Is Mr. Fethullah Gülen an Islamist?
Recently Mr. Fethullah Gülen has been referred to as an Islamist in some news articles. Mr. Gülen’s life, his opinions in his speeches and writings, and his actions in educational and dialogue oriented initiatives show that such description is inaccurate. A more accurate title for Mr. Gülen is a Muslim scholar, preacher or a social advocate, not an Islamist.
The terms Islamism (Islamist), Islamic, and Muslim should not be used interchangeably. There is a clear distinction between “Islamist thought” and “civil Islam.” Both schools of thought differ in their views on the relationship between state and society. Islamism is a form of instrumentalization of Islam by individuals, groups and organizations that pursue political objectives. While Islamist thought seeks to use state power to implement a social or political agenda, civil Islam is against any form of state-led enforcement of a lifestyle. More precisely, Islamism is a political ideology whereas civil Islam is a theology.
Islamism focuses on political power while Civil Islam focuses on spirituality and the enrichment of social and civil relations. To disseminate virtues and to improve social interactions, civil Islam relies on education and peaceful relations among all members of society.
Using the term Islamist when referring to Mr. Gülen serves the efforts to associate him with political aspirations. However, Mr. Gülen has explicitly criticized and rejected the idea of Islamism. In more than 20,000 pages of his printed works and 2,000 hours of his speeches and video recordings, Gülen has never advocated for a theocracy. He does not support the Islamist view that the Quran gives political guidance. Explicitly, in an interview published in the journal “The Muslim World,” Gülen asserts: “Such a book [The Qur’an] should not be reduced to the level of political discourse, nor should it be considered a book about political theories or forms of state. To consider the Qur’an as an instrument of political discourse is a great disrespect for the Holy Book and is an obstacle that prevents people from benefiting from this deep source of divine grace.” (1)
Moreover, he asserts that Muslims should collectively and individually act toward ensuring that their actions are in line with democratic values: “This understanding of Islam may play an important role in the Muslim world through enriching local forms of democracy and extending it in a way that helps humans develop an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds.” (2)
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Gülen and volunteers of the Hizmet movement never had political aspirations and never formed a political party. While Mr. Gülen advises people all over the world to vote in elections, use their democratic rights, he makes a clear distinction between participation in politics as a citizen (e.g., voting) from running for a political office (e.g., conduct politics).
Neither Mr. Gülen nor the volunteers of the Hizmet movement hold an ulterior goal of occupying state positions in any country. (3) Yet nothing can be more natural than for Hizmet sympathizers to follow their own individual career goals, including running for office. In other words, if any volunteer member of the Hizmet movement decides to run for or hold a political office, it does not automatically bind or make the Hizmet a political movement. Furthermore, abstaining from political arena is not an obstacle to building and maintaining close and strong relationships with all members of society, including politicians and state officials.
Finally, the Hizmet movement is a social movement that cherishes each and every human being as a unique creation of God while striving to achieve three overarching goals: (a) advocating for education; (b) struggling for justice and equality and equity; (c) eliminating poverty.
Within this framework, it would be wrong and offensive to refer to Fethullah Gülen or the Hizmet movement as an Islamist.
(1) The Muslim World, Special Issue, July 2005 – Vol. 95 Issue 3 Page 325-471
(2) The Muslim World, Special Issue, July 2005 – Vol. 95 Issue 3 Page 451-453
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