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

Monday, December 5, 2011

TESTIMONIALS - Guests talk about their travels in Turkey (2)


Six months ago, I knew next to nothing about Islam. Any knowledge I thought I had
was based primarily on the media’s portrayal of Islam since September 11th, 2001, a
predominately Arabic and militant version. Thus, I knew even less about Turkish Islam.
Therefore, I set out on a path of enlightenment without realizing that such knowledge
would require change as well.

I decided to spend the summer of 2008 pursuing an increased understanding of
Islam and of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, an activity I also had no
understanding of. My journey began in June when I was accepted to participate in the
4th Annual Institute on Christian-Muslim Relations sponsored the Prince Alwaleed bin
Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, involving
seven Muslim and twenty-three Christian scholars and religious professionals. While
Christian participants of the Institute were introduced to the Qur’an, the life of
Muhammad and the early history of Islam, Muslim participants, in separate session,
were offered an introduction to Christianity, particularly through a selection of New
Testament passages. The participants came together for studies on both Christianity
in America and Islam in the West, facilitating a better understanding of the basic tenets
of each faith and how they are practiced in today’s society and political climate.
Because of my participation at Georgetown, I was selected as one of four Institute
participants (three Christian and one Muslim) to travel to Turkey on an intercultural
exchange sponsored by the Rumi Forum, a Washington D.C non-profit organization,
founded in 1999 with the mission of fostering interfaith and intercultural dialogue. This
8-day exchange began with an awe-inspiring evening harbor tour on the Bosporus. We
visited the magical city of Istanbul, simultaneously ancient and strikingly modern. Our
trip featured tours of Izmir, Kayseri and the ancient cities of Ephesus and Cappadocia.
The sights, sounds and smells were at times overwhelming and difficult to process.
The joy of walking where others, especially our Christian forefathers walked, was
unexpected and fitting.

What I did not know prior to the start of the trip was that the founders of the Rumi
Forum and the facilitators of the trip were all supporters of the Gülen Movement,
a particularly tolerant form of Islam practiced by followers of M. Fethullah Gülen, a
Turkish Muslim preacher, intellectual, author and poet. Prior to this trip, I had never
heard of Gülen or the movement which bears his name. It still seems strange to me
that I learned of this great man through the fruits of his work before ever hearing the
words which inspired them, which is usually the preferred method.

During our trip, we visited a private preparatory school in Istanbul and later, had a
luncheon with the faculty and administration of a private university. Both institutions
were founded by supporters of the Gülen Movement and put into action his ideas on
social justice through education.

In Gülen’s mind, education remains the last solution to society’s problems. He asserts
that controlling the masses is easy when they are starved of knowledge; escape from
tyranny comes only through learning. True social justice is created through “adequate,
universal education”, which replaces fear with information, leading to tolerance and
respect for the rights of others. Via the Gülen model, only education can defeat all
three of the most plaguing problems facing the world today: ignorance, poverty,
and division. Of course, ignorance is automatically defeated through knowledge, but
learning also promotes productive work and possession of capital, which decimates
poverty and eradicates internal schisms by replacing fear with tolerance.

The main focus of his movement is the positioning of Turkish Islam in the globalized
world as a bridge to the West, presenting a “face to the world with an emphasis on
tolerance, dialogue and respect”. He instills in his adherents the duty as a member of
this community to learn several languages, to travel widely, to study the social sciences
and humanities in different educational and scientific settings and to actively engage
in universal and interfaith dialogue.

Gülen has been a pioneer of interfaith dialogue for over thirty years, believing that
“dialogue is not a superfluous endeavor, but an imperative…that dialogue is among
the duties of Muslims to make our world a more peaceful and safer place.”
According to Carroll, “Dialogue is the means by which we maintain our focus on the
humanity of others, even when, or perhaps especially when, we strongly disagree with
their ideas. Finding commonalities amidst racial difference is a proven strategy for
peaceful coexistence among people who largely disagree. Dialogues, when difficult,
are some of the most important conversations to have.”

Commons sense would cause any reader to wonder where these idealistic, tolerant,
all-virtuous people of such high moral character come from. Carroll wonders if they
are divine beings sent from God to live among us. No, they are entirely human. I
found them in Turkey, in the Gülen Movement. They are teachers in schools like the
one we visited which are run by the supporters of the movement all over the world,
breaking through walls of hate and fear. They are university students who volunteer
their valuable free time educating the generation behind them, so that the chain
of love never ends. They are businessmen and economic success stories who “pay
it forward” by financially supporting the work of the movement, people I came to
love as new brothers and sisters over a shared meal and laughter. They are children,
diligently studying science, math, history, language, literature, and the natural, social
and cultural sciences, so they can be the next generation’s success stories. These are
the people who will “usher in a new social reality that will mend the false bifurcation
between science and religion, [finally] meshing the East [with] the West”.

Great leaders in history often appear in the most strange of places. Jesus, the Christian
Messiah, was born to a virgin mother in the most pitiable of conditions, a stable
surrounded by animals and hay. The Prophet Muhammed was an orphan, raised in the
middle of the desert, distrusted by those in Meccan power because of his adherence
to monotheism. This man Gülen is such a person, although he adamantly disavows
any greatness. “I’ve never called myself a leader. I’m an ordinary man. A leader is
someone with capabilities, genius, charisma and high performance. I don’t have any
of these. I insist on saying, ‘I’m not a leader’. A person is not a leader just because [he]
has expressed [his] thoughts for thirty years in pulpits and some people who share the
same feelings and thoughts [have] responded.”8 But, no matter his personal humility,
millions of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, hear his words and are forever

I admit I was a skeptic. When I began to educate myself about Islam, I found it difficult to
reconcile what I ‘knew’ about the Islam of the twenty-first century with this moderate,
tolerant version I was being shown in Turkey. Most people, if asked, would immediately
espouse peace, love and tolerance. Gülen, presupposing my difficulties, says “Many
speak beautiful words about loving humankind, and these are indeed pleasant words.
But I wonder how many of those who speak such words are able to put into action and
represent in their characters what they have verbalized?”9. I wondered too.

I found the synthesis of words and action I sought in Turkey and the Gülen Movement.
My many, now dear, Turkish friends embody love and tolerance as daily duties required
of them as a form of worship, not just as empty speech. My Bible extols love as the
greatest of all virtues.10 In the Gospels, Jesus indicates that love of one’s neighbors
is second only to love of the Father. I have been called to love by my Christian faith
and nothing in it refutes Gülen’s message of being “hand-less to those who hit us and
tongue-less to those who curse us”11. Quite the opposite. Tolerant Christians and
loving Muslims have much to dialogue about and to teach each other about living in
peace—together. It is for this reason that I join millions of others around the world in
calling M. Fethullah Gülen my ‘Hocaefendi’.