continues to explain his refusal to accept the use violence in his teachings and his acceptance of the philosophy of life around the axis of love, tolerance, and coexistence in peace:

It would be unthinkable for the religion sent by God, whether its name is Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, let alone ordering terror, to permit it to take place. Before everything else, in the eyes of God, life is very important. Because of that, through the religion he revealed, God considered it one of the five basic values to be protected. So much that since it considers every individual human as a species, compared to other creatures, Islam has accepted killing a sole human being as equal to killing the entire humanity; and saving the life of one human being as equal to saving the lives of all humanity.

In addition, in evaluating the issue of right, saying there would not be greater or lesser rights, it considered the right of the individual and the right of the society was equal, it did not sacrifice one for the other. Besides, Islam reminds us that in the movement and acts of individual Muslims, the goal has to be legitimate, that those who march on to the legitimate goals through illegitimate means would be punished with the opposite of their intention or aims. From this perspective we can say that terror can never be a vehicle in order to accomplish any of the Islam’s aims.[8]

A Muslim cannot be a terrorist because Islam reserves the heaviest punishment in this world for those who have a design against the human life and the security of humans; and in the hereafter it is reserved, along with denying God and associating something else with Him, again for those murdering a human being, and has made the threat that those who deliberately aim at someone else’s life would be in the Hellfire eternally. While there is such a punishment set for an act, a person, remaining as Muslim, can never commit it at all. Therefore, it is not possible according to the religious judgment for a terrorist to be real Muslim, and a real Muslim to be a terrorist.[9]

After making this assessment, he says that it is impossible to escape the reality which is happening before the eyes of everyone and must be confronted:

Either in the Islamic world or in other places if there are terroristic acts and if they continue, first of all a healthy assessment and diagnosis of it has to be made, then according to this diagnosis a way has to be found to cure it.[10]

What could be the cure? As a man of religion, he has been reiterating constantly to those who consider or call themselves Muslims to explain, as a first priority, the basis or the principles of religion and its authentic rulings. But this undertaking is far beyond the capacity of a single person or even a single country. In the Islamic world, a common understanding must be reached using the main sources and then it must be spread. But even this is not enough. Administrations that undermine justice, that are far from honesty and productivity, should be transformed to meet the needs of their population and to respect their citizens’ rights. If this is not achieved, opinion leaders and interpreters such as Fethullah Gülen, who try to make clear that Islam is peaceful and respectful of differences and try to engender a sense of solidarity, could lose to fanatical men of religion, who produce a language, loaded with anger and violence, and a logic that, in the end, would drag to extremes those who are full of anger and hopelessness. This is not a religion, but politics. Politics divide people, make them clash, and steer them away from faith.

Fethullah Gülen believes that the high ideals of religion can contribute to the shaping of human relations on ethical and peaceful foundations, maintaining the social stability:

God has set forth the religious injunctions for the individual and social happiness of human beings. Believing in One God and worship to Him requires all believers to have a sincere relationship with all animate or inanimate objects. To the extent of the depth of the individual’s faith in and submission to God, his interest in other creatures and responsibility he feels would be sincere.

The religion which is a contract between humans and God and the stipulations of which are always in favor of humans, is based on the principle of submission to the divine system to which everything other than humans bow. Namely, the entire universe, our planet included, obey the laws God had fixed, and in the end a unity, an order, and harmony takes place. Unlike other creatures which obey in this fashion, we, the human beings have something called “will.” This will and the responsibility as a necessary corollary of it are given to us in order to bring our existence into harmony with all beings and thus to mature and progress.

God does not like the mischief and oppression at all. He desires us to live in peace and according to the standard of justice. Therefore what is expected of the worshipping believers in Him is to try to work towards realizing peace, brotherhood, and justice in the world. Religion brought primarily the following basic disciplines:

The power is in the right; on the contrary the right is not subject to power.

Justice and the rule of law are the essential principles.

The basic rights like the freedom of thought and belief, life, private property, reproduction through marriage, the mental and physical health can never be violated and infringed.

The privacy of individual life and inviolability are under protection.

No one can be accused of anything unless there is good evidence and cannot be punished for the crimes of others.

The individuals are in a state of cooperation in order to live together.

Religion declares, “He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind,” (Al-Ma’idah 5:32), for the reason that every individual represents the entire humanity and the individual rights are revered as much as the rights of all humans. Besides, killing one human being opens up the door to the idea that all people can be killed.

In the eyes of religion, the basis of social life is not power, but the right.[11]

In the words of Fethullah Gülen, it is possible to envision a broader framework of a constitution that so far have never able to grasp: a civic constitution. It is a constitution in which the responsibilities are in balance with freedoms; the minorities are not oppressed by the majority; the administration obeys the dictates of the law themselves; (and social justice is realized It is indeed exiting to hear from a man of religion that religion can contribute, not as it is feared by to obscurantists and fanatics, but to ethical purification and social justice, along with the establishment of a system in which the freedoms are protected.

Who can object to the conception of a religion which does not in quarrel with the world and a modern lifestyle? Exactly for this reason, Fethullah Gülen’s interpretation of religion is rather significant. But, there is something that saddens him: those who apply violence in the name of Islam:

They have become such a burden on the shoulders of everyone that, with the effort made in order to escape from them, it would have been possible by explaining the beauty of Islam, to enter the hearts of many people. But now, the Muslims everywhere, in the process of making exposition of Islam, have to start with trying to convince their audience that they are not terrorists, they do not behave in radical ways or they are not living bombs. More often than not, the turn does not come to explaining the beautiful aspects of our religion.[12]

[1] Sevindi 2002, 29.
[2] Fethullah Gülen 2010a, 179.
[3] Gündem 2005, 111–113.
[4] Ibid., 109.
[5] Sarıtoprak and Ünal 2005, 467.
[6] Akademi Araştırma Heyeti 2006, 182.
[7] Ibid., 183.
[8] Interview with Fethullah Gülen, Kenya Daily Nation, 30 July 2004.
[9] Sevindi 2002, 29.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Interview with Fethullah Gülen, Kenya Daily Nation, 30 July 2004.
[12] Doğu Ergil’s interview with Fethullah Gülen.