Rainer Hermann interviews Fethullah Gulen – Do good and let it unfold


Date posted: November 10, 2012

Rainer Hermann

The Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen has been living in the United States for 13 years now. A widely branched network of followers developed also there in his name. There is no road sign indicating the exit and the dirt track. It leads you through a foggy broadleaf forest colored in all the shades of autumn to an estate with eight houses.

Gülen receives guests after midday prayer. He specifically asks them about what is going on in the world outside and always has follow-up questions. After this he will read again, write and pray. It is astonishing with how little sleep he can do. Every day is thoroughly structured. He preaches to his followers to use their time well and that is exactly what he himself does without ever being drawn into hectic. His followers say that he combines humbleness with charisma.

Thirteen years ago, Fethullah Gülen, the most influential preacher of Turkish Islam, retreated to this secluded place. Back then, the still powerful military had driven him out of Turkey. Stricken with illnesses, he decided to get operated at American hospitals. Since then, he has rarely left the estate, although he was issued a visa and with it a residence permit by the United States.

The voice of the 74-year-old Gülen sounds more powerful than ever, even from afar. It was his voice, which transformed the Muslims of Anatolia to a dynamic middle-class during the past decades. Gülen is the voice of those “black Turks”. Many movements have challenged Kemalism, the ideology of the “white Turks”. For centuries the urban, educated and secular upper-class of Istanbul – and later also of Ankara – ruled over Turkey. With contempt they looked down upon the uneducated, rural, poor and religious people of Anatolia. Inspired by Gülen’s teachings, many sought education and became wealthy, yet remained religiously devout. As Gülen effectively challenged the Kemalist elite, he was declared to be enemy of the state. If Gülen was to return to Turkey, it would open old wounds. This is why Gülen who shies away from conflicts decided to stay in Saylorsburg.

The 5.5 hectare estate does resemble Gülen’s native region a little bit. He was born in 1938 in Erzurum in the remote Eastern part of Anatolia. Saylorsburg is a place dominated by nature and deers roam the forest and from time to time brown bears are seen. Soon, the snow will be piling up just like in Erzurum. When Turkish entrepreneurs, who got together in the foundation “Golden Generation”, bought the estate for $175,000.00 in 1993 only a few log cabins were standing in the forest. Later the Foundation built the eight stone houses, created the park, and invited Gülen to settle down here in 1999.

Down at the lake, the visitors’ children are playing football. At noon, everyone gathers in the clearing at the Kösk – a type of garden pavilion in which already the Ottomans used to dine in the countryside. Traditional Turkish cuisine is on the menu: lentil soup, vegetables pickled in olive oil, kofta meat balls with rice, tea in small and curved glasses. Gülen cannot walk the distance anymore. After several bypass operations, his knees are troubling him now. He leaves the estate only for medical exams and treatment purposes at the hospital nearby. Gülen takes a life away from people, but the message is reaching millions.

A lift goes up to the first floor of the house, which resembles a simply yet elegantly decorated Ottoman house, which does not need more than a minimum of furniture. This is the floor on which the Hocaefendi – how he is reverently called by his followers – lives and works. Always at his side is his personal doctor as well as a few other people he trusts and confides in. He very rarely gives interviews. As every morning, he taught a dozen young theologians this morning who are getting training in private classes over a period of 2 years to become his students. Twice a week, they record his sermons and upload them onto the internet (www.herkul.org) so that TV stations have access to them.

The interview has been scheduled to take place after Islam’s midday prayer. That is when Gülen receives guests. He specifically asks them about what is going on in the world outside and always has follow-up questions. After this he will read again, write and pray. It is astonishing with how little sleep he can do. Every day is thoroughly structured. He preaches to his followers to use their time well and that is exactly what he himself does without ever being drawn into hectic. His followers say that he combines humbleness with charisma. On the wall behind him a clock is ticking softly. It is never switched to summertime. Time stays always the same, says Gülen.

“My life and my work are open for everyone”, assures Gülen. “Nothing is kept secret.” The activities of “hizmet” are carried out in public with people from the entire spectrum of life, from all countries and religions. They have been approved and are also being controlled by public authorities. “I would like to know what is not transparent about that.”

Calligraphic writing full of curves are beautifully written and decorating the walls. They seem to find their continuation in Gülens’ words. He does not speak modern, sober Turkish. The Ottomans would have understood him perfectly. Nowadays, it is a challenge even for Turkish people to follow him. In long sentences he intertwines suras from the Quran with sayings by the Prophet and the experiences of the mystics with the necessities of the modern world, and unites the world of faith with the reality of life. He explains the relevance of education and success in business, the compatibility of Islam, modern age and democracy as well as the incompatibility of Islam and violence. His followers are supposed to create employment and prosperity with their own hands and should not forget to distribute it among those who are in need.

Religious people wanting to live their faith far away from the vibrant cities were always drawn to the State of Pennsylvania. The early immigrants that settled on the fertile grounds of Pennsylvania must have been religious people. If you set out west from Philadelphia towards Saylorsburg, then you will drive through Quakertown and Emmaus. Road signs are indicating exits to Hamburg as well as Lebanon and also to New Tripoli. The road to Saylorsburg yet leads you through Bethlehem and Nazareth. Manhattan is only a few hours’ drive away from Saylorsburg. And yet, there are worlds between them.

Alp Aslandogan is looking down from the sixth floor onto the urban canyon out of stone in the 5th Ave. In 1991 he came to New York from Turkey to do his PhD in IT and to this very day he teaches at a university. In his spare time, he would work many hours for “hizmet” on a voluntary basis – that is how Gülen’s followers call their movement. The movement in Germany, also known as the Gülen movement is also growing in the United States. Gülen’s close-by investors in 130 countries, including Germany and the United States was founded more than a thousand educational institutions. That is why Aslandogan founded the small “Milky Way Foundation” as early as in 1993 to help children of Turkish immigrants at the weekend so they could succeed in school. In 1999, the foundation became a private school.

“We neither wanted to emulate the dominant culture nor isolate ourselves from it in order to be able to preserve our roots”, says Aslandogan. “We wanted to help parents to grasp the American culture and the children to preserve their parents’ values but also be productive citizens of this country.” Over two decades, activities such as these in New York turned into a widely branched network of diverse social activities. The Turkish Cultural Center in Manhattan and the Peace Islands Institute are two examples of this.

The cultural centre for instance organises English and Turkish language courses, prepares children for exams, helps adults to register themselves as voter and those who are self-employed to be successful. After a large forest fire in Israel, it reforested the area and built a new school in Haiti after the earthquake. After the terror attacks on the 11th of September 2011, the Pacific Islands Institute was founded as a platform for dialogue. In its framework, US-American politicians and foreign ambassadors, rabbis and Buddhist monks talk to each other, Muslim families invite non-Muslim families.

The Turkish Cultural Center and the Peace Islands Institute are two of the 218 social organizations in the United States that are associated with Gülen and joined forces under the umbrella organization Turkic American Alliance in May 2010. Its main offices are in Washington D.C. between Capitol Hill and the CNN studios. Just like in its New York offices the personality cult around Atatürk has vanished and there is no relief on the wall depicting the forever-smiling founder of the republic. What importance the umbrella organization has already gained can be seen by the fact that at its last gala evening seven senators and 53 Congressman and woman were present. Thirty-eight years old political analyst and former professor at the University of Pittsburgh Fevzi Bilgin, compiles studies about relevant issues in Turkey and the Middle East and assists the American political sphere with his work. He is the head of “Rethink”, the only private Turkish think tank in the United States.

The voice of the 74-year-old Gülen sounds more powerful than ever, even from afar. It was his voice, which transformed the Muslims of Anatolia to a dynamic middle-class during the past decades. Gülen is the voice of those “black Turks”. Many movements have challenged Kemalism, the ideology of the “white Turks”. For centuries the urban, educated and secular upper-class of Istanbul – and later also of Ankara – ruled over Turkey. With contempt they looked down upon the uneducated, rural, poor and religious people of Anatolia. Inspired by Gülen’s teachings, many sought education and became wealthy, yet remained religiously devout. As Gülen effectively challenged the Kemalist elite, he was declared to be enemy of the state. If Gülen was to return to Turkey, it would open old wounds. This is why Gülen who shies away from conflicts decided to stay in Saylorsburg.

Emre Çelik, an Australian IT specialist of Turkish descent, is one of the strong lines of Gülen in the United States. He also started two decades ago in Sydney, trying to give Turkish youngsters a jump-start in subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry in garages. Today, he is in charge of the Rumi Forum, named after a Turkish mystic, located a stone’s throw away from the White House. Jews as well as secular Americans are member of its board. Prominent politicians or diplomats often speak at the luncheons held at the forum which are broadcasted by four TV channels.

Çelik considers himself to be a “mainstream Muslim” and this is the type of Islam he wants to foster in the pluralistic society of America. Initially in Australia, he was fascinated by Said Nursi (1876 to 1960), the spiritual mentor of Gülen. As Nursi introduced the element of raising questions and doubting in Islam, taught to see the good in Western civilisation and adopt it, called to overcome the three basic evil of poverty, disunity and ignorance. “What Nursi formulated in theories, is carried out by Gülen in practice”, says Çelik. He considers the concept of pleasing God to be the decisive contribution of Gülen. By this, Gülen motivates people to act in this world in order to gain rewards for the hereafter.

The movement is being attacked from two sides, says Gülen. Gülen calls those who equate the activities of “hizmet” with Islamism ignorant. When it comes to the others, he only shakes his head. They accuse him of being “a traitor to Islam, being a slave of the United States and Israel as well as carrying out propaganda for Christianity and Judaism”. A public prosecutor in Turkey once called him even a secret cardinal in the service of the Pope. The biggest accusation about the Movement is that it wants to instigate a revolution in Turkey cultivating a secret Islamist elite. It is also claimed that the movement is not transparent and has worked as a secret society. This kind of movement critics are seeking hierarchical structure. There is no such an hierarchy in Islamic sufism. In addition, in the periods ruled by generals showing such a structure could be dangerous. “My life and my work are open for everyone”, assures Gülen. “Nothing is kept secret.” The activities of “hizmet” are carried out in public with people from the entire spectrum of life, from all countries and religions. They have been approved and are also being controlled by public authorities. “I would like to know what is not transparent about that.”

Education and building schools are issues particularly close to his heart. He says it is through education that a human being contributes in a constructive manner to his or her family, society and humanity. “Besides, I am convinced that we as God’s creatures will only achieve our full individual maturity through worldly and spiritual education.” He has been promoting this idea his entire life as well as the construction of schools. They are being built by companies that call themselves to be inspired by him. He is neither a founding nor a board member of any of them.

Always at his side is his personal doctor as well as a few other people he trusts and confides in. He very rarely gives interviews. As every morning, he taught a dozen young theologians this morning who are getting training in private classes over a period of 2 years to become his students. Twice a week, they record his sermons and upload them onto the internet (www.herkul.org) so that TV stations have access to them.

Continuous mentioning of the word investor does not mean everything is related to money but he tells his followers also to be successful entrepreneurs and he has made great achievements in this sense. A major Turkish business association is known with references to Gülen. The economic boom in Anatolia is linked to his name. “I always called people up to show the true spirit of entrepreneurship” says Gülen. He suggests companies to carefully take risks, encourages them to invest and expand abroad. “I always remember them about their social and societal responsibilities.” And he reminds them to adhere to the following ethical principles: to not get involved in fraud, speculations or black-market trading, epitomize trust and reliability, not to show greed and squander God’s riches when enjoying them, show respect for the rights of the employees, not to forget that the society they live in should also benefit from their benefits and to live life aware of the fact that ultimately everything is given by God.

The generous donator does not interfere in Cengiz Karabekmez’s daily work, the school’s principal. Founded in 1999, 300 students attend the school. One hundred of them live in the adjacent student hostel. They come from 17 countries with five different religious faiths. Students of Turkish descent are represented above average. The school touts the fact that for many years now all students got accepted by colleges. The best ones go to Harvard, Columbia and Yale. And not only that. “Last year’s 25 graduates got scholarships in the amount of 4 million dollars”, says Karabekmez with pride.

After several bypass operations, his knees are troubling him now. He leaves the estate only for medical exams and treatment purposes at the hospital nearby. Gülen takes a life away from people, but the message is reaching millions.

Focus is given to teaching sciences just like in all other “Gülen schools“. “We do not force a faith upon our students”, stresses Karabekmez. “We are not a faith-based school.” In the “personality development” class the school teaches universal values such as respect, altruism and work ethics. Most of the 36 teachers are American citizens. “Language barriers?” Andrea laughs. “Sure, many parents speak only a little bit of English” says a teacher. “But the school community ensures that everyone speaks English very well starting from year one.”

English teacher Adamir knows Germany and the United States but he does not know who Gülen is. With their children, his parents fled the war on the Balkans and went first to Germany and then settled down in New York 12 years ago. He has never heard the name of the “hizmet” movement. He opted for the Amity School because here he has more possibilities voicing his opinion as a teacher than at other schools. Pleasing God is not forced upon you. “God loves everyone”, that is how Aksoy sums up. “God loves in particular the good done by a person.”

Source: FGulen.COM, November 10, 2012

This article has originally been published in German language in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily of Germany on November 9, 2012


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