Islam and Peace: Oxymoron or perfect match?

Date posted: March 8, 2011


For many decades, perhaps centuries, “Islam” and “peace” were a pair of incongruous words. “Peace” was like Troy, many thought, and Muslims were the attacking Greeks — how fictional or factual Homer’s “Iliad” was, and thus how true it was that Troy lay in the East and was innocent, is a matter of research yet to be convincingly conducted.

Those who split the world into two always found a good reason to accuse the other half: for Greeks it was the love of Paris in Troy, in the land of Yooks and Zooks in Dr. Zeus’ “The Butter Battle Book” it was the side of the bread they spread butter on. Islam, the so-called “religion of the sword,” is a cause of conflict by its very existence, some thought. The East vs. West dichotomy could have had a cross-fertilizing, instead of a cross-inflammatory, effect and this certainly would have been to the benefit of humanity. But historically it has been a symbol of separation and conflict, even though this imaginary line of division may not always sound meaningful, particularly in modern times, when cellular phones and the Internet can penetrate all political and cultural borders.

Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Professor İhsan Yılmaz of Fatih University in Istanbul do not subscribe to this divisive mindset. They add Fethullah Gülen to cellular phones and the Internet as a “border transgressor” between East and West. In their authoritative volume recently released by Blue Dome Press, New York, Esposito and Yılmaz bring together quality papers based on first-hand experience and field research by academics who have been extensively studying Gülen’s school of thought and the Gülen movement.

Esposito was arguably the first academic in the West who pioneered research on the Gülen movement when he published “Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement” with M. Hakan Yavuz in 2003. Yılmaz is a frequent speaker on the movement and he convened two major conferences in 2007 on the Gülen Movement, one in London (“Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement”) and the other in Rotterdam (“Peaceful Coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s Initiatives in the Contemporary World”), as well as contributing to many others. So the editors’ names provide high credentials for the work.

Gülen stands out as a well-respected scholar of Islam. But what underlines his importance is his perception of the world, one which is not obsessed with political terms. Esposito and Yılmaz underline this quality in the first chapter. They highlight the ‘dar al-hizmet’ (abode of service to others for the sake of God) concept frequently used by Gülen “which reflects his border transgressing vision.” According to Yılmaz, Gülen “does not divide the world by mutually exclusive concepts of ‘dar al-harb’ (abode of war) and ‘dar al-Islam’ (abode of Islam, peace) but sees it as an almost coherent place, as it were, that needs to be served continually by utilizing the concept ‘dar al-hizmet'” (p. 26).

One significant note about Gülen’s approach to Islam is his emphasis on the fact that “Islam is a religion and thus is more than a political, method, or ideology” (p. 30). I believe many of the problems that plague the Muslim world are caused by the lack of this approach — Islam has been removed from its true identity as a heavenly religion based on revelation and it has been reduced to a political ideology. It is in the nature of politics to see the world in an “us” vs. “them” prism, and thus to support one’s party and its juggernaut leader unconditionally, and defame others or their actions, thoughts and politics without fair consideration.

Peace building by positive action vs. border building

Nation-state philosophy was based on raised walls of political “borders” that provide a clearly drawn line of “separation” from so-called other nations. Klass Grinell eloquently expounds on this “bordering practice of modernity” in Chapter 3, and explains Gülen’s emphasis on universal human values and dialogue as opposed to “Huntingtonian” concept of civilization that builds borders. Gülen’s philosophy, however, offers a peaceful solution to transgress these borders; positive action. How effectively this solution works unfolded in June 2010 with a striking example.

One of the political crises that brought Turkey, and perhaps a larger portion of the world, to the verge of war in June 2010, was the Israeli attack on a flotilla en route to the Gaza Strip carrying aid and engaged in an effort to break through the Israeli blockade. Nine civilians on board who fought back were killed as a result of the attack, which took place in international waters. This came in the wake of a nationwide uproar against Israel in Turkey, in addition to sensational exchanges from the political authorities of both sides. It was a time of hatred, and deliberation was far removed from the events. Gülen’s comments published in the Wall Street Journal on June 4, 2010, were like a wakeup call, and we were awoken from a spellbound state of aroused nationalist motives. Many in Turkey were shocked to hear Gülen speaking less than favorably about the way the organizers of the flotilla conducted their campaign. The answer to criticisms of Gülen’s comments came most powerfully from Bülent Arınç, the deputy prime minister, who noted two principles that have shaped Gülen’s thought, and hence the motivation of the education and dialogue volunteers involved in the Gülen Movement: (1) seeking God’s good pleasure and (2) positive action.

