My name is Pim Valkenberg**. I teach at the Catholic University of America. I teach in the field of Religion and Culture. My specialty is Christian-Muslim relations. That is also how I got involved in learning about Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement.
I think that the Hizmet Movement is, as far as I can tell, one of the most important movements that try to bridge between, generally speaking, the Muslim world and the Turkish world, more specifically, and the Western world by being accepting of both cultural environments and trying to build all kinds of bridges.
Of course, there are more groups that are doing that. But, I think, the Hizmet Movement is a very active group and it does a lot of good work.
Well, of course I never met Hocaefendi Fethullah Gulen himself, but I read quite a bit of his books and heard much more about his idea from some of the people who are following him. What I can tell is that he tries to talk to the people that want to listen to him both in the Muslim world and in the Western world on the basis of a very sound knowledge of the Islamic tradition. On the one hand, I think, he has a profound knowledge, as far as I can tell of course, of the Quran, of the hadith and also the tafsir, the interpretation of the Quran.
On the other hand, he is also very thoroughly acquainted with the Ottoman Turkish tradition of, on the one hand, the Quran and its interpretation but, on the other hand, also the Sufi tradition. And more specifically, of course, he has a very good knowledge of the works of Said Nursi, which I think is kind of a figure that bridges the traditional Muslim interpretation and his personal interpretation. But as I said, it is very grounded in the Muslim tradition through the intervention of people like Said Nursi.
One of the things that I do for my work is that I teach a lot about interreligious dialogue and I do a lot of research about interreligious dialogue. One of the misunderstandings that people always have of dialogue is that it would require you to dilute your own faith. So to say, if you are in dialogue with others, you will lose your identity. And it has been my experience and, I think, that of many others who are engaged in dialogue that instead of diluting, it strengthen your faith because you are more required to think about what exactly you believe.
If I may add an example, one of the things that I remember very well, when I was a young theologian, of course I knew about the Trinity, which is of course for Christians something that they believe in God, Jesus Christ, that is the son of God, and the Holy Spirit. Obviously, that is one of the big points on which Christians and Muslims have a different idea. So, I was obliged when in dialogue with Muslims, of course, they asked me “Can you explain why this trinity, why do you think that is so important?” So, I needed to study my own tradition more in order to be able to give a good answer to the Muslims. And I think that is a good example of how dialogue does not dilute but deepens your own rootedness in your own faith tradition.
Now, coming back to your question, I think that what is important in the way in which both Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet tradition engages in this dialogue with others is exactly this exactly combination of being rooted in their own tradition and working from their own tradition and taking the fruits of their own tradition and trying to open that up to the broader public.
One of the ways in which, I think, you can show how Fethullah Gulen is rooted in his own tradition but, at the same time, gives a very specific interpretation of that tradition that helps us in the common world to live together in a better way is his approach to this famous theme of peace and war. You know that there are all these stories about Jihad, what it means and what it does not mean, and I have done some study of what Fethullah Gulen thinks about that. And, one of the things that I noticed was that he says, “Well, you have to make a distinction between the normal situation and the exception. Muslims living peacefully together with people of other faiths, that is the normal situation, and situations of war, strife, these happen as well, and of course, the Quran talks about it, but these are more or less exceptional.
So, he says peace is the rule between Muslims and the people of other faiths, more specifically with the People of the Book, the Jews and the Christians. He, somewhere in his writings says, if you take that as a kind of a hermeneutical key to interpret the Quran, then you can say, well, that means for us, contemporary Muslims that we have the obligation to live peacefully together with others and we have to promote everything that contributes to peace among people of religion and we have to work against everything that works against peace. So, I think that is a quite good example of how he interprets his own sources. And, of course, Gulen gives more light to the spiritual background and it’s the people of the Hizmet Movement that work actively to bring about better relationships. So, you can say he inspires them. There are, as you know, a lot of discussions about what exactly the role of Fethullah Gulen in the Hizmet Movement is… Is he the boss or not, etc …. But, what I have heard from most of the people from the Hizmet movement is this; he is not a kind of a general organizing his troops—that’s sometimes a metaphor that you hear—he is our spiritual inspiration.
So, he studies the scriptures of Islam, and he gives his sohbets, he gives his talks and he inspires his followers to act in certain ways.
As you know I teach quite a few classes on Islam and, of course, mainly here in the United States with undergraduate students, their knowledge of Islam, generally speaking—there are some exceptions but generally speaking—their knowledge of Islam is pretty shallow, which means that they know only what they hear in the press. Of course, they know 9/11, they know some of the big conflicts that are going on, and, of course, they’ve heard in the media that Islam has a role in that. So, that’s the way that they come to study the religion of Islam and one of the things that I want to show them is that Islam is much broader than that and maybe, more importantly, much deeper than that. So, I try to bring them to study the sources of Islam rather than what you hear in the mass media, nowadays.
And I think that one of the things that the Hizmet Movement does is to help us to see how you can translate these deeper sources of Islam into the modern world. So, to come back to something that I mentioned earlier, when you compare it with most other Muslim groups that you hear much about in the media, I think this is one of the few groups that really combines openness to a dialogue between cultures and religions, on the one hand, and a rootedness in their own tradition on the other.
And I think that that is a very important combination, and it’s also the kind of combination that I think is most fruitful for the future because if you are not rooted in your own religious tradition you will end up losing any nourishment because the nourishment comes through the roots. So, if you lose your roots, you get no nourishment and you end up being shallow and not really contributing anything.
On the other hand, if you’re only focusing on your own tradition, you’re not opening up to a broader public. And I think that it’s exactly the combination of the two that is very important.
When we are looking at the present day political situation with the AK Party ruling for some time, one of the impressions that you get and, once again, I must have some kind of disclaimer because I’m not a political scientist, I’m a theologian so… but what you see is, when a party is in power and it has had absolute majority for some time, you sometimes see that people’s behavior begins to change. I cannot give you an exact analysis but I think this is one of the reasons why there is now a growing tension between the political majority party and the Hizmet Movement that is, of course related to this investigation about corruption. But I think it is kind of a wider problem that you see nowadays in Turkey about people not being totally sure of what the best way towards the future is going to be.
What is the way that would help us go forward towards the future? .. And I would suggest that when political power becomes too much of a goal for people, they are under the threat to become detached from their own roots. It’s again the same metaphor that I used before, when you become detached from your own roots, you do not get the spiritual nourishment that you would need to get.
Now, this is not to suggest that people are not religious enough or whatever, but it is to suggest that when the discourse, when the talk is about how to gain political power and how to keep political power, we are quite far away from a situation in which you allow yourself to be nourished by your own religious roots. So, I think this is one of the reasons why both in Christianity and Islam, there is a tradition that says, well, you should stay away from political power.
And, of course, both in Said Nursi and in Fethullah Gulen that’s an important theme as well, and I think you can see in the lives of both Nursi and Gulen, some movements going towards a more engagement in politics and some movements going away from engagement in politics.
**Profile: Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. He completed his Ph.D. in Theology at Catholic Theological University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. He worked as an Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland and Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. He authored World Religions in Dialogue: A Comparative Theological Approach and Sharing Lights on the Way to God.
*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!.