Rumi Forum's blog on Hizmet, Fethullah Gulen, peacebuilding, education and interfaith efforts.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

MEDIA - Turkish Policy Quarterly : Fethullah Gulen's "Jewish Dialogue"

Fethullah Gulen has been a global pioneer in regards to the important message of dialogue - both through his words and by encouraging numerous service (educational, welfare, health and dialogue) projects. Fethullah Gulen's only aim is riza ilahi i.e. gaining the pleasure and favor of the Almighty. His intentions are neither worldly, nor for fame or fortune. It is in this light that all this good work and service should be viewed and understood. The following 2 links provide greater understanding of Gulen's thoughts:
The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue by Fethullah Gulen
A Movement Originating Its Own Models by Fethullah Gulen

recently published an article by Efrat Aviv titled Fethullah Gulen's "Jewish dialogue" on Rumi Forum's Honorary President, Fethullah Gulen. Excerpts are below:

Fethullah Gulen's "Jewish Dialogue"

...Tolerance and Jews

According to Gülen, the idea of tolerance does not aim to confine itself in a narrow space. On the contrary, you must begin with the immediate environment, and then spread to more distant circles. Gülen sees great importance in disseminating tolerance because of the fact that the world is a global village, and it is imperative to lay the foundation for communication without making distinctions between Christians, Jews, Atheists or Buddhists. However, you must still begin with your immediate circle, since without it you cannot move onward and outward. In this way, you can radiate tolerance from your immediate environment to more distant ones.

Gülen remarks that tolerance is occasionally interpreted superficially by specific individuals, since they are attempting to change those around them under the guise of dialogue, but the idea that stands behind tolerance is to accept everyone as is, regardless of faith or beliefs. Beyond this, tolerance also includes the ability to connect with each other, to make a connection, to talk and communicate.

In fact, the religious tolerance that Gülen represents is not new to the Turks. It is based on the tolerance of the Ottoman regime throughout six hundred years and spanning three continents. Gülen gives numerous examples from the Ottoman history, the one to which he repeatedly refers is Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who unraveled the Greek and Armenian patriarchy in Istanbul and gave its leaders religious autonomy and authority.On the 31st anniversary of the establishment of the Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı, in an event that took place in İstanbul, Jak Kamhi, a Jewish Turkish industrialist said that Gülen has not really reinvented anything with his interreligious activity, since the Turks exhibited love and respect for all nations for hundreds of years. Moreover, Kamhi said that were it not for this tolerance of the Turks, he himself would not exist: “Gülen manifests a long-standing tradition of tolerance, which helps familiarize the world with the beautiful sides of Turkish society”.

Because of this approach, of perceiving dialogue as both a religious and a moral-national-social obligation, Gülen met with countless leaders and key people from the three religions during the 1990s. He met with Jewish leaders, both secular and religious, inside and outside of Turkey, in order to promote dialogue between Judaism and Islam. Gülen was the first one to initiate interreligious meetings in Turkey, as testified by Yusuf Sağ Monsignor, patriarchal representative of the Catholic- Assyrian church in Turkey. Yusuf Sağ was one of the first religious leaders to meet Gülen in Turkey, who said that the initiative for the interreligious meetings was made by Gülen. The first to join was the Greek patriarch, followed by the Armenian patriarch, Rabbi İshak Haleva, Yusuf Sağ, and finally the Mufti of Istanbul. Sağ, in a personal interview, said that he himself attended at least 14 of Gülen’s Ramadan meals in 2006, under the umbrella of interreligious activity. Sağ recounts that Gülen was the first to talk about interreligion at a time when no one even thought or spoke about dialogue. Sağ mentions that numerous others followed Gülen’s example.Due to all the aforementioned, it is extremely important to examine the Gülen initiative associated with the interreligious meetings and to pay special attention to the interests vested in it. The purpose of each these meetings should be ascertained. The first of a series of meetings with Jewish leaders was with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, whom Gülen met with at least twice, once in the United States and once in Turkey. The first meeting between Gülen and the League took place in New Jersey, attended by the President of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, and Kenneth Jacobson, who was then National Deputy Director of the League, as well as the Director of Foreign Affairs, and an additional representative. The League representatives arrived at Gülen’s house during his convalescent period in 1997. This was a specific League meeting. Jacobson said the following about the first meeting:

