“The work of Gülen’s followers in Turkey shows that Islam—as taught by Gülen—seeks tolerance, not conflict; it aims for a better society, not political power; and it manifests itself in prayer and concrete local action.”
“As early as the eighteenth century, Goethe knew that the East and the West were inseparable. However, today’s society has not been able to fulfill Goethe’s dream, although plenty of time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Societies remain trapped in prejudices and stereotypes that strengthen the view of a separate East and West. European enlargement has made this even more pronounced and overwhelming. But fortunately, today there are voices in the world which inspire courage; voices which are not given due attention, voices which, nevertheless, have for years promoted a different world view and have successfully served people and the public good,” read the invitation to a Potsdam University conference about the renowned Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen and the movement named after him. The conference, titled “Muslims between tradition and modernity—the Gülen Movement as a bridge between cultures,” was jointly organized by the University of Potsdam’s Institute of Religion and the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, Berlin and was supported by the German Orient Institute, Abraham Geiger College, and the Protestant Academy of Berlin.
Attended by thirty-two academics who presented papers and about 500 observers from all over the world, the conference was the first of its kind in that it had no Turkish or Muslim scholars on its editorial board, which instead featured academics such as Professor Karl-Josef Kuschel from Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Professor Christina von Braun from Berlin’s Humboldt University, and Professor Markus Witte from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. Judging by this fact only, it may be said that the conference was a platform of outsiders looking at and discussing the Gülen Movement.
An outsider’s observations are always fruitful for a social movement, both when they are affirming and when they are critical. An outsider’s eye is the mirror where a social entity, whether it be an individual self or a collective personality, watches and re-defines its self. There were both admiring and critical presentations in the Potsdam Conference. Participants in the Gülen Movement must have recorded both the “commendations and condemnations” and will probably act to strengthen the former and correct the latter.
Strikingly there was a common point between the laudatory and critical presentations: both groups believed that the Gülen Movement offers the Western world a series of opportunities that should not be missed. Both affirmed that the principles of the Gülen Movement may help the Western world to deal with its problems, not only when they relate to Muslims, but also when they relate to the very roots of Western civilization. This point necessitates further discussion and may even open new “zones of activity” for the Gülen Movement and other similar Muslim social entities.
Professor Dr. Leonid R. Sykiainen, a professor of Islamic law and comparative legal studies as the State University–Higher School of Economics in Moscow, suggested, for example, that the Gülen dialogic approach should be adopted to the comparative study of Islamic and Western legal systems. Sykiainen claimed that at developed levels of dialogue the universal language of law should be utilized. “A comparative study of Islamic jurisprudence, which is on its own a magnificent art, should be one of the topics of a future Gülen conference,” he said. This call was important in the sense that it digressed from the established conference mode of “speaking about Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement” and suggested “speaking about a legal issue through the Gülen paradigm.”
A similar suggestion came from Professor Dr. Reverend Simon Robinson, a professor of applied and professional ethics at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, who underlined that the work of Gülen provides a basis for expanding the theory and practice of corporate responsibility. Robinson related the Gülen Movement’s sense of responsibility to the strong creation theology that develops a complex view of responsibility in terms of accountability, imputability, and moral liability. He observed how this core view of responsibility reinforces and validates plural responsibilities, including civil and global responsibility. “Hence, a conceptual bridge is established between religion, corporate responsibility, citizenship, and sustainability,” he said. Robinson called on the Gülen Movement to become involved more explicitly in the ongoing dialogue about global responsibility and to extend further the dialogue and practice of responsibility in business beyond its present networks to include, wherever possible, other faith networks and secular corporations.
Dr. Sylvia Powels-Niami, a lecturer in the Religious Studies and Jewish Studies departments of Potsdam University, claimed in her paper that with its focus on intercultural and interfaith dialogue, the Gülen Movement has assumed the important task of continuing the ancient Islamic dialectical tradition that gave birth to the development of Kalam as speculative theology by bringing reason and religion into harmony. Powels-Niami observed that the Gülen Movement’s activities are not only building bridges between the East and the West, faith and science but they have also the potential to revive the abandoned religious sciences of Islam and even develop new ones.
A suggestion for furthering Muslim–Christian–Jewish scholarly contacts and thus facilitating the emergence of new multi-disciplinary studies came from Professor Dr. Admiel Kosman, an organizer of the conference from Abraham Geiger College. Urging that the findings of the conference should be conveyed to the general public, Kosman suggested that a “joint study house” should be founded in either Berlin or in Istanbul where Muslim, Christian and Jewish texts and traditions can be studied and a new generation of imams, priests and rabbis can be educated with the kind of openness and tolerance Gülen promotes. Kosman was also the person who read the greeting letter which Fethullah Gülen sent to the conference.
In his letter Gülen reaffirmed his conviction that dialogue will bring about universal peace and the good nature of the human being is going to come to the fore sooner or later. “What we need to do in order to reach this hopeful day is to set off on the journey. In this journey, every single step is important and is worth respect and praise. On this way, each step has to be based on mutual respect and understanding and this is not true only for states and nations, but also for individuals. Leading this dialogue is not a duty that falls only on the shoulders of governments or governmental organs. In order to light this torch of respect and peace, voluntary services run by civil society and individuals are at least as important as official ones. Humanity needs people that will carry that torch,” Gülen wrote in his letter.
A paper that received much applause from the audience was that of Dr. Rainer Hermann, an academic and a journalist with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Dr. Hermann has been observing the Gülen Movement for more than ten years. He was the very first western intellectual to realize that the Gülen Movement did not offer an alternative to the secular-democratic system, but to the politicization of Islam. At Potsdam, Hermann skillfully placed the Gülen Movement on the social map of modern Turkey: “The Republic of Turkey is not a secular state with a separation between religion and state, but rather a laicist state whose elites have long attempted to banish religion from society. Indeed, the ruling Kemalist elites still believe that the moment a religion expands beyond the private domain, it must necessarily become political and impose a theocratic order upon the state and society. Fethullah Gülen deserves the credit for overturning these prejudices. Gülen has made Islam into a social force that has fuelled much of Turkey’s democratization and modernization. People, and not politics, form the focus of his sermons and ideas… All this is new for Turkey, where the official discourse has never focused on the individual, but rather on the perceived need to fight the motherland’s inner and outer foes to preserve national security,” he told the conference. “Gülen’s work has fostered a form of Islam in Turkey that lives in harmony with the West and modern ideas without sacrificing any precepts of its faith. The work of Gülen’s followers in Turkey shows that Islam—as taught by Gülen—seeks tolerance, not conflict; it aims for a better society, not political power; and it manifests itself in prayer and concrete local action,” he said.
Dr. Rainer Hermann focused on the activities of the Movement in Turkey only. Hermann had seven points for the audience: (1) the Gülen Movement is a social and apolitical movement; (2) Gülen is a modern Muslim who looks for a synthesis of Islam and science and of Turkish culture, a culture of dialogue and tolerance, and Western civilization; (3) Gülen has promoted science as a means to understand the creation and as a means to prosperity; (4) Gülen leaves no doubt that Islam and democracy are compatible; (5) Gülen’s interpretation of Islam fits to Europe; (6) Gülen owes his success to various reasons, including the elevated social position of preachers; (7) Fethullah Gülen makes a crucial contribution to the modernization of Turkey.
Hermann was not the only one who expressed appreciation of the work of the Gülen Movement. Dr. Bekim Agai of Halle University, Germany, told the audience that thanks to the activities of the Gülen Movement, Turkish migrants in Europe are no longer a part of the problems of Europe, but are problem solvers, and not only on issues relating to the migrants themselves. Ercan Karakoyun, a PhD candidate at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, and a participant in the Gülen Movement himself, informed the audience about the activities of the Movement in Germany and the contribution these activities have made to the integration of Turkish migrants into the general German society.
A controversial paper was presented by Swedish academician Dr. Klas Grinell. Though he accepted that the Gülen Movement is not engaged in party politics and is not attempting to gain political power, Grinell claimed that the Movement has a political stance: “This Movement supports democracy, human rights and EU membership for Turkey. This is a political position,” he said. Grinell said that having studied Gülen textually he regards Gülen as a conservative leader. But on the other hand he named Gülen as a perfect match for decolonial political theory. “Gülen is looking for dignity from within and not from outside when it comes to producing knowledge,” he said. This is a revolutionary position in epistemology indeed. Grinell had no explanation for labeling Gülen as both a conservative and a revolutionary, but his contribution underlined the fact that the Gülen Movement should not be studied in reference to the Jesuits, Opus Dei, or the Focolare Movement. If decoloniality is a party of Gülen’s revolutionary epistemology, it should be studied in reference to its own dynamics only. This should be the theme of a future conference.
Thus, the conference ended with the clear conviction that further studies need to be done on the Gülen Movement and on the solutions it proposes for the problems of the modern world. Though several questions were left untouched, the conference was a great success in the sense that it not only clarified certain reservations of the participants, but it also managed to reach the general public through media attention to the issue.
Kerim Balci is a columnist at Today’s Zaman, a leading English newspaper published in Turkey. He is also a PhD candidate on Philosophy of Language, Durham University, UK.