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

Friday, November 23, 2012

ARTICLE: An untold African story

This article appeared on Fethullah Gulen's official web site and numerous other ezines. It was written by Rumi Forum's President, Emre Celik


I had the privilege of traveling to Africa recently. It was somewhat a whirlwind tour of 4 countries - South Africa, Tanzania (including Zanzibar), Kenya and Ethiopia. It was full of many surprises. I hope to share some of my thoughts and feelings over the course some words in this article.

The purpose of this journey was to discover and note the Hizmet activities (commonly referred to as the Gülen Movement in academic circles). For the uninitiated, Hizmet is a loosely connected group of individuals and NGOs inspired by the ideas and ideals of Fethullah Gülen - a Turkish Muslim scholar and thinker. The movement's activities span some 140 or so countries occupying an important place in the field of education, intercultural dialogue, health and relief activities. The main emphasis is a selfless approach to serving all others while personally gaining God's pleasure.

During my visit to Horizon International School in Johannesburg, which is privately funded, I met one of the teachers. He was a local young man who happened to also be a graduate of the same school to which he was now a teacher. His warm smile gleamed over his humble demeanor. He took me on a tour of the school. Many doors and windows were reinforced - unfortunately robbery was one of the common crimes in the area. Only the week before some new televisions were stolen. Like his peers this teacher was dedicated to his teaching, being a role model for each of his students - as were his teachers who only were teaching him a few years previously - now those same teachers were his colleagues. He had a great deal of respect for this school. It had taken him out of the slums of Soweto. Even more miraculous was his own personal family story.

He was kind enough to invite us to his home - now out of the slums. His mother was a pastor of a local 500 member Protestant church. What stood out in this household was the story of his missing siblings. He had fours brother. The two older were now in prison for murders, having received 40 year prison sentences. The two younger, (a sad irony) had been killed in gang fighting. He was the success story in the family. His mother, protective of her son, was the proudest mother in the neighbourhood. And pleased to have her son associated with and teaching at this Hizmet school.

The essence of these schools is typified in the above story. Taking individuals and their associated families and being a catalyst for them to shine - to remove the despair of the communities they belong to and the gruesome social conditions they may find themselves in. The school communities that are formed do not only play a positive role in the lives of its students, but as part of the wider school family touch the lives of students’ families, their relatives and friends and the neighbourhoods from which they come. Such Hizmet schools - and it’s becomes quite fitting and appropriate that the movement calls itself hizmet meaning ‘service’ - become beacons of hope as graduates play a role in giving something back through service. This can come in the form of volunteering time, financial support - or those that are so moved by the teaching vocation, come back to teach at the school.

The ripple effect these schools have is tremendous. They provide a safe haven, a kind of ‘peace island’ - a term coined by Gülen - for all those associated with the school. Those not directly associated with the school take comfort in knowing the school is a role model for other educational institutions. And just as important they show-case that no matter how adverse the conditions are that stories like the one above are possible and with time probable and expected. Given the conditions, the teachers of these hizmet schools have outdone themselves,. They should be proud of their achievements but yet resilient to the excesses of immodesty. Such success breeds success and in an area that can be barrain of ‘good news’ this school stands out and needs to be applauded.

And the moral to the story? These schools are doing fantastics things in many remote places under very difficult circumstances servicing students and families that are also in great need. And this and other stories need to be both understood and told.

Kudos to them!

Emre Çelik is an Australian based in Washington DC and President of the Rumi Forum.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fethullah Gulen's interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine by Rainer Hermann

Fethullah Gulen and Rumi Forum's President, Emre Celik were interviewed by Rainer Hermann, for Frankfurter Allgemeine, a German Newspaper

Do good and let it unfold

The Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen has been living in the United States for 13 years now. An extensive network of supporters has developed there, serving in projects under his name. There is no sign on the road to indicate the exit and the dirt track which leads you through a foggy broadleaf forest, coloured in all the shades of autumn, to an estate with eight houses. Thirteen years ago, the most influential preacher of Turkish Islam Fethullah Gulen retreated to this secluded place. Back then, the still powerful military had driven him out of Turkey. Stricken with illnesses, he decided to undergo surgery in American hospitals. Since then, he has rarely left the estate despite being issued a visa and a residence permit by the United States. The voice of the 74-year-old Gulen sounds more powerful than ever, even from afar. It was his voice which has transformed the Muslims of Anatolia into a dynamic middle-class during the past decades. Gulen is the voice of these “black Turks”. Many movements have challenged Kemalism, the ideology of the “white Turks”. The urban, educated and secular upper-class of Istanbul – and later also of Ankara – have for decades ruled over Turkey. They looked down with contempt upon the uneducated, rural, poor and religious people of Anatolia. Inspired by Gulen’s teachings, many of these Turks sought education and became wealthy, yet remained religiously devout. As Gulen effectively challenged the Kemalist elite, he was declared as an enemy of the state. If Gulen was to return to Turkey, it would open old wounds. This is why Gulen, who shies away from conflicts, has decided to stay in Saylorsburg. The 5-and-a-half hectare estate does partially resemble Gulen’s native region of Turkey. He was born in 1938 in Erzurum, in the remote eastern part of Anatolia. Saylorsburg is a place dominated by nature, where deer roam the forest and from time to time brown bears are seen. Soon, the snow will pile up, just as it will in Erzurum. When Turkish entrepreneurs bought the estate for $175,000 in 1993, under the name “Golden Generation foundation”, only a few log cabins were there. The foundation built eight stone houses, created the park, and invited Gulen to settle down here in 1999. Down at the lake, the visitors’ children are playing football. At noon, everyone gathers in the clearing at the köşk – a type of garden pavilion in which Ottomans used to dine while in the countryside. Traditional Turkish cuisine is on the menu: lentil soup, vegetables pickled in olive oil, köfte meat balls with rice, tea in small curved glasses. Gulen cannot walk even this distance these days. After several bypass operations, his knees trouble him now. He leaves the estate only for medical exams and treatment at the hospital nearby. Gulen takes a life away from people, but his message is reaching millions. A lift goes up to the first floor of the house which resembles a simply yet elegantly decorated Ottoman house which does not need more than a minimum of furniture. This is the floor on which Hocaefendi -- as he is reverently called by his followers -- lives and works. At his side always is his personal doctor, as well as a few other people in whom he trusts and confides. He very rarely gives interviews. This morning, a normal one, he taught a dozen young theologians who are his personal students. Twice a week, his sermons are recorded and uploaded onto the internet (, from which TV stations will rebroadcast. Our interview has been scheduled to take place after the Islamic midday prayer. That is when Gulen receives guests. He specifically asks them about what is going on in the world outside and always has follow-up questions. After this he will read again, write and pray. He is said to get by on very little sleep. Every day is minutely structured. He instructs his followers to use their time well and practises as he preaches, without rushing. His followers say that he combines humility with charisma. On the wall behind him, a clock ticks softly. It is never switched to daylight savings hours. “The [real] time is always the same,” says Gulen. Beautiful calligraphic writing decorates the walls, complementing Gulen’s words. He does not speak a sober modern Turkish. The Ottomans would have understood him perfectly. It is a challenge for many Turkish people to understand him. In long sentences, he intertwines chapters from the Quran with sayings by the Prophet, the experiences of the mystics with the requirements of the modern world, and unites the world of faith with the reality of life. He explains the relevance of education and success in business, the compatibility of Islam with the modern age and democracy, as well as the incompatibility of Islam and violence. His followers are supposed to create employment and prosperity with their own hands, and should not forget to distribute it among those who are in need. Religious people wanting to live their faith far away from the vibrant cities were always drawn to the State of Pennsylvania. The early immigrants that settled on the fertile grounds of Pennsylvania must have been religious people. If you set out west from Philadelphia towards Saylorsburg, then you will drive through Quakertown and Emmaus. Road signs indicate exits to Hamburg as well as Lebanon and also to New Tripoli. The road to Saylorsburg also leads you through Bethlehem and Nazareth. Manhattan is only a few hours drive away from Saylorsburg. And yet there are worlds between them. Alp Aslandogan is looking down from the sixth floor onto the urban canyon out of stone in the 5th Ave. In 1991, he came to New York from Turkey to do his PhD in IT and today he teaches at a university. In his spare time, he works many hours on a voluntary basis for “hizmet” [service] – which is how Gulen’s followers describe their movement. The movement, which in Germany is known as the Gulen movement, is also growing in the United States. Entrepeneurs close to Gulen have founded more than a thousand educational institutions in 130 countries, including Germany and the United States. Aslandogan founded the “Milky Way Foundation” in 1993 to help tutor children of Turkish immigrants on the weekends, so that they could succeed in school. In 1999, the foundation became a private school. “We neither wanted to emulate the dominant culture, nor isolate ourselves from it to preserve our roots,” says Aslandogan. “We wanted to help parents to understand the American culture, and the children to preserve their parents’ values, but also be productive citizens of this country.” Over two decades, activities such as these in New York turned into an extensive network of diverse social activities. The Turkish Cultural Center in Manhattan and the Peace Islands Institute are two examples. The cultural centre, for instance, organises English and Turkish language courses, prepares children for exams, helps adults to register themselves as voters and assists those who are self-employed to find success. After a large forest fire in Israel, it helped reforest the area, and built a new school in Haiti after the earthquake. After the terror attacks on September 11th, the Pacific Islands Institute was founded as a platform for dialogue. Under its framework, American politicians and foreign ambassadors have met, rabbis and Buddhist monks talk to each other, and Muslim families invite non-Muslim families home. The cultural centre and the Pacific Islands Institute are two of the 218 social organizations which are associated with Gulen in the United States, which have united in May 2010 under the umbrella organization, the Turkic American Alliance. Its main offices are in Washington DC, between Capitol Hill and the CNN studios. Just as in its New York offices, the personality cult around Atatürk has vanished, and there is no relief on the wall depicting the forever-smiling founder of the republic. What importance the umbrella organization has already gained can be seen by the fact that at a recent gala evening, seven senators and 53 members of the Congress were present. Fevzi Bilgin, a 38-year-old political analyst and former professor at the University of Pittsburgh, compiles studies about relevant issues in Turkey and the Middle East and assesses the American political sphere in his work. He is the head of “Rethink”, the only private Turkish think tank in the United States. Emre Çelik, an Australian IT specialist of Turkish descent living in the United States, is another strong supporter of Gulen. He started two decades ago in Sydney, trying to give Turkish youngsters a jump-start in subjects such as math, physics and chemistry in garages. Today, he is in charge of the Rumi Forum, named after a Turkish saint, which is located a stone’s throw away from the White House. On its board sit Jews as well as secular Americans. Prominent politicians or diplomats often speak at luncheons held at the forum, broadcasted by four TV channels. Çelik considers himself to be a “mainstream Muslim” and this is the type of Islam he wants to foster in the pluralistic society of America. Initially in Australia, he was fascinated by Said Nursi (1876-1960), a spiritual mentor for Gulen. Nursi introduced to Islam raising scientific questions and doubt, taught his students to see the good in Western civilisation and adopt it, and called them to overcome the three basic evils of poverty, division and ignorance. “What Nursi formulated in theories, is carried out by Gulen in practice”, says Çelik. He considers the concept of pleasing God to be the decisive contribution of Gulen. By this, Gulen motivates people to act in this world, in order to gain rewards for the hereafter. The movement is