Rumi Forum's blog on Hizmet, Fethullah Gulen, peacebuilding, education and interfaith efforts.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Journeys with the Gülen [Hizmet] Movement: 2008-2012 by James Harrington
James C. Harrington*, January 27, 2013
Journeys through life take strange twists and happen in mysterious ways – some would say providential, although I might not – but one does wonder at times. My journeys with the Gülen movement began one Summer Sunday morning in 2008, when a judge friend of mine announced from the back of church, as we were about to leave, that she was putting together aninterfaith trip to Turkeyand looking for volunteers.
I wasn't sure what it was about, but the price was right. I had some vacation time left and had never been to Turkey. So, always ready for something new in my life, I signed up.
Part of what interested me in the trip was that I knew little about Turkey or Islam, other than what I had learned through history books in the early 1960's. Most of that, of course, was unfavorable ... the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and Africa, the attempted conquest of Europe ... and told from an atavistic western Christian view. My views, of course, had matured over the years, but still were not particularly insightful or deep. It was time to learn more. Nor was I at all familiar with theGülen movement(orhizmet, "service," as people in the movement prefer to call it).
The First Journey
Our small group (most of us Christian and a Jewish couple) met up with a two native Turkish men (and members ofhizmet), who lived in Austin, at the airport and left for Istanbul.
We had a lengthy layover in Amsterdam so some of us took the early morning train to visit the city center and pass by Anne Frank's house. (Ironically, this trek came full circle four years later, as I'll mention later.). Beautiful downtown train station.
Generally, our trip to Turkey consisted of visits to different cities, where we would spend about a half day at an historical or religious site (like old Ephesus and Abraham's Cave, for example), and about a half day visiting something associated with the Gülen movement (such as a school, a hospital, the Zaman newspaper offices, and so on).
In the evenings, we often ate at a family's home with their relatives and friends, conversed about our similarities and differences, and exchanged small gifts. Sometimes, we would meet families at restaurants.
In Urfa, we had breakfast at the home of a Kurdish family, sitting in customary fashion on the floor. They lived in a typical European-style apartment housing complex, where some Christian families resided nearby; and they celebrated each other's religious holidays.
Besides Urfa, we visited people, sites, and organizations (includinghizmetschoolsand a hospital) in Trabzon, Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, and Cappadocia, and took a couple of side trips.
Cappadocia contains several underground cities, where Christian communities lived and barricaded themselves during periods of persecution. The chambers used for church gatherings have beautiful frescos. Istanbul is an astonishing cosmopolitan city, with all kinds of marvelous architecture. Many of the older majestic mosques reflect an exquisite beauty, motivated by religious impulses, much as similar impulses impelled the building of Europe's splendid medieval cathedrals.
During the trip, our guides gradually introduced us to the movement and its practice of Islam, which comes out of the moderate Sufi tradition in the Sunni branch of Islam. Until he set out on his own, Fethullah Gülen was once a follower of Said Nursî, a modern Sufi theologian.
People in the movement are committed to secular, progressivedemocracy, while at the same time being personally religious. Thehizmetschools, which are academic high-achievers, do not teach religion, believing that personal moral example should be what influences students. This reflects the general philosophy of the movement.
Getting an understanding of the movement was difficult for us because of its lack of structure – no corporate hierarchy or linkages, as typical of other religious and non-religious organizations. Being a lawyer, accustomed to structural models, probably made it more challenging for me to comprehend this intuitively. I was skeptical at first that there was no formalized structure for the movement inside Turkey or outside, internationally, especially given its expanse and all its related entities.
I finally got a grasp of this during an after-dinner conversation with a family in Izmir, and, as I wrote my book, came to understand this even better. Not only was it a Sufi characteristic to have a non-structured, informal "non-organization"; but there were also critical legal reasons in Turkey, to prevent the government from seizing corporate assets, as had happened historically to groups that were in political disfavor.
A group of people would meet together to decide what they would do (fund a clinic in Africa, for example). Then, they might talk with another group in town about what they were doing, just to share information. There were two groups in Izmir, for instance, supporting work in different parts of Africa. They met informally every couple of months to share information.
Sometimes, I had the feeling that the movement was much like the early Christian communities – separate, and sometimes dispersed, communities of believers doing good, but not structured, relying on informal networking and sharing common religious values.
A few weeks after we returned from Turkey, it was suggested to me that I write a book on thepolitical trial and acquittal of Fethullah Gülen. I really hadn't been aware of the trial. I resisted initially because of my regular job and my teaching. Eventually, I went ahead with it because I've always been interested in international human rights and enjoyed writing, especially about civil rights. Another incentive was that, unlike most political trials, Gülen actually won, thanks to a confluence of factors – one being pressure from the European Union, which Turkey was trying to join. The EU had prescribed a set of human rights and legal norms that Turkey had to adjust to. That process is still going on.
