I’m Rabbi Larry Seidman**.
I was born in Brooklyn, NY and moved to California. I lived most of my life in California.
I was originally trained as an engineer. I’ve worked for many engineering companies; I have a PhD in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.
And I worked for the last 20 years or so for Boeing Comp. in their Phantom Works Advanced Research and Development Division.
But about 10 years ago, I got more interested in Judaism and decided to retire from my engineering career at Boeing as a senior manager and went to rabbinical school for 5 years in Los Angeles and became a Rabbi.
I’ve been very impressed by the Hizmet Movement over the years. I first encountered Hizmet here in Irvine, and I’ve had the chance to go to Turkey twice with the Hizmet Movement. Once, with the support of the Pacifica Institute here and once with the Fountain Magazine—for a week—to meet other scholars and thinkers and talk about religion and science and belief and faith.
And I think it’s rare to find an organization which is so bottom-up driven, which has gotten the principles so deeply ingrained into every member that you can talk to anybody and get the same feeling of what the commitment is to Islam, what the commitment is to doing the right things in the world, and the personal sacrifice that Hizmet members produce.
I’ve not met Fethullah Gulen, but I’ve read some of his writings on the subject of interfaith and the subject of evolving moderate Islam.
Watching Hizmet, in terms of the world picture, I think there have been several aspects that are very impressive.
First, I think, education is a key factor in producing the modern world. The future of the world, the future of democracy, the future of the economy depends on education.
Hizmet has been a key factor in promoting education in Turkey as well as outside of Turkey.
I think, secondly, the values of charity, Hizmet’s willingness to support emergency response as needed for example, or support other charities around, not only in Turkey but around the world, has been very striking.
My understanding from the week I spent in Turkey with the Fountain Magazine is Islam is a religion of love. And, that’s nothing like what we see in the popular press.
So, I think that terrorism, by the definition, killing innocent people, killing children, can never be a religious act.
I cannot conceive of anybody with any claim through religion that can say, “I am close to understanding what God wants, and God wants me to kill these people.”
I can understand it when Fethullah Gulen says that kind of activity is inconsistent with Islam. It’s inconsistent, I think, with any real religion, including Islam.
I think the question of interfaith activity is a very central one.
If we believe, if I am a monotheist and you are a monotheist, we both believe there is one God. Islam believes, I understand, that all the prophets—Jesus, Moses and so on—are all valid and true Prophets.
If you believe that, if you believe there is one God and you believe there are many Prophets, then you have to believe that different people understand God in different ways.
It just seems inevitable to me that we must learn to say, “I think I understand what God wants of me, you think you understand what God wants of you. You do it your way; I’ll do it my way. The important thing is that we’re both doing God’s work on Earth.”
And if we believe we’re put here to improve the life of the world, the Hebrew phrase is, “Tikkun Olam”, to fix the universe, to repair the universe.
So, we can say, we share the same goal, we disagree on strategy. You find it better to pray in Arabic, I find it better to pray in Hebrew, he finds it better to pray in Latin or in English… I don’t think God is sitting up there in Heaven and saying, “Uuup, that’s Latin, he’s a bad person.”
I think God is saying, “They’re trying to understand what God wants.”
As long as we’re all trying to fix the world, we can work together. And that requires we understand each other, it requires that we realize that you are good people, they’re all good people, and we’re all trying to do God’s work here on Earth in an interfaith way.
I think it’s incredibly important because if we’re fighting with each other, we’re not fighting the real issues.
Education is the key, the absolute key to democracy. If you want to have a democracy, you have to have intelligent voters who understand the issues. You have to have education both so voters can vote intelligently, as well as, so the economy can improve, so that we can do business, science and technology, and move on.
I visited a few schools when I was in Turkey, and I think there are really three things I want to comment on.
One is, we visited a school in Nigde that was a very impressive school. The children are placing high on the university entrance exams. I think that’s very important.
We visited a school in Sanliurfa, which is focused primarily on Kurdish kids. There were wonderful, sweet children coming after hours to this class, and the director told us that he’s competing with the PKK, that if these children learn to read, learn to do arithmetic, they’re not going to be terrorists in the hills. If he doesn’t do anything, they’ll be in the streets after school and they will be terrorists in the hills. So it was very important for that purpose.
And I was incredibly impressed when we were in Nigde and we talked to the man, who had started the school, and we asked him about his life story, and he told us that he had made a lot of money in business, and he had gone to Fethullah Gulen and said, “I’m a rich man. What should I do? Should I build a mosque, should I build a bridge, should I pave the road to the countryside, what should I do?”
And Mr. Gulen said, “Build a school and teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Build a school.”
And I think that’s just superb advice. If more energy was focused on building schools and less on fighting with other religions and less on building big temples and cathedrals, we’d have a much better world.
We visited—also when we were there—Kimse Yok Mu, which means literally, ‘Is Anybody There?’ an organization that responds in much of the world to disasters, natural disasters, emergency occurrences. And the question we asked was, “Did you respond to Katrina in New Orleans?” And the answer was, “No, we sent money to our American counterpart organization, and they responded to Katrina.”
So, I think it’s wonderful to see a group of people—Muslim in this case—who give charity, fund these organizations, work in these organizations, but are not only limited to supporting issues that affect Muslims on the street, but are equally prepared to work for Americans in New Orleans or any place else in the world where disasters occur and help is needed.
I don’t claim to understand Turkish politics. I’m not sure I know anybody who understands Turkish politics.
And it’s easy, apparently, in Turkey to stir up conspiracy theories. People seem to like conspiracy theories.
But I cannot understand how a responsible leader of a country criticizes Hizmet because everything I see are things the country should have.
If I think about the US analogy, if we had more support and better schools, if we had more opportunities for poor people to get out of their slum conditions and go to universities, if we had more opportunities and places to respond to natural disasters, these are all good things…
And I would think a responsible government would support all those things. I think there’s a fear… when we hear that the government of Turkey is expressing negative opinions about these, I can only think that there is not a future of democracy. The drive is to have a less educated electorate, a less sophisticated population, fewer educated people coming from minority groups—from the Kurdish population, from the other minorities—and that’s bad for the country and bad for the world.
So, I hope those things are wrong, and I hope those things stop and we can have a country where everybody can contribute to society in the best way possible.
**Profile: Rabbi Lawrence Seidman received his Ph.D in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He retired from Phantom Works, the R-and-D branch of the Boeing Company in 2007. After retirement, Dr. Seidman dedicated himself to religious and spiritual studies. He was ordained as a rabbi in 2009 by the Academy for Jewish Religion.
*Produced by Spectra Media exclusively for Irmak TV, Atlas of Thoughts (Fikir Atlasi) connects the scholars, politicians, jurists, religious figures, journalists, and academics reflecting on Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement with the audience. Each episode features a person from a different segment of the society with diverse experiences regarding the Hizmet activities and its volunteers. If you are interested to hear about the Hizmet and Mr. Gulen from these people’s perspectives, do not miss this show!