The Gülen Movement (also widely known as the Hizmet Movement) was first established in the 1970s in Turkey with educational and dialogue institutions. Since then, people inspired by Fethullah Gülen have spread it around the world through schools, dialogue centres, charitable aid work, clinics, hostels, and print and broadcast media outlets . This paper asks the question, ‘What is the main function of these diverse initiatives?’ Answering that question necessarily answers the more popular question ‘What is the aim of this Movement?’
Stepping back to get an overall view of the Movement’s activities and the discourses which Gülen has developed, I am reminded of theoretical attempts to understand and solve the great problems of modern times like conflicts, wars, mass poverty, famine, etc. In particular, the works of Habermas and Ervin Laszlo come to mind. In this post I will briefly address Habermas’ concept of ‘the public sphere’ and how it can explain the activities of the Hizmet Movement.
Habermas is one of the most famous and most quoted thinkers in the social sciences. In contrast to post-modernists, he believes that to find solutions to the problem of the modern world there is no need to abandon modernism. Rather, those problems can be addressed from within the modern world by doing certain things differently. In brief, he argues that the problems are outcomes of the ways people act. The first point of similarity between the approach of the Movement and that of Habermas is that both are pro-modernist. Habermas puts great confidence in the ‘common mind’ operating in what he calls ‘the public sphere. ‘Public sphere’ is understood to be the arena in modern societies ‘in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk’. In this context ‘talking’ is one of the most important key words.
Habermas criticizes ‘representative democracy’ for failing to provide sufficient political participation for the common mind, so that people are not satisfied that their representatives are in fact representing their interests properly. This failure of political participation seems to him to be one of the leading reasons for conflicts between groups in the modern world. In this regard the public sphere mediates between the private sphere of individual citizens and the ‘sphere of public Authority’, corresponding to governments or ruling elites. There must be an interaction between political authority and the public sphere: the most legitimate governments and policies are those that have listened to and taken into full consideration what the public sphere says on the relevant issue. We can think of the public sphere as a device which increases political participation by functioning as a bridge between society and its ruling elites. If it functions properly it is an opportunity to enhance democracy in a particular society.
When we look at the role which the Movement strives to play in the societies in which it is active, we can see what it does as increasing the quality of political participation. The activities and events managed by the Movement aim to raise awareness about particular problems in the society and to create the will to understand and build a consensus on how to solve them. For example in Turkey, the Abant Platform (an affiliate of the Journalists and Writers Foundation) every year organizes, in association with the Movement, a number of events focusing on problems and concerns dominating attention at the time. These events provide a forum which brings together people of different or opposing views so that they may listen to each other, and in doing so discover common points and common purposes. There are two outcomes of events like these. The first is that people of opposing views come together and share the same time and space, which makes it possible for them to get to know each other’s views from the other’s perspective. The second outcome of such events is that at the end of the meetings they are able publicly to announce what the two sides agree on in the form of a joint declaration. In the UK the events organized by the Dialogue Society, a relatively young, London-based charity affiliated with the Movement, function and can be explained in the same way as the Abant Platform.
Habermas’ approach to societal problems and his concept of ‘the public sphere’ are thus a useful way to understand the activities of the Hizmet Movement and what it is trying to achieve. Its affiliated organizations are contributing, in the different segments of the public space in which they operate, to the well-being of society by enabling and increasing awareness of issues of concern, and encouraging people on different sides of the issue to meet and talk and look for solutions to those issues in a responsible, civil, collaborative spirit. All of these activities improve the quality of political participation in society and invigorate the processes of informed, responsible democracy.