May 10, 2015

‘Islam and I’

Şahin Alpay

The number of books written by Western academics on Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen's ideas and Hizmet, the faith-based social movement he has inspired, is growing.

Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World
Islam och jag, Klas Grinell
Book on Fethullah Gulen by Klas Grinell
Two of them I read recently are particularly noteworthy. One is Joshua D. Hendrick's “Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World” (New York University Press, New York: 2013) and the other is Klas Grinell's book in Swedish, titled “Islam och Jag” (Islam and I) (Sekel Bokförlag, Lund: 2011), which has recently been published in English in a slightly revised edition with the title “Reflections on Reason, Religion and Tolerance: Engaging with Fethullah Gülen's Ideas” (Blue Dome, New York: 2015). The latter was the subject of a workshop organized by the Nordic Gülen Institute (NGI) on April 25 in Gothenburg, Sweden, with participants from Europe and Turkey, including myself. I would like to share some of my views on it.

Grinell, an associate professor in the field of history of ideas, is currently working as a curator at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg. He came into contact with the Hizmet movement in the early 1990s while working as a guide for Swedish tourists in Turkey, got curious about Gülen's ideas and studied them in the English translations of his works. What makes his book highly remarkable and valuable are the views on Islam and Gülen expressed by a highly secular-minded intellectual from one of the world's most secularized countries, where atheism and agnosticism are widespread social norms.

Unlike most Westerners, Grinell is well aware of the following: Islam is not a political ideology but a religion. It is not identical to Islamism, authoritarianism, intolerance or violence. Radical Islamists are only a very marginal part of the Muslim world who have somehow dominated the image of Islam. Many in the West may believe that Islam is a warlike, intolerant religion. The truth, however, is that it has in the main been a peaceful and tolerant religion. There is not one but many different interpretations of Islam. Like in all other religions, support for almost any view or position can be found in Islam's teachings.

Influential thinkers in the contemporary world are not only from the West. There are also thinkers from the Muslim world, and an important one of them is Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Gülen's Islamic teachings motivate millions of people in the world to social action, such as the opening of educational institutions and engaging in intercultural dialogue. If more people in the West knew about Gülen (and the teachings of other influential, non-fundamentalist thinkers in the Muslim world) the West might become more open to and accepting of Islam.

This is what Grinell writes: “I like Islam. I find many beautiful intriguing and breathtaking traditions and practices in Islam. And of course there is, as in any tradition, lot of authoritarianism, male dominance, insularism, and complacency also in Muslim communities. Still I believe in the positive power of Islam, that Islam can be a vital part in a positive social development… I still identify with the left and with critical theory even if I have come to feel that secularization and urbanization has left us without strong social rituals and means to express our need for belonging and trust. It has been important for me to try to honestly engage with religious perspectives to understand what role they could and should have in my life and in our society.” (p. viii-ix)

I had the privilege of meeting and briefly talking to Grinell on a visit to Gothenburg a year ago, in April 2014, when he gave me a copy of his book in Swedish. Reading the book I realized that I had common experiences with Grinell, whom I did not get to know during his many visits to İstanbul since the 1990s. Unlike him I am Turkish, of course, but I too come from a highly secularized and secularist subculture in Turkey and I too have, through experience and learning, come to recognize the important place of religion in society and how non-fundamentalist, tolerant interpretations of religions do play a positive role in social life.

There is a lot to be said about Grinell's book, but the above I feel are the points that need to be emphasized.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 10 May 2015, Sunday