I am Margaret Johnson**. I am a sociologist, a writer, and a business owner. I manage a language translation company.
I also work as a senior researcher for the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies located here in Fairfax. In that capacity, I have been researching the Hizmet Movement for several years now, and I visited with Hizmet members and interviewed them in several different countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, of course, the US.
When I want to understand the Hizmet Movement, as a sociologist, first I am looking at it as a social movement, but it has many distinct characteristics that we don’t commonly find in social movements.
I mean social movements generally are oppositional movements or they are looking to achieve some specific goal or involved in politics.
The Hizmet Movement really has a different kind of character to it, and it very much takes individual approach. So, it is looking to reform society not by entering politics or changing laws or institutions but really by reforming the individual. And this is kind of a very unique approach.
I think this is a really important contribution in the Hizmet Movement. And this, of course, comes from Fethullah Gulen Hocaefendi’s understanding. His philosophy is to focus on the individual and that’s what the Movement members do first themselves, they try to develop themselves as human beings, purify themselves, improve their character… This is what they are doing, but they are not doing it as an end in itself, they are doing this so that they can be of service to others.
So, when they go out in the world, first of all, they are modeling an ideal Islamic character, and the Hizmet people are among the best people I have ever met in my life here on earth, as human beings. And this is very important. I think it is really an important contribution.
The other thing that is really kind of unique and special about Hizmet is its time horizon because, really, its philosophy is to focus on the individual. A lot of times it gets called an education movement, but it is not an education movement just because it has schools. It has education movement because it believes this is how you change the world. You start with developing the human being, the child, the adult, wherever they are in life. You meet them where they are.
And the schools focus on the best education, traditionally they focus on Math and Science education, they tend to be secular schools. But at the same time, the teachers are modeling this Islamic character, which basically are universal human values that we can all agree on—or most people can agree on—sincerity, kindness, love, serving others, loving your country. They model these behaviors to the students and try to develop that so that at the end you have a balanced student; well educated in the mind but also a dedicated, sincere human being. Think about it. This is a long time horizon.
Regardless of what is going on around them, they have their methods, their ways, and they understand. Some of these people have been working in the movement 20-30 years. Maybe they are not going to see what they want in their lifetime and it is ok with them. They are looking for this big kind of a reform that is going to take time, but it is a bottom-up and this is their approach.
The other important thing is that they give a model to Muslims about—and this is something that Hocaefendi, Fethullah Gulen writes about quite a bit—is how can you be Muslim in the modern world. And he is a scholar that writes for his time, so it is not… we don’t want to be in some kind of a situation where we are saying “We should have an Islamic law, we should have Shari’a, we want to get in the government so we can impose this.” Hizmet does not take that approach at all.
So, they are saying and what Hocaefendi says is, you can live your Islamic character, your Islamic values, your Islamic way of life now; you can do it now regardless of what the particular governmental structure is you are living under. So, in this way it is also unique. It is not a political movement, and this kind of separates it from other kind of movements. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a reformation, or reform, but the vision is very different, and this is really important.
So, it is important for individuals, important for Muslims and for non-Muslims, we go in a wider circle. Hizmet Movement is an example of Muslims living their faith fully and living in harmony with people that are different from them and this whole idea of peaceful coexistence. They are living this, modeling this and showing the way. This is really important for the Western world that can see this as an antidote to this idea because we know, if we look at survey research that a lot of Westerners and Americans, they fear Muslims, they are thinking negatively about Islam. So, the Hizmet really provides a very strong counterweight, a positive example to these negative ideas.
So, the schools around the world are very important. They are important for several different dimensions. But, if we just want to take.. I talked about the importance of peaceful coexistence, a modeling Islamic behavior, and how important that was. What you see in these schools is that they are not just places for education. On purpose, you will see in the Hizmet’s schools that they bring together children from different ethnic groups from different religious groups on purpose in the same school.
In Nigeria, which everybody knows has issues with Muslim-Christian conflicts, riots periodically, and killings; a very difficult situation. But, what you will find in the Hizmet schools in Nigeria is Christians and Muslims in the school together, children learning side by side, being friends, and so, they are having these experiences about learning. What does it mean? They’re learning about each other, so then, the person is not the other anymore. And they can learn how to get along with each other. So, they are learning this idea about peaceful coexistence.
Maybe, if you want to compare to other Sufi movements, it very much has a strong emphasis on developing that perfect human character, like other Sufi movements do. But one key thing is that for what ends. The purpose is to go be of service. Something unique about Hizmet always had this, “You are doing this so you can go serve humanity”, and the strong service component from the beginning.
And the other thing that I already mentioned; it is not a political movement. It is not looking to become a political party or endorse certain politicians. In Turkey you see it have a voice in the political arena as a civil society organization because part of Hizmet values is to support democracy, protection of minority rights, justice, freedom, religious freedom, freedom of the press, all of these different kinds of important aspects of a democratic society.
So, there, you saw Hizmet support the Constitutional Referendums. But, at the same time, Hizmet is not going to support any particular candidate, it’s not going to pledge loyalty to any particular political individual because it says, whoever shares our values. So it is not looking to be a political movement, it’s not looking for political power.
In fact, Hocaefendi, Fethullah Gulen, explicitly cautions his followers away from that. So, it is unique in this way, too.
Hizmet is engaged in a lot of charitable activities around the world. And this is really profoundly important. It is important for, obviously, your recipients of charity are benefiting from that. Also, it is a way of dialogue. It is saying, “We are Muslims, this is what we do. Some Muslim people might object and say, Why you are giving charity to non-Muslims when Muslims are suffering so much in the world.
And it is true.
Unfortunately, we have such high levels of suffering in the Muslim world. But, Hizmet gives charity to Muslim people all over the world, also. But, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give to others as well. We should. It is our duty and our obligation.
In America, we have the Red Cross, which pretty much is a secular organization but started as a Christian organization. It goes everywhere. Muslim should as well. We should go everywhere, we should be there, and people should see this face of Islam. And also, it is a great benefit. When Turkish people go, going as Hizmet, a lot of times, people in the countries are saying, “Turkey is coming and helping us.” And that is a great benefit to the image of Turkey.
**Profile: Dr. Margaret A. Johnson is a sociologist, statistician, and a businesswomen in Virginia. She has M.A and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the CEO of Transfirex Translation Services, Inc. She is also a Senior Research Associate for the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies in Virginia.
*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!