Prof. Dr. Muhittin Akgül was a renowned and respected theologian, writer, speaker and academic in Turkey, well-received by the society by his thoughts, articles and ideas from a broad and inclusive perspective. I should mention I have read only some of his books like the two-volume Kur’an ve Sünnet Işığında Hayatımız (Our Life in the Light of the Qur’an and the Sunnah), which he wrote in 2005, Kur’an, İnsan ve Toplum (The Qur’an, Human and Society), and 99 Soruda Kur’an-ı Kerîm (The Qur’an in 99 Questions), and profound is the influence these works had on me. When I wanted to have an interview on society, community and politics, Dr. Akgül came to my mind first. It was especially because Dr. Akgül constantly thinks, writes and produces on Islam, Qur’an, Hadith, and Human and Society, and actively broadcasts his ideas on popular channels like the social media and YouTube. Another point worth mentioning here is that Dr. Akgül has never given up or stepped back from the values he believes in, despite all the ordeals he went through.
In this interview, Dr. Akgül stated how he had been forced to spend 19 months in a Turkish prison because of the values he believed in, embarked on a perilous journey to freedom, how the ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) has corrupted not only the country but also religion, how most religious communities in Turkey failed this test and remained silent despite knowing in advance about the political operations against the Gülen Movement, and how the Diyanet (Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs) has been politicized during this phase like never before.
I leave you with this interview where you will find much more.
Dr. Akgül, thank you for consenting to give an interview to Politurco. You were one of Turkey’s most respected academics and writers before you were forced to leave your home country, like thousands of other intellectuals, journalists, statesmen and businessmen from Turkey who stand displaced from their jobs, homes and country. I would like to start with this question before going into the topics of “society, religious communities and politics”:
I SPENT 19 MONTHS IN PRISON FOR THE VALUES I BELIEVE IN
Could you tell us a little about yourself? What was the incident that urged you to leave your homeland?
Let me start by saying ‘Thanks’ to you. I do not consider myself in such worthwhile position to be mentioned; however, since you have asked me, I feel obliged to answer.
I was born in Çat district of Erzurum province in Turkey. I completed my primary and secondary education in that district. I completed my high school education in Erzurum and Istanbul Imam-Hatip High Schools. I received my undergraduate degree from the Uludağ University, my master’s degree from the Dokuz Eylül Institute of Social Sciences, and my doctorate from the Marmara University Institute of Social Sciences. After working as a preacher under the auspices of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) for a while, I shifted to the Sakarya University School of Theology. I worked as a guest lecturer in the Republic of South Africa for a while, and conducted academic research in Jordan for some time. While working as a full professor at the Sakarya University School of Theology, I was dismissed via a statutory decree in the wake of the fabricated coup on July 15, 2016. Having been released after 19 months of imprisonment, I had to leave my country. I am married with three children. I have academic articles published in several national and international journals. I participated in numerous conferences, symposiums and panels, commented in various newspapers, and appeared on numerous radio and television broadcasts. Some of my works have been translated into other languages like English, Russian, Kyrgyz, and Dutch. I deliver lectures on my field of specialization at the Sophia Academy in the Netherlands
What I experienced during my imprisonment and the conditions of my home country after I was released from the prison did not suit my beliefs and philosophy. I concluded that in the near future of the country, under such stifling pressure and overwhelming environment ruled by the incumbent regime, there was no longer an environment to share my education and experience. It became inevitable for me to migrate to a country where I could live in dignity and express my thoughts at ease, where rule of law and justice prevailed, and human rights were respected. I had to leave my home country considering every risk and hardship.
RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES KNEW ABOUT
THE IMMINENT OPERATION AGAINST THE GÜLEN MOVEMENT
Here I would like to ask about the darkest event of the recent times, the infamous July 15th coup attempt in Turkey, which you also drew attention to, especially President Erdoğan’s claim that the Gülen Movement had been behind the so-called coup attempt. What would you like to say if I ask you to provide a brief introduction to the religious communities in Turkey and how you appraise the circumstances?
In the light of my opinion and experiences, I can say that the July 15 incident was a conspiracy hatched by President Erdoğan and some internal and external dark forces. The reason for this conspiracy was, on the one hand, to expel and annihilate the Gülen Movement and its participants, whom Erdoğan consider as his rivals, and on the other hand, to make the participants of the Movement appear like “coup plotters” in the eyes of the public and to ensure the public would not raise their voices against their own experiences under the incumbent regime. In prison, I stayed with people from all walks of life dismissed of their jobs and had their assets seized on grounds of their association with the Gülen Movement. I asked them questions and made observations, but I saw none assented to such a dastardly coup, nor did they know about it in advance. I shared wards and dormitories with several people who held key positions in the public sector and held high ranks in the police and the military. I never sensed in any of them anything that hinted their involvement in a coup. Actually, I observed some had stood in front of the battle tanks in the night of the coup attempt, some others participated in anti-coup demonstrations, risking their lives against all odds.
