• Issue 2017 / Special 2017

    "Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair" - The Hizmet Movement of Fethullah Gülen and the Common Good – A Perspective from the UK

    Ian Williams

    Hizmet (service, in Turkish) movement associated with the Turkish teacher
    Fethullah Gülen [b. 1941] is part of the emerging “European Islam” which has
    its own diversity in the expression of Turkish-Muslim identity.  The movement is active globally in education,
    media, inter-religious dialogue, finance, and relief work. In Britain, Hizmet
    has been particularly active in education and interfaith dialogue, and has made
    a significant contribution to the common good over the past twenty years. Hizmet
    is a living expression of Mevlana Rumi’s assertion that faith in the One God is
    far from being “… a Caravan of Despair” (Citlak & Bingul 2004, 8).

    article is being written at a time of national stress in the UK and Turkey. In
    the latter, following the July, 2016, coup attempt, Hizmet followers have faced
    extraordinary pressure, most of it illegal, from the ruling AKP government. Without
    providing any evidence, the government has claimed Hizmet – a hitherto benign,
    pro-social, pro-democratic, and apolitical movement – plotted and carried out
    the coup attempt. Thousands of citizens suspected of association with the
    Hizmet movement have been imprisoned, exiled, or dismissed from their
    professions by the AKP government. A critical analysis of such hostility is

    In the UK,
    the same time period has been marked by a divisive Referendum on the nation’s
    membership in the European Union, four terrorist attacks in Manchester and
    London, and a housing tower block fire in London, which claimed over 80 lives,
    including those of many immigrants. 

    looking at the UK, one must examine the key role faith communities such as
    Hizmet have played in uniting divided societies over racism, Islamophobia,
    economic inequalities, and weakening public services.  Christian, Muslim, and Jewish national and
    local leaders have come together to establish a common platform of accord and
    mutual respect.  Hizmet, with its educational
    and inter-faith dialogue centres in major English cities such as London,
    Birmingham, and Manchester, has offered both spaces and opportunities for
    mutual engagement, as well as Qur’anically based understandings of the dynamics
    of successful religio-socially plural national cultures.

    Islam, a
    rich and strong tradition that thrives across many diverse societies, is both a
    living faith and has enabled generations of Muslims to address social
    developments, justice, and both corporate and individual questions of identity
    and ethics. Drawing on the Qur’an, Hadith, Sunnah, and fiqh, new Islamic social
    movements have constantly formed fresh public spaces in which new identities
    and lifestyles could emerge, not least in the UK. 

    Some of
    the finest expressions of Islam have occurred under the most pluralist,
    religio-social circumstances, where intellectual discourse, educational
    achievements, and social harmony have flourished. Amongst contemporary Islamic
    thinkers who are professedly concerned with
    interpreting historical sources and practicing their faith in an
    "Islamically correct" manner, Fethullah Gülen is the spiritual father
    of what is probably the most active Turkish-Islamic movement of the late 20th
    and early 21st centuries.

    considering Hizmet, one soon realizes that Fethullah Gülen is neither an
    innovator with a new and unique theology nor a revolutionary. His understanding
    of Islam is oriented within the conservative mainstream, and his arguments are
    rooted in the traditional sources of Islam. They stand in a lineage represented
    through al-Ghazali, Mevlana Jalal ud-Din Rumi, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, and in
    company with
    Muhammad Asad and Muhammad
    Naquib Syed Al-Attas, and
    Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

    movement – one amongst many on a spectrum which verges from pro-social civic
    based groups to aggressive factions – is distinctive in emphasizing high
    quality educational institutions, both in Turkey and internationally. Schools
    have been founded and staffed by Turkish nationals in developing states as well
    as in powerful, economically developed countries such as the USA and the UK. Hizmet
    members have also organized many academic conferences throughout the last 20
    years, drawing international panels of academics and researchers to explore
    issues of human exploration and co-operation.

    While Hizmet
    members have been organizing these schools and conferences, the current AKP
    government has adopted an aggressive version of “Political Islamism,” which
    brooks no contrasting expressions of a benign Islam, asserting its autocratic
    style by dismissing academics, teachers, judges, public servants, and military
    officers, amongst others, in an effort to consolidate its power over the
    Turkish state. This has led to a “state in exile” for many suspected of
    association with the Hizmet approach.

    What, however,
    mechanisms have allowed these extremist elements to emerge and seize such
    power? It’s worth examining, so we can fully understand the value Hizmet brings
    to the world.


    Defensiveness is pathogenic

    In today's complex and globalized
    world, migration and inter-culturalism have become the norm. In many countries
    there is no official, shared, “public” religion.

