The Pigeon, The Finger, and Hizmet’s ‘Inevitable Ambiguity’

Hizmet combines characteristics that we are not used to seeing combined in such a way: faith-inspired yet faith-neutral, informed by Qur’anic principles yet inclusive and non-missionary, predominantly Muslim but proactively engaging with wider society.

Like ‘beauty’, ambiguity can be in the eye of the beholder. While there are Hizmet-related reasons for some of Hizmet’s ambiguity, there are even more reasons to do with the outsider looking in (the beholder), rather than Hizmet itself (the beholden). Hizmet defies most of our pre-conceived notions, categories, and prejudices; we want to neatly pigeon-hole this pigeon and get angry when it does not fit – conjuring up all kinds of inappropriate images involving a man, a pigeon, and an inadequately sized pigeon-hole.

The reason for this is that Hizmet combines characteristics that we are not used to seeing combined in such a way: faith-inspired (in motivation) yet faith-neutral (in so many activities), informed by Qur’anic principles yet inclusive and non-missionary, predominantly Muslim but proactively engaging with wider society and responding constructively to modern and post-modern ideas and lifestyles. What is more, our ingrained cynicism towards any project claiming to act out of selfless desire for a more humane, loving, and peaceful world is probably the biggest stumbling block, as we have come to believe that there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ and that if some stranger happens to scratch my back, he does so on the basis of reciprocity – that is, expecting my index finger to return the favour someday.

In his recent book, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World (NYU Press, 2013), Joshua D. Hendrick argues that the Hizmet movement employs “strategic ambiguity” by leaving certain issues unexplained that relate to the movement’s overall intent, nature and methods, thereby gaining flexibility by being all things to all people. The issue of Gülen’s role in relation to the movement, his connection with the schools, and even his date of birth are cited as some examples of this strategy.

As a Hizmet participant for the past twenty years (i.e. a pigeon within the flock, so to speak), I disagree that the ambiguity, as far as it exists, is strategic. If nothing else, I have witnessed and have been involved in efforts to make the movement’s aims, values, and activities more clear and accessible. So, if there is any overarching strategy, it is in fact to achieve clarity, not ambiguity. That said, I agree that there is ambiguity, but I am of the opinion that this is inevitable and often unintended rather than strategic, and for the following reasons: first, the objective (or ideal) of Hizmet is far greater than that which most people attribute to it. It is not about day-to-day politics, the economy, or power – although aspects of it might speak to such things too; rather, it is about something far deeper and more significant. Through Gülen’s teachings and counselling and the movement’s activities and praxis, Hizmet aims to contribute towards a reconceptualization of our formative ideas, cultural paradigms, understandings of reality, and ways of being, thus bringing about a civilizational renewal that strikes a more balanced position between matter and metaphysics, science and spirit, egocentrism and social responsibility. Gülen says that this will not be achieved in one go or by a single movement but that it is a generational shift to which Hizmet seeks to contribute. Gülen speaks of this ideal in a number of his books and articles (e.g. The Statue of Our Souls, The Light, 2005). You may find that ideal to be unrealistic, utopian, or silly. That is a different discussion: the point here is that a movement with such an aim will naturally come across as ambiguous if one insists on understanding it on completely different and inappropriate terms. It is as if we are speaking at different levels, missing one another entirely.

The second inevitable ambiguity occurs in our understanding of Gülen’s role vis-à-vis the movement. Gülen is not a conventional leader or manager – far less a micro-manager. He provides the interpretational framework for Hizmet’s ideas and principles, but those ideas and principles are dialogically developed and contributed to through Hizmet’s praxis and actions. Given that the movement is decentralised across 160-plus countries, Gülen restricts himself to speaking at the meta-level (unless particularly asked about a specific project) so that his advice and views can apply to as many people and contexts as possible. Any further detail than that and his ideas risk not being as applicable in as many places as they are today. Once again, if, despite the above, we insist on seeing Gülen as Hizmet’s commander-in-chief or chief executive managing the movement, then we will be perplexed by his very generalised language.

The third reason is the unavoidable discrepancy that emerges between theory and practice. Hizmet is active at both levels; it offers a theoretical framework, while also engaging in wide-ranging practice. The discrepancies and even contradictions we notice here are inevitable outcomes of ‘applying’ while ‘espousing’, especially with a mass grassroots movement. An example is Gülen’s thought on gender issues and Hizmet’s practice. While Hizmet’s practice may be ahead of the general approach and culture in Turkey, it is far behind Gülen’s teachings. Without an appreciation for the cause of this discrepancy, one may be inclined to think it is intended, when in fact it is not.

The fourth reason is that while Hizmet’s values, ideals and principles are unchanging, its practice is constantly evolving and developing. Hizmet participants are aware of the dynamism and development of Hizmet’s activities and of its desire to be as inclusive as possible. This awareness causes them to frame their organisations’ aims, names and corporate images so expansively that to a bystander they come across as opaque. Why call a Turkish TV channel ‘the Milky Way’ (Samanyolu) or insist on publishing a magazine on science, religion, literature, history and poetry all under one cover and then call it ‘the Fountain’? The point is, this level of expansiveness inevitably and unintentionally creates an equal amount of ambiguity.

A final argument in this vein is to do with habits and reflexes. Hizmet originated in modern Turkey and is predominantly led by Turkish-speaking people. The modern Turkish Republic was founded on, among other things, the rejection of religion and on the premise that the public were incapable of reforming themselves. This mindset led to the creation of an autocratic regime persecuting observant Muslims in the public sphere (as well Alevis, Kurds, Armenians and other minorities who did not fit the new ‘ideal Turkish citizen template’ for different reasons). Therefore, keeping your personal identity to yourself became an acquired habit in Turkey among Hizmet participants and continued throughout the years.

Unfortunately, while the leaders of Turkey have changed, the dynamics of control and power have not. Just recently, PM Erdogan accepted that he was ‘witch-hunting’ Hizmet-inspired people from public posts by relocating them around Turkey. Since December 2013 alone, some 20,000 police officers, prosecutors, civil servants and others have been reassigned and demoted without any due process whatsoever. In the face of all this real persecution, can we blame those who do not volunteer their sympathies, be it for Hizmet or any other group, religion, or worldview? Naturally, the unintended and inevitable consequence of this is that some Hizmet sympathisers in Turkey maintain an extremely cautious approach, which can be then difficult to overcome in other settings.

For these and other reasons, any existing ambiguity is unavoidable and unintended (even in so far as “intent” can be posited on the part of a decentralised movement). The trajectory and motion, however, is most certainly towards being as open, clear, and transparent as possible, and a great deal has been achieved in this vein through greater visibility, the mushrooming of Hizmet umbrella organisations, the willingness of the movement to speak out more often, and the invitation to and cooperation with all forms of research into and scrutiny of the movement. That said, a great deal of the ambiguity emanates from observers’ insistence on fitting the movement within their own pre-conceived notions. They need to entertain the possibility that perhaps what they have before them is not a pigeon after all, and that the finger scratching their back will not expect reciprocation some day in the future.

Originally published in Todays Zaman, it is also available in the author’s personal website.

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies