The Gülen Movement: Paradigms, Projects and Aspirations

Dr. Simon Robinson
Dr. Simon Robinson


Date posted: January 5, 2011

SIMON ROBINSON

The Gülen movement has become an area of study on its own. No year passes without an academic or semi-academic conference being held in a Western university. This year the Niagara Foundation of Chicago, together with several academic institutions, organized “The Gülen Movement: Paradigms, Projects and Aspirations” conference. Professor Simon Robinson was there not only to participate, but also to cover the event for Turkish Review.

My experience of Chicago this fall began not with Fethullah Gülen but with William Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten. Great playwright and great composer came together in the opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to transport the audience to a kingdom of fairy magic mediated by ancient Athens, Elizabethan England and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The opera is busy, with legal rulings, two pairs of mixed up young lovers, the king and queen of the fairies in dispute, and ordinary workmen (artisans) whose task above all is to serve, through entertaining as well as plying their trade. All these come together and are thoroughly confused before a resolution, with love winning the day.

Was it real or was it all just a dream? If it has disturbed you, says Robin Goodfellow, do not worry, see it all as a dream:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream.

Of course, this is the irony of the play. Far from being a dream this is how we humans are. We have to deal with difference, in all its ambiguity, conflict and frustration. And somehow we have to make sense of it, find meaning in relation to who we are, our identity. There are no shortcuts or simple solutions. This is not a dream that we can awake from but our reality.

It was apt then that one of the first questions that the great Islamic scholar John Esposito put in the opening lecture of the conference “The Gülen Movement: Paradigms, Projects and Aspirations” was, “Is the Gülen movement too good to be true, is it real?” There are two ways of looking at this question. First, does the Gülen movement have something to hide? Second, does the movement deal in nice ideas, like compassion, that no one could object to, but have little actual substance? In other words does it just deal in dreams and not the complex stuff of the multicultural world? The conference tried to work through such questions in relation to the meaning and practice of the Gülen movement.

The Niagara Foundation, under the great leadership of Hakan Berberoğlu, pulled together a great cast to pursue these questions. This included international figures such as Greg Barton (Monash University, Australia), Klas Grinell (University of Gothenburg, Sweden), Leonid R. Sykiainen (State Scientific University, Russia), Thomas Michel (Georgetown University), Esposito (Georgetown University) and Carter Findley (Ohio State University). The supporting cast from Chicago was no less distinguished, including Martin Marty (University of Chicago), M. Cherif Bassiouni (DePaul University) and Marcia Hermansen (Loyola University Chicago).

Of course, there are more than enough people who would claim that the Gülen movement is not as it seems, that it is hiding its real intentions. Hence, one session looked carefully at attempts to defame Gülen. It is clear that Gülen himself was concerned less with defending himself and more with positive action. However, James Harrington, a Texan civil rights lawyer, argued that sometimes defense was necessary and that it ultimately could lead to developing the common good, not simply the good name of Gülen. He explored Gülen’s political trial, which lasted eight years and ended in 2008 with a civil appeals court ruling in his favor. Harrington showed how an important element in this success was Turkey’s evolving attempt to enter the European Union. The EU had insisted that civil liberties be expanded and the judicial system reformed. Hence the trial was under the closest scrutiny. In fighting the trial Gülen himself, in turn, contributed to the development of religious freedom, free speech and democracy in Turkey, directly affecting the meaning and practice of justice.

This is clearly not a man with things to hide. Legal process leaves little place to do that. Nonetheless, we must not be surprised that different groups will want to defame Gülen and the wider movement. Both are bound to be the object of projections and fears in a world where, like Shakespeare’s play, we struggle to understand each other, and fear what the other might intend. The fallback for critics will always be an argument ad hominem, criticizing the man, not the action or the argument. The most effective response then is always to make action and argument transparent.

The conference revealed in this regard more than a narrowly pious and spiritual man; it revealed someone who inhabits the real world and is prepared to wrestle with and for the truth. The spirituality of the movement was examined in some depth, looking at the core values of worship and servanthood, forgiveness and the love of the prophet. Two things shone from this, the way in which the spirituality of Gülen was rooted in the Sufi tradition, and also how this connects directly to more generic views of spirituality. The first of these several contributions showed how this spirituality was holistic. It spoke to the affective as well as the cognitive in humanity. The second showed how the spiritual focus linked in to wider, more generic, views of spirituality, not least those focused on professional practice. In the area of positive psychology, for instance, the focus on forgiveness has led to the development of forgiveness therapy. The Gülen movement provides the space for such holistic reflection on meaning and value, and not just within the movement. Hence, John Pahl noted the development of “sacred spaces” in which the movement is able to engage in dialogue. These sacred spaces begin with the individual at prayer, and move out to the family, the schools, civil society and finally the inter-religious space.

