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Gülen as Educator and Religious Teacher

by Dr. Thomas Michel, S.J. on . Posted in Review

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I have come to know first the educational institutions conducted by participants of the movement led by Mr. Gülen. This has led me in turn to study his writings to discover the rationale that lies behind the educational venture that has ensued from the educational vision of Fethullah Gülen and his colleagues. At the outset, it is necessary to be precise about the relationship of Mr. Gülen to the schools that are often loosely called "Gülen schools," or "schools of the Gülen movement." Mr. Gülen describes himself primarily as an educator. However, he is careful to distinguish between education and teaching. "Most human beings can be teachers," he states, "but the number of educators is severely limited." (Criteria or Lights of the Way, Izmir: Kaynak, 1998, 1:36)

He has also tried to make clear that he has no schools of his own. "I'm tired of saying that I don't have any schools," [1] he affirms with a bit of exasperation (Lyyn Emily Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is There More to Him than Meets the Eye?, p. 106.). The schools have been established by individual agreements between the countries in which they are located and the educational companies founded for this purpose. Each school is an independently run institution, but most of the schools rely on the services of Turkish companies to provide educational supplies and human resources.

My first encounter with one of these schools dates back to 1995, in Zamboanga, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, when I learned that there was a "Turkish" school several miles outside the city. On approaching the school, the first thing that caught my attention was the large sign at the entrance to the property bearing the name: "The Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance." This is a startling affirmation in Zamboanga, a city almost equally 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, located in a region where for over 20 years various Moro separatist movements have been locked in an armed struggle against the military forces of the government of the Philippines. In a region where kidnapping is a frequent occurrence, along with guerrilla warfare, summary raids, arrests, disappearances, and killings by military and paramilitary forces, the school is offering Muslim and Christian Filipino children, along with an educational standard of high quality, a more positive way of living and relating to each other.

My Jesuit colleagues and the lay professors at the Ateneo de Zamboanga confirm that from its beginning, the Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance has maintained a deep level of contact and cooperation with Christian institutions of the region.

Since that time I have had occasion to visit other schools and discuss educational policy with the teaching and administrative staff. The strength of their programs in the sciences, informatics, and languages is shown in their repeated successes in academic olympiads. In a junior high school in Bishkek, I addressed a group of seventh-grade Kyrghyz children for about a half-hour. At the end of my talk, the teacher asked the students to identify those elements of pronunciation and vocabulary that showed that I was speaking an American rather than a British form of English, and to my amazement the children had no difficulty in doing so. I had expected to find a more explicitly Islamic content to the curriculum and the physical environment, but this was not the case. When I asked about the surprising absence of what to me would have been an understandable part of a religiously-inspired educational project, I was told that because of the pluralist nature of the student bodies - Christian and Muslim in Zamboanga, and Buddhist and Hindu as well in Kyrghyzstan - that what they sought to communicate were universal values such as honesty, hard work, harmony, and conscientious service rather than any confessional instruction. These encounters led me to study the writings of Fethullah Gülen to ascertain the educational principles and motivation which undergird the schools and to try to find Gülen's own techniques that have made him into an educator capable of inspiring others with his vision.

The Educational Vision of Fethullah Gülen

In the decades since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, many Turkish Muslims have criticized the "modernization" program undertaken by the government for blindly adopting the best and worst of European civilization. They have seen secularization as not merely an unintended by-product of the secularization process, but rather as the conscious result of an anti-religious bias. They contend that the unspoken presumption that underlay the modernizing reforms has been an ideological conviction that religion is an obstacle to progress and must be excluded from the public sphere of society, economics, and politics if the nation is to move forward. The battle lines drawn up during the decades since the establishment of the Republic, and reinforced by the mutually competitive systems of education, have made the religion-secularization debate in Turkey one in which every thinker is expected to declare their allegiance.

One of the reasons why, in my opinion, Fethullah Gülen has been often attacked by both "right" and "left," by "secular" and "religious" in Turkey is precisely because he has refused to take sides on an issue which he regards as a dead-end. He is instead offering a future-oriented approach by which he hopes to move beyond the ongoing debate. Gülen's solution is to affirm the intended goal of modernization enacted by the Turkish Republic, but to show that a truly effective process of modernization must include the development of the whole person. In educational terms, it must take the major concerns of the various existing streams of education and weave them into a new educational style which will respond to changing demands of today's world.