It took three weeks of interviews in Turkey and the United States, a good deal of research, and about a year of late nights and weekends to write the book. Struggling with the archaic Turkish legalize in which court documents were drafted was a very difficult task for the translators, and yielded convoluted English translations, which read like American legal writing in years long past, before efforts to modernize it.
The First Journey Back to Turkey: First Round of Interviews for the Book
I made two trips to Turkeys, each about a week long, to interview people for the book.
The first journey had an auspicious start of sorts. One of my initial interviews was with Msgr. Georges Marovitch at a residential facility where he was essentially confined to bed. Meeting Marovitch was a moving experience. He was so clearly a holy and spiritual man. The monsignor had been the Vatican's representative in Turkey and served as secretary to the nation's Catholic bishops, albeit few in number since the country is 98% Muslim.
Marovitch, in fact, had arranged for Gülen to meet Pope John Paul II in Rome. Marovitch and Gülen had great respect for each other, and had worked very closely together to further interfaith dialog. (Msgr. Marovitch died in March 2012.)
A strange thing happened when I left Marovitch's residence – a young man ran up and took my photo with a large camera and ran off down the street. It was one of a few weird things that happened on the two interview trips. I never felt particularly threatened – it was more like "we know you're here," I assumed, since the book was not a flattering portrait of some higher up folks, who knew I was writing it.
I had written the prosecutors in the Gülen trial and appeal ahead of time about interviewing them, but they never responded, other than to tell me to visit the archives. Since they knew about my coming to Turkey, it wouldn't have been difficult to arrange some low-level harassment. It would have fit in with some of their conduct during the eight-year trial and appeal.
The small hotel where I stayed was close to the water, not far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. In the mornings, I would go down to the shore and look at the array of international cargo ships moored there, waiting their turn through the Bosporus.
I interviewed people in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. I had arrived the day after the Constitutional Court had expelled members of the minority Kurdish-related party from the parliament. The nation's highest court, mostly comprised of the old guard, also had come within one vote of expelling the governing party, which would have caused major political turmoil and a constitutional crisis. Throughout the time I was there, political demonstrations were happening in Istanbul and other parts of the country, and were sometimes violent.
The night before returning to the United States, I arrived to the hotel around 11pm, after my last interview. Since I had to leave the hotel for the airport at 2pm, I decided to stay up and went for a walk on the parkway that runs alongside the Blue Mosque; but I forgot to take my passport with me, or any identification for that matter.
It was a foggy evening, and I was the only one out walking at midnight. Three police drove up, got out of the car, and tried to question me; but they spoke no English; and I spoke no Turkish. I'm sure I looked suspect in my long raincoat, especially in the volatile political climate; and I could see myself going to jail and missing the plane.
Finally, one officer knew enough English to ask "where from?" I said "United States" – blank stares (I know now to always say "America'). I then tried "Texas" and "Austin." More blank stares, and I was certain I was in trouble. I made one last try ... "Dallas." When I said that, their eyes lit up, smiles all around, and we were the best of friends. "Dallas," of course, was an extremely popular television show in Turkey, as it was in much of Europe. I made it to the airport. This gave me insight into how immigrants must feel in the United States when police stop them; there is a lot of fear of the unknown, when not being able to speak the language.
Both times when I returned from Turkey, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained me at entry and subjected me to "secondary" interrogation.
The first interrogation, in a lower level of the Houston airport, was particularly extensive, asking questions about why I was writing the book, whom I had visited, whom I knew in the United States related to the book, and so on. It was an intimidating experience because citizens basically have no rights at a border entry until they are admitted into the United States.
The Third Journey to Turkey: More Interviews for the Book
The second trip took me back to Istanbul and Ankara for another week of interviews. I went back to see Msgr. Marovitch, only because I so enjoyed meeting him the first time. He was obliging, and we had a good talk. His health had clearly degenerated, though.
The interviews I did over the two different weeks were often quite moving. I met an amazing variety of people – lawyers, judges, political leaders of all different stripes, journalists, workers for nonprofit foundations, and others. Some had suffered greatly in their effort to help Turkey become more democratic. Some had gone into self-exile; some had friends who had been killed. I met with a member of parliament, who had barely survived an assassination attempt by his opponents when he headed up a human rights organization before being elected. He lived, despite 22 shots to his chest.
