Gülen movement raises a new renaissance generation
There is a different dimension to Gülen that arouses excitement. Gülen’s words are turned into action in the practical world by a community of action,” says Dr. B. Jill Carroll. On a book-signing visit to Turkey for her new book about the Gülen movement titled, “A Dialogue of Civilizations: Gülen’s Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse,” Carroll is pleased with the interest that her short 120-page book has aroused. She regards her book as a continuation of the dialogue initiated by Gülen himself. While explaining that she establishes a dialogue between an atheist like Sartre and a believer like Gülen on the basis of a sense of responsibility, Carroll states that this is just a text-based effort aiming to establish a dialogue which needs to take place in this world.
Carroll continues: “We today have atheists and believers, and we’re destined to share this planet together. How will atheists and believers live together? So, I didn’t want to finish that book without a textual dialogue between Gülen and an atheist.”
Jill Carroll has been the director of The Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, situated in Houston, Texas, for a long time. Carroll, who gives lectures on the history of thought at the university, has found in Gülen philosophies similar to those of some philosophers of ethics ranging from Plato and Confucius to Kant and Sartre. The inner consistency of the movement, the faith in love that is fundamental to the nature of human beings and the commitment to future-oriented action have enabled her to observe a version of an embodied utopia. Carroll’s experience is a warning for those who have an internal view of the movement and it is also a guide for those with an external view of it. The first virtue that Carroll learnt from the Gülen movement was patience, and she patiently answered our long and successive questions.
In what context did you encounter the Gülen movement and how did this context influence your understanding of it?
I was directing a center for religious tolerance at Rice University at the time. I think that position is what put me on the radar of the community there in Houston, Texas. That explains why I was invited to come to Turkey in the first place.
So, I guess the starting point is interfaith. That formed the glasses, if you will, or the frames through which I looked at the movement. The interfaith angle is what started me into it and continues to be the context in which I assess and experience the movement. I was interested to see how these Muslims, these Turkish Muslims, deal with people from other faiths. These are Muslims who are obviously committed, pious and observant. How do they interact with people from other faiths? So, I was observing this and just trying to see if their activity, their actions matched their words, and they did.
Let us come back to your internal context: Your previous education and studies should have a say in how you perceived the movement. In fact, in your book you put Gülen in a dialogue with Confucius, Sartre and Plato. This relates to your internal context.
For 20 years at the university I have mostly taught courses that are broadly historical, like the history of intellectual thought. We call these classes in America “from Plato to NATO.” You develop a capacity to see broad themes across centuries, across cultures from China to Africa. When I first began to read the ideas of Mr. Gülen, I immediately sought connections. I sought points of connection between his ideas from a Muslim Turkish context and those of Confucius or those of Sartre on certain key issues. It is because of my own training and my teaching experience that I seek things in this way. I am a generalist; I am someone who easily sees the forest. Other people are oriented to see the trees and leaves and the tiny details.
In Gülen you found somebody from a tradition that is not your own thinking in ways that do not belong to his own tradition. What does this mean to a generalist like you?
It is very exciting because in someone like Gülen you not only find the thinker who is thinking the thoughts of Plato but within a Muslim context or saying the words of Confucius but as his own. There is that, but there is also this community of activism that is bringing these things to life in the practical world. It is one thing to be a philosopher; it is another thing to be an activist, and it was weird to find those two things in one man.
You have already had the Platonic dialogue as a theory in your mind. What is different in the Gülen movement’s dialogic activities?
I think the dialogue that we see in the movement of people inspired by Gülen is more similar to not what Socrates or Plato did, but what Aristotle did. Aristotle in his school encouraged his students to dialogue with the world, to engage the world, to get outside of the comfortable environment and learn about others and educate themselves in that way. That comes close in spirit to what this community and Mr. Gülen is speaking about. I think the term dialogue is a very rich and very pregnant term in the way that Gülen speaks of it. The emphasis on education itself, it is a part of this dialogue. Education, by definition, means that you dialogue with ideas that you’ve never heard of before. You engage with notions, concepts, theories and perspectives that are foreign to you, and you open yourself to them. You broaden yourself to receive them, and to learn from them. So, by definition, education is dialogue. The emphasis on the schools, the blending of the spiritual values with science and knowledge, is a kind of dialogue that takes it beyond what most people think of.
There is another mode of dialogue that has to do with overall engagement with the world. This is important because it is coming from a spiritual tradition. With Mr. Gülen there is a kind of Sufism overlay. He is not a Sufi sheikh; there is not a brotherhood. But there is a Sufi overlay, and many religions have these traditions where the real spiritual leaders separate from the world. They go and live out by themselves in the forest, in a cave or in the desert. But Gülen says: “OK, there is paradise and we must think eternally, but we do that best by engaging with the world.” This is a dialogue with the world through business, through community, through service, through contribution and being in the world and improving it and contributing to it. So, all of these things, I think, play a role in this overall definition of dialogue. That’s why I saw it as a very pregnant term.
Do you foresee a future that this dialogue will lead to a new way of thinking, a new renaissance, maybe? Can this lead to a new generation of Aristotles being born?
I think that it can. You already see Gülen articulating this new ideal person, this renaissance person. Sometimes you see Gülen say that I’m writing this book or this message, but it is not for today’s readers, it is for the readers 25 years from now. He’s very future oriented, and the idea is that there is a kind of humanity that we’re building. This is a new humanity of people that whatever their identity is, they also have this capacity to be global. This is going to be a renaissance person in a new way. This person is proficient in many different things, comfortable in multiple environments, not threatened by other people’s identity, not threatened by other people’s belief, comfortable, empowered, willing to work, able to work. That’s the new humanity, and I think we see it in business, in education, in communication, we see it in many places. I think it can create a whole new way of living and being.
People who built their identities on threat perception will be threatened by this movement. How do you observe their responses?
I think it’s true to say that in many instances we found our identity over other identities. I don’t think it is the monopoly of the West. I think we see this throughout the world and throughout history. Strong identities have been created by identifying others as a threat and saying we must come together to fight them. I’m thinking of the thought of the very famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who speaks about the I-thou relationship acknowledging that there is difference, that we are different people and yet there is a quality of relationship that can be ahead. I think the failure of the West on this is not so much a failure of the Enlightenment values or liberal values. It’s a failure to achieve them. Modernity is an achievement, and we have failed to achieve it. We have to acknowledge the failure to live up to these values and see why we’ve failed. This is where I think Gülen is right: “We sacrificed our understanding of human beings on the altar of science and technology.” There are plenty of resources from the multiple religious and philosophical traditions to rehabilitate this relationship between the “I” and the “other.” We just have to take advantage of them.
Some people here didn’t like your comparison between Sartre and Gülen. How do you see this criticism and the fact that you find similarities between Sartre and Gülen?
I know that the term humanism is problematic. This is why I spent a few pages at the beginning of my book explaining my use of that term and putting this term in its proper historical context. The term “secular humanism” has a very short history, only a few hundred years. Humanism, on the other hand, has a history of 2,500 years. You have humanists who are non-theistic, but you also have pietistic humanists. Al-Gazzali was a humanist. Gülen, I argue, is a humanist. He’s a pietistic humanist. He’s saying because Allah/God has made us the way we’re made, we must be God’s deputies or vicegerents in the world. God has made us to take responsibility for the world. Sartre, as a secular humanist, says there is no God; whatever happens in the world is because we’ve done it. Therefore, we must take responsibility. Coming from completely different perspectives, both of them end up in this moment of saying we, as human beings, must take responsibility for the world. The bottom line is this: Sartre was an atheist; Gülen is a believer. We today have atheists and believers, and we’re destined to share this planet together. How will atheists and believers live together? So, I didn’t want to finish that book without a textual dialogue between Gülen and an atheist.
What is the message of Gülen’s sense of responsibility to the pop culture generation?
I think the message to this pop culture world has to be one of being awakened. Wake up! To wake up to your humanity and in pop culture, it involves becoming awake to how we’re manipulated by advertising, by targeted marketing, by music, by art, by all these fashion trends; how we are reduced, especially in the West, to being consumers. We are walking wallets and we are manipulated and we don’t realize that we are being manipulated. So, the message of Gülen is “Be awake.”
In Gülen, we find a sense of responsibility that is actually surpassing the self. Don’t you find this caring about the other to the extent of forgetting the self a utopian one?
It can be utopian, but I don’t see them in contradiction. I don’t see a contradiction because Gülen is in the language of altruism, service, voluntary servicing and self-giving. There can be no self-giving if there is no self to give. The self to give must be a self worth giving, a self that when given, blesses the world. So there actually is a great deal of emphasis on self-cultivation in the spiritual community of Gülen. This is a kind of self-giving that can come on the basis of a very carefully cultivated self that is strong enough to give, to give it all and expect nothing in return.
Well, it clearly contradicts the materialist culture. Living in this materialistic world didn’t it come to you that this is too good to be true?
Yes, yes, I kept thinking, I kept saying those exact words. This can’t be true, this can’t be real. There must be a catch. I was suspicious because I’m cynical. We live in a world in which people take advantage of others and people can pretend to be one thing, but in that being something else, especially in religion. So, I was very suspicious. But by the time I had visited the community in over 40 cities in eight countries, I see it is consistent. Even though it is very decentralized, I see that it is very consistent. So, I believe it. I think it is real.
What about a secret political agenda? There are those who claim that education and business activities will lead to political power in the end.
By definition, being humanistic means being engaged in the world of humans. This is not a separatist, otherworldly movement focused on the eternal. It’s a movement focused on now, on building the world for now, for today. So, in that sense, yes it is a broadly humanistic vision which includes impact in the social political realm. That is not to say, though, that Gülen and the movement have some sort of sinister secret plan to overthrow. I don’t see it as anything remotely like an ideology that wants to take over, that has the ambition to take over politically. Instead, it is a movement creating a certain kind of person who will be living and active in the world.
You said that you think the term “movement” is a problematic term.
Yes, I don’t like it.
Wouldn’t “school of thought” work?
I think it’s creating a school of thought. I mean it is a way of being. It’s a paradigm. It’s a paradigm of thought and being, of thought and behavior. I’d say it’s a paradigm.
How come a movement that organizes the International Turkish Language Olympiads also appeals to the Kurds?
On the one hand the Kurdish people are just another group of people, and the message of tolerance appeals to them as it appeals to anyone. You see evidence of that; you see that the movement is active in Kurdish areas. It has schools there. In fact there was a case study about the movement’s schools managing to marginalize the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK around Mardin. So you see the activities there are very consistent with the message. At the same time there is a kind of pride in Turkey. As an outsider I read Gülen and I see him holding up the sultans as ideals, as people we have to emulate. He is proud of his country. He loves his country. I see him as someone who is speaking from his context. He is Turkish, and he believes that the Turkish brand of Islam has retained its spiritual grounding in a way that the other interpretations have not. I think he is very conscious that he is from Turkey. And he has a responsibility for that. Turkey has a role to play and I think it is very right of him to come out and make these statements about the Freedom Flotilla, to make the statements about terrorism because his is a voice of wisdom. Turkey needs guidance right now because Turkey has a role to play. He is Turkish, but he has a global role, too. He is doing both. And Turkey is going to be a superpower. I really believe that. I am not a political scientist, but I believe this.