What can Christians learn from a global Islamic movement?

Date posted: January 10, 2018

Peter G. Riddell

The world’s largest Muslim movement is in crisis. Tens of thousands of supporters of the vast international network led by Islamic theologian and philosopher Fetullah Gülen languish in prisons in Turkey and other countries. Gülen himself faces extradition to Turkey from the US to face charges of subversion if Washington accedes to the Turkish request. Ankara is now linking the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned on trumped-up terrorism and espionage charges, with Gülen’s extradition.

Gülen’s perspective on religion and philosophy

Gülen was born in rural eastern Turkey in 1941. His early education was heavily influenced by Sufism, the mystical stream of Islam. He spent two decades working as a state imam during his 20s and 30s, during which time he established a reputation as a charismatic preacher and gifted teacher of the Qur’an. The extent of his following in eastern Turkey concerned successive governments of the secular republic, and he was jailed for a time after military coups in 1971 and 1980.

Clearly, the Gülen movement is reeling from the campaign against it in Turkey. However, it has been a genuinely international movement for many years. As it struggles in Turkey, it may well flourish elsewhere among those who react against Erdoğan’s vitriolic campaign against Gülen. Erdoğan has lost favour across the West because of the increasingly totalitarian policies of his regime. In such a climate, the Gülen movement will win the sympathy vote outside Turkey.

Gülen was concerned with the state of Turkish youth, which he considered to be losing its way and its faith under the secular republic. However, he was not attracted to the growing calls for the establishment of conservative Sharia states around the Muslim world. His message to his rapidly growing base of supporters was that they should integrate their Islamic faith in their daily lives and instil this in their children through education to meet the challenges of the modern world and to stay true to their faith.Unlike many of his more combative Islamic contemporaries, Gülen shunned anti-Western rhetoric. Indeed, he had a profound admiration for some Western thinkers such as Kant and Descartes. The biggest influence on Gülen was the great Turkish reformist theologian, Beduizzaman Said Nursi (1877 – 1960). He had advocated that Muslims and Christians, and indeed other people of faith, should join forces to resist the influence of atheist and materialist philosophies that were bringing such decay to twentieth-century societies.Gülen built on Nursi’s ideas to propose a dichotomy between religious internalism and externalism:

  • The former, clearly influenced by his own Sufi formation, was concerned with faith-based considerations of internal moral reform.
  • The external perspective was focused on institutional and legal mechanisms for shaping individuals and society, especially the Sharia.

Gülen argued that the future lay in an Islamic values-based lifestyle, rather than a top-down Sharia-driven approach. His remedy was built on the concept of Temsil rather than Tebligh, of presence rather than proselytisation. This idea of presence bears resemblances to the Christian idea of incarnational ministry, which has become such a feature of relief and development work in Muslim societies by Christian aid agencies, postponing active preaching in favour of subtle witness through Christian presence.

Gülen was concerned with the state of Turkish youth, which he considered to be losing its way and its faith under the secular republic. However, he was not attracted to the growing calls for the establishment of conservative Sharia states around the Muslim world. 

Gülen’s message had a powerful appeal in Turkish society, which had experienced a half-century of secular rule and several coups. As he developed his notion of active pietism while he preached around Anatolia in the 1970s, a movement formed around him and gathered momentum. In time, his message and call to action materialised through the establishment of the first Gülen School in Izmir, followed by another in Istanbul, in the early 1980s.

The Hizmet and education

These schools were the foundation stones for what became the Gülen Movement, or Hizmet, which today is arguably the largest and most dynamic Muslim movement across the globe. In little more than 30 years, one school has become a major international network of over 700 primary and secondary institutions, fanning out from Turkey through Central Asia to East Asia and throughout the West, with millions of followers in around 150 countries. The US alone is home to around 100 of these schools. Additionally, a network of Gülen private universities was established in Turkey and flourished throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The curriculum in Gülen schools is built on modern subjects, as found in other school systems. The study of Islam is not independently featured in the curriculum to a great degree, but the Islamic values that underpin Gülen’s philosophy steer school activities. Teachers are expected to serve as moral role models, avoiding smoking, alcohol, and divorce. All knowledge is regarded as God-given and as such, the pursuit of ‘secular’ knowledge is accepted as part of the remit. While the educational institutions represent the flagship of the movement, it is very active in other ways:

  • It recognises the importance of the media to disseminate its modern, Islamic values-based message, and, to this end, there are a number of TV and radio stations, as well as newspapers and magazines, connected with the movement.
  • Gülen himself and many gifted people across the movement write books and articles, presenting the core message of integrating the Islamic faith and modern living to produce wholesome, morally upright and purpose-driven communities.
  • The movement is active in business networks across the world, as well as in charitable activities.

The Hizmet and dialogue

The other core pillar of Hizmet activity alongside education is interfaith and intercultural dialogue. The Gülen Movement website[1] pays particular attention to this as a primary goal. There are seven principles of interfaith dialogue as articulated by Gülen. Three of the principles specify the broad approach to dialogue, aiming for a wide range of partners in the interaction. Gülen highlights the pious values inherent in all religions:

Even though we may not have common grounds on some matters, we all live in this world and we are passengers on the same ship. In this respect, there are many common points that can be discussed and shared with people from every segment of society.[2]

One of the principles is based on an appreciation of diversity, citing verse 48 of Qur’an chapter 5 which states:

To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues.

Christians should engage with supporters of the Gülen movement. There is much that both can share in terms of a moral lifestyle and a values-based approach to the modern world.

Other principles centre upon ethical considerations in engaging in dialogical interactions, calling for sincerity in dialogue, as well as gentleness and tolerance. Gülen also calls for love as a central element in human interactions, clearly showing the influence of his early Sufi educational formation.Gülen himself has led the way in promoting dialogue. When he met the late Pope John-Paul II in 1998, Gülen proposed establishing a joint Divinity School in Urfa, Turkey, which according to Muslim tradition is the birthplace of Abraham. Gülen has also stood against proposals which he considered unhelpful, such as the request in 2001 from Al-Azhar to the Pope for an official apology for the Crusades. Gülen argued that it was important to leave the past behind in shaping better relationships in the present and future.Gülen, and the vast movement which has gathered around him, have been outspoken in other ways:

  • Gülen is unambiguous in his condemnation of terrorist attacks, and was the first Muslim leader to condemn the 9/11 attacks through an advertisement in the Washington Post.
  • Organisations associated with the Gülen Movement around the world have typically been at the forefront of statements of condemnation of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State.
  • These condemnations usually dismiss the Islamic credentials of the groups concerned and argue that they misinterpret the core messages of Islam.

Hizmet in Crisis

The high watermark for the movement was during the first decade of the twenty-first century, when it was supportive of the Islamizing programme of the AKP government under Prime Minister and later President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The movement had a following of several million, spread across the world, with the movement’s literature, including Gülen’s own writing, being translated into English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Albanian, Urdu, and Malay/Indonesian. Many thousands of students had enrolled in Gülen schools and universities in Turkey and beyond. Gülen had himself decided to remain in the US after travelling there for medical treatment in 1999, following ongoing pressure and scrutiny on him from Turkish authorities. Nevertheless, he was able to continue to inspire his supporters no less effectively from his residence in Pennsylvania. However, the relationship between Gülen and his erstwhile ally Erdoğan had soured. Erdoğan, never one to brook competition, held Gülen and his movement responsible for a series of corruption charges that were levelled against Erdoğan himself and caused a huge and humiliating scandal in 2013. In December 2013, the AKP government closed many Gülen- inspired schools in Turkey and dismissed thousands of officials in the justice system from their posts, accusing them of being Gülen supporters. One year later, further arrests accompanied the closure of Gülen-affiliated media outlets which had been outspoken on the corruption scandal. In July 2016, the abortive coup—which some commentators argue was staged by the Erdoğan regime—triggered further widespread arrests and closures of Gülen institutions in Turkey. At the time of writing, those imprisoned on suspicion of having Gülen affiliations number over 50,000, with over 140,000 public sector employees dismissed from their jobs, accused of pro-Gülen sympathies. In addition, Turkey has used its influence to pressure other countries to detain people accused of Gülen affiliations. Some have complied, such as Somalia and Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, Gülen himself awaits the outcome of a Turkish extradition request to the US.

Implication for Christian leaders

Clearly, the Gülen movement is reeling from the campaign against it in Turkey. However, it has been a genuinely international movement for many years. As it struggles in Turkey, it may well flourish elsewhere among those who react against Erdoğan’s vitriolic campaign against Gülen. Erdoğan has lost favour across the West because of the increasingly totalitarian policies of his regime. In such a climate, the Gülen movement will win the sympathy vote outside Turkey. Christians can learn much from observing the methods and strategies of the Gülen movement. The success of a subtle Islamic values-based but non-Sharia focus on education to spread the message is evident. The movement speaks the language of the twenty-first century, yet reinforces traditional social and moral values. Its diverse activities, all drawing on an incarnational approach of positive presence rather than overt preaching among the unconvinced, is compelling.

Gülen spokespeople insist that the movement is committed to dialogue, not da’wa (Islamic mission). This claim bears further scrutiny, given that the Islamic faith is usually seen by Islamic scholars as the total package for life, not merely a set of doctrines. In that context, da’watakes diverse forms, including dialogue, where Islamic values are modelled in the hope of attracting others to Islam. Anyone who has taken part in Gülen activities can discern a subtle yet clear Islamic overlay to the activities concerned. Hospitality is accompanied by public prayer; public events carry a clear Islamic identity.

The Gülen movement is certainly about da’wa, just as Christian incarnational presence that takes many forms is about mission:

  • That is far better than the in-your-face anti-Christian polemic of some other Islamic groups committed to a more activist da’wa.
  • Yet, in another way, Gülen da’wa represents a much greater challenge to Christianity, in Western countries at least, because it appeals to a largely post-Christian audience that is still seeking spiritual answers, but has been programmed to reject both institutionalised Christianity and assertive, polemical Islamic mission.

Christians should engage with supporters of the Gülen movement. There is much that both can share in terms of a moral lifestyle and a values-based approach to the modern world. However, ultimately, the two messages are mutually exclusive in certain ways, chiefly relating to the incompatibility between Christian Trinitarian monotheism and Islamic Unitarian monotheism, and radically different perspectives on the identity of Jesus Christ. Yet these differences should not be allowed to prevent the formation of genuine friendships and meaningful and fruitful Christian-Gülen engagement.

Peter G. Riddell is Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology and is also a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, the University of London. He was previously Professor of Islamic Studies at the London School of Theology, and also held academic posts at SOAS, the University of London, the Institut Pertanian Bogor in Indonesia, and the Australian National University. Email: peter_riddell@yahoo.com.

Source: Lausanne Movement , January 2018

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