The Basis of Dialogue and Tolerance in Gülen's World

1. The Synthesis of Islam and the Turkish Approach

The most important values that prevailed in the twentieth century were modernization, plurality, and individualism. Because modernity invaded personal and social life as a whole, new forms of religious, cultural, and political plurality emerged. Although modernity has been defined in different ways, no one will contest that among its products is contemporary globalization. Ideological or not, globalization has radically changed the nature and dynamics of local economies, societies, modes of communication, and political organizations, and it has drastically altered the regulating fields of law, history, geography, and government. While economic globalization rendered the world a single market, globalization is not strictly an economic phenomenon. It has political, ideological, and cultural dimensions. It is true that globalization has resulted in increased wealth, technology, democratic pluralism, and production; however, such developments manifested alongside environmental degradation, increased poverty, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. As knowledge, power, and technology were globalized, conflict theories came into the world's agenda. Some may consider this situation as an outcome of modernity, while others may think of globalization as the main cause. In either case, we have found ourselves discussing and redefining a series of concepts like humanity and the individual; freedom of expression and faith; political, social, and cultural tolerance; conflict or reconciliation; dialogue or fight; and so on.

Directly or indirectly, globalization has impacted Turkey on a larger scale. Concepts such as individuality, religion, and plurality engage public opinion in the Turkish democracy. Before the 1980s, ideological camps fatally shook efforts for plurality in the Turkish democracy, favoring violence instead of dialogue. Three generations before the military intervention in 1980, there were victims of such continual violence. These lost generations could not convert their diversity into richness and reconciliation. Although the traces of these ideologies are still alive, the generations of today are searching for ways to convert the atmosphere of conflict into a basis for dialogue. New generations are trying to improve plurality on the basis of tolerance and reconciliation.

As K. Çalişkan says, "humanity, the individual, tolerance, and reconciliation; these were the essence of Turkish culture after its meeting with Islam."[1] For Gülen, Turkish Muslims should reconstruct modernity by returning to their own roots, to the foundations laid by Ahmed Yesevi (b. 1166), Rumi (b. 1273), Yunus Emre (b. 1320), and Haci Bektaş-i Veli (b. 1271). I am using modernization here not in its Western ideological sense, but as contemporary dynamics, which we can use to solve our political, social, and cultural problems. Modernization reminds us of conflicts and of settling old accounts. In national representations of global conflicts, Turkey has immersed itself in the negative squalor of modernity, while at the same time, Turkish society can find hope in its special tradition of reconciliation and dialogue. The bedrock of this culture is respect for humanity; in the foundations of "Turkish Muslimness" (not Turkish Islam),[2] the roots of Sufism and tolerance are found. These terms came into existence again at the twenty-first century. Turkish Muslims have to realize their modernization by going back to their own roots and their Sufi origins:

Whatever is the ruling system of a country—democracy is sanctified in today's world—the most important element is humankind: the problem of producing virtuous humans with excellent moral qualities. Philosophers of utopias, such as Farabi, always gave importance to a virtuous city. This is a mistake. Human beings come before the city, the civilization, the country, etc. Similarly, virtuous man has a very significant place in democracies. Democracies at the hands of virtuous people well trained in Islamic values can reach higher levels of perfection more easily.[3]

For long centuries, Turkish Muslims enjoyed the concepts of reconciliation and tolerance—which together comprise the essence of democracy—in vast territories. Islam is interpreted in these lands in a soft and tolerant way. Ottomans treated people in all these various lands, as well as their languages, religions, and socio-cultural lifestyles, with respect. Other Turkish states, including the Seljuks, Ilhanids, Karahanlis before the Ottomans, also had the same policies of tolerance. In comparison to the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Persian Empires, the Turks have favored and tolerated differences. In complete fidelity to the main principles of Islam, Turks perfectly practiced intellectual dynamics like tajdid (renewal) and ijtihad (legal deductions) for Islamic issues that are open to interpretation. Such flexibility allowed the Ottomans to develop a universal interpretation of Islam that was practiced for centuries. Such an interpretation of Islam could be named "Turkish Muslimness."[4] However, this nomenclature should not cause misunderstanding since there is no such thing as Turkish, Iranian, or Arabic Islam as far as the fundamentals of the religion are concerned.

When Turks controlled vast regions of the world, they developed social, political, and economic laws that were very much universal in nature. Ottoman tolerance and reconciliation was the result of Turkish Sufism, which thrived in Anatolia. In the Turkish nation, Sufism penetrated the social fabric of society more thoroughly than in many other Muslim nations. From the times of Ahmed Yesevi and Haci Bektaş-i Veli to modern days, the moral qualities of modesty, consideration, and selflessness have been the yeast of this nation. In this sense, tolerance and dialogue best express the cultural dimensions of Islam. The most important manifestations of cultural Islam are Sufism, Sufi orders, mosque attendance, and Islamic arts.

Sufism (tasawwuf) is the name of a science that studies the spiritual aspects of Islam. The name, Sufism, is less relevant in relation to what the term represents; that is to say, what really matters is whether a believer practices asceticism (zuhd), piety (taqwa), and excellence in prayer (ihsan), and strives to increase his or her knowledge of God (marifatullah). These spiritual practices are inseparable from Islam. Sufi orders appeared three to four centuries after the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. They functioned very positively as social institutions that provided individuals with training and education.

According to Gülen, the virtuous human being in Sufism signifies the tolerant man. He is the altruistic person who makes sacrifices for his society and for humanity in general. Based upon the Sufi dervish essence, this altruistic human model is essential to the foundations of Muslim society in Turkey. Gülen defines the contemporary Muslim identity under the direction of cultural Islam as he teaches to engage in dialogue with all humans, and he denounces violence as an alternative. In this way, his rhetoric prepares Muslims for a new identity that fuses an Islamic social identity and that of a modern human. In other words, he presents a new Islamic model that harmonizes Islamic principles with modern values.

Both in Gülen's internal interactions with Muslims and in his vision concerning the followers of different religions, his perspective is defined by an Islamic sensibility. Through his ethical sensibility on matters of Turkish modernization and his global conflict studies, Gülen is certain to prove unique on the global stage, in emphasizing dialogue between civilizations. While some question his religious identity and conceive his project to be a concentrated religious effort, Gülen's support for modern colleges, where students learn modern sciences, illustrates that his concerns transcend the religious sphere. If he were only concentrated on matters of religion, he would advocate for the development and management of Sufi lodges, not contemporary education centers, high schools, and colleges. In addition to contributing these progressive colleges, Gülen is active in inter-civilizational dialogue as a means to solve the central social and cultural problems of the modern world. If the movement of Fethullah Gülen advocated political uses for Islam, undoubtedly he and his movement would not have such a vision and mission. Gülen's project is so unique in the sense that it not only renews the Islamic identity, but it also redefines and renews Islamic action.

2. Human being, religion, and action

When we closely research the basis of Gülen's interest in dialogue and tolerance, we see that what makes him special is his interpretation of human being in the universe. Analysts, such as Elizabeth Özdalga, Nilüfer Göle, and Taha Akyol, define Gülen's worldview as "activist pietism."[5] Other analysts understand Gülen in his local format as a modern representation of traditional Islam, as produced by Ahmed Yesevi, Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Haci Bektaş who were the signposts in the development of Islamic Sufism in Turkish history. Such analyses do not borrow foreign vocabulary to define him. They read Gülen locally in the format of the Turkish Islamic synthesis. Both groups stress his activist Sufi roots.

Gülen is uncompromisingly faithful to the essentials of Islam. However, he also reproduces the tolerant approach of early-period Turkish Sufis on Islamic issues for which there is space for new interpretations (ijtihad). Gülen's interpretation, however, differs from the earlier examples, due to his more extensive and active-oriented vision. Yunus Emre, Rumi, and Haci Bektaş-i Veli practiced internal, pacifist pietism when they invited people to Sufi lodges. Naturally, their sense of tolerance and dialogue was limited to the social environment of the lodge, whereas Gülen opens up this frame to all people. His mission thus has a transforming character. He understands this attitude as an attribute of those for whom the glad tidings are given to, "inherit the earth."[6] Furthermore, he believes that this ideal is the most basic explanation for the existence of human being on earth. On the one hand, Gülen encourages dialogue events that may help reconciliation between world cultures on the basis of good intentions; on the other hand, he seeks to transform human being—who has become an egoist in the modern era—into a character whose basic values are selfless service and devotion for humanity in general. Gülen is well aware that such a great enterprise will not succeed without organizing activated thought and the actions of human capabilities. From his very first sermon, Gülen's preaching, writing, and spiritual circles have consistently centered on this idea. Almost all his writings reflect the "hero of thought and action" as a metaphor for social engagement. Gülen contends that intellectually guided social action is the only way a person can help his or her society achieve certain goals. Thought and action should be combined with activities that will transform the individual first, so as to transform society later. This concept underlines the attempt to cultivate dialogue between religions and civilizations, which, for Gülen, is necessary to fulfill our role as the "the inheritors of earth."

The field of our struggle for the inheritors of the Earth can be summarized as "action and thought." In fact, the true path of existence in life goes through a potentially transforming action and thought, which is also able to transform others. In fact, every existence, from this perspective, is the product of an action and some disciplines, and its continuance also depends on that action and those disciplines.

Action is the most important and necessary component of our lives. By undertaking particular responsibilities through continuous action and thinking, by facing and bearing particular difficulties almost, in a sense, by sentencing ourselves to all these, even though it may be at the expense of many things, we always have to act, to strive. If we do not act as we are, we are dragged into the waves caused by the thrust and actions of others, and into the whirlpools of the plans and thoughts of others, and then we are forced to act on behalf of others.

Remaining aloof from action, not interfering in the things happening around us, nor being a part of the events around us, and staying indifferent to them, are like letting ourselves melt away, like ice turning into water... For, in order to exist, the whole essence of the human being should be alert.

Being ourselves, uniting our wishes and desires with the wishes and desires of others, and then finding a course or direction of action for ourselves within existence as a whole, flowing as ourselves within our own course, within the general currents and movements in the universe, and preserving our own line while being integrated with the whole of existence, are the most obvious aspects of Islamic action and thought... The real world of the person of action and thought, and their real happiness in it, are colored with the tones of universality and engraved within the frame of eternity.

Seen from another, better angle, action is the embracing of the whole of existence with the most sincere and heartfelt decisions, the analysis of existence and the journeying toward eternity through the corridors of creation...

As for thought, it is an inner action... In other words, thought is the emptying of the inner being to prepare room for metaphysical experiences in the depths of the inner being. If this is the first step of thinking, then the last step is active thinking.

The underlying dynamic of our life of action and thought is our spiritual life; it is not possible for us to separate our spiritual life from our religious thoughts. Our struggle for existence was carried out by relying on the Islamic spirit and essence... Again, just as our partaking of the level of heart and soul within the inner world was achieved by worship, remembrance, and thinking, so embracing the whole of creation, feeling Him in our pulse, and sensing Him in all the faculties of the mind, are again dependent on the consciousness of worship and our endeavor in reflection and remembrance. Indeed, every act of a true believer is an act of worship; their every thought is an act of self-discipline, of self-control, and of self-supervision; their every speech is a prayer, supplication, and episode of spiritual knowledge; their every observation of existence is a close study and investigation; and their relationships with others are divine compassion. To reach such a degree of spirituality or saintliness is dependent on being open to perception, logic, and reasoning, and thence, to thoughts and inspiration from the Divine. In other words, it is very difficult for a person to reach this peak, to acquire such a state, unless experience has been sieved by the filter of reason; reason has surrendered to the greatest intellect and foresight of the prophets; logic has turned completely into love; and love has evolved into love of God.[7]

From the above words, one can discern that Gülen gives clear messages, both at home and abroad, drawing a large vision of action and thinking that centers on love of humanity. From divine love to human tolerance, from experiential reason to illumination and revelational thinking, from religious life shaped by spiritual depth to global action on the scale of whole nations, this all-embracing vision compels us to engage in inter-religious and inter-civilizational dialogue, and offers us a new model for our relationships, thoughts, and actions that extends as far as it can. For Gülen, this is the foundation of the "inheritors of the earth" metaphor. This vision of tolerance and dialogue reaches far beyond the line of Rumi and Haci Bektaş-i Veli, to further borders and more distant lands. Gülen's sense of pietism is also open-ended; one's practicing religion, his appreciation of divine love, and his love for all of humanity, are not something for him alone. Gülen believes that such a perspective should be transported to all nations of the world as an active project. Therefore, in thought and belief, and in spirit and action, one has to be on the move, always.

When viewed through the public eye, and with universal concerns, Gülen's vision can be described as including all human and social processes. Because his model puts all kinds of ideological concerns aside and attempts to build model individual human beings. In this model, human beings are viewed as the creation of God and the inheritors of the earth. They should sacrifice their personal desires for the good of all humanity, and then they will surely realize their capacity to receive and exude divine and human love. Such a person would easily take his or her role in every relationship, as a member or leader in society. Any model of society can be realized with such individuals. The nature of such a person is to act positively in spiritual, intellectual, social, and other matters. Those who give their hearts to Gülen's ideas behave in such exemplary ways, and this is why they receive a warm welcome from almost everyone in places across the world where they are active, across the spectrum of ideological, political, religious, socio-cultural perspectives. In the education institutions they set up in different countries, they also take with them the ideas of dialogue, tolerance and reconciliation.

It is true that Gülen has a religious identity, but his piety is not received with resistance or considered abnormal in different socio-cultural environments. This can be explained by Gülen's emphasis on humanistic, social, ethical values that are shared by every normal human being.[8] In this regard, Gülen appears as a modern Rumi. Similar to Rumi's works that find a place among different nations, his voice inspires millions throughout the world, who have divergent backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, race, gender and religion. As he enlivens Rumi's spirit of dialogue and tolerance, world communities might show an increasing interest for the Gülen-inspired movement with a positive response.

3. The Journalists and Writers Foundation and the Abant Platform

The first call of the Gülen Movement with regard to tolerance and dialogue was made to the different ideological, ethnical, and cultural groups in Turkey. It was true that these opposing groups presented an illusion of harmony under the political authority, but deep ideological conflicts defined their recent past. Gülen Movement broke this deep and worried silence by opening up an avenue of dialogue and tolerance based on mutual respect. In a short time, this invitation to dialogue resulted in the formation of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, an institution that shoulders the movement of tolerance and dialogue. With the cooperation of respected scholars, this foundation later oversaw the establishment of the Abant Platform and became an intellectual platform of discussion. Hundreds of respected intellectuals, artists, politicians, and scientists from different ethnical and ideological schools participated in this activity and researched possibilities of creating an atmosphere based on toleration and co-existence. Participants discussed issues that ranged from problems of Turkish democracy to freedom of thought and belief, from social and cultural plurality to the authority of the modern nation state. . In the beginning, there was a concern as to how different ideas coming from different people would cooperate, but this concern soon diminished and the Platform adjourned emphasizing common points and common values. The Platform gave hope to people from all walks of life, who promoted different ideologies; it proved that people can find common ground.[9]

The AbantPlatform was formed as a model framework to begin a dialogue on religious, cultural, and civilizational issues, and eventually attracted the participation of contributors from different countries and from different continents. It is interesting that this new development coincided with the emergence of two competing theories in social science, the clash of civilizations  and the end of history. This incident increased the significance of the enterprise of dialogue and tolerance started by the Abant Platform. The Journalists and Writers Foundation prepared a series of books on how this Platform was realized under the name Kozadan Kelebeğe (From Cocoon to Butterfly). These attempts at dialogue emerged on the world agenda when Gülen made a historical visit to the Pope. Although this meeting was done without much publicity, it was considered to be a significant step in terms of building communication between two different civilizations. Undoubtedly, Gülen is not an Islamic representative of Turkey or of the Muslim world. His meeting with the Pope did not claim to have such mission. However, the atmosphere that this meeting awakened in the Catholic world gave this meeting a historical value. The movement beginning from the simple Islamic identity of Gülen and which became an international invitation to dialogue and tolerance, exemplified the activist human potential generated by the synthesis of Turkish-Islamic Sufism. Although, with his humbleness, Gülen rejected his role in this development, no one can minimize the contribution of his Islamic identity and his action-oriented interpretation of the Sufi roots. Even in the Catholic world, his deep spiritual and ascetic lifestyle did not go unnoticed. Many Catholic priests and religious authorities admitted that they renewed themselves in awe of Gülen's wisdom, sincerity, and Sufi-inspired modesty.[10]

4. Dialogue, tolerance, and modernity

The movement of dialogue and tolerance is not an interrogation of or reaction to modernity. However, modernity has weakened the spirituality and has made human being belittled and insignificant. Modernity produced conditions that strengthened individualism and brought primacy of material motives against the interests of the society. In the end, human beings ended up separated from all that is holy, from their responsibility as inheritors of the earth, from human and ethical values, from love and self sacrifice. All great religions struggled to save people from egoism. But modernity struck a deadly blow to the human personality and to his cosmic integrity. Gülen's invitation came at the point when the flag of humanity fell to the ground in this front.

As regards one's own world, a person who is unable to connect with or relate to the whole of existence and does not perceive a connection or relation with the universe is attached to and bound by their individual and trivial wishes and wants, they who are closed to general and universal truths are those who cleave, alienate, and exclude themselves from existence as a whole and condemn and cast themselves into the death cell of egoism.[11]

Those who sever their relationship with the universe lose the nobility of their soul, and thus their ability to transform the world. Such people cannot be revivers, nor leaders of the earth; they do not have spiritual tension, and thus have no ability to act on that tension. "Remaining aloof from action, not interfering in the things happening around us, nor being a part of the events around us and staying indifferent to them, is like letting ourselves melt away, like ice turning into water." This is as derogatory as humanity's nonexistence and misery. "For, in order to exist, the whole essence of the human being should be alert."

Egoists care little for their society or for humanity in general. Their personal weights are very heavy. Such people cannot form a sincere or developing relationship with the universe. They cannot make sacrifices for society or for humanity.

Gülen defines thinking or contemplation as internal action. According to this definition, the ideal people should be active in both their minds and actions. Defining the parameters of a passive human being, modernity constructed a person whose personal weight lacks movement, who is an egoist. You cannot expect such people to shoulder the duty of dialogue between civilizations. Only self-sacrificing and sincere people can shoulder this responsibility, people like Rumi, Haci Bektaş, who have tender but all-inclusive hearts. Those who come to fight or destroy should revive and discover their human foundations the moment they see such souls. The human being who has the pivotal role in Gülen's philosophy of tolerance and dialogue should always behave positively in thought and action. He or she should not act under the influence of his or her emotions; he should be constructive rather than destructive.

On the other hand such a person should be concerned for the problems of others. Plain piety, in the sense of practicing a religious life in one's corner with no concern for the outside world, is not enough. Action and discipline are necessary for making religious principles come alive. According to Gülen, only those who possess divine love can shoulder the suffering for the others. As Elizabeth Özdalga states, Gülen's model is an ascetic one. There are no limits to spiritual transformation, to material self-sacrifice. They are open to infinity. Whatever you do for the sake of humanity and for the sake of divine love is not enough. This is the epic of dedication. This is the understanding of responsibility necessitated by the idea of being the inheritor of the earth.

Footnote[1] Cemal Uşak, Küresel Barişa Doğru:Kozadan Kelebeğe, Vol. 3, İstanbul: Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfi Yayinlari, 2003, p. 55.

[2] Definitions like "Turkish Islam"—even though used figuratively—are not correct, for Islam is universal, and cannot be divided into forms practiced by different nations, one being superior than the other.

[3] Armağan and Ünal, p. 87.

[4] For the intellectual roots of Turkish Muslimness, see Etga Ugur, "Intellectual Roots of 'Turkish Islam' and Approaches to the Turkish Model," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 24 (2): 327–45, 2004.

[5] Pietism is the discourse that places individual morality as the essential element of religiosity. Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism discusses pietism extensively.

[6] See the Qur'an, Anbiya 21:105.

[7] Gülen, The Statue of Our Souls, pp. 59–62.

[8] Gülen, Örnekleri Kendinden Bir Hareket, p. 117; Ruhumuzun Heykelini Dikerken, p. 122; Yeşeren Düşünceler, p. 156; Kendi Dünyamiza Doğru, p. 50; "İslam Dünyasi," Sizinti, No. 302, March 2004.

[9] For a detailed analysis on the Abant meetings, see Etga Ugur, "Religion as a Source of Social Capital? The Gülen Movement in the Public Sphere," in Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement: International Conference Proceedings, ed. Ihsan Yilmaz, London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, 2007.

[10] The writings of Thomas Michel, who is the Secretary of Vatican Secreteriat for Inter-Religious Dialogue, are very good examples to prove this fact. See, for instance, Thomas Michel, "Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Gülen," TheMuslim World 2005, 95 (3): 341–58.

[11] Gülen, TheStatue of Our Souls, p. 60.
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