May 27, 2015

Hizmet’s core teachings to undermine and negate extremism

Ozcan Keles and Ismail Mesut Sezgin

The challenge with linear, traditional government policies directly aimed at defeating violent extremist ideology is that by its nature the policy and the measures that flow from it are formulated in reaction to the problem. Reactionary policies are less inspiring. This matters, especially when community support is needed for its success. Such policies are also more likely to focus on the immediate and visible triggers of the problem over its deep-rooted and fundamental causes, since the former are more likely to be achieved within the lifespan of a parliamentary term. What is more, when a reactive policy is focused on a particular group, in this case Muslims, it can have the unintended consequence of turning them into ‘suspect communities’, or at least making them feel so, further undermining public support from the very people and communities whose involvement is needed most.

Hizmet, at least for itself, does not advocate defeating violent extremism ideology or practice by meeting it head on. Rather, the core Islamic teachings that underpin its values and activism negate violent extremist ideology, mindset and practice as a natural by-product and default outcome of its positive work. Those core teachings are popularized to wider public through a series of channels and practice referred to in this publication as ‘conveyors’. Hizmet’s core teachings and the values and activism they underpin are diametrically opposed to and mutually exclusive with those associated with violent extremism; therefore the stronger one grows the weaker the other becomes. Accordingly, the goal of defeating extremism is made to ensue without being directly pursued, ensuring it avoids the pitfalls associated with being reactive, as discussed above.

Hizmet’s core teachings, values and activism have the credibility to de-radicalize by default for several reasons. Firstly, it is and is perceived to be authentic, in that it is based on a thorough, genuine and robust reading of Islam’s primary sources according to well-established methodologies of Islamic reasoning. It is also independent – it is not based on serving one political agenda or government or another but rather its loyalties lie with the subject matter itself. Additionally, at its core it is altruistic rather than career-based (while acknowledging the importance of professional input, the perceived self-sacrifice of terrorists must be challenged with the genuine self-sacrifice of those offering an alternative worldview). Lastly, it is, as mentioned already, positive and proactive in setting its own agenda that has not been formulated in opposition to anything, and which has the potential to motivate and inspire the grassroots, a task which counter-extremist initiatives and narratives find more challenging to achieve.
  • Love and compassion: The teaching that the universe in all its diversity was created out of love and compassion. It is the primary premise upon which all else must be established including the basis of all our interactions with one another and our pursuit for peace and justice.
  • Belief in diversity: The teaching that the Qur’an explicitly conceives of belief in the plural, referring to verses such as: ‘Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [O Prophet] compel people to believe?’ (Yunus, 10:99). The Qur’an connects human diversity to the divine intention that human beings should get to know one another (al-Hujurat, 49:13). For Gülen, diversity of race, religion, nation and life-way was intended by God and should be accepted and valued as a route to understanding. According to Gülen, the response to diversity through positive engagement and dialogue is one of the major goals that the divine will has set for humankind. (1)
  • Free will: The teaching that emphasizes agency and free will. It is free will that makes us human and humans that give meaning to creation according to Gülen. Therefore, the denial of free will negates human nature undermining the purpose of creation. God granted free will; its denial is a crime against humans, God and creation, with which it is connected.
  • Middle path: The teaching that every human faculty, emotion and potential must be used in the appropriate measure, manner and context for which it was created; that is to find the middle way in every instance (sirat al-mustaqim). For example, desire is a human emotion that is harmful when manifested as envy towards another’s possessions (i.e. hasad) but useful when channelled towards desire to emulate the good qualities in others (i.e. ghibta).
  • Engagement: The teaching that strongly encourages positive engagement despite any actions or attributes in the ‘other’ with which one might take issue. Unwillingness to engage can be overcome by a sophisticated view that differentiates between the composite parts of a person, community or civilization (i.e. actions, attributes or characteristics) and the whole. Hizmet teaches that one can engage with a person, community or civilization, while reserving judgment over some of its practices or attributes. This also overlaps with the teaching that one can judge an action or attribute at most but should, so far as possible, avoid judging a person engaged in the act. Therefore, one’s dislike of another’s action or attribute should not translate into a dislike of the ‘other’ overall. Doing so is tantamount to sinking an entire ship on account of the ‘guilty’ alongside the numerous innocent on board. This sophisticated appraisal of the other, be it in relation to an individual or a group of people, empowers positive engagement over rejectionist isolation.
  • Self-reflexivity (or doubt) versus absolutism: The teaching that while people can believe that their religion represents ‘the Truth’, their access to it is defined by their own limitations; hence, the need in Islam for ijma’ (consensus) in religious issues to ascertain the more weightier (not absolute) interpretation and the need for shura (consultation) in worldly affairs to arrive at better decision making. In that vein, Gülen says ‘he who is certain of himself, is almost certainly at loss,’ drawing attention to the constant need to doubt one’s subjective grasp of religion and sincerity in belief, not belief itself. In recognition of this fact, to counter absolutist tendencies and follow an Islamic practice, Hizmet places great emphasis on consultative, collaborative decision-making at all times. It is also why Hizmet encourages an open, engaging and inquisitive mind, which inhibits dogmatic and entrenched positions from emerging. Furthermore, Hizmet’s emphasis on meaning over form counters an absolutist mindset that seeks comfort in the simplicity of fixating on outward signs, symbols and labels over essence and meaning. Encouraging the opening of non-denominational schools in 1970’s Turkey instead of more mosques is one example of this emphasis on meaning over form.
  • Positive action: The teaching that as humans we are responsible to ‘act’ and that that act must be ‘positive’ (müsbet hareket). ‘Positive or constructive action’, is proactive, not formulated in reaction to someone else’s action or position. Positive action helps people to maintain a positive mindset, whereas a reactive approach may incline them to perpetuate ongoing disputes and polemics. It involves a level-headedness, and a calm, collected, consistent approach. Its more comprehensive meaning is that everything that befalls us is ultimately our responsibility, not that of others, and that we can only redress by treating the ‘actual’ not necessarily the ‘apparent’ causes, an approach which requires constant positive and proactive action. This teaching overcomes the ‘victimhood mindset’ of the extremist, which incessantly blames others for its own perceived troubles. (2)
  • Positive thinking: The teaching that positive action requires positive thinking about others (husn-u zan) as opposed to seeing people in a negative light (su-i zan). Gülen points out that when we see others in this light, assuming the worst of them, we nurture a suspicious attitude towards them and a sense of superiority in ourselves. The comprehensive meaning of husn-u zan refers to thinking constructively about others, always preferring the most positive interpretation of another’s action, not taking other people’s actions lightly, and avoiding focusing on other people’s mistakes. (3)
  • Redefining dar al-harb: Various terms and phrases are instrumentalized to present a dichotomous worldview of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. One of them is dar al-harb (abode of war) and dar al-Islam (abode of Islam). These terms are political concepts coined by Muslim scholars in the medieval era. Gülen opposes such a mindset and worldview. Rather, he encourages assessment to be made on principles, merit, effort, attributes and characteristics not on religious or national identities. Accordingly, he proposes dar al-hizmah (abode of service) as a single concept to replace the other two by seeing the entire world as a place to serve and help others.
These are some of Hizmet’s core teachings covered very briefly, with others not included for the sake of brevity. These teachings are rooted in Islam; they are associated with Hizmet because of Hizmet’s interpretation and emphasis on them. It is self-evident that a person who internalizes the above teachings cannot be lured by the violent extremist ideology or mindset.

Source: Keles, Ozcan and Sezgin, Ismail Mesut. 2015. “A Hizmet Approach to Rooting out Violent Extremism.” Thought & Practice Series, Centre for Hizmet Studies.

  1. Frances Sleap and Omer Sener, Paul Weller (ed), Gülen on Dialogue, (Centre for Hizmet Studies, 2014), p. 21.
  2. Ibid., p. 25.
  3. Ibid., p. 26
Published on, 22 May 2015, Friday