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Civic Service Without Borders
Jul 1, 2011

The Gulen Movement: Civic Service without Borders
Muhammed Çetin
New York: Blue Dome Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-935295-08-2
Hardcover, US$ 18.95
400 pages

“[The Gulen Movement] educates and socializes individuals without individualizing and politicizing the social.” (p. 152)

The Gulen Movement (hereafter GM), as it is usually referred to in English, has attracted the attention of “critical public minds and scholarship” throughout the world in recent years for two important reasons. First, Fethullah Gulen’s ideas and praxis demonstrate the potential role of religion in reshaping the present violent, conflict ridden world into an inclusive, humanistic society and world order based on the principles of pluralism, intercultural dialogue, and mutual living. Second and more important, Gulen, through his twin tools of Islamic hermeneutics and public actions, particularly in the field of education, has restored the “humane face of Islam” in the public eye—something that was lost due to centuries of a radical, positivist, secular and Orientalist narrative of Islam and more recently due to acts of violence in the name of Islam—and has demonstrated the complementarity of Islam and modernity. This reconciliation of faith and reason—both in terms of theory and action—solves a conundrum that has plagued the Islamic scholars for long.

Çetin’s Gulen Movement: Civic Service Without Borders is an important contribution to a chain of literature that has surfaced on the GM in recent years. The title itself is an indication that the author sees the movement in transnational perspective and attempts to uplift the movement from “its narrow Turkish national location,” which is otherwise a dominant trend in the scholarly writings on the GM. Though the author did locate the emergence of GM in the national-political context of modern Turkey, the “Islamic civil ethic” or “service ethic”—what is called hizmet in Gulen’s Islamic philosophy—has inherent potential to outgrow the originating national-political context.

No scholarly work on Islamic movements in modern Turkey is possible without a reference to the background of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi and his work. Nursi was a remarkable scholar of twentieth-century Turkey who, through his Risale-i Nur collection of epistles on Qur’anic thought, preserved the religious spirit in the secularizing society. However the near absence of reference of Nursi’s work in this book is surprising. This may be partly due to author’s approach and methodology that treats GM as social phenomenon rather than a religious phenomenon. This approach helps the reader to understand Gulen and the Hizmet movement that has flourished around his ideas and inspirations as a transnational social service movement. Çetin thus circumvents misperceptions that are very likely to arise from exclusively religious labels and associations. The Islamic dimension of the GM comes through the inspirational and motivational dimension of Islamic history and Islam-inspired values that Gulen utilizes in constructing a non-violent, peaceful, multicultural world. All this is done without having an exclusively “Islamic project,” which is otherwise the hallmark of political or cultural-social Islamic movements throughout the world.

The strength of Çetin’s book lies in his comprehensive treatment of the GM. This is one of the first scholarly works that provide a detailed description of diverse features within the GM. Most of the previous works on this subject matter has dealt with one or another aspect of the GM. This integrated approach helps in enriching the understanding of the full breadth of the movement. Using the framework of multi-causality, or what author called “syncretic perspective,” Çetin first examined the dominant social movement theories (particularly, Resource Mobilization theory, Political Opportunity theory and Frame theory) and found them inadequate in explaining a faith-based movement such as the GM in non-Western societies. These theories, according to the author, suffer from the limitation of a political economy perspective that does not take into consideration the role of a “subjective idea” or at best treats it as a “dependent variable” in the emergence of a particular social phenomenon or movement. But this restrictive theoretical framework is incapable of comprehending the non-conflictual, voluntary, philanthropist, altruist, faith-based GM as political economy theories primarily operate on the “principle of selective cooperation and opposition” to state actions. The author strongly contends that the GM has registered a strong social presence (in people’s consciousness) through chains of study centers, publishing houses, periodicals, training and scholarship, institutions for preparatory courses for university entrance exams, healthcare facilities, dormitories for the students, aid to poor and vulnerable sections of society, press and media organs and other socio-educational public institutions. This social position was established before the GM became highly visible in the public sphere in Turkey and Çetin rejects the perspective that links the emergence of the GM with the recognition and tacit support of state institutions, particularly in the 1980s, a period marked by “Islamic-Turkish synthesis nationalism.” Rather, the author exposes the politics of the elite, or what he called the “protectionist group,” in the name of “secularism” and “nationalism” in order to perpetuate its hold over the resources of the country and to this end long throttled the emergence of the democratic potential of Turkish society. It was Gulen’s Islamic mediated ideas, viewpoints, ethical and moral messages and the GM’s plethora of associated educational and social activities, which were/are conducted with sensitivity to “due process of law” and legal diligence, that gradually brought a shift in normative-cultural meaning of life that focuses on the cooperative instincts of human beings, the value of living together, dialogue and respect for multiple identities, which in turn also affected people’s perceptions and norms of “politics” and “development” and in the process refashioned the public space and revitalized and consolidated the process of democratization.

