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Love and truth in democratic societies: Fethullah Gülen and Pope Benedict XVI on social questions

by Thomas Michel on . Posted in Peace and dialogue in a plural society

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Fethullah Gülen

On June 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued a new encyclical letter entitled Caritas in Veritate, that is, Love in Truth or “Truth-filled Love.” This letter was directed to Christians and to all those who are interested in facing seriously questions regarding democracy, justice, and development in our modern world. The influential Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose thought we are studying in this Congress, has also written extensively on many of these topics. In keeping with the Congress theme of “East and West Encounters,” I will try to bring together the views of these two religious leaders in a type of “dialogue of ideas.”

In presenting the views of Fethullah Gülen and Pope Benedict XVI on some of the social questions of our time, I do not intend to take a “comparative” approach of simply juxtaposing the ideas of one to those of the other, e.g., “Hocaefendi says this about democracy, and the Pope says that.” Each of these men approaches the issues in his own way, and I propose to let each treat his central concerns as he sees fit. I hope that the flow will reflect that of a scholarly conversation between two intelligent and deeply religious believers, each of whom has exhaustive knowledge of his respective religious heritage and who has given much thought and prayer to the basic human issues that confront us all.

Religion and democracy

Fethullah Gülen. In what way can we speak about a particular religion and its relation to democracy? The question is pertinent because many newspaper articles and even scholarly papers purport to examine, for example, “Islam and democracy.” One reason for the frequency of this approach is that many scholars are willing to treat religion solely as a sociological, economic, or political phenomenon, while denying or ignoring the spiritual, immutable, and trans-rational nature of religious faith. Gülen admits that even some Muslims raise issues about whether Islam and democracy are compatible and asks whether this kind of question is valid or can be productive of truth.

He holds that religion in general and Islam in particular cannot be compared on the same basis with democracy or any other political, social, or economic system. Political, social and economic systems are by their nature transient and variable. American democracy is not the same as German, Turkish, or French democracy, nor is American democracy today the same phenomenon that it was 40-50 years ago. By its very nature, every political system is subject to limitations of time and space. By contrast, religion deals with eternal, unchanging realities. Religious faith concerns the nature of God, the teaching of the prophets, the message of Scriptures, the existence of angels, and the expectation of Judgment; these are all matters which have nothing to do with changing times and temporary institutions.[1] Religion is concerned with the worship of God and the universal and unchanging standards of morality, which do not depend on changing times and worldly life. Thus, any comparison between religion and democracy or any other political system is bound to limp.

Benedict. In his encyclical, Benedict agrees that it is not the role of religion to propose technical solutions to political or economic problems, nor should religious communities be interfering in the politics of national states. The mission of the Church is, rather to speak the truth about individuals and societies, about human dignity and the human vocation. These are principles that are applicable in every political and economic system and remain equally valid at different periods of history. Without this concern for and focus on the truth, according to Pope Benedict, “it would be easy to fall into an empiricist and skeptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values—sometimes even the meanings—with which to judge and direct it.”[2]

The point of correspondence between Gülen’s thought and that of the Pope lies in the perennial nature of religion in confronting the ever-changing nature of political and economic life. For Benedict, the Church does not engage in problem-solving of technical matters that by their nature are bound up with situations unique to each time and place. Similarly, it is not the task of the Church to interfere in the politics of nations by which the constantly changing daily affairs of citizens are governed. The role of religion is, rather to ask and raise questions about truth that transcends particular events, systems, and individuals. If people of faith do not continually raise these ageless concerns of truth, we would all be condemned to be governed by spreadsheets, short-term forecasts, public opinion polls, and similar political and economic indicators.

For Gülen, matters of faith transcend the vicissitudes of history and the variations in political systems. Like Benedict, he sees religion as being concerned with the eternal truths of life and existence, what he calls “immutable principles related to faith, worship, and morality.” Gülen confesses that Islam has worldly aspects, although these come to no more than 5% of the teaching of the prophets. However, these aspects, despite their relative unimportance compared to eternal truths of faith, can be treated in the context of democracy.

The varieties of democratic experience

As noted above, Gülen holds that democracy is not one thing, but is continually developing and constantly producing new variations. It is a system subject to continual development and constant revision. History’s first well documented democracy, that of Athens, was what today would be called direct democracy, that is, direct rule by a free assembly of the people, but at the same time it was a limited democracy, in that women and slaves could not participate in it. Most of our modern states have not adopted the principle of direct democracy, but have opted, rather, for representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by elected officials. In a further variation, some countries, like many states of the United States, have what can be called deliberative democracy, which through the mechanisms of initiative, referendum, and recall introduce elements of direct democracy into a basically representative system.

