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Civil Rights, the Hizmet Movement, and the Liberative Power of Education
Sep 1, 2015

One of the foundational principles of the teachings of M. Fethullah Gulen, and thus one of the animating principles of the Hizmet movement, is the notion that education is one of the primary means by which the human person becomes most authentically human and thus reaches her or his full potential.

This brief essay has three basic aims. The first is to offer a general definition of the Hizmet movement. The second is to highlight some of the major characteristics of the movement that relate to its emphasis on education. The third is to convey the extent to which the teachings of Fethullah Gulen embody an understanding of, and commitment to, education as a liberative force, a commitment which resonates deeply with the role of education in the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the United States.

1. Definition

I define Hizmet (Turkish for "service") as a global spiritual renewal and social reform movement, rooted in traditional Islamic spirituality, observance, and teachings, but appealing to people of diverse faiths and backgrounds who share its universal values. These values center around the importance of family, education, and personal responsibility for the welfare of others--all within a context of a life lived in loving submission (islam) to God. Such values are oriented towards dialogue and cooperation--both within and across societies and cultures--for the purpose of pursuing greater justice and thus greater peace and solidarity in the human family.

In this respect, Hizmet stands in contrast to other contemporary so-called "Islamist" movements which are primarily political in nature, seeking to pursue a reformist agenda by overtly "Islamizing" the governmental and legal structures of existing Muslim majority nation-states.

2. M. Fethullah Gulen's teaching of Hosgoru as the dominant ethos of Hizmet

As many of the readers of this publication are well aware, the human spiritual inspiration behind the Hizmet movement is an elderly Turkish gentleman, who mows the lawn and washes the dishes, by the name of M. Fethullah Gulen. He is also known respectfully and affectionately to the millions who deeply admire and love him as a true man of God and eminently wise teacher, myself included, as "Hocaefendi" or "beloved teacher."

There are many things one could say about this extraordinary man. Indeed multiple volumes could be written about his incredible life story of selfless service to God in the humble service he has always striven to render to others. Countless pages could be written exploring the insightful and profound ideas he shares in his scores of books translated into scores of languages. But Mr. Gulen himself would be displeased if he thought any writer was expending energy focusing on him rather than the mission to which he has dedicated his life and to which he has tirelessly invited countless others. So in deference to Mr. Gulen's sensibilities, allow me to encapsulate a key principle of his teachings which is arguably the dominant ethos of the movement he has inspired. This key principle is known, in Gulen's native Turkish, as hosgoru.

The standard translation of hosgoru into English is "tolerance." Hence the following translation of a very famous set of verses from the poetry of Hocaefendi:

"Be so tolerant that your bosom becomes wide as the ocean. Be inspired with faith and love of human beings. Let there be no troubled souls to whom you do not offer a hand and about whom you remain unconcerned."

Even as translated, the moral and spiritual pathos of these verses is powerful. Yet, as powerful as it stands, the translation is inadequate. Its inadequacy has primarily to do with the vagaries of translation and, in this particular instance, a significant semantic gap between the relatively maximalist root meaning of the Turkish word hosgoru and the rather minimalist contemporary connotation of the English word, "tolerance." Whereas "tolerance" connotes a sense of enduring—usually with some difficulty—an adverse circumstance or set of circumstances, hosgoru connotes a radically different sensibility.

The term is derived from two roots: the first—hos—meaning "good"; and the second—gormek—meaning "to see." Thus hosgoru literally means "seeing [especially the other] in a goodly manner" and/or "seeing the goodness in the other. Gulen writes:

"Under the lens of hosgoru, the merits of believers attain a new depth and extend to infinity; mistakes and faults shrink so much that they can be squeezed into a thimble. Actually the treatment of He Who is beyond time and space always passes through the prism of hosgoru, and we wait for it to embrace us and all of creation."– "The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: A Muslim Perspective" (2001)

Attend, if you will, to what Mr. Gulen is saying here. He is not only implying that human dignity is elevated through an ethic of hosgoru. He is saying that God, Godself, looks upon God's creation—and especially all human beings—through the "lens of hosgoru." In other words, Gulen identifies hosgoru as a divinely ordained dynamic in the divine-human relationship. He is implying that if the One God, who is perfect and flawless, looks upon creation—and especially us human beings with all our sins and shortcomings—in a manner which emphasizes our goodness (cf. Hadith 37 of the Arba`in of al-Nawawi), how much more so are we, as flawed and sinful beings, beholden to look upon others in the same way?

3. Commitment to education and a pedagogical methodology of example (temsil)

Before I actually met Fethullah Gulen Hocaefendi, I felt that I had already met him in the many friends I had acquired from Hizmet. They concretize, in their lives, the essence of so much of what he teaches: humility, service and a deep concern for others (especially those who are suffering), dedication to family, commitment to self-improvement, and a willingness to learn from those who are different from themselves. These are all wonderful words, but in my many friends from Hizmet—working in so many different places around the world—they strive to put them into action. The world is hungry for examples not just rhetoric and Hizmet, in it's own special way, is attempting to help satisfy this hunger. This notion of teaching by example—in Turkish, temsil—is a key component of the educational philosophy of, and pedagogical methodologies advocated by, Fethullah Gulen.

As Ruth Woodall ("Fethullah Gulen's Philosophy of Education in Practice") reminds us:

Gulen calls performance of the superficial, technical aspects of instruction "teaching", reserving the term "education" for a deeper, more meaningful and holistic activity (unal and Williams 2000:312). Notwithstanding the importance that the schools attach to training in practical classroom technique, the teacher is more than a mere purveyor of information or skills. The relationship between teacher and student is crucial: "The best way to educate people is to show a real concern for every individual, not forgetting that each individual is a different 'world'" (Unal and Williams 2000:313).

So, in Gulen's thought, the role of the teacher as an exemplar of hosgoru is key to her or his effectiveness, not only in the classroom as a pedagogue, but as an educator in the broader and more holistic sense. We should not miss the degree to which Gulen models this in his own role as the paradigmatic teacher/educator or hoca par excellence of the Hizmet movement. The practical effects of Gulen's own modeling of hosgoru are palpably evident in the teachers who work in the over 1500 Hizmet schools worldwide. To return to Woodhall:

This importance given to the development of the individual in the movement leads to teachers and administrators dedicating extra hours to free after-school and weekend lessons for individuals or small groups. Graduates of the schools, who have started university courses, also return voluntarily to help the students in the following years with their studies and to mentor them (Aslandogan and Cetin 2007:54). ...Teachers' altruism is not confined to sacrificing their time for students. They also make considerable financial sacrifices. Many teachers also sponsor students for part or all of their tuition. (

4. Mutually critical assessment of tradition and modernity

A characteristic of the teachings of Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet movement, which has roots in the work of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960), is the importance of placing tradition and modernity into a mutually critical conversation with one another, triangulating on questions of socio-cultural development and reform. Put simply, Gulen encourages those he inspires to take up the project of using modern ideas to critique and better understand traditional values and practices, and using traditional teachings better to assess and critically evaluate particular features of modernity. The reason for doing this is to arrive at the optimal synthesis of the traditional and the modern for the welfare of human societies.

As someone who spent his formative years in late twentieth century Turkey, Gulen experienced firsthand the many negative effects of a brand of coercive and oppressive laicite as part of a much larger project of nationalist social engineering. In particular, Gulen perceived the way in which "democracy" and its reputation as a "modern" value could be little more than a Western rhetorical trope. Indeed he witnessed the way in which this trope, when transplanted into his own Turkish republican context, was used to mask a very modern and unforgiving form of Kemalist authoritarianism which could well be assessed as far less "democratic" and certainly far less "pluralist" than the Ottoman imperial structures it supplanted. So, for Gulen, modern ideas, such as those distilled in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, could be a very helpful lens through which Muslims could begin to glimpse with more clarity some of the foundational universalist and humanist principles proclaimed in the Qur'an and embedded within Islamic jurisprudence. By the same token, Gulen saw these very principles—especially in their particularly Islamic modality—as having much to offer, not just contemporary Muslim societies, but all societies.

In this regard, Gulen writes of democracy that it

"...has developed over time. Just as it has gone through many different stages in the past , it will continue to evolve and improve in the future. Along the way, it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality. If human beings are considered whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach the peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just this." Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (NJ: Tughra, 2011 p. 224)

5. Akil ve Kalb: The integration of "mind and heart," of intelligence and compassion

A hallmark of Hizmet epistemology is the integration of akil ve kalb—of "mind and heart" or intelligence and compassion. In the broadest sense, this is an expression of Gulen's—and therefore the movement's—holistic approach to spirituality. In particular, Hizmet participants frequently exhibit an appreciation for the importance of the integration of mind and heart for improving human communities. People in the movement widely affirm the fact that arriving at good solutions to social problems necessitates hard critical analyses. At the same time, however, Hizmet participants would emphasize that every rational solution to a problem must be judged according to how it affects the lives of people—especially the most vulnerable--the ones the Qur'an refers to as the mustad'afun and the New Testament refers to as those "who hunger and thirst for righteousness."

6. Dialogue and consultation

Closely related to the integration of "mind and heart"—especially with respect to meaningful and salutary social reform—is Gulen's and the Hizmet movement's emphasis on dialogue and consultation or, to use the Turkish term, istisare. Istisare is a strong ethic of mutual inquiry on strategies for achieving social goals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is a natural elective affinity between the largely intra-movement dynamic of istisare, on the one hand, and the movement's deep commitment to intercultural and interreligious dialogue. I would also argue that, to a very significant degree, the Hizmet ethic and practices of dialogue and consultation comprise the foundation of its emerging identity as a movement of "civic Islam" (cf. Etga Ugur, "Civic Islam in the Public Sphere: the Gulen Movement, Civil Society and Social Capital in Turkey"

Conclusion: An illustrative personal story

I would like to close with a personal story which I hope will give you a sense of the global scope of the movement, as well as help illustrate the definition of Hizmet with which I began and the five major characteristics I've attempted to identify and briefly explicate.

A few years ago I had occasion to travel to South Africa where, among many other things, I had the opportunity to visit a Hizmet math and science academy for boys which largely served young men from the notoriously economically impoverished Apartheid Era township of Soweto. In fact, I had occasion to visit Soweto and meet people with indomitable and dignified spirits living in abject poverty (even long after Apartheid had been officially dismantled). I was taken there by the teachers at the Hizmet school who regularly visit with their students' parents in adherence to the holistic educational philosophy of Fethullah Gulen. I also had the privilege of talking to these young men back at the school where they asked me lots of questions about what I did and about President Obama, and where I asked them questions about their studies, their school, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

After this unforgettable exchange, I went back to the office with the principle, where we chatted, and I got around to asking him about the background of the boys I had just met. When I asked about religion, the principle said to me, smiling: "Agabey (a Turkish term of respect for an elder), 80% are Roman Catholic like you!" I had to struggle to hold back my tears, even though by that point I well knew that Turkish men, and especially the men of Hizmet, have no problem crying or seeing other men cry. To think that these Turkish Muslims traveled thousands of miles from the many comforts—both material and spiritual—of their homes, at great personal and familial sacrifice, to build and operate a school so that my young Catholic brothers from Soweto could have a better chance at life, was emotionally and spiritually overwhelming. But more than that, it drove home to me the essence of Hizmet and the vision of Fethullah Gulen.

[This is an abbreviated and edited version of a talk originally given by the author on the occasion of the conferral on M. Fethullah Gulen of the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Peace Award by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King International Chapel of Morehouse College on April 09, 2015.]