Date posted: April 1, 2011
Fethullah Gülen is a name that was discovered by the world media only recently. He and the vast education network operating throughout the world that sympathizes with his thoughts received the attention of Western intellectuals.
Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish educator and spiritual leader, has lived in a bucolic retreat outside the small town of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, since 1998. That was the location of a wide-ranging interview granted earlier this year to Brian Knowlton from the International Herald Tribune. The following text is based both on the interview and on questions submitted earlier to Mr. Gülen; the answers were translated from the Turkish by his assistants. Together they formed the basis of an article by Mr. Knowlton that appeared both in the International Herald Tribune and on the website of The New York Times.
Topics covered in the interview include life in the United States, religious madrasas and secular schools, Fethullah Gulen’s relations with the current Turkish Government, thoughts on Sharia law, the values of the Gulen movement, the place of Turkey in being a role model for other Muslim countries, women in society, Democracy and Islam…
Fethullah Gülen is a name that was discovered by the world media only recently. He and the vast education network operating throughout the world that sympathizes with his thoughts received the attention of Western intellectuals primarily because he was seen as the antithesis of radical Islam. Gülen, though, does not have a dialectic view of history and does not want to be labeled ‘anti’ anything.
Brian Knowlton: Mr. Gülen, although you are an influential citizen of Turkey, you have stayed on in the United States even after the arrival in Turkey of a presumably friendly government. Is this mainly for health reasons?
Fethullah Gülen: First of all, I must state that I have always been equally close to the representatives of all the political parties, and I have always shared my views that I thought beneficial with everyone. I have supported those who are respectful to our values and who give attention to the essence of the heart and spirit and at the same time have a message for the worldly and eternal longings of human beings. This is regardless of whatever party they happen to be in. Accordingly, it cannot be said that any one party is “close” and the other is “far”; I stand at an equal proximity to all of them. Along the same lines, when an incident happened to Mr. Deniz Baykal, I did not forget to my express my sympathies to him.
When it comes to my living in America, in 1997 I came here due to my health condition, and as soon as I was diagnosed and treated by the doctors here I returned to Turkey. In 1999, I had to come back to the US for further treatment. Later, I discovered that this country, especially the area where I live, is more serene and quiet in comparison to Turkey. I preferred to stay here because I found it to be more tranquil and thought it to be more convenient to see the doctors under whose care I remain.
In addition, in the US I hoped that I would not be disturbed or harmed by those who carry radical ideologies from Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan or some other countries. I am America’s guest, and any such event would touch America’s reputation before anything else. I have always carried the idea that America would not sanction anyone laying a hand on someone living on its soil because she would take it as a personal insult to her reputation and honor.
And from this perspective, compared to other places, I feel more at peace here. Even though I have been invited to reside in other countries, I have chosen not to leave this country where I live in peace, especially this area where I have found so much quiet and serenity.
Brian Knowlton: What have been your observations about life in America?
Fethullah Gülen: Even though I’ve been living in the US for a long time, I haven’t been out that much or had that many opportunities to interact with Americans. Because of my illness, I’ve only been out to see my doctors. In hospitals, I’ve witnessed a health system based on a strong work ethic and very serious code of discipline. I’ve also realized they are incredibly thorough in diagnosing patients and give a lot of attention to patient care. Patients are treated very well; the Hippocratic Oath is evident everywhere.
Also, due to a court case that I had in Turkey, I had to go to a district attorney in New Jersey for a deposition that would allow me to send my testimony overseas. Inside the court, I witnessed the high level of seriousness and respect with which people were treated, and I admired it greatly. I thought to myself, if other sectors of the US are tied to such a work ethic, then these are likely reasons for why the country remains so powerful, resilient and standing tall.
When I first came to the US in 1992, I felt it was an outstanding and a very democratic country; the environment was very comfortable and peaceful back then.
Years later, however, I felt something happened to this peaceful atmosphere. Especially after the tragic events of the Twin Towers, I felt that some people, perhaps rightfully, developed a sense of paranoia. Moreover, it spread throughout the media that those terrorists had come from amongst the Muslims – that Muslims were behind the terror.