Each country in the world has combined and adapted these basic democratic functions in its own way. Moreover, in every nation, its democratic processes are constantly being subjected to revision and fine-tuning. As elements of the process are found to be functioning poorly or immobilized by constitutional crisis, new refinements are introduced to which the populace gives but a provisional commitment. Otherwise, the system is pragmatically allowed to stand for the time being, always with the awareness that the actual form any democracy takes at any given time is tentative and impermanent.

Fethullah Gülen. Gülen’s view that democracy is a system that is continually being developed and revised is thus a point well taken. One cannot make universal, sweeping statements about democracy and its compatibility with religion without taking into account the tentative and passing nature of all democracies, as well as the variations that occur according to region, culture, and circumstance. Therefore, it is not the role of Islam or any other religion to propose or endorse any unchangeable form of government or to attempt to shape its institutions.[3] What the religion of Islam does is to establish fundamental principles that should orient the general character and standards of a government, while leaving people free to choose the type and form of government most suitable according to the demands of time and circumstances.[4] Thus, it is natural and proper for Muslim organizations and movements, just like other members of civil society, to propose principles and values for the consideration of government authorities.

Benedict. We can note the correspondence of these views with those of Benedict XVI in his recent encyclical: “The State does not need to have identical characteristics everywhere. The support aimed at strengthening weak constitutional systems can easily be accompanied by the development of other political players, of a cultural, social, territorial or religious nature, alongside the State. The articulation of political authority at the local, national and international levels is one of the best ways of giving direction to the process of economic globalization. It is also the way to ensure that it does not actually undermine the foundations of democracy.”[5]

The Pope is suggesting that political flexibility is needed today in order for governments to control and regulate the complex interactions and often-instantaneous transactions of globalized economics. The improved capabilities of democracies to deal with economic globalization depends both upon the increased effec tiveness of local, national and international authority as well as on the simultaneous strengthening of other sectors of civil society, religious as well as cultural and regional.

Characteristics of democratic societies

Fethullah Gülen. According to Gülen, in democratic societies, people govern themselves as opposed to being ruled by someone above. Hence, in a democracy, it is the individual that has priority over the community. On the one hand, the just rights and aspirations of the individual must not be stifled by communitarian expediency while, on the other, individualism is not an absolute value in itself. In order to live in society, individuals must adjust to realities and limit their own freedoms. This ongoing process of adjustment, balancing the claims of the individual with the demands of the community, is one that is occurring with greater or lesser success in every country today.

In applying these standards to his native Turkey, Gülen is optimistic, but he does not shy away from self-criticism. “Democratization is an irreversible process in Turkey,” he states in response to those who claim that his movement seeks to overthrow the Turkish Republic.[6] Nevertheless, the democratic ideal still lags behind that of other countries: “Standards of democracy and justice [in Turkey] must be elevated to the level of our contemporaries in the West,” he said in an interview with the Turkish Daily News.[7]

Benedict. For Pope Benedict, the great advantage of democracy, and the reason why he urges Christians to support faithfully this political option, is that of all systems of government, “democracy alone can guarantee equality and rights to everyone.”[8] It is the conviction that democracy is that form of government that can best guarantee justice for the most people that recommends it to the Pope. “There is a reciprocal dependence between democracy and justice,” he holds, “that impels everyone to work responsibly to safeguard each person’s rights, especially those of the weak and marginalized.”

It could even be said that the achievement of justice and a dignified life for all, especially the most vulnerable, is one of the main goals of democracy. Benedict holds that “Democracy will attain its full actualization only when every person and each people have access to the primary goods (life, food, water, health care, education, work and the certainty of their rights) through an ordering of internal and international relations that assures each person of the possibility of participating in them.”[9]

Fethullah Gülen. Gülen arrives at a similar position by applying principles drawn from the Islamic ethical tradition. Starting from the standard of equality enunciated in a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad, Gülen holds that no individual, family, or ethnic group has any inherent “right to rule,” nor does wealth or power bestow any political privileges. The political ethics taught by Islam can be summed up in six principles:

a. Power derives from truth, not truth from power.

