July 17, 2016

Turkish coup, Gulen and Hizmet

George Browning*

In April 2012 Margaret and I spent a fortnight in the company of the Islamic community in Turkey. We travelled 3000kms from Istanbul to Canakkale-Gallipoli, Troy, Izmir, Bursa, Menisa, Iznik and back to Istanbul. We met with Mayors, Governors, Business leaders, Vice Chancellors, Police Chiefs, MPs and Religious leaders. Our party included Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, an Assistant Police Commissioner, a Parliamentarian, and a senior journalist with Fairfax Publishing.

We were specifically guests of a movement called Hizmet or ‘service’ which has developed from the teachings of a contemporary Islamic teacher, scholar and spiritual guide, Fethullah Gülen. Gülen was born in 1941 in the north east of Turkey. He has been a preacher and teacher since 1959. He was a contemporary and partner of the Turkish President but now is seen by him as his mortal foe. In 1999, on medical advice, he moved to the United States where he currently resides in Pennsylvania. His teachings are marked by emphasis upon democracy, the engagement of religion with science, interfaith dialogue and non-violence. The movement is dedicated to altruistic service with a significant focus on education. Education is considered the greatest gift that can be given another, gifting them with freedom within the communities to which they belong and ultimately leading to a more harmonious world. Almost certainly the schools and universities of the Gülen movement were considered a threat to the President who seeks autocratic control. An educated people are always a threat to an autocrat.

If this very brief background to Gülen and Hizmet is accurate, and I believe it to be so, it goes part way to explain why Gülen and Hizmet are experiencing the ire of President Erdogan and being specifically blamed for the failed coup last weekend.

At this stage the identity of the plotters is unknown. Gülen has not only fiercely denied any involvement but has called for an international investigation so that the truth might come out. Gülen and his movement espouse non-violence and therefore involvement, let alone leadership of the coup attempt, would be a denial of the fundamental premise of their organisation.

The fact that the coup has been used as a pretext to disband the judiciary and arrest senior military personnel who were not involved in the coup throws suspicion on the president for orchestrating an excuse to justify a frightening agenda.

Turkey had been pursuing a secular agenda. The president has taken Turkey away from this path, leading it on a much more dangerous ‘theocratic’ path without the checks and balances one would except in a modern democracy. The Imams are paid by the state and it is not surprising that the President can command their loyalty.

Gülen and his followers are devout Muslims, but their insistence on education, the sciences, democracy and interfaith dialogue is clearly not appreciated by Erdogan and his followers who seek an identity in which there is no room for ‘liberality’.

With the continuing and inevitable decline of American power and influence, Australia must, in its own right, decide how it is to converse with the rest of the world, not least with the Islamic world. This is an important conversation and political dialogue must be undergirded by a religious conversation between Christianity and Islam. It is likely that Erdogan will want to put pressure on countries like Australia who host a significant Turkish Diaspora, to clamp down on the freedoms enjoyed by the Gülen movement overseas. Such pressure should be strongly resisted as should pressure on America to extradite Gülen back to Turkey be resisted.

Islam will have a major influence on the direction of the planet this century. Whether that influence is characterised by the violence and abuse we have come to associate with Al Qaeda and Daesh or whether it is to be characterised by movements such as that directed by Gülen and taught by Hizmet is not simply up to Islam. It is also up to the West. Will we take the time to be in conversation with those whose influence we need to understand and encourage, or will we abandon those who have courageously tried to extend inclusive and non-violent values to the Islamic world and are now in danger paying a very high price?

* ​Retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, and Chairman of the Christians for an Ethical Society.

Published on the author's blog, 17 July 2016, Sunday