Hizmet Studies Responds to Gulen’s Latest Interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung

Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Islamic scholar and the initiator of a global civil society grass roots movement that is composed predominantly of people inspired by their Islamic faith, yet whose activities are faith-neutral or at least faith-inclusive. As a result, the movement also attracts support from non-observant Muslims as well as those of other faiths or worldviews. Arising out of Turkey and now active in over 160 countries, this collectivity of people and organisations are usually referred to as the Gulen or Hizmet movement. Hizmet (literally, ‘service’) focuses on education, dialogue and relief work and is loosely connected by the shared ideals and principles of its participants. A preacher and author of over 60 books, Gulen is considered by his contemporaries to be a serious scholar focused on social action and practical impact.

On 13th December 2014, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published an interview with Fethullah Gulen. What follows is a summary and response on the salient points of that interview. For the full interview text please click here.
Key points in the interview
Most of the interview questions focused on Turkey and Erdogan; therefore most of Gulen’s answers respond to these points.
  • On Isis, Gulen said that Muslim majority countries had not taken a significantly clear position against this terrorist group including the Islamic scholars of Makah, Medina, Egypt and Turkey and that members of Isis were ignorant of Islam.
  • On the Erdogan government’s aim to “raise religious youth” and whether Gulen wanted the same thing, he replied: “The objective of the state cannot be to raise religious youth. Otherwise, the state would be imposing one worldview on its citizens. Freedom of religion and belief is a basic human right. It is the state’s responsibility to provide all of its citizens with the ability to manifest and teach their faith and religion, whatever that might be. What was expected of Erdogan… was to pass laws that protected and provided this freedom for religious minorities in Turkey.” In addition to disagreeing at the outset with the notion that a government should aim to raise religious youth, Gulen also indicated that he disagreed with Erdogan’s interpretive-practice of “religious” that was comfortable with compromising on human rights and the rule of law and promoting division and hatred within society.
  • On Turkey, Gulen said that he was very concerned; that it gives the impression of “a party state, a single-leader state” with convergence rather than separation of powers, with no oversight or accountability of the executive and no independent judiciary (with exception of a very few judges at the very top); that Hizmet had supported the AKP’s policies on democratisation, reform and EU accession in its first and second terms but stopped supporting its policies in its third term when the AKP began reversing those steps and heading in a completely different direction.
  • On corruption allegations against the government, Gulen said that the judicial process had been prevented from adjudicating on the matter and that the government had reacted like an authoritarian state by calling it an international conspiracy.
  • On the purge of Hizmet sympathisers from public office, Gulen said that the government is purging everyone that kept themselves at arms length from the government, not just Hizmet sympathisers and that all are being demoted or dismissed except those seen to be most loyal to the AKP.

Hizmet Studies response to the interview
  • As noted above, given the interviewers’ questions, most of the interview focuses on Turkey’s current affairs and Erdogan’s self-proclaimed witch-hunt against the Hizmet movement.
  • What we found most significant among these was Gulen’s response to the question on Erdogan’s government aim of “raising religious youth” in Turkey. Despite Turkey’s largely Sunni-Muslim population and Gulen’s credentials as an Islamic scholar and preacher, he stood by his earlier views on the separation of religion and politics by clearly and categorically opposing the idea of the government attempting to raise religious youth. From his reply here and his comments elsewhere, Gulen appears to oppose the idea for a number of reasons, including (i) that it will lead to the imposition of one religion, religious interpretation or worldview and any imposition, whatever its nature, is to be avoided, (ii) that the imposition of religion must be avoided since it to leads to hypocrisy, (iii) that the imposition of one religion/religious interpretation or worldview will lead to discrimination against those who subscribe to different beliefs/views, (vi) that doing so is contrary to the non-instrumentalization of religion in politics, and (v) that this leads to authoritarianism.

Dr Ismail Mesut Sezgin, Director of the Centre for Hizmet Studies, said:

“As a preacher and Islamic scholar, Gulen is not against religious teaching for the youth – so long as it is done with proper care and consideration and with the youth and parents’ consent; what Gulen is against is the government’s aim to do this. In simple terms, he is saying to Erdogan “if you want to dabble in religion and raise religious youth, then leave politics and found a non-governmental religious organisation”. This goes back to the notion of the separation of religion and politics, of which Gulen is strongly in favour. But it also goes beyond that. For some time now, Gulen has been drawing attention to the government’s overbearing nature of “colonizing” the sphere of civil society – the realm within which independent media, civil society groups and religious organisations should operate. For Gulen, a government’s aim to “raise religious youth” is not only an abuse of religion for political gain but also indicative of a strengthening authoritarian trend.”
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Notes to editors
London-based and founded in 2014, the Centre for Hizmet Studies provides access to reliable information and resources for serious study of Hizmet. The Centre aims to facilitate, as well as present, critical analysis of Hizmet for both academic and popular audiences. Its activities include research, resource development, online support, discussion forums and print publication.
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