However, just like I have stated many times before whenever I’ve had the opportunity — a real Muslim is the embodiment of peace and tranquility.
There is no place for terror in true Islam, because Islam considers the murder of an individual equal to disbelief.* Religion does not allow killing to achieve goals. Heaven cannot be attained by killing people. An innocent person cannot be harmed even during times of war.
[* EDITOR’S NOTE: The Turkish-Arabic term for disbelief is “kufr” which means an active, conscious and determinate enmity against religion and religious people. It shouldn’t be confused with atheism or agnosticism.]
From this perspective, a terrorist cannot be a true Muslim and a true Muslim cannot be a terrorist.
These facts are indisputable, and up until now and forever, have been stated. But, as a result of this paranoia toward Muslims at large, some people may have transferred that paranoia over to us. I have never witnessed anything overt, but have sometimes felt like people might have been thinking, “They are Muslims so they could be expected to carry out such harm, too.” So, from this angle, I say that America was more peaceful, more democratic and more worry-free in earlier years.
Actually, in these times when no one can name a single democracy that is flawless or has managed to satisfy everyone, consideration should definitely be given to the richness that Islam can contribute to democracy.
In our times, democracy is still trying to perfect itself. We should try to develop a democracy that is going to be able to respond to all the demands of humanity — a humanity that will not find fulfillment in anything other than God’s favor and the promise of eternity.
This issue should be put out on the table and opened up for discussion. I think that democracy should be encompassing enough to fulfill humanity’s material and spiritual longings. Human beings should be able to live freely in accordance with what they believe, and democracy has to prepare such an environment for them.
Brian Knowlton: You have been critical of the religious madrasas* but also of secular state schools in Turkey, leading to the creation of an alternative, the Gülen-inspired schools. Where, in your view, do the madrases and state schools go wrong, and how do you believe Gülen schools remedy this?
[* EDITOR’S NOTE: The question refers to the Ottoman era theological schools that concentrated only on religious education at the expense of modern science and to the secular schools established during the era of modernization that neglected religious education altogether.]
Fethullah Gülen: With all due respect, let’s not call them “Gülen schools” but rather private schools established by volunteer service organizations. And know that these schools, wherever they are, teach only the official standard curriculum of that country.
We can say that there is a desire and search for a world that has peace and tranquility, and that this desire is the whole reason behind the enthusiasm we have in the field of education. For many years, whether from mosque pulpits, or lecture halls, or in my writings — I have expressed that we should nurture a generation filled with love and respect for all, a generation that is open to making peace and living together with others.
I encouraged everyone who valued my views to establish educational institutions. I told everyone that we could only achieve peace and reconciliation within our country and across the world by raising generations who are reading, thinking and loving human beings and opening up and sharing their knowledge in the service of humanity.
One thing supported this idea and helped trigger this effort: Many years ago, I was reading a book by Bertrand Russell when a passage struck me. When asked what would happen if there was to be a World War III, Bertrand Russell had responded that the murdered would go to the grave and the murderer would go into intensive care.
This is actually a very old quote, but the truth of this quote becomes apparent if we consider all the atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs and nuclear weapons that are in existence, and the possibility of many nations using these weapons against each other is always there. Unfortunately, it seems nearly impossible to take these weapons out of people’s hands, and once deployed it will not be possible to deflect or be shielded from their deadly effects.
Even organizations like the United Nations can hardly cope with these kinds of problems. So I asked myself, “If we can motivate people with the wisdom of dialogue, mutual respect and mutual understanding, and if we can gather them around universal values, and if we can form a platform on this — could it prevent such a disastrous future from befalling humanity?”
This kind of thinking led me to a feeling that inclined me toward carrying out educational activities. I continue impressing this feeling to others at every possible opportunity and encourage them toward education. People who believed in the importance and rationality of this opened many schools in different places around the world, and because of that very same understanding, passion and enthusiasm, they continue on this course.
When it comes to madrasas and secular schools, in the last era, the madrasas shut their door to the spiritual aspect of Islam — to mysticism and Sufism — and they also shut their doors to the positive sciences as well.
After a time anything other than certain religious studies was thrown out from the madrasas. The concurrent reading of the Quran and the book of universe, and the principle that these two should be the pillars to such sciences as physics, astronomy and mathematics, was not observed.
Before me, people like Muallim Cevdet* questioned this shortcoming of the madrasas. The madrasas couldn’t create the talent capable of responding to the challenges of technology and scientific thinking, and in the same way, modern schools couldn’t get rid of the biases created by modernist ideologies. They were not able to evaluate the thought produced by the madrasas; the secular schools neglected the spiritual life of humans; they lacked depth of thinking and feeling, clarity of thought, richness of culture; they became like factories stamping out products for the global market.
* EDITOR’S NOTE: Muallim Cevdet (1883-1935) was a Turkish educationist, author and librarian who wrote several books on history and religion. A collection of his articles dealing with the flaws of the secular state schools and the madrasas was published in 1978, “Mektep ve Medrese” (Secular Schools and Madrasas).]
Could the so-called Gülen schools, which are indeed the schools of the people, manage to address this problem? Well, that’s something that can always be argued. But in this kind of situation, we should look at the intention. If at the beginning, from the first initiatives to open the schools, if they wanted to put together the light of the heart and the mind, and if they acted through this intention, you would value rather the intention as opposed to the actual success. Because, according to our faith, God is going to evaluate and treat people according to their intentions.
And maybe we can mention a few things that distinguish these schools from others.
First, we can see that especially with movements born in modern times, political, philosophical and social ideologies tend to go to extremes. It’s either one extreme of the spectrum or the other. Even in the field of pedagogy, at any given time, two opposite movements can be born, and these movements cannot escape the pull and impact of ideological and political polarization.
In these schools that you mentioned, they don’t go to extremes and don’t go into polarization. And they keep education as the core and they value the common truth and keep these upfront. Second, they keep education as their core and consider it the most important element of human existence, and this is only because they don’t use education as a weapon of ideology, politics or religious polarization. And also, as they focus on the common grounds of humanity, these schools are well received by people of different faiths, colors and races in every country from different parts of the world.
And third, even though there may be various philosophical arguments on this, ethics and good conduct are what define the core of human character. The people who work in these schools, by God’s grace, are trying to follow these ethical values as much as they can.
Hopefully, they gain those virtues as their characters. And these dedicated souls — if they don’t see teaching as a way of making a living but instead consider it an honorable and most important duty, a way of gaining God’s consent, a wisdom and a form of prayer — they are able to work with utter selflessness. And so, the teachers, the students, the staff — whoever they are able to touch — come together as one through the cause of education. Of course this will make a difference.
Brian Knowlton: What, in your view, is the greatest challenge for Muslims in reconciling traditional religious beliefs with modern society and life? Is there any hope for an end to the conflict between extremist fundamentalists on the fringe of the Islamic world and Western countries?
Fethullah Gülen: There are three essential foundations to the soul of Islam. If you neglect any one of them, it’s going to affect the other dynamics and paralyze that soul. These foundations could be summarized as: 1) Interpreting the religion according to the core sources of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet while understanding the times we live in; 2) Just as the Quran is a manifestation of God’s Word, the universe is a manifestation of God’s Power and Will. We must study the commands of this “universal book” along with the Quran; 3) Keeping the balance by being conscious of substance as much as form, the spiritual as much as the material, the hereafter as much as the world, the metaphysical as much as the physical and vice versa.
I believe that up until the five centuries after the Hijra, there were Muslims who established philosophical, spiritual, mystical and Sufi systems because they had the love of truth and enthusiasm for science. However, in later times they couldn’t interpret well the times they were in and so lost that level of intellectual rigor. As a result, a certain mentality developed in some quarters, and from this mentality an attitude surfaced toward the West. This was not because of the fundamentals of faith but because of the flawed mentality. And maybe, it’s possible that some of the actions of Westerners gave support to this negative attitude.
As far as ending the clash mentioned in the second part of your question — it’s all up to people being able to get together and talk and enlighten themselves and view each other with tolerance. If we can form a strong diplomacy that is tied to universal human values instead of pressure and hard power, if we can seek the good will of others instead of coming down like a hammer over their heads, probably, the situation with fundamentalists will be diminished. For example, if your aim is to help a country develop and democratize, instead of entering a country with hard power, they could try to open the doors of people’s hearts with the way of love, such as by humanitarian aid. If there is a sincere intention to help, and I believe it should be based on compassion, and if we could act with the philosophy of Rumi, the thoughts of Yunus Emre and the way of Yesevi — then I think we can alleviate the fundamentalist ideology.
Otherwise, using hard power will likely generate a backlash. With hard power, all the hatred and rancor will be inherited by upcoming generations and will even spread from the people at the top all the way down into every level of society.
From this angle, the world needs to develop a new diplomacy to counteract the negativity, and this can only be accomplished by leading countries like the US and established institutions like the United Nations and NATO.
Brian Knowlton: What relationship, if any, do you have with the current Turkish government? What, if anything, would you like to see it do differently? Should a Muslim-governed state be based on Shariah law?
Fethullah Gülen: In my opinion, the worst state and the worst government are far better than statelessness and chaos – because there is anarchy in the latter and it leads to nihilism.
From that perspective, if someone were to have a positive interest in the state, I would consider it a duty of citizenship and at the same time an expression against anarchy. I always believe in being on the side of the rule of law, and I also believe in the importance of sharing good ideas with the officials of the state that are going to promise a future for the country. Accordingly, irrespective of whoever is in charge, I try to be respectful of those state officials, keep a reasonable level of closeness and keep a positive attitude toward them.
With this line of thinking, we would be on good terms with whoever is in charge. When Suleyman Demirel was in office, we met from time to time, and when Turgut Ozal, who had very different points of view, later came to power, I also shared my ideas with him. We also repeatedly met with Bülent Ecevit, who was a social democrat, during his term. He was also very supportive of the schools and the efforts of dialogue. We also met some of the members of the current government. Of course, we would approve the positive actions of those individuals who happen to share some of the ideas and feelings that we have. We would applaud their efforts to strengthen democracy, establish the supremacy of the rule of law, take freedom and independence and elevate them to universal standards in the country — but that does not mean we in any way make policy recommendations to them, nor do we ever act under their influence.
So, if we were to speak of a “relationship,” it is an embracing relationship based on Rumi’s spirit to have a chair for everyone in our heart.
On the final part of your question, that everybody practices their religion freely is different from a country ruled by Shariah. If a country grants freedom of religion, equal rights for people to live as they wish, learn and manage their affairs according to their own conscience, if a state has such a system, then it is in no way contrary to the teachings of the Quran.
And if there is such a state, there is no need to come up with an alternative system. And if the system does not provide full human rights and freedoms just as in some democracies of our time that are under constant evolution, it should be reviewed, renewed and reformed according to the norms of universal laws and human rights by legislative and executive organs.
In Turkey, too, for example, simply as a result of democracy, people have asked for the opportunity to live freely according to their beliefs, in the schools and elsewhere. The people have asked for the right to be who they truly are — and this is the fundamental right of every human being.
So far, none of those who have governed Turkey have made demands to instill into the legislature any practices derived directly from religion. Neither the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which is perceived to be close to religion and consists of religious people for the most part, nor Necmettin Erbakan, who is thought to be a little more respectful and attached to religion, has made any such demands.
Brian Knowlton: Would you see it as a bad thing if future elections in Turkey were to result in a more secular government returning to power? Why?
Fethullah Gülen: Whether it is a secular party or one composed of religiously observant members, no matter who comes into office, it cannot ignore the realities in Turkey. There is a huge mass that practices Islam, and the mosques are filling up with people every day. There are also minorities — Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians, Syriac Christians, Nestorian Christians, Protestants and Jews. So indeed, anyone in charge will have to form an administration that takes into account all of these realities. That’s why, whether a governing party is formed from the devoutly religious or the completely secular, it will have to take into account Turkey’s realities and govern accordingly. So, the real answer to your question is that I wouldn’t worry that much.
On the other hand, just like I’ve expressed time and again, we have maintained the same proximity to all parties. Notice that I’m not saying “equal distance” but “equal proximity,” because the sympathizers of all those parties are our people.
People’s political views or ideologies are not an obstacle to us befriending them. Those who embrace and love everyone and dedicate themselves to becoming ambassadors of love would not exclude anyone, and would not reduce him or her to a political party’s ideology. Ambassadors of love neither support certain political parties and push away the others, nor defy some others due to bias or prejudice.
So, there is not an expression in our statements that would contradict our above-politics status (and I am not using “above-politics” as an indication of virtue). As a person who believes political fights and chaos would only harm our country, I believe that we should look for solutions to every problem through open dialogue in the community, in an environment of peace and understanding.
Brian Knowlton: What are the fundamental values that bind together the followers of what is known as the Gülen movement? Are they specific beliefs, or more a way of looking at the world?
Fethullah Gülen: First of all, let me express one more time that I am disturbed by the term Gülen movement. Today, when you say movement, it refers to rather social movements, moreover political ones. In this regard, it is not possible to associate me with a movement.
For the sake of utility or practicality, to be able to describe its activities, it may be called a movement. However, I believe that calling this movement the Fethullah Gülen movement is not right, and doing so is disrespectful to many people dedicated to carrying out its activities. My role in this movement is very limited, and there is no leadership, no center, no loyalty to a center and no hierarchy.
From time to time and to the whole public, you offer some suggestions; you put forward and you advocate the need for addressing illness and poverty, helping those in need wherever they are in the world, establishing educational initiatives and reaching out to the needy. Then people who share the same ideas come together, and from this, a movement of volunteers comes into being.
Others, following the example of their success, try to do similar things on their own in their communities or wherever the need may be. As a result, a network of services emerges that has no center, no organizational hierarchy, no bylaws, but that constitutes a sum of individuals seeking God’s consent.*
[* EDITOR’S NOTE: God’s consent: “Allah rizasi ” in Turkish or “Ridâ Allah” in Arabic refers to the contentment of God in the acts of a believer. It is a fundamental tenet of Muslim life that nothing other than the consent of God should be expected in return for a life run as a good Muslim. Consent or contentment in that sense does not refer to a dialogic relationship between the believer and God, but to a goal for the believer to attain.]
Very naturally, because of the sympathy these people have towards you, they sometimes ask for your opinion, or sometimes you express your views through the mass media or the Internet. People who have the innate character of being helpful to others agree with these ideas and come together. Perhaps, that these views and suggestions are humanitarian and rational appeals to these people.
So, for that reason attributing all these good deeds and services just to one person is both unfair, and according to our faith, is considered an act of associating partners with God (shirk) who is indeed making all this happen. Believe me, let alone knowing how many people are associated with this movement, I do not even know the people running some of the large organizations associated with this movement. Nor do I know how many countries this movement is active in, nor do I know how many teachers and students there are.
Especially for the last 11 to 12 years that I have been away from Turkey, I can only get information from the media about these works of service. From this perspective, even though some call it the “Gülen Movement,” I prefer to call it sometimes “Service-Hizmet,”* sometimes “the Movement of Volunteers,” sometimes the “Souls Dedicated to Humanity,” and sometimes “a movement that sets its own examples [movement that does not need to turn back to a golden age for examples]”. Even if it may sound somewhat lengthy, to do justice to its encompassing character, it may be also called “a movement of people who are gathered around high human values.”
