In order to have an ethical society and an ethical human, do we have to resort to religion? Isnt it possible to have secular ethics?

Fethullah Gülen

As of the level humanity has reached now, one of the things considered important is to recognize the right to believe and to be able to practice what one believes. In a certain period, in order to consolidate the system, a different practice might have taken place; but today in Turkey, democracy has been accepted and internalized. Maybe, 10 years ago one might have said, “Democracy is an irrevocable process” [he is referring to his speech given at the opening of the Foundation of Journalists and Writers in 1994], he was criticized. But, now since everyone talks about democracy with its many forms, it means from now on, we are going to seek the remedies to the problems within democracy.[1]

He then states that the humans cannot meet at a common denominator if different sides insist on basing their positions on fear, personal interests, and prejudices, instead of looking at the essence of things. But, if one of the sides softens a little bit, the other side will soften its attitude, as well. As an illustration, he mentions the process of Turkey’s joining to the EU. Somehow, there is a concern that membership in the EU will push the nation to a radical religious line; integration with Europe is viewed with doubt. Notably, those who feel this way are the ones who call themselves Western and modern.

The question arises, “Does religion really encompass every aspect of life?,” to which Fethullah Gülen unequivocally answers:

Religion is life. As it is lived, it would exist. There are priorities while living the religion. For instance, basic principles, called the muhkamat of religion [decisive and clear injunctions], have a priority, and no one has a right to compromise on them. Second, however a Muslim understands the individual and family matters in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, that Muslim should be given the chance to practice individual and family matters that way, by limiting the borders, the field of life should not be narrowed. On the other hand, those who want to live as a Muslim must take extra care not to confuse certain things.[2]

Here, he is suggesting that a religious person, while trying to live his life according to the injunctions of religion, should not force his faith on others, claiming that there are absolute rules to be obeyed, and he should not carry these rules to politics for that end. For this reason, he is giving the warning that “sometimes the furuat (details) of religion is replaced with the usul (basic judgments).”[3]

After reiterating that religion can be reconciled with democracy, he draws our attention to the fact that today there are many views on democracy, such as those of Christian democrats, social democrats, and liberal democrats. The movements’ approaches start from different points, but are directed toward the same end.

Why should not there be a democracy which has a place for Islamic sensibilities? If a humane democracy is to exist, it should embrace me with all of my attributes and should be developed to meet my needs.

In my opinion, in a developed democracy an opportunity should exist in order to live the secular as a secular person comfortably, and also to live the hereafter as a person of the hereafter. Anyone, who wishes, should be able to live like a Companion of the Prophet.

Democracy is also going through a process of evolution. For instance, we live in a democracy for a long time now, but the Copenhagen criteria made us aware of the proportion of our shortcomings. This process will mature by development. As a matter of fact, the Europeans are also still going through democratization process. It is difficult to say that they have completed and captured the “perfect” yet. I believe that one day a milieu will come into existence where under the umbrella of democracy, we are going to meet all our needs, needs relating to heart, soul, thought, and sentiment. I am seeing that we are progressing toward that direction. I believe also, the harshness between the assertive secularist and the Islamist sides—I have to state that I do not like the terms—would be softened. In addition, the educated, intellectual people should understand this fact; they should stop acting on their illusions and release themselves of the imagined fears in life.[4]

After expressing his ultimate faith in democracy, Fethullah Gülen discusses the necessity of readjusting the public sphere to accommodate different groups with different religious backgrounds or worldviews, so all can live together without frictions. As for the main actor in this matter, Fethullah Gülen offers the name of the “state” as the representative of everyone.

In order for the people to live their religion in peace, there is a need for the state to spread its wings of mercy and prepare the convenient environment for it. The religion needs an undefeatable power in order to improve the individuals to perfection, to put the family and the society into an order, to open the hearts by dominating the conscience and through that means to prevent many vices which could otherwise not be prevented. With a good religious education, the state should take this power behind it. The humans are not made up only by material traits; they have aspects related to the hereafter, too.[5]

What can be said about the claim of some people that, as a result of so much emphasis on religion in either formal education or education given in the family, Fethullah Gülen’s beliefs will result in anti-secularism? According to Fethullah Gülen, morality can be sustained from different sources, but the main source is religion. Our Creator brought to the fore ethical and moral behavior in interpersonal relationships in order to give order to the world and to the realm of humanity. Ethics and morality are implicit in the foundation of religions. The state or administrations can benefit from this.

Our statesmen should not ignore the effect of religion. … Only the consciousness and fear of God can tie the hands of evil people. Furthermore, there are the sick, the handicapped, and the aged at the threshold of the grave. The death swings in front of their eyes. What is there other than the faith in the hereafter which can calm down the lamentation in their soul? Then in that case, our statesmen could turn individuals into people of spirituality by benefitting from these undefeatable principles of religion and thus make it easier for themselves to establish law and order. This does not mean that there would be no more need for the law, order, the law enforcers, guardians, and the courts. They will still be needed but their job would be a lot easier since it will help lower the number of people with problems.[6]

As much as ethics is a necessary condition of an improved humanity, it also is a social security. According to Fethullah Gülen, the source of ethics is conscience and what directs the conscience, primarily is religion. Religion is where good manners and morality are acquired. In his words,

Religion is the collection of divine principles that guide people to what is good, not by force, but by appealing to their free will. All principles that secure our spiritual and material progress, and thereby our happiness in both worlds, are found in religion.

Religion means recognizing God in His absolute and transcendental Oneness; acquiring spiritual purity by acting in His way; arranging relationships in His name and according to His commandments, and feeling a profound interest in and love for all creation on His account.[7]

He emphasizes the complementarities of religion and science. Similarly, he does not confuse religious judgments with laws that organize worldly life and envisions two different fields for them.

Religion and science are two faces of a single truth. Religion guides us to the true path leading to happiness. Science, when understood and used properly, is like a torch that provides us with a light to follow the same path.[8]

[1] Gündem 2005, 100.[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 101.
[4] Ibid., 102–103.
[5] Ibid., 103.
[6] Ibid., 105
[7] Fethullah Gülen 2005a, 8–9.
[8] Ibid., 9.