‘‘Circa the 1990s, we worked intensively to promote Turkish understanding in America, as part of the effort to strengthen Turkish-U.S. relations, so that Turkey would be able to continue its relations with Israel… We were known to be involved with Turkey… And then some people contacted us… and said that they had information about a very important and moderate individual… that takes Islam in the right direction… a very interesting phenomenon indeed... We decided to meet with him [Fethullah Gülen]… and this meeting took place with Abe Foxman, myself and another colleague. The meeting lasted approx. one hour… Gülen talked about his moderation regarding Islam, the Jews, Israel, and expressed reasonable and non-extremist views… It was a very good meeting, very friendly… A group of his followers came to see us after our meeting with him and then asked if we could introduce Gülen to people in Washington… but I don’t recall which specific meeting came after. I think we offered our help in introducing him to others, which I think happened/didn’t happen.”

Kenneth Jacobson recounts that the second meeting took place in Istanbul during a visit by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, on their way back to the United States from Israel. Despite the opposition of the military and government, as well as people in the Turkish Jewish community, to hold a second meeting with Gülen, Jacobson decided to meet with him and two others, one of who was then the Chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Leon Levy.The first meeting took place at Gülen’s initiative, via mediators. These mediators came to the League representatives following the League’s involvement in several conferences, including the main conference to commemorate 500 years of Jewish life in Turkey, which took place in the United States. The League also organized a gala dinner in New York for then Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz. In a ceremony conducted on 18 December 1997, the League awarded the tolerance prize to Yılmaz for his efforts in promoting democracy, and for his religious pluralism and tolerance. During that same period, the League worked intensively to tighten U.S.-Turkey-Israel relations, which seems to have spurred the movement’s desire to meet with the League.

Jacobson said the following about the second meeting, which took place in Istanbul in 1998:
‘‘I remember it like it was yesterday. There were all sorts of television cameras there, TV networks, and lots and lots of cameras, as if it were a high profile meeting. We met, and it was another pleasant encounter. We were given gifts… again Gülen spoke in terms of moderation. He presented himself as someone that cares about moderation in Turkey and cares about a moderate Islam and as someone interested in good relations with Israel and the Jews… afterwards there was a follow-up meeting with his assistants in New York…as far as I know, he is not in touch with us… The meeting lasted half an hour and did not go into as much depth as the first, since we had to rush and join the rest of the group, which was waiting for the return flight to the U.S.”

It is possible then, that Gülen’s goal was to reach key people in Washington via the League members. However, Jacobson recounts that the essence of the meetings with Gülen was mostly introductory and courteous, and for the most part, no particularly significant decisions were made during these meetings.
Another meeting between Gülen and a Jewish leader was held in 1997 with Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who served as the Chief Sephardic Rabbi in Israel between 1993 and 2003. This meeting took place because of Zali De Toledo’s initiative, the cultural attaché in the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. The invitation was accepted.

Prior to the visit, there was a request from Abdülkerim Balcı, who was then the correspondent of the newspaper Zaman in Israel, to bring Gülen and Rabbi Bakshi-Doron together, which did not happen.The then The President of Religious Affairs, Mehmet Nuri Yılmaz, initially opposed meeting, claiming that Gülen did not have any official title, but he eventually agreed. The Israeli Foreign Ministry thought that a meeting with Gülen could help quell the hatred and resistance to Israel and/ or Jews, and therefore they authorized it, but Bakshi-Doron had a different interest – he wanted to ask for help in freeing Iranian Jews that were imprisoned for alleged espionage. Back then, Zali De Toledo says the following about the meeting: ‘‘At first, I translated for Rabbi Bakshi-Doron and Fethullah Gülen, in front of approximately 15 television microphones. The meeting took place in Gülen’s building in Istanbul. When Gülen entered, I extended my hand to him, a gesture that he did not return, but in order for my hand not to remain outstretched, one of his assistants immediately shook it. The Rabbi and Gülen quoted excerpts from the Torah and the Koran, and I translated. Afterwards, we adjourned to a quiet meeting, with the attendance of Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, Fethullah Gülen, his assistants, Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s assistant Rafi Dayan, Eli Shaked, who was then the General Consul, and me. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron requested assistance for Iranian Jews, saying that there are widows and ‘agunot’ (literally ‘anchored or chained’, a Halachic term for a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage). left there and that there is no Rabbi there to help them. Gülen said that he had no ties with Iran and that’s where the matter ended… Gülen was interested in opening one of his schools in Israel and that was the reason for his meeting with the Chief Rabbi.”

