In Conversation with Fethullah Gülen:
In the first part of this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the Turkish Islamic scholar talks about the Hizmet movement, the Turkish government ban on private prep schools, the Hanafi school of Islam, and the relationship between Islam, politics and democracy.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Over the last 10 years and up until the Gezi Park protests that erupted in Istanbul last May, Turkey’s democratic and mostly secular political system was hailed by many as a model for other Muslim-majority nations across the Middle East.Much of the credit has gone to the leader and founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Since he entered the office of prime minister in 2003, Turkey has found the stability needed to tame chronic inflation and re-establish itself as a regional economic powerhouse. The ever-looming specter of military intervention in the country’s political life under the banner of the defense of Atatürk’s secular state has been sidelined. Tangible progress has been achieved in the peace process with the Kurds. Under the guidance of a succession of very active foreign ministers, Turkey managed to push ahead important reforms with an eye on EU membership, while at the same time opening other diplomatic options in the face of the skepticism from EU member states.
But the Turkish honeymoon has come to an end. At the center of the storm is Erdoğan himself, accused by the opposition of succumbing to the arrogance of power and of pursuing an agenda to Islamize Turkey. His heavy-handed response to protests and a succession of recent corruption probes and allegations involving AKP ministers, as well as the prime minister and his close family, have only added fuel to the fire.
For the AKP leadership and many observers of Turkey, it is the supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the hugely popular Turkish Islamic scholar who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who are behind the allegations and the anonymous release of audio recordings with the purpose of incriminating the prime minister. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of running a “parallel state” and of infiltrating the police and the judiciary. Gülen has publicly denied those accusations.
The Turkish government has now transferred hundreds of policemen and pushed forward new laws to monitor the Internet and govern the work of the judiciary. Last year’s widely opposed bill to close private preparatory schools (known as dershanes in Turkish), many of which are run by the Hizmet (“Service”) movement led by Gülen, was approved by parliament earlier this month.
Critics of Gülen believe the Hizmet movement, which runs over 2,000 privately owned educational premises in 160 countries around the world, is pursuing a secret agenda to Islamize Turkey. Many others note the movement has no formal organization and official membership, and that Gülen has long been an advocate of peace, tolerance, humanism, science, and a teacher of moderate Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, rather than of political Islam.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Mr Gülen on the eve of Turkey’s municipal elections, considered an important barometer for the forthcoming presidential elections this summer and the parliamentary polls scheduled for next year.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you see your millions of supporters and the hundreds of schools established by your followers around the world as a single, integrated movement?
Fethullah Gülen: Personally, I don’t think it is right to call people my supporters or any other person’s supporters. I have frequently emphasized that it hurts me greatly to witness people being referred to by their ideological designations. I would like to emphatically note that these people come together voluntarily to implement projects which they find reasonable and logical. While it is a movement inspired by faith, this community of volunteers develops and delivers reasonable and universally acceptable projects which are in full compliance with humanitarian values and which aim to promote individual freedoms, human rights and peaceful coexistence for all people regardless of their faith. Accordingly, people from every nation and religion have either welcomed these projects or have lent active or passive, direct or indirect, support to them in 160 countries around the world. In this sense, it is impossible to say that the composition of this movement is homogeneous.
This heterogeneity applies not only to the values nurtured by the participants in the Movement, but also to their sympathy toward or participation in the Movement’s projects. Some work as teachers in the schools abroad, while others pay stipends or allocate part of their time to voluntary services, etc. They are people from a diverse array of ethnic, religious or political groups who voluntarily come together in light of certain common values. [Those values include] freedom, human rights, respect for beliefs, accepting everyone for who they are, openness to dialogue, dislike for abuse of religion for political ends, respect for laws, refraining from the abuse of state resources, asserting that there is no turning back from democracy, rejecting the use of the state resources and coercion to transform individuals or societies or impose certain religious beliefs on them, trust in civil society, and promoting peace through educational activities. [It also includes more religious values such as] seeking the consent of the Creator in every act or word, loving the created for the sake of the Creator, reinforcing the moral values of individuals irrespective of their religious or other values, etc. While several names have been used to date to refer to them, the term Camia in Turkish, which means a large community of diverse people, or “movement” in English, seems to be best one. I can say that these people—who are banded together in light of the foregoing values—despite not constituting a homogenous group, sport such a spirit or awareness of unity and integrity that they cannot be manipulated into breaching the above-mentioned values.
Q: What do you think about the Turkish government’s move to ban private prep schools?
In the first place, I must state that prep schools are a necessary byproduct of the Turkish educational system’s shortcomings. They are legitimate businesses run by people in full compliance with existing laws and in line with the principle of free enterprise, which are enshrined in the Constitution. Secondly, even those associated with the Hizmet Movement are not run directly by the Movement itself, but by a number of private companies belonging to businesspeople who are personally inspired by the Movement. They operate under the constant educational and financial supervision of the public authorities. Moreover, they dutifully pay their taxes to the state. What is more, only a small proportion of the prep schools in Turkey belong to businesspeople affiliated with the Community.
Given that nothing is being done to eliminate the grave problems facing the country’s educational system, of which prep schools are a natural byproduct, trying to shut them down can therefore hardly be seen as a well-intentioned effort. These institutions provide aspiring students with consulting and educational services in certain fields, such as mathematics and science, and operate according to the laws of the land. If the state forces these schools to shut down, it would deal a blow to both access to education as well as the principles of free enterprise.
Furthermore, it is a fact that the teachers who act in accordance with the Movement’s basic principles tend to be positive, proactive, upright, honest, hard-working and non-discriminatory, and that this can have a positive influence on their students.
Thus, we observe that these prep schools are, thankfully, successful in combating students’ harmful habits, such as smoking, alcoholism and even drug use, which constitute huge problems for state schools. Despite the fact that these institutions have never acted in breach of Turkey’s laws and moral values or universal human values and democracy, and that the plan to shut down them has not been sufficiently debated, and that many people want them to remain open, the decision to proceed to ban these schools will eliminate the continuation of such positive impacts and successes into the future.
Q: You have always denied having political ambitions, but you have followers within the state apparatus. Do you think this works to your advantage in Turkey?
First of all, I must note that this Movement does not pursue political aims, but aims to serve humanity through educational, social and cultural activities. It invests all its time and energy in these services. It aims to solve social problems by focusing on individuals.
In my sermons, I have stated that we have enough mosques but not enough schools. I have encouraged the congregation to try to open schools instead of mosques—many of which were empty at the time. If we nurtured any political aim, such as establishing a political party, various signs of our aim would have become manifest during the past 40 to 50 years. Over time, various political positions and ranks have been offered to me and my friends, but we rejected them all. If the Movement had political aspirations, it would have established a political party in 2001, when the political scene was quite suitable for such an initiative, but it did not. Likewise, if we really wanted to, we would have ensured that we had many supporters in the ruling parties that have come to office to date, but we did not. Until very recently, there had been only two Members of Parliament associated with the Hizmet Movement in the ruling party, which is known to everyone.
I have never approved of the instrumentalization of religion or religious values to attain political ends, the abuse of religion with political motives, or the use of religious slogans in political contexts. Of course, it is legitimate for people to engage in political activities, and although we are not involved in politics—such as by establishing a political party—we do not preclude others from doing so. Indeed, political parties are essential constituents of any democratic system. Of course, the Hizmet Movement does not seek to establish a political party. Yet the Movement’s fundamental dynamics and common universal values, which I tried to elucidate in response to an earlier question of yours, do have political implications. Individually or collectively, participants in this Movement who are engaged in educational, social and charitable projects may have demands from politics and politicians. But these legitimate demands are always sought through legitimate means and, in this process, unlawful, illegitimate or unethical methods are strictly avoided and counseled against.
Participants in and supporters of the Hizmet Movement naturally expect its administrators to promote the rule of law, human rights, freedoms, peace, freedom of thought and enterprise, and stability and order in the country, [and they also expect] that they [the political leaders] work to eliminate chaos and anarchy and ensure that everyone is accepted as they are. Such participants resort to civilian and democratic means available to them to raise their voices about shortcomings in this regard. Raising public awareness is both a civic duty and one of the goals of civil society. No one can be forced to establish a political party in order to do this, and those who raise public awareness about these shortcomings cannot be accused of pursuing political goals, trying to partner with the ruling party, or meddling with democratically elected representatives. This is how it works in any true democracy.
