“The Contribution of Fethullah Gulen on Christian-Muslim relations”
By Ali Akkiz,
The twenty-first century has become a period of unheralded crisis. There are those who are devoted to violence, death, and destruction and, thankfully, there are those who challenge these ideas by championing the benefits of dialogue and understanding. Dialogue is still the works of people who are overwhelmingly either member of a religious faith or works of religious institutions/organisations. There are strong voices from within Islam seeking to proclaim the Muslim priority for peaceful and harmonious relations with the wider world, including with religious neighbours. One important individual from an Islamic background who has contributed on this issue positively has been Fethullah Gulen. His followers who subscribe themselves to his approach have established many dialogue institutions, over 130 different countries to implement his philosophy.
As Fr Tom Michel has observed, Fethullah Gülen has emerged as one “of the most persuasive and influential voices in the Muslim community” calling for dialogue as a step toward peace. Indeed, he offers “a way to live out Islamic values amidst the complex demands of modern societies and to engage in ongoing dialogue and cooperation with people of other religions”. And the faith-based movement inspired by him promotes “truly spiritual values like forgiveness, inner peace, social harmony, honesty, and trust in God” as the basis for inter-communal peace and interreligious dialogue. At times a controversial figure, Fethullah Gülen has had, and continues to have, a considerable impact upon the thinking and sensibilities of Muslims throughout the Turkish Islamic world and beyond. As Paul Weller has observed, Gülen’s teaching “has particularly aimed at encouraging the younger generation to aspire to a combination of intellectual engagement and spiritual wisdom, and to give expression to this combination through concrete commitments in the service of humanity”.
The opinions of other famous people complete the portrait of the philosopher. One should mention the Russian academic Rostislav Rybakov, who said: “It is very important that there is such an intellectual as Gulen in our time. Standing against violence, he wishes spiritual elevation for humanity. The ideas of Gulen could have embraced the entire world.”
Without doubt “one of the major figures in defining the contemporary global Islamic experience”, Fethullah Gülen’s work “helps to redefine the nature of Islamic discourse in the contemporary world”. Poet, philosopher and educator, Gülen has “inspired many people in Turkey to establish educational institutions that combine modern sciences with ethics and spirituality”. Indeed, Gülen and the movement that bears his name may be primarily known in some quarters in respect to such educational activities.Yet it is educational priority that has lead into interfaith advocacy. And, as well, “Gülen insists the basic Islamic sources advise Muslims to engage in dialogue with other faiths”.
The power of the Turkish philosopher is that he gradually managed to captivate hundreds of thousand of people with his ideas. How did he do that? Through schools. As a good gardener that created his bountiful garden for years and decades, Fethullah Gulen directed his pupils toward consecutive and persistent transmission of knowledge and ideas. In 1966, in Izmir he had tried out a model based on which social-educational initiatives inspired by Gulen have developed many years later. This event was the creation of a private gymnasium (necessarily a boarding school so that the out-of-school education of pupils was more effective). Later on, he managed to set up an effective cooperation of pedagogues and sympathetic businesspeople. Eventually, such an approach started producing impressive results! This was admitted not only by the Muslim intellectuals. Gulen’s schools are also highly prized in Russia. In particular, the academic Rybakov described his impression of [Gulen’s] pupils as follows: “Young, active, Europeanized to the highest extent — if one were to use this word in a positive meaning — broadly educated and wonderfully brought up. To be honest, I must say I first came across this new generation not even in Turkey, but in Central Asian nations, including the Kirghiz and Kazakhs, who were born in the Soviet Union, but started their lives in the Turkish schools that were opened there.”
Fethullah Gülen is a man of many facets. Over the years he “has become increasingly committed to affirming the possibility of and need for inter-civilizational and interreligious dialogue”. Furthermore, his promotion of dialogue “is not merely reactive and pragmatic, but is rooted in his vision of Islam and the contemporary world”. He is thus a true champion of interreligious dialogue. For Gülen, “what people have in common is far greater than what divides and separates them”; thus his approach is holistic: inner harmony and peace of humankind “only occurs when the material and spiritual realms are reconciled”.Indeed, it is of the essence of faith to bring things together, to reconcile rather than divide: “Religion reconciles opposites: religion-science, this world-the next world, Nature-Divine Books, materi-al-spiritual, and spirit-body”. Furthermore, in the face of rising secularism and widespread unbelief (or loss of the religious sense) Gülen believes that Muslim-Christian dialogue is indispensable.
“Gulen is a spiritual personality,” states Shokalo with admiration. “His heartfulness and cordiality became the motive for the growth of his incredible ability to communicate! He became the pioneer of wide-ranging activity in the field of dialog with representatives of other religions in Turkish society, which has for long centuries been dominated by the Muslim population. Gulen’s meeting with the leader of Catholic world, Pope John Paul II, the Sephardic rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Armenian Patriarch Karekin and leaders of other communities have found their response in society and prepared the foundations for close cooperation among the various groups. Due to this Gulen became a favorite and honored figure among the leaders and members of other religious communities.”
Gulen Movement known as ‘Hizmet’ and it is the common word used between the members, followers and supporters of the movement. Hizmet means at the service of others which resonate the meaning of religious activism with philanthropy. This approach, the manner of ‘Hizmet’ combines the work of religion as well as philanthropist approach together. People who actively work are known as volunteers or supporters. It is inspired by Fethullah Gulen, having millions of followers around the world who gather locally and act collectively to set up and establish educational institutions from nursery to university level, dialogue centres, humanitarian charities and media organisations.
For ongoing problems, Gülen’s teaching on interfaith encounters highlighting his dialogue methodology or way of approach that proposed for a globalised world is an important step in overcoming them. Gulen reckons that the idea of ‘clash of civilisations’ is still a possibility if right steps are not taken to prevent it happening. This idea of clash comes possibly from the lack of trust in ‘others’ or their religious tradition even though lots of common points may be shared between them. It should also be noted that I do not assume that ‘other’ is completely stranger but ‘other’ includes people who already have in common or potentiality of meeting on common grounds. The perception of ‘other’ starts from the person himself /herself to whom is closest and then widens out to anyone who is different. Once it is not you, then everyone is the ‘other’. What binds them together is family, extended family, town, city, nation, religion, language, culture and so on. The religion remains a strong bond to eliminate otherness. In each of these layers, we see a meaning and a crucial dimension in the representation of the other.
In today’s global village, differences, such as beliefs, races, cultures, languages, traditions, increase in visibility and interact with others are in an unprecedented level. I am not claiming here that this interaction was not there before, in fact, it could have a bigger interaction in some parts of the world in the past. But in general with the help of media, we are exposed to all kind of cultures and beliefs and customs with a level that we have not seen before. Local interactions have turned into global ones and ‘self & other’ identification can increase as a result in certain areas and decrease in others. The desire of levelling the differences is wishing for the impossible, points out Gülen, because each individual is like a unique realm unto himself/herself, therefore a peaceful coexistence “lies in respecting all these differences, considering these differences to be part of our nature and in ensuring that people appreciate these differences. Otherwise, it is unavoidable that the world will devour itself into a web of conflicts, disputes, fights, and the bloodiest of wars….” The respect for the ‘other’ is to the respect for oneself according to Gulen. He states “When interacting with others, always regard whatever pleases and displeases yourself as the measure. Desire for others what your own ego desires, and do not forget that whatever conduct displeases you will displease others.”
The negative perception of ‘other’ can be weakened through improved dialogue perception. First of all, a strong degree of common identification can be helpful such as any term or any common aim such as education. Gulen movement has capitalised this kind of issues in easing the tension of other, for instance strong emphasis on education. In ‘self’ & ‘other’; if ‘other’ appears weak or less important, then ‘self’ perceives the ‘other’ much closer and as part of its own group. Secondly, if there is a lack of common identification with ‘other’ but there is a desire to integrate with ‘other’ then ‘self’ perceives ‘other’ in terms of partnership in which mutual benefit can be achieved. This can be seen in the partnerships of dialogue institutions of Gulen movement with other similar dialogue institutions all over the world. This also leads to see ‘other’ as a peaceful rival. Lastly even if there is not a common identification with other, then ‘self’ can see it as security threat and then self is compelled to know other to secure himself/herself from that threat. A subsequent result would be loosened the ‘self & other confrontation’ which leads to create more dialogue.
First of all we need to see how these dialogue activities grew inside Turkey and expanded across the world in a short time. The principal view was that human beings are more capable and able to do better. This was at home in Turkey where the movement initiated and this has been widened world-wide once it spread out of Turkey. Gulen’s thought on belief that creating more communication between self or group and other/s will create more understanding among people and it will help to establish an environment in which people from all colours, race, religion, culture and language are seen and made to feel equal. This will further make people realise that there are many common values/points among religions subsequently more peace, hope and respect created. Although many people see that conflicts are caused by religion, Gulen actually pointed out the cause behind the conflicts are result of either lack of understanding or lack of implementing the basic fundamentals of religion itself. It is often easier to use and blame religion as well as ethnic, cultural or colour difference to gain other non-religious aims.
At initial stage Gulen stressed on interfaith dialogue activities which were the only meaningful and achievable option at the time. He was successful in that by meeting many non- Muslim religious leaders in Turkey and abroad. The pivotal moment of these meetings was when he met the late Pope, John Paul II to discuss in furthering dialogue activities between Muslims and Christians. Also he sent an article to the Parliament of World’s Religions titled “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue” in 1999. This article was read out at the conference. In the article; he stressed on the point of that ‘dialogue is a must’ and that people would realise there are far more common points to share between ourselves than we anticipated. Gülen’s own words in which he is condensing his notion of dialogue and is setting out its main pillar: “I believe that interfaith dialogue is a must today, and that the first step in establishing it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments, and giving precedence to common points, which far outnumber polemical ones”.
Gulen actually did not only do the talks but also he showed that he was paying high attention for their implementations as well. For instance his offer to Vatican in opening a Theology faculty in Urfa, Southern Turkey, where Muslims believe Prophet Abraham was born, who is commonly accepted as the forefather of Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another suggesting was that Jerusalem should be used as a religious city for those who accept it sacred and visa-less entrance for those who would like to visit for religious purposes such as Pilgirmage. Gulen also was the first Islamic scholar to declare on Washington post immediately after 11 September by denouncing these terrorist activities by saying that “… terror can never be used in the name of Islam or for the sake of any Islamic ends. A terrorist cannot be a Muslim and a Muslim cannot be a terrorist. A Muslim can only be representative and symbol of peace, welfare and prosperity.”
Prof. Michel points out that Gülen’s thinking and deeds as an alternative to the theory of the “clash of civilizations”: “The need for dialogue among people of faith has been underscored by the events of the past few years. Interreligious dialogue is seen as an alternative to the much-discussed ‘clash of civilizations’. Those who do not subscribe to the theory that a civilizational clash is inevitable are proposing instead a dialogue of civilizations, an exchange of views aimed at mutual enrichment, a sharing of insights that can lead all to a deeper understanding of the nature of God and God’s will for humankind on this planet.”
As for Gülen himself, the clash is a matter of deep awareness and accountability both for the Self and the other: “Humanity is a tree, and nations are its branches. Events that appear as heavy winds hurl them against each other and cause them to clash. Of course, the resulting harm is felt by the tree. This is the meaning of: ‘Whatever we do, we do it to ourselves.’” On the other hand, confrontation may result from turning a deaf ear to the seemingly contradictory ideas of the other: “People who do not think like you might be very sincere and beneficial, so do not oppose every idea that seems contradictory and scare them off. Seek ways to benefit from their opinions, and strike up a dialogue with them. Otherwise, those who are kept at a distance and led to dissatisfaction because they don’t think like us will form huge masses that confront and smash us.”
What made the Hizmet movement create an instant adaptation and acceptance by the some/most of the Western counterparts such as many dialogue and interfaith institutions in various countries especially in USA and Europe had 2 main reasons. 1- Hizmet movement, alongside dialogue, promoted peaceful co-existence, tolerance, accepting everyone as they are (hosgoru), democracy, human rights, betterment of humanity especially through education. I believe these are vital components of any movement that intends to further good relations with others especially the West. I also would think that any organisation or individual pursue in developing dialogue would seek common grounds to work on as it helped in this case to Gulen movement establishing itself in Western society. Gulen movement started from Turkey by a religious leader, an Imam, has religious background, all these made it easier to understand each other. For instance centuries old Jesuit educational tradition shared many same points subsequently it may be easier to understand each others’ activities, mission and aims. 2- The western society and dialogue initiatives somehow did not have an intended impact with the Islamic or eastern organisations and Hizmet movement’s approach and emergence of it filled the gap in this bigger dialogue play between the West and the Islamic world.
I believe another attitude imbedded in the Gulen movement is person to person strong communication. This had been very important and still is for various activities of the movement especially education. Members of the movement have had one-to-one direct and effective communication in education and this has led more trust and understanding. People eventually realised that diversity in all dimensions whether religious, cultural or ethnic would mean nothing once you built up a trust and understanding which we call it dialogue. This is one of the vested-attitude and utilised once members started to become active in dialogue activities and it enabled them to imply same manners into wider activities especially in dialogue.
Prof Pratt explains the distinctive signs of the Gulen movement in practicing dialogue and dialogue activities. He says that first of all, the distinction of primary and secondary values is vital. As Gulen says in many articles ‘love’ is the primary value. Peace, forgiveness, tolerance, affection etc overflows from love. Jihad (as war, lesser jihad) deemed to be seen as secondary in that sense. Pratt continues to add other vital Islamic issues such as good intention in doing any work is society’s responsibility as well individuals to uphold tolerance, forgiveness, forbearance. As I said above, tolerance (hosgoru) is not putting- up with something which is disagreed, it is rather an active, intentional acceptance as it is. Dialogue in a sense, is an expression of divinely-inspired love which binds Muslims to other human beings as well as all creatures. It is the reflection of famous saying ‘loving the creatures because of the Creator’. Another point can be added here is to see the reconciliation as the essence of religion which taught throughout the teachings of not only Islam but other religions and practiced by prophet/s and the followers in the history of religions.
The authority of religion is also vital in implementing dialogue. Gulen talks about ‘hermeneutical authority for dialogue’. This term refers to the authority for dialogue which comes from legitimate interpretations of the Islamic sources bringing out Islam’s essential spirit of tolerance, fairness and openness. Gulen considers that verses in the Qur’an which condemn Jews and Christians relate to particular groups, specifically particular tribes at the time of Prophet Muhammad and those who behave like them in relevant ways This interpretation is supported by other verses saying that ‘not all of them are the same’ (3:113). Further, the Quran’s approach to condemning unbelief, wrong behaviour, incorrect thought and resistance against truth or religion has given another dimension to understanding of this issue.
When we reflect upon the progress of dialogue throughout the past century especially between faiths (Muslims, Christians) we see major problems which still have not been overcome. These problems can only be overcome with an active, positive, theologically strengthened dialogue approach such as Gulen’s. The first one of these major problems is the difficulty of separation between politics and religion and subsequent results. Right from the beginning Gulen openly declared his disapproval of an Islamic name in a political party and publicly said it was wrong to use the name of Islam for political gains. Clear separation of religion and political party can only benefit to remove the misunderstanding. For instance, in early 1990 Welfare party members which claims that it had an Islamic agenda, blamed those who do not support or vote for their party as unbelievers. This issue can easily blur the views of Muslims in differentiating the line between politics and religion. On the other hand, the perception of the West as an important political player in many Islamic countries is another issue. The Western governments are seen as implementing religious agenda in Islamic world and they are often seen as crusaders. Gülen says, “Religion is the relationship between people and their Creator. Politicizing religion will harm religion before it harms a government’s life.” He has also said, “Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas political, social, and economic systems or ideologies concern only certain variable social aspects of our worldly life.” But this does not bar religious people from politics neither make them indifferent to what happens in the society around social, political or economic issues. Religious or spiritual people by staying out of the political arena or stop concerning themselves with politics make them look that they are detaching themselves from the responsibilities and obligations of citizenship and social participation.
Another issue is lack of awareness to differentiate between the ways ‘polemic’ and ‘dialogue’ in this field. Gulen and the followers always tend to avoid any confrontation especially in theological terms as it would not bring any solution for the problems which have been in the encounters in centuries. Trying to disprove the validity of the other side’s faith would always bring more clashes and create more problems rather than solving them.
Third issue of negative contribution of ‘power’ and those who hold power in both Islamic and non-Islamic countries has also been damaging for decades. Dictators in Islamic countries (some of them removed by the Arab spring) or ruling families not only misused their powers but also misused Islamic senses in few issues. The approach of some of the Western governments towards Islamic world especially to Middle East has not been helpful. The West has been seen an important power behind all these dictators to implement their agenda.
Fourth is a strong emphasis on literal approach on religious texts. As I explained above, Gulen stressed on saying that love (forgiveness, tolerance, forbearance for dialogue, helping others) is the main primary aim and lesser jihad is secondary and temporary. Fifth is deliberate or mistaken use of dialogue for ‘missionary’ and ‘daawa’ activities. Gulen clearly said many times that dialogue is conducted purely for its own sake. He said if you have an intention of converting other/s into your belief by dialogue activities, means you are deceiving. A Muslim cannot deceive others by his actions or sayings. Sixth is inability of shrugging of the distant negative history from our memories which caused serious tensions. Gulen also said that we can only learn positive lessons from our history. It is not to create more hatred on hatred already built up in many centuries over wars and tensions.
Last point is the misinterpretation of recent history by Muslims which includes two Gulf wars, two Afghan wars, Bosnian war, 11 September, London, Madrid, Bali, Bombay terrorist attacks and bombings etc. Not only misusing of these or similar events by the Western governments and negative contribution of the media have been damaging the relationships further between Islamic world and the rest of the world especially the West. This point is in the mind of everyone who witnessed what has been happening since 11 September. Nothing will be the same again. This deepened prejudice and misunderstanding which is already there. Gulen and the movement have used this as an opportunity to reach out more to explain what real Islam is. It helped to increase the interaction which led to meaningful positive dialogue activities. Early 2000, many Gulen sympathisers were encouraged to reach out and just meet people. The important point was here to explain that this act of terrorism cannot be justified in Islamic terms and a terrorist cannot be Muslim. These meetings have also been used to remove the misunderstanding in the minds of the westerners and to show them that not all Muslims are the same with those who committed these acts of terrorism who were accepted as a small minority among Muslims. On the other hand, western invasions of the Islamic countries have had political aims and ends were seen religious one.
Gulen has employed many different ways to establish his dialogue philosophy. This philosophy and aforementioned points are implemented by his followers –at the dialogue institutions- in a wider field with the members of the other faiths over 2 decades. I am not %100 sure how this dialogue approach or methods developed but I would say there is definitely a pattern her which in some cases followed the necessity in some cases it enforced its way into activities. One of these ways has been a gradual or incremental change in the minds of his followers and others. To deploy the new meaning for the dialogue from the Islamic perspective has not been easy. It took some time and with the support of the movement, many conferences organised, books and articles published and columns and blogs were written. This was a short but a fast learning curve phase last 2 decades for the movement which also benefitted from the gains of the dialogue activities in the last century. This Gulen’s gradual or incremental change of mind appeared to be unfolded in 2 major dimensions. First one is time related changes to improve dialogue which includes intellectual and academic transformation which I just mentioned. The second one is to employ a new meaning into the term ‘brotherhood’ (sisterhood). This process includes stages such as dialogue within, then intra-faith, dialogue with the members of Abrahamic religions, dialogue with the major religions of the world, dialogue with all including those who have no faith and the final one is the brother/sisterhood of human race. The last one may seem to be out of Islamic terms or usage once it pure aim is brotherhood of human race. Islam has very strong brotherhood sense which supported by many verses and hadithes. This brotherhood was used to include the members of their own at initial stage and then other Muslims. An important point in this brotherhood definition is believers. Although it is not said, the dialogue activities have included those who are believers but as Christians and Jews into this brotherhood and it has been implemented by the Gulen movement followers. Gulen also made theological background for it by re-interpreting much needed verses in this sense. This brotherhood now is moving towards including Indian originated religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Beyond that point it may be not in the name of brotherhood, but in the name of human-brotherhood. Gulen movement is eager to create further bonds just because they are human beings regardless of their faith, colour, language, culture or ethnic background. It is simply implementing the afore-mentioned famous saying of Yunus Emre; “We love the created because of the Creator.” I believe this stage is the hardest and will be the longest to internalise by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
On the other hand Gulen’s dialogue discourse is not something to promise paradise here on earth. It is rather a mere implementation of what is required from religion itself. Nobody is naive to believe that dialogue activities will create a new world in which we do not see wars and problems. It is against the nature of human beings. Conflicts; history is full of them and will be in the future. By just being a simple Muslim who believes that dialogue which includes love tolerance, forgiveness and forbearance is a religious duty, will only lessen the damage or the extent of the wars, killings, etc. This understanding has empowered Muslims (especially within Gulen Movement) to challenge and overcome the dilemma of interfaith dialogue activities which were seen un-Islamic by some Muslim scholars and attracted plenty of criticism.
John O. Voll includes Gülen among the designers of bridges arching over the clashes of globalizations: “In the clashing visions of globalizations, Fethullah Gülen is a force in the development of the Islamic discourse of globalized multicultural pluralism. As the impact of the educational activities of those influenced by him attests, his vision bridges modern and postmodern, global and local, and has a significant influence in the contemporary debates that shape the visions of the future of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
Finally dialogue is not seen as a compromise within the movement or conversion. Dialogue is not partial or kind of assimilation. Dialogue is an integration of religions, nations, ethnic backgrounds into each other. Communities can live in parallel societies as long as they keep dialogue channels open and communication flow between individuals as well communities.
To conclude, we can see that Hizmet movement has met the challenges once spread into the wider world, in a very difficult decade in which strong tensions have been seen by the terrorist activities as well as wars towards Islamic (Muslim) countries. The next stage or step would be organising further events for the betterment of the world in an international scale with the bigger partners in delivering sustainable dialogue activities all over the world.
In the light of above reflections and points we can say that Hizmet movement has lived up to not only expectations, it has far exceeded by opening very important dialogue channels between part of Islamic world (what they represent) and the rest of the world. Also deploying new meaning into dialogue has been another important achievement in shifting the understanding of dialogue both within and outside the Movement. It is hoped and expected alongside with other partners ‘dialogue for all’ is not a dream but an eminent outcome of all these activities. Brotherhood of human race would also be intended outcome of this approach.
This paper tried to show that Gulen and the movement has tried in a partially successful way to eliminate this obstacle in front of his dialogue methodology in furthering relationships. An important asset in implementing it in interfaith encounters is his hermeneutical approach. Gülen’s and members of the movement’s concrete interaction with the ‘other’ is a clear indication that dialogue is not very difficult to manage.
I would like to use his sentence to close it “As we are all limbs of the same body, we should cease this duality (self & other) that violates our union. We should clear the way to unite people……. hence we should remove all the ideas and feelings that pull us apart, and run to embrace each other. God reaches out in dialogue with all humanity and our response begins with love of God and love one another.”