I cannot say “I feel,” as feeling is required, but neither can I deny my God-given nature of being deeply moved by the suffering, injustice and pain of others. Years ago there used to be a rickety “Islamic” video store opposite Turnpike Lane Mosque on Whiteman Road, north London. I would go there from time to time to browse the VHS videos on sale. Interestingly, the store also allowed people to watch videos, with no obligation to purchase thereafter, at the back end of the store behind some thick curtains.
I will never forget the footage I watched showing the grim and ghastly images from the Bosnian war: burning flesh, destitute women, dead children… Islam makes a demand on people. It asks, “Do the people think that they will be left to say ‘We believe` and they will not be tried?” (Quran, 29:2), reminding us of the universal responsibility that comes with being human — a trust from which the “the heavens, earth and mountains” shrank with fear when offered (Quran, 33:72). The Bosnian war helped project that message by making a demand on all of us, by asking, “What are you doing as this tragedy unfolds?” Some responded by joining reactionary or violent extremist groups to vent their anger and rage.
In my case, as a 14-year-old from north London, my response was to pledge my life to something greater than myself, my whims or my personal priorities. It took me a few years to find the most appropriate channel through which to do this. A few groups and many books later I eventually connected with the teachings of Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet movement he inspires. While my initial emotional response to the Bosnian war was not dissimilar to those who went down a reactionary, revolutionary and rejectionist approach, the method and channel I chose to achieve “meaning” and “purpose” in my life could not have been more dissimilar. My contribution began in the form of organizing religious circles (sohbets), mentoring and tutoring, managing hostels and — and many years and various roles later — heading the London-based Dialogue Society.
None of my own Hizmet work was or is directly related to ending wars or relieving resultant human suffering. Rather, it has been focused around education, empowerment, dialogue and community relations. That said, my passion, commitment and drive to do the Hizmet work I do originates, in part, from the urge to relieve human suffering caused by humans. What is more, the connection is not historic but active; I believe, rightly or wrongly, that the collective goodwill and social capital that ensues from the type of charitable work that I and many millions do, be it through Hizmet or otherwise, has the potential to address and resolve some of the most intractable problems playing out in the world today. In fact, the very nature of intractable problems often requires a more comprehensive, holistic and collective approach and will, rather than knee-jerk and shortsighted reactions.
My response to the Bosnian war suffering was Hizmet. Hizmet teaches that I am responsible for everything unless I do something, something for which I am best suited and most needed. My something was not to go to Bosnia and die for Islam but to remain in London and live for and by Islam by serving others. When I see human suffering today (and suffering has no religion, ethnicity or culture), it makes a claim on me. It asks, “Özcan, what are you doing?” Each time, my response is Hizmet. I am very sincere about this. You may judge it to be naive (or even hypocritical), but you cannot judge it to be untrue. If that internal response to the demand made on me by human suffering ever changes, then so shall the external manifestation of how I seek to respond to that demand and honor my boyhood pledge.
I have gone to some length to explain what Hizmet means to me because recently a human tragedy has been unfolding in Gaza as well as other places. Alongside this, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has initiated stage two of his war against Hizmet in Turkey — to frame, prosecute and criminalize it in order to justify his draconian measures to unlawfully disrupt and prevent judicial investigations into government corruption. I have written and tweeted about the latter much more than the former. That is not because Hizmet`s suffering and persecution is in the least bit comparable to the loss of innocent lives around the world. But because an effort to frame and criminalize Hizmet in Turkey has a negative impact on my work in the UK, as it does on Hizmet all over the world. And as explained above, for me Hizmet embodies a meaning, something greater than its immediate local impact.
In speaking up for Hizmet against clear and open aggression, I am defending more than myself, my group or my work; I am defending my longstanding response to the question, “Özcan, what are you doing?” bellowing out from the depths of human suffering around the world; I am defending that 14-year-old boy`s pledge not to remain silent, not to forget, not to restrict his response to seasonal protest but to do something meaningful, long-lasting and constructive. Put differently and more succinctly, by speaking up for Hizmet against this relentless persecution I am in fact speaking up against human suffering around the world regardless of the cause of suffering or the background of the sufferer. If you have a similar cause upon which you have sincerely based such meaning and purpose, then speak up for it when required, not for its own sake but for the sake of what it means to you and humanity. If no one else will, I will understand.
This was originally published in Today’s Zaman and it is also available in the author’s personal website.