Understanding Fethullah Gülen (2)

Ekrem Dumanli
Ekrem Dumanli

Date posted: February 18, 2008

Ekrem Dumanli

One of the reasons for the difficulty in understanding Fethullah Gülen is the term “community” itself. Unfortunately, the meaning attached to this word connotes a group of people closed to and isolated from the outside world. It is also used to refer to illegal organizations. Both approaches are tendentious. As Ali Bulaç says in his book “Din, Kent ve Cemaat: Fethullah Gülen Örneği” (Religion, City and Community: Fethullah Gülen’s Example), the futuristic predictions of certain sociologists have not come true.

They were assuming that community formations would reach a culmination in modern society and that the notions of unity and solidarity would give rise to new values and groups. However, the more crowded man’s surroundings got, the lonelier he became. There were no longer the tribal ties and blood bonds of the past. Instead it became possible to set for oneself a common target of certain values and identities. And right at this point the terms “individual,” “individualism” and “individual freedom” — which are to a certain extent sanctified by modernity — emerged and it was assumed that these terms would melt and disappear forever in the “community.”However, things were not like that at all for those familiar with the traditional course of our social structure. Our cultural infrastructure, which organizes its followers by saying, “When you are three people, one of you will be an imam,” and which attaches enormous importance to being and acting as a community, marks a fact very different from the meaning attached to community in the West. The class of clergy doesn’t exist in Islam and there is no communal structure that tramples the individual, either. In a religion where each individual can contact God and gravitate toward Him without needing intermediation, how could the follower of this faith hand over his responsibilities of soulful self-evaluation and contemplation to somebody else entirely?

Understanding a community

Those who have difficulty understanding Mr. Gülen make the mistake of trying to understand the term community from the Turkish translations of foreign texts. They think that community is a grinding system that terminates and consumes individuals in a structure closed to the outside world. They imagine a structure where it is impossible to be or remain an intellectual, whereas the massive group which is belittled by certain segments as a “congregation” achieves projects of worldwide scope and sets out on a tour beyond the horizon. Furthermore, they don’t do this to be famous or to acquire high ranks. What sort of commitment is this to achieving internal isolation that it so clearly stands out with an ideal that transcends the boundaries of the country of its origin and realizes international projects for that ideal? We can direct this basic question through a simple inquiry: Would all these intellectuals with university degrees and businessmen who closely follow the tides of world trade within their own discipline forsake all their personal accumulation, qualities and experiences to mingle with a community? No. However, the narrow meaning attached to the term “community” in Turkey prevents people from understanding how an individual can remain an individual in a close-knit group of people whose most prominent hallmark is self-sacrifice. It stops them from seeing how such individuals manage to integrate into society without surrendering to their self-commanding ego. Owing to this incapacitated perception, some people are at a loss to understand how the educational institutions dubbed “Turkish schools” can easily perpetuate their existence. The reason for this fallacy is so self-evident!

People with this incapacitated perception, using the parameters of their own world, fail to imagine laboring without expecting anything in return. A young graduate who has his diploma in his hand works at a school, thousands of kilometers away from his homeland, with heart and soul and without expecting anything in return. For those who cannot explain this with their own lifestyle and philosophy, concepts such as self-negation, self-sacrifice, altruism and living for others in general are utterly difficult to understand, whereas the sacredness and the divine attraction inherent in the essence of such concepts outstrip all worldly interests and expectations.

The same situation holds true for the businessmen who make donations for educational activities carried out with the guidance of Mr. Gülen. Some expressions used to depict these people are beyond simply being upsetting; they are hurtful and insulting. We can see that this is just another case of lack of information, causing them to assume that such accomplished businessmen are devoid of free will, judgment and foresight. This is another result of the narrow meaning that is attached to community. They wrongly think that the Anatolian merchant who has made a fortune as a result of years of toil fails to do his accounts properly and wastes his wealth by becoming hostage to his romantic feelings. But these people are perfectly aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Without neglecting their own business affairs, they are investing in the future of this country, and maybe of the world. They are doing this with their minds, hearts, foresight and spiritual insight working in perfect coordination.

There are two particular points those who look at the movement from the outside and especially from the opposing side have tough time understanding: its independent and national attributes. So many things have been said and written about Gülen. Comments have been made that flagrantly trample the boundaries of fairness. Accusations have been made that amount to slander. An overwhelming majority have turned a deaf ear to this flurry of dirty propaganda, because Gülen is a person who has served in every corner of Anatolia. He has delivered speeches, given conferences and held talks. He is thus very well known by people. He is a person who has no personal expectations from anyone on earth. This quality of his was known by people even when he was a student in Erzurum, his hometown. And as he extended his reach to all parts of Turkey, this characteristic became much more visible. The quality of not asking anyone for anything is so visible also in the services realized with his encouragement and inspiration.

A certain group of people who once struggled for an ideology and who acquired a certain way of thinking during that struggle has always thought of Gülen and the projects carried out with his guidance as being a part of a relationship with “a greater power.” According to them, if a social movement is capable of achieving projects of international scope, then it must have been “assigned” by “great powers” or it must have at least been authorized by these powers to proceed with those projects. The approach of certain segments, which once collaborated with foreign powers to reach their ideological targets, saying, “These things can never be achieved without foreign support,” is a conclusion drawn from their own bitter and painful past experience. This approach is wrong! The fact that it is wrong is evident both in that it is based on an assumption by the fact that those who make this assumption have never been able to prove that the movement is actually supported by “foreign forces.” It is also just as evident that the scorpion poison injected with the help of claims such as the “Green Line” or the “Greater Middle East Project” — claims not known even by their claimants and about which everybody puts forward utterly arbitrary judgments — is not based on any solid piece of true information. The fact that this movement is being forced into the empty frames of such conspiracy theories in a hysterical frenzy is but a methodological preference aimed at hiding the fact that all these claims are groundless.

What is sad is that people with good intentions — people who have managed to remain national to a certain degree as a result of not establishing interest relationships with those “foreign powers” — may sometimes become the victims of this dirty propaganda. This is what we should pity the most!

That Gülen himself and those who act upon his guidance are all independent is the strongest aspect of this movement. We are faced with a model of civil society in this respect. However, this movement has had to pay a very dear price for its independence, because establishing contacts while remaining independent and building bridges of dialogue is an inevitably tough process. And your persistence to remain the same turns into a deep hostility in those who see you as an obstacle to their aspirations and those who want to subdue you. I should bitterly note that the price Mr. Gülen has paid is directly related to the identity he possesses. Because he emerged from Anatolia and sought alternatives, instead of settling with just racking his brain about global issues — a “guilt” coupled with his Muslim and Turkish identity — it was inevitable some segments would hate him. In other words, those who achieve even a fragment of the many educational and cultural activities initiated by Gülen are extolled and venerated. Since Gülen has no affiliations or identity similar to those of other segments of society, the negative approach of the “elites on top of the mountain” somehow reveals their real intentions. This is not an unusual situation for those who know Turkey’s history. In this country, they assign the role of “Jean Valjean” to those who don’t consort with their “modern tribes.”

A unique approach

What renders Gülen an enigma for certain segments is his pluralistic and participatory approach. His life should be looked at from this angle. We see a man who was brought up in the Korucuk village of Erzurum with strict family discipline by his parents. He pioneered the foundation of the Association for the Struggle Against Communism. He invited Necip Fazıl Kısakürek — a poet and writer cherished by devoted Muslim Turks as the greatest of the 20th century — to Thrace for a conference and he accompanied him wherever he went. He was introduced to the “Risale-i Nur” — a six-thousand-page commentary on the Quran written by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi — later in his life. He loved the poet Sezai Karakoç to the point of founding a “Revival” Association in his honor in İzmir. He loves Mehmet Akif, the poet of our national anthem, to the point of having memorizing the “Safahat,” the collection of his poems, in his childhood. Despite the opposition from his immediate surroundings, he supported the Şule magazine of Kemal Ural and distributed it himself. Is it not injustice to condemn such a great thinker, who has been open to all sorts of thoughts in his life to “isms” and “ists”? He has achieved one truly unique thing at a time when communal fanaticism has reached unbelievable heights, thereby drawing a distinctive line between being a conscious member of a community and being an imitator. He has always maintained his attitude of approaching everybody with love and respect. Nowadays, he says that the term “Fethullahist” upsets him much. This is also what he said in the past.

It can be easily said that he sees the existence of different congregations in the race to serve as a natural development. He hates the structures that sow seeds of separation and that are constructed in self-righteousness and arrogance. In fact, his strict opposition to the use of the suffix “ist” has confounded those who look at him from the outside and caused him to incur radically different accusations. He has never been afraid of different ideas or of the intellectuals who represent those ideas. Eventually he felt the need to make his own synthesis. However different the people he has been inspired by and the resources he has benefited from may be, he has his own separate resources that are unique to him and he has unchangeable boundaries. He has changed a score of his comments over the years in accordance with ever-changing conditions, but has never overstepped the borders drawn for him by his most fundamental reference sources in the first years of his long journey. This must be what it means to be a pioneer, a leader: being able to interpret the day and its events differently without ever making any concessions on the basics.

Turkey has failed to appreciate the value of its extraordinary intellectuals, unusual thinkers and magnificent men of letters at the appropriate times. This is why our history of thought is full of elegies. Our regrets are untimely, and our confessions futile. Today we are still experiencing and suffering the same sort of indifference, ignorance and failure to read the developments happening around us. So many valuable writers, thinkers and men of letters are still serving a sort of sentence because of the prejudices caused by factionalism. Gülen is one of them. Articles are penned, books and theses are written and chairs are established in world universities in his name. The endeavor to understand an intellectual like him, who has been at the focus of the world’s interest and curiosity, is an obligatory part of thinking in this country. There is much benefit in understanding the Gülen reality before it is too late.

Source: Today’s Zaman, 15 February 2008, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-134029-understanding-fethullah-gulen-2-by-ekremdumanli.html


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