Fethullah Gülen is one of the most influential intellectuals on the planet. A Muslim, born in Turkey, a polymath active in many areas, he was at the origin of an international movement affecting civil society, the economy, and especially education: “the greatest gift a generation can give to another.”
In 2008 the magazine Foreign Policy, on the basis of a survey, defined the Turkish thinker Fethullah Gülen the most influential intellectual in the planet. Gülen dislikes being defined a spiritual leader; yet, his experience has generated a worldwide Islamic movement particularly active in the sphere of education. As his master Said Nursi, Gülen thinks that the Koran should be read without altering its contents and always in the light of the Islamic tradition. A teacher, writer, thinker, imam, and a protagonist of the inter-religious dialogue, Gülen is active on many fronts. His purpose, he affirms in this interview, is one: “to make the name of God known in every corner of the earth.”
Could you speak about the experiences, encounters or circumstances that have marked your life? Recently, we visited the city of Urfa, where we saw the tomb of Said Nursi. What has been the impact of this thinker and reformist on your personal and intellectual development?
I can confidently say that I have always been deeply touched by the self-sacrificing efforts and altruism of our friends in this movement of volunteers who selflessly strive for the good of humanity. These services (hizmet as they are called in Turkish) include educational activities that initially began in only a few places, with humble means, then developed with small steps here and there, and then gradually extended to all around Turkey and the world. These educators were well aware of the fact that they were going to face many difficulties. They received support from philanthropic wealthy people, foundations and associations, but they indeed experienced very serious destitution and hardships. If my opinion means anything, I would say that Bediüzzaman Said Nursi is the greatest thinker of this age, a person of action who deeply suffered from the sorrows that inflicted Islam and the whole of humanity, and committed himself to his cause. He was a great scholar and a hero of high morality, honour, self-containment, and service to humanity. His thoughts and his way of living have deeply inspired and profoundly affected me, like everybody else who has come to learn about him. There have been some great personalities whom I consider as eminent and whom I have admired all my life. For example, I admire the great Sufi masters like Imam Rabbânî, Mawlâna Khâlid, al-Ghazâlî, ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî and Muhammad Bahâ’uddîn, and have tried hard to comprehend their visions. For me, following their footsteps has always been like walking behind God’s Messenger. From my point of view, Bediüzzaman is distinct because he was a person of this modern era, and I admire his perfect way of perceiving and interpreting this age.
When did you think of transforming your personal experience into an international movement? How would you define the nature and ideals of the Gülen Movement?
Even in this situation in which I am afflicted with serious illnesses, there are still some people who consider me a ‘leader of a religious community’ or ‘sheikh of an order.’ These kinds of words hurt me heavily. I have always recommended and urged people who respect my thoughts and have a positive impression about my person to do works that I consider good and benevolent. I have advised them, for example, to open coaching centres for university entry exams and open schools. Then I realised that, as I recommended the opening of schools, many people responded positively, sharing the same vision. I am only an ordinary Muslim and a citizen, and I have done whatever I have done for my people as a citizen. Today, the notion of this movement—or the ‘community’ as they call it—is comprised of civil people who share the same emotions, similar ideas and join their efforts, searching for best answers and practical outcomes to questions such as “how can we serve best our people? How can we contribute to the advancement of our country both in material and in moral terms? How can we light up minds and illuminate hearts?” As a result of this virtue, these faithful people extended their hands to Asia, Europe, America, and even to Africa, and have built hundreds of schools in the countries to which they have gone. They have established companies and firms that have sponsored the construction of many schools, as they have been done in Turkey. If there has been a role that I have played in this process, and if I am to be credited with serving humanity, it is only by way of the recommendations that I have made. We have no other target than attaining the consent and pleasure of God. I have no other purpose other than the Name of God to be acknowledged in every corner of the world, saving people's faiths and their lives in the hereafter and establishing peace and order for my country and for the whole of humanity. I was, and still am, firmly convinced that real peace and order can only be made possible by the hands of responsible individuals who are highly moral, deeply spiritual, and who determinedly refrain from any corrupt, abusive, improper or despoiling acts.
As you has already stated, among the activities carried out by the Gülen movement, education has a prominent role. Why this emphasis? What does education represent for you and how do you think education can affect the new generations?
The whole world, with the advancement of communication and transportation technology, has become a global village. All nations are now like each other's next door neighbour. Within the mosaic of nations and countries, those nations who have not been able to protect their own patterns and colours will eventually fade and melt away. In the same way, all peoples can maintain their existence by embracing their national identities even more strongly, but in complete reconciliation with the requirements of the modern age and, naturally, in full conformity with universal values. Ali (the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet), who acquired a prominent place in Islam, said: “All Muslims are our brothers and sisters in faith and those who are not Muslims are our brothers and sisters in humanity.” “Being human” should be the common ground that unites us all. For this, human beings must be raised in a respectful spirit to moral values and their hearts should be filled with love for their “brothers and sisters” in faith or humanity. Only in this way will we be able to bequeath a world that is more auspicious and felicitous to present and future generations. Throughout the whole of history, preceding generations have assumed responsibility for, and achieved, the education of subsequent generations and performed this as a matter of duty. In this respect, good education has always been the greatest gift one generation can give to another. General education and teaching morals prevent human beings from deviating from being human owing to their carnal appetites and passions. Education, at the same time, discovers and develops the skills and abilities latent in human beings and helps to reveal the latent potentials inherent in their spirit. Education and dialogue are two complementary faces of a project for human civilisation. While one is concerned with raising generations who love peace and fraternity, and therefore raising individuals who are wholesome in intelligence and conscience, the other is, as an indispensable part of the first, concerned with establishing and protecting peace by installing in the newer generations a culture of acceptance of their own status and position and being open to and welcoming all differences.
Your religious commitment seems to challenge secularism – a tenet not only of modern Turkey, but also of the Western countries where the movement has spread. Do you think that the secular models, even in their forms as adopted in Europe and America, are still valid today, or do you think that the relation between politics and religion needs to be reconsidered?
First of all, it must be recalled that secularism is defined as ‘a system where religion does not interfere in worldly affairs, and where the state administration does not interfere in the religious exercises of people, allowing them to comfortably practice their faith in their lives.’ Individuals will decide with their own free will whether they will be a follower of a faith or not, and they cannot be forced in any way to believe in or perform the requirements of a religion. Islam is based on free will and predicates all its principles upon this foundation. Religious belief is sacred; nevertheless, this quality of being sacred requires the absolute condition that religion should not be made an instrument for any kind of worldly gains. Politicising religion and attributing holiness to our own personal opinions and administrative perceptions may eventually drive us to a position which abases and insults religion. The truth of religion needs to be represented in such a way that it is clearly understood as being beyond any political perspective or understanding. Therefore I think that those who politicise religion are actually causing a great deal of harm to religion. Under the light of the most appropriate exegeses of the Qur'an and the Sunna made in this age, it is impossible to consider Islam in conflict with democracy. As far as the legal, philosophical, and political dimensions of secularism are concerned, what we see today is that secularism is applied in various parts of the world within a political sphere, while in some other countries in its legal sense. Secularism, that is, the separation of state and religious affairs, denotes the neutrality of the state in religious affairs, or, as most politicians stress, protecting religion in its own place and status and not allowing it to be negatively interpreted. Political secularism can differ due to personal inclinations and perceptions. But, I think in Turkey, when commenting upon secularism, a sort of laicism which is very different from legal secularism or philosophical secularism is understood. As mentioned in the book by Ali Fuat Başgil, entitled Din ve Laiklik (‘Religion and Laicism’) laicism in Turkey was only “a little” similar to modern secularism and the first Turkish annotators initially interpreted laicism as ‘la-dini’, recognizing no space for religion at all in the system. However, a system is a system, which is to say a relative entity, a corporate body, whereas religion is for humans, real people.
