Fethullah Gülen: “Disbelief may prevail, but tyranny will not”
The Arab uprisings, which were long in the making but caught everyone by surprise, are now in their fourth year. It remains as difficult today as it was four years ago to reach conclusions about developments that have brought both hope and despair to a region in crisis. For those most sceptical of the turmoil unleashed by the toppling of a series of dictators, the revolutions that have rocked the Arab world are still at risk of being hijacked by conservative Islamic forces.
While there are moderate reasons for optimism, for example in the case of Tunisia where it all started, the war in Syria has become a human tragedy of huge proportions. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, the wave of refugees, and the involvement of various regional actors are threatening to plunge the whole region into chaos. Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to hold on to power has turned Syria into the main stage of Sunni–Shi’ite sectarian tensions today, and a golden opportunity for jihadists and would-be jihadists around the world. Amid increasing radicalization, the region’s diversity is in danger and minority groups and women fear as never before about the future.
Fethullah Gülen, who has spent most of his life thinking, teaching and writing about the place of Islam in the modern world, shares his thoughts on all these matters in this second part of his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Did the Arab uprisings come as a surprise to you?
Fethullah Gülen: I can say I was partially surprised. As far as I know, there are many experts specializing in the region and many authors who have written about international politics and strategy, but none of them predicted such large-scale turmoil. The people in the region are seeking to obtain democratic rights and promote the rule of law and, except for the use of violence, this should be perceived as a revolution. The existing situation in these countries and the ongoing victimization and suffering of people in the region are heart-rending, and any quick solution to this problem does not seem likely. “Disbelief may prevail, but tyranny will not” is a famous saying. Individually, there is unfortunately nothing much we can do for each other save praying to God for help.
When the incidents first broke out, I asked, ‘Is it an Arab spring or an Arab fall?’ I did so based on my instincts. Unfortunately, this is the quality of the manpower we have. It is easier to destroy than to build. It requires ten times more energy to put in place a new regime acceptable to the entire society than it does to overthrow the existing one. Unfortunately, our society still lacks the ability to do this. Also, we know from history that social fluctuations may develop in extremes. What matters are the internal dynamics within these fluctuations. What governs these fluctuations? What is circulating in the capillaries? If this is not calculated, these fluctuations may develop in any direction. Reliance solely on collective enthusiasm or collective action will not on its own breed authentic and accurate results.
At that time, I had said that “we should look at the groundswell.” Otherwise, the resulting damage could eclipse our expectations. As I was observing these incidents as an outsider, I never thought big changes would come up in a short time. We were witnessing big fluctuations, a big transformation. But it was obvious it would not make any difference in the short term. The past is rife with ordeals and troubles for Arab societies. They will patiently make cool-headed assessments that have long-term consequences, but this process should not be undermined with internal or external anti-democratic interventions.
Their quest for freedoms will naturally be remembered as the greatest achievement of our time. Yet history tells us that truly radical changes or attempted changes may lead to far greater damage or destruction than expected, and it takes time before societies settle down. As [Sunni scholar] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi aptly noted, we should combat the arch-enemies of the Umma (the Islamic community)—namely ignorance, poverty and disunity—with reasonable middle- and long-term projects for promoting education, science, art, trade, democracy, human rights, women’s empowerment, tolerance and dialogue. Any quest for democracy may fail if it does not stand on a firm foundation. The Hizmet Movement has long been trying to do this with schools, universities, business associations, charitable foundations, dialogue institutions and media outlets that employ constructive language for facilitating mutual understanding, negotiations and dialogue. It is our hope that these projects, backed by diverse segments of society, will help people establish societies where everyone lives happily, peacefully and prosperously. To this end, we pray to God both verbally and through our actions. Arab and Muslim societies do not have to wait for the introduction of full-fledged democratic governance before focusing on social projects.
Q: What is your assessment of the conflict in Syria? Is there anything else that could be done to stop this tragedy?
Unfortunately, the entire country has found itself in a deadlock. Developments have since shown that the late martyr Sayyid Ramadan Al-Bouti was right in his assessments of the situation. He represented the Sunni moderation (tamkin) model which, briefly put, says that the worst government is better than no government, anarchy or chaos, and that there is a risk of civil war when we try to overthrow a bad government under unfavorable conditions. Apparently, he knew that there was an asymmetrical balance between the two sides and that the army was under total control of the country’s ruling elites, who have been in power for the last 40 years, and that the army would not side with the majority. Bouti drew attention to the serious risks ahead in light of all this. If this crisis had not erupted, it would have been possible for Syria to slowly and peacefully evolve into a more prosperous and democratic country in the medium and long term, with the help of its serious commercial, political and social relations with Turkey. Perhaps the most tragic part of the crisis was the elimination of this possibility. At this stage, what should be done in the short term is to find political solutions that will stop the ongoing bloodshed, which would come as a partial relief to millions of innocent people who are affected by all that is happening. To this end, the international community must exert concerted efforts for a diplomatic solution.
Q: What are your comments on the Sunni–Shi’ite tensions in the Middle East?
People should not be discriminated against based on their Sunni or Shi’ite identities. Whatever their religion, belief or sect, individuals should be primarily seen as human beings. As human beings, people are entitled to fundamental human rights, and as citizens, they enjoy certain democratic rights. Moreover, religions or sects are not like modern political ideologies. The Sunni world should not have any problem with Shi’ite groups who nurture a love for our beloved Ahl Al-Bayt (the Prophet and his descendants). The principles of our religion do not allow any country to use oppression and abuse on the basis of sectarian differences in an effort to emerge as a regional power.
Throughout history, there have been efforts, generally led by Shi’ite leaders, to approximate Islamic schools of thought (Taqrib Al-Madhahib). Unfortunately, those Shi’ite leaders have tended to employ these approximation efforts for their expansionist purposes. Even Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who was initially warm to the idea, has been complaining about the attitude of these Shi’ite scholars in the last few years. Actually, while the problem appears to be the Sunni–Shi’ite tensions, the real problem is about political aims such as establishing hegemony and the expansion of influence and acquisition of regional power. Religions and sects are being used as means for attaining these goals. Certain politicians and states turn religion into a political ideology and restrict religion with their own narrow and repressive political mentalities. Likewise, there are attempts to turn Sunni or Shi’ite identities into stepping-stones for ideologies. No one can deny that today’s Iran is pursuing a sort of Persian nationalism disguised as Shi’ism. Of course, countries may nurture their specific national interests and try to protect them through legitimate means in the international arena. Leveraging and fomenting religious, sectarian or ethnic tension is not one of these legitimate means. All international organizations should combat this error.
If there are things which we believe to be wrong according to our point of view, there is nothing we can do other than to explain this to people in a civilized manner. Indeed, there is no compulsion in the religion. Unfortunately, certain people and groups have emerged who are making a misguided interpretation of the Sunni school and promoting violence and terror in the name of Sunnis. These groups are assuming destructive roles, causing the most damage to Islam itself. The Muslim world needs concord and alliance and peaceful settlement of political issues more than ever. It is essential for the Umma to dispense with such destructive attitudes and occurrences.
Q: Why are many young Sunni Arabs so prone to radical interpretations of Islam?
With every religion, we see there are groups who diverge away from the mainstream and adopt radical interpretations. It is hard to say that followers of a specific school, Sunni or Shi’ite, are more prone to such divergences. I think this problem stems largely from our shortcomings in understanding and adopting the true substance and identity of religion.
Treating religion as a political ideology is the greatest betrayal against religion, as it amounts to reducing Islam to a simple or lowly set of principles and caricaturing it. The role of the centuries-long colonialism in this should be noted. Indeed, the tendency to reduce religion to politics and to resort to violence is more prevalent in countries which were colonized in the past. To our dismay, the violence by these radical groups is sometimes given wider coverage in the media when compared to the vast majority of Muslims, who do not approve of them. Sometimes, ill-intentioned efforts are made to bring such radical groups to the fore and discredit the public image of Islam.
Islam is open to different interpretations, but this openness is for ensuring this religion’s inclusiveness and universality. This is actually a safety system against attempts to ascribe Islam to a single geography or mentality. Nevertheless, interpretations of Islam must not contradict its essence. Throughout history, many patriarchal, political, nationalist or statist interpretations of Islam were marketed or promoted as the true form of Islam. If with radical interpretations of Islam you mean violence, Muslims—Sunni or Shi’ite—who see violence or coercion as a means of conveying Islam’s message to the masses (tabligh) are not novel; there were always such Muslims. That some groups which have been brought to the agenda in recent years and which seek to politicize Islam are from the Sunni camp does not change this historic fact. Moreover, the media tends to focus on such people and groups at the exclusion of the 99 percent of Muslims, who do not approve of such extremist groups, and by doing so [the media] distorts the overall picture.
Since the extremist interpretations of the movement casting Islam as an ideology is warm to the idea of taking over the state and redesigning the society in a top-down and authoritarian manner and that the Shi’ite Iranian state has been officially and effectively wielding such a form of governance since 1979, the Sunni proponents of such an approach may be plus royaliste que le roi even if they are Sunni. In a sense, they find the embodiment of their ideals in the Shi’ite Iranian revolution. They take this revolution as a model. Such extremist pursuits may develop anywhere, but are mostly likely to emerge at times of colonization and occupation.
If they do not entirely sever their ties with the mainstream, I believe that such extremist groups may fizzle [out] over time. The potential of religions for individual and moral transformation is always more influential and permanent than their political or repressive implementations. When Islam’s capacity for producing dynamics for social change is not fully utilized, such movements may drift toward a more political or extremist position.
The Hizmet movement is not an alternative to a top-down model of societal transformation. The Hizmet movement does not seek to transform society. Rather, it aims to serve society and individuals. We are not seeking to serve individuals to effect political change in society overall. We harbor no such intention. In our work, transformation starts and ends with the individual through education, relief support and other charitable projects such as dialogue. If we can raise good human beings, good citizens and altruistic individuals, this may lead to a more peaceful and prosperous social life. Yet our work is not even about achieving this outcome but about serving society and helping individuals regardless of the larger social impact which may or may not ensue as a byproduct. By analogy, our community is trying to build gardens and orchards where the best and top quality fruits are grown. People may take these fruits and prepare any dish or dessert with them on a table.
Q: The Arab uprisings paved the way for conservative interpretations of Islam, as well as radicalism. How do you think this will affect the position of women in the region?
I should note that the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria initially constituted a search for democracy and fundamental human rights and freedoms. The groups which later stole the show and some of the ensuing incidents overshadowed the initial demands.
As a side note, “conservatism” shouldn’t be confused with “fanaticism.” Like any other religion, Islam has certain basic tenets and disciplines that should be conserved and safeguarded. In determining what should be preserved, however, an integrated approach should be adopted and the interpretation of the Qur’an to address the challenges of the time should be taken into consideration.
Previously, I had emphasized that in a Muslim society, women should be free to assume roles in social life, even as judges and prime ministers or presidents. Restricting women’s right to education and isolating them from social life deals a great blow to the society’s sound functioning. To substantiate my argument, I had noted that in the ‘Age of Happiness’ (Asr Al-Sa’adah) there were women Companions (Sahaba) who taught male Companions on religious matters or who would do business as well as those who would be taken as reference regarding certain matters about Islamic jurisprudence.
Patriarchal misinterpretations of Islamic sources do not portray women in this way. Unfortunately, our patriarchal cultures have significantly eroded the fair and egalitarian status given to women by Islam through the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and women have ended up as second-class individuals. Despite the great female models such as Khadijah, who was a businesswoman and business owner, and Aisha, who taught certain religious matters to male Companions, we, as the Muslims of our time, force women to stay at home and task them with raising children. Yet, although this task is of paramount importance, women do not enjoy respect in Muslim families or societies. They lag behind men in terms of education and cultural achievements. Slavery has disappeared, and, today, no one argues that it should be reintroduced on the basis of the debates about slavery in classical Islamic jurisprudence. Why don’t we employ the same progressive approach to the status of women, without contradicting the essence and basic tenets of Islam?
The way to avoid these extreme interpretations is to take the time of the Prophet and the three generations who followed him as the basis of our reinterpretation today; to get rid of our patriarchal cultures; provide better education for women; improve their socioeconomic status and empower women so that they can defend their rights.
Q: How do you think the rise and sudden fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will impact the future of political Islam in the region?
Egypt is not only one of the leading centers of Islamic knowledge, but also has established political and administrative experiences. It is essential that anyone who aspires to govern the country respects democratic values and the rule of law as Egypt is a country with diverse religions, sects and cultures. Respect for the sensitivities of every social segment, lack of oppression against any group, and responding to their demands are crucial for peace and happiness in the country.
It is no easy task to criticize a democratically elected party which was overthrown by the army. It would be best if the errors of such a party, if any, were assessed and penalized by the electorate. It is anti-democratic to promote coups against the popular will. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in an extremely fragile atmosphere and they lacked sufficient experience and background. Perhaps, they were caught unprepared. In the final analysis, the Muslim Brotherhood is a movement indigenous to Egypt and it will reassess the whole experience and draw lessons from it.
Q: You are a prolific writer and author. If you had to name one of your books as the most emblematic one, which would it be?
I never thought my words and writings were of any importance. But people appear to have responded positively to them. All my life, I have tried to translate this positive attitude into greater understanding and love for God, the Prophet and the saints. As I have tried to read, study and understand people with true literary and spiritual capabilities, I call on other people to do the same. Our past is rife with people of great stature, such as Imam Ghazali, Mawlana Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi, Yunus Emre, Mehmet Akif and Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. Their work and words are magna opera.
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