Introducing the Hizmet Movement

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

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Fethullah Gülen

I thank the organizers for this invitation to be part of the inaugural dinner of the conference “Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen Movement.” I am also grateful to Georgetown University for hosting this event.

Many of you already know much about the life and thought of Fethullah Gülen, but for those here who do not, allow me to state a few words of introduction. I ask the indulgence of those who in many cases know the Hizmet Movement (or the Gülen Movement) much better than I. Mr. Fethullah Gülen, affectionately known as Hocaefendi or “Esteemed Teacher” by several million Muslims who have been inspired and formed by his teaching, was born in 1938 in Eastern Turkey. After a traditional Islamic education, Fethullah Gülen began teaching religion and preaching in mosques, first in Eastern Turkey and later in the Mediterranean city of İzmir. It was in that modern, cosmopolitan environment that the Hizmet Movement had its origins.

Fethullah Gülen started out in what today we would call “youth ministry.” By the 1970s, Fethullah Gülen was lecturing in mosques, organizing summer camps, and erecting “lighthouses” (dormitories for student formation) and slowly began to build a community of religiously motivated students. The importance that the lighthouses, residences, and study halls play to this day in the formation and cohesion of the movement must not be underestimated. There is no catalogue listing such residences, but reliable estimates put the number in the tens of thousands. In these centers of formation, the students not only supplement their secular high school and university studies or prepare for entrance exams, but they form friendships and a network of social relations. They also receive spiritual training through the study of the Qur’an and spiritual texts such as Said Nursi’s Risale-i Nur, and they pursue their educational goals in a social environment free from the use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, premarital sex, and violence.

As the community gradually began to take on its own identity and direction, its members, under Fethullah Gülen’s leadership, came to respond to a challenge put forward by Said Nursi, an influential 20th Century Muslim scholar. According to Nursi, the great threats to humankind in the modern era are three: ignorance, poverty, and disunity. Nursi called upon his disciples to combat these human tendencies that produce both destructive and self-destructive behavior in modern societies. Nursi taught that Muslims, in their struggle against these common enemies, should not try to go it alone but should form bonds of unity and cooperation with true Christians.

The genius of Fethullah Gülen has been to provide his community of disciples concrete, effective ways in which these ancient but still quite actual plagues can be resisted. The central notion of Fethullah Gülen’s teaching is “service,” and Fethullah Gülen has tried to form conscientious, dedicated Muslim social agents who will renew the Islamic community, and through it reshape modern society, on the bases of tolerance and love.

The first enemy noted by Said Nursi was that of ignorance. The Gülen community has tried to change society through a holistic pattern of education that draws from and integrates disparate strands of previous pedagogic systems. In the new social and economic climate that emerged in Turkey in the 1980s, during the presidency of Turgut Özal, the Hizmet Movement grew from involving a small number of students in a few cities like İzmir to become a huge educational endeavor with important business links. Although stemming from a broadly-conceived religious motivation, the so-called “Gülen” schools are not traditional Islamic schools, but secular institutions of high quality, as shown by the performances of students in science Olympiads, standardized comprehensive exams, and proficiency tests.

The community’s educational commitment moved beyond its schools into the media with the publication of a daily newspaper, Zaman, and a television channel, Samanyolu and now publishes over 35 publications ranging from popular newsmagazines to professional journals. Here in the States, the Ebru cable television channel has full schedule of programming in English which seeks, according to their mission statement, “to educate, inspire and entertain viewers of all ages …and to foster understanding through intercultural dialogue and mutual respect, thus promoting peace and diversity with our neighbors here and throughout the world.”

After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1989, the Gülen community was a key player in reconstructing post-Soviet education. Hundreds of schools and universities were set up throughout the former Soviet republics, both in the Russian Federated Republic, particularly in its predominantly Muslim regions, in the newly independent nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the Balkans. Television programs were made for the vast reaches of Central Asia, and scholarships were granted for study in Turkey.

The 21st Century saw a further expansion of the educational activities of the Gülen community as its activities moved beyond the boundaries of Muslim-majority regions into Western Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

An important but not exclusive focus was the education of migrants from Turkey and other Muslim countries. Here the pedagogic approach adapted to local needs. In many parts of Western Europe, the economic and bureaucratic difficulties of opening and supporting new schools often prevented this activity. The educational task became not so much one of competing with the existing national school systems, but that of ensuring that immigrant Turks and others would have an adequate educational background to be able to compete and succeed in state schools. Thus, in many parts of Western Europe, the Gülen community’s educational efforts have focused on weekend classes and tutorials aimed at supplementing the instruction given in the state schools and at preparing for standardized exams.

In the charter schools associated with the movement in the United States, located often in areas with a high concentration of Turkish-Americans, the challenge has been to provide an opportunity for students to attain a high level of academic achievement. Schools run by the Hizmet Movement have been among the most highly awarded, particularly in scientific fields, in states like New Jersey and Texas. These are not “Islamic schools” in that even though their inspiration is found in enlightened Islamic ideals, both the teaching and administrative staff and the student body are made up of Muslims and also followers of other religions.

The most recent estimates point to more than 1000 schools and universities in 140 countries on five continents. The schools do not form a centralized “school system.” Each is established and run by individual members of the Gülen community in a privately registered and funded foundation. The teachers receive a common spiritual training and are sent to where the need is considered the greatest, but there is no central governing board that issues instructions on educational policy, curriculum, or discipline. Each school is “twinned” with a particular city or region in Turkey, where businessmen sympathetic to the movement undertake financial responsibility for the school until such time that it can be self-supporting.

Aspects of the Gülen community’s educational projects will be one of the themes of our upcoming conference. The second great enemy to be faced, according to Nursi, is poverty. Several papers (including my own) will deal with the aid, welfare, and development aspects of movement. Many of these projects, which have grown exponentially in the past decade, are summed up under the heading of “Kimse yok mu?”, a Turkish phrase which may be translated: “Doesn’t anyone out there care?”

Finally, the third enemy of modern people, according to Said Nursi, is disunity. Hatred and suspicion, generalization and stereotyping, rivalry and name-calling across religious, ethnic, and racial lines have divided people and led to tensions and even violence in society. To bring people together, members of the Hizmet Movement have set up dialogue institutes and associations in the States, Turkey and elsewhere in Europe, Africa and Asia. In the United States, almost every major city and college town now has one of these dialogue associations, which function analogously to the Rumi Forum here in Washington. By providing lecture series, organizing trips to Turkey, and offering iftar dinners during the month of Ramadan, the community hopes to bridge the boundaries of religion and culture and build friendship and unity.

Already in the 1930s, Said Nursi called for “Muslim-Christian unity” to oppose godless tendencies in modern societies. Fethullah Gülen goes beyond Nursi’s appeal in two important respects. Firstly, Muslims should seek unity not only with “good Christians,” as Nursi had proposed, but with the conscientious followers of all religions. The active participation of Jewish and Christian representatives at the Abrahamic symposia sponsored by the movement show the members’ sincerity in their desire to dialogue and cooperate with all believers. Secondly, for Fethullah Gülen the motivation for this dialogue is not simply a strategic alliance to oppose secularizing tendencies in modern life, but is demanded by Islamic faith itself. He said in 1999:

The goal of dialogue among world religions is not simply to destroy the materialistic world view that has caused such harm. Rather, the very nature of religion demands this dialogue. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Hinduism and Buddhism pursue the same goal. As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and Books sent to different peoples throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim.[1]

In short, the dialogue projects of the community, like its educational ventures and its efforts at poverty alleviation, are oriented towards serving the common good of humanity and building a better, more peaceful future. If the source of this vision is Qur’anic, it is not narrowly sectarian. I conclude with Fethullah Gülen’s words taken from one of his recent books:

I believe and hope that the world of the new millennium will be a happier, more just, and more compassionate place, contrary to the fears of some people. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all stem from the same root; all have essentially the same basic beliefs, and are nourished from the same source. Although they have lived as rival religions for centuries, the common points between them and their shared responsibility to build a happy world for all of the creatures of God make interfaith dialogue among them necessary. This dialogue has now expanded to include the religions of Asia and other areas. The results have been positive.[2]

I hope that you can see from this brief introduction why the thought of Fethullah Gülen and the achievements of the community of his disciples are worth our study and reflection during the forthcoming conference. Thank you.

[1] Fethullah Gülen, Capetown, 1999, p. 14.
[2] Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 231.

Delivered as keynote speech at the conference entitled “Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen Movement,” November 14-15, 2008, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.