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Fethullah Gülen calls for respect of diversity in Turkey to end polarization

by Ekrem Dumanlı, Zaman on . Posted in Interview with Ekrem Dumanlı, Editor-in-Chief of Zaman

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Fethullah Gülen calls for respect of diversity in Turkey to end polarization

Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has inspired the popular civic and social movement called Hizmet, called for the respect of diversity in Turkey, expressing his concern over growing polarization in society.

“I believe it is extremely dangerous to polarize society along various lines or identities in Turkey”, he said, stressing that “everyone must respect diversity. Freedom of speech and expression cannot be restricted.”

“While the views of the majority certainly deserve respect, the views of minority groups should be treated with the same level of respect as well”, he added.

Describing Turkish society as a big family whose members subscribe to different ideologies, Gülen asked, “How can a parent incite some members of the family against other members of the same family who hold different ideologies?”

“This is akin to playing with fire,” he warned.

Gülen's remarks are a direct criticism of embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's harsh rhetoric pitting various social groups against each other on the eve of local elections scheduled for March 30 with the purpose of consolidating support for his ruling party.

“If you suppress the masses, this will cause friction along social fault lines. And this is such a big risk that no political party can take for whatever political gain,” Gülen underlined.

Recalling his comments on the government's ill-advised policies on how to handle mass protests during the Gezi Park events, Gülen said: “[The protesters] voiced democratic demands and, initially, there were innocent protests. These protests could have been tolerated.”

“Instead, the protests were violently suppressed,” he lamented.

“Is the shopping center that was to be built there worth a single drop of blood [shed during the protests]? Is it worth a single human life?” the Islamic scholar asked.

Responding to slander and baseless accusations targeting the Hizmet movement, Gülen expressed his anguish over the unbearable smear campaign. “I suppose people have never been insulted or encountered such extensive lies and slanderous remarks before,” he stated, stressing that the Holy Quran recommends sensitivity and a soft heart.

“When the hardness of the heart takes the soul hostage, one can resort to every method to attain his goals irrespective of whether they are legitimate or not,” he explained.

Reaffirming his views on the settlement process to resolve the Kurdish problem, Gülen noted that he has always favored peace and reconciliation over violence to settle the issue.

“This [settlement process] shouldn't be disrupted. This is a good opportunity for both sides to forget about hostilities and turn back from their mistakes,” he explained.

He criticized the government, however, for belated steps in tackling the Kurdish issue, saying that fundamental rights and freedoms should not be seen or used as a card in bargaining.

“Even before the settlement process began, I had expressed my perspective about education in one's mother tongue. But no step was taken to this end. This matter is still in abeyance,” he lamented.

The Islamic scholar also suggested that “in addition to recognizing the due rights and freedoms of its Kurdish citizens, Turkey must extend a helping hand to the Kurds in other regions. We must re-establish and reinforce our cultural and historical ties with them.”

Here are excerpts from the interview:

During the Ambassadors' Conference in Ankara, ambassadors were told to “explain well this organization” at their posts abroad. In a sense, Turkish ambassadors were ordered to denounce the Turkish schools abroad. Can you comment on this order?

When I hear news about Turkish officials' efforts to undermine the Turkish schools abroad, my heart aches and I seek refuge in God. Unfortunately, this appetite for destruction pushes all fair limits. These schools were established through the great self-sacrifice of the people of Anatolia. Almost everyone in Turkey has seen these schools, be they rightists, leftists, neo-nationalists, the religious or atheists, officials from the AK Party, the [main opposition] Republican People's Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Grand Unity Party (BBP), the Felicity Party (SP), the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) -- people from all walks of life. I have not heard even one person say, "These schools are harmful, and they should be shut down." No rational or political argument or criterion can be employed to advocate the closure of these schools.

Our friends who established these schools faced numerous material and immaterial hardships. They brought the embracing nature of the people of Anatolia to these countries. With them, they brought the Anatolian people's tolerance. They took our universal values with them. To turn a blind eye to the activities of these people who introduce our culture and language to all the countries of the world is ingratitude. You cannot conceal this manifest truth. Whatever they do, this wise society sees and knows everything. Therefore, their failure to prevent these activities or undermine these schools may lead them to delirium. They are struggling uncontrollably. This also needs to be known.

Turkey cannot emerge as a strong international player in the globalizing world if you fail to ensure that volunteer organizations and lobbies support Turkey in the international arena. Turkey cannot survive if it isolates itself from the external world. In this day and age, this applies not only to Turkey but to every other country as well. Turkey needs the support of the people who nurture love and sympathy for it everywhere around the world. Societies need to know more about and understand each other for global peace.

I feel much pain in seeing how these charity activities are being sabotaged and misrepresented in the eyes of foreign people. Despite this, we will try to maintain our respect and politeness toward everyone. This is what we have always done and will always do as this is what our character tells us to do.

In this transient world, we will speak ill of no one; we will not break anyone's heart; we will continue to promote good and amiable relations with everyone. Our actions will be guided by the following words of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi: "I forgive everyone who caused me hardship and anguish, the torture I was subjected to, and the ordeals I went through for many years. I have known nothing of worldly pleasure in my life of over 80 years. I have spent all my life on the battleground, in dungeons or in prison. I was barred from communication for months. I was treated like a criminal at war tribunals. I forgive those who oppressed me, those who sent me into exile many times, those who sought to put me in prison on trumped-up charges, and those who paved the way for my imprisonment."

True, as a believer, I promised to share these feelings. I will not be angry with anyone. I promised to welcome death smiling and treat divine hardship and bliss as the same.

Our friends should not despair. With God's grace and permission, this service done for this nation, for the future of this nation and for all of humanity will continue. Thanks to God's favor and generosity, neither slander nor ill-intentioned campaigns can halt this bandwagon of service. People with a pure conscience and mind will soon uncover this slander and these lies.

As I noted elsewhere, there may be certain fanatical efforts to block our path, but as long as there are souls who are open to dialogue, tender people who smile at everyone, conscientious people who are aware of their sins, souls who regret their wrong or misguided deeds, and wise people who seek to build their future on reasonableness, we will mend our shattered souls and recover ourselves and continue to love everyone anew. This is what we should do with respect to the recent developments.

On the other hand, I believe it is extremely dangerous to polarize society along various lines or identities in Turkey. This is akin to playing with fire. How can a parent incite some members of the family against other members of the same family who hold different ideologies? We are a large family with roots dating back several centuries. We must refrain from treating our differing ideologies and diverse identities as reasons to quarrel or engage in conflict. Everyone must respect diversity. Freedom of speech and expression cannot be restricted. While the views of the majority certainly deserve respect, the views of minority groups should be treated with the same level of respect as well. If you suppress the masses, this will cause friction along social fault lines. And this is such a big risk that no political party can take for whatever political gain.

Unfortunately, this is what happened during the Gezi Park protests. The people voiced democratic demands and, initially, there were innocent protests. These protests could have been tolerated. Officials could have visited the protesters and learned about their demands. Instead, the protests were violently suppressed. Is the shopping center that was to be built there worth a single drop of blood [shed during the protests]? Is it worth a single human life? Naturally, pressure led to violence and a local issue turned into a national security issue. And the evil networks which were waiting for an opportunity to stir up chaos stepped onto the stage, and we were very concerned at that time. Our friends all around the world prayed for peace. They prayed the Prayer of Need. And yet it was said that these protests were somehow masterminded by the Hizmet movement. May God endow them with understanding.

Some circles recently used the term “supreme mastermind” to tarnish the image of the Hizmet movement and imply that the movement is supported by external actors.

Making this accusation is a grave sin. I suppose people have never been insulted or encountered such extensive lies and slanderous remarks before. If there is something they are aware of, they should inform the public about it; otherwise, they are denigrating Muslims. The smear campaign is so unbearable that we are witnessing new lies and even slander every day. The desire for prosperity makes hearts insensitive; and in that case, you cannot feel properly. You ignore spirituality; you even humiliate it. When the heart becomes insensitive and attaches great importance to the world through the desire for prosperity, you'll suppose that it is all about this world. And then you simply do not worry about committing sins. The Quran recommends sensitivity and emotion in the heart. When the hardness of the heart takes the soul hostage, one can resort to every method to attain his goals irrespective of whether they are legitimate or not. Sadly, one of the reasons for the current stalemate is hardness in the hearts. But if they are looking for a mastermind of the Hizmet movement, I would say it is the solidarity and protection that God bestows on consultation and brotherhood.

The Hizmet movement does not depend on any fading and mortal power or actor; it has made advances because God has been graceful; as long as He protects, no one will ever hurt it. Muslims are supposed to act with caution. They do not backbite about their brothers and sisters based on false reports. Unfortunately, there is no room for the afterlife in the agendas of those who express their desires for worldly possessions all the time. This may drive the people towards social deviation and religious distortion. Many unusual statements that contradict with religious belief have been made. Media outlets covered them extensively. These are contradictory to religious norms; but even those who are supposed to remain silent are talking. We can save our souls from the disorder and corruption surrounding us by renewing our thoughts and emotions on a daily basis. Hearts are hardened if theoretical Islam turns into a lifestyle and, in that case, one forgets about his own responsibility and slanders Muslims all the time. Things will settle down eventually. People in this country will look at each other's face again. People who turn in the same direction [i.e., towards Makkah] while performing their prayers should avoid making strong remarks that they would feel ashamed of in the future.

‘Kurds' right should not be used as a card in bargaining'

What do you think about the settlement process and its current state?

This is something I had spoken about previously on a number of occasions. A believer always favors peace. A believer adopts the attitude required for peace. There are problems that have accumulated over time. In the past, violence was wielded to solve these problems. But this did not settle it; it only exacerbated it further. Now there is a process of peace and reconciliation. This shouldn't be disrupted. This is a good opportunity for both sides to forget about hostilities and turn back from their mistakes.

A state must be fair in its dealings with its citizens. Fundamental rights and freedoms should not be seen or used as a card in bargaining.

Even before the settlement process began, I had expressed my perspective about education in one's mother tongue. But no step was taken to this end. This matter is still in abeyance. At once we must raise teachers who are capable of teaching in Kurdish. This is not something that can be done upon demands from the public. The state must take the first step. In taking this step, we must refrain from words, attitudes and behavior that may give the impression that we are doing this as a favor. The region was home to numerous major civilizations and intellectuals. In addition to recognizing the due rights and freedoms of its Kurdish citizens, Turkey must extend a helping hand to the Kurds in other regions. We must re-establish and reinforce our cultural and historical ties with them.

We have three fundamental problems: These were outlined by Bediüzzaman almost a century ago as ignorance, poverty and disunity. These problems have bred despair, deception, circumvention, mutual distrust, and so on. We need to discuss these problems on a common platform. This is not something that can be done with disdain and arrogance. If conciliation is to be achieved, this would be all-inclusive, embracing the entirety of the region and diverse groups. No one should be excluded from it. Common denominators should be found to embrace political and non-political groups. We should let local people solve their problems with their own capabilities. If quick steps are not taken in this regard, I fear the settlement process may come to a halt. Fine, let us focus on stopping the bloodshed. Even this indicates a certain level of pragmatism. But we should have targets beyond that point. We must create an atmosphere in which everyone -- Turks, Kurds, Sunnis, Alevis, Arabs, Syriacs, and so on -- can co-exist as members of the same family in happiness and prosperity.