On November 12th and 13th, 2005 during a two-day
international symposium at Rice University in Houston, Texas, I personally
witnessed a Turkish Muslim intellectual’s contributions to the welfare of
humanity being appreciated at the helm of an academic attention, and through
debates of global scale. The symposium was attended by numerous scholars from
around the world, from the United States and also from Turkey. Exhaustive
scientific papers were presented by the prominent scholars of Islam—and several
from prestigious American universities. The symposium
was entitled “Islam in the contemporary World: Fethullah Gülen Movement in
Thought and Practice”. It was sponsored by the Boniuk Center for the Study and
Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, the A. D. Bruce Religious
Center University of Houston and the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, Texas.
The conference focused on the activities of Fethullah Gülen and his
contributions to interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and education. It explored the
appeal, meaning, and impact of Gülen and his movement on Turkish, regional, and
increasingly the global societies.
Fethullah Gülen, who is presently living in the U.S., could
not attend the conference due to health reasons and sent his congratulatory
message in which he thanked the organizations for participating in the symposium
and wished them success. He clarified that he was not after the claim of being a
great contributor to the movement of volunteers working for peace in the world.
Fethullah Gülen extended his appreciation for being included as a bona-fide
gesture and friendly reception in the movement. The renowned scholar further
expressed his hope for reaching out to each other to constitute “peace isles”
for the future and for the construction of a happier world. He also asserted his
hope to reach a horizon of reconciliation among civilizations and alliance of
Professor Dale Eickelman from Dartmouth College chaired the
opening session on “Dialogue and Gülen Movement” Saturday November the 12th. Pim
Valkenberg, from Radbourg University
in the Netherlands, presented a paper on Gülen’s contributions to the
Muslim-Christian dialogue in the context of Abrahamic Cooperation by
applications of love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness as fundamental
universal values that are to be consistently promoted in all interfaith
From the Millsap’s College, Loye Ashton
focused on the topic “Defending religious diversity and tolerance in America
today: Lessons from Fethullah Gülen”. In this paper the scholar talked about the
goals of interfaith dialogue being two-fold with respect to education and
removing ignorance. Firstly we must learn about the beliefs and spiritual
identity of others, and secondly, this information helps us to learn more about
our own beliefs and spiritual identity. Gülen has highlighted some of the ways
in which he reasons how Islamic faith and religions in general can work to value
and promote these goals. The work of Gülen demonstrates the rare combination of
deep spiritual piety and generous compassion with an astute and commanding
intellect. From Gülen’s work, the Christian scholar takes away again and again
and rediscovers in his own faith, the real purpose of his religious quest and
finds the heart of reality and learns to live in the presence of the creator.
From Central Oklahoma University, Darian De Bolt
presented a paper on “Tolerance and Dialogue: Gülen’s thought in the light of
Greek Thought and Jürgen Habermas”. Here Gülen finds a link between tolerance
and dialogue in our shared humanity. He writes, “remaining respectful to others’
thoughts and feelings because they are human, we must accept all people in their
own special circumstances and with their thoughts”. The notions that Gülen
developed of both tolerance and dialogue fit well within the traditions of
ancient Greek thought as well as more recent developments in the application of
speech act theory and the conception of communication rationality. Gülen’s unity
of these two notions has applications on a global scale.
In a joint paper with Madeline Maxwell, from University of
Texas, Dr. Yetkin Yildirim talked
about “Tolerance and Dialogue in Gülen’s Writings” and concluded that tolerance
affirmatively included embracing the other in “let’s get to know each others’
sense”. This sense is linked to increasing diversity. Diversity is often linked
to cultural relativity. Cultural relativity often reflects the assumption that
one group should not be allowed to dominate or eliminate another and that shared
values of peace and equality are higher values. Disagreement with making justice
and equal treatment for all humans (the highest values) is seen as resistance to
modernism, and dialogue is frequently proposed as a tool for increasing
tolerance, and tolerance is the stated goal of efforts to address conflicts
between races, nations, religious groups around the world today.
During the second session, education was given emphasis and
Bekim Agai, from Bonn University
Germany, talked about the organizational strategies of the Gülen Movement. His
paper revealed that the success of Gülen movement in the field of education has
had multiple dimensions. His movement as seen today has a history rooted in
Turkish Republic. Its organizational structures and contents developed in close
relationship with the political history of Turkey and were shaped by the events
in world history after 1990. Gülen has managed to lead the movement into the
modern world but within an Islamic framework that has a discursive and
organizational side. He has been able to guide the much closed movement to new
horizons, opening it and initiating new forms of Islamic engagement. The reason
for the success of Gülen’s ideas is the combination of conventional and
conservative reasoning couched in new methods of implementation that allow them
to reach new target groups and justify the activities of movement. His concept
of tajdid by conduct/example made it possible; and the movement maintained its
structure and discourse at the core of the network while it expanded at the
borders to become a worldwide movement.
“Education Philosophy of Fethullah Gülen” was the subject of
scholar Ruth Woodhall’s speech.
Gülen has continually insisted that learning is an obligation on all humans and
has taught this to those around him and to the wider society in both word and
deed; that is indirectly by his example as one who studies ceaselessly and
directly in his words: The main duty and purpose of human life is to seek
understanding. The effort of doing so, known as education, is a perfecting
process through which we earn in the spiritual, intellectual, and physical
dimensions of our being--the rank appointed for us as the perfect pattern of
creation (ashrafu’l makhlukat). By fulfilling it, we attain the rank of true
humanity and become a beneficial element of society. Gülen gives special
emphasis to good deeds carried out collectively, and those who cooperate in
worthy projects, or join together to discuss past experiences and future plans
related to such activity, render a special service as an army of God.
Education thus becomes an obligation of the community and a
collective activity. The purpose of education and associated work is primarily
to fulfil the individual’s and community’s duty of submission to the will of God
and service to others; but like all such duties conscientiously performed have
secondary beneficial effects on the individual and on the community in the
world. Education is vital for both societies and individuals according to Gülen.
A nation’s future depends on its youth. Any people who want
to secure their future should apply as much energy to raising their children as
they devote to other issues. A nation that fails its youth, abandons them to
alien and harmful influences, jeopardizes their identity and is subject to
cultural and political weaknesses. Gülen’s philosophy of education is not a
social and political activity which can be divorced from the rest of Gülen’s
faith/philosophy, but a firmly integrated and well developed component of his
From the University of Notre Dame, Asma Afsaruddin
compared classical approaches in the philosophy of education in Islam and the
approach of Fethullah Gülen. Charles Nelson
discussed Gülen’s “Vision of Transcendent Education” saying that we need to look
as to why so many people could be inspired by Gülen to spend their money and to
establish schools of excellence. The presenter believes that all this is due to
the unique confluence of time, place, and context. And for the most part it is
due to Gülen himself. His moral example and his teachings inspire others to take
action, to sacrifice, and to serve humanity rather than themselves. The writer
quotes Kevin Ryan, founder and director of the Centre for the advancement of
ethics and character at Boston University: “While I’m not suggesting that
teachers be saints, they should take their moral lives seriously by modelling
upright behaviour.” Gülen goes even further than that in his sayings about
sacrifice: “People of service prefer the sacred cause over all worldly and
animal desires; being stead-fast in truth, once it has been discovered, to the
degree that you sacrifice all mundane attachments for its sake; enduring all
hardships so that future generations will be happier; seeking happiness, not in
material or even spiritual pleasures, but in the happiness and wellbeing of
others; never seeking to obtain any personal advantage or position; and
preferring oneself to others in taking on work but preferring others to oneself
in receiving wages – these are the essentials of this sacred way of serving the
Gülen educators have perfected their own character and love
their students and transform their students into living lives worth living.
These educators have learned from the character education movement. They
practice the most important role of being examplers of love and knowledge. They
further the reach of their modelling by guiding their students explicitly in
taking action and sacrificial love that we may raise a golden generation in the
The third session focused on “Public Domain and
Globalization”. Serif Ali Tekalan, from Istanbul Fatih University, presented a
paper, “The Movement of Hearts”. The IID President, Mohammed Cetin,
described public and social attitudes against the Gülen Movement in Turkey. His
presentation paid particular attention to ongoing shifts in understanding the
nature of Turkish public sphere and civil society. The goal of his analysis was
to examine how innovation and reform are introduced in the Turkish public sphere
and the growing capacity of Turkish civil society to accept the change. This
approach highlighted the importance of an open civil society and public spaces
that provide an arena for peaceful political and religious encounters in Turkey.
It was also intended to facilitate an understanding of the creation of
consensus, providing people with new insights towards their capacity for
Anthropologist Maria Curtis
concentrated on the “Woman Face of the Medallion” and the movement. Paul Weller
of Derby University in the UK compared Gülen to Arnold Toynbee while discussing
religions, globalization and dialogue in the 21st century.
During the first session of the last day titled, “Social
Context of Sufism,” Zaman daily columnist Ali Bulac
termed Gülen as a “civilian reformist” (islahati) and a “harmonizing leader”
adapting a civilian Islamic approach. “Today in Turkey, it is impossible to
conduct sociological issues without touching upon Gülen’s mission,” Bulac
claimed, “Perhaps the best contribution of Turkey to the global advancement is
the schools of excellence and educational activities inspired by Fethullah Gülen.”
Ali Bulac’s focus in his presentation was on our history of modernization being
a history of tension between Islamic civil society that would like to have a
voice in civil arena, and the statutory society that would like to transform the
rest of the society in an authoritarian manner. The relationship between the
state and Islam, the distinction between the secular and sacred, the modern and
conservative are expressions of this tension. Gülen’s approach to issues such as
state, politics and the governance is opening a door to dialogue between civil
Islam and the statutory society. The tension is not between modernization and
Islam but rather between Islam and secularism, and the fact that most
authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world have been suspicious of democracy,
participation of individuals and civil initiatives and the progress within the
civil society. There is indeed a necessity to form bridges between the civil
Islam and the statutory society supported by the states.
from Louisiana Southern University said the Turkish Sufism Gülen represents is a
“type of Islam” that could be adapted anywhere in the world. The historical
contributions made by Turkey for Islam to become a “universal religion” were
also voiced by Fontenot. Heon Kim, from Temple University, pursuing his
doctorate degree on the Gülen Movement described Gülen’s line as “Sufism without
At the “Islam and Democracy” session, Alp Aslandogan,
from the University of Texas, talked about Gülen’s ideas on improving democracy
in a way to satisfy one’s spiritual needs. This reminded me of Dr. Muhammad
Iqbal’s proposal of spiritual democracy to the ummah in the “Reconstruction of
Religious Thought in Islam”. We
find that many Islamic scholars have accepted the idea of democracy in Islam
though under certain conditions that will be compatible with Islamic thought.
Iqbal (d. 1938) was not happy with the importable democratic system because of
its extreme secular stance but he suggested in his writings that there was no
alternative to democracy. In his 6th lecture on “Reconstruction of Religious
Thought in Islam”, Iqbal stated that a Muslim state is to be established on the
principles of freedom, equality, and the absolute principles of stability.
Therefore, the principles of democratic rules are not only similar to the
fundamental aspects of Islam but also the executing powers will be enhanced in
the Muslim world by democratic principles.
Iqbal observed that should the
foundation of democracy rest upon spiritual and moral values, it would be the
best political system for the world. He wrote in the “The New Era” July 28th,
1917 issue: “democracy was born in Europe from economic renaissance that took
place in most of its societies. But Islamic democracy is not developed from the
idea of economic advancement alone, it is also a spiritual principle that comes
from the fact that everybody is a source of power whose potentialities can be
developed through virtue and character”. That means, according to Iqbal, Islam
prescribes democracy under the will of people guided by the will of the creator.
Gülen’s ideas on democracy are very similar to Iqbal’s.
of Central Oklahoma University shed light on the similarities between Imam
Ghazali and Gülen in regard to tolerance. Greg Barton,
from Deakin University, talked about Gülen’s social conservatism and profound
spirituality as a civic movement, and not a “tariqah” or a religious sect;
Barton also noted similar progressive Islamic social movements that existed in
Indonesia as well. Also, Ian Williams, from Central England University, said the
Gülen Movement was not an organization that can be defined in terms of a sect,
pressure group or a grouping of hierarchy but it has traces of a social
movement. Moderator Bekim Agai questioned how Islam and Democracy could be
brought together in certain Muslim countries as he pointed out that the Gülen
Movement became successful in the secular Central Asia but has not entered the
non-secular Arab world as yet.
from Loyola University in Chicago, at the session on “Media, Dialogue and
Community” placed the concepts of “community” in this movement under microscope.
The Movement, which had begun as a small circle around Gülen in Izmir Turkey,
appeared as a service to mankind in the fields of education, religious, and
inter-cultural dialogue in particular being the basic focal point from the
1990s. Today, hundreds of schools have been opened by this group, said Hermansen,
spread throughout the world in 91 countries and their dialogue activities are
expanding in a way to include America’s largest cities.
from the University of Wisconsin, emphasized that the basis of Gülen’s Sufism
understanding lies in the “Qur’an and Sunnah”. Emphasis on the action is the
greatest contribution of Gülen to Sufi literature according to Gokcek, who also
said Gülen approaches many issues criticized by Orthodox Muslims with tolerance.
