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Diversity, Hizmet and Hosgörü: the Philosophical Foundations of the Gülen Movement

Prof. Dr. Mark Owen Webb

The Civil Society movement known as the Gülen Movement is an international movement dedicated to promoting world peace through dialogue and education. The movement has its origins in the thought and writings of the Turkish Sufi scholar, Fethullah Gülen. Though the movement began as a purely Turkish and Muslim phenomenon, it is now active all over the world, among a great variety of cultures and religions. Their activities focus on meeting the basic needs of people, with a view to increasing mutual understanding and peace. Consequently, many of their efforts are spent on education.

The movement is grounded in three mutually consistent and interrelated grounds: the values of Islam, the specifically Sufi thought of Said Nursi, and also in general conceptual and philosophical reason. Others can and have give better accounts of the movement’s roots in Islam and Nursi. In this paper, I propose to explain that third ground, general philosophical reasons. To that end, I identify and explicate two main strains of philosophical reason that ground the movement: Teleological reasons, pointing to the value of diversity in society, and underwriting the movement’s characteristic value of hizmet (service); and deontological reasons, pointing to the central value of persons, and underwriting the movement’s characteristic value of hoşgörü (tolerance). Since these reasons, and therefore these values, are available to anyone, they make the movement a good model for people of all cultures and all faiths.

In Philosophical Ethics, most theories fall into one of two broad categories: those that appeal to the consequences of an action to explain its value—these are called ‘teleological’ theories; and those that appeal to some features of the action itself, apart from whatever consequences it may have—these are called ‘deontological’ theories. Most ethicists now concede that neither type of theory by itself is adequate to account for all our considered moral judgments. Both types of consideration seem to have a role to play in our ethical deliberations. In other words, to decide whether an action is right or wrong, frequently we have to look at both what consequences it has and what kind of action it is. Both are important. In his writings, Fethullah Gülen appeals to both kinds of considerations (along with arguments from the Qur’an and Sunna of the Prophet), and both types of reasoning can be deployed to ground two of the movement’s characteristic values, hizmet (service) and hoşgörü (tolerance).

I. Teleological Reasons

When Gülen talks about activities involving hizmet, service to others, including education, care for the poor, disaster relief, and the like, he frequently appeals to the consequences of those actions. It is obvious that one consequence of such activities is a direct good to the person/people served. An educated person is better off than before, and so on. However, Gülen also appeals to broader, more general, and more remote consequences.

One activity Gülen recommends is interfaith/intercultural dialogue, and he frequently argues for its desirability on the grounds that the existence of diversity of religion and culture is itself a valuable thing. He speaks of the beauty of diversity, but he also speaks of its instrumental value; that there is more than one point of view is good for people on both sides. One reason for that is that it is good for people to understand  views  other  than  their  own.

This line of teleological reasoning can be made more explicit. The argument has similarities to John Stuart Mill’s argument from On Liberty; it is good for everyone if everyone is allowed to form his or her own beliefs, especially on those subjects that matter most. Mill asks us to consider the possibilities where two people disagree. One of three things is the case: First, maybe the minority view is right and the majority is wrong. In that case, it is obviously in the interests of the majority to be exposed to the correct view. Perhaps both have parts of the truth, but neither has the whole truth. In that case, it is in the interests of both to help inform one another, so all can come to a more complete understanding. Finally, perhaps the majority is right and the minority is wrong. Even in that case, Mill says, it is better that the minority be allowed to express its view, because the discussion that ensues can lead even those who already have the right opinion to a better understanding of their own view. Mill doesn’t consider the case if both majority and minority are wrong, but I take it that, in that case, there is not harm in letting everyone express themselves, and the chances of someone coming to a true understanding are better if people are discussing with one another than if they are not. Therefore, dialogue always has better consequences than isolation. This argument is stated in terms of beliefs (as Mill himself stated it), but the reason applies equally to other kinds of diversity, and other values than truth.

II. Deontological Reasons

Gülen also appeals to deontological reasoning, and it is when he is talking about the virtue of tolerance that this kind of argument dominates. To start with, we should note that while Gülen frequently uses the word ‘toleranz,’ that is really an accommodation to Western ways of thinking about these issues. The word that better describes the value he has in mind is ‘hoşgörü,’ which is a much more positive notion, perhaps closer to ‘respect’ than ‘tolerance.’ Tolerance is too weak a notion. We can tolerate something we despise just because we are too lazy, frightened, or busy to do anything about it. Hoşgörü calls for more from us. To be exhibiting hoşgörü to my neighbor’s beliefs or actions, I must not just grudgingly allow him to go on, but I must have a positive attitude of respect for him or her as a person.

This location of value in the respect due to a person is paradigmatically deontological. For example, one of Kant’s formulations of his categorical imperative is entirely in terms of respect for persons. But we need not go along with Kant completely to appeal to such reasons. For example, Kant identifies personhood with reason; to be a person, and so worthy of respect, is simply to be capable of abstract reasoning. But a Kantian-style argument can be made based on other conceptions of what it is to be a person.

One way to think of this is to think about what it is we value in ourselves, and insofar as we see that others are like us, we ought to value them the same way. If we do that, we will find there are two things that every person has, and every person invests with great importance: beliefs and desires. I have a picture of the world, a complex set of beliefs about what it is like and how it works, and that picture forms the basis of all my plans. I have built that picture from information from many sources, including my five senses, my memory, and many others. One of the things I see is that other people have the same mental equipment as me, and form their picture in the same kind of way. Insofar as I see that they are like me, then, logic demands that I accord their picture the same respect as I accord my own picture. Even if I think they are wrong, I owe them that. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the things I believe are based on information gathered by others, so my beliefs already, necessarily incorporate respect for others. I have no choice but trust them in the same way I trust myself.

The argument works the same way for desires. I have desires, some based on biological reality, and some based on more complicated facts. In general, I desire something because I take it to be valuable. I see that other people have the same sort of biological and psychological constitution as me, and they take things to be valuable for the same sorts of reasons. Therefore, insofar as I think my desires are reasonable and ought to be respected, logic dictates that I owe the same respect to the desires of others. This is even clearer when we see that many of our more complicated desires are what they are because of our beliefs. So, other people’s desires should be respected in part because their beliefs ought to be respected.

Obviously, this respect is not absolute. Some actions are so evil as to be intolerable, and ought to be prevented. Children and people with some kinds of mental defects cannot be left to form whatever beliefs or desires they like. People who are in the position of teacher, parent, or guardian have special obligations to mold the beliefs and desires of others. But by and large, we owe it to other people to allow them to order their lives as seems best to them.

III. Conclusion

One interesting fact about these two lines of reasoning is that, like natural theology, they presuppose no allegiance to any particular religion or scriptures. So while reasoning from specifically Muslim sources is available, even plentiful, in support of the Gülen movement’s goals and activities, these two philosophical lines of reasoning are available to anyone. In addition to Muslims, Christians and Jews, this kind of reasoning can also appeal to Buddhists and Hindus, and even atheists and agnostics. One need not even believe in objective morality; all that is necessary is to believe it is better for people to flourish than not (for the teleological argument) and that one ought to treat equals equally (for the deontological argument). Anyone who believes even that much can support and endorse the activities of the Gülen movement.