A reassessment of the role of Islam in public life is being carried out in Turkey as well. Do you think that this development will succeed in modifying at its roots the political culture of your country and influencing its geopolitical position?
The geopolitical position of Turkey, both today and in the future, is related to Islam's place within society. In the first place, our coming to Anatolia was the consequence of this feeling and this idea. The geopolitical position we acquired later in history, including during the Ottoman period, was also because we were shaped by our devotion to Islam. Therefore, the question here is not whether the place of Islam in society can change Turkey’s geopolitics, it is in what direction that change will be. It has been stated many times before that Muslims in Turkey practice Islam as a religion and that political Islam is something wrong and unnecessary. Religion is between the individual and God, and is based upon sincerity, intimacy, earnestness, seeking God’s approval and consent in every deed and intention. Religion is for the individual to arrange and live his/her life on “the pure, emerald hills of the heart.” It is absolutely wrong to completely disregard this spiritual aspect of religion and to practice it in a ceremonial show, or to turn it into a pretentious display. To politicise Islam in a secular country like Turkey is a great treason against the essence of Islam, and religion must never be used as a political instrument.
Oasis has recently published an interview in which Msgr Padovese pointed out the precarious condition of the Christians of Turkey and the discrimination they undergo. The murder of the Italian Bishop, and the murders of Fr. Andrea Santoro and the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, as well as the murders of other members of religious minorities, seem tragic examples of this situation. In your opinion, what is the present situation of religious freedom in Turkey?
The core of the issue of freedom of religion and faith is that everybody should be able to freely choose whichever faith they like, observe their religious duties without being subjected to any inhibition, receive the education that is necessary to practice what they believe, and teach their faith to others. Those who see religion only as a matter of personal conviction pertaining only to that person's conscience both distort religion with interpretations that are in conflict with divine statements, and limit its field of application and influence, thus hindering the benefits of religion granted by God to individuals, the family and society. In addition to a firm belief in principles of faith, faith in Islam also includes a full observance of Islamic disciplines and the rigorous practice of moral rules, and involves some other codes related to familial, social and legal life. Only real Muslims who rigorously observe and practice Islam have shown sincere respect for every faith, opinion and philosophy of life, and have always engaged in sincere dialogue and have been very tolerant of the followers of other beliefs. On the contrary, those who cannot understand Islam correctly have treated those people they call ‘others’—of course, if they have power—with violence, brutal force, fights, wars and with many other savage and cruel acts. From the very beginning, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, approached the followers of other religions with an extraordinary tolerance, motivating his followers also to act in this direction and called them to come to fulfil their duty of being the ‘ummatu-l-wasat’ (the middle-way community far from all kinds of extremism). Muslims have always attended to this call and, excluding the harsh and fanatic attitudes of some people who are afflicted with narrow minds and dark consciences, have always acted in sincere tolerance, have been respectful of the faiths and philosophies of other people, and have never oppressed individuals because of their opinions or religious beliefs. They would not be able to do this anyway, because, the Qur'an, with the verse, ‘There is no compulsion in Religion. The right way stands clearly distinguished from the false…’ (Koran 2:256), openly dictates to them how to behave. Muslims certainly believe that the outcome of adopting religion is an absolute felicity. But, abiding with the verse ‘there is no compulsion in the religion,’ forcing people to convert to Islam is not acceptable. On the contrary, Islam pledges to protect others from any kind of compulsion and guarantees everyone the ability to live their own religion comfortably. Islam's commitments in the name of the freedom of religion and personal conscience are very clear. I think it will be adequate just to give a glance at history. From the bright days of the Prophet, to the Umayyads, Abbasids and to Ottomans, all rulers—save certain exceptions—granted minorities the right to preserve and practice their beliefs, observing freely their religious ceremonies and holy days, educating their children as they liked, uniting under institutions such as foundations and unions in order to continue their existence, restore old buildings of worship, and build new sanctuaries, and did not require anything from them other than that they obeyed the laws and state order.
