November 26, 2014

'Hizmet Movement has been tremendously effective in showing the true face of Islam'

Fikir Atlasi*, Episode 18 (Full text)

My name is Rabbi Reuven Firestone**. I am a professor of Jewish Studies and Islamic Studies at a Jewish seminary in Los Angeles. The name of the seminary is Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. And this college is on the campus of a very large, secular, private university; University of Southern California. So I teach about half of my courses to seminary students at Hebrew Union College. Those are people who are going to be rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community in America, and in some places abroad. And I'm also teaching half of my courses to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Southern California.

I'm also a co-partner in a center called the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, which is a center designed to present material that is accurate regarding the religion of the other. So if Jews want to know something about Islam, instead of listening to lies that are very often in the Internet, they can go to this site and get information. And also if Muslims want to learn something about Judaism and Jews, they can do the same.

About fifteen years ago, I was on a panel at the university, and one of the participants came up to me afterwards. There was a discussion about Judaism and Islam, on some issue of some sort. And he said to me, “oh, I'm a member of this movement, a student movement at the university, and you really should learn about us. I think you might find us an interesting movement. We found your presentation very interesting.” So that was fifteen years ago, and since then I've actually been involved, pretty actively, in the Movement. Not as a Movement member, but as a supporter.

I have read about Fethullah Gülen. Of course, I have never met him personally, but I've read some of his writings, and I have read some analytical articles about him that were written by people who were not members of the Hizmet Movement. And I know something about the controversy. Is he the real thing? Is he what he says he is? Is he what his supporters say he is? And my personal experience is that he really is the real thing. He has written about how important it is to have a religious grounding, but secular education. This is my personal background as well. He is in favor of engagement and dialog with people of other religious traditions. That's very important to him and the Movement. That's exactly important to me as a Jew who is grounded in my own tradition, and realizes and understands that it's critically important for religious people to reach out to people of other faith traditions, and other linguistic traditions, and other ethnic traditions, because we're all humans, and we all live in one world. We need to get to know one another better.

I have been to Hizmet programs, organizations, in Los Angeles, and in Atlanta, and in Texas, and in Colorado, and now I'm going to actually be in Istanbul for a project there. And I have found, really, it quite consistent, that they are concerned with making the world a better place. We live in a world that is full of fear. And a lot of fear in the West is fear of Muslims. The Hizmet Movement has been tremendously effective, in my opinion, in showing the true face of Islam. That it's a religious tradition that in many ways is no different than Judaism and Christianity. There are good people in the tradition, there are problematic people in the tradition, but the religion itself is a religion of great depth and beauty. That's a very important message.

I think the Hizmet Movement represents Islam very positively. I am a scholar of religion in the Academy. And as a scholar of religion in the Academy, my job is not to try to make a religion into what it is not, but to try to understand a religion in its full depth and breadth. And all of the monotheistic traditions include histories of persecution, in which they persecuted other communities. And all of the monotheistic traditions have also suffered persecution themselves. And so, we have a tendency, everyone, to judge the best of our own religion against the worst of the other religion. And that is a very common activity. It's a common program. And it's not good for us, and it's not good for the world.

One of the great contributions of Hizmet is to show a positive light of Islam, but not to deny that there have been histories of problems within a religious tradition, too. As a Jew, and as a religious scholar, and as an academic, all three things combined, I feel obligated to acknowledge that we have made errors in our past, as Jews. But our Jewish religious tradition is a beautiful tradition. And we need to mine it for the best that it has to offer to us, to make us the best citizens in the world that we can be. That's exactly the program that I see coming from the Hizmet movement; a way of understanding Islam in a manner that will promote good things for human beings, not only for Muslims, but for the world at large.

When I look at how other religious communities engage in dialog, I'm always comparing it to my own community. And I think that's important to do, because if we don't analyze the other using a similar methodology to the way we analyze the self, then we have a tendency to look at the other as too foreign. So I look at Muslim engagement in inter-religious dialog in relation to Jewish engagement in inter-religious dialog.

In my community, there are some people who say we should not be engaging in dialog with other religions, because there is a fear that those who engage in dialog are really trying to convert us. And we have a history of persecution as a minority religion in many parts of the world, so we're very sensitive to this. First of all, I don't see this happening at all with the Hizmet Movement. The Hizmet Movement, to me, is trying to present Islam positively, but not only that. This is something that's special about this Movement. They don't only want to present Islam positively; they genuinely want to learn about my tradition. Sometimes I go to a dialog program, and I see people talking about themselves, and valorizing themselves, telling us how good they are as a community, and how wonderful they are, but they don't ask me questions about my community. “What do you believe? What is your faith commitment? How do you engage in working with people outside of your community?” And that's not the kind of message I get from Hizmet. From Hizmet, I'm hearing them asking these questions. So I can imagine, because in the Jewish community, there's some people who say we should not engage in dialog, that there are also people in the Muslim community who say we should not engage in dialog. I believe it's very important to engage in dialog and not to be influenced by that position.

Education is extremely important, and when I say education, I mean a particular kind of education. There are examples of education where one learns bad things, when one learns things that are inaccurate or unfair, especially about others. And there's education that I call a kind of universal, ethical education, and that kind of education is important because we live in a world that is increasingly small. It's growing smaller and smaller as we come together, as different people on the same planet, and in the same countries, and in the same villages, and in the same cities. And we need to have an education where we learn to respect the other, and to learn to expect respect from the other as well. That's the important kind of education.

Now, I have not visited the Gülen schools, the Hizmet schools, but I have read about them, and I've read about the curriculum, and I've also read about some of the controversy that's associated with the schools. And I understand them to be schools that are very dedicated to a deep grounding in secular education, in science education, but the exposition of the education, the articulation of the education, is through a kind of ethical framework, that is framed by Islam, understood by the Hizmet Movement. And that, I think, is a very valuable contribution. So one is teaching values through example, and teaching knowledge through science.

Sometimes people ask the question about charitable engagement in other countries. We're all suffering from lack of resources to do all the things that we want to do in our communities. That's a reality. And so when resources are expended in other communities, some people complain. And they say, “We should be spending at home, and not spending abroad.” But when you engage in helping people in other countries, and in other communities, you're also an emissary, and you're representing a community yourself. So in the Jewish world, for example, we have a lot of charitable involvement where we engage in other countries, when we're allowed to do so and we can be welcome. That's a very good thing. Not only because we are helping other people in other countries, but we're bring people together to interact with one another. I think that's what Hizmet is doing as well. So I don't think that there's a problem with engaging in charitable activities in other countries. In fact, I think it's an important activity.

**Profile: Reuven Firestone is Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He received his doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies from New York University. He is the founder and director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California. Rabbi Firestone serves on numerous committees on interfaith relations and serves on the editorial boards of numerous scholarly publications. He teaches Introduction to Islam and Qur'an, Interreligious Dialog Theory and Practice, Jerusalem as Holy City.

*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 18), © Spectra Media, 22 April 2014, Tuesday

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