Emphasising ‘We’ in Gulen’s Thought

One of the pillars of Gülen’s dialogue idea is building a more capacious and stronger sense of ‘we’ on the practice of altruistic service of others. This theory and activity of dialogue expects, respects and accepts group differences and thereby creates opportunities to discover common ground between groups.

While reading an article about Robert Putnam’s ‘hunkering down’ theory, I was struck by how close Putnam comes to one of the most vital points at the core of Gülen’s teachings on dialogue.

‘Hunkering down’ is the phrase Putnam used to describe how people can react when they are exposed to others of different cultural heritage and ethnicity. He developed this idea after extensive observation of what was really happening in urban areas where large numbers of immigrants had settled among the ‘host’ community.

The dominant explanations of what happens in this situation were the contact theory and the conflict theory. The contact theory suggested that the more interactions you have with cultural/ethnic diversity, the more sympathetic you become to those unlike yourself and, therefore, the less obsessive you are about your own cultural identity. According to this theory, with increased exposure to ‘others’, in-group solidarity diminishes, out-group solidarity grows.

On the other hand, the conflict theory suggested that increased exposure to ‘others’ results in stronger identification with your own group, leading to retreat from and suspicion of those who are not from that group. According to this theory, with increased exposure to ‘others’, out-group solidarity weakens while in-group solidarity heightens to the point of turning into ethnocentrism.

Putnam’s observations suggested that what really happens is that both in-group and out-group solidarity suffer when we are surrounded by increased ethnic and cultural diversity. In other words: not only do we become more wary of people who are different from us, we also pull away from people of our own group. Putnam drew a correlation between increased exposure to ethnic diversity and an increase in individual isolation — a ‘hunkering down’: ‘Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.’

This ‘hunkering down’ constitutes a failure in community and solidarity which greatly diminishes the scope of individual and collective life. He says: ‘my hunch is that at the end we shall see that the challenge is best met not by making “them” like “us”, but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of “we”, a reconstruction of diversity that does not bleach out ethnic specificities, but creates overarching identities that ensure that those specificities do not trigger the allergic, “hunker down” reaction.’
Gülen’s teachings and the practice that those teachings have inspired over the past thirty years – first within Turkey, then in the neighbouring Turkic countries, and now worldwide – have consistently aimed to build precisely this more capacious sense of ‘we’ that Putnam envisages.

Gülen teaches us, first of all, to respect the differences between ‘us’ and ‘others’, meaning that we must begin from the idea that what everybody stands for is good. Then, on the foundation of that respect, we will discover and recognize the commonalities between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That in turn helps us to build genuinely pluralistic societies, which relish a stronger and wider identity of ‘we’.

In Gülen’s teachings the human person is the primary and most valued identity. In his famous phrase, he said: ‘We are human first and Muslim, Christian, Jew afterward.’ He condemns dehumanizing anybody on any ground, be it community, nationality or ethnicity. He fully embraces the saying of the famous Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre: ‘We love the creature because of the Creator.’

Gülen re-conceives attitudes towards human differences from within the perspective of Muslim faith and history. He sees the religion as uniting people, not separating or segregating them. Referring to the Qur’anic commands to seek peace and unity, Gülen noted that the Qur’an refers to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah as a conquest. Because with that treaty, the ‘door of conflict closed but the door to the hearts opened’. In an interview he explained that he weeps for Israeli children just as he weeps for Palestinian children. It is in this sense that we affirm that the Gülen Movement is strongly faith inspired but this faith serves it as a tool for uniting society and strengthening the resources for peace.

Gülen conceives of good society as one in which one’s main identity is being a fellow human being among others. But the vital spring of that fellowship identity is disabling selfish, self-centred impulses and enabling the impulses to altruism and co-operativeness. It is on that basis that he inspired this ‘movement of volunteers’. Then he encouraged the ‘we’ mentality in those volunteers so that they look for and find commonalities rather than differences. He said: ‘All of us are from Adam and Adam was made out of mud. We are different living sculptures made from the same soil, the same mud.’

He first started the constructing this ‘we’ mentality within Turkey itself. He condemned the separateness and discrimination against different groups living in Turkey. He said: ‘It would be hard to find anybody within Turkey who hates separation, discrimination itself, and words that lead to separation, as much as me.’ In another piece, he wrote: ‘Within the concept of dialogue and tolerance, being a part of social stratum which has good intentions, respects others, accepts the manners that everybody stands for, we should be searching for the ways to sustainable peaceful futures.’

When discussing the conflicts with Armenia he pointed out that we are all people of the same region, we are all connected to the civilizations of Mesopotamia. According to sociologists, behind the various expressions of the Hellenic civilization were people from Mesopotamia. He argued that the history of past problems and conflicts should not become the excuse for conflicts now; that it is not permissible to judge people by the mistakes of their ancestors.

Gülen considers good politics as the kind that strives to unite the society, to broaden the sense of belonging and citizenship awareness. He mentioned that both the right-wing and left-wing groups who were in conflict in the 1980s in Turkey, were patriots, whose hearts were full of love for Turkey. The leaders for their own sake made people turn to fighting and killing each other. He urges whoever is in government to proceed through consultation and strive to be constructive and inclusive in all policies.

Gülen himself initiated dialogue with almost every faith leader, the leaders of political parties, the opinion formers in the worlds of the media and academic institutions, and he conveyed to them the message of building a strong society inclusive of everybody, not leaving out any single person as the ‘other’. His initiatives were welcomed and widely reciprocated in Turkey at the time. Indeed, Turkey witnessed during the 1990s dialogue between figures from distinct groups that had scarcely met each other since the 1800s. This happened thanks to Gülen’s initiative. He explained that this dialogue work can be sustainable if we believe that God is pleased with us when we work to unite the society.

Gülen initiated interfaith and intercultural institutions in almost every country. The movement he inspired become the theory’s living, practical embodiment – its volunteers and sympathizers include people from Sunni or Alawi, Muslim or Catholic, politic or apolitical backgrounds, artists and athletes, professionals and non-professionals, all working together with various level of commitment to the movement.

Gülen also argued that true security for Turkey can only be achieved by interacting closely with its neighbours, not by closing all doors to them. He also stated that governors just after Ataturk misunderstood him and the Misak-i Milli and they kept Turkey within its borders only and never interacted with even its immediate neighbours. Gülen explained that Ataturk’s ‘peace at home, peace in the world’ doctrine can only be achieved by having close, good relationships within the country and with all its neighbours in the region.

Gülen encouraged interfaith and intercultural institutions in almost every country. He always urges people to migrate to other countries in order to establish ‘schools of love’. He believes that ignorance is the main evil behind the separation of groups from each other. Gülen volunteers over the years have opened hundreds of schools in almost every country, even in war-torn places such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. In these international schools children from the warring groups are educated side by side peacefully, as an example to the conflicting parties. In every country these schools serve as the representatives of peace. Gülen does not advise the teachers and administrators of these schools to serve for a time and then come back; instead, he urges them to be willing to live and die among the people there.

One of the pillars of Gülen’s dialogue idea is building a more capacious and stronger sense of ‘we’ on the practice of altruistic service of others. This theory and activity of dialogue expects, respects and accepts group differences and thereby creates opportunities to discover common ground between groups. It is the very opposite of, indeed the best possible antidote to, the defeatist mentality of ‘hunkering down’.

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies