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Fethullah Gülen and his Movement: Friends or foes?

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

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Fethullah Gülen

I think that some, or even most of you, already know quite a bit about Fethullah Gülen and the movement associated with his name. On the other hand, some of you may have very little acquaintance with the man and his ideas. In this short paper, I hope to say something worthwhile about Mr. Fethullah Gülen without annoying the former with information they already know or mystifying the latter by presuming too much. At the beginning I should say a word about the approach that I am going to take. I think that I have read most of the literature that has been written about Fethullah Gülen and the movement, both by members and outside scholars, but given the fact that for more than 20 years now I have known Mr. Fethullah Gülen personally and have followed his movement and taken part in their various activities, I will try to take a personal rather than strictly academic approach to this topic.

Since I first met Fethullah Gülen in the late 1980s, I have watched his movement grow from a local student movement in the city of İzmir to become a controversial national phenomenon with powerful social, economic and political significance for Turkey. In later years we’ve seen further transformation into what the movement has become today, an international force for educational and spiritual renewal among Muslims, and perhaps the Muslim organization most committed to dialogue with people of other faiths.

My first encounter with Fethullah Gülen came about like this. While I was teaching an introduction to Christian theology in Ankara in 1986, I was introduced to the writings of Said Nursi, who was probably the most influential Muslim thinker in Turkey in the 20th Century. Nursi, whose thinking evolved from political and social activism to a kind of contemplative study of the Qur’an, continues to have millions of followers. Sociologists estimate those who regularly study Nursi’s 6000-page commentary on the Qur’an to be between 8-13 million. For example, in Ankara, where I was living, I was told that there are over 90 groups that meet weekly to study the Risale-i Nur, as Nursi’s writings are called. I’ve participated often in their sohbets, which could be described as faith-sharing sessions. These weekly sessions seem to be especially attractive to professional groups like doctors, engineers, university professors and, in Ankara, civil servants in the various government ministries.

In 1986, not much of the Risale-i Nur or “Message of Light,” had been translated into English or Arabic. But through my students at Ankara’s Theology Faculty I came to know those portions of the Risale that had been translated. I began to read and discuss Nursi’s writings together with my students and with ordinary Muslim believers.

Various ideas of Said Nursi I found very attractive. Nursi held that devout Muslims and Christians should be united in professing divine values in a world that was threatened by aggressive atheism. Secondly, he believed that the days of “jihad of the sword” are over, and the only appropriate jihad for modern times is “jihad of the word,” or persuasion, rational argument, personal witness. Thirdly, Nursi held that the real enemies of Muslims were not this or that group of people, but rather that the common enemies of all humankind were three: ignorance, poverty, and disunity. I felt that these and similar views could form a sound basis for dialogue and cooperation in pursuing the common mission that Vatican II envisioned for Christians and Muslims, that of working together for the good of all to build peace, establish social justice, defend moral values, and promote human freedom.

In 1988, I was invited to give a talk at the Risale-i Nur international symposium in İstanbul and speak on Muslim-Christian unity according to the Risale-i Nur. It was a huge gathering, with about 3000 persons in attendance. After the talk, some young people invited me to come and meet their “shaykh” or hoca, and that was the first time I met Fethullah Gülen. At the time, I had never heard of Fethullah Gülen or his still localized movement, but I was impressed by the esteem in which he was held by the youths, who crowded around him to hear what he had to say.

Two years later, at the next symposium, we met again and he invited me to his home in a suburb of İstanbul, where we had a long discussion on matters of Christian and Islamic faith. Since that time, we meet regularly, usually at his home in the Pennsylvania hills in the USA, whenever the occasion arises.

My involvement over the years with both the Nur community of followers of Said Nursi and the Hizmet cemaat inspired by the ideas of Fethullah Gülen was not simply my personal initiative, but strongly encouraged by the Turkish bishops. Over 20 years ago the bishops urged me to associate with these communities because they represent “the tolerant, pluralist, pro-minority elements in Turkish Muslim society.”

To understand the development of Fethullah Gülen’s ideas, it is important to note that in his teens he came to know and was greatly influenced by the writings of Said Nursi. Nursi believed that the Islamic community would only be renewed as an instrument for combating the enemies of ignorance, poverty, and disunity once enough Muslims had been personally transformed by the study of his Qur’an commentary. Fethullah Gülen accepted Nursi’s analysis of the “true enemies of Islam and humankind,” but he broke with the traditional communities of Risale-i Nur students in his conviction that the evils of ignorance, poverty, and disunity could only be opposed by the creation of effective institutions.

He began his work in the 1970s as an imam and khatib in the Mediterranean city of İzmir. Much of his time was devoted to the formation of youth. He conducted classes in Arabic and the Qur’an, organized summer camps for students, and set up ışık evler (lighthouses) as residences where high school and university students could pursue their studies and at the same time undergo spiritual and character formation.

From this beginning, Fethullah Gülen came to the conclusion that the key to the renewal of Islamic societies was educational reform. The existing options in Turkey at that time all emphasized some pedagogical elements while ignoring others. In the state schools one might receive an adequate grounding in the sciences, but delivered with a suspicion and even antagonism towards religion. The military schools emphasized discipline and responsibility, but neglected questions of ethics and character formation. The madrasas offered a solid background in Islamic sciences, but failed to prepare students to take up positions of leadership in society. Still less the Sufi takyas, which emphasized spirituality but had degenerated academically to the point of focusing almost entirely on pious and inspirational tales.

Fethullah Gülen became convinced of the need for a new, holistic educational model that would draw from the strength of each of the traditional types of school and would respond to the actual needs of Islamic societies. It wasn’t until the liberalism introduced in the 1980s by Turgut Özal that it was possible for Fethullah Gülen and his colleagues to open the first schools based on his pedagogical vision. By 1989, when the Soviet Union disbanded, the Hizmet community had already opened and operated several schools in Turkey; they quickly responded to the call in the former Soviet Union for schools with a Western-oriented curriculum. The schools were immediately popular in the Muslim-majority regions of the vast Soviet empire; in places like the Balkans and Caucasus where Muslims were in the minority, the schools offered quality modern education in a system with values that Muslim parents could trust.

After the turn of the century, schools were opened in Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and in North and South America. Today, for example, there are about 220 schools in Africa and over 200 in the United States. In former communist countries like Kyrgyzstan and Albania with relatively small populations, there are over 25 schools in each. In addition, the community has set up about twelve universities, mainly in Turkey, in the Caucasus, and in the Central Asian republics. Because of the high quality of education and English-language curriculum, the schools tend to attract the elite. The tuition is usually quite high, although on an average, 20-30% of the students are on scholarships.

The community’s commitment to education is not limited to the traditional understanding of what constitutes a school. The community also runs highly successful dershaneler, (literally, “study halls”). These are college preparatory courses aimed at helping students to perform well on the national college entrance exams. (For example, in Ankara where I was living, 22,000 students are studying in these supplementary education programs.) To promote mass education, the community has set up television stations and publishes highly successful newspapers and more than 50 popular magazines and professional journals.

Recently, Fethullah Gülen has been encouraging special institutions for the education of the poor. Again I take the example of Ankara, where there are now over 45 okuma salonları, i.e. “reading salons.” These are tuition-free schools for the poorest children in slum areas. In İstanbul and in southeast Turkey there are many times that number. Along with well-qualified, mainly volunteer Turkish instructors, I have taught English in these education centers as a form of social service.

The importance that the lighthouses, residences (yurts), 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 are in the tens of thousands. In these centers of formation, the students not only supplement their secular high school studies and prepare for university entrance examinations, but they also form friendships and a network of social relations. They receive spiritual training through the study of the Qur’an and the Risale-i Nur and pursue their educational goals in a social environment free from the use of alcohol, drugs, smoking, premarital sex, and violence. It is not surprising that the residents of these dormitories tend to achieve higher test scores than students living elsewhere.

The schools do not form a centralized “school system.” Each is established and run by individual members of the Gülen community in a privately 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 sends out instructions on educational policy, curriculum, or discipline. Rather, each school is “twinned” with a particular city or region in Turkey, where businessmen sympathetic to the movement undertake financial responsibility for the new school.

A story taken from my personal experience in Turkey can help to explain the ways the schools are funded. In 2002, I was in Urfa giving some lectures on Christian theology to the students of Harran University’s Islamic theological faculty. One evening, I was invited by some friends who belonged to the Hizmet Movement to a dinner that was to be held for local businessmen who served as benefactors of the movement. As it happened, the man I was sitting next to owned a plumbing supplies company. We were speaking of various things, and I mentioned that I spend quite a bit of time in Southeast Asia. He surprised me by asking, “Have you been to Cambodia?” I said, “Yes, it happens I was there last year for a Muslim-Christian meeting.” He said, quite simply, “I have a school in Kampong Cham.”

Actually, I know the Turkish school in Cambodia established by members of the Gülen community. It offers excellent education to Cambodian students irrespective of religion – the great majority are Buddhists, but also a few Muslims and Christians. But I never expected to meet the principal donor who made the school possible in a plumbing supplies businessman from an ancient city of Eastern Anatolia. This is an unexpected example of globalization. Fifty years ago, Urfa and Phnom Penh might as well have been on different planets. Today they have been linked through the efforts of this Islamic movement. I had similar experiences visiting the movement’s schools in Kyrgyzstan, East Africa, Indonesia, Philippines, and the United States, as well as meeting donors from all parts of Turkey.

In 2002, to combat poverty, the community set up its own relief and development organization named Kimse Yok Mu. What began as an emergency relief program to care for earthquake and flood victims in Turkey has now grown to an aid and economic development agency working in 55 countries with an annual operating budget of $52 million dollars. In 2010, over a quarter-million people were fed during Ramadan at soup kitchens set up throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

One of the areas by which the Gülen community is best known among non-Muslims is their effort to combat disunity by working to promote interreligious dialogue. There is probably no international organization, of any religious background, that has made a greater investment of human, physical, and monetary resources aimed at building interfaith understanding and harmony. The community has set up dialogue centers in Turkey, Europe, Australia, the Americas, Southeast Asia, throughout Africa. In the USA alone, there are more than 200 such centers that promote dialogue through iftar dinners, lecture series, trips to Turkey, academic conferences, visits to places of worship and celebrations of feast days of various religions.

Their dialogue associations focus on specific groups like students, women’s groups, professionals, and journalists. Their “intra-Muslim” dialogues (e.g., Sunni-Alevi, Turk-Kurd, and secular-religious in Turkey, Kurd-Arab-Turkmen in Iraq, Tausug-Maranao in the Philippines) after a slow start, are now showing some success in overcoming past tensions and conflicts. Reflecting upon my years at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican, I find the Gülen community today creating institutions and putting into practice programs for interfaith harmony that our Church teachings had long been calling for.

Although each of these projects is the result of individual initiatives, the inspiration for all this comes from the preaching and writings of Mr. Fethullah Gülen, whose weekly radio broadcasts are still widely heard, discussed, and recorded for future repetition. As such, the particular approach that Fethullah Gülen takes toward the Qur’an and Islamic tradition is worth our attention.

The key Qur’anic concepts upon which Fethullah Gülen bases his spiritual instruction are two: ikhlas, or purity of intention, and ‘ibadah, or worship. These concepts are neither unique nor original to Fethullah Gülen; both have a long history in Islamic discourse, particularly that of the Sufis. In his appropriation of these concepts and the centrality which he gives to them in his own teaching, Fethullah Gülen shows the strong influence that the writings of Said Nursi have had on his own thought.

In the Islamic tradition, ikhlas brings together the notion of “purity” with that of “dedicating, devoting or consecrating oneself” to something. It is the eminently interior disposition by which the faithful Muslim performs all external actions in a spirit of service directed solely toward pleasing the Divine Lord. The importance of ikhlas has been commented upon down through the centuries by Muslim scholars, exegetes, and spiritual guides in every generation.

For Fethullah Gülen, ikhlas means “pursuing nothing worldly while worshiping and obeying God.” At the deepest level, sincerity can only be understood in the mystery of the relationship between God and God’s faithful servant. Purity of intention is a grace or divine gift that God places in the heart of those He loves in order to increase, deepen and give eternal value to the servant’s ordinary good acts.

Fethullah Gülen teaches that purity of intention is what makes good deeds live, be effective, and have everlasting value. Unless deeds are animated by a sincere intention of serving God, all human endeavors would remain lifeless, ephemeral, and ultimately worthless. Fethullah Gülen quotes Abu Yazid Bistami (Bayazid) to say that it is through purity of intention, not through human deeds, that a person goes to God. It is on the basis of a person’s sincerity that God judges acts, not on the magnitude or notoriety of the deed. Thus, the size and quantity of good deeds is unimportant. Even a small deed or one that is unknown to others, if it is done with sincerity, is judged by God more highly than more ostentatious deeds done without the sincere desire to serve God alone.

The implications for the members of the members of the Gülen community are obvious: activities which are themselves trivial—preparing a meal for guests, picking up visitors at the airport, cleaning up after an iftar, volunteer teaching of poor children—all have the value of religious acts if they are done with a pure intention, that of worshiping God. This broad concept of worship ties ikhlas to Fethullah Gülen’s second key concept, that of ‘ibadah, or servanthood.

Derived from the Arabic root meaning slave or servant, ‘ibadah carries the idea of enslaving oneself to God or of acting as God’s servant, with the consequent connotations of obedience, submission, devotion, faithfulness, service etc. The concept is not an innovation within the Abrahamic tradition, and is well known in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. It has received due attention in the writings of Christian and Jewish spiritual authors.

