GYV President Yeşil decodes the Gülen movement

Date posted: May 18, 2009


Mustafa Yeşil, the chairman of the Journalists and Writers Foundation’s (GYV) executive board, a Turkish NGO undertaking projects that emphasize mutual understanding and tolerance to establish global peace, described the movement named after the GYV’s honorary president, Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, as being faith based, pacifist, pluralist, colorful and pro-democratic.

Gülen is perhaps the only scholar in history whose ideas have been discussed at international conferences while he is still alive. As academia convened in the US, the UK and the Netherlands and is set to convene in Germany before the end of this month, again with the same purpose, it is then true that this movement has long been the subject of many discussions, not only in Turkey but abroad as well.

Yeşil, in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, commented on a wide array of issues related to the movement, from its very definition to its followers’ approach to recent political developments, and from the underlying principles motivating them to how they finance their activities. He said the volunteers in this movement see service to people as service to God and aim to establish dialogue with all regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation.

Can we introduce the GYV as being a representative of the Gülen movement, considering the fact that your honorary president is Mr. Gülen himself?

To answer your question, we must first understand what kind of a place Mr. Gülen has in the movement. First, this movement is not a religious sect. The most fundamental attribute of the movement is that it has been inspired by and benefited from Fethullah Gülen’s world of ideas. So he is a source of inspiration, an intellectual leader and an example with his life, ideas and devotion. Similarly, while our foundation was being established in 1994, Mr. Gülen intellectually led us with his ideas and also took part in all the activities we organized afterwards.

It is one of the fundamental characteristics of human beings to replicate the best practices they see in one place somewhere else. This is how our civilization has developed. Mr. Gülen, as you know, was delivering sermons in mosques in İzmir in the early 1970s, and he was also taking care of some secondary school students and teaching them about universal values in dormitories he and a couple of his friends financed from their own pockets. And some other people who were coming to listen to Gülen’s sermons from other districts and provinces were also witnessing the excellent character of those students. So they just replicated what they saw in İzmir where they lived, and it started to spread from a single spot, first to the western region and then to the entire country from there. Outsiders, however, are making a fundamental mistake here when examining the movement. This movement is actually a unity of ideas, but it happens to have many differences within itself as to the structure and operations of those institutions as well as to the people who are employed in them.

‘It is a faith-based social movement’

I stated these important details to come to your question of whether we are a representative of the movement or not. In fact, we have 40 years behind us. and the movement has grown to conduct its activities primarily in five areas; education, businessmen’s associations, intercultural dialogue, humanitarian aid and healthcare.  Now, a movement that is equal to the combination of such a diversified array of activities, carried on in many countries worldwide with a very colorful group of people in terms of differences among them, cannot specify and have a single representative. This is because no piece of this whole can claim to be a representative of it. So in that regard it is not possible to have one. But if you consider someone or some institution that knows and reads Gülen well and who is also sharing something about his world of ideas with others to be a representative of this movement, I can say that the GYV is the most active institution doing this in Turkey.

OK, how do you define the movement, then? How should we understand it?

It is a faith-based social movement. But it is not religious nor does it have religious objectives. People from different faiths also started to support this initiative after some time had elapsed, yet it is true that its reference point is Islam and the Islamic faith. It is the principle that “he who is helping people the most is the best of you” and the perception that “the Creator’s consent is a much better blessing than all the blessings in the universe,” which are placed in the hearts of people, that made this movement real.

However, this does not necessarily mean they are trying to convert people to Islam or act in line with pan-Turkism. The universal values that are well established in Islam are common ground between people of different races, ethnicities, religions and cultures. Honesty, goodness, generosity, mutual respect, accepting people as they are and love are the values on which all communities can agree. And, agreeing on them is enough for the realization of Gülen’s projects to establish and maintain global peace. So we say it is not a religious movement. Moreover, the issue of religion is so sensitive in many countries in which the movement is active. Therefore, if the element of religion was as dominant as is asserted by some, the movement’s activities in those countries would already have been suspended, but they have clearly not been.

Would you please also talk about why, in the first place, you set sail in this direction?

There was a justified interpretation in the West that the Muslim world has not contributed much to either the development of humankind or to the establishment of global peace in the last two to three centuries. I think the sons and daughters of this country were very upset at this interpretation and just wanted to do something to change it and prove otherwise. So the movement was a solution and an answer to this feeling of burden and responsibility.

This movement is now offering the world a peaceful environment for all since its followers figured out the importance of the human factor for realizing this long ago. It is true that if you want to establish global peace, you must invest in human beings. That is exactly what the Gülen movement has been doing for more than 40 years now. Take Bosnia, for example. I am sure everybody’s memories are still fresh about the atrocities and the bloodshed that took place between 1992 and 1995. Today, Serb, Croat and Bosnian students are receiving the same education in same classrooms in the school opened by the movement. They are growing up all together while being taught that their religious or ethnic or whatever differences do not preclude the possibility for them to peacefully coexist and live side by side. Adapt this now to India and even to the West and to the developed countries.

Schools in West represent tolerance

One of the academics who attended the Gülen conference in London in 2007 asked why we are opening schools in the West, too, where countries are famous for their quality of education. And I asked this directly to Mr. Gülen. He said: “We, as representatives of an understanding based on the friendship of civilizations rather than their clash and on unity against separation, and on love and tolerance rather than struggle, are saying dialogue with all today. But dialogue cannot be reduced to organizing conferences and seminars only. If you want dialogue to be durable for ages, then you can only do this by the generations you brought up. Our schools in the West are serving this end.”

If we come to the issue of financial support, how do you finance all those activities in all those countries?

Today all institutions of this movement are open to everybody’s visit and even to their inspection if they like. While saying this is a social movement, we have to underline one thing: that the followers of this movement do not have any worldly expectations in exchange for what they do. This is valid for the teachers working in the movement’s schools and also for those businessmen financially supporting them. Thus, the personnel of those institutions are working with the most minimal salaries possible to live in the country in which they operate. You can personally see and experience this wherever you go. Besides, because local people want to see those institutions, those islands of peace, swiftly flourish in their countries, too, and are helping them accordingly, the cost of these activities goes down even further. So first, not that much money is necessary or used to carry on these activities of the movement. People don’t understand this because they calculate the cost side, taking market value as a reference, but we are operating much below market value. And along with this, I must say that some institutions are also making a profit and are using their earnings to finance other institutions of the movement, and the movement expands in this way, too.  There is one last detail on the issue of finance. Many businessmen, owners of small and medium-sized enterprises, have also moved abroad voluntarily with those teachers going out to work in a school of the movement. Now most activities in many countries are also being supported from such local resources. But other than this, no outside source has been used so far. No contribution from any state was received or even expected. In the years Mr. Gülen was being tried before the court, the finances of the movement were also carefully examined down to the smallest detail by the relevant bodies. And, other than those aforementioned sources, no aid or donation or any kind of contribution was documented. In sum, there is no centralized mechanism for finance. This is only the pennies earned with difficulty and the honesty of great-hearted people.

But, from time to time, we see some accusatory media coverage about the movement. What do you think about your activities being perceived like this by some people?

The media should be a body responsible for disclosing the truth. We understand not the accusations but the questions in people’s minds. We see ourselves as responsible for the better promotion of our activities and for remedying those misunderstandings and misperceptions. But it is also true that there are people acting on their prejudices without even willing to really understand what the movement is. It is not a big surprise that those people sometimes come to the wrong conclusions. Honestly, we haven’t encountered a single problem with any journalist who is trying to understand the movement without looking from the lenses of prejudice.

Again relevant here, we have heard the words of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) leader Murat Karayılan concerning the Gülen movement. He said it is being used by the US and is infiltrating the Turkish state, also getting close to ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and is a risk not for today but for tomorrow. What can you say to that?

First, I am leaving it to people’s conscience to decide how reliable the words of the leader of a terrorist group are. When we say PKK, we are talking about a terrorist organization that killed thousands of civilians, the very people they claim to be fighting for, in the course of time during which they attacked villages, planted mines under roads open to public use and exploded bombs among civilians. Now I am leaving it to people’s conscience to decide on the criticism of a terrorist organization slaughtering people about a movement derived from the goodwill of this nation. His words defining us as a risk should well be questioned.

Offering quality education to all

The movement, carrying out its activities for more than 40 years, has not harmed a single individual and has never made mothers and fathers weep. Now imagine a movement that brought its people, the people of the Southeast included, to a brilliant level by offering quality education to them, and then imagine a terrorist organization even lacking a clear target. A simple comparison tells us a lot. Just compare the fruits of both. An academic on the one hand, and a terrorist on the other.

I also want to hear you comment on recent political devel opments. Let’s start with March 29 local elections. How do you interpret the outcome?

Democracy is a great opportunity for our country. I wish it did not have its present shortfalls, either, which caused everybody a lot of trouble, but Turkey is on its way of further democratization, and this is promising. The last elections have proved that democracy is a must for people. It is the regime through which the electorate exercises civilian control over the country’s administration. In the past, some groups have even been part of anti-democratic endeavors with the fear that democracy serves only one party’s (the AK Party) interest. But our nation proved otherwise and sent a message to both the ruling and the opposition parties, and that is lovely. Democracy is the only type of governance in which our people can exercise this right.

Professor Binnaz Toprak conducted a study with the Open Society Institute and found that Turkey is increasingly becoming more conservative and that this is a threat for other lifestyles. They talked about this “neighborhood pressure,” specifying this “threat.” What do you think about this?

First, if Turkey is becoming more conservative, it cannot be explained only by domestic transformations. Today, the world has become a global village, so much so that a social formation can easily take on a universal identity in a short period of time. Presently in the entire world, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tragic 9/11 incidents, there is this increasing interest of people in religion. It is a reality that people are now talking about religion more than they used to. Turkey, as part of this whole, is not immune from this global trend. Yet, it is natural for a country like Turkey, whose people have always been sensitive to religion, to develop a similar interest. However, Toprak’s research is flawed because of its sampling methodology. She herself confessed that they only interviewed a limited number of people having a particular way of life. In proper research that is supposed to be saying something about a country’s realities, the sample needs also to be as diverse as the country’s population. Imagine a survey of economic wellbeing that used only unemployed people as respondents, then you would have a picture as if the entire country is crumbling upon itself. And, imagine the same questions asked only to millionaires of the country, and then the picture you get will be very different from the former one. But one thing remains valid for the two: They are distorted images of the reality. Toprak’s research is one of them.

Turkey should be a part of the EU

What about the ongoing rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia?

All efforts to normalize relations with Armenia are good, and we appreciate them for the sake of establishing peace in the region, too. The Armenian diaspora, in particular that in the US, has exploited the strained relations between the two for their own purposes. This rapprochement will take this argument from their hands, too, and that is a very good thing. Although the border opening and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis need more time, all those efforts are so nice. We, as a nation, do not have any prejudices against Armenians, nor does the movement. That is very clear.

Do you support Turkish accession to the EU?

Yes, absolutely. Turkey should be a part of the EU. It is no longer possible for any country to isolate itself from the world, from its neighbors. Such a country can neither achieve a good trade volume nor can it maintain its security. The EU should be our country’s primary target. Achieving European standards is a necessity to compete with today’s world. But I also want to state that Turkey is not begging for membership from anybody. Yes it is true that Turkey will gain a lot from the accession, but it also has a lot to offer to the EU. Today Turkey is a factor of balance in the region in which it is situated, in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. With its rich natural resources and huge young population, it is now standing in a very strategic spot for the entire world. So, whereas so many more reasons can be shown necessitating our accession to the EU, not a single reason can be uttered justifying a scenario of our country’s isolation. We are firm supporters of this accession process.

Before my last question, I want to ask you why Mr. Gülen is staying in the US and not returning to Turkey.

In order to understand this, Mr. Gülen’s approach to life needs to be well understood. However, I must say that his doctors are not allowing him to return due to health problems. Leaving this aside, Mr. Gülen is particularly concerned about the possibility that this movement and this group of volunteers might suffer harm because of some groups’ determined hostility to him. That is why he prefers a kind of a hermitic life away from the eyes and attention by which he is personally disturbed. Thus, despite his great love for his country and people, he says, “Self-sacrifice and patience are my duties,” and he is staying in the US.

Lastly, what are the objectives of the Gülen movement for the coming years? And, also what is its ultimate goal?

We hope educational services are going to expand. Several universities have already been opened, but their numbers are planned to be increased in the future. Besides, we would like to open some research centers dealing with studies in certain fields, particularly the social sciences, to offer projects and solutions to the world’s problems. I believe they will realize important services to people, too. As long as this movement has no room for personal and worldly benefits within itself, it will continue to direct all its energy to respond to humankind’s needs.

Source: Today's Zaman , May 17, 2009

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