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A Turkish Recluse Bridges the Western and Muslim Worlds

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By Fabíola Ortiz | IDN-InDepthNews Feature

PENNSYLVANIA (IDN) - A free global and interconnected citizenship might be the pathway to foster a non-violent and peaceful culture within societies. This is the main objective of a grassroots movement that advocates enhancing education, promoting universal values, interfaith dialogue and democracy.

A Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen is the inspiration behind the movement called “Hizmet” (‘service’ in Turkish). Seen as a moderate Muslim, he emphasizes the need for interfaith dialogue, educational projects as an emancipatory tool of society to live freely and fairly, and the idea that science and religion can go hand in hand.

Over the five decades, the movement grew in Turkey and spread over 100 countries through the Turkish diaspora around the world. It is estimated that around 10 to 15% of the Turkish population is somehow engaged in this movement that has no centralized bureaucracy.

Often being compared with Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, the old Muslim cleric Gülen lives isolated in a self-imposed exile in the inland mountains of the United States but has recently been targeted, his sympathizers persecuted and arrested by local government in his homeland.

Rarely seen in public and with a poor and fragile health, Gülen, estimated to be around 77, prefers to live as a recluse away from the political unrest in the Middle East.

“Hizmet is a blend of spiritual message, rationality logic, science, democracy, arts, social service that is open to all humanity. If I could define Mr Gülen, I’d say he is a religious person, a preacher and a social advocate. His focus has always been on education. He believes that the social problems we face in our societies are rooted in the mind-set,” Alp Aslandogan told IDN. He is the president of the NGO Alliance for Shared Values, who usually speaks on behalf of the cleric.

Experts say that this moderate approach of Islam is an antidote to help preventing radicalization of the Islam. The voluntary nature of the movement is part of the set of principles cultivated by its sympathizers as well as its non-hierarchical structure.

Hizmet’s message is one of tolerance, respect, democracy, freedom of speech, interfaith centers to create bridges between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, Aslandogan said..

“He encourages people to build schools, hospitals, charitable institutions and professional associations to serve humanity. His philosophy is that every human being has a mission of spiritual development and do social service to become a better citizen without expecting anyone to convert.”

Gülen recently declared publicly that terrorism is a cancer not representing Islam. He was the first Muslim scholar to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. “Hocaefendi” – meaning ‘respected teacher’ in Turkish as he is usually referred to – criticizes the political, religious and ideological use of Islam to justify terrorist acts.

“These extremists and violent groups claim an Islam identity and use Islamic slogans but have nothing to do with the spirit of Islam. They are instrumentalising, de-contextualising and using Islam as a vehicle in the service of an extremist ideology,” declared Aslandogan.

Hizmet participants say Gülen’s ideas are being unfairly chased by the current Turkish government and personally targeted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – Gülen was one time his ally. The cleric has now turned against Erdogan, who is accusing the scholar of creating a parallel State and a political conspiracy to destabilize the religious and conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by the Turkish President.

In Aslandogan’s opinion, everything changed after the third election of Erdogan as a Prime Minister in 2011 and three years later when he became the Turkish Head of State. Gülen supported the candidacy of Erdogan, who promised democratic reforms, improving the human rights record and starting the negotiations to join the European Union.

“Suddenly he made the U-turn from the original democratic standards and began being authoritarian. Erdogan is now promoting the idea of an executive presidency that would give him immense powers but no accountability.”

Suffering poor health and under treatment of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the scholar tries to keep a routine of prayers, studies and teachings with his 25 students of Islam's theology.

“People all over the world come to visit him and receive his advice. He is a very humble person, but looks tired and physically ill. He is still a big inspiration for me,” Ihsan Yilmaz told IDN. He is president of the think tank Istanbul Institute and a personal friend of Gülen.

Yilmaz usually visits his friend in the retreat center in Pennsylvania four times a year. “He is very upset because there are many people affiliated to the movement who are in prison and is now advising people from the Hizmet to leave the country. There is no rule of law in Turkey anymore,” he regretted.

It has been a month now that Yilmaz decided to follow his friend’s advice. He fled to the United Kingdom after receiving a series of threats to his life in Istanbul and personal charges levelled by President Erdogan.

“What Hizmet is doing is to run away to safer and democratic countries and try to help Turkey from outside. There is a witch-hunt against the movement. It will take some time for Turkey to live democracy again,” says Yilmaz.

The biggest concern for the old cleric is that Islam is linked to terrorist connections, admits Osman Şimşek, Gülen’s personal assistant and bookkeeper.

“This is a religion of peace, tolerance and non-violence. This is what he stands for. The movement did not agree with the political status in Turkey. His health is deteriorating, but he continues teaching students.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 December 2015]

Photo: By Courtesy of Fethullah Gülen

2015 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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