Transforming Altruism from Selfish into Sacrificial: How Reciprocity with God Inspires Extraordinary Service in the Hizmet Movement

2014 Graduate Winner of the Hizmet Essay Contest


In the Mindanao region in the Philippines, Turkish schoolteachers unify classes of Christians and Moro Muslims in an area where years of Muslim-Christian conflict erupt in frequent kidnapping and guerrilla warfare1 . In Depok, Indonesia, about 70% of alumni of Pribadi High School, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have volunteered to teach for their alma mater. Yet many of these graduates have prestigious educational backgrounds that could afford them better paying jobs2 . What could drive these individuals to sacrifice their time, prestigious career potential, economic gain, and even their security? To explain sacrificial behavior that is not ultimately self-benefiting, we must consider what these individuals share philosophically. They are all members of the Hizmet movement and followers of the teachings of Fethullah Gülen.

  1. Fethullah Gülen was born in eastern Anatolia in Ezurum in 1938. He became an official preacher in 1953, and in 1966 was sent to İzmir to teach religious courses at Kestanepazari Quranic School3 . Gülen established summer camps that taught religion and classical Islamic knowledge as well as biology, history, and other secular subjects4 . Gülen focused on establishing religious educations for public schools through the 1970s, but expanded the vision to include higher education in 19785 . Hizmet became transnational following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which allowed the movement to expand into Central Asia and the Caucasus6 . Gülen inspires his followers to make extraordinary sacrifices of service by adjusting humanity’s typical expectations about altruism. Human naturally take a selfish view of altruism, expecting to be repaid in full for their favors by the humans they help. Gülen instead points humanity towards sacrificial altruism, in which humans are already obligated to reciprocate the goodness of life bestowed by God. Since all humans equally owe God this service towards other humans, all people have a duty to behave altruistically without consideration of the return on their investment. Hizmet members thereby are capable of making extraordinary sacrifices to spread the freedom from poverty, freedom from ignorance, and freedom to believe.
  2. Selfish Altruism Relies on Reciprocity with Humans

All living things have basic instincts, which in humans we might call “needs” or “desires.” We need to eat, to sleep, to move, to find shelter, to survive. If an individual responds to these needs, they will survive another day. They will also be able to teach their offspring to behave in the same manner. Altruism initially seems contrary to fulfilling the needs of the individual. Social psychologist C. Daniel Bateson defines such altruism “a desire within one organism to increase the welfare of another might be said to be “selfish” altruism in the sense that it is ultimately intended to promote one’s own success. Behavioral scientist Brant Wenegrat argues that true reciprocal altruism can only function in small, tight groupsThis is because individuals have to remember everyone who has received and reciprocated their altruistic actions7 . This form of altruism does not explain instances of charity towards individuals who have no capacity to reciprocate the action, due to their distance, anonymity, disability, or economic poverty in respect to the altruistic actor. This concept also cannot explain why some humans continue to seek the welfare of others, even when those others treat them with indifference or even contempt. Altruistic acts that do not expect or rely upon reciprocity for their continuation will hereafter be referred to as “sacrificial altruism.”

  1. Sacrificial Altruism Relies on Reciprocity with God

Fethullah Gülen recognized that the most powerful and life-changing altruistic acts must not expect reciprocity from the beneficiaries. Regarding those he calls People of Heart, Gülen writes, “They tolerate others’ faults. They respond with a smile to the misbehavior of others and with good deeds to mistreatment, and never consider breaking the heart of anyone, even if their own hearts have been broken fifty times.8 ” Humans should behave altruistically because they already owe a debt to God for bestowing life and all of its goodness upon them. Gülen writes, “[T]he worldly life should be used in order to earn the afterlife and to please the One who has bestowed it. The way to do so is to seek to please God and, as an inseparable dimension of it, to serve immediate family members, society, country, and all of humanity, accordingly. This service is our right, and sharing it with others is our duty.9 ”

Therefore, altruistic acts are ultimately a contribution towards a reciprocal exchange between all humans and God, rather than between givers and their beneficiaries. The term “contribution” is used because humans obviously cannot fully reciprocate the gift of life. Gülen constructs his argument for a reciprocal relationship with God using basic precepts that can be accepted by any religion. To emphasize this universality, these precepts will be derived logically through a simple thought experiment. If God desires only the suffering of humans, He would have created all of humanity already in a state of eternal torment. Instead, humans are created in a state where they have the potential to alleviate suffering, but are not obligated to do so. What we call “goodness” can be fairly intuitively defined as actions that increase human welfare. Griffith and Saritoprak note that the Islamic view of God describes Him as good through the basmala, a phrase that begins all but one of the Qur’an’s surahs and describes God as “the Compassionate and Merciful10 . Yet Gülen identifies many aspects of goodness human welfare that are present in all religions.

He writes, “Regardless of how their adherents implement their faith in their daily lives, such generally accepted values as love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom are all values exalted by religion. Most of these values are accorded the highest precedence in the messages brought by Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, upon them be peace, as well as in the messages of Buddha and even Zarathustra, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and the Hindu prophets.11”

One might argue that, if God does not desire human suffering, He should have created all of humanity already in paradise. Yet without the capacity to choose to do evil, humans are not really free to choose to do good. Gülen explains, “Being free and enjoying freedom are a significant depth of human willpower and a mysterious door through which man may set forth into the secrets of the self. One unable to set forth into that depth and unable to pass through that door can hardly be called human.” 12 Moreover, such humans would not be capable of truly reciprocating the goodness granted by a good God because they would have no concept or capacity for the alternative. These are not reflections of God, who knows the difference between good and evil, but rather mindless slaves. Gülen calls humans “the greatest mirror of the names, attributes, and deeds of God.”13 They express “ the nature of the All-Powerful One Who is behind everything…”14

Conflict, fear, ignorance, violence, starvation, and other ills can restrict both the ability of people to know how they should behave and their willpower to enact those behaviors. As previously stated, a person must have a choice between good and evil in order to really make a choice between these paths. Gülen elaborates,

“In circumstances in which restrictions have been imposed on reading, thinking, feeling, and living, it is impossible to retain one’s human faculties, let alone achieve renewal and progress…In such conditions there exist only weak characters who experience deviations in their personalities and men of sluggish souls and paralyzed senses.”15

However, Gülen cautions that we have only really helped people achieve freedom when they understand that the good choice is best. Those who are freed to make a choice and select evil actions due to their ignorance are not really free. Gülen notes,

“Those who regard freedom as absolute liberty confuse human freedom with animal freedom. Animals have no moral questions asked of them and so are free of moral constraints…True freedom, however, the freedom of moral responsibility, shows that one is human, for it motivates and enlivens the conscience and removes impediments to the spirit.”16

The consequences of these actions will generate circumstances that decrease their welfare and enslave their will once again. Gülen accordingly says of worldly people, “They live their lives as if they were slaves who can never accept freedom from their corporeal and bodily feelings.”17 If people increase the capacity of others to choose good or evil and people do not choose goodness, it does not mean that good actions have been in vain. First, these individuals may come to choose goodness with time when they see its benefit for others. Second, by increasing goodness in the world, people also increase goodness in themselves because they are continually resisting their instinct to be selfish in the absence of equal or apparent reciprocity.

III. Replacing Selfish Altruism with Sacrificial Altruism

Selfish altruism views actions as creating a debt with humans, while sacrificial altruism views actions as repaying a debt to God. Sacrificial altruism has more power to improve human welfare because it does not expect repayment or even gratitude from the recipients of the actions. Sacrificial altruism therefore falls under Gülen’s concept of hizmet, or service to other humans18 . Kalyoncu identifies five core concepts that Gülen uses to teach his followers how to obtain the worldview of hizmet.

Gaye-I Hayal (purpose of one’s life) refers to humans having a purpose of bringing pleasure to the Creator by serving those He has created.19 Since the default behavior of humanity is to behave selfishly, adherence to non-selfish ideals preserves a one’s progress away from this corporeal weakness. Gülen explains, “A human can preserve his or her well-being only with high ideals, goals and his or her constant struggle and action to achieve those goals. Just like inactive materials that gradually corrode, human generations without ideals and goals, and hence inactive, are destined to be dispersed.” 20 Diğergamlik (altruism) empowers humans to fight their selfish instincts by banding together in collective action. Gülen explains, “Every plan and project for individual revival without a motivation for collective revival and vice versa is nothing but wishful thinking.”21 The third concept of Mes’uliyet Duygusu (sense of personal responsibility) is what initially mobilizes people to come together as collectives in order to fulfill their personal responsibility to humanity.22

Adanmişlik ruhu (the spirit of devotion) refers to complete devotion to human service in order to bring pleasure to God, without expectation of any return23. This concept most clearly highlights the division between sacrificial altruism and selfish altruism. Gülen elaborates, “In the reckonings and plans of those dedicated to seeking God’s pleasure, the concepts of cost, benefit, labor, revenue, wealth, and comfort on which many worldly people put great emphasis have absolutely no significance. These concepts never constitute a criterion.”24 One’s himmet (personal commitment) of resources or time is proportional to one’s care for the project, rather than an expected return25 .

Gönül İnsam (the person of heart) reinforces the concept that willingness for hizmet should not falter based on the outcome of that service. Gülen explains, “A person of heart constantly struggles with himself or herself. Since such people are always busy seeking their faults and fallacies, they do not seek to find others’ faults and fallacies. They tolerate others’ faults.”26 He elaborates, “All their acts and attitudes are controlled and supervised. Everything they do, they do as if it were to be presented for His inspection…their greatest source of power is their awareness of their own weakness, inability, and poverty before Him…”27 Since a person of heart recognizes their reciprocal relationship with God, rather than others, they identify and repair weaknesses in their own approach to service rather than blaming those who receive service.

1. The Three Freedoms of Hizmet

Gülen teaches that humans must have the freedom to choose goodness in order to do good. This essay highlights three types of freedom created by the Hizmet movement. First, Hizmet gives people the freedom from poverty through the provision of aid and emergency relief. Second, Hizmet gives different ethnic, religious, and political groups in conflict the freedom from ignorance through educational opportunities. Third, Hizmet provides people with the freedom to believe through encouraging interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.

2. Freedom from Poverty

Poverty, starvation, and disaster can strip individuals both of the opportunity and the willpower to behave morally28 . Hizmet groups have organized massive aid campaigns, both within their communities and between international segments of the movement. In 1998, the Australian Turkish community worked with PASIAD Indonesia to send donations of frozen meat to poor Indonesians during Eid-ul-Adha29. Hizmet also distributed meat to 2,000 Kurdish families during Eid in 2008, along with free health checks30 . The Turkish Cultural Centre in Singapore coordinated assistance Turkey after the 1999 earthquake in Turkey31 . PASIAD Indonesia similarly coordinated relief work after Aceh tsunami by rebuilding schools and houses, assisting in healthcare, and providing food32 .

3. Freedom from Ignorance

Gülen recognizes that people must be taught both that service is good and that service does not exclude groups based on ethnic, religious, or political background. He writes of violent individuals, “There must have been something wrong with their education …In short, the raising of human beings was not given priority. In the meantime, some generations have been lost, destroyed, and wasted.”33 Hizmet schools cut ethnic and religious division at the root by combining children from these opposing groups in one school.

Gülen also realizes that those who wish to serve must be equipped with the secular tools and skills to make their service valuable to the world. He criticizes the traditional Islamic madrasas and takyas because they do not provide students with the science and technology skills necessary to contribute to the modern world34 . Gülen writes that Islam is “the ‘middle way’ of absolute balance – balance between materialism and spiritualism, between rationalism and mysticism, between worldliness and excessive asceticism, between this world and the next…”35 He views modern science and technology as tools that humanity can use to improve human welfare and thereby please the creator. He specifically highlights the obligation of humans to serve as “vicegerents” or managers of earth by “understanding the mysteries within things and the cause of natural phenomena, and therefore being able to interfere in nature.”36 Secular subjects can also help students to understand the relevance of religion to their daily lives. Gülen writes, “The best sort of knowledge to be acquired in the school must be such that enables pupils to connect happenings in the outer world to their inner experiences.”37

Kalyoncu provides a detailed case study of Hizmet educational activities in the city of Mardin on the border with Syria. This region contains ethnic Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Assyrian Christians38. Turkish security clashes with the Kurdish PKK and Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah since the early 1980s have left the region insecure, structurally damaged, and economically deprived. All ethnic and religious groups shared the common problem of youth recruitment to the PKK and Hezbollah, continuing the cycle of terror and poverty. Hizmet has reduced this youth attrition through four programs39 . Sur Dersanesihas prepared youth for the national university entrance exam since 1992, and has expanded into four courses in the surrounding counties of Kiziltepe, Derik, Nusaybin, and Midyat. Atak Koleji has served as a private elementary through high school since 1996. Located halfway between Kiziltepe (and ethnic Kurdish stronghold) and the city center of Mardin (an ethnic Arab stronghold), this school caters to all ethnic groups and includes Assyrian Christians40. MOSDER, the Mardin Reading Halls Association, can be found even in the impoverished and heavily PKK-sympathetic Dargeςit province, which does not even have a bank. These centers provide a study space and textbooks for the national university entrance exam and keeps students off the streets and away from terrorist recruitment41. These educational facilities are all coordinated by MARKOYDER, the Mardin Village Development Association, which has contacted 150 villages to convince them to send their children, especially girls, to school42. The cooperation of Turks, Arabs, and Kurds in running these programs has decreased Turk-Kurd conflict and thereby removed some public support for the terrorist PKK43 .

Political scientist Harun Akyol notes a similar reduction of ethnic conflicts through education in northern Iraq. The Kurdish national movement in this area causes security concerns for Turkey, both due to the PKK and the potential of an independent Kurdish state to separate eastern Turkey44 . At the time of writing, Hizmet had twelve schools in this area under the Fezalar Educational Institute, ranging from nursery school to university level. FEI expanded into Kurdish regions even during the civil war of 1994 – 199845. FEI is especially important for the linguistic development of Kurdish youths, who increasingly do not learn Arabic. FEI schools provide Turkish, English, Arabic, and Kurdish so that students have to fluency to talk and cooperate with those of different ethnicities46 .

Ethnicities are similarly combined at Gülen school in Skopje, Macedonia, while Muslim Bosnians, Christian Serbs, and Christian Croats learn together at schools in Bosnia47 . In Kenya, Muslims are a minority compare to local Christian tribes. Hizmet schools provide the secular subjects lacking in Christian missionary schools and Islamic schools48. Light Academy was opened in 1998 through cooperation between Turks and local Kenyans. By 2007, this school was ranked second among about 5,000 private schools in Kenya 49 .

Hizmet is also very active in southeast Asia, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar50. PASIAD , the Society for Social and Economic Solidarity with Pacific Countries, arranges trade beween Turkish and Asian businessmen and also distributes their donations to Asian Hizmet schools51 . Moro Muslims are a minority in the Philippines and are concentrated in the autonomous region of Mindanao. Moro call themselves Muslim nationalists and have struggled both against Spanish colonialism and current attempts at assimilation by the Christian majority52. Kidnapping and armed conflict are common. The Phillipine-Turkish School of Tolerance at Zamboanga educates Muslim and Christian children under one roof to prevent them from being influenced by local terrorist groups53 .

Indonesia differs from the Philippines, and Cambodia because Muslims are the majority. Proponents of a radical Islamist state have emerged since President Suharto’s fall in 1998. Christian and Muslim conflict has cost thousands of lives and propagated increasing divisions between Muslims54 . Pribadi High School in Depok started with 15 poor and rural students, but now enrolls 2,000 students. About 10% of students are non-Muslim, and about 20% of scholarships are awarded to non-Muslims55 . Aceh Faith School was established in 2005 following the tsunami. The Acehnese have sought independence from Indonesia since 1953, stirring conflict with Javanese and Batak people also living in Aceh. The combination of these ethnicities at the Aceh school holds promise for the resolution of these old conflicts56 .

4. Freedom to Believe

Hizmet schools, cultural centers, and business organizations also expand the religious tolerance taught in schools to an adult audience. The Ramadan dinner held in 1994 by the Güleninspire Journalist and Writer’s Foundation included membrs of different faith and was the first of its kind in Turkey57 . The foundation next began Abant platforms in 1998 to discuss sensitive and controversial Turkish issues58 . Hizmet also pioneered meetings in Turkey with Pope John Paul II (1998), Greek Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (1996), and Sepharadic Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi Doron (1999)59. European Hizmet centers include the Turkish Irish Educational and Cultural Society (TIECS), Belfast Ireland (NITECA), Interfaith Dialogue Society in Brighton, England, and Dialogue Society in London, England60. TIECS held conferences in 2005 at University College Dublin and in 2006 at Trinity College Dublin to celebrate the Abrahamic Religions and address European misunderstandings of Islamic views61 . TIECS also hosts annual interfaith fast-breaking dinners at Ramadan like the Journalist and Writer’s Foundation62 .

The Hizmet Turkish Cultural Centre (TCC) in Singapore similarly organizes an annual iftar dinner during Ramadan. Non-Muslim attendees include Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Sikhs, some of whom have served as speakers or the master of ceremonies63 . Iftar was previously seen as an exclusively Muslim event, but now other Muslim organizations and mosques are inviting non-Muslims to their own iftar dinners64 . PASIAD Indonesia similarly organizes annual iftar dinners, inviting Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders65 . To promote unity between different Muslim ideologies, PASIAD Indonesia organizes Halalbihalal functions where Indonesian Muslims seek forgiveness from one another at the end of fasting66 . Improvement in intra-Muslim relations can be clearly seen in the willingness of a leader of the conservative Islamic party PKS to accompany Hizmet to an interreligious symposium in Moscow in 2006 67 .

5. Conclusion

The risk of any sacrificial altruism is that the beneficiary, once freed, will not choose to do good. This risk is especially high with populations bearing deep wounds from long histories of ethnic and religious tensions. Yet by shunning violence and promoting education, Hizmet has succeeded in teaching people how to talk to each other. Perhaps this shows that, although humans are by nature selfish, in the spirit we may all have a sense of the service we owe to God.


1 Kalyoncu, 2010. p. 287, 2 Osman, 2010. p. 304, 3 Lorasdaği, 2007. p. 154, 4 Lorasdaği, 2007. p. 154

5 Lorasdaği, 2007. p. 156, 66 Kalyoncu 2008, p. 3, 7 Wenegrant, 1990. p 10., 8 Gülen, 2000a,

9 Gülen, 2004b. p. 116, 10 Griffith and Saritoprak 2005. p. 335, 11 Gülen, 2000c. p. 4. 12 Gülen, 2005b. pp. 38 – 39.

13 Gülen, 2004b. p. 112, 14 Gülen, 2004b. p. 116, 15 Gülen, 2005b. p. 39, 16 Gülen, 2000c. p. 55,

17 Gülen, 2005b. p. 135, 18 Kalyoncu, 2008. p.20,  19 Kalyoncu, 2008. p.20, 20 Gülen, 1998a. p. 85,

21 Gülen 1998a, p. 128, 22 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 28, 23 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 37. 24 Gülen, 2011. p. 37

25 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 57, 26 Gülen, 2005a, p. 1, 27 Gülen, 2005b., p. 89, 28 Gülen, 2005b. p. 39,

29 Osman 2010, p. 302, 30 Akyol, 2010, p. 327, 31 Osman 2010, p. 295, 32 Osman, 2010. p. 302,

33 Gülen, 2004a. p. 6 – 7, 34 Michel, 2005. p. 359, 35 Gülen, 1995, 36 Gülen, 2004b. p. 122,

37 Gülen, 1998b, pp. 99 – 100, 38 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 274, 39 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 275, 40 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 276-9

41 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 280, 42 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 281, 43 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 281, 44 Akyol, 2007. p. 315,

45 Akyol, 2007. p. 318, 46 Akyol, 2007. p. 326, 47 Esposito, 2010. p. 13 – 14, 48 Esposito, 2010. p. 14,

49 Kalyoncu, 2010. p.285, 50 Bruckmayr, 2010. p. 226, 51 Osman, 2007. p. 338, 52 Kalyoncu, 2010. p. 287.

53 Michel, 2003. p. 69, 54 Osman, 2010. p. 300, 55 Osman, 2010. p. 301, 56 Osman, 2010. p. 304,

57 Kalyoncu, 2008. p. 5, 58 Osman, 2010. p. 297, 59 Esposito, 2010. p. 11., 60 Lacey, 2010. p. 261,

61 Lacey, 2010. p. 263, 62 Lacey, 2010. p. 263, 63 Osman, 2010. p. 296, 64 Osman, 2010. p. 297,

65 Osman, 2010. p. 306, 66 Osman, 2010 p. 305, 67 Osman, 2010. P. 305


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