My name is Scott Alexander**. I’m Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in Christian-Muslim Relations and Director of Catholic-Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
I think the Hizmet Movement is one of the most important spiritual and social movements in the world today.
I say that because it has a very powerful combination of an emphasis on personal spiritual life, commitment to deep human values, commitment to serving humanity and serving God, connected with a vision for making community stronger and for improving our societies around the world.
From my own personal perspective and in my own experience, it’s no exaggeration to say that Hocaefendi is one of the great leaders of our time, especially one of the great spiritual and moral leaders of our time.
I think the challenge that faces any great spiritual and moral leader in the 21st century is the attempt to bring into a mutually creative synthesis the values of tradition and the values of modernity. This is not easy to do. Many people suggest that the way religious traditions can remain vital, the way faith commitments can remain vital in the modern age is simply to become more modern, but, in that sense, they can lose some of what has made them so strong and has fed people’s lives for so long.
Hocaefendi, in his teachings, takes real care to think about very deeply the values of the Islamic faith tradition in particular, but many other faith traditions as well, and how they can speak to, as well as be informed by the modern world and some of the good strong values of modernity such as democracy and individual freedom. So, I think he plays a very important role, not just for Muslims but for all people of faith, in terms of showing us a way that we, as religious people, can do two things; remain faithful to our revealed traditions and yet participate fully for the transformation of human society for the common good.
I think the great genius of the Hizmet Movement, as a movement of renewal and reform in the Muslim world, is that it focuses on that which is most important in Islam and that is the individual Muslim’s relationship to God and how that informs his/her relationship to the world around him/her.
This focus on the reform of the individual, the individual’s commitment to Islamic values and ideals and making that focus be primary for members of Hizmet, for people in the Hizmet Movement, takes the focus off of allegiances to political ideologies or particular political agendas which may be deeply flawed in certain ways and may have very limited life spans. And so, I think, really, that the genius of the movement is that it focuses on what makes Islam and what has made Islam for centuries be a force of great change for the good in the world; and that is personal faith and commitment to God.
So, one of the central commitments of Hizmet is to dialogue. My understanding of Hizmet’s commitment to dialogue is similar to my understanding of what the Catholic Church teaches about dialogue, and that is that dialogue is not just about talking with one another or being polite to one another; it’s actually about developing relationships of deep mutual respect and cooperation for the common good.
One of the challenges that any movement dedicated to dialogue faces is that it gets criticism from all sides because when you’re trying to bridge gaps and when you’re trying to bring people together, you’re never pleasing those people who actually are interested in setting people apart from each other and setting people at odds with each other for a particular purpose, like a particular political agenda or a particular kind of gain, whether that be economic or whether that be social power.
So, Hocaefendi comes under a lot of criticism because he keeps his focus always on central human values, always on what God wants, in terms of building up the solidarity of the human family. And, as those of us of faith know, what God wants is often times not what people want, at least not in the short term. So, any person like Hocaefendi who stands for these kinds of values and who is committed to being a peace-maker is always going to come under criticism from a variety of different factions that would prefer people remain separate or at odds with one another.
I think that a lot of us are trying to think of our religious identities more in political terms than in spiritual terms, unfortunately. And what that sometimes means is, we’re seduced by voices that want us to get to look at history and all the troubles of our past history—all the wounds and divisions—and perhaps link our religious identities with a desire for revenge or with a desire to gain the upper hand, once and for all, over those who have been our adversaries. This is not Hocaefendi’s approach to Islamic identity or religious identity in general. Hocaefendi wants us to be more deeply committed to the values that are at the heart of those faith commitments that we all have, and that’s a harder process. It’s a harder process to invite people to be committed to their values and then to the struggle, to the jihad, of trying to figure out how to live out those values in very trying circumstances.
It’s much easier and people are much more drawn, in some ways, to a simple formula where they say, well, to be a good Muslim in today’s day and age, you do x, y and z. You ally yourselves with this political party, that political party or this political party... and you don’t think deeply about your own experience, you don’t think deeply about the values and you don’t criticize and look with a critical eye upon those who are trying to gain your allegiance.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa, and while I was in South Africa, when I was in Johannesburg, I visited some Hizmet schools. One particular school I visited was a school for boys, and most of the boys that were at that school came from Soweto, which is a township in South Africa where some very poor people live. Soweto had become a symbol of the struggle against apartheid because of the poverty and the social oppression of the people there. Unfortunately, even since the dismantling of apartheid in 1994, that poverty and oppression still exists. And into that poverty and oppression come a few people who built this Hizmet school in Johannesburg for boys; they visit the homes, they work with the parents to give these young boys an opportunity for a quality education so that they can help, with the grace of God, lift themselves and their families out of that situation of poverty and oppression. I got to talk to these boys and share with them some of what I do in Chicago in terms of trying to build relationships between Catholics and Muslims. After that conversation, I was asking the principal a little bit about the religious background of some of the students and he told me that 80% of the boys that I was speaking to were Roman Catholic. It’s no exaggeration to say that that bit of information brought tears to my eyes because here I was in the presence, very humbly, of my Turkish sisters and brothers—I’m a Catholic, they’re Muslims—who had come great distances from their homes, at great personal cost, making great sacrifices every day… why?... to give my young Catholic brothers living in Soweto—and actually my young Catholic sisters in the girls school—the opportunity at a better life.
Nothing for me sums up Hizmet values and ideals, nothing for me sums up Hizmet’s commitment to dialogue, nothing for me sums up Hizmet’s commitment to service and the deepest of Islamic values than that.
One of the ways in which Hizmet strives to be true to Qur'anic values and ideals is through helping the poor and oppressed around the world, first with its educational efforts, its dialogue efforts, but very importantly through organizations like Kimse Yok Mu. These efforts to relieve the suffering of human beings, in Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries, are a key witness to the world of what the Quran actually teaches. There are so many distortions, particularly in the West, in the minds many people, about what Islamic values and ideals really are. If you look at Hizmet, and particularly at its commitment to relieving the suffering of the oppressed, you see Islamic values and ideals in action.
What’s going on in Turkey today in terms of the tension between the ruling AK Party and the Hizmet Movement makes me very sad.
I think what happened was, the ruling party lost sight of what Hizmet was all about, that Hizmet’s allegiance—to whatever degree you can call it that—to the social agenda of the ruling party was only insofar as that social agenda was consonant with its ideals and values, particularly the flourishing of democracy, particularly the flourishing of intellectual freedom and religious freedom in Turkey. As soon as things in the ruling party began to turn more toward interest in maintaining a certain kind of power than in the original commitment to those values you started to see a drift between the ruling party and Hizmet, you started to see a widening gap. I think the political expectation of the ruling party was going to be that, like any other political movement, Hizmet would get on board with the ruling party, make a course adjustment and, kind of, follow lock-step with what the leaders of AK wanted to do, but that’s not what Hizmet is. Hizmet is most deeply committed to its values and ideals and I think most of the anger and most of the ranter in this tension is largely on one side, where its frustration with the fact that a very powerful religious and social movement has become disillusioned with this particular political party in its attempt to hold onto power in this particular way.
**Profile: Scott Alexander is an Associate Professor of Islam at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He chairs the Department of Intercultural Studies and Ministry. He is also the Director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union. He is the Co-editor of a Dictionary of Christian-Muslim Relations.
*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!