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.
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, no matter where we live.
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. 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.
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 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.
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? 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 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.
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”. 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?
What was really transformative for me, and what led me to realize that this is a movement of profound depth, 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.
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 led 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 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 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.
(In arrangement with The Fountain Magazine)