Even for perpetual pessimists, it was impossible not to hope for a world where peaceful coexistence can exist while watching the finale of the 12th Language and Culture Festival, previously known as the Turkish Olympiads, in Germany.
It naturally sounds odd that the Turkish Olympiads took place in Germany. But some are familiar with the Turkish government's efforts to obstruct the activities of the Hizmet movement -- which means “service” movement and was inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Nothing more than a one-man show, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames the Hizmet movement for anything that goes wrong in Turkey without any concrete evidence. It is not surprising that his petty followers have followed suit and taken his instructions to deal with the Hizmet as if they were orders. Consequently, Erdoğan “succeeded” in preventing the Turkish Olympiads from taking place in Turkey mainly by not granting visas to the foreign students who were expected to come to Turkey for the Olympiads.
Seemingly, there was a “defeat” on the part of the Hizmet movement. After all, the children were not given the opportunity to celebrate the Turkish language in its motherland. Instead, countries such as Ethiopia, Romania and even Germany embraced the Olympiad students coming from 145 different countries. The oppressors in Turkey actually did an unintended favor to the Hizmet movement. This grassroots organization, which was born in Turkey, is already known for its global activities and network. However, for the last 11 years, the Turkish Olympiads were confined to the borders of Turkey. The oppression that turned into an opportunity for the Hizmet movement opened up the event to the world, with a new name that is more inclusive than “Turkish Olympiads.”
On the night of June 21, the ISS Dome in Düsseldorf witnessed hundreds of students from different ethnicities and faiths singing songs in Turkish and dancing to Turkish music. This year, in addition to Turkish, songs in Russian, German and English were also included in the program. The packed hall listened to a song with bluesy lyrics saying, “This [trouble] will also be over, as many others in the past,” and the overwhelming feelings inside the venue were of pure joy and of being at peace with the knowledge of having sided with the truth.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and Erdoğan were clearly the losers of the night, despite their initial victory, since the diversity of the children in the hall was just one of the fruits of the Hizmet movement's global efforts. It was impossible not to feel the truth in the idea that “the shortest distance on the road is from one heart to another.” The selfless teachers and organizers of the event proved that all barriers are surmountable once hearts beat together for a noble purpose.
One of the clear winners of the festival and the night was Germany for hosting the event. After all, Germany has a negative reputation when it comes to integration and embracing multiculturalism. The German state could not have given a better message to the Turkish minority that it welcomes them. This positive step by the German government was reciprocated by thousands in the hall. Not only Gülen, but also the host of the show thanked German officials, who were applauded by the audience. In addition, get-well-soon messages were made at the event to former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is suffering from leukemia, and famous race car driver Michael Schumacher, who has been in coma.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has been blaming almost Turkey's problems on “Pennsylvania,” which has become synonymous with Gülen in Turkey. But there has been no concrete evidence of any of his accusations of treason! One thing is certain, though: Pennsylvania is behind all the positive action being displayed through the Turkish Olympiads. Without a doubt, “a new world” is not going to emerge just because children from different faiths sing together, but the event is a manifestation of a vision and action that Turkey has not seen before. For a country with limited capabilities, Turkey, or more accurately, a grassroots volunteer movement, has come a long way. The secret of the success is definitely the fact that Hizmet volunteers do not expect financial gain or fame in return for their services. They are the embodiment of an idealism that is difficult to live up to more often than not. It is very likely that the sincerity of Hizmet's volunteers and its selfless teachers are the underlying reasons why this movement has been welcomed by many throughout the world, despite its limited resources and humble beginnings.
Gülen sent a letter to be read at the finale of the festival in Germany, and his words, which included a veiled message of criticism of the government, received a standing ovation. As always, he made a point of encouraging “positive action” with an emphasis on peace, rule of law and human rights. “Language is the mirror of the heart,” he said, bringing to the minds' of many the hateful rhetoric of Erdoğan -- although the prime minister's name was not uttered a single time. But after being exposed to the toxic nature of Turkish political discourse, it is hard to avoid comparisons. After all, while peaceful coexistence and love were cherished in a hall in Düsseldorf, just a month ago it was Erdoğan who employed a language of polarization and animosity in another hall in Cologne. There, the leader of the host country, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was booed. But no negative chants or slogans were heard during the closing of the festival in Düsseldorf. It was almost as if there were two different Turkeys on display at these two different events in Germany.
The Hizmet volunteers once again have shown that changing the world permanently requires a lot of hard work, patience and time and that it is possible to raise a generation of peace which is truly tolerant of the “other.” It was a stark contrast to another generation of so-called jihadists who recently slaughtered their Muslim “brothers” in Syria and Iraq in the name of Islam -- the greatest betrayal to the faith.
Kudos to those who make people believe that a new world is possible thanks to “Hizmet without borders.”
*Sevgi Akarçeşme is İstanbul-based journalist for Today's Zaman and a columnist for Zaman daily.
Published on Today's Zaman, 24 June 2014, Tuesday
Related: The love for service knows no boundaries