1. Cited in Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is There More to Him than Meets the Eye?, p. 106.

This is very different from reactionary projects which seek to revive or restore the past. Denying that the education offered in the schools associated with his name is an attempt to restore the Ottoman system or to reinstate the caliphate, Gülen repeatedly affirms that "If there is no adaptation to new conditions, the result will be extinction." (Webb, p: 86)

Despite the necessity of modernization, he holds, there are nevertheless risks involved in any radical break with the past. Cut off from traditional values, young people are in danger of being educated with no values at all beyond those of material success. Non-material values such as profundity of ideas, clarity of thought, depth of feeling, cultural appreciation, or interest in spirituality tend to be ignored in modern educational ventures which are largely aimed at mass-producing functionaries of a globalized market system. (Towards the Lost Paradise, p: 16)

Such students might be adequately prepared to find jobs, but they will not have the necessary interior formation to achieve true human freedom. Leaders in both economic and political fields often favor and promote job-oriented, "value-free" education because it enables those with power to control the "trained but not educated" working cadres more easily. "Gülen asserts that if you wish to keep masses under control, simply starve them in the area of knowledge. They can escape such tyranny only through education. The road to social justice is paved with adequate, universal education, for only this will give people sufficient understanding and tolerance to respect the rights of others." ("M. Fethullah Gülen: A Voice of Compassion, Love, Understanding and Dialogue," Introduction to M. Fethullah Gülen, "The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: a Muslim Approach", Parliament of the World's Religions, Capetown: 1999, p. 4.)

Thus, in Gülen's view, it is not only the establishment of justice which is hindered by the lack of well-rounded education, but also the recognition of human rights and attitudes of acceptance and tolerance toward others. If people are properly educated to think for themselves and to espouse the positive values of social justice, human rights and tolerance, they will be able to be agents of change to implement these beneficial goals. If educational reform is to be accomplished, teacher training is a task that cannot be ignored. Gülen notes that "education is different from teaching. Most human beings can be teachers, but the number of educators is severely limited." (Criteria, or Lights of the Way, I: 36.)

The difference between the two lies in that both teachers and educators impart information and teach skills, but the educator is one who has the ability to assist the students' personalities to emerge, who fosters thought and reflection, who builds character and enables the student to interiorize qualities of self-discipline, tolerance, and a sense of mission. He describes those who simply teach in order to receive a salary, with no interest in the character formation of the students as "the blind leading the blind."

The lack of coordination or integration among competing and mutually antagonistic educational systems gave rise to what Gülen calls "a bitter struggle that should never have taken place: science versus religion." ("The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: a Muslim Approach," p. 39.) This false dichotomy, which during the 19-20th Centuries exercised the energies of scholars, politicians, and religious leaders on both sides of the debate, resulted in a bifurcation of educational philosophies and methods. Modern secular educators saw religion as at best a useless expense of time and at worst an obstacle to progress. Among religious scholars, the debate led to a rejection of modernity and religion "as a political ideology rather than a religion in its true sense and function." (Ibid., p. 20)

He feels that through an educational process in which religious scholars have a sound formation in the sciences and scientists are exposed to religious and spiritual values, that the "long religion-science conflict will come to an end, or at least its absurdity will be acknowledged." (Ibid., p. 39. For this to come about, he asserts that a new style of education is necessary, one "that will fuse religious and scientific knowledge together with morality and spirituality, to produce genuinely enlightened people with hearts illumined by religious sciences and spirituality, minds illuminated with positive sciences," people dedicated to living according to humane qualities and moral values, who are also "cognizant of the socio-economic and political conditions of their time." (Ibid)

Several terms appear repeatedly in Gülen's writings on education and need to be clarified lest they cause misunderstanding. The first is that of spirituality and spiritual values. Some might read this as a code word for "religion" and employed to counteract prejudices towards religiosity in modern secular societies. However, it is clear that Gülen is using the term in a broader sense. For him, spirituality includes not only specifically religious teachings, but also ethics, logic, psychological health, and affective openness. Key terms in his writings are compassion and tolerance. It is the task of education to instill such "non-quantifiable" qualities in students, in addition to training in the "exact" disciplines.

Other terms used frequently by Gülen need to be examined. He often speaks of the need for cultural [2] and traditions! [3] values. His call for the introduction of cultural and traditional values in education have been interpreted by critics as a reactionary call to return to pre-Republican Ottoman society. He has been accused of being an irticaci, which might be translated in the Turkish context as "reactionary" or even "fundamentalist." This is an accusation which he has always denied. In defense of his position, he states: "The word irtica means returning to the past or carrying the past to the present. I'm a person who's taken eternity as a goal, not only tomorrow. I'm thinking about our country's future and trying to do what I can about it. I've never had anything to do with taking my country backwards in any of my writings, spoken words or activities. But no one can label belief in God, worship, moral values and purporting matters unlimited by time as irtica." (Webb, p. 95)

2. Cf., "Little attention and importance is given to the teaching of cultural values, although it is more necessary to education. If one day we are able to ensure that it is given importance, then we shall have reached a major objective." Criteria or Lights of the Way, 1: 35.
3. Cf. Towards the Lost Paradise, p. 16, and Criteria or Lights of the Way I: 44-45.

In proposing cultural and traditional values, he seems to regard Turkey's past as a long, slow accumulation of wisdom which still has much to teach modern people, and much in traditional wisdom is still quite relevant to the needs of today's societies. Because of this collected wisdom the past must not be discarded because of this collected wisdom.