b. Indispensability of justice and rule of law.

c. Individual rights: life, belief, property, reproduction, health.

d. Privacy and immunity of the individual.

e. No conviction without evidence, no punishment for another’s crimes.

f. Administration through consultation.[10]

So long as these principles are followed, Islamic teaching can accept a variety of governmental systems. Muhammed Çetin notes that “According to Gülen the understanding of democracy and human rights within the theoretical heritage of Islam is not dogmatic but it centers around values such as compromise, stability, the protection of the life, honor and dignity of the human being, justice, equity, dialogue, and consultation.”[11] Greg Barton agrees: “Gülen frequently endorses democracy specifically, arguing that it is the most appropriate form of government for the modern period and one that is entirely compatible with Islam.”[12] Similarly, while Islamic faith can be lived out in a variety of social and political contexts, the Islamic values that should embody this way of life are those taught in the Qur’an. In this regard, Gülen mentions the primacy of truth or right over force, and the ideals of love, mutual respect, assistance, and social education.[13]

Benedict. For Benedict XVI, the reciprocal link between democracy and justice is oriented toward achieving integral human development so that all people can live in a way compatible with their human dignity. By “integral human development” he understands “the goal of rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy. From the economic point of view, this means their active participation, on equal terms, in the international economic process; from the social point of view, it means their evolution into educated societies marked by solidarity; from the political point of view, it means the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace.”[14]

Where the demands of justice are not met, the very functioning of democracy is in danger. The Pope envisions justice as permitting trust, on which all social solidarity depends. He explains: “Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of ‘social capital’—the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence.”[15]

Although they differ in phrasing, there is much in common between Gülen’s Islamic vision and the Christian ideal expressed by the Pope. For both, true democracy, which is based on justice and oriented toward the common good of human development, is informed by the values expressed in religious insight. For Gülen, it is the Islamic virtues of truth, love, solidarity, assistance and mutual respect. For Benedict, it is truth, love, participation, solidarity, and peace.

Religious freedom

Fethullah Gülen. According to Fethullah Gülen, the type of government recommended by Islamic teaching is one based on a social contract between the governors and the governed. The ideal envisioned by the Islamic tradition is that of a representative system in which the legislators and executives are elected by the people, who establish a majlis or parliament, debate issues, and pass laws in accord with the will of the people. In this way, the society as a whole participates in auditing and holding responsible the administration.[16] Although these are the principles that characterize virtually all the modern democracies, Gülen explains that these principles of governance accepted by modern people around the world today are the same as those taught by Islam. Gülen is careful to spell out this compatibility in response to the chorus of critics who continue to ask whether the religion of Islam is compatible with democracy.

For this reason, Fethullah Gülen emphasizes that these are not simply his own ideas but are, rather, the social values taught by the Islamic tradition itself. He notes that in the time of the first four caliphs, the principles of democracy and free elections were followed. Even when, after the death of Ali, governance of the Islamic umma was transformed from caliphate into a hereditary sultanate, many of the features of modern democracies were still being practiced. He points out, for example, that Jews and Christians enjoyed religious rights under the rule of Islamic governments and that respect for minority rights consistently forms part of the heritage of Islamic values.

Benedict. The importance of religious freedom is one that Gülen shares with Benedict XVI, who emphasized the point when he spoke to the representatives of other religions who gathered to meet him on his trip to Washington, D.C., in April 2008. He pointed out that, in order to protect the rights to religious freedom, particularly of minorities, it is not sufficient to pass laws to prohibit discrimination. Compliance requires vigilance and monitoring on the part of all. He went on: “The task of upholding religious freedom is never completed. New situations and challenges invite citizens and leaders to reflect on how their decisions respect this basic human right. Protecting religious freedom within the rule of law does not guarantee that peoples—particularly minorities—will be spared unjust forms of discrimination and prejudice. This requires constant effort on the part of all members of society to ensure that citizens are afforded the oppor tunity to worship peaceably and to pass on their religious heritage to their children.”[17]

Similarly, one might say, it is not sufficient for each religious group to defend the rights of its own members, e.g., Christians defending the rights of Christians, Muslims those of Muslims etc. Rather, everyone has an obligation to defend the rights to religious freedom of whatever group is suffering from discrimination or injustice. Moreover, the witness of each religion to the importance of religious freedom as a basic human right will be more credible and powerful if the followers of various religions would world together to defend this right. It is especially incumbent on members of the majority group, which usually have greater access to political and social authorities, to support the just causes of religious minorities, and their willingness to sustain minority rights is a measure of their own credibility.

Democracy and holistic development

Fethullah Gülen. If there is one area in which the thought of Gülen and Benedict XVI most strongly coincide it is the conviction that social systems must address the whole person. According to Gülen, any attempt at treating people solely as homo economicus or homo politicus, disregarding the spiritual dimension of the human person and the spiritual needs that flow from the immaterial aspects of human nature, is doomed to failure. Gülen is convinced, rather, that if democracy takes a holistic approach to the human person, it can be the instrument for permitting greater opportunities for happiness to the greatest number of people. He makes this eloquent appeal: “If human beings are considered as a whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach the peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity.”[18]

Benedict. In the final section of his encyclical Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI arrives at a similar position. He affirms that “Development must include not just material growth but also spiritual growth,” since the human person is a “unity of body and soul,” born of God’s creative love and destined for eternal life.[19] When a someone is far from God, that person becomes unsettled, ill at ease, and social and psychological alienation set in. He holds that “the many neuroses that afflict affluent societies are attributable in part to spiritual factors,” and new types of slavery in the form of hopelessness and addictions can be explained by economic development and political freedom without corresponding attention to spiritual growth. He concludes: “There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.”[20]

Conclusion: The Contribution of Islamic humanism and Christian humanism to democracy and development

Because of the essential component of the spiritual to the integral growth of the human person in society, religions such as Islam and Christianity have an indispensable contribution to make to the growth of democracy and human development, just as they have an inescapable responsibility to offer their societies the insights arising from their spiritual experience. As Gülen puts it: “I believe that Islam also would enrich democracy in answering the deep needs of humans, such as spiritual satisfaction, which cannot be fulfilled except through the remembrance of the Eternal One.”[21]

If Fethullah Gülen is calling for “an Islamic humanism” on the part of Muslims, Benedict’s conviction that what is needed for genuine development is a “Christian humanism” on the part of Christians. He says:

The greatest service to development is a Christian humanism that enkindles love and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism that excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life—structures, institutions, culture and ethos—without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.[22]

Almost 100 years ago, the Muslim scholar Said Nursi called on his students to unite with genuine Christians in opposing atheistic and materialistic tendencies that, according to the teachings of all the prophets, must inevitably result in destructive and self-destructive human behavior. Nursi felt that true Muslims and Christians had a common mission to save modern societies from heedless tendencies that cause human misery. I believe that in our day, these two thinkers—Fethullah Gülen and Pope Benedict XVI, one Muslim and the other Christian—can give us a sound conceptual basis on which we can discuss, in truth and love, the contribution that by our obedience to God we can offer together to our modern societies.

[1] Fethullah Gülen, “A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy,” Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, Somerset: The Light, 2006, p. 345. (2011 edition, p. 219.)
[2] Benedict XVI, Love in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), par. 9.
[3] Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 346.
[4] Fethullah Gülen, “A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy,” 134.
[5] Benedict XVI, Love in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), par. 41.
[6] Fethullah Gülen, “Interview” in Sabah, 27 January 1995, cited in M. Hakan Yavuz “The Gülen Movement: the Turkish Puritans,” 28.
[7] Fethullah Gülen, “Turkey Assails a Revered Islamic Moderate.”
[8] Benedict XVI, “Address to the Italian Christian Workers’ Associations (A.C.L.I.).”
[9] Benedict XVI, “Address to Members of the ‘Centesimus Annus’ Foundation.”
[10] Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 347.
[11] Muhammed Çetin, “Fethullah Gülen and the Contribution of Islamic Scholarship to Democracy, The Fountain 67: January – February, 2009.
[12] Greg Barton, “Preaching by Example and Learning for Life: Understanding the Gülen Hizmet in the Global Context of Religious Philanthropy and Civil Religion,” 655.
[13] Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 351.
[14] Benedict XVI, Love in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), par. 21.
[15] Benedict XVI, Love in Truth, par. 32.
[16] Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 350.
[17] Benedict XVI, “Address to the Representatives of Other Religions.”
[18] Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 352.
[19] Benedict XVI, Love in Truth, par. 76.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Fethullah Gülen, “An Interview with Fethullah Gülen,” 452.
[22] Benedict XVI, Love in Truth, par. 78.