In conversation with Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen

Over the last 10 years and up until the Gezi Park protests that erupted in Istanbul last May, Turkey’s democratic and mostly secular political system was hailed by many as a model for other Muslim-majority nations across the Middle East.

Much of the credit has gone to the leader and founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Since he entered the office of prime minister in 2003, Turkey has found the stability needed to tame chronic inflation and re-establish itself as a regional economic powerhouse. The ever-looming specter of military intervention in the country’s political life under the banner of the defense of Atatürk’s secular state has been sidelined. Tangible progress has been achieved in the peace process with the Kurds. Under the guidance of a succession of very active foreign ministers, Turkey managed to push ahead important reforms with an eye on EU membership, while at the same time opening other diplomatic options in the face of the skepticism from EU member states.

But the Turkish honeymoon has come to an end. At the center of the storm is Erdoğan himself, accused by the opposition of succumbing to the arrogance of power and of pursuing an agenda to Islamize Turkey. His heavy-handed response to protests and a succession of recent corruption probes and allegations involving AKP ministers, as well as the prime minister and his close family, have only added fuel to the fire.

For the AKP leadership and many observers of Turkey, it is the supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the hugely popular Turkish Islamic scholar who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who are behind the allegations and the anonymous release of audio recordings with the purpose of incriminating the prime minister. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of running a “parallel state” and of infiltrating the police and the judiciary. Gülen has publicly denied those accusations.

The Turkish government has now transferred hundreds of policemen and pushed forward new laws to monitor the Internet and govern the work of the judiciary. Last year’s widely opposed bill to close private preparatory schools (known as dershanes in Turkish), many of which are run by the Hizmet (“Service”) movement led by Gülen, was approved by parliament earlier this month.

Critics of Gülen believe the Hizmet movement, which runs over 2,000 privately owned educational premises in 160 countries around the world, is pursuing a secret agenda to Islamize Turkey. Many others note the movement has no formal organization and official membership, and that Gülen has long been an advocate of peace, tolerance, humanism, science, and a teacher of moderate Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, rather than of political Islam.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Mr Gülen on the eve of Turkey’s municipal elections, considered an important barometer for the forthcoming presidential elections this summer and the parliamentary polls scheduled for next year.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you see your millions of supporters and the hundreds of schools established by your followers around the world as a single, integrated movement?

Fethullah Gülen: Personally, I don’t think it is right to call people my supporters or any other person’s supporters. I have frequently emphasized that it hurts me greatly to witness people being referred to by their ideological designations. I would like to emphatically note that these people come together voluntarily to implement projects which they find reasonable and logical. While it is a movement inspired by faith, this community of volunteers develops and delivers reasonable and universally acceptable projects which are in full compliance with humanitarian values and which aim to promote individual freedoms, human rights and peaceful coexistence for all people regardless of their faith. Accordingly, people from every nation and religion have either welcomed these projects or have lent active or passive, direct or indirect, support to them in 160 countries around the world. In this sense, it is impossible to say that the composition of this movement is homogeneous.

This heterogeneity applies not only to the values nurtured by the participants in the Movement, but also to their sympathy toward or participation in the Movement’s projects. Some work as teachers in the schools abroad, while others pay stipends or allocate part of their time to voluntary services, etc. They are people from a diverse array of ethnic, religious or political groups who voluntarily come together in light of certain common values. [Those values include] freedom, human rights, respect for beliefs, accepting everyone for who they are, openness to dialogue, dislike for abuse of religion for political ends, respect for laws, refraining from the abuse of state resources, asserting that there is no turning back from democracy, rejecting the use of the state resources and coercion to transform individuals or societies or impose certain religious beliefs on them, trust in civil society, and promoting peace through educational activities. [It also includes more religious values such as] seeking the consent of the Creator in every act or word, loving the created for the sake of the Creator, reinforcing the moral values of individuals irrespective of their religious or other values, etc. While several names have been used to date to refer to them, the term Camia in Turkish, which means a large community of diverse people, or “movement” in English, seems to be best one. I can say that these people—who are banded together in light of the foregoing values—despite not constituting a homogenous group, sport such a spirit or awareness of unity and integrity that they cannot be manipulated into breaching the above-mentioned values.

Q: What do you think about the Turkish government’s move to ban private prep schools?

In the first place, I must state that prep schools are a necessary byproduct of the Turkish educational system’s shortcomings. They are legitimate businesses run by people in full compliance with existing laws and in line with the principle of free enterprise, which are enshrined in the Constitution. Secondly, even those associated with the Hizmet Movement are not run directly by the Movement itself, but by a number of private companies belonging to businesspeople who are personally inspired by the Movement. They operate under the constant educational and financial supervision of the public authorities. Moreover, they dutifully pay their taxes to the state. What is more, only a small proportion of the prep schools in Turkey belong to businesspeople affiliated with the Community.

Given that nothing is being done to eliminate the grave problems facing the country’s educational system, of which prep schools are a natural byproduct, trying to shut them down can therefore hardly be seen as a well-intentioned effort. These institutions provide aspiring students with consulting and educational services in certain fields, such as mathematics and science, and operate according to the laws of the land. If the state forces these schools to shut down, it would deal a blow to both access to education as well as the principles of free enterprise.

Furthermore, it is a fact that the teachers who act in accordance with the Movement’s basic principles tend to be positive, proactive, upright, honest, hard-working and non-discriminatory, and that this can have a positive influence on their students.

Thus, we observe that these prep schools are, thankfully, successful in combating students’ harmful habits, such as smoking, alcoholism and even drug use, which constitute huge problems for state schools. Despite the fact that these institutions have never acted in breach of Turkey’s laws and moral values or universal human values and democracy, and that the plan to shut down them has not been sufficiently debated, and that many people want them to remain open, the decision to proceed to ban these schools will eliminate the continuation of such positive impacts and successes into the future.

Q: You have always denied having political ambitions, but you have followers within the state apparatus. Do you think this works to your advantage in Turkey?

First of all, I must note that this Movement does not pursue political aims, but aims to serve humanity through educational, social and cultural activities. It invests all its time and energy in these services. It aims to solve social problems by focusing on individuals.

In my sermons, I have stated that we have enough mosques but not enough schools. I have encouraged the congregation to try to open schools instead of mosques—many of which were empty at the time. If we nurtured any political aim, such as establishing a political party, various signs of our aim would have become manifest during the past 40 to 50 years. Over time, various political positions and ranks have been offered to me and my friends, but we rejected them all. If the Movement had political aspirations, it would have established a political party in 2001, when the political scene was quite suitable for such an initiative, but it did not. Likewise, if we really wanted to, we would have ensured that we had many supporters in the ruling parties that have come to office to date, but we did not. Until very recently, there had been only two Members of Parliament associated with the Hizmet Movement in the ruling party, which is known to everyone.

I have never approved of the instrumentalization of religion or religious values to attain political ends, the abuse of religion with political motives, or the use of religious slogans in political contexts. Of course, it is legitimate for people to engage in political activities, and although we are not involved in politics—such as by establishing a political party—we do not preclude others from doing so. Indeed, political parties are essential constituents of any democratic system. Of course, the Hizmet Movement does not seek to establish a political party. Yet the Movement’s fundamental dynamics and common universal values, which I tried to elucidate in response to an earlier question of yours, do have political implications. Individually or collectively, participants in this Movement who are engaged in educational, social and charitable projects may have demands from politics and politicians. But these legitimate demands are always sought through legitimate means and, in this process, unlawful, illegitimate or unethical methods are strictly avoided and counseled against.

Participants in and supporters of the Hizmet Movement naturally expect its administrators to promote the rule of law, human rights, freedoms, peace, freedom of thought and enterprise, and stability and order in the country, [and they also expect] that they [the political leaders] work to eliminate chaos and anarchy and ensure that everyone is accepted as they are. Such participants resort to civilian and democratic means available to them to raise their voices about shortcomings in this regard. Raising public awareness is both a civic duty and one of the goals of civil society. No one can be forced to establish a political party in order to do this, and those who raise public awareness about these shortcomings cannot be accused of pursuing political goals, trying to partner with the ruling party, or meddling with democratically elected representatives. This is how it works in any true democracy.

Political parties and free elections are prerequisites of a democratic system, but they are not sufficient on their own. The effective and smooth functioning of civil society is important as well. It is wrong to say that elections are the only way to hold politicians accountable to the public. With its media, organized structure, legal activities, petitions and social media messages, civil society continuously supervises the ruling party and checks whether it is fulfilling its promises. Those who sympathize with our Movement tend to refrain from involvement in partisan politics and from seeking political careers. But this does not mean that, as members of civil society, we relinquish our responsibility to hold politicians to account.

Furthermore, the Hizmet Movement does not have a homogenous composition and it does not have a central or hierarchical structure, so its participants do not have a single political view. Therefore, it is unreasonable for it to closely support any specific political party. The Movement’s participants have their personal political views, and the Movement does not impose any specific view on its participants. The Movement is not focused on elections or political developments, but on projects that promote common universal values. Likewise, the Movement does not meddle with the internal affairs or political developments of any country. Wherever it goes, it seeks to develop and implement civil, educational, cultural and humanitarian projects. Since it sticks with this principle, the Movement is able to be active in 160 countries around the world.

If it is true that there are people who are sympathetic to the values and projects of the Movement working in various positions within the Turkish state but whose identities are not readily obvious—it is both unlawful and unethical to attempt to profile them through various methods. Public servants who are said to be sympathetic to the Movement are bound by the laws, by-laws and the code of conduct of the authorities they work for, and they are strictly subordinated to their superiors and their duties are defined by the relevant laws. I really don’t know if or how this may be an advantage for any social group.

Let me repeat a point: In any state there may be those who feel affection towards me or towards another person or who sympathize with an intellectual or ideological movement. This is quite normal. No one should or can meddle with the personal convictions, beliefs or worldviews of another person. The people who graduate from schools associated with the Movement or who sympathize with the ideals promoted by the Movement are expected to act in a way that is honest and respectful of the rule of law, human rights and democratic principles, [regardless of] whatever positions they assume in public office.

If there are people within the state bureaucracy who take orders from an ideological or other group instead of obeying the orders of their superiors or the provisions of laws and regulations, they must be found and punished, even if they claim to be acting on my behalf. If there are public servants who claim to sympathize with the Hizmet Movement [who] commit crimes, investigations should be swiftly launched against them; they must be brought to justice. The Movement’s stance regarding transparency and accountability is clear and will remain so.

Yet, as you might appreciate, only political systems which rest upon the principle of full transparency can demand that civil society be transparent as well. It is a sign of insincerity to refrain from making the state and politics more transparent while telling everyone else to be more transparent. The latest wave of profiling, wiretapping and bureaucratic purges in Turkey reinforces the point I make. Thousands of public officials have been reassigned without any disciplinary procedure following the December 17 corruption investigations. The public still does not know the criteria that are being used to identify who should be reassigned where. The entire process gives the impression of an arbitrary process.

Q: Do you believe Islam should be given more room in the public sphere and in politics?

Islam, as a religion, is a set of principles and practices based on divine revelation which guides human beings to absolute goodness through their own free will and shows them how to strive to become a “perfect person.” People can live their religion in any way they please in a democratic country which allows people to enjoy their religious beliefs freely. In such a country, free elections are held in compliance with democratic principles and universal human rights and freedoms, and people freely voice their demands of their representatives. They do this by casting their votes at the elections and through using other democratic rights available to them. They can do this individually or collectively by participating in the activities of civil society groups. I always reject the idea of treating religion as a political ideology.

In my opinion, a Muslim should continue to act as a Muslim in social life and in the private, public, civilian and bureaucratic spheres. In other words, a Muslim is supposed to stick to Islam’s moral and ethical values everywhere and at all times. Theft, bribery, looting, graft, lying, gossip, backbiting, adultery and moral lowness are sins and are illegitimate in every context. These sins cannot be committed for political or other purposes and no one can issue a fatwa allowing their commission. At the same time, these acts of corruption are generally deemed by universally accepted norms as criminal offences. If an individual has lost his or her moral integrity in these respects, what is the use of this individual assuming a role within a public body or within a political faction? Like anyone else, I would like to see these ethical positions adopted by all people who hold public office, whether as a civil servant or as a politician. Indeed, the above-listed afflictions are the main source of complaints about public bodies and political structures everywhere around the world.

Let me put it blatantly: If Muslims can freely cherish their religion, perform their religious duties and rituals, establish institutions defined by their religion, teach their religious values to their children or other aspirants, speak their mind about their religion in public debates, and make religious demands in compliance with laws and democracy, then they do not have to try to establish a religious or “Islamic” state. We know from history that rebellions, revolutions, uprisings and other violent incidents that have the potential to drag a country into chaos and anarchy will eventually make us lose our democratic and human rights achievements and lead to irreparable damage to that country. As a matter of fact, if a country’s administration is forcibly seized and people are forced to become religious, it would turn them into hypocrites. These people will pretend to be pious at home, but when they go abroad, they will indulge in the most extreme forms of sin and irreverent and irreligious acts. In such a country, respect for the rule of law diminishes and hypocrisy increases. If you look closely at diverse experiences in different countries, you will realize that my seemingly abstract words rely on concrete cases and observations.

Q. Do you think Islam can be reconciled with democracy in Turkey? How could a successful reconciliation of the two affect Turkey’s European Union membership bid?

Turkey has been governed by democratic rule, despite its shortcomings, since the 1950s. Democracy is a popular form of governance around the world. The preliminary moves to transition our country’s administration to democracy were made by the Ottoman sultans, who were caliphs at the same time, in 1876, and non-Muslim deputies constituted one-third of the first democratically elected parliament. It is wrong to see Islam as conflicting with democracy and vice versa. Perhaps it can be argued that democracy is a system that fits well with Islam’s governance-related principles, both in terms of its allowing the rulers to be accountable to the ruled and its being the opposite of despotism, which is defined by Islam as an evil form of governance. Islam is readily compatible with human rights, democratic elections, accountability, the supremacy of law, and other basic principles. When I said “there will be no turning back from democracy; it is not perfect, but the best system we have,” in 1994, certain groups raised objections to my assertion. But there are numerous implementations and types of democracy. We can hardly say it is a perfect form of governance. It is still going through a process of perfection.

A country where life and mind, as well as property, family and religious freedoms are protected, and where individual rights and freedoms are not restricted save for in exceptional cases such as war, minorities are treated as equal citizens and do not face any discrimination, and people are allowed to freely discuss and implement their personal, social and political views—this would be a country which is suitable for Islam. If people can freely express their views and beliefs, cherish their religion, perform their religious duties and rituals, and have freedoms such as freely acquiring property, neither Muslims nor practitioners of other religions are supposed to change the regime in that country. In countries where they cannot enjoy these liberties, they should try to obtain them through democratic means, but never by resorting to violence.

I believe that Islam and democracy can coexist peacefully not only in Turkey, but also in Muslim countries or, more precisely, in predominantly Muslim countries. We sadly observe that in countries where democracy is demonized, human rights violations, moral and legal turmoil, and religious and ethnic disputes and conflicts abound. Currently, democracy is evolving to become a common asset and custom, as it were, of the entire human race. In countries that comply with the EU standards, Muslims are entitled to cherish, implement, represent, and even promote and teach their religion. Both as individuals and as a community, our essential duty is to cherish and represent our religion.

Turkey is not described as a full-fledged democracy. Practicing Muslims who were oppressed in the past, such as Muslim female students who were banned from wearing headscarves on university campuses, have attained many rights as a result of the country’s EU bid. In this respect, the EU accession process has brought a number of benefits to Turkey. As part of this process, serious democratic reforms have been introduced to the country. If these reforms are maintained and Turkey’s democratic system can attain the EU standards regarding the rule of law and respect for human rights and freedoms, then I think Turkey’s Muslim identity will not be seen as a roadblock to its full membership. Even if anti-Islam fanatics block Turkey’s EU membership, the gains Turkey makes during its attempt at becoming a full member are still important wins for Turkey’s democracy. However, Turkey has recently started to backpedal from the EU democratic standards.

Q: Could you explain your vision of Hanafi Islam to our readers?

Such a thing is out of the question. Neither Hanafis nor other schools of Islamic jurisprudence can come up with their own interpretations of the basic tenets of Islam, but they are allowed to interpret certain aspects of Islam which are open to interpretation using a specific method. These interpretations may overlap with or contradict those of other schools. These interpretations are considered within the circle of Islam as long as they do not contradict the very spirit of Islam and the basic tenets of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The prevailing circumstances influenced the interpretations of the founding scholars of these various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Political and cultural circumstances, too, had an effect on these interpretations. But Imam Hanafi, Imam Shafi’i, Imam Malik and Imam Hanbal—may God be pleased with all of them—were sincere people who devoted their lives to Islam and who suffered numerous troubles in serving Islam. Through God’s will, these interpretations of Islam came to being thanks to their and their students’ hard work; these interpretations should be seen as an asset.

I try to stick to their tradition. In their understanding of Islam, protection of life, mind, property, family and religion prevails over the glorification of the state. [In addition,] people’s freedom of choice and enterprise is stressed; the role of reason, public interest and even social experience is acknowledged in addition to transmitted knowledge as a way of understanding divine revelations; the use of ijtihad—that is, interpretive reasoning—is encouraged in areas of the religion that are open to interpretation, reasoning and explanation; and the freedom to enjoin the good and forbid the evil is sought. [Furthermore], the freedom of practitioners of any religion to cherish their religion not only individually, but also the public sphere, is recognized; the respect for laws, public order, and peace is fostered; terror and the murder of innocent people are recognized as crimes against humanity; and reasoning is promoted as a method to be employed instead of coercion in the civilized world. [In their understanding] religion is defined as mainly consisting of spirituality, morality, belief in the Hereafter, worshiping God, perfection, empathetic understanding, representation, and good counseling. As a matter of fact, from a sociological perspective, this is how Islam has been accepted and interpreted in Anatolia for thousands of years. This perception of Islam defies all forms of violence, extremism and the politicization of religion, but promotes love, tolerance, mutual acceptance, humility, humbleness and inclusiveness. In the social and public sphere, this perception of Islam prioritizes rights, freedoms, justice and peace. That is, it seeks to create a social texture open in all respects.

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