In his historic address, Arınç stated that these two principles were the secret behind the achievements of the schools opened by Turkish entrepreneurs in hundreds of countries. With these two golden principles, teachers and businessmen who run these schools are welcomed by different nations of the world for whom these volunteers of education and dialogue are nothing less than ambassadors of peace and friendship. What Gülen meant in this flotilla case was that positive action should have been exercised by the organizers. That is to say, they should have strived to negotiate with parties involved in this blockade and tried all possible means to obtain legal permission so that no lives were lost. We are not saying that organizers of the flotilla did not try at all, and obviously the Israeli side is not the victim and is by no means innocent in this attack. Nevertheless, for those on board defending themselves with sticks and fists against fully armed marines was rather a cheap way of seeking martyrdom and heroism, and did not yield any fruit other than nine dead and many wounded, not to mention the possible outbreak of war.

Gülen philosophy, however, encourages not breaking through borders but transgressing them, not by means of useless physical clashes but by positive action that involves negotiation and dialogue. Hasan Kösebalaban is quoted in this volume describing “Gülen’s other” to be one in the Lockean sense, i.e., a friendly rival. According to Irina Vainovski-Mihai, Gülen’s philosophy is based on a “rich and generous heritage” as “indicated by al-Ghazzali and Rumi” who “insist on non-belligerence in love and do not prescribe strategies for foreign affairs. Both move toward the ultimate end of dimming distinctions between Self and Other, not of prescriptions for peaceably protecting borders. Both lean away from the possibility of defining each other as ‘other.’ Both look on the world of humankind as oriented to eternity, not hegemony. Both define Gülen” (p. 95).

Gülen’s positive action discourse did not arise from recent conflicts; he powerfully voiced his concerns over the Marxist-nationalist polarization in the country during the ’60s and ’70s and tried to keep the young away from the street clashes that claimed the lives of 10,000 Turks. In this volume Zeki Sarıtoprak notes that “Gülen made great efforts to extinguish the fire of conflict amidst this chaos, and his faith-based efforts had a significant impact on building peace between rival groups” (p. 175).

Peacebuilding is a lifelong project for Gülen, whose efforts helped save thousands from the streets and reoriented them to realize their potentials as academics and professionals, avoiding involvement in any kind of partisan conflict. This project is now spreading across the world and this volume features some striking examples from Cambodia to northern Iraq, and from Northern Ireland to Southeast Asia in the papers under “Part 4: Peacebuilding in Global Action.” Philipp Bruckmayr observes one of the schools in Cambodia, a country with a tragic recent past. Bruckmayr thinks the school “represents a strand of secular schooling devoid of both spiritual emptiness and attempts at assimilation to the majority population” (p. 245). The inclusive character of the school has a potential to expand the dialogue between the Cham Muslim minority and Khmer locals.

Mehmet Kalyoncu’s research in Mardin in southeast Turkey reveals interesting data on how the Gülen movement has been able “to mobilize Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrian Christians to cooperate in tackling their common problems.” Turkey has suffered from terrorism since the late ’70s and the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been the major cause. Mardin is among the cities that have fallen victim to this terror, heavily wounded not only by the terrorist attacks but more importantly by the lack of an alternative future it can offer to its youth. Left with no choice other than going to the mountains to join the terrorist organizations they “fall prey to recruitment into either the PKK or Hezbollah.” Kalyoncu’s field research explores how the movement was successful in mobilizing different ethnicities in the region to become conscious of the common problems and to tackle them altogether. Kalyoncu also observes in Kenya and in the Philippines that Gülen-inspired initiatives, most notably the schools, are able “to contribute to building self-confidence in individuals and developing human capital through education” (p. 289).

“Islam and Peacebuilding” is a must-read reference for researchers on Islam in general and the Gülen movement in particular. There are many other articles contributed by scholars from the US, the UK, Sweden, Turkey, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore, Austria and Romania, all of which deserve independent analysis. “Islam” is peace and Gülen significantly contributes to the purification of Islam’s image, tarnished by the misrepresentation of its adherents which are no less influential than unfair prejudice and defamation. This volume is a testimony to how Gülen’s ideas have been embodied in initiatives in education and intercultural dialogue around the world. Going back to the question in the title, Islam and peacebuilding are a perfect match, and Gülen is a qualified matchmaker.


Source: Turkish Review , 01 November 2010

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