I’m Fran Hassencahl** and I’m in the Department of Communication and Theater Arts. I’m a professor there and I teach courses in intercultural communication. I just finished teaching a course, still teaching a course, on the Arab Spring.
And I also direct a minor in Middle Eastern Studies, and I have been to Turkey a number of times, in various capacities—as guest lecturer, traveler, visitor, etc…
During a period, I guess about 15 years, I came into contact with the Gulen Movement and had some opportunities to observe and to also interact with people in the Movement and form some opinions, positive opinions… that’s not to say that there aren’t some issues that I think could be improved but, by large, and this is partly out of my own college experience and tradition, I can resonate with the concept of my undergraduate college, the motto was; culture for service. And lots of my colleagues did overseas and domestic projects very similar to the kind of things that people do in the Hizmet Movement. So, I can, kind of, resonate with that experience.
As far as the leader of the Movement, and, yes, leader, but on the other hand, there are many leaders in the Gulen Movement. It’s not a hierarchical structured organization as some organizations are. I have not met him personally. I have read some of his writings, and, of course, I have read lots of things, both pro and con, about him as a person. But, I must say, the things about him that are “con” are lots of times—some of my colleagues have pointed out in various books, scholarly books—are pretty baseless. And I would say—overall—in terms of his being an inspirational leader—overall—in terms of his vision, I feel quite positive.
I would have to say, in the area of education are the most common and most important kinds, in my mind, contributions of the Gulen Movement, because I’m an educator and, of course I’m concerned about that, not only in terms of American education but worldwide education, particularly in Turkey where getting into universities and being well enough prepared—we have this problem too—is an issue. Certainly, the high schools and the preparation schools, exam preparation schools—which Erdogan is getting all upset about—are an important factor in the fabric of the education in Turkey, in terms of not only preparing students but I’ve met many students who, had it not been for extra financial help or the ability to board, they would not have been able to go to a high school that would have equipped them for college. And I think that’s very important.
If you spread that out into other countries which the Gulen Movement is doing, they’re basically working with those that are under-served and those who have limited opportunity. And the name of the game these days is, you have to get training and education.
I must say that my experiences in terms of the Hizmet Movement is—going back to the idea that Islam is a way of life—it’s lived and, as a consequence, you set an example. I have not been proselytized by people in the Movement.
Like I said earlier, I resonate because of that concept of service, that concept of—as it were—pleasing God by the kinds of activities that you do, by the going in and giving a helping hand, whether you’re removing cataracts from people in Ethiopia or you’re setting up a school…
I’ve seen and heard about various activities that are done, particularly in under-served regions or in the stands after the Russians pulled out. In contrast, Saudi Arabia went in there with mosques and with Qurans and evangelized... a heavy dose of evangelism… whereas the Gulen people went in and provided the kind of services people needed. And that’s, I think, a very important difference to make. For the most part, Islam is not a missionary-oriented movement.
I’m very impressed by the interfaith activities of the Gulen Movement and have had the opportunity to participate in some of those activities. And, I think that this is, not only in terms of dispelling understanding but providing relationships and opportunities to work on problems that aren’t just necessarily based on one religion or another religion.
The only disappointment I have is that, I think we’re doing a good job of building relationships but I think there needs to be a little bit more discussion in terms of some theological issues and understanding. I think that some of the Gulen students need to also—in addition to studying Islam and the teachings—look at some of the teachings that are in other religions. Basically, a kind of looking at and understanding, it really does not mean that you’re moving to that side. It just means, I am now better informed.
In the same sense that particularly Americans do not know very much about Islam, I find that some of the people in the Gulen Movement do not know very much about Judaism or Christianity.
And I think that it may be useful to sometimes move a little more beyond the kind of sharing of ceremonies and holidays and meals, these kinds of things, to some actual discussion about some of the tougher issues.
In terms of Hizmet’s relief activities; this fits into the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of charity, giving alms, zakat, what have you… but certainly that it is a long standing tradition. It also gives people the opportunity to participate for a brief period of time, if you’re going somewhere to cataract surgery, you’re there for a week and back home again, or if you can’t go for what…lots of reasons why you can’t just take off for a year or whatever, particularly if you’re established with a family, but you can donate either money or materials or whatever, and I think that’s important. And it also makes for dialogue. The fact that groups go in and work with a population after some kind of natural disaster, this starts to open up dialogue between people. We saw this happen, albeit kind of slowly with the Greeks and Turks in 1999.
I think there is, and this is often true as you’re going on the road to democracy, you start to see conspiracies and you also want to blame other people for your shortcomings or the things that you wish may have worked out differently. And, in some respects, I’m seeing this happening… and this has happened in our politics, this happens in other people’s politics too… the kind of scapegoating, blaming, trying to deck responsibility for bad decisions that you’d made…
People have to remember that the Gulen Movement is basically a civil society movement. And, as a civil society movement, there are individuals who are going to participate in politics or political activity. The organization may not be doing that—because of the separation of church and state—but individuals are free to do what they wish and the Gulen Movement is not a centralized movement so people cannot necessarily say, if you’re in the government, “I speak for…”
They certainly have the opportunity to lobby and to lobby their representatives in the Parliament. I don’t see the Gulen Movement doing anything differently than The American Medical Association does, or The National Rifle Association does, or the Red Cross does in the United States.
This is how you get—as government official— information about what the population is thinking.
And you need to be open to all groups in your population; the Gulen Movement, and the anti-Gulen Movement people and the people who are advocating building an agricultural project somewhere in the Eastern part of Turkey. That’s part of how democracy works; there’s this back and forth dialogue.
And if you start blaming and you start scapegoating, that ends the dialogue, which means you may be missing out on some very important information that you need to hear.
**Profile: Associate Professor in Communication & Theatre Arts, Old Dominion University. She received her Ph.D. in Communication at Case Western Reserve University. She conducts research on the framing of messages through political cartoons, press stories, and debate. Her areas of Expertise include Communication, media studies, Middle East.
*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!.