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Fethullah Gulen: An Islamic Sign of Hope for an inclusive Balkans within an Inclusive Europe

Prof. Dr. Paul Weller
We meet in a region of Europe, namely the Balkans, which has known more than its recent share of conflict and suffering informed by ethnic, religious and national tensions.

As we head deeper into economic recession, political crises and loss of social equilibrium, an increasingly diverse Balkans region and European continent face potentially serious challenges to cohesion, justice and equity.

The Balkans and the wider Europe of actual history, rather than of ideology, whether religious or political, has always been a context for religious and cultural diversity, with a longstanding and substantial presence of Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians and others.

But there have also always been ideological attempts to deny and/or destroy that diversity. This began when pre-Christian pagan traditions were replaced with Christianity – often by means of force. It continued when the flowering of Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture in the Iberian Peninsula was rolled back by the advance of a militant Catholicism that could not countenance the peaceful coexistence in a single geographical space of the three “Peoples of the Book.”

Within living memory there was industrialized genocide and the attempted liquidation of the Jews in Europe under the aegis of Nazi Germany and its collaborators. During much of the twentieth century, there was also the attempt of governments and political parties that were informed by a militantly ideological Marxism-Leninism to roll back religion into the private sphere and, in extreme form as proclaimed here in Albania in 1967, to try to establish an atheistic state and society. In the later 20th century there have also been the attempts at “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Balkans, while also among those claiming to act in the name of Islam against the actions and inactions of “the West” in relation to Muslim populations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, there have been the bombings in Madrid (2004) and in London (2005).

Against this background, and bearing in mind that social crises can all too easily follow from economic and political ones, it is critically important for the Balkans and the Europe of the coming decades to find a way to live at ease with diversity. And this is the challenge that is focused by this conference meeting under the title of “Global Perspectives on the Religious, Cultural and Societal Diversity in the Balkans” and the subtitle: Fethullah Gulen Experience as a Model and Interfaith Harmony in Albania” 66∗ Keynote speaker 299 global perspectives on the religious, cultural, and societal diversity in the Balkans Fethullah Gülen experience as a model and interfaith harmony in Albania There are several important themes for this conference to be unpacked from this title:

1.] The conference is geographically taking place in the Balkans. This is an important reminder that Europe does not consist – as can all too easily be thought by those living in the original member states of the EU – of the countries of what is, in fact, its Western periphery. Rather than seeing the Balkans as peripheral to Europe, we meet in the Balkans, within Europe.

2.] The conference is thematically focused upon the Balkans – and, importantly, in relation to its “Religious, Social and Cultural Diversity”. Note that the conference theme is not focused on these as problems in the Balkans, which is the perspective of so many in other parts of the Europe where “the Balkans” has become a byword for ethic and religious conflict. Of course, within living memory there has been both conflict and terrible suffering. But the accent in this conference is on the fact of the region’s diverse inheritance and the positive inheritance within this, with a specific focus on Albania and what the latter part of the conference sub-title refers to as Albania’s inheritance of “Interfaith Harmony”.

3.] While taking place in the Balkans and relating to the theme of “Interfaith Harmony” within the region’s “Religious, Social and Cultural Diversity”, thanks to the conference organisers and sponsors, scholars from different parts of Europe and the wider world have been facilitated to come together with those from this region to contribute “Global Perspectives” on the conference themes. Because of what the British historian Arnold Toynbee called the modern world’s “annihilation of distance”, we are all inextricably linked together across the local, national, regional and international levels. It is therefore of great importance that the global and the local can engage with each other at symposia such as this one.

4.] These themes are, in turn, explored through engagement with what is called the “Fethullah Gulen experience”. Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Muslim scholar who, as an individual is of considerable importance, although he would not count himself as being such. Arguably, his importance lies in his teaching. But that should also not be seen as an abstract set of principles, but rather an explication of embodied Islamic practice that, in turn, has inspired a movement of volunteers, both Muslims and others, to engage in work of service to the benefit of the common good.

5.] The inspiration provided by Fethullah Gulen is such that – in an echo of the title of a recent article of mine in the Turkish newspaper, Zaman (see below) – I have called this short presentation “Fetullah Gulen: An Islamic Sign of Hope for an Inclusive Balkans in an Inclusive Europe”. Thus part of the purpose of this conference is to explore the particular contribution that the teaching of Fethullah Gulen and the actions of the movement of volunteers inspired by him can make to further developing “Interfaith Harmony in Albania” and to “Religious, Cultural and Societal Diversity in the Balkans.”

6.] Finally, in reflecting on our conference title, while it does indeed suggesting that there is something important that can be learned from the “Fethullah Gulen experience” as a “Model”, it is also important to note the use of modest word “a”. There is no claim made that this is “the” (model). Thus the conference is not 300 global perspectives on the religious, cultural, and societal diversity in the Balkans Fethullah Gülen experience as a model and interfaith harmony in Albania exclusively concerned with the “Fethullah Gulen experience”. It makes room for other contributions. Nor is it about an uncritical approach to “Fethullah Gulen experience”. Rather, the conference is sponsored by two Universities concerned with properly critical learning and research. Rather, it is concerned with facilitating a proper engagement with the “Fethullah Gulen experience” and especially its lived reality.

Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., and former Pakistani high commissioner in the UK, identified Fethullah Gulen as a key “role model” for contemporary Muslims. His influence among Muslims comes first and foremost from the fact that his teaching is thoroughly Islamic, being rooted in a deep and profound engagement with classical Islamic scholarship. He is therefore not a “reformist” in any sense that might make traditionalist Muslims suspicious that he is selling out the distinctiveness of Islam.

As well as being properly traditional, Gulen’s teaching is also informed by a Sufi Muslim heritage that, while rooted in the distinctiveness of Islam, is ready to identify goodness wherever it is found. This is the approach of the 13th century Muslim mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, reflected in his famous saying that “one of my feet is in the center and the other is in 72 realms [i.e. in the realm of all nations] like a compass.” Of this, in his important book Towards a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (The Light, 2004), Gulen said of Rumi that “he drew a broad circle that encompassed all believers.” Thus many of the organizations inspired by Gulen’s teaching are committed to the promotion of dialogue with Christians, Jews and people of other religious faiths.

In addition, while “traditional,” Gulen is himself not “traditionalist”. Very importantly, his Islamic teaching and practice was developed in the forge of Turkey’s 20th century project to create a secular state, as initiated by the Turkish nationalist revolution of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. That project became an ideologically “secularist” one, locked in symbiotic conflict with an “Islamist” reaction.

Against this background, Gulen has criticized a politics rooted in a philosophically reductionist materialism and argues that a secular approach that is not anti-religious and allows for freedom of religion and belief is compatible with Islam. Positively, he has also argued that Islam and democracy are compatible. In this context he has criticized the instrumentalization of Islam for political ends. And because of this, he insists Islam does not need an Islamic state to flourish and that the politicization of Islam will only damage the state, society and also Islam itself. He has also been robust and completely unequivocal in his condemnation of terror attacks conducted in the name of Islam.

In his teaching and writing, Gulen emphasizes the importance of a shared humanity in striving for peace and the common good. He argues that we are human beings first of all, and only then Muslims, Christians, secularists or others. While to some this may seem unexceptional, it is important to understand that Gulen articulates this from an Islamic perspective.

Of course, for those inspired by his teaching and example, the process of translating ideals into the kind of choices that need to be made in the context of ambiguities of history is a challenging one. It is fraught with dangers and difficulties, and all 301 global perspectives on the religious, cultural, and societal diversity in the Balkans Fethullah Gülen experience as a model and interfaith harmony in Albania outcomes cannot at the moment be known. But Gulen and the initiatives inspired by him and his teaching challenge the tendency found among some Muslims groups to separatist withdrawal from the wider non-Muslim society. By contrast, they offer a basis for Muslim engagement with the wider society based upon a confident and richly textured Islamic vision.

That vision also draws upon the historical wealth of a multicultural Islamic civilizational history within Europe to show that it is not the contradiction of terms to speak in one and the same sentence of “an Islamic sign of hope” for an “inclusive Balkans and Europe”.