As a member of its editorial board, I am attending the Chicago 2010 International Conference on the Gülen Movement.
The conference organizers rightly highlighted: "As we complete the first decade of the 21st century, the advancements in communication and transportation have yet to enable better mutual understanding and appreciation among fellow humans. Misinformation, fear and hatred continue to influence public opinion."
Among many other victims, it is obvious that the Gülen movement has suffered from these as well. "While the movement has been praised as a catalyst for creating a better world, it has also been criticized by some and the motivations of the participants called [into] question. This international conference has been designed to explore the movement from a social sciences and humanities perspective in order to provide a clearer picture of what the movement participants support and believe," said organizers.
The conference started by a keynote speech by John L. Esposito with whom I recently co-edited a book titled "Islam and Peacebuilding: Gülen Movement Initiatives."
Thomas Michel of the Vatican focused on the two core values of the movement, worship and servanthood to God, stating that Gülen has appropriated these traditional Sufi concepts and has applied them to the practice of Islam in modern situations.
Radhi H. Al-Mabuk of the University of Northern Iowa talked about Gülen's perspective on forgiveness. Margaret J. Rausch of the University of Kansas looked at the process of "polishing the heart" that underlies the development of moral selfhood and compassionate engagement characterizing Gülen and affiliates of the movement.
The legendary scholar of religious studies Martin E. Marty, in whose name the American Academy of Religion gives an award every year for the Public Understanding of Religion, suggested in his presentation that "the Gülen example a) helps define a complex relation of moderate Islam to others; b) illumines such a course as this; and c) makes room for cultivation of precarious but promising ventures, perhaps to be copied elsewhere."
Greg Barton of Monash University, Australia, spoke of "Understanding the Hizmet Movement Enterprises through the Lens of Social Business" and he argued: "[Gülen movement] enterprises were established expressly to meet pressing social needs, and although established using philanthropic seed capital they were intended from the outset to become self-sustaining businesses, allowing this seed capital to be reinvested in new initiatives. This, together with the readily reproducible, simple but effective, templates guiding the development of Gülen schools and colleges, is a key factor in their rapid growth."
Doğan Koç of Cairo University, Egypt, presented a paper titled "Fethullah Gülen's Strategic Defamation: Turkish vs. English." In this quantitative study, Koç skillfully shows that there are two common but contradicting pictures of Gülen in the harsh claims raised against him. While on the one hand he is portrayed as a CIA/Mossad/Vatican agent in Turkish language pieces, on the other hand, the pieces in English claim that he is an anti-Semitic, anti-Western Khomeini. Koç argues that these claims are not random and that there is a common strategy followed in certain languages. By running a time concurrency test, Koç reaches the conclusion that these efforts at defamation happen in a campaign manner, not randomly. More interestingly, Koç shows that these totally contradicting pictures of Gülen are depicted by using same sources and each other.
Carter Vaughn Findley of The Ohio State University talked about how the Gülen movement responded to the needs and opportunities of its time.
James C. Harrington of the University of Texas presented a paper titled "Strengthening Religious Freedom, Free Speech, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trial of Fethullah Gülen." Professor Harrington's book on this issue will appear by the University of America Press next month.
Klas Grinell of the Gothenburg University, Sweden, talked about Gülen's conception of knowledge and underlined the importance of reflection as the heart of Islamic lifestyle in Gülen's understanding. In his paper, Grinell also analyses the role of science, education and social action in Gülen's thinking.
Jon Pahl of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Temple University gave a paper titled "Sacred Space in the Hizmet Movement and the Thought of M. Fethullah Gülen." The conference's first day finished with this paper.
I will continue summarizing the conference next week and explain the of this week's column.