November 4, 2013

The Gulen Movement: An Islamic Response to Terror as a Global Challenge (2)

Ibrahim A. el-Hussari*

Gulen’s Islamic Discourse

…An Islamic response to human rights issues have been constantly communicated by Gulen and his followers as part of the Islamic message that ennobles the status of human beings, irrespective of race, color and gender. Gulen’s immediate source in this regard is the word of God as revealed in Al-Qur’an:
O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another; surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you; God is All-knowing, All-aware (Al-Hojorat, XLIX: 13)

Commenting on the above Qur’anic verse in the context of human rights, Gulen asserts that “such an evaluation cannot be found in any other religion or any modern system … or any human rights commission or organization” (2004: 34). As this principle defining human rights is universal, he contends, it is timeless and should be applicable to all human societies irrespective of cultural and/or religious differences. The meaning of this very verse is reiterated in different wording in many of the Qur’anic Suras and ayat (See, for instance, An-Nisa, IV: 93), and the same meaning is carried extensively by Prophet Mohammad in his Hadith. Islam approaches human rights from the stance of the basic principles of freedom of faith, life, reproduction, mental health, and personal property – all to be preserved and observed even by force of Islamic law (See Tirmidhi, Diyat: 22; Abu Dawud, Sunna: 32). The Islamic principle of universal mercy can also be part of this context, for human life is highly honored and praised by God who confers on man the title of ‘vicegerent.’ As for tolerance and dialogue, they are to be observed by true Muslims as prescribed in Al-Qur’an and preached by the prophet. There is no coercion into Islam as faith, and nobody is made a Muslim by force. Dialogue is the key-element that characterizes the relation between Muslims and non-Muslims, and accordingly this frames the inter-faith dialogue which Gulen advocates for a fuller understanding of the world major religions as they approach one another.

Against Terror

As regards tolerance and forgiveness, Gulen explains how true Muslims should behave towards the ‘other’ expecting nothing in return for their humane behavior. Against this conduct based on non-violence, a Muslim who performs his/her religious duties properly cannot be a terrorist; and here lies the power of Gulen’s Islamic discourse to correct the stereotypical image blemishing Islam under labels such as Islamists or extremists or terrorists which are commonly mistaken as interchangeable. In Islam, killing a human being is an abhorrent act that is equal in gravity to kufr (Arabic for blasphemy), as Gulen explains in many of his public speeches and articles. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Gulen issued a statement condemning the horrendous act and the perpetrators, naming Bin Laden as the most hateful to himself, for Bin Laden “has sullied the bright face of Islam” (Akman, 2004). He apologetically admits that “[e]ven if we were to try our best to fix the terrible damage that has been done it would take years to repair”.

If Islam is libeled as regressive, violent and reactionary by some influential media outlets, Gulen would attribute that to misunderstanding and ignorance. Such media must be mistaking a Muslim culture for the broader Islamic culture which is now non-existent and which badly needs to be revised by qualified Muslim scholars if the true image of Islam is to be addressed worldwide. If this is not done however, Gulen thinks that Muslims will not be able to contribute much to the balance of the world in the near future. He does not recognize the modern state, represented by current political regimes, as an effective tool for cleaning up the stain tarnishing the true image of Islam, for to him the Islamic State had long vanished since the Mongols ravished and burnt Baghdad, the capital city of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, in 1258. That central Islamic State was then succeeded by a number of Islamic emirates which in turn were conquered by the Ottomans who assumed leadership of the Muslim world until the outbreak of WWI (1914-1918), when the Ottoman Caliphate crumbled. He also holds the current apparatus of the state/regime in the Muslim world responsible for inadvertently raising or harboring fundamentalist groups due to the absence of educational curricula which ought to develop and promote the concept of cultural awareness which enables learners to recognize and accept the ‘other’ for what the ‘other’ is irrespective of differences in religion, color, gender or race, as well as construct citizens who ought to be sensitive to the issues of fundamentalism and extremism.

…He argues that “a real Muslim, one who understands Islam in every aspect, cannot be a terrorist for Islam does not approve of the killing of people in order to attain a goal … and therefore all of these tenets and interpretations require revision and renovation by cultivated people in their fields” (Gulen, 2004). In an interview with Nuriye Akman (Zaman, 2004), Gulen admits that those terrorists have been raised among us, but they have been manipulated and turned into robots by professional criminals voicing themselves as Islamists. For Gulen, the situation could have been and still can be prevented by means of education.
There is a remedy for this [terror]. The remedy is to teach the truth directly. It should be made clear that Muslims cannot be terrorists. Why should this be made clear? Because people must understand that if they do something evil, even if it is as tiny as an atom, they will pay for that both here and in the Hereafter (Gulen, 2001).
In theory, the above quote sounds like a good policy in need of implementation in real-life situations. However, in the absence of a Muslim State that enforces Islamic laws; punishing acts of terror in relation to Islamic Shari’a (Arabic for law), to guarantee justice across the Muslim community, there are doubts that a secular state in the absence of Shari’a could ever succeed. Hence, there is a gap between Islamic policy and state practice when justice, as the end-goal, must be served.

It is a great shame, Gulen says, that Islam, whose tenets and values are universally addressed for the good of humanity, should be equated by others with terrorism. “This is an enormous historical mistake” (Turkish Daily News, 2001). Terms like Jihad/Jihadism are being abused by both Muslims and non-Muslims for hidden agendas. Islam advances the cause of Jihad in two ways. The first is the greater Jihad against the internal enemy of a Muslim; that is, the individual instinctive tendency to do evil which one must fight to maintain an upright and righteous Muslim status. In this respect, I recall Sigmund Freud’s concept of hostility and aggression being part of the human instinctive life which must be curbed and constantly checked by rules and laws set by civilization in the service of its cultural ideals (Freud, 1937). The second is the lesser Jihad against the external enemy of the Islamic Umma (Arabic for nation) where the violence used in the context of self-defense is legitimate and strongly recommended.

…As far as forms of violence are handled as real challenges in the context of globalization, Fethullah Gulen has constant recourse to al-Qura’an and al-Hadith for a solution, thus by repudiating acts of violence and terror across the globe, he is also voicing the position of true Islam in a world that needs to understand Islam as it is – a global message of peace, tolerance, and forgiveness. However, the Gulen Movement which has chosen to reactivate and revitalize Islam through education, and has so far succeeded in gaining followers and supporters in Turkey and beyond, has also chosen to distance itself from politics and the functions of the modern state. In the long run, the educational project, together with other community service projects, could be rewarding enough to place the movement as a force of change on local and global levels. However, not much of this is guaranteed along this path. The Gulen Movement, whose chief executive officer is one man, Gulen himself, needs to redefine the managerial functions of its hierarchal organizational structure by turning itself into an institution governed by the most effective tools of modern management, above all of which come accountability and strategic planning. Otherwise, the Movement would only enjoy a short life-span, which could be as long as the life span of its founder. Other Turkish Islamic and quasi-Islamic movements may have been influenced by the Gulen Movement, but they are fairing much better in trying to transform Turkey into a modern nation-state, a regional influential state, and perhaps a player in global power relations. If one of the global challenges facing Turkey and Turkish Islamic movements is the reaffirmation of its identity as a secularist/Muslim country (99% Muslim population), there should be a dialogue leading to an ‘inter-marriage’ between Islam and secularism.

*Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the Lebanese American University

Excerpted from the author’s article presented at the international conference entitled: Islam in the Age of Global Challenges, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., 13-15 November, 2008.

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