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The Hizmet Movement: Its contribution at a time of global tensions

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

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Fethullah Gülen

It has become a cliché to say that we live in an age of globalization. It is more difficult to see how this reality impacts upon a religious movement like that of Fethullah Gülen. The phenomenon of globalization provides us with stories both inspiring and brutal. I thought that I would begin with one of each, to set the stage for looking at the contribution being made by the modern Muslim movement associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen.

The first story is an experience I had a few years ago in the city of Urfa in Turkey. Urfa is an ancient city in eastern Anatolia with a long and distinguished past. The city is called “the city of the prophets,” connected with the figures of Abraham, Job, Shuayb (the Biblical Jethro) and Elisha and revered as the birthplace of Abraham. Busloads of pilgrims arrive daily from all parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iran to pay homage to Khalil, God’s intimate friend. As Edessa, the city was once one of the great early centers of Christianity in the Middle East, and later on, the center of the scientific and philosophical community of Sabaeans, who had so much influence on the subsequent development of Islamic thought. The modern city is especially fascinating for a foreign visitor like myself, for Urfa is the crossroads of three great Middle Eastern civilizations, and its population is approximately ⅓ Turkish, ⅓ Arab, and ⅓ Kurd.

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 movement of Fethullah Gülen to a dinner that was to be held for some of the local businessmen who acted 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—there are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians in the school—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 truly 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.

The other example of globalization is disturbing rather than uplifting. Anyone who has been following the news knows the tensions that we are experiencing at the moment between Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world in the aftermath of those Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad. The latest count of Muslims murdered by Christians in Onitsha, Nigeria is 135, following upon 40-50 Christians killed earlier by Muslims in northern Nigeria in previous weeks. After an Italian minister wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the offensive cartoon, another 11 persons died in riots outside the Italian consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Violence has also erupted also in widely-distant countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. It is truly a modern example of globalization that scurrilous cartoons can be published in one country, and innocent people who perhaps had never seen the cartoons or even knew that they existed could be murdered continents away.

It is not my intention here to speak about the cartoons. You are all as aware as I of the reports and analyses that have been appearing almost daily in newspapers and journals, on television and radio talk shows. My point is that events such as those which occurred in Nigeria, as well as the avalanche of information, commentary, and speculation that surrounds and gives new emotive life to any event that takes place anywhere, is another aspect of globalization in which we all, whether we like it or not, are forced to operate.

My topic for this evening is the spiritual and educational movement associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen and the contribution that the members of this movement are making to Muslim-Christian harmony in the midst of today’s tense and sometimes violent climate. I know that many of you are already well acquainted with this movement, but probably some of you do not know the movement very well. Let me begin with a bit of background and ask the indulgence of those who in some cases know the movement of Fethullah Gülen and his associates much better than I.

Fethullah Gülen was born and educated in the city of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia in Turkey. He started out as a religion teacher and preacher in the mosques, first in Eastern Anatolia and then in İzmir. In 1958, at the age of 20, Fethullah Gülen came to know the writings of Said Nursi, and this had a formative influence upon his thinking. Said Nursi was a 20th-Century Muslim scholar whose 6000-page commentary on the Qur’an, the Risale-i Nur, has influenced the lives and practice of millions of modern Muslims. According to Hakan Yavuz: “[Gülen’s acquaintance with Nursi’s writings] facilitated his shift from a particular localized Islamic identity and community to a more cosmopolitan and discursive understanding of Islam. Nursi’s writings empowered him to engage with diverse epistemological systems.”

Fethullah Gülen became a teacher of Qur’an studies in the Mediterranean city of İzmir, and in that modern, cosmopolitan environment the movement associated with his name had its origins. In 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 trained both in the Islamic and secular sciences.

The importance that the lighthouses, residences (yurts), and study halls (dershanes) 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 form friendships and a network of social relations, and also 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.

The Gülen community gradually began to take on an identity and direction distinct from the Risale-i Nur movement, as Fethullah Gülen himself produced new ijtihads which distinguished the community from that of the original students of the Risale-i Nur. Nursi had focused on personal renewal of the Muslim through the study of the Qur’an and wanted to help the modern believer move beyond the dichotomies found in Turkish society of his day through a spiritual transformation that would come about by the study of the Risale-i Nur.

By contrast, for Fethullah Gülen and the community associated with his name, personal transformation is secondary to social transformation. Both thinkers, Nursi and Gülen, are seeking to reform and reshape society. Nursi puts the emphasis on the individual Muslim who must be changed through an enlightened encounter with the Qur’an in the Risale-i Nur, while Fethullah Gülen has a vision of conscientious, dedicated, committed Muslim social agents who will renew the Islamic community and through it reshape modern society on the bases of tolerance and love. Whereas for Nursi the key term is “study,” the central idea of Fethullah Gülen is “service.” Members of the Gülen community hope to change society through a holistic pattern of education that draws from and integrates disparate strands of previous pedagogic systems. Although Nursi was already aware of the limitations of traditional systems of education available to Muslims in Turkey, it was Fethullah Gülen and his movement that gave time and energy toward working out an effective alternative.

In the new social and economic climate that emerged in Turkey 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 and political links. Although stemming from a broadly-conceived religious motivation, the schools are not traditional “Islamic” schools, but secular institutions of high quality, as shown by the performances of students in science olympiads and standardized comprehensive exams and proficiency tests. In the 1980s, the community 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.

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 within the Russian Federated Republic—particularly in its predominantly Muslim regions such as Tatarstan, Yakutia, and Chechnya—, in the newly independent nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the predominantly Muslim and pluralist regions of the Balkans such as Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Moldova, Bulgaria and Kosovo. Television programs were prepared which were destined to be aired in 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 it moved beyond the boundaries of Muslim-majority regions into China, 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.

Moreover, in these regions, the movement usually encountered a level of education of high quality. 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 the government schools. Thus, in many parts of Western Europe, the Gülen community in its educational efforts has focused on weekend classes and tutorials aimed at supplementing the instruction given in the state schools and at preparing for standardized exams.

In the schools associated with the movement in the United States, mainly located 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. In fact, particularly in scientific fields, in regions such as New Jersey and Texas, schools run by members of the Hizmet Movement have been among the most highly awarded schools in the state. These schools are not “Islamic schools” in that even though the inspiration for the schools is found in enlightened Islamic ideals, both the teaching and administrative staff and the student body are made up of the followers of other religions as well as of Muslims. In some cases, religious instruction is offered once a week, while in other cases religion is not taught in the schools.

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 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.

Fethullah Gülen’s genius does not lie so much in reinterpreting the teaching of the Qur’an as in applying traditional Islamic prescriptions in entirely new ways to respond to constantly changing social needs. According to the Albanian scholar Bekim Agai:

“The key point for Fethullah Gülen is that the Islamic principles are unchanging, yet must be given concrete form in each new era. Once, a Qur’an course might have been the best way to invest Islamic donations, but [today] other Islamic activities take precedence. He succeeds in gaining support in conservative Islamic circles for new Islamic fields of action by using traditional Islamic terminology and defining his terms conventionally, but at the same time furnishing them with innovative implications for the present day. He argues that questions of morality and education are more essential for today’s Islam than political issues, and that present-day Muslims are confronted with entirely different problems than the question of whether or not to introduce the sharia.”

Commitment to dialogue

The community inherited its commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation from the writings of Said Nursi, but this commitment has been renewed and given new impetus in the writings of Fethullah Gülen. In his speech in 1999 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Capetown, Fethullah Gülen presented an optimistic vision of interreligious harmony: “It is my conviction that in the future years, the new millennium will witness unprecedented religious blooming and the followers of world religions, such as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others, will walk hand-in-hand to build a promised bright future of the world.”

Already beginning in 1911 and repeatedly down to his death in 1963, Said Nursi called for “Muslim-Christian unity” to oppose godless tendencies in modern societies. While endorsing Nursi’s appeal, Fethullah Gülen goes beyond Nursi’s view in two important respects. Firstly, dialogue and unity is not limited to “the good Christians,” as Nursi had proposed, but is now to be extended to the conscientious followers of all religions. The prominent presence and active participation of Jewish as well as Christian representatives at the Abrahamic symposia sponsored by the movement and held in the Turkish cities of Urfa, İstanbul, and Mardin show that the movement is serious in its readiness to dialogue and cooperate with all believers. Secondly, the motivation for this dialogue is not simply a strategic alliance to oppose atheistic and secularizing tendencies in modern life, as Nursi had held, but is called for by the nature of Islamic belief itself.

The goal of dialogue among world religions is not simply to destroy scientific materialism and 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]

To further its pursuits of interreligious dialogue, the Hizmet Movement has created the Intercultural Dialogue Platform as a project of the movement’s İstanbul-based Writers and Journalists Foundation. The IDP has been particularly active in sponsoring and organizing “Abrahamic” dialogues with high-ranking representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Hizmet Movement also organizes associations for the promotion of interreligious and intercultural activities at the local and regional level, such as the Cosmicus Foundation in the Netherlands, the Australian Intercultural Society in Melbourne, the Friede-Institut für Dialog in Vienna, the Interfaith Dialog Center of Patterson, New Jersey, Houston’s Institute of Interfaith Dialog, and the Niagara Foundation of Chicago, all of which take independent initiatives toward promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation.

I will conclude by illustrating Fethullah Gülen’s method of interpreting Islam by returning to the controversial global issue with which I began, the reaction of Muslims to the cartoons published in the Danish newspaper. Like all Muslims, Fethullah Gülen was insulted and hurt by the scurrilous caricatures of Muhammad, a sentiment that I think that any serious follower of a religious faith would readily understand. As a Christian in the Catholic tradition, I would certainly be deeply offended by any abusive or disrespectful images of Jesus or his mother.

But what interests us here is Fethullah Gülen’s response to what must have been for him a painful affront and the guidance he offered to the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who look to him for advice and inspiration. In an online interview with a Turkish newspaper (“Cartoon Spite and Our Attitude,” http://fgulen.com/en/press/news/25550-cartoon-spite-and-our-attitude), he notes that Muslims must respond in a civilized manner. There are those in the world who are intolerant of others and who ridicule their beliefs. He continues: “You are by no means allowed to behave in the same way as they did. Their disrespect toward our Prophet is discourteous....but retaliation in kind is never a possibility for you. You can never use those weapons.”

He goes on to say that if a Muslim were to speak unfavorably about Jesus, Moses or any other prophet, that Muslim would “take a step away from faith.” “The slightest disrespect that you may utter might deprive you of your faith and put a distance between you and God.” Muslims, he says, are even forbidden to curse the gods of others, as that would incite the worshipers of that deity to curse the God of Islam, and the Muslim who began the exchange of insults would thereby be responsible for causing the others’ blasphemy against God.

What Muslims should do, he says, is to consider how they might positively overcome the situation. “Cursing in return for a curse, burning flags, and hurling insults do not solve the problem. Such reactions will increase the violence and hatred on the other side. What does burning their flag achieve? Such actions are not retaliation in kind, nor are they wise. You only exhibit your feelings of revenge and hatred which further increases the others’ hatred.” Instead, Fethullah Gülen calls for civilized action and remaining calm, citing the hadith from Muhammad: “Evil must be warded off with what is good and kind.”

It is interesting to note that Fethullah Gülen’s view of freedom of expression, in fact, comes very close to the statement issued by the Vatican in regard to the cartoons: “The right to freedom of thought and expression,” it said, “cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.” (Vatican Press Office, 5 February 2006). “Equally deplorable,” the statement added, are the violent reactions of protest.” In short, Fethullah Gülen and the Papal agency have arrived independently at what is a very similar position, that claims to freedom of expression do not justify insulting the faith of others, and that violence is not a proper religious response even to a genuine insult. It is worth reflecting that both arrive at this conclusion not through human rights discourse, but rather through a faith-based ethical discourse: what should believers do, how should they react to wrongs, what is their role in a world filled with much intolerance?

I personally feel encouraged by the advice of leaders like Fethullah Gülen and by the initiatives taken by members of the movement associated with his name. I feel they offer, not only to Muslims, but to secular society itself a high-minded and visionary alternative to violence and reprisal. I wish them success.

[1] Fethullah Gülen, Capetown, 1999, p. 14.