Perhaps there’s a smiling face to this movement too, which is embracing everyone with a smile and with an open heart and not harboring ill feelings towards anyone despite curses or transgressions. As such, this movement is not so small as to be associated with just one person. It is a matter of a nation manifesting its true character once again.
If we connect this to the things we mentioned above, this is a movement that anyone poor or wealthy could say “yes” to in terms of avoiding clashes and chaos with a different way of diplomacy, countering the spread of conflicts, preventing extremist attitudes, triggering the innate humane feelings in everyone, and thereby creating “peace islands” where everyone can live up to the full potential of their humanity. That’s something anyone can say yes to.
At the core of all this understanding is being respectful to different ideas, welcoming everyone respectfully and trying to understand each other, accepting people as they are, no matter what they believe in and what philosophy or ideology they pursue. According to our religion, genuine respect is respect to humanity because it is God’s art. Yes, a human being, whoever the person is, should be respected simply for being the art of God.
Rumi, with this understanding, called to all nations, “Come, come again, whoever you are, come!” Maybe ours has a small difference. We call and say, “If you’d like to come, please come, our hearts are wide open to you, but please don’t burden yourself. Let us come to your countries and homes. Just listen to us for a moment and let us listen to you as well, as we may both find something beautiful and form new sentences in the poetry of human [humane] thinking.”
Brian Knowlton: You’ve devoted decades to the cause of interfaith tolerance and cooperation, but given the situation around the world what hope do you have for a long-term increase in tolerance?
Fethullah Gülen: I’ve never lost hope, because I’ve come to realize that most of the problems can be solved with time. Up until 20 to 25 years ago, there were mountains, cliffs and rivers of blood between people in Turkey — between Muslims and people viewed as minorities, between people of the same religion but different lifestyles or points of view. And with the impact of traditional culture and ingrained habits, those distances seemed impossible to bridge.
But we gathered with people, and we shared similar ideas with people from all walks of life, and time and again we met around dinner tables and broke bread together. And I humbly advocated: “Let’s not create new reasons to fight by discussing the old causes of misunderstanding and animosity. Let’s bury those negative incidents into history, and let’s put huge rocks on top of them. Let us not revive them, and not trigger new clashes. Let us live like friends and send waves of love to the future.”
Almost everyone in Turkey has received this idea very well. With Christians in all their different denominations, with Jews, Armenians and Greeks, we have developed sincere relationships, and we got to know each other on a personal level and visited each other to share ideas. Moreover, we started the dialogue initiatives and the notion of respecting people for who they are.
Further down the road, state officials warmed up to the idea and even took ownership of the initiatives due to the universal appeal of the ideas. Our relationship with these friends still continues, but the whole thing is conducted now in cooperation with the state authorities through Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs.
I am personally glad to see that these dialogue efforts set an example and are now being coordinated by the Directorate of Religious Affairs. I am of the view that just as they have been emulated in Turkey, these dialogue activities will be emulated around the world over time.
However, these kind of overarching projects do not come into being in just five or 10 years; it’s not a simple house that you can fix in six months. What is at hand is broken hearts and crushed feelings. We would need many long years and serious efforts to heal those hearts and feelings. Nonetheless, success is in the hands of God. We ask from Him and we wish from Him that people love each other and embrace each other.
Brian Knowlton: Turkey, whatever its problems, has been a democracy in modern times; it is a NATO member and Western ally. Could it be a model for other Islamic countries? What should we understand from the lack of democracy in other Islamic nations?
Fethullah Gülen: As you would appreciate it is not possible to name a single democracy fully matured and embraced by everyone. So, from this angle, “democracy” is most of the time combined with another term such as “social,” “liberal,” “Christian,” “radical,” while some of these definitions may not even consider the others as democracy.
Nevertheless, in our current times, when people say democracy, it’s always received in its plain sense without considering its derivatives. On the other hand, when many talk about religion, without considering the place of politics within it, the religion is randomly associated with politics, which is just one of the realms of Islam. So these two points of view caused a diversion of opinions among Muslim scholars regarding the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
Although these two, Islam and democracy, are not complete opposites of each other, it is obvious that there are serious differences between them: On the one hand Islam is a religion, and on the other, democracy is an administrative system.
