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

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Q&A - Is the Gülen Movement a Religious Order?

Is the Gülen Movement a Religious Order? *
M. Enes Ergene
Fethullah GulenImage via Wikipedia

Even though the essential dynamics of the Gülen movement look similar to those of the classical Islamic tradition of spiritual orders in certain aspects, its organization is different with regard to producing civil

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fethullah Gülen: An Islamic sign of hope for an inclusive Europe by Paul Weller

As Europe heads deeper into economic recession, political crises and loss of social equilibrium, an increasingly diverse continent faces potentially serious challenges to cohesion, justice and equity.
The Europe of history, rather than of ideology, has always been a context for religious and cultural diversity, with a longstanding and substantial presence of Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians. But there have also always been ideological attempts to deny and/or destroy that diversity. This began when pre-Christian pagan traditions were replaced with Christianity --often (though not always) by means of force.

It continued when the flowering of Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture in the Iberian Peninsula was rolled back by the advance of a militant Catholicism that could not countenance the peaceful coexistence in a single geographical space of the three “Peoples of the Book.”

Within living memory there was industrialized genocide and the attempted liquidation of the Jews in Europe under the aegis of Nazi Germany and its collaborators, while in the 20th century there were the attempts at “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Balkans.

Finally, among those claiming to act in the name of Islam against the actions (Afghanistan and Iraq) and inactions (Palestine) of “the West,” there have been the bombings in Madrid (2004) and in London (2005).

Living with diversity
Against this background, and bearing in mind that social crises can all too easily follow from economic and political ones, it is critically important for the Europe of the coming decades to find a way to live at ease with its diversity. In particular, this means overcoming the worrying developments of Islamophobic scapegoating that can be observed in some countries and that will end only in suffering for Muslim minorities and a cultural impoverishment for all.

Muslims form the largest religious minority in Europe. A substantial proportion of these are of Turkish ethnic background, and Turkey is a majority Muslim state that is in a “special relationship” with the European Union. Because of these factors, and in the context outlined above, an important sign of hope for the future of an inclusive Europe comes from the teaching of the Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen, who is currently resident in the US, as well as from the civil society initiatives found across Europe that have been inspired by his teaching.

Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., and former Pakistani high commissioner in the UK, identified Gülen as a key “role model” for contemporary Muslims. In Ahmed’s book “Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization” (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2007), which was written on the basis of anthropological fieldwork and questionnaire results, Gülen is identified as one of the most influential Turkish Islamic figures of his generation.

Gülen’s influence among Muslims comes first and foremost from the fact that his teaching is thoroughly Islamic, being rooted in a deep and profound engagement with classical Islamic scholarship. He is therefore not a “reformist” in any sense that might make traditionalist Muslims suspicious that he is selling out the distinctiveness of Islam.

Knowledge in a contemporary context
While “traditional,” Gülen is himself not “traditionalist.” For example, in his native Turkey he recommended the building of more schools before the building of any more mosques. In doing so he was taking the traditional Islamic theme of the importance of knowledge, or ilm, and translating it into the contemporary context, resulting in over a thousand schools being founded throughout the world by those inspired by his teaching.

As well as being properly traditional, Gülen’s teaching is also informed by a Sufi Muslim heritage that, while rooted in the distinctiveness of Islam, is ready to identify goodness wherever it is found. This is the approach of the 13th century Muslim mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, reflected in his famous saying that “one of my feet is in the center and the other is in 72 realms [i.e. in the realm of all nations] like a compass.” Of this, in his important book “Towards a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance” (The Light, 2004), Gülen said of Rumi that “he drew a broad circle that encompassed all believers.”

Thus many of the organizations inspired by Gülen’s teaching are committed to the promotion of dialogue with Christians, Jews and people of other religious faiths. As an example of this, it should be noted that the Gülen-inspired popular magazine called The Fountain has opened its pages to Christian authors to, among other things, provide an exposition of key texts in the Christian scriptures.

This openness towards providing a platform for voices from other religions within a magazine that is primarily read by faithful Muslims is indicative also of an even wider spirit of inclusivity that stretches to embrace not only those of other religious faiths, but also those of no faith. For example, the Dialogue Society in London, which is inspired by Gülen’s teaching, has more atheist and agnostic members of its Advisory Board than it has Muslims.

Importantly, Gülen’s Islamic teaching and practice was developed in the forge of Turkey’s 20th century project to create a secular state, as initiated by the Turkish nationalist revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. That project became an ideologically “secularist” one, locked in symbiotic conflict with an “Islamist” reaction.

So, arising from that context, Gülen has criticized a politics rooted in a philosophically reductionist materialism. But he has also argued that Islam and democracy are compatible and he encourages greater democracy within Turkey. He also argues that a secular approach that is not anti-religious and allows for freedom of religion and belief is compatible with Islam.

While especially within Turkey there are those who argue that the movement inspired by Gülen’s teaching harbors secretive aims to take over the state and to impose Islamic rule, Gülen himself has criticized the instrumentalization of Islam for political ends. In this, he insists Islam does not need an Islamic state to flourish and that the politicization of Islam will only damage the state, society and also Islam itself.

Gülen has been robust and unequivocal in his condemnation of terror attacks conducted in the name of Islam. But his commitment to dialogue is not reactive to these. Rather, it is based upon the deep wells of authentic Islamic tradition rooted in the Quran and teaching and example of the Prophet Muhammad. Precisely because of this, Gülen’s teaching and the initiatives inspired by it offer a robust challenge to the terrorist appropriation of Islam. In the words of the title of a publication by the Dialogue Society in London, they offer the possibility of “Deradicalisation by Default: The ‘Dialogue’ Approach to Rooting out Violent Extremism” (Dialogue Society, London, 2009).

Striving for peace and the common good
In his teaching and his writing, Gülen emphasizes the importance of a shared humanity in striving for peace and the common good. He argues that we are human beings first of all, and only then Muslims, Christians, secularists or others. While to some this may seem unexceptional, it is important to understand that Gülen articulates this from an Islamic perspective.

Of course, the process of translating ideals into the kind of choices that need to be made in the context of ambiguities of history is a challenging one, fraught with dangers and difficulties, and is one in which outcomes cannot at the moment be known. But how these initiatives continue to develop is likely to be of considerable importance for the future of Islam, the future of Europe and the potential geopolitical role of Turkey as a bridge between historic civilizational zones. Among the practical examples that could be cited are the Journalist and Writers’ Foundation, the Intercultural Dialogue Platform and the Dialogue Eurasia Platform -- each of which have brought people of religious and secular perspectives into dialogue together around matters of common concern.

Thus Gülen and the initiatives inspired by his teaching challenge the tendency found among some Muslims groups to separatist withdrawal from the wider non-Muslim society. By contrast, they offer a basis for Muslim engagement with the wider society based upon a confident and richly textured Islamic vision. That vision also draws upon the historical wealth of a multicultural civilizational history to argue that neither Turkey nor the European Union have anything to fear, but have much to gain, from a future of full Turkish membership in the EU.

In the meantime, Fethullah Gülen’s teaching and the initiatives inspired by it offer an important Islamic sign of hope for an inclusive Europe.

*Paul Weller is professor of inter-religious relations at the University of Derby in the UK, and, along with İhsan Yılmaz, the editor of the forthcoming (January, 2012) book “European Muslims, Civility and Public Life: Perspectives on and From the Gülen Movement.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW - Faith, Theology and Service in Peacebuilding

Stanley Ridge*

Fethullah Gülen's work and thinking starts and ends in faith. In a world that commonly extends conflict by speaking of religion either in stereotyped or in ideologized terms, this is a refreshingly engaged perspective.

Faced with the challenge of mounting hostility between the Islamic world and the West, and with belligerent and increasingly fundamentalist groups on both sides supposedly speaking in the name of religion, the need for peacebuilding with integrity is pressing. The writers of different traditions whose essays resonate here explore the faith-based ideas of one of this century's seminal thinkers and tease out their implications and potential for peacebuilding.

is deeply and unequivocally Islamic. The first three chapters of the book, by the editors and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, introduce his approach to peacebuilding. They analyze his ideas through various modern lenses as within a tradition from Rumi, Al Ghazali, and Said Nursi, while also showing that the specific approaches he takes to peacebuilding arise from a thorough reading of the contemporary globalized world. Because these approaches are predicated on faith, the initiatives are heuristic. The movement into a caring engagement with the world is a movement of faith, marked by openness to discovery and so by an expectation of change. The object is not simply to change others, but to be changed with others, and so to move into and discover more of the just and caring social condition desired by Allah.

Part 2 takes a closer look at Gülen's reading of the globalized world and his deliberate transgression of the kinds of borders which are a product of modernism and fail to meet human realities or to orient us to global perspectives. In a fascinating essay, Klas Grinell bringsGülen's thinking into association with wider, postmodern debates. Borders, he points out, are associated with fixed identities which do not accord with our realities "in the multi-layered present" (68). Accordingly, crossing the border into the territory of the "other" perhaps does not characterize Gülen's aspiration because it seems to accept existing stereotypes and fails to leave room for the large areas of overlapping territory. Grinell changes the metaphor, seeing Gülenrather as on the border in the sense proposed by the Argentinian Mignolo:

Border thinking ... is thinking and knowledge produced from the borders of colonial modernity, knowledge that recognizes the colonizing aspects of what has been seen as true knowledge in mainstream modernity, and uses local resources to confront and alter that knowledge in order to know the particularities of life lived in that setting better. (75)

Irina Vainovski-Mihai pursues some of the implications of dialogue, which requires an open awareness of the other. She concludes that "the dialogical approach may transform the experience of the other into an experience of the self" (96). As Karina Korostelina suggests, though, that self embodies the creative tension in a dual identity, between "one component connected to a religious identity and another component that reflects membership in a secular nation" (104). The borders involved are different and shifting, finding resolution in a much more sophisticated and tolerant sense of the self. That, taken with Gülen's view of globalization outlined by Richard Penaskovic as more than economic and ideological, as referring "to connectivity and interdependence in all areas of life: cultural, ecological, economic, political, religious, social, and technological" (126), makes hostility manifestly problematic and is conducive to peace.

The third part of the book examines Gülen's theology of dialogue in comparative perspective. Turan Kayaoglu's informative essay traces the overlapping theologies of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Pope John-Paul II and Fethullah Gülen - theologies which place interfaith dialogue in the context of the core concerns of each faith. The theological leadership of these three major figures "validates, accommodates, and humanizes the 'other' in order to open up religious space for interfaith activities and to establish religious grounds to complement humanity's quest for peace, tolerance, and care for God's creation" (166). Zeki Saritoprak shows the continuity between Gülen and Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth century Muslim sociologist, who emphasizes asabiyya or a non-racist, non-nationalist "group solidarity" around key transformative values. Forgiveness, love and compassion are values at the heart of all major religions and are essential to our full humanity. However, in the heat of social tension, they tend to provoke persecution which has to be faced with a patience that involves being true to the self one has discovered through faith. Despite the legal and spiritual persecution and exile Gülen has faced, he concludes "We are going to respect our character... As a believer, I promise that I will never shun any person, and I will not persecute those who have transgressed against me" (184). Approaching the topic from another angle, Douglas Pratt examines the historical "baggage" in Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations and some of the ways in which Gülen seeks to surmount it. I would have welcomed more attention to the persistent discursive patterns that mark that history. However, central to the notion of dialogue is acceptance that the supreme greatness of God cannot be captured in words and that truth blossoms and its implications become clear in an ongoing process of awed interpretation. For People of the Book, "The 'book' is ever a text requiring interpretive understanding and application" (203). Felicitously, the final chapter in this section has a strong emphasis on the hermeneutic. David B Capes places the thinking of the American Baptist, A J Conyers in dialogue with Gülen. Conyers critiques "the modern, secular doctrine of tolerance" in attempting to reclaim "the practice of Christian tolerance based upon humility, hospitality and . . . the incarnation" (207). At the same time, he explicitly recognizes the affinities between Christians and those of other faiths, including specifically "the Sufi mystics of Islam," in this practice (not doctrine) of tolerance (209). Capes concludes with the observation that whileGülen is specific about forgiveness, there seems to be no explicit discussion of it in Conyers. Of course, Gülen's "the road to forgiveness passes through the act of forgiving" (221) is strikingly resonant with "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" in the Lord's Prayer. Capes concludes that the difference in the contexts in which the two theologians worked accounts for this apparent gap, implicitly emphasizing the need to interpret contextually.

