Many people see the need for interreligious and intercultural dialogue but are not sure where to begin. I have often been asked, “How do you go about starting up dialogue with others?” Especially because I am a Christian who has lived and shared life with Muslims for many years, they ask, “How do you go about beginning a dialogue with Muslims? Where do you start?”
It’s a good question, and it’s one that I found myself asking back in 1978 in Indonesia. I had just finished my graduate studies in Islamic thought and was back in Indonesia and wondering where to begin to meet Muslims and enter into dialogue with them. On one occasion, I asked a prominent Muslim scholar how to go about this. The wisdom of his answer is one that has stayed with me and proven itself true over the years, so that by now it has also become my answer.
He told me that the first thing we have to do is to look around at the society in which we live to try to identify those who are our logical partners in dialogue. Who are the individuals and groups with whom we find ourselves sharing ideals, whose vision of the future is at least compatible with our own, whose value system intersects with ours at various points? Thus, for the Christian who wants to enter into dialogue with Muslims, the first step is to distinguish and recognize the movements, organizations and communities of Muslims who are open to dialogue with us, who have something to say to us from which we might learn something, and who are also ready to listen to us, to hear our stories, and to appreciate our religious and humane vision of life, even as they remain committed to their own spiritual path.
One of the Muslim movements with whom I have found much common understanding is what is often called “The Hizmet Movement”. This is a community of Muslims inspired by the thought of M.Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish scholar and educator. Mr. Gulen has denied that he has any movement of his own, but describes the movement rather as one of like-minded colleagues and students who share a common vision and commitment to society. I came to know this community back in 1990s through a close friend of mine, Msgr. George Marovitch, who was the secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Turkey. Over the years, I have met many members of this movement and I have grown respect for who they are and what they are seeking to do in society. It is about this movement that I would like to speak you today.
To understand this movement, it is necessary to know a bit of the background and spiritual journey of the founder. Fethullah Gulen was born and educated in the far eastern region of Anatolia, in the city of Erzurum. He began his career as a teacher of religion and preacher in the mosques. In 1958, at the age of 20, Gulen became aware of the writings of Said Nursi, which had a formative influence upon his thinking. Like many other Turkish Muslims, Gulen undertook a study of the Risale-i Nur, Said Nursi’s voluminous (6600 page) commentary on the Qur’an.
Gulen became a teacher of Qur’anic studies in the Mediterranean city of Izmir, and it was in that modern, cosmopolitan environment that the movement had its origins. In the 1970s, by means of lecturing in mosques, organizing summer camps, and erecting “lighthouses” (dormitories for student formation), Gulen began to build a community of religiously motivated students trained both in the Islamic and secular sciences.
The importance that the lighthouses (işik evler), residences (yurts), and study halls (dershanes) play until today in the formation and cohesion of the movement must not be underestimated. Students not only supplement their secular high school studies and prepare for university entrance examinations, but they form friendships and a network of social relations, receive spiritual training through the study of the Qur’an and the Risale-i Nur, and pursue their educational goals in a social environment free from the use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, premarital sex, and violence.
Gulen gave a socially-oriented thrust to religious commitment. Gulen taught the need to transform society through generous service. In Gulen’s vision, it is the social effect of conscientious, dedicated, committed Muslim social agents that is the key to renewal of the Islamic life. Gulen hopes to form Muslims who will be tolerant and open-minded, who can build peace with others, and who are ready to serve others through education, development and dialogue.
Gulen’s reading of the needs of today’s world has led him and his movement to put interreligious dialogue at the center of their concerns. This was not an entirely original insight on the part of Gulen. The Gulen community inherited its openness to interreligious dialogue and cooperation from the writings of Said Nursi in the Risale-i Nur, but this commitment has been renewed and given new impetus in the writings of Fethullah Gulen. In his speech in 1999 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Capetown, Gulen presented an optimistic vision of interreligious harmony.
“It is my conviction that in the future years, the new millennium will witness unprecedented religious blooming and the followers of world religions, such as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others, will walk hand-in-hand to build a promised bright future of the world”.
Gulen believes that the duty of Muslims to work for dialogue and unity should not be limited to Christians, but is to be extended to conscientious followers of all religions. Secondly, the motivation for this dialogue is not simply a strategic alliance to oppose atheistic and secularizing tendencies in modern life but is called for by the nature of Islamic belief itself. Gulen stated “the very nature of religion demands this dialogue. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Hinduism and Buddhism pursue the same goal. As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and Books sent to different peoples throughout the history and regard belief in them as as essential principle of being Muslim”
To further its pursuits of interreligious dialogue, the Hizmet movement has been active in sponsoring and organizing “Abrahamic” Dialogues with high-ranking representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The movement also organizes associations for the promotion of interreligious activities at the local and regional level, and has established dialogue associations in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Asia, all of which take independent initiatives toward promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation.
I suggest that Christians in Africa, as in Europe and America, those interested in dialogue with Muslims could not do better at the present time than to regard the Hizmet community as a movement in which they will find suitable and enriching dialogue partners.
Source: Excerpt from the paper “IDENTIFYING OUR PARTNERS IN DIALOGUE” by Thomas Michel, S.J., presented at the conference “Establishing & Sustaining the Culture of Coexistence and Mutual Understanding” on Monday May 28, 2012 at African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.