    In a
    sociological analysis of why high rates of strict religion for developed
    countries such as the UK and other European states, Steve Bruce formulated the
    concept of “cultural transition and defence," explaining how defensiveness
    can bolster extreme types of religiosity, including those that advocate
    violence (Bruce 1996, p. 165, 197). A significant issue here is lack of a Western
    center of Islam that makes it necessary for Muslims to study abroad. Cesari and
    Ramadan assert strongly that an independent Western Islam must emerge in order
    to solve problems associated with radicalization (Cesari 2004, and Ramadan 2004).
    The Hizmet movement is in prime position to offer such a model of Islam.

    The central
    majority of a religion often used social pressure to control extremists. If the
    central mass of believers dwindles in numbers, the growth of literalist and
    extremist factions will likely continue unchecked.


    Sectarian literalism

    there has always been a contention between monotheistic traditions and other
    traditions of faith, just as that contention has existed among themselves. While
    the Abrahamic religions affirm monotheism, resist deviation, and oppose
    constructed deities, their core values emphasize openness to diversity. Textual
    literalism, however, has made the new monotheism politically sectarian,
    schismatic and aggressive, while social and moral laws have been deemed
    inferior by this new emphasis. This development has heralded a new type of
    political order inevitably hostile to all other civic ideals (Fenn 2009, 135). This
    irrationality has had, and does have, serious and deadly consequences.

    uncritical literalists aim to cleanse “false believers” from their midst, or to
    separate themselves from them. This is why literalism can lead to violence and
    usually leads to schisms (Harris 2004, 409). To be a literalist is to destroy
    the majority of depth and emotion of any written religion. The only advantage
    of the literalist’s uncritical attitude to scripture is that it caters to the
    simplistic mind craving order. Such is the strategy and mindset of the AKP
    leadership and its persecution of devout people influenced by Hizmet and
    Fethullah Gülen.


    Disdaining pluralism

    Extremists enforce strict moral codes in
    accordance with their beliefs, and sometimes, such as during the Christian
    Medieval periods, they violently suppress dissent.  They disdain pluralism as abnormal: cuius regio, eius religio.


    During such times, minority religious groups have no choice but to argue
    for religious plurality as a matter of self-survival. But even during less
    stressful times it is critical to value pluralism, which lifts up minority
    voices and ensures a diverse society, where different voices and beliefs are
    given equal footing. 


    When a singular political ideology such as the AKP’s Islamist ideology becomes
    entrenched and encroaches upon the arenas of public education and politics, a
    dangerous possibility emerges: its leaders, comfortable in power, will no
    longer see the need for pluralism, which is the seed-bed of a healthy normal
    society. Such an order needs to be reminded of a possible new dark age. 


    need for fixed stars, for certainty in the midst of our tenuous lives on an
    unpredictable planet, is real and understandable. Political and religious leaders
    who can package and deliver absolute truths find receptive audiences, but do
    not create healthy societies. A movement such as Hizmet, with its openness to contemporary
    human enterprise, research, education, democracy, and diversity, threatens such
    We need to think of such an
    expression of Islam as the Hizmet movement does: with support for a full menu
    of pluralism, democratic and constitutional freedoms, universal human rights,
    and religious diversity.


    beliefs are exemplified by Hizmet, a de-centralized polymorphic social
    movement, which
    less than thirty years has made significant contributions to inter-communal and
    national peace, inter-religious dialogue, economic development, and education. These
    contributions are evident in the Movement’s activities, research, platforms,
    and creative influence in the UK and around the globe. In a time of anxiety and
    despondency, Hizmet represents a “Caravan of Hope” rather than a train of



    Rev. Dr. Ian G.
    Williams teaches and supervises research in Islamic Studies at the Markfield
    Institute of Higher Education / Newman University, UK.




    Bruce, Steve. 1996. Religion in the Modern
    World: From Cathedrals to Cults
    , Oxford: Oxford University Press.


    Cesari, Jocelyne. 2004. When Islam and Democracy Meet,
    London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


    Citlak, M.  Fatih & Bingul,
    Huseyin. 2007, Rumi and his Sufi Path of
    Istanbul/New York: Tughra


    Fenn, Richard K. 2009. Key Thinkers in the Sociology
    of Religion
    . London: Continuum International Publishing Group.


    Harris, Harriet A. 2004. “Fundamentalisms”
    in "Encyclopedia of New Religions," Partridge,
    Christopher  Oxford, Lion Publishing.


    Ramadan, Tariq. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam
    Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2004.


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