How Fethullah Gulen Generated Social Responsibility?

Gülen raised awareness through no other means than a profound and penetrating understanding of Islam. One-third of the Qur’an is about the afterlife and accountability. As an Islamic scholar, what Gülen did was to enable people to engage with this notion: the best way to train oneself for the service of God is selflessly to serve His creatures.

Surveillance cameras, community policing (on top of regular policing), “citizenship” classes in schools, even penalties for anti-social behaviour – these and other measures testify to the widespread feeling that society needs help to look after itself. In the UK, the current government has a broad policy agenda, tagged “The Big Society”, which aims to support voluntary groups committed to reviving social responsibility. Even if the state has the will and resources to do so, it simply cannot replace the care and concern of people for each other and for their “commons” – the amenities and public spaces which are a collective heritage, and which they should preserve, improve and pass on.

Sadly, “the commons” and the ethos that sustained them are fast eroding. The state takes note of the problem – it has to, since it must pick up the bill in terms of social costs – but it cannot solve it. Only the society, the people, can do that. That is why there is so much academic (as well as political) interest in understanding the mechanisms that can inspire people to recover a sense of belonging to each other and live up to the rights and duties of care and civility that flow with that belonging. For this ethos of mutual care and service the word used in Turkish is hizmet. It comes from the Arabic khidma, and it is found in the everyday expression ayy khidma? (literally, “which service?), of which the English equivalent is “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help?”

Hizmet is also the name of one of the most dynamic, effective, and most intensively studied, social responsibility movements of recent times. It is sometimes called the Gülen Movement, after Fethullah Gülen, the man who initiated and inspired it. What he began some forty years ago as a localized effort of hizmet has evolved into a broad transnational network, self-sustaining because funded and staffed by thousands of volunteers. Where there is need – for schooling, for accommodation, for helping conflicting parties toward conciliation through dialogue – volunteers organize, raise funds and start providing the best service their means allow. Others then see that it is working, and so the scale and quality of the hizmet and the number of volunteers grows. Hizmetis most renowned for providing first-class secondary education in localities that had none, and it has been notably successful (for example, in places like Northern Iraq, Modern Cambodia, Kenya, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and eastern Turkey) in uniting the children of communities torn by religious, ethnic and sectarian conflict. It operates now in over 140 different countries world-wide.

So how did Gülen do it? How was he able to revive social responsibility where the efforts of others faltered and failed? The simple answer is that the success of Hizmet has been owed to a combination of the right man, with the right ideas, attitudes and aims, following the right practice. This outcome did not come about in a vacuum. The tradition of benevolence, deeply embedded in Turkish society (as in most Islamic societies) through institutionalized practices like sadaka,zekah, and vakf, was the necessary context. Without it Gülen’s ideas and practice might not have gathered sufficient critical mass to establish Hizmet as a self-sustaining project. Yet, while this same context was there for others also, only this man was able to realize and release its potential.

But he did not (and did not expect to) do so overnight. Now retired, and on account of ill-health a virtual recluse, Gülen had dedicated 40 years of his adult life to hizmet. This was a life of the most intense activism, inward and outward. Alongside his prolific output of books, articles and poems, continual public speaking, teaching and counseling, he dedicated all his private hours to prayer and spiritual reflection. He was a traditionally trained, state-licensed Islamic preacher for over 30 years. All who met him (including those who opposed him) knew at once that his Islamic learning informed and flowed from the heart of a sincere, practising believer. He was able to awaken in people a memory of something they hardly knew they had lost, for whose loss they had been grieving unawares. That something lost is our essential humanity, the capacity to be motivated by goodwill, by unselfish love for others.

Fethullah Gülen’s evident sincerity inspired trust, and neither by word or deed has he ever disappointed that trust. He did not preach in order to gain a following, for himself, or for his religion in general. His attitude and mindset were quite different. He was and is widely read in Western literature, philosophy and Enlightenment thought. So he was able to address religious and secular audiences in the idiom that made sense to them. Also, he reached out to the non-religious people by going to where they were. In an attempt to reach those beyond the mosque, Gülen gave many talks at corner coffee-houses (the Turkish equivalent of the local pub) addressing people there as they smoked and played cards. He also lectured at large public gatherings. In short, by going out to the people, rather than waiting for them to come to him, he converted the imam-centred approach traditional in Anatolia to a people-centred one.

Furthermore, Gulen preached social responsibility on the basis that his listeners were humans first and Muslims second: there is an intrinsic obligation on all humans, individually and collectively, to act and engage, to give and participate. In this way Gülen was able to create new social capital. In addition to generating new, Gulen also re-directed existing social faith-based capital. He legitimized new channels of activism for observant Muslims by re-interpreting and re-applying classical Islamic concepts such as sadakah. He directed energies from founding mosques to founding schools, from giving alms to the Muslim poor to giving relief aid for all, from religious teaching to non-religious dialogue. He gathered up pockets of religious and social energy and optimized that energy by re-channeling it towards inclusive, non-denominational and human-centric projects. In so doing, he changed the nature and manifestation of faith-inspired projects. No longer did such projects have to be centred on faith/religion or manifest faith/religion in their activities. He based his activism on a foundation sufficiently broad and inclusive to appeal to and serve (practising and non-practising) Muslims and non-Muslims. The value of providing a good education is clear to everyone, regardless of personal belief. Thus, Hizmet’s faith-inspired yet faith-neutral projects were able to attract support from a much broader range of people.

It is important to mention also that Gülen expressly and consistently forbade any attempt to convert his personal authority or the authority of Islam into an effort to challenge power. He emphasized the need and duty to work within the laws and regulations, however formulated, within which hizmet was to operate. It remains a matter of principle with him that the duties of faith-based practice are contaminated by competing for the burdens of worldly influence and power and, conversely, that the state’s ability to provide security, justice and equal rights for all its citizens can be compromised by its association with one confession rather than another. For the best of practical and religious reasons, the space between society and state, and religion and state, is a space that should be clearly defined and strongly secured.

There is, of course, much more to be said on this and I will continue these reflections on how Gülen inspired social responsibility in subsequent pieces in this series. For now I end on what could have served equally well as a starting-point: before the awakening of responsibility there must be an awakening of awareness. And Gülen raised awareness through no other means than a profound and penetrating understanding of Islam. One-third of the Qur’an is about the afterlife and accountability. The Qur’anic verse, ‘Did man think that he would be created and left unaccountable?’ is a notion that goes to the heart of Islam. As an Islamic scholar, what Gülen did was to enable people to engage with this notion: the best way to train oneself for the service of God is selflessly to serve His creatures.

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies