The Hizmet movement, social democracy, the religious left

Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz
Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz


Date posted: December 12, 2015

I have been attending a conference on “Transnational Religious Movements, Dialogue and Economic Development: The Hizmet Movement in Comparative Perspective” at the University of Turin in Italy, organized by Professor Luca Ozzano.

The conference is funded by the University of Turin and the Compagnia di San Paolo Foundation and co-sponsored by the “Religion and Politics” standing group of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), the IPSA RC 43 “Religion and Politics” research group and the Istituto Tevere, based in Rome.

The organizers announced that the conference would on the first day focus on “the Hizmet movement, inspired by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, which is portrayed by many as an example of modern, ‘enlightened’ Islam, oriented towards dialogue and co-operation rather than conflict. In recent years the movement has been the focus of extensive international scholarship — both appreciative and critical — dealing with its founder and his teachings, its schools in Turkey and abroad, its relations with Turkish politics and society and the role of women therein. Although many interesting works exist about its development in countries other than Turkey, so far few coherent efforts have been made to understand its development at the transnational level. This is true particularly in relation to comparative works which can highlight the common points and the differences between the movement and other religious groups, either within Islam or belonging to other religious traditions.”

Several high-quality papers critically looked at the Hizmet movement from different angles and perspectives. The title of my presentation was “Hitchhiking Muslim-Secularist Social Capital and Hijacking it for Counter-Hegemony: AKP, Hizmet and the Abant Platform Case.” I will write about it later but now I want to focus another paper that I found very important: Dr. Fevzi Bilgin, president of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Rethink, presented a paper titled “The Hizmet Movement and the Religious Left.”

I consider myself a Muslim social democrat and the paper’s topic matters for me personally, too. Here is what I wrote on July 1, 2105: “Islamic values are more in tune with social democracy, compared to right-wing ideologies. It is high time that practicing Muslims revisit their position vis-a-vis social democracy. One does not have to be a Marxist, communist or socialist to be a Muslim social democrat. Social democracy does not have to be monopolized by Marxists and practicing Muslims can also have social democratic claims.” Then I summarized the views of Professor Abdulkadir Yıldırım of Furman University on progressive Muslim religious parties.

I wrote that: Professor Yıldırım “states that progressive Muslim parties and political movements combine a progressive stance on key issues that deal with equality, gender and the environment while drawing inspiration from Muslim values. For some time, I have been stating on TV programs that I am a Muslim social democrat. When I consider my approach to all sorts of social and political issues, I find myself very distant from conservative, right-wing and even center-right ideologies. Because of the stigma that the left has had in the eyes of the practicing Muslims in Turkey for a long time, it is not easy to say that I am a practicing Muslim social democrat. But when we disregard the labels and look at the content, it is easier to see that practicing Muslims should prioritize social democracy.”

Similarly, Dr. Bilgin writes in his draft paper that “[t]he clash between the [Justice and Development Party] AKP and the Hizmet movement since the corruption scandal and the ensuing persecution of Hizmet by the government has accentuated the religious left credentials of Hizmet. In recent years, Hizmet has been able to frame its opposition to the AKP sometimes in religious terms but always in favor of democracy, freedoms, social justice and responsible foreign policy.” Dr. Bilgin concludes his paper by arguing that “[t]he Hizmet movement is unique in the sense that although it is originated from Turkey, it is now a global network that exclusively focuses on religious left values such as dialogue, education and charity. In this respect, it could potentially become an agent of the religious left not only in Turkey but also on a global scale.”

Of course, much thought, debate and discussion must take place on Hizmet vis-a-vis the religious left, progressives and social democrats. Nevertheless, it is nice to see that such an endeavor has already started within Hizmet that is moving away from being a Turkish-made transnational movement to being a global one with universal values.

Source: Today's Zaman , December 11, 2015


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