What the religious scholar John Dunne wrote in the 1970s remains true today:
What seems to be happening in our world today is what we might call ‘passing over,’ passing over from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by equal and opposite process of what we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight into one's own culture, one's own way of life, one's own religion. The holy man of our time [is] . . . a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insight into his own. Passing over and coming back is the spiritual adventure of our time. (1972, ix)
I think that this spiritual adventure of passing over and coming back also occurs in the person of Fethullah Gülen. But more importantly, his passing over and coming back has led to a bridge that makes it possible for the rest of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, to engage in the spiritual adventure of our time. We too can use the “Gülen bridge” to pass over from our standpoint, be it in America as a Christian (as for myself) or from Turkey as a Muslim, as for my new Turkish friends. We can pass over and come back with new appreciation of Islam, a new understanding of the Anatolian culture, and a transformed spirit. Muslims too can be transformed as they pass over into American life and its religious diversity and come back to Islam with a renewed perspective. But I will share how my encounter with this movement and the people involved in the movement affected my outlook and shaped my spirit.
Who is Fethullah Gülen? And what sort of bridge did he build for us? Mr. Gülen himself was nurtured in the religion of Islam, as that religion expressed itself in Turkey during the latter half of the 20th century. Turkey has an unusual history in the 20th century. To make a long and complex story somewhat shorter, the Ottoman Empire that ruled a region that is greater than present day Turkey until the 1920s had a close relation to Islam. Islamic law, Sharia, was the law of the land. But when the empire began to crumble, the reformers successfully pushed for a new secular Turkish republic that outlawed religion in the public square. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the new nation of Turkey, considered religion to be antithetical to modernization, and so pushed religion and its institutions into the private sphere. Ataturk himself schooled in the European philosophy of laicite, or radical secularism, advocated a strict separation of church and state. The free exercise of religion is allowed so long as it stays at home; religion is not accommodated but rather it is actively suppressed from public expression. The new Turkish state sought to create a homogenous society based on science and Turkish nationalism, and therefore tried to root out all other influences, especially religious ones, in the life of the people. So overnight, a Muslim culture was to be wiped away and replaced by scientific secularism in the interest of modernization.
One might imagine that such a project will have no success, but to some degree it has been achieved in Turkey. Still, religion is not easily eradicated; religion has a way of transforming itself and emerging in unforeseen ways. Religion can be privatized, but it will not always stay at home, for religion is an expansive force in human life, it is an urge toward greater good, toward greater freedom, and this urge found a decisive vehicle in the person of Fethullah Gülen. Gülen was raised in a Muslim home, but by all accounts, it was a progressive home life. As Helen Ebaugh says in her study of the movement: “Mr. Gülen was raised in a circle of people who were constantly exploring spirituality and its place in the modernizing world” (2010, 24). As a young man he was introduced to the writings of Said Nursi, the great Sufi scholar of the revolution. Although Ataturk’s secularism won the day after the revolution, Nursi’s progressive Islam continued to influence many Turks, and Gülen’s own developing vision of Islam for our global society is greatly indebted to Nursi’s thinking. To quote Ebaugh again: “Nursi had developed ideas of a modern Islam that insisted on the necessity of a significant role for religious beliefs in public life while embracing scientific and technological developments” (2010, 24).
What is Gülen’s vision of a modern Islam, and how does religion become a public force in a secular state that suppresses its expression? My trip to Turkey helped me to see the answer to such questions. I witnessed two cornerstones of the Gülen movement: education and dialog. Both of these are essential elements of the bridge that Gülen has built between Islam, the U.S., and the rest of the world. The Islam that Gülen advocates stresses that education is not enemy of religious faith but an ally. As part of his own crossing over and coming back, Gülen followed in the footsteps of Nursi and learned everything he could about European culture, especially the scientific mentality, but also the economic, political and social scientific developments. And he then synthesized this with his vision of a progressive Islam. Progressive Islam means an Islam that sees the Qur’an and the traditions as compatible with reason and experience. Education in Gülen’s vision means an education in the sciences, but also an education that stresses moral character and spiritual development. The result is a worldview that is both spiritually rich and intellectually sophisticated. How did I discover this?