Çetin tries to envision—though more elaboration is needed—Gulen’s humanitarian ideas as an alternative theory for constructing a human society based on principles of cooperative instincts, the ethics of self sacrifice, and the compassionate behavior of human beings—a theory over against the modernist assumption that treats human beings as primarily selfish, egoistic, conflictual, hedonistic, and violent, naturally needing to be controlled and disciplined through coercion and indoctrination in order to create the kind of order found in the mechanized, contractual human society. This partly also explains why Gulen’s philosophy, like that of Mahatma Gandhi, does not evoke the perception of the “other.” Unlike many contemporary Islamic movements, Gulen does not see the West as the “threatening other” but a source of many positive values that Muslims need to reflect upon.

Combining the framework of a “material-ideational matrix” with an outsider-insider perspective and drawing largely from an empirical investigation based on interviews and questionnaires, the author seeks to explain both the emergence of the GM primarily as a “cultural actor” and also its multifaceted dimensions: democratic, participatory, peaceful, non-violent, insistent on working within the legal framework of the political system, voluntary and autonomous participation, lacking any organizational power, non-political, non-ideological, absence of any central text, non-requirement of formal membership, no ritual, no insignia, etc. In summary, the movement aims at the moral and ethical transformation of the individual self in the light of Islamic values and norms in order to sensitize the individual self about the “goodness” of collective civil action without politicizing the same or stimulating an expectation of material gain. The quotation by Çetin as highlighted in the beginning of this review best captures the mood, orientation, and thrust of the GM.

A cursory reading of this book gives an impression that Nursi’s search for “unity of heart and mind” has found a place in the GM. However, since this book studies the GM from a social movement theory, it does not deal with the key concepts or doctrine of Fethullah Gulen or even his philosophy of education—the most important dimension of the GM upon which rests the creation of Gulen’s “golden generation” that will shape the future world. The notion of hizmet, or ethic of service, is an Islamic value as old as Islam itself, exemplified in the institution of waqf. What, therefore, explains the re-emergence of an ethic of service as a central category in Gulen’s Islamic thought and the wider dissemination and acceptance of this value as an “everyday Islamic working value?” In this regard, the book does not address the question of “how and why?”—the agency, processes and reasons for the emergence of the GM—but describes and narrates only the “what?” about the movement.

No single book is sufficient to cover all aspects of a social phenomenon as global as the GM; thus, having read this book, the reader is still left with some difficult, unanswered questions: Why will the moral and ethical values which are deeply embedded in Gulen’s notion of hizmet, philanthropy, altruism, and voluntarism resonate with large masses in today’s context? Is the GM a postmodern phenomenon? Is it an Islamic movement, a social movement, or something in between? Is it a class-based or multiclass phenomenon? What is the dominant social base of this movement? Has the GM adopted the postmodern conceptions of life process that reject nation-centered discourse and focus on people-centered discourse, which, in turn, might partly explain its success and appeal?

Despite such questions unaddressed, the book is a must-read for all students and scholars who have an interest in discourse about social change.

Anwar Alam
Professor and Director, Centre for West Asia Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi