The Gülen Movement and human rights values in the Muslim world

Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

Date posted: November 4, 2007


Fethullah Gülen is many things at once and it is this combination of characteristics, abilities and qualifications, some of which have hitherto seemed mutually exclusive, that marks him out from the rest and has provided him with a transformative edge.

It is the combination of three particular characteristics that have enabled Gülen to become immensely popular and influential in Turkey, namely: being a Sufi-oriented, spiritually-devout Muslim; an intellectual in contemporary reading and thought; and an acclaimed Islamic scholar, or alim.

Gülen has reinterpreted Islamic understanding in tune with contemporary times and has developed and put into practice a new Muslim discourse — on religion, pluralism, jurisprudence, secularism, democracy, politics and international relations. By doing so Gülen is undertaking a tajdid (renewing) through conduct, because his ideas are put into immediate effect through the movement and affects the surrounding wider society in la longe durée. I claim that Gülen is engaged in incremental ijtihad (independent religious ruling), since (i) he develops and communicates his ijtihad incrementally over many years and different mediums, respectively, and (ii) he does not claim that he is engaged in ijtihad at all, thus further delaying the recognition that he is.

This article deals specifically with freedom of belief which has been a tricky topic for the Muslim world. The exact difficulty relates to the concept inherent in this freedom, namely the right to change religion. The question for Muslim countries has been whether Islamic law allows for Muslims to convert out of Islam. The conventional answer is that it does not and that one who does (murtad) is punishable by death in Islamic law. Gülen’s evolving position on the death penalty for an apostate is an example of his incremental ijtihad.

In one article on the topic (a transcript of Gülen’s response dating back to the late 1970s), Gülen passingly refers to the issue of temporal punishment for apostasy. Whilst he reiterates the conventional position as his own, he treats the matter as political rebellion toward the state and equates it with high treason. This latter comment marks the beginning of an incremental ijtihad on the topic which will eventually manifest itself as part of an evolving tajdid on dialogue, pluralism and human rights in Islam.

Since the aforementioned article, Gülen has not expounded on his position. Instead, it has been picked up by Dr. Ahmet Kurucan, a personal student of Gülen for many years. In a 2006 Conference in Germany, Kurucan explained that the death penalty for apostasy was an ijtihad itself, not a definitive commandment of Islam and that therefore it could be superseded by another ijtihad today. He argued that the time in which pre-modern jurists arrived at their decision, communities were deeply divided over Islam and Muslims were under political and physical siege from a number of fronts. Thus, you were either a Muslim defending Islam or a non-Muslim attacking it. For these jurists, apostasy at the time meant rebelling against the state and joining forces against the Muslims. There were a number of incidents at the time when apostates subsequently took arms against Muslims. According to Kurucan therefore, apostasy was treated as high treason by the pre-modern jurists and their ijtihad of execution is in relation to this, not to the mere renouncing of faith.

Kurucan argues that the Quran makes no reference to temporal punishment for apostasy, that to the contrary it states that there is no compulsion in religion; that there are a number of recorded incidents in the Prophet’s lifetime when an apostate went without punishment whatsoever; that much of the justification for this ijtihad is based on incidents that occurred during the reign of the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr when whole communities rose up against the central government and that therefore these were political acts of rebellion against the State; that the Hanafi school of thought states that a woman apostate is not punishable by death since she cannot take arms against Muslims, which, coupled with the fact that Islam treats man and women equally in reward and punishment, helps prove the overall point that in the pre-modern jurists’ mind, apostasy was equated with high treason and political rebellion.

Kurucan argues that since apostasy can no longer be charged with such meaning today (as imminent physical attack by the apostate), then this ijtihad can be superseded by another.

Given the importance of the topic and its potential for controversy, it is unthinkable that Kurucan would take such a stance without Gülen’s prior approval. Thus, the various incremental stages of this ijtihad include Gülen’s article dating back to the late 1970s, the overall dialogue works that became a priority for Gülen in the mid 1990s, the various meetings with minority religious leaders in Turkey in same period, the repeated emphasis on freedom of belief and human rights in the Abant meetings in the 2000s and Kurucan’s academic work in 2006. All of these comprise a further reason and justification in themselves toward a new position on the issue of change of religion in Islam.

Therefore, what we have here is an incremental development and communication of a hitherto minor opinion through new arguments to change the conventional thinking and attitude toward freedom of belief in general, apostasy in particular in traditional Islamic law.

Gülen promotes human rights directly by internalizing democracy, human rights, freedom of belief, pluralism and Anglo-Saxon-style secularism. It is well known among human right lawyers and academics that democracy and pluralism are considered the prerequisites for the enjoyment of human rights. Where there is antagonism toward either, there can never be the enjoyment of the other.

The net effect of Gülen’s efforts has been to contribute to a new type of Muslim in Turkey, who while remaining a strong believer supports democracy, pluralism and human rights because of his faith, not despite it. Just as Gülen’s discourse and the Gülen movement were instrumental in empowering the periphery in Turkey, their presence will have a similar effect in the Muslim world. The fact that Turkey’s profile has been on a steady rise in the Muslim world in recent years will only add pace to the movement’s efforts there. In time, and as in Turkey, that will lead to a change of culture, perception and mood on points pertinent to human rights enjoyment and contribute to a wider debate in the Muslim world on developing an internally meaningful and effective and externally coherent and consistent set of human right norms and laws.

*Özcan Keleş is a barrister and a Ph.D. candidate at the Human Rights Center of the University of Essex.

Source: Today's Zaman , November 3, 2007

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