being attacked from two sides, says Gulen. Gulen describes those who equate the activities of “hizmet” with Islamism as ignorant. When it comes to other Turkish critics, he can only shake his head. They accuse him of being “a traitor to Islam, being a slave of the United States and Israel as well as carrying out propaganda for Christianity and Judaism”. A public prosecutor in Turkey once called him even a secret cardinal in the service of the Pope. The biggest accusation against the Movement is that it wants to carry out a revolution in Turkey, through cultivating a secret Islamist elite. It is also claimed that the movement is not transparent and works as a secret society. These kind of critics of the movement assert a hierarchical structure which does not exist. They attribute this claimed hierarchy to an asserted Islamic sufi lineage. During recent decades, periods where Turkey was ruled by generals, such a structure could be dangerous. “My life and my work are open to everyone”, asserts Fethullah Gulen. “Nothing is kept secret.” The activities of “hizmet” are carried out in public with people from the entire spectrum of life, from all countries and religions. They have been observed and even under the control of public authorities. “I would like to know what is not transparent.” Education and building schools are issues particularly close to his heart. He says it is through education that a human being contributes in the most constructive manner to his or her family, society and humanity. "I am convinced that we as God’s creatures will only achieve our full individual maturity through worldly and spiritual education." He has been promoting this idea his entire life, as well as through the construction of schools, which are built by companies that claim to be inspired by him. His name appears neither as a founding nor board member on any of the institutions ascribed to him. The continuous reference to entrepreneurs does not mean that everything is related to money, but he advises his followers to be successful. A major Turkish business association is ascribed to Gulen. The economic boom in Anatolia is linked to his name. "I have always called for a sincere entrepreneurial spirit," says Gulen. He advises entrepreneurs to carefully assess risks, and encourages them to invest and expand abroad. “I always remind them of their social and societal responsibilities.” And he reminds them to adhere to ethical principles: to avoid involvement in fraud, speculative or black-market trading, stand for trust and reliability, not to display greed and squander God’s riches while enjoying them, to show respect for the rights of employees, not to forget that the society they live in should also benefit from their benefits and to live aware of the fact that ultimately everything is given by God. Tevfik Emre Aksoy is one of those businessmen who seeks God’s pleasure following Gulen’s advice. He made his fortune as a building contractor in Brooklyn, New York City. Self-employed and successful people like him donate a considerable share of their income to the "hizmet" movement and finance many projects. He is a board member of the Amity School in Brooklyn along with four other businessmen. Tuition fees only partially cover the costs of running the school. The rest comes from supporters like Aksoy. Yet despite his generous donations, he does not interfere in the day by day operations of the school, whose principal is Cengiz Karabekmez. Founded in 1999, 300 students attend the school. One hundred live in the adjacent student hostel. They come from 17 countries, and represent five different religious faiths. The majority are of Turkish descent. The school advertises that for many years all students have been accepted to college. The best go on to Harvard, Columbia and Yale. “Last year’s 25 graduates got scholarships in the amount of 4 million dollars”, Karabekmez says proudly. The focus, as with all other “Gulen schools”, is on teaching sciences. “We do not compel religion upon our students”, stresses Karabekmez. “We are not a religious school.“ The course on “personality development” teaches universal values such as respect, altruism and work ethics. Most of the 36 teachers are American citizens. “Language barriers?” Andrea laughs. "Sure, many parents speak only a little bit of English", says a teacher. “But the school community ensures that everyone speaks English very well, starting from year one.” The English teacher, Adamir, knows Germany and the United States well, but he does not know Gulen. His parents fled the war in the Balkans, and along with their children, went first to Germany, and then settled down in New York 12 years ago. He had never heard the name of the “hizmet” movement. He opted for the Amity School because he has more opportunity to express himself as a teacher than at other schools. Worship of God is not compelled. “God loves everyone”, Aksoy asserts. “God loves in particular good deeds.”

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Friday, November 16, 2012