On the other hand, any attempts to reconstruct the past are both shortsighted and doomed to failure. One might say that while rejecting efforts to break with the past, Gülen equally rejects efforts to reestablish or recreate pre-modern society. The tendency among some modern reformers to "break free of the shackles of the past" he regards as a mixed blessing. Those elements of the heritage that were oppressive, stagnant, or had lost their original purpose and inspiration no doubt have to be superseded, but other, liberating and humanizing elements must be reaffirmed if new generations are going to be able to build a better future. It is clear that his thinking is not limited by internal debates about political directions in Turkey, nor even the future of Islamic societies. His educational vision is one that embraces societies "throughout the world." He wants to form reformers, that is, those who, fortified with a value system that takes into account both the physical and non-materials aspects of humankind.

He states: "Those who want to reform the world must first reform themselves. In order to bring others to the path of traveling to a better world, they must purify their inner worlds of hatred, rancor, and jealousy, and adorn their outer world with all kinds of virtues. Those who are far removed from self-control and self-discipline, who have failed to refine their feelings, may seem attractive and insightful at first. However, they will not be able to inspire others in any permanent way and the sentiments they arouse will soon disappear." ("The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: a Muslim Approach," p. 30)

Gülen states: "A person is truly human who learns and teaches and inspires others. It is difficult to regard as fully human someone who is ignorant and has no desire to learn. It is also questionable whether a learned person who does not renew and reform oneself so as to set an example for others is fully human."

Fethullah Gülen as a Teacher of Islam

The focus of this paper has been on Fethullah Gülen as an educator. His role as religious scholar and teacher is a topic that deserves careful examination, as does the study of his religious thought as a modern interpreter of Islam. Such questions are outside the scope of this paper. However, a study of his educational vision would not be complete without a brief look at his writings on Islam.

Of Gülen's more than 30 books, some are compilations of talks and sermons which he delivered to students and worshipers. Others are responses to questions put to him at one time or another by students. They range from studies of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, to a basic introduction to Sufism, to a treatment of questions traditionally raised in the science of kalam, to elaborations of essential themes of Islamic faith.

These studies are directed not toward specialists but at a more general audience of educated Muslims.

What can be said about Fethullah Gülen's personal approach to interpreting the Islamic sources and tradition? The first thing that strikes the reader is his emphasis on morality and moral virtue, which he appears to stress as more central to the religious élan inspired by the Qur'an than ritual practice.

While affirming the need for ritual, Gülen regards ethical uprightness as lying at the heart of the religious impulse. "Morality," he states, "is the essence of religion and a most fundamental portion of the Divine Message. If being virtuous and having good morals is to be heroic - and it is - the greatest heroes are, first, the Prophets and, after them, those who follow them in sincerity and devotion. A true Muslim is one who practices a truly universal, therefore Muslim, morality."

He buttresses his point by citing a hadith from Muhammad in which he states: "Islam consists in good morals; I have been sent to perfect and complete good morals." (Towards the Lost Paradise, p. 30) The various aspects of the Islamic way of life are all meant to work together to produce the honorable, ethically upright individual. In this broad sense of islam or submission of one's life to God, it can be said that the schools established by the movement associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen have as their inspiration an ethical vision that is rooted in Islam but is not limited in its expression to members of the umma. When Gülen speaks of forming students "dedicated to living according to humane qualities and moral values," who "adorn their outer world with all kinds of virtues," he is proposing a kind of universal ethical code which he as a Muslim has learned from Islam. It is equally obvious that he does not consider the virtues, humane qualities and moral values to be the exclusive possession of Muslims, as non-Muslim students are welcome in the schools and no attempt is made to proselytize. The religion of Islam is thus understood as a "way leading a person to perfection or enabling one to reacquire one's primordial angelic state." (Prophet Muhammad: the Infinite Light, II: 153-154)

If Islam is seen as a path to moral perfection, one must consider the development of tasawwuf as a natural and inevitable development within the Islamic tradition. Gülen suggests an ethical definition of Sufism as "the continuous striving to be rid of all kinds of bad maxims and evil conduct and acquiring virtues." (Key concepts in the Practice of Sufism, p. 1) He praises the Sufis in Islamic history as being spiritual guides who have shown generations of Muslims how to follow this path to human perfection.

Such a positive reading of the mystical Sufi tradition has inevitably led to accusations of his having created within his movement a type of neo-Sufi tarekat. While denying that he has ever been a member of a tarekat, much less that he has set up his own quasi-Sufi Order, Gülen asserts that to condemn Sufism, the spiritual dimension of Islam, is to tantamount to opposing the Islamic faith itself. He states: "I have state innumerable times that I'm not a member of a religious order. As a religion, Islam naturally emphasizes the spiritual realm. It takes the training of the ego as a basic principle. Asceticism, piety, kindness and sincerity are essential to it. in the history of Islam, the discipline that dwelt most on these matters was Sufism. Opposing this would be opposing the essence of Islam. But I repeat, just as I never joined a Sufi order, I have never had any relationship to one." (Webb, pp. 102-103)

This article is a summary of the paper presented in the "Fethullah Gülen Symposium" held at Georgetown University in April 2001.

Dr. Thomas Michel, S.J., Georgetown Unv., 04.26.2001