The Gülen Movement – a ‘glocal’ approach to worldwide conflict

Dr. Marlies ter Borg, Vrijdag 1 April 2011

In the complexity of today’s world, social conflicts between people of different religious and cultural backgrounds are causing considerable turmoil and challenges to social cohesiveness. This pluralism is seen to harbor potential problems on the national and international scale.

Radical or moderate Islam?
Islam is often blamed for making things worse. But the radical movements that hit the headlines are not the only manifestation of Islam. There are also broad moderate or liberally minded movements which, through their peaceful activities, are unlikely to make it to the mass media.

One example is the movement based on the teachings of M. Fethullah Gülen (b.1941), a contemporary Turkish Islamic scholar living in the USA. Gülen, son of the village’s Qur’an teacher, is a progressive and pious Muslim, whose ideas are rooted in the Qur’an. One could even argue that Gülen and his moderate followers are closer to the essential message of Islam than extremists are. Indeed the ideal of following a moderate way’ is to be found in the Qur’an itself. Gülen explicitly condemns the use of force, advocating peaceful coexistence and dialogue.

Not political
The Gülen movement is not a political organization. It is not directed towards political power or

pressuring the powers that be. It has neither formal leadership, nor the internal power struggles such leadership often entails. There is no flow of commands from the centre to the lower levels. There are no formal rules or sanctions to those doing their own thing in their own way. Indeed voluntariness is a leading principle in all the movement’s activities. Thus when Gülen speaks on public issues, he does so only as a moral ‘leader’, not on behalf of the movement itself. The Gülen movement is not an ideologically driven organization. It might irritate outsiders that there is no list of members, no executive board with an office and formal address. This absence of the usual paraphernalia of power might generate in the minds of outsiders, a sense of secrecy. However the activities of Gülen followers are open for all to see, they have nothing to hide. They are invisible only respecting their “official” status of Gülen follower. There simply is no such official status. They do not wear uniforms or badges or any other outer sign of membership. In fact there are no members, no official organization; just a worldwide network of like-minded people, putting their ideas into practice in a variety of ways. The essence of this movement is its lack of imposed structure, and its emphasis on multiple initiative by volunteers. It is therefore called “The Movement of Volunteers”.

Not anti-Western
Again the Gülen movement differs from radical Islam in that it is not anti-Western. Islam and the West are seen as complementary. Gülen argues that both Western and Islamic views are needed for the new Muslim generation. If the West stands for the mind of the human being, while the East represents his or her heart. The former is based on rationality and science, while the latter primarily refers to spirituality and internal personal values. I am not talking here about the ego centered “personal development” ideals of modern commerce –(artificial) beauty, sexual desire, commercial success –, but about values that transcend the ego, and lead to binding and bonding with other people rather than striving to beat them. Gülen brings the wisdom of the West and the East together in dialogue and education. He holds that formal education will enlighten people’s minds, and dialogue will adorn their hearts with moral values, leading them to the observance of basic human rights.

Tolerant and inclusive
Gülen’s conviction that establishing dialogue and building peace and security are part and parcel of the proper expression of an Islamic way of life. It is not surprising therefore that the movement’s participants organize interfaith and intercultural dialogue with other faith communities and convictions in order to minimize religious and cultural conflicts. Dialogue is the key method used by this Volunteers movement to facilitate social cohesion and inclusiveness. The movement sees dialogue as the first major stepping-stone to collaboration between the world’s major religions. Here again it builds on the idea to be found in the Qur’an that God created humankind in pluriformity so that we might know each other. The ultimate meaning of the cultural and spiritual differences between human beings is that they might build cooperative relationships, not raise themselves us up in pride and enmity.

The Movement of Volunteers is spiritually inspired but also highly practical. Its activities are future oriented, directed especially to the new generation. Its participants have established thriving schools and even universities in a variety of countries. These include countries in which ethnic and religious conflict plays a distorting role, such as Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, the Philippines, Banda Ache, Georgia, and Northern Iraq. The schools initiated by the members of the movement are not religiously defined, but schools, serving people of all faiths and nationalities. It is in this decentralized educational effort that the movement has had its greatest success. It has also invested in the development of cultural centers, as well as the media, in Turkey, Africa, North and South America, the Caucasus and—after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—in the Central Asian regions. Openness and dialogue are central values. As a result of the movement’s projects, a new generation is being raised with a good education, ethical values, empathic acceptance of others, well versed in several languages, and with prospects for good jobs and higher socioeconomic status.

One might wonder how all these efforts are financed. The answer is, from donations and investments by the members themselves. The offering of a part of one’s money for social goals is a central obligation of Muslims, formulated many times in the Qur’an as ‘zakat’. As a means of spiritual purification, it is considered as essential as the ‘salat’, the obligation to pray. Thus the Gülen movement offers modern Turkish citizens, some of whom are successful businessmen, an interesting opportunity to fulfill this central religious obligation. Turkish Muslims have been known for their generosity towards cultural and social goals, and the Gülen movement excels in this characteristic. Again, the finances are given in a decentralized way, and the projects they make possible are local in character.

‘Glocal’ initiatives
The idea behind these initiatives however surpasses the local level. Gülen’s followers are more ambitious. With their locally financed and locally based projects they hope to contribute to development and world peace. They are educating a new generation in the art of accepting and respecting the other, listening to and learning from others in dialogue. Gülen argues that respecting differences is essential to avoid mutual destruction. Thus the Movement’s activities serve as a contribution both to modernization and to social cohesiveness between Muslims and non-Muslims in a globalized and interdependent world.