Part four looks at the practice arising from this rich understanding of Islam. The five sets of initiatives discussed are a sample of the hundreds of innovative Gülen Movement ventures undertaken worldwide. All are undertaken by volunteers who seek to serve in lands or regions faced with conflict and very difficult social adjustment. In Gülen's words, "Holy people" carry the "new atmosphere, new understandings and dialogue" around the world, creating "islands of peace for stability and harmony" (181). What is most remarkable to me is the humility and rigor with which the volunteers "read" the local situation to determine how best to engage with it.

Modern Cambodia, recovering from more than two decades of traumatic instability, is a striking example. The situation of the minority Cham Muslim group, impoverished, hostile to public education as assimilatory, with religious education usually separated from life needs, and a high level of illiteracy in Khmer, complicates recovery. Philipp Bruckmayr shows Gülen Movement participants supporting Cambodian NGOs which promote "the acquisition of secular knowledge" within the context of faith, and offer practical support to the Chams (234f). The emphasis on "common values rather than differences" is reflected in translation of seminal works on Islam and in cooperation and dialogue with Buddhists (235). More characteristically Gülenian is the Zaman International School of Phnom Penh, which offers excellent secular schooling within a spiritually sensitive context, and has no assimilationist motives (245).

Jonathan Lacey discusses the Turkish Irish Educational and Cultural Society, a Gülenian group in a country with a tiny, fragmented and fractious Islamic minority. It emphasizes dialogue, supports conferences, and shows hospitality in annual iftar dinners during Ramadan, but most strikingly its members accept full, responsible citizenship: "[T]hey have no intention of assimilating, but instead intend to integrate" (263). It is a vital distinction.

The importance of civil society is emphasized by Mehmet Kalyoncu. He looks at the ways in which Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrian Christians have been mobilized by the Gülen Movement in Mardin "to cooperate in tackling their common problems" (275). The Gülenian school there is also a community focus, and helps build civil society organizations. The focus shifts to initiatives in Kenya and the Philippines, again based on schools which bring together the children of parties in conflict, and provide a platform for addressing local needs.

The role of the Gülen Movement in predominantly Muslim South East Asian societies where there is strong sectarianism and a divisive politicization of religion is explored by Mohamed Nawab bin Mohamed Osman. The fact that the volunteers are driven by a sense of duty to serve in places in great need underlines the appropriateness of the Turkish name of the Movement: hizmet or "service to humanity." The service in Singapore and Indonesia involves dialogue and education with a strong emphasis on honoring and using local customs, as in the Halalbihalal ceremony in Indonesia to bring conflicted groups together in an atmosphere of trust and hospitality.

The final essay by Harun Akyol puts the Movement's credentials to the acid test in the multiple conflict zone of northern Iraq. Fifteen successful schools and a university have been established to provide a base for thinking and interacting differently.

This book, bringing together key papers from three conferences, offers refreshingly varied, critically nuanced views of Gülen's thinking and shows the profound impact hizmet has had on particular individuals and societies.

* Emeritus Professor of English and retired Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Published on The Fountain Magazine, January-February 2011 issue

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