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The Cultural Foundations of Tolerance and Dialogue

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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Because modern states are built upon urbanized societies, problems pertaining to humanity, society, and democratic values are complex and differentiated. All of our acts—be they political, economic, social, or cultural—work toward getting our share of the cake. Our minds cannot fathom acting without expecting recompense, of giving without taking. We are at the threshold of an age where "service to humanity" is facing extinction. This is the advent of a totally mechanical, digital world where all human faculties are headed toward annihilation. It is a fall from grace for humankind. Human beings are becoming a commodity, or a means of commerce, whereas they were once considered the universe's founding principle. The problem with the modern world is this sort of human. To counter this tendency, everywhere people are directing themselves to spirituality, to the divine aim that will remind human beings of their true value.

Some political paradigms purport that the institution of a multicultural, participatory, pluralistic democracy will solve all social problems. According to such paradigms, all problems emerge from the lack of such a system, and from the inadequacies of democracies and legal systems that are deprived of participatory and pluralistic qualities. The argument is that such inadequacies yield conflicts that come in the form of ethnic, cultural, communal, political, or ideological demands. Should democratic rights and institutions be established, and should such institutions serve all citizens, people would no longer be moved by ethnic, communal, cultural, or other like social affiliations. On the other hand, some people consider such problems to be marginal phenomena—simply a price paid for economic modernization. According to this view, the real problem is that some people feel left behind in the process of modernization. When these people reach a particular level of economic development and wealth, the story goes, they will stop being problematic and will integrate accordingly. Once people internalize "tolerance and mutual respect," as embedded within the concept of democracy, and once they made these principles sovereign in their personal and public relations, then social problems would dissipate, or so it was hoped. Reality, however, proved that even after democracy has been established, religious, ethnic, and cultural differences continue to be a source of conflict.

Today, there are 192 United Nations member states, and perhaps twenty more outside the UN umbrella. There are more than six hundred language groups, and more than five thousand ethnicities. In only very few countries do all citizens speak the same language or belong to the same ethnic-national group. Such political, social, cultural, military, and religious multiplicity signifies potential dissension and conflict on an international scale. This potential often makes democratic assumptions uncertain and debatable. Since the end of the Cold War, ethnic and cultural conflicts have become central rallying points for political violence.

These issues threaten the future of all people in the world. Thus, it is necessary to re-institute the cultural foundations of tolerance, understanding, and dialogue in a wider and more encompassing system that rises above old democratic practices. Naturally, there is neither a simple solution, nor a single formula to cure global ills. We should not fool ourselves. Many suggestions may work in specific conditions, but they can hardly be consistently applicable on a universal scale. If we can get rid of our prejudices toward other people and take into consideration different experiences, we may find that local movements may contain possible solutions to certain universal problems.

The ideology of modernization offered a human model, which was related more to the "individual" than to humankind. The modern person lived in a corner, alone and self-interested. Ideology equaled progress—to earn, and to exhaust the limits of riches and welfare. In a limited portion of the world, this model took root. But people were quick to see that even when they reached the spatial limits of riches and welfare, their political, economic and socio-cultural problems continued. And as material riches increased, spiritual poverty increased accordingly. Humankind reached a state that bred only material and spiritual dissatisfaction. People, masses, and communities started to question the system under which they lived, forming pressure groups and large organizations.

In the historical moment of social, economic, and political transformation, we see the element of humankind in the foreground. Human existence on earth and our way of self-realization are once again in question. The same questions that occupied the minds of early naturalist philosophers occupy the minds of philosophers today. In this moment, we also observe that faithful life and religious practices are on the rise around the world. After humankind's adventure with modernization, and the subsequent prices paid in all sectors of human organization (cultural, social, economic, and political), humanity turns once more to the divine for answers. It seems as though the broadest and most satisfactory answers to existential questions might be inspired by the concept of the "virtuous person," which has been depicted in the heavenly religions in different forms.

There is a need, therefore, for a sustained effort to revive the real value of the virtuous person. The goal of this effort should be nothing more than reproducing the person of the people (i.e., the "person of tradition," the self-sacrificing, and spiritually equipped person). This calls for a generation that devotes itself to service. As an old Turkish saying goes, "Hak için halka hizmet"—serve humanity for the pleasure of the All-Mighty. Having freed its mind and conscience from such a spirit of devotion, however, the contemporary mind cannot grasp this sort of lifestyle. Yet individuals who possess such a spirit have played key roles in the establishment of human civilization, past empires, and states. Today, there are many sociologists and social engineers who strive to bring about just such a person. Indeed, modern civilization is in dire need of self-sacrificing spirits who devote themselves to community, and of a genuine movement for dialogue and consensus.

The mission of the Gülen movement is of great importance at such a juncture. Alongside the historical and social projection discussed in this section, we should also include Gülen's charismatic personage as a key factor that draws attention to this movement. Therefore, even though I do not intend to make a character analysis in this study, I think it is essential to touch briefly upon Gülen's biography.