September 30, 2013

Using the Gulen Movement to Broaden Discussions in the West Concerning Muslim Women (1)

April L. Najjaj, Ph.D.*

…Using a Western-defined standard of feminism, academic as well as more populist writers both within and outside the Muslim world most often frame the debate of the status of women in Islam solely within a Western context, as if the Western experience is the only appropriate model for a woman in any culture to realize her full potential. There is little to no appreciation given by these authors for diversity of expression or style, regional differences, personal religious conviction, or veneration of long-standing traditions that are not easily dismissed. The problem only becomes more complicated when Muslim conservatives often suspect that anyone who advocates for the rights of women has compromised their Islamic values and sold out to Western ways. What is often missing in the ideas of many of these writers from both sides of the debate are the foundations of similarity in the life experiences of all women regardless of cultural, religious, or social context—Gülen himself argues that one extreme is as bad as the other. Both men and women negotiate gender norms and expectations; it’s how we all go about finding and establishing our place in our respective societies—in marriage, in family life, and in the broader community. Within such a wider context, there is much more of a basis of commonality in the lives of women, and it is my contention that many of the fundamental concepts of Islam expressed in a more contemporary context and espoused by Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement, can be used to describe and establish a dialogue in both the Eastern and Western contexts that can give all women a shared sisterhood of experience to promote tolerance and understanding regardless of religious or cultural backgrounds.

Just as women have been doing in the West, women in the Islamic world have been struggling with the demands and changes that have come about in modern society, albeit more so in the last twenty-five to thirty years. While it is true that the traditional emphasis on social, cultural, and religious values of the past are more prevalent in the Islamic world than in the West, that is not to say that the Western context, one of constant change and rejection of tradition, is really any better. The supposed ingrained discrimination against women in Islam that Western writers allege is mitigated when distinctions are recognized between cultural and religious practices, consideration given to the patriarchal traditions that are just as much a part of the Western as the Islamic worlds, and recognition of the fact that the differentiation of roles for the sexes in the Islamic tradition is based on cooperation and complementarity, not competition, as in the Western context, and the Gülen Movement supports this position as well. In addition, men and women are equal in the spiritual realm of Islam just as in Christianity, as the same standards of religious obligation are expected of women as of men in both traditions.

…..In introducing the topic of Muslim women to a Western audience, these bases of similarity are very important. In addition, the writings of Fethullah Gülen and his movement can assist in providing a more complete, less biased picture of Islam to a non-Muslim audience. Most people outside the Muslim world only hear about Islam through the Western media, and its emphasis on sensationalism—namely violence, terrorism, oppression of women, and intolerance—give a false impression of the religion—and lead many Westerners to believe that there are no moderate voices in the Islamic world. The challenge is to find the commonalities in values between moderate Islam and what I have come to call “secular Christianity,” for despite how much Western society chooses to believe that religion is distinct from public life, the two are really inseparable. Etga Uğur expresses it by saying, “most religions claim universal appeal, which in turn fosters a sense of common identity and purpose across ethnic, racial and economic classes.” The trick is to discover what those bases of universal appeal are and then use those elements to create a foundation of similarities that crosses confessional lines and emphasizes the humanity of all people rather than elevating a particular religious tradition over others. All religious traditions essentially serve the same purpose—to provide comfort and purpose and direction in life and emphasize the importance of being a good person and a productive member of society; it’s a universality of the message without insisting on conformity to a particular religious institution that should allow for a tolerance and openness of discussion that leads to acceptance on both sides of the issues. Even just within the Muslim context, Gülen’s support of re-opening ijtihad (intellectual effort) in support of more moderate and relevant interpretations of Islam for modern society makes this movement more amenable to cross-cultural and inter-religious cooperation on many different issues and clearly demonstrates to a Western audience that there are moderate voices in the Muslim world today. In addition, the Gülen Movement demonstrates an effort to create a progressive society without necessarily secularizing society, as has happened largely in the Western context; it is a middle ground or “third way” that allows for acceptance and cooperation in the wider world without selling out or overly compromising the traditional society.

Specific to women, Bülent Aras and Ömer Çaha wrote in an article in the Middle East Review of International Affairs that Fethullah Gülen, “has progressive views. He believes that the veiling of women is a detail in Islam, and that ‘no one should suppress the progress of women through the clothes they wear.’ Gülen also states that, ‘no one should be subject to criticism for his or her clothing or thoughts.’” Even though there is still some whiff of traditional Islamic conservatism in Gülen’s thought dealing with women and family issues, he writes that wearing the veil is of lesser importance (füruat) than following the core elements of the religion. In the end, “real faith is better than external attributes,” where being a good person in the heart is more important than just looking like a good person. In addition, according to Gülen, there are two keys to providing peace in any society—tolerance and dialogue. From this commonality of belief, it becomes a matter of how to take these principles and apply them to a program of discussion to initiate dialogue between East and West that can go far in helping to educate Americans not only about Muslim women but also about the religion of Islam in general and the voices of tolerance and moderation that represent that tradition.

*Professor of History at Greensboro College

Excerpted from the author’s paper “Using the Gulen Movement to Broaden Discussions in the West Concerning Muslim Women”, presented at the international conference “East and West Encounters: The Gulen Movement” at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, December 4-6 2009.

Related Articles