Mavi Marmara and Gülen’s critics: politics and principles

Date posted: January 16, 2014


Those who consider the current corruption investigations as a shadow war between Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan trace the breaking away of Gülen’s support for Erdoğan specifically to the Gaza flotilla incident.

I don’t believe there was ever an alliance between Gülen and Erdoğan of the type imagined by some commentators, far less that this incident was the cause of the split/separation of that alliance.

Gülen, who may be considered to have derived his interpretive framework from civil/cultural Islam, supported the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) democratization efforts and benefited from the resultant freedoms that this process brought about. The flotilla incident can, however, be useful in demonstrating the difference of Gülen’s mindset from political Islam.

What happened?

On May 27, 2010, a flotilla commissioned by the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH) sailed towards Gaza. Its organizers said they sought to raise awareness of the unjust blockade imposed by the Israeli government by breaking the blockade and delivering humanitarian aid to those in need. The flotilla was raided in international waters by Israeli commandos, killing eight Turkish civilians and one Turkish-American. Turkey responded angrily, and a sequence of reactions followed, including Turkey’s foreign minister claiming that this was “Turkey’s 9/11,” and the Turkish government recalling its ambassador from Israel and declaring the Israeli ambassador persona non grata.

The atmosphere was very tense, and Turkey threatened to send another flotilla — this time escorted by Turkish warships. Turkey seemed to be heading towards an all-out war with Israel.

Gülen commented on this incident when a journalist from the Wall Street Journal visited to take photographs for a pre-arranged interview already conducted through email. These comments caused a considerable reaction against Gülen at the time they were made and have resurfaced once again.
What did Gülen say on the flotilla incident?

Gülen’s comments concerning the flotilla incident were not necessarily harsh, but they were labeled as surprising and even shocking by some.

Gülen’s first comment about the Mavi Marmara incident  — in which eight Turkish civilians and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli troops as the boat carried humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — was quite straightforward. He said: “What I saw was not pretty. It was ugly.” Most people, I am sure, would agree that it was in fact ugly. There isn’t much to elaborate on regarding this comment.

The more direct criticism that Gülen made was concerning the organizers (İHH). He said the organizers’ failure to seek an accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”

This statement has been criticized harshly in the Turkish media. Many columnists and journalists took this as Gülen’s criticism of the İHH for not ensuring the relevant permission was obtained from the authorities (which in this case was the Israeli state). Thus they concluded that Gülen believed the incident was ugly and that the İHH was responsible for the devastating outcome as they had not sought permission from Israel. I believe this is a false assumption and an inaccurate conclusion about Gülen’s statements. Let us revisit the incident.

Gülen chooses to believe this campaign was established to take aid supplies to needy people in Gaza. He dismisses the political side of the issue, which is apparently much more important than an aid campaign. The Mavi Marmara was designed to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians and put pressure on Israeli authorities to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip. The organizers managed to motivate a significant number of international activists and thereby involve as many states as possible, just in case any problem arose.

Personally, I think the political aims were of greater importance than the charitable goals in this campaign. However, Gülen neither takes this stance nor does he make mention of this; he simply suggests that “if you want to take aid supplies to a country, you should seek accordance with the authorities in that country.”

Following on Gülen’s third comment, we see that he places a distance between himself and the organizers and claims that they might have been politicized.

This is an important point. It is widely accepted that any charity that wants to operate around the world should be careful about their involvement in the domestic politics of any country. This often becomes a red line for charities, and they should not involve themselves with politics and political purposes. For instance, the Charity Commission in the United Kingdom has very clear guidelines for charities to follow. It clearly defines political purpose and political activity as being beyond the scope of charities and charitable organizations (Charity Commission, 2008).

Similarly, Gülen, in this case, preferred to be distant from a campaign and its organizers in which he believed the organizers may have been politicized. I don’t believe our emotional reactions should shadow this reality. The İHH chose to divert some of its energy to contribute towards a political solution for the Gaza Strip. Although this can be perceived as a noble choice, one should accept that it changes the nature of the campaign from charity to politics, or at the very least, blurs the aim. I believe in such a case; Gülen has a right to distance himself from this choice.

Gülen added that assigning blame in the matter is best left to the United Nations, which shows his respect for international bodies.

The influence of these comments

Gülen’s comments have been interpreted as “siding with Israel” and against the flotilla. Many people, including some Hizmet movement members, thought that Gülen was either misinformed (or less informed) about the topic and that he should make a further statement or retract his comments. However, Gülen insisted on his point, and this was a shock for some and for others confusion. It definitely reduced the political tension among the Hizmet movement members, but it also created a lot of anger and disappointment among nationalists and Milli Görüş (political Islamists) members.

In my opinion, this incident provides one of the most important pieces of evidence that show the difference between the “political Islamist perspective” in Turkey and the “civil Islam” that the Hizmet movement seems to represent. Political Islamism strongly advocated a military response, while the civil Islam representatives were a bit more cautious before they reacted. Gülen prefers to stay away from politics, while political Islamism willingly champions a political cause even in the guise of charity.

To demonstrate my point, I will try to analyze some of the principles that Gülen and the Hizmet movement follow. This, I believe, will show that Gülen’s comments were not political but clearly based on his own Hizmet principles.

The principles and integrity

It will be helpful to go over some of these principles and see where the difference between Gülen and the İHH lies. I also recognize the fact that these comments are about the way the campaign was organized rather than its core meaning (charity). In the very same article, Gülen tells us that he gave the same advice regarding methods to be employed when having charitable aims to another charity, Kimse Yok Mu, which delivers aid to the needy people in Gaza as well as other parts of the world.

Positive contribution

First, the flotilla was against the “positive contribution” principle that Gülen frequently emphasizes. Although the flotilla had set out to take aid to the Gaza Strip and to Palestinians who had been under a blockade for a long time, the operation was mainly aimed at creating awareness of the blockade or to impose pressure for a political solution to the blockade. An aid mission should aim to make the situation better rather than worse. In this case, defying the Israeli authorities and trying to force them to do something would not “lead to fruitful matters.” This aid campaign did not contribute positively to the situation in Gaza but created nine additional direct victims, great injury, many more indirect victims (the families who lost loved ones) and new hostilities between Turkey and Israel. Thus, I think the flotilla’s overall contribution is not greater than its negative outcomes.

Related to this principle, Gülen described such a scenario in one of his books, in which he argued that nobody has a right to perform an act of “heroism” (kahramanlik) at the expense of creating further troubles for others. He suggested avoiding any action that will not contribute towards solution of an issue but may create further problems.

Non-political activism

Another point that Gülen has criticized is that the İHH might have been politicized while organizing this aid campaign. Gülen believes that virtuous actions should be, ideally, carried out for the right reasons using the right methods. In this case, the political aims and outcomes of this flotilla are not clear, and this is a good reason for Gülen to distance himself from it. Gülen thinks that people have a responsibility to calculate the outcomes of their actions (especially in a highly political dispute such as the Israeli-Palestine conflict) and carry out their actions appropriately.

Law of the land

Gülen also believes that people should try to be respectful of the law of the land. When they do not agree with the law, then they should use democratic, peaceful and non-violent methods to change it without oppressing any other people while they are seeking their rights.

Respect for the ‘other’

Another relevant principle is Gülen’s call for respect for the “other.” As responsible people, according to Gülen, we should be looking for ways to achieve our aims that do not impose force on another but instead show respect for all people, their identity and their beliefs. The claim of respect for the “other” is generally accepted by everybody, but we tend to forget this principle when we are dealing with people with whom we do not agree.

Balance of action and outcomes

Another principle that is related to respect for the other is to separate struggle (in work or service) from achievement. Each person has a moral responsibility to do his best in order to achieve a moral goal but, according to Gülen, we are not responsible for creating outcomes; we are only responsible for working to achieve them.

Our efforts may not bring a successful outcome, but this does not mean that we should give up doing the right thing. In such a case, the right thing is to do your best to try to solve a problem in an area step by step. In this way, we may not bring a solution to a problem, but we can try to contribute to a solution using positive contribution (musbet hareket) methods rather than worsening the situation.

Legitimate goals with legitimate means

Gülen also suggests that legitimate goals should be pursued by legitimate means. The involvement of civil society in international politics, in international matters is limited and also is bound by the laws of each country. Requesting a state to change some of its policies may be a legitimate demand, but it should be pursued using legitimate means.

Responsibility of action and outcomes

Gülen has also claimed on many occasions that a moral agent is responsible for the outcomes of his actions. Gülen claims that the accountability may even include the unintended outcomes of an action. He refers to a verse in the Quran which claims that people will be confronted with things they had not taken into account (Surah Az-Zumar, 39;47). The organizers, although they may not have wished to cause some of the outcomes, still have some responsibility to bear as well as the other party responsible for the incident.

Civil Islam and political Islamism are different

In light of the above, I believe Gülen’s response to the flotilla is consistent with his Hizmet principles. In other words, had Gülen’s response to the Mavi Marmara incident been any different, this would have contradicted the main principles of Hizmet. Had he chosen to support the political outcomes of the flotilla, regardless of his own teachings, he may have gained some public support in the short term; however, he would have dismissed his own principles and would lose his ethical standards in the long term.

These comments also show that Gülen was able to have an individual opinion about a public debate and also express his opinions freely. Although these comments were not welcomed by the political authority, Gülen maintained his position and did not retract his comments. It is important that we can accommodate this as a sign of plurality in a democratic society.

What is more, Gülen follows the long-standing practice of previous Islamic scholars by offering independent views with political implications while remaining independent of any political party and ideology.

This incident also shows the difference between Gülen’s and Erdoğan’s vision, Milli Görüş and the Hizmet movement‘s philosophy, as well as the methodological difference between the Kimse Yok Mu charity and the İHH. If we want to understand what is really happening, we should get used to the fact that there are important differences between representatives that come from civil Islam and political Islam traditions in Turkey.

*İsmail Mesut Sezgi is a Ph.D. researcher at Leeds Metropolitan University (Institute for Spirituality, Religion and Public Life). The writer has submitted a Ph.D. thesis about the theory of moral responsibility in the writings of Fethullah Gülen.

Source: Todays Zaman , January 16, 2014

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