Political parties and free elections are prerequisites of a democratic system, but they are not sufficient on their own. The effective and smooth functioning of civil society is important as well. It is wrong to say that elections are the only way to hold politicians accountable to the public. With its media, organized structure, legal activities, petitions and social media messages, civil society continuously supervises the ruling party and checks whether it is fulfilling its promises. Those who sympathize with our Movement tend to refrain from involvement in partisan politics and from seeking political careers. But this does not mean that, as members of civil society, we relinquish our responsibility to hold politicians to account.
Furthermore, the Hizmet Movement does not have a homogenous composition and it does not have a central or hierarchical structure, so its participants do not have a single political view. Therefore, it is unreasonable for it to closely support any specific political party. The Movement’s participants have their personal political views, and the Movement does not impose any specific view on its participants. The Movement is not focused on elections or political developments, but on projects that promote common universal values. Likewise, the Movement does not meddle with the internal affairs or political developments of any country. Wherever it goes, it seeks to develop and implement civil, educational, cultural and humanitarian projects. Since it sticks with this principle, the Movement is able to be active in 160 countries around the world.
If it is true that there are people who are sympathetic to the values and projects of the Movement working in various positions within the Turkish state but whose identities are not readily obvious—it is both unlawful and unethical to attempt to profile them through various methods. Public servants who are said to be sympathetic to the Movement are bound by the laws, by-laws and the code of conduct of the authorities they work for, and they are strictly subordinated to their superiors and their duties are defined by the relevant laws. I really don’t know if or how this may be an advantage for any social group.
Let me repeat a point: In any state there may be those who feel affection towards me or towards another person or who sympathize with an intellectual or ideological movement. This is quite normal. No one should or can meddle with the personal convictions, beliefs or worldviews of another person. The people who graduate from schools associated with the Movement or who sympathize with the ideals promoted by the Movement are expected to act in a way that is honest and respectful of the rule of law, human rights and democratic principles, [regardless of] whatever positions they assume in public office.
If there are people within the state bureaucracy who take orders from an ideological or other group instead of obeying the orders of their superiors or the provisions of laws and regulations, they must be found and punished, even if they claim to be acting on my behalf. If there are public servants who claim to sympathize with the Hizmet Movement [who] commit crimes, investigations should be swiftly launched against them; they must be brought to justice. The Movement’s stance regarding transparency and accountability is clear and will remain so.
Yet, as you might appreciate, only political systems which rest upon the principle of full transparency can demand that civil society be transparent as well. It is a sign of insincerity to refrain from making the state and politics more transparent while telling everyone else to be more transparent. The latest wave of profiling, wiretapping and bureaucratic purges in Turkey reinforces the point I make. Thousands of public officials have been reassigned without any disciplinary procedure following the December 17 corruption investigations. The public still does not know the criteria that are being used to identify who should be reassigned where. The entire process gives the impression of an arbitrary process.
Q: Do you believe Islam should be given more room in the public sphere and in politics?
Islam, as a religion, is a set of principles and practices based on divine revelation which guides human beings to absolute goodness through their own free will and shows them how to strive to become a “perfect person.” People can live their religion in any way they please in a democratic country which allows people to enjoy their religious beliefs freely. In such a country, free elections are held in compliance with democratic principles and universal human rights and freedoms, and people freely voice their demands of their representatives. They do this by casting their votes at the elections and through using other democratic rights available to them. They can do this individually or collectively by participating in the activities of civil society groups. I always reject the idea of treating religion as a political ideology.
In my opinion, a Muslim should continue to act as a Muslim in social life and in the private, public, civilian and bureaucratic spheres. In other words, a Muslim is supposed to stick to Islam’s moral and ethical values everywhere and at all times. Theft, bribery, looting, graft, lying, gossip, backbiting, adultery and moral lowness are sins and are illegitimate in every context. These sins cannot be committed for political or other purposes and no one can issue a fatwa allowing their commission. At the same time, these acts of corruption are generally deemed by universally accepted norms as criminal offences. If an individual has lost his or her moral integrity in these respects, what is the use of this individual assuming a role within a public body or within a political faction? Like anyone else, I would like to see these ethical positions adopted by all people who hold public office, whether as a civil servant or as a politician. Indeed, the above-listed afflictions are the main source of complaints about public bodies and political structures everywhere around the world.
Let me put it blatantly: If Muslims can freely cherish their religion, perform their religious duties and rituals, establish institutions defined by their religion, teach their religious values to their children or other aspirants, speak their mind about their religion in public debates, and make religious demands in compliance with laws and democracy, then they do not have to try to establish a religious or “Islamic” state. We know from history that rebellions, revolutions, uprisings and other violent incidents that have the potential to drag a country into chaos and anarchy will eventually make us lose our democratic and human rights achievements and lead to irreparable damage to that country. As a matter of fact, if a country’s administration is forcibly seized and people are forced to become religious, it would turn them into hypocrites. These people will pretend to be pious at home, but when they go abroad, they will indulge in the most extreme forms of sin and irreverent and irreligious acts. In such a country, respect for the rule of law diminishes and hypocrisy increases. If you look closely at diverse experiences in different countries, you will realize that my seemingly abstract words rely on concrete cases and observations.
Q. Do you think Islam can be reconciled with democracy in Turkey? How could a successful reconciliation of the two affect Turkey’s European Union membership bid?
Turkey has been governed by democratic rule, despite its shortcomings, since the 1950s. Democracy is a popular form of governance around the world. The preliminary moves to transition our country’s administration to democracy were made by the Ottoman sultans, who were caliphs at the same time, in 1876, and non-Muslim deputies constituted one-third of the first democratically elected parliament. It is wrong to see Islam as conflicting with democracy and vice versa. Perhaps it can be argued that democracy is a system that fits well with Islam’s governance-related principles, both in terms of its allowing the rulers to be accountable to the ruled and its being the opposite of despotism, which is defined by Islam as an evil form of governance. Islam is readily compatible with human rights, democratic elections, accountability, the supremacy of law, and other basic principles. When I said “there will be no turning back from democracy; it is not perfect, but the best system we have,” in 1994, certain groups raised objections to my assertion. But there are numerous implementations and types of democracy. We can hardly say it is a perfect form of governance. It is still going through a process of perfection.
A country where life and mind, as well as property, family and religious freedoms are protected, and where individual rights and freedoms are not restricted save for in exceptional cases such as war, minorities are treated as equal citizens and do not face any discrimination, and people are allowed to freely discuss and implement their personal, social and political views—this would be a country which is suitable for Islam. If people can freely express their views and beliefs, cherish their religion, perform their religious duties and rituals, and have freedoms such as freely acquiring property, neither Muslims nor practitioners of other religions are supposed to change the regime in that country. In countries where they cannot enjoy these liberties, they should try to obtain them through democratic means, but never by resorting to violence.
I believe that Islam and democracy can coexist peacefully not only in Turkey, but also in Muslim countries or, more precisely, in predominantly Muslim countries. We sadly observe that in countries where democracy is demonized, human rights violations, moral and legal turmoil, and religious and ethnic disputes and conflicts abound. Currently, democracy is evolving to become a common asset and custom, as it were, of the entire human race. In countries that comply with the EU standards, Muslims are entitled to cherish, implement, represent, and even promote and teach their religion. Both as individuals and as a community, our essential duty is to cherish and represent our religion.
Turkey is not described as a full-fledged democracy. Practicing Muslims who were oppressed in the past, such as Muslim female students who were banned from wearing headscarves on university campuses, have attained many rights as a result of the country’s EU bid. In this respect, the EU accession process has brought a number of benefits to Turkey. As part of this process, serious democratic reforms have been introduced to the country. If these reforms are maintained and Turkey’s democratic system can attain the EU standards regarding the rule of law and respect for human rights and freedoms, then I think Turkey’s Muslim identity will not be seen as a roadblock to its full membership. Even if anti-Islam fanatics block Turkey’s EU membership, the gains Turkey makes during its attempt at becoming a full member are still important wins for Turkey’s democracy. However, Turkey has recently started to backpedal from the EU democratic standards.
Q: Could you explain your vision of Hanafi Islam to our readers?
Such a thing is out of the question. Neither Hanafis nor other schools of Islamic jurisprudence can come up with their own interpretations of the basic tenets of Islam, but they are allowed to interpret certain aspects of Islam which are open to interpretation using a specific method. These interpretations may overlap with or contradict those of other schools. These interpretations are considered within the circle of Islam as long as they do not contradict the very spirit of Islam and the basic tenets of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The prevailing circumstances influenced the interpretations of the founding scholars of these various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Political and cultural circumstances, too, had an effect on these interpretations. But Imam Hanafi, Imam Shafi’i, Imam Malik and Imam Hanbal—may God be pleased with all of them—were sincere people who devoted their lives to Islam and who suffered numerous troubles in serving Islam. Through God’s will, these interpretations of Islam came to being thanks to their and their students’ hard work; these interpretations should be seen as an asset.
I try to stick to their tradition. In their understanding of Islam, protection of life, mind, property, family and religion prevails over the glorification of the state. [In addition,] people’s freedom of choice and enterprise is stressed; the role of reason, public interest and even social experience is acknowledged in addition to transmitted knowledge as a way of understanding divine revelations; the use of ijtihad—that is, interpretive reasoning—is encouraged in areas of the religion that are open to interpretation, reasoning and explanation; and the freedom to enjoin the good and forbid the evil is sought. [Furthermore], the freedom of practitioners of any religion to cherish their religion not only individually, but also the public sphere, is recognized; the respect for laws, public order, and peace is fostered; terror and the murder of innocent people are recognized as crimes against humanity; and reasoning is promoted as a method to be employed instead of coercion in the civilized world. [In their understanding] religion is defined as mainly consisting of spirituality, morality, belief in the Hereafter, worshiping God, perfection, empathetic understanding, representation, and good counseling. As a matter of fact, from a sociological perspective, this is how Islam has been accepted and interpreted in Anatolia for thousands of years. This perception of Islam defies all forms of violence, extremism and the politicization of religion, but promotes love, tolerance, mutual acceptance, humility, humbleness and inclusiveness. In the social and public sphere, this perception of Islam prioritizes rights, freedoms, justice and peace. That is, it seeks to create a social texture open in all respects.
Fethullah Gülen: “Disbelief may prevail, but tyranny will not”
The Turkish Islamic scholar discusses the Arab uprisings, the Sunni–Shi’ite sectarian tensions in the region, radicalism, and conservative Islam.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Arab uprisings, which were long in the making but caught everyone by surprise, are now in their fourth year. It remains as difficult today as it was four years ago to reach conclusions about developments that have brought both hope and despair to a region in crisis. For those most sceptical of the turmoil unleashed by the toppling of a series of dictators, the revolutions that have rocked the Arab world are still at risk of being hijacked by conservative Islamic forces.While there are moderate reasons for optimism, for example in the case of Tunisia where it all started, the war in Syria has become a human tragedy of huge proportions. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, the wave of refugees, and the involvement of various regional actors are threatening to plunge the whole region into chaos. Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to hold on to power has turned Syria into the main stage of Sunni–Shi’ite sectarian tensions today, and a golden opportunity for jihadists and would-be jihadists around the world. Amid increasing radicalization, the region’s diversity is in danger and minority groups and women fear as never before about the future.
Fethullah Gülen, who has spent most of his life thinking, teaching and writing about the place of Islam in the modern world, shares his thoughts on all these matters in this second part of his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Did the Arab uprisings come as a surprise to you?
Fethullah Gülen: I can say I was partially surprised. As far as I know, there are many experts specializing in the region and many authors who have written about international politics and strategy, but none of them predicted such large-scale turmoil. The people in the region are seeking to obtain democratic rights and promote the rule of law and, except for the use of violence, this should be perceived as a revolution. The existing situation in these countries and the ongoing victimization and suffering of people in the region are heart-rending, and any quick solution to this problem does not seem likely. “Disbelief may prevail, but tyranny will not” is a famous saying. Individually, there is unfortunately nothing much we can do for each other save praying to God for help.
When the incidents first broke out, I asked, ‘Is it an Arab spring or an Arab fall?’ I did so based on my instincts. Unfortunately, this is the quality of the manpower we have. It is easier to destroy than to build. It requires ten times more energy to put in place a new regime acceptable to the entire society than it does to overthrow the existing one. Unfortunately, our society still lacks the ability to do this. Also, we know from history that social fluctuations may develop in extremes. What matters are the internal dynamics within these fluctuations. What governs these fluctuations? What is circulating in the capillaries? If this is not calculated, these fluctuations may develop in any direction. Reliance solely on collective enthusiasm or collective action will not on its own breed authentic and accurate results.
At that time, I had said that “we should look at the groundswell.” Otherwise, the resulting damage could eclipse our expectations. As I was observing these incidents as an outsider, I never thought big changes would come up in a short time. We were witnessing big fluctuations, a big transformation. But it was obvious it would not make any difference in the short term. The past is rife with ordeals and troubles for Arab societies. They will patiently make cool-headed assessments that have long-term consequences, but this process should not be undermined with internal or external anti-democratic interventions.
Their quest for freedoms will naturally be remembered as the greatest achievement of our time. Yet history tells us that truly radical changes or attempted changes may lead to far greater damage or destruction than expected, and it takes time before societies settle down. As [Sunni scholar] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi aptly noted, we should combat the arch-enemies of the Umma (the Islamic community)—namely ignorance, poverty and disunity—with reasonable middle- and long-term projects for promoting education, science, art, trade, democracy, human rights, women’s empowerment, tolerance and dialogue. Any quest for democracy may fail if it does not stand on a firm foundation. The Hizmet Movement has long been trying to do this with schools, universities, business associations, charitable foundations, dialogue institutions and media outlets that employ constructive language for facilitating mutual understanding, negotiations and dialogue. It is our hope that these projects, backed by diverse segments of society, will help people establish societies where everyone lives happily, peacefully and prosperously. To this end, we pray to God both verbally and through our actions. Arab and Muslim societies do not have to wait for the introduction of full-fledged democratic governance before focusing on social projects.
Q: What is your assessment of the conflict in Syria? Is there anything else that could be done to stop this tragedy?
Unfortunately, the entire country has found itself in a deadlock. Developments have since shown that the late martyr Sayyid Ramadan Al-Bouti was right in his assessments of the situation. He represented the Sunni moderation (tamkin) model which, briefly put, says that the worst government is better than no government, anarchy or chaos, and that there is a risk of civil war when we try to overthrow a bad government under unfavorable conditions. Apparently, he knew that there was an asymmetrical balance between the two sides and that the army was under total control of the country’s ruling elites, who have been in power for the last 40 years, and that the army would not side with the majority. Bouti drew attention to the serious risks ahead in light of all this. If this crisis had not erupted, it would have been possible for Syria to slowly and peacefully evolve into a more prosperous and democratic country in the medium and long term, with the help of its serious commercial, political and social relations with Turkey. Perhaps the most tragic part of the crisis was the elimination of this possibility. At this stage, what should be done in the short term is to find political solutions that will stop the ongoing bloodshed, which would come as a partial relief to millions of innocent people who are affected by all that is happening. To this end, the international community must exert concerted efforts for a diplomatic solution.
Q: What are your comments on the Sunni–Shi’ite tensions in the Middle East?
People should not be discriminated against based on their Sunni or Shi’ite identities. Whatever their religion, belief or sect, individuals should be primarily seen as human beings. As human beings, people are entitled to fundamental human rights, and as citizens, they enjoy certain democratic rights. Moreover, religions or sects are not like modern political ideologies. The Sunni world should not have any problem with Shi’ite groups who nurture a love for our beloved Ahl Al-Bayt (the Prophet and his descendants). The principles of our religion do not allow any country to use oppression and abuse on the basis of sectarian differences in an effort to emerge as a regional power.
Throughout history, there have been efforts, generally led by Shi’ite leaders, to approximate Islamic schools of thought (Taqrib Al-Madhahib). Unfortunately, those Shi’ite leaders have tended to employ these approximation efforts for their expansionist purposes. Even Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who was initially warm to the idea, has been complaining about the attitude of these Shi’ite scholars in the last few years. Actually, while the problem appears to be the Sunni–Shi’ite tensions, the real problem is about political aims such as establishing hegemony and the expansion of influence and acquisition of regional power. Religions and sects are being used as means for attaining these goals. Certain politicians and states turn religion into a political ideology and restrict religion with their own narrow and repressive political mentalities. Likewise, there are attempts to turn Sunni or Shi’ite identities into stepping-stones for ideologies. No one can deny that today’s Iran is pursuing a sort of Persian nationalism disguised as Shi’ism. Of course, countries may nurture their specific national interests and try to protect them through legitimate means in the international arena. Leveraging and fomenting religious, sectarian or ethnic tension is not one of these legitimate means. All international organizations should combat this error.
If there are things which we believe to be wrong according to our point of view, there is nothing we can do other than to explain this to people in a civilized manner. Indeed, there is no compulsion in the religion. Unfortunately, certain people and groups have emerged who are making a misguided interpretation of the Sunni school and promoting violence and terror in the name of Sunnis. These groups are assuming destructive roles, causing the most damage to Islam itself. The Muslim world needs concord and alliance and peaceful settlement of political issues more than ever. It is essential for the Umma to dispense with such destructive attitudes and occurrences.
Q: Why are many young Sunni Arabs so prone to radical interpretations of Islam?
With every religion, we see there are groups who diverge away from the mainstream and adopt radical interpretations. It is hard to say that followers of a specific school, Sunni or Shi’ite, are more prone to such divergences. I think this problem stems largely from our shortcomings in understanding and adopting the true substance and identity of religion.
Treating religion as a political ideology is the greatest betrayal against religion, as it amounts to reducing Islam to a simple or lowly set of principles and caricaturing it. The role of the centuries-long colonialism in this should be noted. Indeed, the tendency to reduce religion to politics and to resort to violence is more prevalent in countries which were colonized in the past. To our dismay, the violence by these radical groups is sometimes given wider coverage in the media when compared to the vast majority of Muslims, who do not approve of them. Sometimes, ill-intentioned efforts are made to bring such radical groups to the fore and discredit the public image of Islam.
Islam is open to different interpretations, but this openness is for ensuring this religion’s inclusiveness and universality. This is actually a safety system against attempts to ascribe Islam to a single geography or mentality. Nevertheless, interpretations of Islam must not contradict its essence. Throughout history, many patriarchal, political, nationalist or statist interpretations of Islam were marketed or promoted as the true form of Islam. If with radical interpretations of Islam you mean violence, Muslims—Sunni or Shi’ite—who see violence or coercion as a means of conveying Islam’s message to the masses (tabligh) are not novel; there were always such Muslims. That some groups which have been brought to the agenda in recent years and which seek to politicize Islam are from the Sunni camp does not change this historic fact. Moreover, the media tends to focus on such people and groups at the exclusion of the 99 percent of Muslims, who do not approve of such extremist groups, and by doing so [the media] distorts the overall picture.
Since the extremist interpretations of the movement casting Islam as an ideology is warm to the idea of taking over the state and redesigning the society in a top-down and authoritarian manner and that the Shi’ite Iranian state has been officially and effectively wielding such a form of governance since 1979, the Sunni proponents of such an approach may be plus royaliste que le roi even if they are Sunni. In a sense, they find the embodiment of their ideals in the Shi’ite Iranian revolution. They take this revolution as a model. Such extremist pursuits may develop anywhere, but are mostly likely to emerge at times of colonization and occupation.
If they do not entirely sever their ties with the mainstream, I believe that such extremist groups may fizzle [out] over time. The potential of religions for individual and moral transformation is always more influential and permanent than their political or repressive implementations. When Islam’s capacity for producing dynamics for social change is not fully utilized, such movements may drift toward a more political or extremist position.
The Hizmet movement is not an alternative to a top-down model of societal transformation. The Hizmet movement does not seek to transform society. Rather, it aims to serve society and individuals. We are not seeking to serve individuals to effect political change in society overall. We harbor no such intention. In our work, transformation starts and ends with the individual through education, relief support and other charitable projects such as dialogue. If we can raise good human beings, good citizens and altruistic individuals, this may lead to a more peaceful and prosperous social life. Yet our work is not even about achieving this outcome but about serving society and helping individuals regardless of the larger social impact which may or may not ensue as a byproduct. By analogy, our community is trying to build gardens and orchards where the best and top quality fruits are grown. People may take these fruits and prepare any dish or dessert with them on a table.
Q: The Arab uprisings paved the way for conservative interpretations of Islam, as well as radicalism. How do you think this will affect the position of women in the region?
I should note that the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria initially constituted a search for democracy and fundamental human rights and freedoms. The groups which later stole the show and some of the ensuing incidents overshadowed the initial demands.
As a side note, “conservatism” shouldn’t be confused with “fanaticism.” Like any other religion, Islam has certain basic tenets and disciplines that should be conserved and safeguarded. In determining what should be preserved, however, an integrated approach should be adopted and the interpretation of the Qur’an to address the challenges of the time should be taken into consideration.
Previously, I had emphasized that in a Muslim society, women should be free to assume roles in social life, even as judges and prime ministers or presidents. Restricting women’s right to education and isolating them from social life deals a great blow to the society’s sound functioning. To substantiate my argument, I had noted that in the ‘Age of Happiness’ (Asr Al-Sa’adah) there were women Companions (Sahaba) who taught male Companions on religious matters or who would do business as well as those who would be taken as reference regarding certain matters about Islamic jurisprudence.
Patriarchal misinterpretations of Islamic sources do not portray women in this way. Unfortunately, our patriarchal cultures have significantly eroded the fair and egalitarian status given to women by Islam through the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and women have ended up as second-class individuals. Despite the great female models such as Khadijah, who was a businesswoman and business owner, and Aisha, who taught certain religious matters to male Companions, we, as the Muslims of our time, force women to stay at home and task them with raising children. Yet, although this task is of paramount importance, women do not enjoy respect in Muslim families or societies. They lag behind men in terms of education and cultural achievements. Slavery has disappeared, and, today, no one argues that it should be reintroduced on the basis of the debates about slavery in classical Islamic jurisprudence. Why don’t we employ the same progressive approach to the status of women, without contradicting the essence and basic tenets of Islam?
The way to avoid these extreme interpretations is to take the time of the Prophet and the three generations who followed him as the basis of our reinterpretation today; to get rid of our patriarchal cultures; provide better education for women; improve their socioeconomic status and empower women so that they can defend their rights.
Q: How do you think the rise and sudden fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will impact the future of political Islam in the region?
Egypt is not only one of the leading centers of Islamic knowledge, but also has established political and administrative experiences. It is essential that anyone who aspires to govern the country respects democratic values and the rule of law as Egypt is a country with diverse religions, sects and cultures. Respect for the sensitivities of every social segment, lack of oppression against any group, and responding to their demands are crucial for peace and happiness in the country.
It is no easy task to criticize a democratically elected party which was overthrown by the army. It would be best if the errors of such a party, if any, were assessed and penalized by the electorate. It is anti-democratic to promote coups against the popular will. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in an extremely fragile atmosphere and they lacked sufficient experience and background. Perhaps, they were caught unprepared. In the final analysis, the Muslim Brotherhood is a movement indigenous to Egypt and it will reassess the whole experience and draw lessons from it.
Q: You are a prolific writer and author. If you had to name one of your books as the most emblematic one, which would it be?
I never thought my words and writings were of any importance. But people appear to have responded positively to them. All my life, I have tried to translate this positive attitude into greater understanding and love for God, the Prophet and the saints. As I have tried to read, study and understand people with true literary and spiritual capabilities, I call on other people to do the same. Our past is rife with people of great stature, such as Imam Ghazali, Mawlana Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi, Yunus Emre, Mehmet Akif and Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. Their works and words are magna opera.By Manuel Almeida, www.aawsat.netManuel Almeida is assistant editor-in-chief of both Asharq Al-Awsat and The Majalla. You can follow him on twitter at @_ManuelAlmeidahttp://www.aawsat.net/2014/03/article55330354
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