Gülen, the most important figure of tolerance and dialogue

Date posted: November 19, 2010

Orhan Akkurt, New York

“Mr. Fethullah Gülen is the most influential representative of love, tolerance and dialogue in our world today. In the West, especially in the United States, an increasing number of scholars have discovered Gülen to be a man of love and tolerance and consider his teaching as a model of dialogue among religions, cultures and civilizations.”

These are the words of Dr. Heon C. Kim, a specialist in contemporary Islam. Highlighting the great need for dialogue in today’s world, Dr. Kim praises Gülen’s teachings of love, tolerance and dialogue, which have been practiced and spread worldwide by the Gülen movement, the fastest expanding Islamic movement around the globe. “It is appropriate and reasonable,” Dr. Kim states, “that a recent survey, ‘The 500 Most Influential Muslims,’ published by Georgetown University in 2009, placed Gülen as one of the top 50 influential Muslims today and introduced him as one who affects huge swathes of humanity and has gone on to become a global phenomenon.”

Dr. Kim completed his years of doctoral research on Gülen and the Gülen movement in 2008, and is currently teaching at Temple University, Philadelphia. One of the most pioneering and cutting-edge contributions of his dissertation is to make tangible the spiritual dimensions of Gülen’s life and thought and the inner dynamic of the Gülen movement. His research shows in detail that the Islamic spirituality of love, tolerance and dialogue, which was once exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad and subsequently followed by great Sufi saints, is at the core of Gülen’s thought and the activities of the Gülen movement. Base upon this finding, Dr. Kim agrees with those Western scholars who identify Gülen as “a contemporary Rumi” (Jalal al-Din Rumi, a great Sufi saint in Islamic history and the best-known Muslim mystic in the West), and further considers Gülen’s teaching of dialogue as an alternative to both the jihadist/fundamentalist movements and those in the West who adhere to the “clash of civilizations” paradigm.

What I had directly experienced in Egypt and Turkey was not Islam in literature but Islam in people. Islam in people was not literalist-fundamentalist Islam, but Sufi Islam, a spiritual form of Islam that is deeply embedded in the lives of ordinary people and appears as a cultural reality. Literalist-fundamentalist Islam, also known as jihadist and Islamist, views non-Muslims, especially from the Judeo-Christian world, as ‘the other’ and adopts a somewhat antagonistic view towards them. Many Western academics have spent far too much time focusing on this form of Islam. In reality, however, this version of Islam is followed by less than 5 percent of Muslims in the world.

When and how did you first learn about Gülen?

After I graduated from Arabic studies in South Korea I went to Egypt to further learn about Islam. While studying Islamic theology in a graduate program at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, I observed that many Muslim scholars hold an intolerant view of Islam when it comes to other religions and cultures, which was contrary to my conviction that Islam is a religion of ‘submission and peace’ that is respectful of other religious traditions. After having this experience, I was fortunate to meet several Turkish students of Gülen in South Korea. Being initially impressed by their open-mindedness, I read some of Gülen’s books, and his ‘moderate Islamic thought’ was intellectually and spiritually inspiring to me. In order to introduce his moderate and authentic form of Islam as a counter to the Wahhabi/literalist versions of Islam prevalent in our world today, I translated one of Gülen’s books into Korean. It was published first in 1999 and subsequently reprinted in 2001 in the aftermath of Sept. 11. My growing interest in Gülen’s thought led me to visit Gülen in Turkey in 1998. With his permission, I was able to participate in the daily class that he gave for his students. Although I could not readily follow his lectures at first since I was not fluent in Turkish at the time, I could still appreciate his gentle behavior and simple lifestyle.

What did you do after meeting with Gülen?

After spending three months participating in Gülen’s daily class, I learned enough Turkish to be admitted into a graduate program in Islamic philosophy at Marmara University in İstanbul. The more I learned Turkish, the better I began to understand Gülen’s teaching, especially his Islamic ideal of love, tolerance and dialogue. I ended up spending three years in Turkey in order to study at the university and better learn about Gülen’s thought. During my stay I also traveled throughout the country and observed Islam in public life. Especially in Anatolia, central Turkey, I witnessed the beautiful characteristics of hospitality, peace, tolerance and self-sacrifice, all of which Gülen praised as ‘Anadolu İnsanlarının Ruhu’ [the spirit of the Anatolian people]. Another characteristic that was strongly impressed upon my memory was the people’s living embodiment of Gülen’s teaching to “give, give and give more for God’s pleasure and ‘hizmet’ [service for humanity].” My learning of Gülen’s moderate Islamic thought did not end with his arrival to the US in 1999. After he left Turkey, I decided to pursue my doctorate in the US, a nation which actively promotes religious and cultural diversity and encourages academics to do their study and research free of political/religious restrictions. This is unfortunately not the case in many Islamic countries, Turkey included.

Why did you choose Gülen and Sufism as your dissertation topic?

First, what I had directly experienced in Egypt and Turkey was not Islam in literature but Islam in people. Islam in people was not literalist-fundamentalist Islam, but Sufi Islam, a spiritual form of Islam that is deeply embedded in the lives of ordinary people and appears as a cultural reality. Literalist-fundamentalist Islam, also known as jihadist and Islamist, views non-Muslims, especially from the Judeo-Christian world, as ‘the other’ and adopts a somewhat antagonistic view towards them. Many Western academics have spent far too much time focusing on this form of Islam. In reality, however, this version of Islam is followed by less than 5 percent of Muslims in the world. What the vast majority of Muslims follow instead is what we academics call ‘a popular Islam,’ and Sufism has played a major role in helping to define popular Islam with its millennium-long history. This reality of Sufism has not been fully understood in academic circles. Worse, Sufism has long been condemned by fundamentalist-jihadist Muslims as a non-Islamic tradition and misunderstood by the Orientalist Western scholarship as a naïve personal mystical experience. Both approaches fail to accord with my own experiences and the reality of Sufism. An academic approach to Sufism phenomenological ‘as it is’ is very much needed, and this was the principle motivation behind my dissertation research.

Based on my own experiences in Turkey, I was confident that Turkey in general and Gülen in particular would provide the most remarkable case study for an in-depth analysis of Sufism. Since the Kemalist secularist ban on Sufi orders in 1925, Sufism was blamed as a reason for the nation’s backwardness in comparison with the development that was occurring in the West. Consequently, Sufi orders were considered to be a threat to the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Certain politicians, secularist intellectuals and army elites suspected Gülen as an Islamist Sufi leader who led a dangerous ‘cult.’ Quite opposed to this suspicion, the Western view of Gülen and the Gülen movement, from academia to newspapers, recognized the significant contributions that Gülen has made in the world. I wanted to see what the true identity of Gülen and his movement is.

Do you mean there is a strong connection between Gülen and Sufism?

Yes, absolutely. What I have found is that Gülen can be considered a Sufi saint, but he has never been an Islamist, as all of his life, works, his thought and his movement indicate ‘moderate Islam’ that acknowledges other religions as partners of dialogue. Indeed, Gülen himself has met with Jewish and Christian leaders, including Pope John Paul II in 1998. Another important fact is that while Gülen can be considered a Sufi saint, he is not the leader of a Sufi order. He does not teach from the platform of a Sufi order but instead teaches that Sufism is to live an Islamic spiritual life as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad, his companions, Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, all of whom did not found any kind of Sufi order. To underline this understanding of Sufism, I refer to it as ‘Sufism without Sufi orders.’ This ‘Sufism without Sufi orders’ in Gülen’s thought has the benefit of not creating boundaries, as often occurs amongst Sufi orders. Instead, it calls all Muslims to respect other Muslims and non-Muslims as equal creations of God’s Love. He encourages Muslims to engage in dialogue with others, remembering that they are all a reflection of the Divine Love. This ‘dialogic Sufism’ that I call it offers an alternative to fundamentalist/jihadist Islamist movements and creates a dialogical bridge between Islam and other religions.

Could you explain more about Gülen’s views on dialogue?

In Gülen’s thought, dialogue appears as a natural consequence of humanism. Mr. Gülen defines humanism as a doctrine of love and humanity. He warns against an unbalanced understanding of humanism, for instance one that misunderstands jihad and views non-Muslims as the antagonistic others. Gülen’s humanism opposes a fanatical jihadist approach to humanity, and instead intends to actualize ‘love of all humanity.’ To Gülen, humanity is the most valuable being in the universe as the greatest mirror of God’s names and attributes. Every human being is equally endowed with capacity to mirror divine nature and has the capability to be developed to an excellence greater than the universe. Thereby, first, all humans are equal as a mirror of God’s attributes, irrespective of religion, race, wealth and social status. And second, since humans are created by the Creator’s own love, love is the most essential element in humanity. These concepts of equality, love and humanity are the basis of Gülen’s humanism, and serve as the founding principles of the Gülen movement.

A foremost practical manifestation of Gülen’s love-based humanism is dialogue. To Gülen, dialogue is an activity of forming a bond between two or more people. To form such a bond means to position human beings at the axis of dialogue. Therefore, dialogue in a true sense is a sublimation and pragmatic extension of humanism, which can be only accomplished by mutual respect, tolerance and love. Nowadays, more and more people in the world realize the need of dialogue for peaceful coexistence. Mr. Gülen has been advocating love and tolerance-based dialogue for almost three decades now. He has always said ‘we should engage in dialogue with everyone without any discrimination.’ To me, his teachings of dialogue are extremely important today since many people believe in the ‘clash of civilizations.’

So you see dialogue and tolerance as the solution to the clash of civilizations?

Yes. I consider them as an alternative and even the only solution to contemporary problems of humanity. In recent years, a great number of political social scientists have adopted Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory. This theory suggests an intrinsic incompatible relationship between Western civilization and non-Western civilizations and foresees inevitable civilizational clashes and wars. This view has spearheaded immense scholarly debate, producing a number of critical works. I myself have taken part in this debate by writing several papers and presenting some of them at a series of academic conferences in the US. In these papers I traced back the intellectual origin of Huntington’s theory. His conviction of civilizational incompatibility and clashes essentially premises the dialectic tension or opposition of the antithetical relationship of ‘the self and others,’ which evolves from Friedrich Hegel’s and later the Hegelian concept of ‘ideologically inferior others’ and Karl Marx’s and later the Marxist notion of ‘political-economically alienated others.’ Huntington adds to his predecessors by putting forward the concept of religious incompatibility as between Christianity and Islam. Though embracing different foci, the views of Hegel, Marx and Huntington are constant in identifying humanity as the opposing and conflicting relationship of the self and others, which can be called a ‘dialectical approach to humanity.’

As a polar opposite to the dialectical approach to humanity, Gülen’s understanding of humanity and humanism assumes the equality and compatibility of the self and others that leads to love, tolerance and dialogue. In fact, Gülen’s humanism directly refuses to see others as a dialectical antithesis. Instead it asserts that the distinction between the self and the other can only exist as an object of dialogue in a way of protecting and empowering one’s spirituality against his/her egoistic carnal self that gives rise to constant conflict with others. I term this humanism ‘dialogic humanism,’ and define it as a system of thought and way of life that approaches humanity as a unit of ‘self and others’ and as an object of love and dialogue. I specifically assign it as an alternative consideration to the dialectical approach to humanity. For this aspect alone, I think Gülen’s teachings on humanism should be considered and valued.

You mentioned that Gülen’s humanism and his approach to dialogue are the founding principles of the Gülen movement.

Yes, I did. I also mentioned hizmet, or service for humanity in English. My own research has demonstrated that Gülen’s humanism is reflected in both the members’ individual lives and the group activities of the Gülen movement. Hizmet is the core working concept here. I further consider that hizmet is the most distinctive principle that characterizes Gülen’s thought and the Gülen movement and differentiates it from other Islamic movements.

Hizmet in Gülen’s Islamic theology is an ultimate ideal to be pursued individually and communally for the service of humanity. Gülen teaches that ‘the worldly life should be used in order to earn the afterlife and to please the One who has bestowed it. The way to do so is to seek to please Allah and, as an inseparable dimension of it, to serve immediate family members, society, country and all of humanity accordingly. This service [hizmet] is our right, and sharing it with others is our duty.’ Hizmet can be best actualized by a ‘man of action and thought’ [aksiyon ve düşünce insanı], another well-known concept of Gülen’s. Unlike a typical Sufi order that gives priority to individual mystical experience in remembrance of Allah in seclusion, Gülen emphasizes that any spiritual experience and exercise is completed by taking action in society. Unlike Islamist movements, he stresses that the action in society is vitalized by humanism of love and dialogue.

Gülen initiated the Gülen movement as an instrument and living model of hizmet. With the principle of hizmet, the movement has spread Gülen’s humanism over the world. His movement now reaches major cities in over 100 countries and counts millions as members. My research has shown that hizmet has been the key factor in spreading the movement. While most studies on the movement focus on external factors like organizational structure as being the main reason for the movement’s success, my findings are that the practice of hizmet is the primary reason, if not the only reason, for the success of the movement. Other than the practice of hizmet, it would be very difficult to explain why almost all members of the Gülen movement volunteer much of their money, time and effort. The spirit of giving is the real source behind the movement’s activities over the world. Many outsiders who partaken in the movement’s activities would agree with my conclusion.

If properly presented, I believe the Islamic humanism of love, tolerance and dialogue that Gülen teaches is the perfect antidote to the dialectical approach to humanity, which leads to endless conflict by continually creating tensional gaps among civilizations, nations, social classes and humanity itself.

Source: Today's Zaman , 25 July 2010

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