I also interviewed a former state criminal prosecutor and a former military judge, each of whom had been disciplined and eventually left their jobs because they had attempted, separately, to conduct investigations into allegations of abuses and torture by the military in the Kurdish area of the country. The prosecutor had been transferred across the country, and demoted, before he resigned. Fortunately, new democratic steps in Turkey and the 2010 constitutional amendments have created a different atmosphere now.
When I returned home, I again underwent "secondary" interrogation. This time was not as lengthy, and I was able to see on the officer's computer screen that there was quite a write up in the "notes" section under my name. I protested the interference with my First Amendment rights. He informed me that I was not yet in the United States, and that ended the conversation.
After I settled back in, I complained to U.S. Homeland Security, again citing my First Amendment rights, and, astonishing enough, received back from the agency a "redress number," which I use now when I make flight reservations. No further problems.
Journeys around the United States: Speaking on the Book, Hizmet, and Civil Society
As soon as the book was published in May 2011, I began receiving invitations to discuss either the book or the hizmet movement and civil society. (In fact, I gave one talk at a Chicago conference about the book right before it came out). These speeches took place over a year and a half, in different venues. Sometimes they were more of a lecture; and sometimes, keynote addresses at interfaith dinners.
I spoke in Colorado (Aurora), Salt Lake City, Chicago (a second time), the University of Wisconsin, the University of Kansas, Kansas City (Missouri), New Jersey (Clifton and Princeton University). I also talked in Mexico City and a number of times in Texas (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Corpus Christi),
I went to California three times, once to speak at the annual Anatolian Festival in Orange County and twice at the Santa Clara University.
Generally, all the talks and speeches involved signing copies of my book afterwards.
The rural setting of the residence reminded me of the rustic Boy Scout camps in my home state of Michigan where I used to go in the summers, complete with woods, stream, and pond. Gülen has lived in the United States since 1999, when he came for health reasons. There is another legal saga about his struggle to keep his religious scholar visa in the United States, which the book also describes.
The dinner lasted a couple of hours. There were eight of us, and we spent a good deal of time talking about Sufi and Christian mysticism, which was fascinating – and remarkable in their similarities. As he apparently always does, Gülen insisted that he sit on the side of the table, and not at the head. I ended up at the head, sitting next to him. I was surprised at how softly he spoke and impressed with how carefully he listened to people – and how solicitous he was that everyone had enough to eat and drink. I gave him a signed copy of the book, but I think it was somewhat of a surprise to him.
Even though I had written a book about Gülen, I had avoided meeting or talking with him until book came out. One reason was that none of the prosecutors and adverse intervenors, who had brought charges against him, would talk to me. The other reason, resulting from the first, was that I decided to write the book based on legal documents and what appeared in the press and public forum. I was concerned that talking with Gülen before publication of the book would affect the appearance of objectively.
Writing the book brought me greater respect for Gülen than I had expected when I began. My experience in that regard was like that of the Assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, who took Gülen's deposition at the behest of the Turkish courts and became impressed with him. Criminal cases in Turkey are intermittent and last for months, or longer. Defendants do not necessarily have to attend preliminary hearings and the like. Turkey operates as do European legal code countries, with three judges and no juries. Judicial decisions rest heavily on "paper" evidence, such as declarations, quite different from the American or common law systems.
The Journey Back to Turkey
In April 2012, after the book was published in Turkish, I went on a week-long speaking and book-signing trip to Turkey (Izmir, Antalya, Ankara, and Istanbul). The talks drew huge crowds, to my surprise. In Istanbul, members of the Turkish government and parliament, the U.S. embassy, and staff from other embassies came to listen. One of the former judges of the Constitutional Court also attended. It was fascinating to meet him since it was his vote that had blocked the court from dissolving the governing party, which I mentioned earlier.
Particularly moving was a side trip in Antalya to ahizmetelementary school in the poor area of town. I spoke with the students and realized that, but for the school, those boys and girls would not have the dreams and aspirations they had of some day becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, and police officers. Another inspiring event in Antalya was an outdoor lunch with a group of business people who help fundhizmet. These were not typical capitalists, but folks committed personally and financially to the movement.
I had a particularly poignant conversation with a man in Antalya, who ran a travel agency and had volunteered to take time off from work and drive me around. He talked about his daughter having a severe physical disability and how each summer he would send her and another girl, without a disability, together to a summer camp so they would have a good vacation together and learn to bond and play with each other. He also helped fund the camp so other kids with disabilities could go as well. He was very pleased that my Project does disability litigation.
Two Journeys to Europe
There were two separate speaking trips to Europe.
