Swami Shantatmananda shares his experience of the Islamic spirit of service during his recent visit to Turkey
Kimse Yok Mu? — “Is anyone there?” — the cry rent the air when a disastrous earthquake struck Turkey in 1999. An estimated 50,000-plus people died. A large number of people caught beneath the debris shouted in anguish: “Kimse Yok Mu?” A few compassionate people responded to this cry for succour. In 2002, an organisation that called itself Kimse Yok Mu was formed in Turkey. In 12 years, this NGO has grown into a large organisation working in more than 110 countries with an annual budget of $100 million (about Rs 600 crore).The inspiration behind the organisation is a movement called ‘Hizmet’ meaning ‘service’ to please Allah. It is also known as the Gulen Movement after its founder, Fethullah Gulen, a renowned, liberal Islamic scholar who had functioned as Imam for several years.
Turkey lost heavily in World War I, at the end of which several fringe states forming part of Turkey broke away and declared their independence. Turkey was about to be divided into two. Turkey straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, with the beautiful Bosphorus linking the two. Kemal Pasha, the acclaimed founder of modern Turkey, took control of the situation and averted the division of Turkey. He felt that if Turkey had to progress, it needed to be modernised and so religion had no place in society. He imposed severe curbs on religious activity. A large number of followers of religions other than Islam were killed including those of the Sufi faith. The orthodox Muslims too had very little religious freedom. Veils and even scarfs were prohibited. As a result of these measures, Turkey, no doubt, prospered in terms of material wealth, but society was in a constant state of turmoil. There used to be a coup almost every 10 years.
In the 1980s, Gulen saw the need to restore religion in society. He also felt that education had a great role to play in shaping society. He encouraged people to set up educational institutions. Around that time, he started the Hizmet Movement for service for the common good to please Allah. As his movement gained strength, Islam slowly reappeared. But, the redeeming feature of Turkey is its religious tolerance and freedom. Jews and Christians, although a minority, live happily and peacefully without fear. Thus, Turkey now presents a noble face of Islam. Indialogue Foundation is an action-oriented international organisation for education, peace and development, founded in 2005 in New Delhi, by a group of Turkish and Indian people inspired by sensible and spiritual thoughts of eminent scholars and spiritual leaders of the world, to promote and encourage international, intercultural and interfaith dialogue and cooperation. At their invitation, I went to Istanbul for a five-day visit from March 31 to April 4, 2014. It was an amazing experience.
I visited several institutions working in the fields of education, medical service, media, relief and rehabilitation. I learnt that today, Hizmet has several million followers in Turkey and in several other parts of the globe. I also visited the headquarters of Kimse Yok Mu and found that its mission is (i) to provide relief and assistance regardless of religion, gender, race or language; (ii) to dedicate themselves to working for the benefit of humanity; (iii) to challenge poverty and relieve the consequences of devastating events; and (iv) to help victims stand on their own as soon as possible. The stated vision of the organisation is the desire to develop into a leading NGO, embracing human beings all over the world by meeting their basic needs in cooperation, solidarity and sustainable solutions. They have conducted several disaster relief programmes including the one in 2011 when Japan was struck by a tsunami and earthquake. Hizmet has undertaken a large number of humanitarian aid projects which were carried out not only during times of disaster, but also at other times. They have several educational programmes through which they support orphans and other disadvantaged children.
Hizmet has founded an organisation called ASYA, which is the acronym formed by the initial letters of the Turkish version of the words Search-Rescue, Health-Rescue and Assistance. ASYA has been organised into search rescue, medical support and psyco-social support teams of international standards. It has equipment with state-of-the-art devices and tools. Special training is provided to team members by experts in mountaineering, first aid and communication. ASYA teams are continually carrying out activities for disaster-preparedness. ASYA implements earthquake awareness activities and organises seminars at schools and public squares via its mobile earthquake simulator. Doctors and psychologists who are members are trained to resume duty during disaster. ASYA keeps tents, blankets and packed food ration to meet urgent needs in times of disaster. It has an Activity Disaster Monitoring Coordination Centre which monitors, reports and responds to any kind of disaster anywhere in the world.
Fethullah Gulen is also a great protagonist of interfaith harmony. He has contributed enormously towards global peace and harmony. In fact, he was the first prominent Muslim to issue a strong statement condemning the 9/11 terrorists. He has authored many books, dedicated to peace, love and other sublime themes. Thus, my visit to Turkey was a great learning and humbling experience which enabled me to see at firsthand, a truly noble face of Islam. The Hizmet Movement needs to be encouraged in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It can contribute towards easing tensions and improving relationships between countries.
The author heads the Ramakrishna Mission in New Delhi.
At “Kimse Yok Mu?” Relief Foundation
At Fatih University Hospital
At Camlica Hills
Dinner at Turkish Family
At Zaman Newspaper
In front of Blue Mosque
At Samanyolu TV