However, in many treatments of Islamic belief and practice, and in the minds of many Muslim believers, ‘ibadah is simply equated with ritual acts, specifically the ritual practices such as the Daily Prayers (Salah), the Ramadan fast, the pilgrimage to Mecca etc., that are obligatory for all Muslims. Fethullah Gülen expands upon this traditional view of ‘ibadah to define it very broadly as “fulfilling God’s commands in one’s daily life, and fulfilling the obligations of being God’s servant.” It is interesting to note that there is no specific reference to ritual performance in this definition. In Fethullah Gülen’s view, servanthood goes far beyond ritual performance to include everything that one does to live and act according to God’s will. When a member of the community leaves home to go and teach physics in a high school in Kazakhstan, he is performing ‘ibadah; he is worshiping God. When a businessman donates funds so that schools, dialogue centers, well-digging projects, and publishing houses can be founded and maintained, he is doing ‘ibadah. His donations are a form of divine worship.

Fethullah Gülen’s comprehensive understanding of worship has resulted almost in a kind of sacralization of education and helps to account for the emphasis the movement has given to opening and operating schools. As an example, I offer this passage from one of Fethullah Gülen’s writings on education. “A school is a place of learning, where everything related to this life and the next is taught. It can shed light on vital ideas and events, and enable students to understand their natural and human environment. A school can also open the way to unveiling the meaning of things and events, thereby leading a student to wholeness of thought and contemplation. In essence, a school is a kind of place of worship; the ‘holy leaders’ are the teachers.”

The broad compass that Fethullah Gülen gives to ‘ibadah is meant to have an integrating effect in the lives of his followers. The far-reaching notion of servanthood enables the members of the movement to bring together and maintain in equilibrium their devotional life, vocational commitment, and communitarian responsibilities. However, to play this integrative role in the life of a believer, “worship” must embrace the totality of attitudes and actions of service.

Worship has not only an integrative but also a liberative role in the believer’s life. An attitude of worship enables the believer to arrive at true freedom by becoming free from the obstacles to freedom, escape from the self-imposed dungeon people have created for themselves and the multifarious forms of slavery to which humans subject themselves. Fethullah Gülen puts it as follows: “If worship is the placing of a consciousness of being bound to God into one’s heart, if it is the liberation of one’s self from all types of slavery, if it is the title of seeing, hearing, and feeling the beauty, order, and harmony that belong to Him in every molecule of existence, then worship is the most immediate way to turn our face to God.”

Like the Sufi writers before him, Fethullah Gülen distinguishes between the various stages or levels of ‘ibadah. Whereas the first stage bears the connotation of “living in the consciousness of being God’s servant,” a deeper level, in Arabic ‘ubudiyyah, means “fulfilling God’s commands in one’s daily life.” In other words, ‘ibadah refers to what the devout believer must do to serve and obey God in daily life, and ‘ubudiyyah indicates the attitude which the believer must take towards God, the object of worship.

Finally, once again reaching back to the Sufi tradition, Fethullah Gülen notes a still deeper stage of worshipful involvement, that of “devotion,” or ‘ubudah. Just as the Sufi teachers spoke of ‘ibadah as the service performed by ordinary believers striving to advance on the path to God and described ‘ubudiyyah as the servanthood of those advanced souls whose mental and spiritual attitudes enable them to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, ‘ubudah is the deep devotion of those who live with a profound awareness of God’s presence even in the most banal of daily activities.

Fethullah Gülen cites Ibn al-Farid to affirm the superiority of this final stage of devotion: “The acts of worship and duties of servanthood required by every station or rank that I have reached during my spiritual journey have been fulfilled by my devotion.” However, for the Sufis, ‘ubudah was a rare state of soul (hal) achieved by advanced practitioners on the Sufi path. Fethullah Gülen characteristically orients even the stage of ‘ubudah toward those members of the cemaat engaged in what he sees to be the mission of Islam in the world, that is, service of God by serving others. He affirms: “This vital mission can only be realized by the devout and godly, who never think of themselves, except insofar as they see their own salvation through the salvation of others.”

Fethullah Gülen puts much hope in this “new generation” of idealistic young Muslims. “The future will be the work of these devout young people who can represent such a significant mission, showing their responsibility and exhibiting their accomplishments. The existence and continuance of our nation and the nations related to us will be permeated with the thoughts, inspirations and outcomes of a new civilization and with the vast, reviving dynamism of a rich culture, carried into the future on the shoulders of these devout youths. They are the trustees of the sublime truths and the heirs of our historical riches.”

In my opinion, if one wants to find in summary the kind of Muslim that Fethullah Gülen is trying to form, one need not look further than to study what Fethullah Gülen has written on the twin concepts of ikhlas and ‘ibadah. The genius of Fethullah Gülen, in my view, lies not so much the originality of his ideas, nor in his ability to organize social projects, which he has wisely left to others, but it lies in his talent as an Islamic preacher who can inspire young people to both heroic and hidden lives of selfless service and can equally motivate successful businessmen and professionals to support financially the community’s projects of service.

To the question posed in the title of this talk, “Are Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet community friends or foes?” I must answer that they are our friends. They are the kind of Muslim interlocutors for an active dialogue for which we have been searching since the time of Nostra Aetate.