Islam and Islamic societies are now going through difficult times. How can the Gülen movement contribute to a new interpretation of Islam, provided that a new interpretation is needed?
If some people still attempt to call this togetherness a movement, we should then empathically state that this ‘so-called’ movement has no claim whatsoever to bring to Islam anything new or things peculiar to itself. Whenever we do something, we carry it out first by observing our religious duties and responsibilities, and always keep our religious obligations in mind. At this point, we can talk about a certain way of understanding faith and religion which has mostly influenced the people of our age since Bediüzzaman. This approach aims to bring together sections of society that are separated, scattered, and broken up, to reunite them, to reconcile all Muslims who have been alienated from each other and bring them together. This is the thing which affects people most, but it is also nothing else than a matter related to the Qur'an and Sunna. This is not a system of thought that arises from personal opinions or the reformist thinking of people who actually affirm their own way of believing and making judgments. Therefore, if this is thought to be a movement, the impulse behind it is the ability of people (who acquire the quality and capacity of interpreting correctly the present day and age) to interpret the Qur'an and Sunna according to the requirements of that age. Another impulse of this understanding is a new body of thought that is based upon satisfying and meeting the desires and needs of humankind regarding everything in our age. This is not much different from the Islamic understanding of other people. We do not perceive Islam in a different way than other Muslims. From certain perspectives, however, we may be a little beyond others; for example, by accepting everyone as they are in their social status and respecting them for it. Today, we have the utmost need to bring about new interpretations regarding the not-yet-fully revealed aspects of the Book and the practices of the Prophet according to the changing needs of time and without destroying their authenticity. While explicating the subjects belonging to Islam, oratory, style, rhetoric and address may change with time. The Qur'an is, in the first place, a Divine provision. And this provision can be benefitted from in various ways. The important thing here is to interpret the Qur’an in every respect and reflect deeply upon it while, considering the conditions of the day, we try to discover and disclose its various jewels and precious treasures as they are revealed according to changes in time. Different colours of this Divine Revelation have always been discovered throughout history by new interpretations. For example, ‘Umar Ibn Abd al-‘Azîz, al-Ghazâlî, Fakhr ad-Dîn al-Râzî, Imam Rabbânî, and Bediüzzaman all read it from a perspective that was different from that of their predecessors.
Read also the interview with Egemen Bağiş.
 Born in 1878 in what was the Ottoman province of Bitlis, in eastern Anatolia, he was an important scholar and Muslim reformer and the author of an important commentary of the Koran. His fame won him the nickname of Bediüzzaman (the wonder of the time). He died in Urfa (Edessa), in Anatolia, in 1960. His grave was demolished and the body removed so as to avoid its worship.
 Imâm-i Rabbânî Shaykh Ahmad al-Farûqî al-Sirhindî (1564-1624), of Indian origin, was a great mystic and Islamic reformer.
 Khâlid al-Baghdâdî, mystic of the Naqshbandiyya confraternity, died in Syria in 1826. He is the author of a number of Sufi treatises.
 Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111), mystic and theologian, was one of the greatest thinkers and reformers of the history of Islam. See ‘Oasis’ 11 (2010), 66-69.
 Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî (1077-1166) was one of the greatest Islamic mystics and founder of the Qâdiriyya brotherhood. He is buried in Baghdad.
 Muhammad Bahâ’ud-Dîn (1318-1389), the great Islamic mystic, was the founder of the Sufi confraternity Naqshbandiyya. He is buried in Bukhara, in Central Asia.
 Famous Turkish jurist born in 1893 and died in 1967.
 Lived between the VII and VIII century, eighth caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, famous for its religious piety.
 Born in Iran in 1149 and died in Herat in present-day Afghanistan in 1209, theologian, he is the author of a leading commentary of the Koran.