A programme on BBC Radio 4 called the Gulen or Hizmet movement the world’s “most successful Islamic movement”. It is indeed remarkable for its vision, its activities and the dynamism of its volunteers. Two characteristics of the Movement in particular strike one immediately, namely its global orientation and its ceaseless activism.
Since the Movement is active and effective in over 130 countries it is accurately dubbed a “world phenomenon”. Moreover, since it does not serve any partisan interest, national or racial, religious or economic, its vision can properly be described as “global”: it maintains a strong local presence in the Muslim and the non-Muslim world, in societies that are predominantly black and those that are predominantly white, in countries that are linguistically and culturally Turkic and those that are non-Turkic. It is to this norm of the Movement that I give the name “global frontier”.
The concept of a “global frontier” illuminates and explains the typical preoccupations and strategic vision of the Movement. Every activity, to which its volunteers devote their time and energy, can be understood in terms of a struggle against the human suffering and disadvantage that flow from ignorance, poverty and social or communitarian divisions.
In this sense the challenges that the Gulen volunteers have taken on concern problems that affect the vast majority of human beings in contemporary times. In a world that has become more and more of a “global village”, good or bad practices spread easily. Nations and societies are much more involved with each other than at any earlier time in history. Accordingly, if you serve a good cause in one place you soon find yourself having to serve it in other counties as well. Bad practices steadily gain ground in societies in which there are not enough people willing or able to promote the good unselfishly. In any case, the financial and commercial interconnections between nations are so many and so intensive that the consequences of economic failure and poverty in one country soon affect the prosperity and well-being of other nations:
We are witnessing this in the current economic crisis in the member states of the European Union (EU) . The EU is struggling to limit the damage, to stop the spread of financial failure from one Eurozone country to another. We note that the help offered, during this crisis, by the richer states to the poorer ones is reluctant and ultimately self-preserving and self-serving. It cannot be compared to the way that, in times of natural disaster or war, “developing” nations open their borders to receive millions of refugees from neighbouring states, an act of humankindness that imposes a heavy burden on their resources and economic futures, even their political stability. We never see the wealthy “developed” countries risk their economic futures in this way; what they give in humanitarian assistance is always a minimal percentage of a maximized economic surplus, and it is often crafted so as to serve the donor country’s economic advantages rather than to serve the needs of the individuals and communities it is meant to help.
From as early as the 1970s, when the Hizmet movement relied on a small handful of volunteers, Fethullah Gulen instilled in them the idea that their primary identity is human, and they must be aware of the needs of human beings globally, not just of the group to which they happen to belong, no matter how that group is defined – by linguistic or cultural markers of identity, or by religious or political or other markers. The mind-set that Gulen tried to cultivate can be summed up in his saying: “If you are not in everywhere, you will be nowhere.”
If the frontier of action for the Movement’s volunteers is “global”, and the scale and intractability of global problems are as they are, how do the volunteers keep going? What motivates them? The answer is: striving to keep awareness of the needs that the Movement is to serve fresh in the mind and heart, even as the priority and urgency of needs are analysed on a case by case basis. This enables the volunteers to be morally alert, and to strive to be professionally competent in the services they undertake. It follows from the global vision of the Movement that the activism of its volunteers must be ceaseless: a success in one place motivates a similar effort in the next place, improved by experience, which feeds into the success of the next project… and so on.
These two elements – a global vision that is authentically non-partisan and unselfish combined with an understanding that there can be no end to commitment to service – have characterized the Movement from its very foundation and throughout the 40 years since. Even during the financial austerity years of the Turkish Republic in the 1990s, volunteers traveled abroad to open schools, dialogue centres and relief charities, first in Central Asia and after that in Africa. The Movement’s actitivites are, as many observers have mentioned, a world-wide phenomenon. They represent, over the decades of the Hizmet movement, an input by hundreds of thousands of its volunteers of millions of man-hours that have helped as many millions of human beings all over the world. The scale and success of the Movement are a strong argument for the idea that unselfish behaviour, good will and benevolence, are the essential enduring traits that define humans as human – and not competitive self-interest.