During this meeting, Gülen told Bakshi- Doron that it was imperative to discuss issues pertaining to all the religions and that it was their duty as religious leaders to pass this message on. In response, Rabbi Bakshi-Doron said that he appreciated Gülen’s efforts to create interreligious dialogue and world peace. He also added that they must, as religious leaders, visibly work towards peace. He added, that he had agreed to meet Gülen because he was an important personality in the Muslim world and it was important that such a message come from him. Bakshi-Doron apparently agreed to opening a Muslim school in Israel in principle, but the idea was rejected at the government level.

According to a senior personality that worked with Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, Gülen requested to establish a Muslim school in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. According to this testimony, Gülen wanted to visit Israel, but his visit was not authorized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The source testified that Gülen left a positive impression on the Rabbi and that the two  exchanged greeting cards for the holidays, at least until Gülen left for the United States.In other words, there was a mostly mutual interest at the basis of these meetings, but the meeting was also utilized to strengthen interpersonal ties.

On the other hand, Gülen’s true purpose in strengthening ties with the Jewish community and Israeli representatives in Turkey might have been to try to create world peace and harmony, with Israel playing a key and significant role in giving a global example of peace. If Israel, renowned in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it has been embroiled in for years, expresses a message of peace, then it will influence the international arena and maybe even propagate to other conflict zones. Thus, Israel could serve as an example and symbol of successful dialogue. Moreover, there is an attempt to initiate dialogue with “post-Ottoman” zones and from here the path to dialogue with Israel as a former Ottoman territory.It should be noted that the people in Gülen’s Movement, via the Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı, organized a communications conference in Istanbul at the end of May 2008, to which Turkish and Israeli journalists were invited, with the purpose of creating a more in-depth acquaintance between them.

Several meeting were also held in Turkey between Gülen and Turkey’s former Chief Rabbi, David Asseo, with Rabbi İshak Haleva, who was then Asseo’s deputy, also in attendance. In a personal interview, Haleva stresses Gülen’s assistance to the community.He mentions Gülen’s mediation between the community and elements in the media that published inflammatory content against the Jews. In Haleva’s opinion, Gülen did a tremendous service, not only to Jews, but to Turkey as a whole. According to Haleva, minorities in Turkey were regarded with suspicion due to the process of nationality that the Republic underwent, and therefore the closeness that Gülen created between the Muslims, Christians and Jews in Turkey, was of ultimate importance. When you speak, he said, the negative impression dissipates:

If I do not hate someone, then I learn to love him over time. So perhaps Gülen’s activity will not have an immediate impact on the next generation, but it will definitely have one on future generations… and this is how they will learn to love him. Personally, I very much admire Gülen"... 

Reverend Elizabeth Brown, affiliated with the Unitarian Church, conjectured: In her opinion, the criticism towards Gülen was actually caused by the “soft coup” of 1997. She says that since then, the regime in Turkey tended to be intolerant of anyone religious and Gülen fits into this definition. Brown also notes that she is not surprised that Gülen has dissenters, “like Jesus”, she adds. Her testimony that you do not need to see Gülen in order to be impressed by him suffices to get a positive impression of him and his people. The work that Gülen’s people do, says Brown, “brings me to tears”...

Discussion with numerous Turkish Jews paints a picture of apprehension and fear towards anything associated with the Gülen Movement, even if people are only familiar with him from the media. It is possible that Jewish society is influenced by the general society and may be apprehensive since any religious issue tends to be met with even greater reluctance or repugnance among the Jews than among the Turks. Notwithstanding, secular society in Turkey, as Rıfat Bali attested, does not only oppose Gülen Movement, but any community, movement, or religious organization that jeopardizes Kemalism and secularism in Turkey, with its worldview. Subsequently, the opposition to Gülen is not actually due to the Movement’s components, characteristics, or principles of its belief, but due to a general fear of religious domination over Turkey. The fear and misgivings from Gülen Movement are applicable to any movement, organization or party that deals with religion. Perhaps the fear of Gülen and his Movement may be greater than of other movements, because of its popularity. In other words, the more popular the Movement becomes, the greater the reservations about it become. Therefore, fear of Gülen and his movement is actually the fear of anything connected, even remotely, to religion, and therefore opposition to Gülen’s movement may not be because of what it stands for as a specific movement, but rather due to it being a religious movement....[continues]

* Dr Efrat E. Aviv is a member of the faculty at Bar Ilan University, Israel, Department of Middle Eastern Studies.