June 8, 2016

"The Hizmet Movement is working towards creating connections and lowering barriers"

Fikir Atlasi*, Episode 45 (Full text)

My name is Elliot Gershenson**. I’m the President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, which is a large social service and interfaith dialogue organization.

I’ve been very fortunate to have been to Turkey with members of the local Turkish community through what was called the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.

This trip was really very, very meaningful for me and I learned an awful lot about not only the Hizmet Movement but the role that Mr. Gulen plays in being an advisor to, and a spiritual advisor, to many people.

I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Gulen but I’ve read a number of his works, and I have come to see him as a man of peace, a man of faith and a man of wisdom.

Clearly, if all of the world followed his view that we are all children of the same God, we need to be able to melt our faith and our politics and our social work into a unit, the world would be a much healthier place.

There’s an awful lot of strife in this world that comes around faith, and Mr. Gulen suggests that there is another way; be true to your faith, use it as a way to guide how you live your life but be open to everyone else’s way in which they see faith and how that influences their life, be respectful for that, and make the world—together—a better place.

There’s skepticism and, sometimes, the movement comes along as too good to be true.

Some people then look at that and say; well, if something is too good to be true, maybe it’s not true.

But when people really get to meet the folks who are a part of the Hizmet Movement and see their genuine sense of love and respect, then, over time they come to realize that this is not something as a put-on, it’s really who you are, and you are living a legitimate way of expressing your faith and your Islam.

I think it’s one of the major reasons and rationale for the Hizmet Movement to exist, is to be a place where all people can come and dialogue and learn from one another.

I think that the Movement does that very well. Here in Houston, the Gulen Movement organizations are actively involved with all sorts of interfaith dialogue and promoting interfaith dialogue. The key question is, does it move the ball? And, as a person who works in this field along with you, it’s worthy of some real study of whether or not it does move the ball along.

The question is; are we talking to those people who are already convinced that interfaith dialogue is important, or, are we actually getting to people that are on the fence or even against it and bringing them to the table?

The hope is that by bringing those folks to the table that we can actually change the whole mentality of our society. Then we can create connections instead of barriers.

I do believe that the Hizmet Movement is working towards creating connections and lowering barriers, and I commend everyone for that.

And I think that it needs to happen more, not only in the Hizmet Movement, not only in the Muslim community, not only in the Jewish community but outside of that, in the Christian community, the Hindu community and other faiths as well. I believe that that has to happen or we will continue to see the kind of strife that we see around the world.

I’m not convinced, however, that as much as we do it that we will grow completely beyond our tribalism. And that is just part of what makes humans human.

I do believe that the Hizmet Movement sees that and is developing methodologies to try to overcome it and is a great partner with other organizations to try its best to overcome that.

What I find that’s happening right now is that our faith traditions—all of our faith traditions—are actually moving in two directions; more to the right and more to the liberal, or left, side.

And centrists—I count myself as one of those people—centrists are feeling somewhat abandoned. I see that in our political world, in the United States, I see that politically around the country, and I see it in our religious world.

I do believe that Mr. Gulen actually saw this happening years ago and began to create the Hizmet Movement as a counter to these extremes.

I commend it for that.

And I’m hopeful that others can take lessons from that and learn from that so that we can actually rebuild a stronger center because it’s around the center, around the moderation, where we can really understand that it’s ok looking at the world very differently, without demonizing the other person.

That’s my biggest fear. I see religion right now moving too far to the right, too far to the left, and a lot of people being alienated against religion in general.

Religion easily can be used to split us apart. I believe that the Hizmet Movement and other similar movements and other faith traditions believe that religion, faith should actually bind us, that if we believe that we’re children of one God, we may find God differently, we may speak to God differently, we may understand God differently but if it’s one God then how can we not see God in everyone else, in their eyes, as a reflection of God, the same God.

I do know that education is probably—next to interfaith dialogue—the most important aspect of the Hizmet Movement. I think Mr. Gulen recognized that ignorance is the precursor to hatred, that when people are uneducated they are more prone to bigotry, more prone to being fooled into doing things that may be that if they had a greater sense of themselves and a better understanding of the world and an ability to improve their own lives—not only through their education but through the application of that education—that there would be much less tension in the world, much less acts of violence in the world. So, I do believe that education is fundamental.

Right here, in this town, in Houston, we have a professor by the name of Steven Kleinberg who has been doing a study of the social networks and the social context of the city for over thirty years.

He is quoted over and over again that, if we do not educate our kids to become the leaders of our future our future will be bleak. I believe that’s true.

I believe that Mr. Gulen saw that years and years ago and recognized that the way to bring society to its peak is to make certain that the society is well educated.

I’m impressed that the Movement goes all over world to try and provide education where education standards are not very high.

That is a very courageous and a very selfless thing to do. I commend the movement for that.

When Mr. Gulen was preaching earlier in his career, back in the 70s and the 80s, he was telling people that it is more important to build schools than to build mosques and that was probably a very different message than they were hearing from other imams.

They were probably hearing how important it is to build madrasas; they were probably hearing how important it is to build more mosques. I find myself to be actually right in the “and/and”. I do believe we have to build places of worship, I do believe we have to build places of religious education, but I also agree that if we educate ourselves in a very narrow scope we will not be able to take our rightful place in society and be the doctors, be the lawyers, be the teachers, be the businessmen, to create not only a better society for our own faith community but for community in general.

The more educated we are as a people, the faster we will grow our economies, the less stress there is among people, and the less need for people to feel as though they have to protect themselves against other people, the more likelihood there is of income distribution that is fair and equitable… These are things that I believe Mr. Gulen was trying to say back in the 70s and 80s and instruct his followers to be more broad in their thinking so that they can create a world—again, not just for Muslims—a world that is good for all people.

**Profile: President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. He has more than 30 year’s leadership experience in non-profit organizations. He worked as the Director of Philanthropy for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. He has Master’s degree in Counseling Education from Lehigh University.

*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!.
Source: Fikir Atlasi (Episode 45), © Spectra Media, 05 June 2014, Thursday