As for various religious communities, it was an open secret that such communities and some civilian setups had long harbored severe envy towards the Gülen Movement. Even years before the July 15, 2016 incident, the AKP regime had allocated the institutions of the Gülen Movement to these religious communities and adherents of some Sufi orders. Both the AKP and these religious communities and Sufi order adherents were immensely glad and willing to assist the regime to usurp the assets of the Movement. In that fateful night, several religious communities were aware of the conspiracy in advance. This can be seen from the preparations they made, the rallies of the members of the so-called religious congregations and Sufi orders, and their loud public appearances in city squares.
Indeed, several so-called religious communities and Sufi orders in Turkey are structures affiliated with intelligence organizations or whose first or second in command are themselves intelligence officers. This has been another factor that reinforces Erdoğan’s sway.
THE GÜLEN MOVEMENT CONTRIBUTED IMMENSELY
TO THE PEACE AND TRANQUILITY IN TURKEY
If I can interject a question here, how do you briefly define the Gülen Movement?
Since my years in the high school, I have been following and analyzing diverse political-religious-social movements and have been in close relations with their adherents in various positions. However, the Gülen Movement has been the most reasonable community to me in terms of my personal opinion and familiarity. I can only define myself as a sympathizer within this Movement, because I have never worked in any institution affiliated with the Movement. I have never been a manager and never had a place in the Movement’s hierarchy. I have always been pleased and intrigued by its commendable works, its educational activities both in Turkey and worldwide, and its success in uniting diverse and distant segments of the society. These were the activities well received by the society at large, except for a bunch of rigid and bigoted segments, until shortly before the July 15 stage play.
Tutoring centers, schools, universities and associations significantly contributed to the social peace by deploying various approaches to save people from ignorance, the severest foe. Since it is a civil movement, the participants could reach people from all walks of life, all parties, and all philosophies, and could engage in dialogue. In my opinion, it was this civil and independent aspect of the Movement that dismayed the circles which never desired peace in Turkey and fed on turmoil, and the same circles played a dark game like July 15th.
The Movement is a social movement centered on education, dialogue and sublime service, based on the teachings of Fethullah Gülen Hodjaefendi. The Movement aims to help individuals realize their potential and to uphold societies for betterment. This is achieved through services in education, health, culture, charity and dialogue.
The Gülen/Hizmet Movement encourages people to treat one another with love, acceptance and respect. The Movement encourages people to understand and help one another and promotes universal moral principles. This makes people more understanding and receptive towards one another. That the Movement prioritizes moral issues, accepts people in their own position, does not exclude and appeals to most segments of the society (from East to West) has also augmented my sympathy and concern for this Movement or organization. The need for such a structure in contemporary pluralist societies is beyond explanation. In sum, Hizmet has been a civil movement and was resolved to render irreplaceable contributions to peace and tranquility for the future of Turkey.
THE GÜLEN MOVEMENT IS A RATIONAL MOVEMENT
What can you briefly say about the relationship and position of Mr. Fethullah Gülen, the founder of the Gülen Movement?
Civil movements are inevitably leader-driven movements. They do not come by election and do not go by election. They are not movements that govern when elected and disappear when they lose. In such intellectual movements, of course, the charisma of the leader, his success in governance, his knowledge and equipment are the most significant achievements and a rallying factor for their adherents.
The Hizmet Movement is based on the teachings of Fethullah Gülen Hodjaefendi. He advocates an approach that combines the universal values of Islam with the democratic social structure of Turkey and even the world. This approach focuses on education, acceptance, dialogue and sublime service. The spiritual inspiration of the Hizmet Movement is, of course, Fethullah Gülen Hodjaefendi. His teachings and exemplary life shape the Movement’s core values and principles. Hodjaefendi basically encourages people to help one another selflessly and altruistically expecting nothing in return, and inspires acceptance, love and understanding. These values form the basis of the Hizmet Movement’s activities in education, social services, media and other fields.
Hodjaefendi‘s teachings are based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, Mevlana Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi’s Mathnawi-e Ma’nawi, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Risale-i Nur corpus, and his own published works. These teachings have facilitated the Movement build a community that unites millions of people worldwide.
As far as I have observed, although the Movement is leader-oriented, it essentially and naturally has a management and consultation mechanism within itself. It is impossible for such a global movement, present in almost every country in the world, to be led and managed by a single leader. However, the basic philosophy and direction of all these activities is provided by Fethullah Gülen Hodjaefendi. Even though he himself is not involved in each activity, his lifetime of speeches and the corpus of works he has produced are acknowledged as key principles by his devotees who strive to implement them in life. Meanwhile, the people he has trained and delegated for several years also have significant contributions and mandate in the continuation and direction of the Movement. In other words, the Movement, which apparently has a single leader but spreads over a global geography, conducts its affairs through a consultative mechanism. Perhaps this is a prominent reason for the success of the Movement. In my opinion, even though its participants prioritize religious, moral and spiritual issues, the Gülen Movement is a rational movement. No other religious community or group in Turkey has the intellectual background matching that of the Gülen Movement.
GÜLEN MOVEMENT HAS ALWAYS REMAINED CIVIL
Returning to the main discussion, the bloody events of the July 15, 2016 incident had been preceded by several other social and political events, such as the December 17-25, 2013 anti-corruption operations, the Gezi Park protests, and the closure of the opposition media. Considering these political events and the night of July 15th, how do you assess the position and approach of the Gülen Movement as a civil movement?
Actually, the imminent arrival of the July 15th incident seemed to have become manifest with the seizure of the Movement’s schools and especially its media. Like a wild wolf resolved to devour a sheep, the perpetrators awaited the exact time to muddy the waters. The regime had put all its apparatus in place and blamed the Movement for the exposé of their theft and robbery across the country. And a stage-play like the July 15 coup attempt would be, in their own words, “a blessing from Allah” for the regime.
In my opinion, the Movement was not and could not have been directly involved in the events you mentioned. The Gezi Events were the democratic reaction of people with diverse or even opposite philosophies against a despotic government. However, Erdoğan and his regime, which fears every dissenting voice and seeks to silence dissidents through repression, considered this democratic stance as “terrorism” and resorted to violence as if tackling with terrorists. They burned, destroyed, and even spread lies and slander, saying “They drank alcohol in a mosque, and urinated on a woman in headscarf.”
Parallel to these events were the renowned December 17-25, 2013 anti-corruption and bribery operations. Actually, it was the state’s judges and prosecutors and the state’s police who carried out the operations. The government officials had robbed the state and received bribes. The person at the top of the government was involved in corruption with his family. Those who fulfilled the public responsibility had fulfilled the task assigned to them by the state and caught the thieves red-handed. However, the thieves turned out to be seasoned crooks. They blamed the public personnel who caught them, and also the Hizmet Movement. The criminals alleged that the police and the judicial personnel who conducted the operations were associated with the Movement and that they had attempted to stage a coup against the elected government. However, the truth was exactly the opposite. The respective public personnel had done their duty and caught the thieves red-handed with all the evidence. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the Republic of Turkey, these operations were carried out in strict pursuance of the law and the regulations in effect. All the evidence were solid and conclusive. However, save himself from such a stifling situation, Erdoğan and his regime collaborated with the shadowy deep state structures such as the Ergenekon. Initially, even the leader of the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), nowadays Erdoğan’s closest coalition partner, had expressed the legitimacy of these operations and had spoken out against corruption. However, this leader too eventually became a satellite of Erdoğan.
In addition, honest male and female public personnel associated with the Movement were deemed as significant obstacles by some politicians, high-level bureaucrats, businesspeople and even law enforcement officers who had adopted theft, graft, injustice and impudence as their character. The participants of the Movement had to be eliminated so the thieves could steal more effortlessly and act illegitimately to their hearts’ desire.
Some who carried out the anti-corruption operations may have been sympathetic to the Movement. However, such operations were not a coup d’état attempt or a plot to overthrow the government, but a duty fulfilled by the public personnel entrusted with protecting and serving to the public interest.
THE ISSUE OF RELIGION AND THE RELIGIOUS
Here, I would like to delve into the topic a little more and ask you this: While these incidents were underway, majority of the religious communities and Sufi orders in the country showed unyielding support to the Erdogan regime right from the beginning of the crisis and they still support the regime. Don’t you think the attitude of these communities claiming to be Islamic movements a contradiction?
Actually, the primary reason for the regime’s crackdown on the Movement was that it could not subordinate it, force it to obedience, make it dependent on the regime, and silence it against the ongoing corrupt practices. Yes, the Movement showed Erdoğan open and unlimited support during his most difficult years, especially when his political party was about to be banned. However, considering the years the Movement showed support to Erdoğan, it can be seen that they were the years when Erdoğan’s rhetoric of justice, law and democracy was at the forefront, and the steps of rapprochement with the EU and the democratic countries were solid and rapid. And in those years, no other party but the AKP emphasized law and democracy so openly. The other parties kept upholding the status quo, repression and strict secularism.