The first was to London, Brussels, Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Oslo. In Brussels, I also visited with a member of the European Union parliament). I had dinner in Amsterdam with a group of people responsible for the Dutch edition of the book. They had re-translated it themselves, being unsatisfied with the original translation they had commissioned.
Particularly nicely ironic about the Amsterdam trip was that, four years later, my journeys with the movement had brought me full circle. I was back to exactly the same location where I was in when we had taken the early morning jaunt into Amsterdam during the original interfaith trip, on the way to Istanbul.
In the Netherlands, I stayed in a hotel near one of Rotterdam's many harbors, a city where Erasmus, a humanist philosopher and hero of mine, had lived half a millennium earlier. That was one of the many occasions where I really appreciated places in Europe that I had only read about in the books.
My second trip to Europe, in October 2012, was to Germany for a week. I spoke on the book to a variety of different audiences in Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, and Tübingen University (where another of my heroes, theologian Hans Küng, teaches). I gave two talks, seated at an elevated table on a platform. This was different for me, but apparently characteristic of German academia. There was also pleasant side trip to Heidelberg.
Something interesting happened during the question and answer session after my talk in Hamburg. An elderly gentleman asked me if I was going to become a Muslim. Even though the question didn't bother me, it really upset some of the Gülen folks since they believe dialog is what's important, and do not believe in proselytizing.
I also spoke at the Frankfurt Book Fair and signed books there for two days. I met hundreds of people at the booth. It was a special honor to speak at the Book Fair, which is one of the largest book fairs in the world – with more than 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries. I must have signed hundreds of books; and, if fact, on the last day I was there, we actually ran out of books in the early afternoon.
There were many mixed emotions about Germany. As the various trains I rode on sped over rolling hills and green fields and through the woods, I couldn't help but wonder how many bodies lay underneath, people killed in the two great world wars of the 20th century and in the religious wars and Roman conquest that preceded them. Connecting with history at this level, as it were, was sad.
I often felt the ever-present shadow of the Holocaust and frequently remembered comments of Jewish friends who would never visit Germany for that reason. One person, with whom I worked years ago, when he traveled internationally, would not even take a flight that connected in Germany. I sometimes wondered what German people these days thought and felt about the Holocaust, and I often reflected on the fact that humanity has seen other genocides in recent times. How and why does that happen?
I must say that, wherever I went in Europe, I was mindful of the Hitler past and how he extended his rule of terror across that part of the world. People in the once-conquered countries still referred to that era. While we call it "history," it is still very much present.
There were two other striking things about Germany. One was how frequently people referred to the de facto Lutheran and Catholic division of the county. The other was how much the West must have invested in rebuilding a country virtually destroyed in World War II, and how architecturally successful that undertaking had been.
I also listened to many different observations and criticisms about Germany's reluctant and painful struggle to accept and incorporate Turks and Muslims (whether born there or immigrants) within the country's social fabric. This led to reflection on the critical importance of interfaith and intercultural dialog, such as what the Gülen movement promotes and practices.
Return to the United States via Canada
From Germany, I stopped in Canada for five days and spoke twice in Toronto (including the University of Toronto), Kirchener, Montreal (McGill University), and twice in Ottawa (including the University of Ottawa law school).
It was right before the 2012 presidential election, and Canadians were very much into the politics of it. As in Turkey and most everywhere I traveled outside the United States, Obama was very popular. I generally have found people outside the United States to be more astute politically and often better versed than Americans, unfortunately.
Being in that part of Canada was much like being in Michigan – similar geography.
Turkey, for the 4th Time
My last journey to Turkey was similar to the first, but this time with judges, lawyers, and nurses. We visited Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, and Cappadocia. We went to a couple ofhizmethigh schools, a hospital, and the Zaman newspaper offices.
In Ankara, we had a sit-down session with the executive staff of the Constitutional Court, which was quite intriguing since I had written about the court in my book in a non-flattering way, to say the least. The court was in the process of restructuring in light of 2010 constitutional amendments that reformed Turkey's highest court. In fact, the Monday after we were there, the court was to accept jurisdiction over human rights cases for the first time and was in the process of developing operating legal procedures.
On our final day – beautiful and sunny, we took a boat ride along the Bosporus, from where you could see the historical forts and beautiful mosques of the city, and went up to the top of Çamlıca Hill, the highest point in Istanbul, with an incredible view. Turkey is a beautiful country, full of history and artifacts at every turn. Given its natural resources and strategic geographic location, it is quite easy to see why the country throughout its various incarnations played such an important role in history – and continues to do so.
Altogether I traveled 133,739 miles in 28 trips, and spent about two months on the road. I gave 47 speeches or talks, 26 of which were in the United States and often on the movement and civil society. I also did a half-dozen television interviews. Talks outside the United States were always about the book, which is now in English, Turkish, German, Dutch, French, and Spanish, with other translations in progress. (I donated most of the foreign royalties back as my owncontribution tohizmet, so inspired have I been by its work.)
What always struck me about the trips was the kindness and sincere dedication of the people who work with the movement or associate themselves with it. They passionately believe inhizmet. They strive to create greater civil society throughout the world and expand interpersonal dialog with people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. They generously give of their personal time and resources to this worthy endeavor, and are unfailing in the respect they show to others and attentive to the goal of dialog.
It is customary that Muslims, who supporthizmet, commonly give 10-20% of their income to support Gülen-inspired projects around the world, the majority of which are in Turkey. Some people give substantially more. This is similar to the idea of tithing in the Hebrew Scriptures and is one of the five pillars of Islam (concern for the needy and almsgiving).
About a billion dollars in the aggregate is raised or dedicated each year to support various aspects ofhizmet, but is not collected together. Rather, people or groups of individuals decide to fund a project, such as a hospital in Africa. I talked to a former principal of a large group ofGülen-related schools in Pakistan. Those schools were supported by businessmen in Istanbul. There is every expectancy that a school or hospital, for example, eventually will become self-sufficient and that beneficiaries of Gülen-inspired projects will later support those projects after they get their feet on the ground. In a number of instances, for example, former students ofhizmetschools have returned as teachers in those schools.
Most of the people I met, associated withhizmet, were college students, technical professionals (like engineers), teachers, business people, and lawyers. I did meet some retirees and working class folks. Younger women tended to be more assertive than the older generations.
Besides the speaking engagements, I had the chance to see the natural beauty of the countries I visited, their amazing historical architecture and important historic locations (such as where the Berlin wall once stood). I climbed the 533 steps in the Cologne cathedral tower to the bells at the top, and attended services there the next morning, along with people in the movement. I also had the opportunity to do some interfaith sharing, explaining the religious art symbols in the cathedral's windows and statues.
Everywhere I went, people were kind enough to drive me around to events and wherever I might need to go. I always had an interpreter with me. Everyone was kind and solicitous to a fault. I always asked individuals I met how they became involved withhizmet. The two most common answers were either through a Gülen-inspired education project (often it was one of the college preparatory courses and sometimes one of the schools) or through the example and encouragement of friends involved in the movement.
Certainly, a highlight of my journeys was getting to know people with the movement, talking with them, and having meals with them. We discussed our work, our families, our ideas for the future, and the meaning of spirituality. From the beginning, these journeys were always a mutual education opportunity. Over those four years, the journeys deepened my own commitment to justice and my personal spirituality.
It was always a pleasure to speak with people who came to my talks. It's impressive to hear how they have thought about the direction of their lives, and humbling to receive their gratitude for taking the time to speak with them, although, in reality, it's a mutual journey – or "souls seeing each other," as the Sufis put it.
I was taken aback often by the great respect they showed me. A couple of times, men kissed my hand – a symbol of respect for elders. Small gifts were commonplace ... a Sufi CD, prayer beads, some art work (often a mosaic dish), or a woven throw rug. I always traveled with TCRP tote bags and t-shirts and sometimes Obama t-shirts (he is enormously popular in Turkey), Austin music CDs, and the like so that I could show my appreciation for their kindness.
My only regret was not being able to speak Turkish with the people I met or even master common day-to-day salutations and pleasantries. I now understand in a personal way how much easier it is to master language as a younger person, and how much more difficult it becomes with age. Fortunately, I put Latin and Spanish under my belt in high school and college – almost a half-century ago. And, luckily, so many people I met on these journeys spoke English.
I called this essay "journeys" because, for me, they more substantial than a series of trips. They were a learning experience – and a spiritual encounter. The conversations I had with people in the movement as we walked along the Mediterranean in Izmir, or sitting on the steps of a mosque in Istanbul, or in their houses, or at Gülen's table deepened my appreciation for their own personal faith and commitment to larger society. That, in turn, inspired me to try to do better in my own life. I began to read more about Sufism and its mysticism, which drew me closer to Christian mysticism. My own personal journey through life is now richer and deeper spiritually because of the events that unfolded to me. I had the good fortune to experience the richness ofinterfaith and intercultural dialog. Mysterious, indeed, is life.
As the Irish say, it was a fortunate wind that blew us here together.