A significant international conference was held in Melbourne, Australia on the 15th and 16th of July 2009. The conference, “From Dialogue to Collaboration: the Vision of Gulen” was hosted by the Australian Catholic University and co-organized with Monash University, ACU National and the Australian Intercultural Society. I was one of the fortunate participants asked to say a few words regarding the Gulen Movement. The keynote speakers who delivered noteworthy papers consisted of renowned academics, government officials and faith leaders. The opening speech was delivered by Sir James Gobbo, former Governor of Victoria and Advisor to the Queen on Multicultural Affairs. George Lekakis, who is the current Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, also attended the prestigious event.
As I gave my ears to the speakers, my mind took me all the way back to 1966. I realized that throughout the years I had witnessed many different developments without understanding what they really meant. A historical incident came to my mind: following the discovery of electricity, an exhibition was set up to present it to the public. At the exhibition, a guest asked Benjamin Franklin, “What is this new energy good for?” He replied with a question: “What is a newborn child good for?” It was obvious that human beings could not appreciate innovation very quickly. Yet, today we realize the importance and potential of this wonderful energy source.
Similarly, I had no idea that meeting Fethullah Gulen forty-three years ago would be the turning point of my life. He was a unique teacher who constantly astonished us with his extraordinary ideas. He was a person who did not limit his ideals to suggestions but acted upon them; hence, he was practicing what he taught. Gradually, I realized that his teachings, manners and unique behavior were no different to the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the Messenger of God. In actual fact it seemed as they were a carbon copy of the Qur’anic doctrines.
Although we were aware of such Prophetic traditions as fasting on Mondays and Thursdays and also staying vigil at night, we had never witnessed anyone practicing these until we met Gulen. He would observe this Prophetic fast even in the tremendous heat of the summer in Izmir. Inspired by his total commitment to Prophetic tradition, we would hand him a list of the names of those of us who also wished to practice their faith as he did. Like an affectionate father, he would wake us up in the night so that we could perform the voluntary prayers (tahajjud) and join him at Suhoor (the pre-dawn meal to sustain us through the all-day fast). It was not easy to control the carnal self but the self-discipline and the feeling of tranquility that originated from this Prophetic tradition made it a unique experience.
During our stay at the boarding facility in Izmir, we also received additional lessons in our dorms. We were supported with supplementary classes which helped our education at local state schools. Our teachers were also experts on Islamic studies. They would work additional hours to help us with our studies, and even during lunch they would sit with us in the canteen to eat. Of course, they were all paid something for their efforts. However, Gulen was different. Salary meant nothing to him because he would spend most of it on students who were so poor that they did not even have pocket money. He refused to take any money for the additional work he did. There were times when he had given ten lessons in a day and then he took on the duty of staying at the dorm throughout the night. We were shocked to find out that he even paid for the food, electricity and water during his stay there. Talking about the notion of self-sacrifice is one thing, but witnessing it with your own eyes was an extraordinary experience which planted many new seeds in our souls.
We were amazed by the way he explained incidents that had occurred over one thousand four hundred years ago. He would explain stories about the Companions of the noble Prophet as if he had been among them at that very moment. His sermons were all about the practical interpretation of the Holy Qur’an. Everything we experienced felt like an original event. It was as if we were hearing the revelations from the Holy Qur’an for the first time in our lives. He was encouraging us to follow the example of the Prophet and his beloved Companions, and we were making the effort to do so. With every effort we made, a new door opened before us. It was as if we were entering into an entirely different realm as we tried to emulate the actions of the Companions. Eventually, there was no room for indolence or lassitude in our lives. As the famous Sufi poet Yunus Emre said, we enjoyed the gratification of being reborn with each new day.
Then came the day when we were encouraged to engage in educational activities that would benefit the whole of humanity. In all of us there was a unique sense that persuaded us to open a new era in the field of education. People who observed our dedication from outside were fascinated by our enthusiasm. One after another they came running to lend a helping hand. Students, teachers, merchants, shop owners and businessmen were all united in the goal of establishing educational facilities. Before long, private schools were established all over Turkey, followed by hundreds of schools all over the world. At the same time we started publishing educational materials, beginning with a bulletin titled Zuhur (Emergence). Eventually, this led to the establishment of magazines, journals, newspapers, radio and TV stations. These efforts, encouraged by Gulen, became so popular that a new horizon had opened before us of a global dialogue between cultures and faiths.
As dedicated volunteers of education and dialogue carried the welcoming smile of Anatolia around the globe, many sincere souls were attracted by its warmth. They began to visit Turkey, the home country of these self-sacrificing educators. Their visits were not like those of tourists. They had come to observe and understand the source of the enormous sincerity and the unique hospitality of the Anatolian people. On returning to their homelands, they explained what they had witnessed. You could see the excitement on their faces even after many months had gone by since their visit. This was another fruit of global dialogue.
As the conference continued at the Catholic University in Melbourne, my memories confirmed the significance of the work that had begun in Izmir many years before. Speakers constantly emphasized the praiseworthy efforts of these extraordinary educators and champions of dialogue. Silently, I said to myself, “What a great distance has been covered.”
One of the speakers was Orhan Cicek, Executive Advisor of the Australian Intercultural Society. He stressed that this conference was a great opportunity to strengthen Muslim–Christian relations. He said that this event, in which prominent academics from Australia and overseas were explaining their views and suggestions in relation to the vision of Gulen, was also paving the way to strengthen the multicultural structure and harmony of Australian society. He concluded with a wish that the event would become an important step towards cooperation that would attend to the common problems of humanity.
It was a wonderful event that gathered academics from Australia, Turkey, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Indonesia. The conference dealt with the different aspects of the Gulen Movement and its practical approach to intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
During my visit to Australia, I also had the pleasure of meeting Barney Zwartz, a renown columnist from one of Australia’s biggest newspapers. In our conversation, he asked me about the future of this education and dialogue movement. He wondered how far it would go. I explained that we wished to reach every human being in the world and become true friends with them. He smiled and asked if such a dream was possible. I replied with an analogy. I said there is a story about an ant that decided to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. When they asked him, “How do you plan to reach Mecca with those tiny feet of yours?” the ant answered, “I am aware of the fact that I will never get there, but the least I can do is to die on the way.” On hearing this, Barney asked me, “Can I be your baggage?”
Abdullah Aymaz is an author of numerous books in Turkish. He is also a columnist at Zaman, a leading newspaper in Turkey.