Doctor of Theology Adnan Aslan on the other hand said Gülen has prepared a
ground for a “new theological language” in line with modern conditions needed by
today’s global society.
An academic assessment of this two-day symposium came from
Professor Dale Eickelman. He pointed out that those who defend that religion has
no role to play in modern society are mistaken; on the contrary, “religion plays
a very strong and constructive role in society, the solidarity movement in
Poland, the Christian movements in Latin America, and the Gülen movement are
perfect examples”, the professor said. There are many and profound subjects
regarding the Gülen Movement that require further research.
At a closing dinner, Jill Carroll of Boniuk Center at Rice
University, spoke about the success of the symposium and reiterated her warm
welcome for such organizations. Individuals, who most likely would not have
received an education if not for the Gülen Movement, today hold responsible
positions in society and that is no small thing to achieve; “it is incredible”,
Over the past 35 years since I have lived in the US, I never
imagined that I would ever be participating in a conference entitled “Islam in
the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice,”
and listen to papers with highest scientific content presented by the
distinguished American and European scholars at Rice University, Texas -- one of
the most prestigious educational institutions in the US. The topics of the
papers were indeed intellectually stimulating. However, this is not the first
symposium on Gülen’s thought and movement. There have been many international
conferences on Gülen’s movement in the US in the recent years.There are indeed
ongoing debates on Gülen’s works at the major universities throughout the US, in
interfaith dialogues around the world and also at the Universities in Europe.
For me this was the first symposium that I personally attended and decided to
share this commentary.
Islam had achieved a Renaissance in its third and fourth
centuries and, to a certain extent, became a paradigm for the European
Renaissance. We must sincerely support a renaissance that would consist of the
rediscovery of lost human values and the rapprochement of humanity with
universal human morals. We must support a renaissance that allows the
questioning of dictatorship and the end of dictators, and working towards a
democratic global civic society. A renaissance that fosters great achievements
in the fine arts and promotes a careful reading of the book of the universe,
which has been lost for a long time, and will be greatly applauded. We must
support a renaissance that promotes a longing for research, a passion for
knowledge, and the articulation of Islam in accordance with the understanding of
our century in a new style and new manner.
Turkey is a progressive country today, and is progressing
towards the European Union. Turkey has evolving democracy, and is an
increasingly confident and stable Muslim country. Over decades of consistent
attempts and by analyzing the world-view of Islam from a civilizational
perspective, the Turkish intellectuals have laid the foundations for a
renaissance of moderate islamically enlightened thought and practice in Turkey.
Civil Islam has been firmly reinstituted in Turkey by the Nursi-Gülen movement.
Turkey can help facilitate renaissance of the Islamic World.
Nusrsi-Gülen movement I discussed in a recent writing is a continuum of Iqbal’s
thought in my opinion and has evolved into a practical model over the decades.
What I witnessed in Houston and the wealth of information being accumulated from
Nursi-Gülen translated works, and ongoing debates in the Western and Muslim
world are the indications that Muslim renaissance may actually take place in the
future. Other groups in Indonesia, the USA (Progressive Muslims) and in the UK
are also working on this; and hopefully all this can contribute to Muslim
renaissance. Egypt’s Wassateyya or mainstream movement with its emphasis on
gradualism and absolutely peaceful approach to civic transformation has similar
goals. This school of thought and practice in Egypt has also been called
“civilizational Islam” or “centrist intellectual school”.
We, in the Muslim world, are in search of a reawakening of
reason, as well as of heart, spirit, and mind. Perhaps it may not yet be
possible to predict a harvest from our efforts and works in the near future.
However, there will be an appropriate time for this insha Allah in the future.
We will wait and see, and dawn will arrive out of the darkest night.
It was the last wish of Iqbal who
was fascinated with yoking of modern science and philosophy to Islam, to create
bridges of understanding at the social and highest intellectual levels. He
expressed this thought thus:
In the West, the Intellect is the
source of life,
In the East, Love is the basis of
Through Love, Intellect grows
acquainted with Reality,
And Intellect gives stability to
the work of Love,
Arise and lay the foundations of
a new world,
By wedding Intellect to Love.