Several of the speakers noted how this takes spirituality out of the world of narrow pietism and directly into civil engagement. Marty suggested that this was a difficult balancing act. This engagement was not about asserting a particular ideological or theological identity, but about enabling reflection that really does look at the meaning of what we do. At this point it inevitably relates to and asks questions of justice. At one level Barton focused on justice in the developing world and the need to find ways of addressing poverty and empowering people to develop business and enterprise. He drew parallels with Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank microfinance project. Like Gülen movement projects, microfinance keeps appearing in the most unexpected places. There is now, for instance, a microfinance bank in New York. The challenge from Barton was to bring together the Gülen movement and figures such as Yunus. There are clear differences between such groups, but they are both concerned with social development and justice. Here dialogue could enable mutual critique and the development of shared responsibility in practice.

That theme of responsibility echoed throughout the conference. Phyllis Bernard’s presentation looked at businesses and social responsibility. This detailed a broad spirituality of business and work that embodied care and friendship, based on her research with Turkish business leaders. She argued that negotiation and arbitration needed to take account of these core values, addressing responsibility both within and outside the firm. This focus on responsibility also led to a challenging of accepted social paradigms. The idea of multiculturalism, for example, has been seen in Europe as being focused in an uncritical acceptance of difference. This is a model of social interaction that is reinforced by the idea of religious rights. We each have a right to practice our religion, provided that it does not harm others. Gülen’s focus on responsibility and spirituality makes such paradigms look a little lifeless. His focus on service and universal responsibility challenges different groups to explore and embody shared responsibility in the civil arena. The different groups then work together around shared concerns as local and global citizens. This looks to the responsibility of difference, not simply the rights.

So far so good then. Not only are there no things to hide, but the very theology and practice of the movement looks to bring things into the light. Gülen’s spirituality is not just about ideas and feelings, it is about embodiment. As vicegerents of God’s creation we are challenged to show what this looks like in practice. Hence, giving an account, being transparent, is written into the project. Religion cannot be private or hidden. For some, of course, there are still nagging doubts. Are there not things to hide in the movement, albeit with no intention to deceive? There are issues about justice that many critics of the Gülen movement would say are at the heart of the movement and of Islam itself, and where the imperative of compassion and care seems to come up against a culture of oppression.

One of the most important is the place of women in Islam. Süveyda Karakaya’s contribution to the conference was vital in this respect. She shared ongoing research about the attitudes to the Gülen movement of 250 female affiliates. This shows great diversity of backgrounds and a willingness to critically reflect on the issue of women’s subordination. We await the conclusions, but her research so far raises two questions for me. First, how is the debate about women’s subordination in Islam being framed? Second, is it about a matter of justice and rights or is it about underlying worldviews? Of course, the two are connected. However, focus on the first can lead to a demand for justice. The stress is then on making a stand now.

Focus on the underlying worldviews recognizes that there is an affective and cultural dimension to this debate as well as an intellectual one. This makes ongoing dialogue the most appropriate way of dealing with this issue. Dialogue enables the different voices and dimensions to be heard and at all points enables participants both to account for their actions, and to gauge what responsibility and justice demands. If there is need for change then critical dialogue will enable that need to be articulated and worked through in a context of mutual trust. In this light, justice does not always demand instant response and action. Rather, a dialogue of trust will enable a focus on truth and good timing. All of this is about having the courage to enter and sustain dialogue, and it might be said that this is precisely what Gülen conferences are about.

The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott once described higher education as the “adventure of an unrehearsed critical conversation.” Such a conversation enables the participant to first hear the very different voices that are surrounding him or her, as well as the different voices over time. We might add that it enables us to hear the voices of the future. In turn this causes one to articulate and check what one’s own voice is, and how it is expressed. Inevitably real dialogue takes one into the embodiment of ideas. This is not just about nice ideas, and sharing how we think and feel about life. It tests out our meaning and practice. As Grinell observed, it also causes us to look again at how we see and know the world around us. Gülen stresses the importance of science as a means of gathering data about the world. However, his view of the world and humanity is not an objective one, but one based in the value of that creation, and thus in knowledge mediated by empathy. How one sees the world already makes a difference. The child in an area of conflict is not simply a statistic but a human being with needs; universal responsibility means that I, along with others, must respond.

Whilst flying up to Chicago I have to confess to thinking, “Oh no, not another Gülen conference.” Surely we have said all there is to say about this remarkable man and the many people and projects which have blossomed through the movement. One might be forgiven for thinking that there is a whole new sub-discipline of academia in the form of “Gülen Studies.” The answer of this conference was that there is a lot more to say. The Gülen movement is not about pious platitudes, but the embodiment of values and belief. This means that there is constant learning with regards to how those values are and can be embodied, and how that relates to other views of value and service. Esposito’s question at the beginning of the conference could only begin to be examined in relation to that practice. Is the movement too good to be true?

Well, its values in one sense are, because they are general. The values, however, only take on real meaning in practice. That is where the truth of the goodness is revealed. In one sense this parallels the Christian gospel and the thought that one knows the truth of Christian love through the fruits, the practical outworking, of that love. Just so, we can only know the truth of the “goodness” of the Gülen movement through actions. Hence, it was wholly appropriate to end the conference around a session that looked in detail at Gülen movement activity in two very scary places, Kurdistan and Nigeria. We heard moving stories about schools and hospitals in Kurdistan. What came across was the courage of the people involved in those projects. What also came over was how grateful the local population was. Such was the effect of the schools that offers to house Gülen schools were being made from Baghdad. The examples from Nigeria were in some ways even more compelling. This is a nation which exemplifies cross-cultural conflict and global responsibility. Multinational corporations seek to extract oil wealth, affecting the social and physical environment; different tribes assert their rights against those corporations and central government; central government fails its people, partly through corruption; and different religions assert and defend their boundaries. In the midst of all this are the Nigerian Turkish International Colleges. Their presence embodies the core values of tolerance, service and dialogue, showing in practice a different way of being together.

Justice is addressed through service, and this in turn makes people sit up and think, and so begins dialogue. Once again this is not a stand for instant justice, but a long-term commitment to dialogue and practice. It focuses on the value in relationships, not least in the way it helps each party to reflect on meaning, develop identity and develop an imagination big enough to respond to the imperative to act.

This brings us back to Shakespeare and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Theseus has little time for the imagination, seeing this as the world of the lunatic, the lover and the poet. But Shakespeare knows that the imagination, “… gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.”

Imagination turns ideas into things that have a place and an identity, a narrative and a future; the school in Nigeria, the hospital in Kurdistan and so on. Several presentations in the conference focused on the way in which all this gives hope. Hope is itself one of the so-called three theological virtues, one definition of which is the capacity to envision a future that is positive and creative.

Hope, as distinct from a general sense of optimism, develops through at least four means: agency, purpose, pathways and community. Agency gives us a sense of control, knowing, understanding our thoughts and actions. Purpose gives us a sense of value. What we do is more than simply making money. Pathways show us the means to our vision. It can be done. Community supports and provides example of action. It is precisely such a hope that the Gülen movement, not least through it schools, can generate. Of course, the response of the moral imagination can never fully answer the call, but that is fine. As Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel said of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Sonata,” it is always much better than it can be played. That doesn’t stop us trying.

It was the sense of hope that stayed with me at the end of the conference. Findley suggested that the Gülen movement was one of the three most influential religious movements of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey; the others being movements led by Mevlana Halid-i Bagdadi and Said Nursi. Towards the end of the conference, as an historian, he cast his net wider. He suggested the Gülen movement could be compared with Gandhi and his movement of nonviolent resistance. Of course, the context of both figures is very different. However, the scope of their influence is not dissimilar. What both have shared is the capacity to bring hope and to enable others to find hope.

Like any good conference, this one also left us with further questions. If the Gülen movement is embodying this service so successfully, how does it relate to other groups involved in civil engagement? Is there a dialogue there that should be enabled? If there is a view of justice in the practice of the movement, how does that relate to the other views of justice that I have mentioned above? Should the Gülen movement have a voice in the great social debates, not least post-credit crisis? How can the examples of business and education be shared in a wider corporate dialogue? One of the great debates at this moment is how university education relates to the practice of business. Business remains obsessed with utility; “How to succeed in five easy stages.” It has little sense of purpose beyond the increase in shareholder value, and the training provided by business schools offers no effective focus on the practice of responsibility. How can the debate about universal responsibility, central to Gülen’s thinking and the practice of the movement, contribute to that wider debate? How is the dialogue developing with other religions around the idea and practice of service? Inter-religious dialogue is too often content with “getting to know you” sessions, rather than focusing on the practice of faith in society.

Perhaps this points to further conferences that bring together business, religions and nongovernmental organizations to explore the pathways of hope. Perhaps it points to different kinds of dialogue. Whatever the future, there is no time to dream.

Source: Turkish Review , Jan. 1, 2011


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