Fethullah Gülen’s inspiration seems to represent the secularization of Turkey from within and bottom up, rather than enforcing from top down, and they also provide the intellectual basis for it. Does Fethullah Gülen share this interpretation?

Fethullah Gülen

Secularism is a policy; it is interpreted according to the political force behind it. There also is a process called secularization—as societies develop and the educational level of the members and cultural diversity increase, the religion leaves its position of being the only reference point for thought and conduct. The references influencing the thoughts and behaviors of members become numerous. Fethullah Gülen’s teachings and influence came exactly at this juncture in Turkey. For this reason, his inspiration, exhortations, and conduct seem to represent the secularization of Turkey from within and bottom up, rather than enforcing from top down, and they also provide the intellectual basis for it. Does Gülen share this interpretation?

Fethullah Gülen replies,

In Turkey democracy and secularism existed for years, even during the Ottomans they existed partially. The founders of the republic took from the Ottomans and developed secularism. In later years, it became a concept entering directly into the constitution. Nevertheless, not much said about the definition and the framework of it. The information was not provided. For this reason, the problem has stemmed from the ambiguity of the framework of the concept of secularism. It was not a matter of disturbance with the concepts of democracy or secularism.

For instance, when some said secularism, they thought not to recognize a place for religion. Of course, they could not say so to the Christians or the Jews in Turkey, because there was the USA behind them, there was Europe, there was the world. There was no one to defend the rights of the wretched Muslims.[1]

According to Gülen, the wretched Muslims, the majority in the country, should have been protected by the rulers, the dominant elite. They did not fulfill their duty of protecting the poor and deprived Muslims, which resulted in a widespread belief that if secularism and democracy do not bring us freedom, dignity, and welfare, they are not right for us. Believing people could not find the free environment that they were hoping for with respect to their individual, social, or family lives, nor in matters related to worship and worldly transactions. This caused a considerable portion of the society to stay aloof from these concepts.

After making this assessment Gülen, suggests that the people would not have any cause for concern relating to the concepts of democracy or secularism executed properly:

Our nation has a good mannered-culture that it had inherited from the past. For this reason, we never witness up until today, the uprising of those groups who are anti-democrats or anti-secularists. Therefore, the majority of the nation, we can say 80%, are not disturbed by either democracy or secularism. They said, “If they come with the Western standards we would say yes,”[2]

At this point, Gülen makes an interesting comment:

When they came to power, they said, “In reality we are more secular than anyone else, we are more democratic than everyone, we are more republican than everyone.” And the public did not object to these statements. Those who were in favor of them did not give any reaction. That means this matter was not a great problem for the public. Even looking at their circumstances in terms of practicing their religion, they found Turkey more comfortable. Surely, there were some antidemocratic things, but Turkey was benefitting from democratic rights and freedoms, and utilizing them which could not even be contrasted with the prevailing situation in the Asian, African, and North African nations. The rest was not the concern of anyone. I think, later they made this matter problematic artificially. And some people, with political considerations, owned up this issue. Thus, they presented Islam as if it was opposed to democracy and secularism. Sovereignty and the issue of politics comprise only 3% of the teachings of the Qur’an. 97% concern the individual, his religion, his religious views, his relation with the divine, upbringing of his family members in good character, the rights and freedoms to educate his children, the rights and freedoms to earn his livelihood. None of the worldly preferences like these is in contradiction with Islam. Therefore, the nation never felt the contradiction with them.[3]

With regard to bending democracy or distortion of it by the groups seeking sovereignty and power, he states:

They say, “Can we channel the democratic thoughts into our service.” It is not possible for us to channel democracy into any place. It runs its course in its natural setting. But till now others made it a tool for their different sensibilities, thoughts, and different understandings. ... While saying Marx, they said democracy. While saying Lenin, they said democracy. While saying Mao, they said democracy. Now adding some other attributes to it, they are still saying democracy. In fact, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao are miles away from democracy. They are dictators at global scale; the advice they give to humanity, and the systems represented by those are the totalitarian systems. They have nothing to do with democracy. If a system has somehow a relationship with democracy to any extent, in my opinion Islam is very close to it. Islam and Muslims benefit from its many rules. There would be numerous things for a Muslim to perform in that democratic atmosphere.[4]

After expressing these thoughts, he makes a call to the Muslims to benefit from the blessings of democracy:

Instead of declaring a war against it, in the vast atmosphere it awards you with, you have to be making efforts to establish your institutions, efforts to serve your religion, your nation, and the ideals of your nation.[5]

Well then, is it possible in a future time to go beyond the familiar concept of democracy, to transcend it? Gülen answers yes:

It is theoretically possible to find a more humane, more perfect system. It is theoretically possible to establish a more progressive system, whatever humans expect from democracy with its reason and reasoning, its sensibilities, concept of freedom, philosophy of freedom, the structure of family, and system of governing. This does not have to remain at theoretical level. The new … system might be represented by its architects and pioneers … And there would be a new tendency along this line in the world. In history those paths had been tried, and this search of humanity would continue. Therefore, the current system … could be changed by improvements.[6]

These views display the faith of Gülen in democracy and his belief that he does not see it as a frozen reality. He, by directing our attention to the fact that democracy could be improved along the lines of human needs and to the extent of human creativity, shows that he is looking at politics from a progressive perspective, rather than a conservative one. Ironically, Gülen, who has been labeled as an “obscurantist,” appears more progressive than the ones accusing him!

This observation is strengthened further by the call to Muslims to reap the maximum benefits offered by democracy. After discussing the power of democracy and its ability to advance developing and maturing individuals and societies, he asks this question:

Why do not the people, who believe and love their country, think of utilizing such an atmosphere efficiently and benefit from it?[7]

The logical follow-up to Gülen’s question, which carries a tone of complaint, is whether Islam and democracy can be reconciled. He responds,

Sultanate [the sovereignty belongs to the sultan and the political system he represented] was squared with Islam in the past. The messenger of God says “Caliphate,” but later starts monarchy, they say “mighty monarch.” And we applauded all these people. We applauded even the sultans. We accepted their administrations as the implementation of Islam. But in actual fact, none of these regimes could be considered as being in the footstep of the Prophet. Neither the status of Umayyads nor that of the Abbasids could be said to be in conformity of the Prophet’s understanding of the administration. For this reason could it be said that the states of affairs in the Karakhanids, Ilkhanids, Seljukids or the Ottomans are completely in conformity with Islam? … But all these things were owned up. Despite the administrative shortcomings, they were owned up.[8]

Gülen does not find a sultanate (or a similar governance under a different title) to be in congruence with the innate disposition of humans, their integrity, and the lofty ideals they carry in themselves. Of course, this is not tantamount to claiming that among those sultans or monarchs, there were no examples of extremely good, just, and capable rulers. What he disagrees with is their oppressive rules and returns to the discussion on democracy:

If there is a good rule of democracy in our country that would see what harm in it? ... There remains the fact that democracy is an ongoing process. It is a process which has to continually progress. The West is not saying, “We have reached a point in democracy, we can go no further,” either. If democracy is a process in reaching the perfect ... it could be said that we are progressing towards the perfect.[9]

Gülen is then asked if we have internalized democracy in Turkey. Is the relationship between religion and democracy problematic or is it just conceived to be?

Democracy is a rule by the people. It is a profound form of “republic.” It is its life; it is the more humane dimension of it. For this reason, in a sense … it always existed in the past, although it was not named. We can even talk about a republic and existence of a democracy without a name during the Rightly Guided Caliphs. ... Maybe between the systems there is an overlapping. It is possible to reconcile them. For that reason, it could be thought that republic and democracy might make up a conveniently proper ground for Islam, Islamic thought, and the possibility of practicing Islam. Considering them as against Islam, in my opinion, is a wrong interpretation, a wrong approach. But I wish there could be a more developed democracy, the Westerners want that, we often want that, too. I mean I wish a democracy which could solve all our problems.[10]

Even if there is no inherent contradiction between democracy and “religion,” for Gülen, faith as a political ideology presents dangers for social stability as well as for religion.

They say religion is politicized. Accepting such a maxim means some circles are politicizing religion. But politicization of religion is dangerous for religion rather than what it is for the regime. In fact, it means blackening the soul of religion, because religion is everybody’s religion, it is the name of something everyone respects, through which everyone finds worldly tranquility and happiness in his heart. It is the name of everyone’s connection with God.[11]

When reminded that secularism in Turkey is in serious danger, he replies:

If the state would protect religion, but it would not interfere with it, others would not interfere in religion, if it is to be understood that the religious would not interfere in others’ affairs while practicing his religion and if the state would maintain the matter in complete impartiality, then there is no problem at all. But, I think some people are creating artificial problems. Maybe sometimes, some are being harsh in the name of defending secularism. This agitates and provokes others. But I would not be able to say who starts first. Sometimes, some are also attacking secularism and democracy unjustly. They are also causing the other side to move and act.[12]

Her replies to those in some Islamic circles who claim that he is pacifying people in politics:

Islam is not democracy, and democracy is not Islam. Democracy is a system that the whole world has turned towards, but it is still being embellished, in order to find itself it is shedding its shell. It is not claimed that there is complete democracy in Turkey. That means democracy is going through a process in order to reach perfection. Democracy is an ongoing process; it is not possible to be aloof to it. The believing people should benefit from it as much as others do. Of the injunctions of religion those related to state [governing] are about 5%. If democracy is used and utilized well [possible frictions between religious interpretations and the laws and their applications by the modern state] can be eradicated to a great extent.[13]

When reminded of the accusation that he is anti-republican, Gülen is saddened: “I am a republican before them. I am even of those who accepted Islam in its early period as a republic.”[14]

Gülen’s statements make clear that democracy can continue to develop to meet human needs. He has no problem with a secularism that does not oppress religion, thereby forcing it to become politicized. It is likely the “danger” that some in official circles artificially produced around the name of Gülen stems from their distrust about every citizen initiative and action of a civil society, which is not under the inspection and control of the state.

This doubt and fear delay the development of our democracy and distort and deviate secularism from its aim and the philosophical source. It has created an authoritarian and centralized administration, which holds the society under guardianship and subject to the state. Since Gülen does not like to quarrel, he prefers to point out these realities by way of understandable hints.

It is important to remember that Gülen is a man of religion and an opinion leader. He has earned the respect and interest of others, as his interpretation of the Islamic traditions meets the needs of an increasingly complex society, which is being forced to adjust to tremendous change. He stresses that democracy is insurance for everyone and the best governance to reconcile differences.

With regard to secularism, he believes it should have a “live and let live” philosophy, where it neither gives permission to politics (in a narrower sense, government) to interfere with religion, nor permission to religion to interfere with politics. He bases his thesis on Islam, as Islam does not contradict democracy or secularism. He believes that in a modern society, democracy and secularism do not have an inhibiting effect, but a developing and freeing one:

The first article of the Turkish Constitution states that “Turkish state is a republic.” Just after that in the second article, the attributes of this republic are enumerated, and it says, “Turkey is a democratic, secular, and social state governed by the rule of law.” Again as you know, these two articles cannot be changed, and even a bill to change it cannot be introduced in the parliament. Yes, these two foundations are under guaranties, and you cannot touch them. But, maybe you can improve them, perfect them, and make additions to democracy. You can open and expand the definition of secularism; you can elevate it to the human horizon to contain more humane values. You can dwell on the “social state.” You can dwell on the concept of “welfare state”; you can work on it and make it a little more humane and a little friendlier. But you can do all of these by remaining objective and benefitting from the developments in the world, then you can improve on them towards perfection.[15]

What Gülen says regarding democracy is related to how to interpret the world and social life. Whether this interpretation is secular or religious brings the discussion to the source of sovereignty. This phenomenon implies that if the source of sovereignty is Divine, then the law and public administration have to be based entirely on religious rulings and judgments. In such a case, ruling the society and interpreting and applying the laws are for men of religion to perform. This situation is unacceptable for a secular vision of a society, as Gülen explains:

Democracy means a system based on the sovereignty of the people. The matter expressed by “The sovereignty belongs to the people without any condition or reservation,” [the famous phrase hanging on the wall of the Turkish National Assembly] is democracy. This word does not mean taking the sovereignty from God, and giving it to the people. On the contrary, it states that the sovereignty is taken away from the representatives of oppressive and crude force and given to the people [nation].

Yes, democracy is a system of administration which entrusts the protection of basic rights and freedoms to the representatives of the public and is based on the principles where the views and opinions of the people become effective in the administration of the nation.[16]

Intihab [election] comes from the word nuhba. Nuhba means “dish of sweetened clotted cream.” Do not forget, whatever is in the essence of a thing, its nuhba would be the same. On the surface of milk would be milk cream; and on the surface of the stack would be the cream of stack. These words consist of a delightful interpretation of the hadith: “You are ruled as you deserve.” Now, democracy is the administration of those who come from the people and represent their demands exactly.[17]

With this comment, Gülen points to the fact that the type of a democracy that a society has depends upon the extent of that society’s level of development, the level of relationship it establishes with the world, the knowledge of its citizens, and whether its citizens are equipped with a conscience. In summary, societies where the religious rules are sovereign or the secular rules are prevalent are the preferences of the members who make up that society.

At this point, he carries the discussion to a different dimension: the contrast between secular state vs. theocratic state:

Laic, is a word borrowed from French; it means a system which is not clerical, religious thought or institution. After the famous revolution, the French disestablished theocratic order, purified the state from religious and clerical elements by separating the church from the state … and called this a secular state. ... By the way … it would be wrong to characterize and interpret theocratic order as a religious administration, epistemologically and terminologically. Theocratic order does not mean a kind of administration based on religion and religious texts. Namely, by the expression “theocratic state,” it is not meant “a state administration based on the Torah, the Old Testament, or the New Testament.” To express it as a kind of government based on the Qur’an or authentic hadiths is totally wrong. Mentioning theocracy together with Islam is either based on a grudge or malice against Islam and is aimed at oppressing and destroying the Muslims or an indication of not being in complete command of the terminology or ignorance. Theocratic state is a kind of administration based on the domination and control of the clerical class and the authority of the church. It means a state ruled according to the interpretations and decisions [of the clerical class].

In such a state, the words of the clerical class are the final judgments. Whatever they say, for sure they would mean the will of God in that matter and can never be questioned. Therefore, the concept of secularism was born in the West, within the context of religious, political, and social circumstances, out of a need to make a distinction between the church and the state, as a result of never ending civil wars which took place as a response to the oppression of the clerical class and their different opinions and interpretations. From this perspective, the problem of the Western societies is not with the religion but with the men of religion and the church organizations of the time for their use of religious commandments, for their own interests.

So much was the animosity that the matter, in a certain period had extended to the distinction between religion and science. Descartes who came out by a thesis saying “Metaphysics cannot be a science,” by claiming that knowledge can only be obtained by investigating the measurable and divisible things, had confined the subject matter of science to material things; and later the Cartesian [the way of Descartes] philosophers had always spoken in the same vein. They had taken religion and science as if they were two different fields and insisted on not trespassing any one of the fields. This matter of not trespassing changed forms from one period to another and by the passage of time it became the basis of secularism defining the line of demarcation for religion and government, the separation of worldly and other worldly matters, and prohibition of mutual interference in each other’s areas.

Nevertheless, secularism was not applied in every society in the same form; it was interpreted in different ways in different parts of the world. While laïcité, applied at a certain place, has provided the guaranties for everyone the freedom of conscience, religious beliefs and opinions, the right to participate in the religious ceremonies, the right to express and propagate individually or in groups their thoughts and opinions, in speech or text, or some other ways; in other places it was applied harshly, laïcité was taken entirely as secularism and … almost all the religious life was banned, the right of people to explain and to propagate their religious thoughts and opinions were entirely infringed.

In this regard then, it is necessary for us to acknowledge that laïcité has to be developed. Like democracy, this matter is also going through a process on the way to becoming more humane. An important aspect of the Republic of Turkey defined by the constitution is its being a social one. By virtue of being a social state [or a welfare state] it has to recognize the basic rights and freedoms of individuals, and has to ensure the achievement of them. These rights and freedoms were determined by the constitution. For instance, everyone has the right to demand private life and the privacy of family to be respected; the secrecy of private and the family life could not be violated. A social state has the responsibility to protect that freedom, in addition to recognizing it. At the same time, everyone has the right to dwell any place one wishes and the freedom to travel. Within the framework of the social state this freedom has to be provided by any means; otherwise there can be no talk of a social state.

If some rights and freedoms are determined but individuals are not given the chance to benefit from them, for instance, believing in something … is prevented and if the expression of different opinions are banned, again no mention of the existence of a social state can be made in that place. In order for a state to be considered as social, as it is necessary for everyone in that country to have the freedom of thought and opinion and to express and propagate his/her thoughts and opinions in different ways [by different means], it is also necessary for every individual to have the freedom to receive education in different fields of art and science, learn and teach, to do every kind of research, and the right to publicize them. However … never your expression of your thoughts and opinions should result in disturbing others. As you have personal rights, so do others, they have also individual rights and freedoms.[18]

[1] The interview given to Time, 30 May 1997.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Doğu Ergil’s interview with Gülen.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Can 1997, 130.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 132.
[9] Ibid., 133.
[10] The interview given to Yalçın Doğan, Kanal D, 16 April 1997.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Akman 1995.
[14] The interview given to Reha Muhtar, TRT 1, 3 July 1995.
[15] Gülen 2010d, 190.
[16] Ibid., 190–191.
[17] Ibid., 191.
[18] Ibid. 192–194.

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