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The Colleges and Dialogue Between Civilizations

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

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An outgrowth of these schools' success is the activities of inter-civilization dialogue that emerge from a humble, self-sacrificing circle. These schools, with their teaching and administrative staff, strive to bring people of diverse religions, cultures, and civilizations to common understandings. It lays the cornerstone and foundation of dialogue. By raising people who are consistent with moral, humane, and social values, and who can welcome diversity, these schools establish a comprehensive infrastructure for future inter-civilizational dialogue. A human being who is harmonious with various cultural fibers is the most basic element of a culture of reconciliation. The idea that a person is open to various cultural tissues and diversity, of course, does not signify swaying, or being alienated, from one's origins. Both dialogue and reconciliation refer to a broad, common spectrum of social space that allows people to live together on the basis of mutual respect without denying each person's foundations for existence. Otherwise, it is not an activity of complete participation. In this respect, economic and social exploitation, as well as cultural assimilation, are definitely contrary to the aim of dialogue and reconciliation.

Despite our concerns, we are exposed to a comprehensive web of relations dictated by the processes of "globalization." Globalization, in every aspect, has brought and piled up pluralism and has brought "the other," the sum of our fears, to the doorstep of our traditional religious-national system. Directly and indirectly, this process affects us all and affects all of our social relations. We should redefine different cultural tissues through a viable platform, without hostility, crisis, or conflict. Not only in the political and ethnic sense, but also in the sense of cultural and social fiber, Anatolia constituted a mosaic of civilizations. While the concept of a mosaic naturally brings to mind a sense of political and ideological anxieties, Anatolia is really one of the rare geographical areas which sustained a culture of dialogue in its history. As to dialogue and tolerance, men of wisdom, such as Yesevi, Rumi, and Yunus, who all embodied dialogue and tolerance in their life experiences, serve as sources from which these colleges may derive inspiration and guidance. Externally, the colleges feed themselves from these sources. They bear this spirit everywhere they go with their large number of teachers. This is why some people describe this movement as the manifestation of contemporary Turkish humanism.

In the West, many have located this movement within the framework of Turkish Sufism. While neither "Sufism" nor "humanism" define the colleges fully, it is true that self-sacrifice, sincerity, and transcendental human values ring with Sufi and humanist tunes.[1] However, the education system of the colleges is directed towards a larger segment of society and toward the foundation of knowledge. In contrast, both Sufi ideals and humanism refer to narrow and more stagnant roots. Generally speaking, Sufism displays an exclusionary attitude against worldly and technological progress. In this sense, it establishes a one-sided relation between matter and spirit. As to humanism, it has a weak and frail willpower against social processes; human beings exhibit a passive attitude, not an active being, against society and events. In the education system of these schools, a person is viewed as enterprising and active in social processes. The schools adhere to a model that pursues a balance between the material world and the spiritual, without reducing one to the other, in order to construct an active model that can bear the responsibility of societal and cultural dialogue.

Beyond any doubt, many things can be said in regard to the philosophical and ideological roots of the schools. We should bear in mind that we encounter a system that places action before ideas and intellectual design. I feel the need to emphasize this point because intellectual and mental speculations and definitions often run the risk of not overlapping with practice. In an ideological or mental framework, the social attitude of the movement may constitute a broad impact that far exceeds the borders of this framework. A philosophical framework drawn today may not work tomorrow, as social life practices may bring new developments. Because of this, it is more consistent to look at the educational activities of this movement in light of its social practice, rather than through the narrow perspective of finely designed, frozen philosophical and ideological concepts.

Footnote[1] For a useful analysis, see Zeki Saritoprak, "Fethullah Gülen: A Sufi in His own Way." In Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, edited by Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.