It’s a pity that those who claim to speak in the name of Islam and those who claim to be pro-democracy are both making the same common mistake that democracy and religion are not compatible.
Moreover, democracy is not something that cannot be questioned. When we look at its historical development over time we find that corrections have followed its failures, that it has been revised repeatedly, and that some 30 different formats of democracy have been proposed. Because of this zigzag trajectory, some still view democracy with skepticism.
Putting aside the trembling worries of certain despotic rulers, I wonder whether we can explain the Muslim world’s somewhat aloof view of democracy with the aforementioned ambiguity.
As I mentioned in my response to one of your earlier questions, the issue of developing a democracy responsive to man’s spiritual needs that would be satisfied with nothing other than the consent of the Almighty and the promise of eternity should also be discussed.
If you like, you can call this “democracy with a spiritual dimension.” This means a democracy that includes respect toward the rights and freedoms of human beings and that ensures freedom of religion and at the same time prepares an environment where people can practice their beliefs freely and pursue a life of their own conscience. Furthermore, this means a democracy that assists people in fulfilling their desires concerning eternity.
We should search for ways to expand and humanize democracy in these senses. An ideal democracy should promise to fulfill a human being’s needs related to eternity as much as it promises to solve the issues of today and tomorrow. Only a democracy like that could develop into an ideal democracy, but unfortunately, humanity hasn’t reached that horizon yet.
Democracy in Turkey is still a work in progress. In a way, the road to democracy is still an uphill climb. But it would be unfair to say that nothing has been done toward this end. These days, democracy is undergoing a process, if you will, an evolution towards perfecting itself to become a completely humane and humanistic system that would meet both the material and spiritual needs of man. In this respect, considering the progress it has made in terms of human rights and universal values, Turkey can set an example to neighboring countries.
Brian Knowlton: To clarify, democracy and Islam are fully compatible in your view?
Fethullah Gülen: The key is to allow — not just allow, but facilitate — everyone’s beliefs, whether Judaism or Christianity or Islam. A democratic society should allow everyone to live at their will. Democracy is the system that probably does this best.
Brian Knowlton: What, for you, is the proper place for women in society, and what sort of roles do they have within the movement associated with your name?
Fethullah Gülen: In Islam, there is absolutely no such thing as putting limits on a woman’s life or restricting her sphere of action. Particular cases that seem like negativity today should be evaluated, taking into account the peculiar circumstances within which they took place. In addition, it should not be forgotten that in some societies and regions pre-Islamic norms and traditions have continued even after their embrace of Islam. It would not be appropriate to attribute such norms and traditions to Islam.
The role of a woman in the world is not restricted to housework and to raising her children. As a matter of fact, she has responsibility to carry out all tasks corresponding to her in every realm of society, provided that doing so conforms to religious sensitivities and does not contradict her innate character (fitra).
However, unfortunately, over time this reality has been ignored even among Muslims, and instead, a rude way of understanding and an insensitive way of thinking have ruined the natural system that is based on the notions of man and woman helping one another and sharing a life together. Consequently, the order of family as well as that of society has been spoiled. The tendency of different nations/communities to consider and portray their own traditions and cultural characteristics as the essentials of Islam, and their interpretations of Islam along the same line, have led to a further violation of women’s rights, and in some cases to women’s total isolation from society.
Nevertheless, aforementioned practices that are imbedded in society have been gradually changing. I hope that significant progress will be made in this field, short to long term.
I would presume that the women working in what you, with your own words, have called the “Gülen movement” surely realize where they stand, and I would assume that they are trying to fulfill their callings with care. They too are carrying out important functions in service to humanity. Just like men, they too are using every opportunity they can seize and setting good examples to others through their attitude and conduct. When necessary, they too set out to every corner of the world to become teachers and role models.
This article has first appeared in the Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Turkish Review.
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