During my trip to Turkey we visited numerous schools that have been founded by the Gülen movement. We visited with the principals and teachers, the deans and the faculty, and of course the students. I witnessed their commitment, their diligence and their joy in learning. The educational institutions the movement is sustaining for the children of Turkey, (and growingly across the globe), will greatly increase the real-life opportunities for these children to develop into the full personhood that God intended. These schools integrate scientific knowledge with ethical values; they address the whole person. As Gülen himself says, “The main duty and purpose of life is to seek understanding. The effort of doing so, known as education, is a perfecting process through which we earn, in the spiritual, intellectual and physical dimensions of our beings, the rank appointed for us as the perfect pattern of creation” (2006, 202). Nothing could be more important to a country’s development; GDP is important, but real human development is more important. We know this is so in America, but we are not emphasizing it as strongly as many in the Gülen movement are. We could learn something about education here.
Not only did we visit schools, but I was welcomed into the homes of volunteers active in the Gülen movement. While we enjoyed Turkish foods, we discussed serious matters: what was the aim of the movement? What was taught in the schools? Did instruction include ethics and religious matters? What did the “reading circles,” the gatherings of followers of Gülen, read and discuss? How will the movement be affected when Gülen passes away? And the individuals whose homes I visited wanted to hear about my impressions of Turkey; they wanted to learn about America: What was happening to education in America? What was the religious climate like in America? Who are the leaders? We engaged in genuine substantive dialogue about faith and life. How refreshing to visit with adults and discuss topics of real significance!
What was really transformative for me, and what led me to realize that this is a movement of profound depth, were these visits with individuals and families committed to the movement’s aims of education and dialog. The people involved in the Gülen movement are on a spiritual adventure; they are not defending a static vision, but one that affirms dialog across cultures and religions. They are passing over and coming back. I will confess to you that my study of religion and other cultures had been (up to this point) mostly of East Asian traditions, especially Buddhism. I came to appreciate Buddhist perspectives on the human spiritual situation. I have not disowned my Christian heritage, but I have incorporated some of the Buddhist wisdom in my Christian faith. I passed over and came back. But now I have passed over and come back again; I have come back to my faith with a new appreciation of Islam, and I now incorporate the wisdom of the Gülen movement into my Christian worldview.
Finally, I think that the Gülen movement has been so successful in large part because of the soil from which it emerged. This soil was a culture where religion was looking for a way to express itself in public without overstepping what was (to most Turks) an increasingly successful process of modernization. But that is true for many places in our world today. People are hungry for a world view that does not ask them to deny their spiritual heritage, that allows them to express their faith in public ways, but one that also does not ask them to deny their neighbor’s religious standpoint, but learn from their neighbor, nor to deny the science and technology that have lead to great gains for human life today. I predict that the Gülen movement will afford many people an answer to these yearnings; it provides a vision for a post-modern spirituality, one at home in an interdependent pluralistic world.
The Sociologist Peter Berger has written that there are “three options that all contemporary religious communities now face: to resist pluralism, to withdraw from it, or to engage with it. None is without difficulties and risks, but only engagement is compatible with liberal democracy. Engagement means that the tradition is carried into the open discourse of the culture and that those who represent the tradition make unapologetic truth claims” (Berger, 2005). The Gülen movement is a religious vision that is engaging our pluralistic world; the movement is not simply compatible with democracy, it is a force for democracy in our world. Furthermore, the Gülen movement proves that we can engage in diversity, that we can take our spiritual voice into the public square of liberal democracy, and make our truth claims while we yet listen to, acknowledge and evaluate the other parties’ truth claims. Indeed, the movement that bears Fethullah Gülen’s name is a way to spiritually pass over and come back, come back enriched and transformed. The Gülen movement is spiritual bridge for our time.
Dr. Mehl is a Professor of Philosophy & Religion at the University of Central Arkansas.
Berger, Peter. “Religious Pluralism for a Pluralistic Age” http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/berger1/English (accessed February 21, 2012)
Dunne, John S. 1972. The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Ebaugh, Helen Rose. 2010. The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam, New York: Springer.
Gülen, M. Fethullah. 2006. Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, Somerset, NJ: The Light, Inc.