On Hizmet exceptionalism

Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. (Photo: Today's Zaman, Selahattin Sevi)
Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. (Photo: Today's Zaman, Selahattin Sevi)

Date posted: January 29, 2014


Although military service is compulsory in Turkey, it has sometimes been possible to serve a greatly reduced time in the army by paying a fee. Those who benefited from this privilege would tease those spending months or years in the barracks: ‘We had to bear the entire year’s burden, with all its weight, condensed into a few weeks!’ We have had a similar feeling in Turkey since the beginning of the graft probe: The relativity of time has never been so acute

Turkey is fertile soil for the news media, and catching up with the pace of unfolding events is always difficult. Even by these standards time in Turkey feels like it’s been compressed. Days and weeks have been so contracted that the life expectancy of each news piece has been the shortest ever; each article outdated even before the columnist clicks “send.”

Recent years in Turkey have witnessed some truly historic moments, ones that will be remembered in the future as perhaps no less significant than and perhaps even as definitive as a Turkish version of the French Revolution or the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hizmet — the movement affiliated with Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen and the largest faith-inspired social movement in Turkey — had a significant share in these developments thanks to its exceptional nature. The term “Hizmet exceptionalism” was recently used by Jessica Rehman in the context of violence generated by group identity: “[U]sually defense of identity manifests violently. This is not always the case. Hizmet is an exception to this policy, because it fosters empathy.”1

This author’s take on Hizmet exceptionalism shares a similar premise of identity, but with a stronger emphasis on its ontologically nuanced, independently civil nature; it is free from political abuse and intervention, yet does not compromise on its faith-inspired principles. This exceptionalism is also the main factor behind the prime minister’s recent attempts to crack down on Hizmet.

This essay tries to explain why some authorities paint Hizmet as a “parallel state” or “criminal gang,” and why some have even gone so far as to liken Hizmet’s members to the first terrorist group in the history of mankind: the assassins of Hassan Sabbah. There have even been serious attempts to portray Hizmet as if it falls outside the Sunni school of thought because it does not join the bloc of other religious communities that openly support the government.

(D)evolution of events

It was a very thrilling eight years between 2002 and 2010, marked by serious steps taken toward EU accession and sincere efforts devoted to real democracy. Turkey was finally able to settle accounts with a long-standing tutelary regime and move on to establish a truly civilian government. The path was not an easy one. Turkey survived a failed presidential election in May 2007; the Justice and Development Patty (AK Party) managed to stand firm, announcing early elections in July 2007 from which they came back stronger (thanks to a landslide win of 47 percent). Abdullah Gül, whose wife wears a headscarf, was elected president later that year.

The following year saw a closure case filed against the AK Party accusing it of being a focal point for activities against secularism — ultimately the Constitutional Court rejected the prosecutor’s case.

The historic Ergenekon and Balyoz trials started in 2008 and 2010, respectively, and unraveled some very complex, dirty relations between a group of retired military officers, journalists, politicians and others. For the first time in Turkish history, a coup was considered a serious crime, and those convicted received lengthy sentences.  All these achievements and a remarkably well-performing economy were crowned with a jaw-dropping win in the 2011 elections for the AK Party, beginning what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called his “master period.”

Things started to turn bad in 2013, when accession to the EU was almost removed from the to-do list, attempts for a new constitution failed, and international diplomacy on all fronts (but especially in Syria and Egypt) helped do nothing but isolate Turkey. Then came the Gezi Park protests, which were handled terribly. And, finally, a series of investigations based on grave corruption charges were made against a number of ministers as 2013 drew to a close, triggering what is shaping up to be the gravest of all political and social crises of the last decade.

The current Turkish crisis relates to a so-called conflict between “former allies” the AK Party and Hizmet. For no sensible reason in November 2013 the government attempted to close down private schools training students for the university entrance exam; an estimated quarter of these prep schools were run by Hizmet-inspired organizations. It was also discovered, again in 2013, that confidential profiling of citizens, based on religious affiliations, had been made since 2004, apparently to identify Hizmet-related staff in the bureaucracy and to keep them away from higher positions. When the corruption charges were made against the government in December 2013, the government responded by removing the police chiefs and prosecutors behind the case.

This “split” with Hizmet surprised many. Since 2002, when the AK Party came to office for the first time, Gülen and the movement named after him were frequently claimed to have very close ties with the government. An early hint that this assumption was false came when Gülen said he did not agree with the Mavi Marmara initiative to break through the blockade placed on Gaza that had been loudly supported by the government. In fact the assumption had always been misguided, because Hizmet has always maintained a certain distance (or proximity) between itself and all political parties.

Strength in independence

This is not a fight between the government and Hizmet. This is a unilateral war waged by a once-progressive government now turned even more authoritarian than the old status quo. It is a reincarnation of Nero burning Rome to rebuild it as he sees fit; a monopoly instead of a separation of powers. Almost more disappointing than this change in the AK Party is its subjugation of a great majority of religious groups through the generous funding they receive from the government.

Hizmet, meanwhile, supports any government or political party that serves the country through democratic and social reforms. Opening schools, dialogue centers and organizing relief work in over 150 countries, Hizmet is active and in direct contact with all sorts of cultures, religions and, of course, political regimes.

What makes Hizmet successful is not only its highly motivated positive activism, but more importantly, its immaterial, abstract nature and lack of a centralized headquarters. Hizmet is diffused in society with no imposed structure, set of rituals, political or ideological affiliations, or economic interests. It is freely embraced by volunteers. Its porous borders allow a two-way traffic of free entry and exit based on willing, conscientious commitment. This is perceived as a threat by power-hungry authorities seeking unconditional obedience. Whenever these authorities endure a blow and cannot locate its source, or harbor delusions of an imagined power struggle, they have a subject to accuse: Hizmet. This is the ghost of a “parallel state” they keep referring to. As for the political reasons, partisanship, by its very nature, means taking sides — thus being naturally opposed to the voters of other parties. Hizmet’s being unaffiliated with any political party allows it to adopt a supra-political discourse and reach out to everyone, without bias. For Hizmet, politics is a slippery domain — one can easily be tempted by a passion for greater recognition, power, and fame. Hizmet vows to keep clear of such mistakes by remaining independent.

When studying the economic reasons for Hizmet’s independence, it is important to define its difference from other religious communities, many of which are sponsored by the government. Hizmet initiatives usually begin with a start-up investment by philanthropists. In time, these start-ups are expected to self-subsist through their own business operations, competing in their field by providing high-quality services. Economic independence saves Hizmet from being subjugated to the rule of the lender, whereas other, government-funded, religious communities feel obliged to support the government, for their survival depends on its funding.

As for personal reasons, it is important to acknowledge Turkey’s reputation for blacklisting its own citizens. Recently leaked documents (Taraf, Dec. 2, 2013) suggest that the AK Party has inherited this state tradition and profiled civil servants according to their ideology, faith tradition and religious practice. Another confidential national security document, dated Aug. 25, 2004, shows government endorsement of a plan by the National Security Council (MGK) to crack down on the Hizmet movement. Faced with such Orwellian surveillance over citizens’ personal lives, Hizmet’s porous, structure-free and all-embracing nature allows its volunteers to easily adapt to circumstances as independent individuals, free from self-excluding risks of identity formation; it allows them to act as law-abiding servants, and pursue their careers into state bureaucracies and private businesses, while also continuing their voluntary Hizmet activities.

Understanding Hizmet

Because Hizmet has such a wide support base, those who share its goals have ended up in diverse disciplines all over Turkey — including in government. But to claim that their work within the government has been under the guise of “establishing a parallel state” is simply false, and misreads Hizmet’s purpose. Thousands of police officers and prosecutors have been reassigned in the witch-hunt after the graft probe. Some of these officers are perhaps related to Hizmet or another group; no one knows.

Hizmet volunteers and sympathetic individuals — who are from all walks of life, with differing worldviews, and different levels of commitment — have been trying to survive in their positions. They are working, so to speak, not to be defanged in the face of accusations of “establishing a parallel state” or “not being transparent enough.” Such accusations — when no crime or unlawful act has been committed — are a time-worn propaganda cliché, and violate the basic human rights expected in a free and democratic society.

There are some who suggest that Hizmet should institutionalize, with a name and central address, giving examples of groups in other Muslim countries. Those who make these suggestions reveal their ignorance about the nature of Hizmet and about the concept of civil society, both in its modern sense and in the sense of ulama (scholars) tradition, which in the past stood for the autonomous non-governmental institution of Islamic civilization. The extremely political and confrontational nature of other groups in some Muslim countries has not benefitted their society or their group’s interests. They have often perpetuated violence, and widened the rifts within their nations.

Hizmet, on the other hand, works hard to create a culture of understanding and coexistence in an increasingly globalized world, and tries to build bridges among different cultures. No signpost can carry the weight of the spiritual representative personality of Hizmet. For fair governance — at least in the socio-political culture inherited from ancient times — religious scholars and communities should never compromise their autonomous natures and must stand against what is not right.

The identity of the AK Party seems not to have completely detached from its political Islamist roots, which are scarred by traumatic memories from the Kemalist regime. In a struggle to reverse the tide, it seeks empowerment to subdue a recurring sense of having been victims in the past, and it does so using the same instruments of violent rhetoric, defamation, and cracking down on the constitutive “other,” a hypothetical enemy: Hizmet. What they fail to understand is that Hizmet is not a building you can shut down by locking its doors, or a phenomenon you can get rid of when you fire civil servants. It is a worldview, a lifestyle that inevitably continues without physical form or identity.

What is perhaps saddest about this witch-hunt is that Hizmet is a priceless resource for any government. It serves without any burden on public funds and efforts. It is a rich source of reliable manpower devoted to selfless service and ready to raise the banner of Turkey, on peaceful terms, alongside the flags of all other nations around the world. Instead of being propelled by this free energy, and benefitting from its resources, the Turkish government acts in jealousy, and tries to destroy it.

In the past, Hizmet mobilized its significant resources to work with the AK Party to make Turkey a more democratic state governed by the rule of law. It continues to work toward that goal, and will do so with any party, or government, that moves in the same direction.

1.From Jessica Rehman’s presentation titled “The Violence of Identity Formation and the Case of Hizmet Exceptionalism” in the International Symposium “The Hizmet Movement and Peacebuilding: Global Cases,” October 24-26, 2013, Washington DC.

Source: Turkish Review , January 02, 2014

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