Therefore, the Movement supported Erdoğan in line with these discourses, perhaps even for supporting him excessively. However, when the AKP deviated from its founding philosophy and put public resources at its disposal to a large extent, it increasingly strayed from the rule of law and, more precisely, started to loot the public sector. It suspended the rule of law, replaced the emphasis on justice by oppression and enrichment of cronies. It went astray, forgotten the law and evolved into a Goliath willingly crushing and even destroying all it considered as the opposition.
The Movement rightly parted ways with the AKP under such circumstances and publicly withdrew its support for a civilian, independent government strayed from the path of the law. Faced by this attitude from the Movement, Erdoğan’s only ambition from then on has been to annihilate the Movement. He steadily seized the foundations, schools, associations, and media outlets associated with the Movement. This also served as an open threat to other civil society organizations in Turkey. If the incumbent regime could confiscate everything of the Movement despite its public influence, it could do the same to the other religious communities and orders. Faced by this fear, excluding a few, all religious communities and Sufi orders in the country lined up for swearing unconditional allegiance to the Erdoğan regime.
Erdoğan allotted each religious community under his tutelage buildings, offices, plots, facilities and funds according to the community’s size and influence. These civil organizations have now been nationalized and put under the command of the incumbent regime. The regime, not the law, and Erdoğan’s rhetoric, not justice, has become decisive.
These formations, supposed to represent the rights, law and justice, have given unlimited allegiance, and even worshipped, to a rigid and oppressive regime which tramples on the law and usurps the private property. Instead of adhering to the practice of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, whom they claim to follow and take as an example, the representatives of these religious communities and Sufi orders in Turkey has followed a man proven to have committed crimes. They see his wrongs as right and disregard the holy path they are on by following Erdoğan as a religious guide, caliph, messiah, or pole. This attitude was, of course, in fundamental contradiction with their own beliefs, philosophies and thoughts. Curious, they did not notice this contradiction, nor did they see the error of their ways.
These religious communities have all been aware of the injustice, the unlawful and inhumane practices of the Erdoğan regime against the Hizmet Movement; however, like the killing rancor of Cain against Abel, they nurtured grudge and envy against the Movement for long. Erdoğan regime’s illegitimate and inhuman treatment of the Hizmet Movement came as a blessing for these communities. They claimed the space emptied from the Hizmet Movement in the fields of education, health, finance, humanitarian aid, and student accommodation, etc. In short, these communities’ love for Erdoğan did not originate from “love for Ali” but from “enmity against ‘Umar”.
WHAT’S ACTUALLY ISLAMIC AND HUMANITARIAN…
It has occasionally been reflected in the public opinion as some remarked, “What good has the Gülen Movement got by standing up against Erdoğan?” and “The state seized all its institutions and arrested its participants. If we do the same, the same will happen to us, so let’s appease the government”. How do you evaluate this viewpoint?
Such a crippled and unsound mindset is neither Islamic nor human. It cannot be Islamic, because our religion does not condone following someone who publicly commits evil, who publicly violates the manifest principles of Islam. In this regard, the Qur’an gives us the example of the Prophets who stood firm against dictatorial regimes which violated the law and trampled on rights, even at the cost of death. “Guide us to the Straight Path, the Path of those whom You have favored, not of those who have incurred (Your) wrath (punishment and condemnation), nor of those who are astray.” This prayer we recite from Surah al-Fatiha at least for forty times daily shows us the right path.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, whose practice we follow, said: “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” (Sahih al-Muslim, Iman 78).
There are hundreds of verses and hadiths on this subject. For example, “Indeed, among the greatest types of jihad is a just statement before a tyrannical ruler.” (Jami’ at-Tirmidhi, Fitan 13; Abu Dawud, Malahim, 17). “Whoever fights them with his hands is a believer, whoever fights them with his tongue is a believer, whoever fights them with his heart is a believer.” (Sahih al-Muslim, Iman 80) are a few of these.
This conduct is not humane as well. The incumbent regime in Turkey publicly oppresses. For one to side with the oppressor rather than the oppressed faced with similar atrocities for miscellaneous reasons, and to beat the oppressed as if they have not suffered enough, cannot be explained with humanity and human conscience.
Islam does not condone supporting an oppressor deliberately or remaining silent at will in the face of atrocities. Islam commands the protection and support of rights, law, justice and universal human values. Therefore, the fact the institutions you mentioned have chosen to remain silent does not reconcile with the religion they belong to, nor with the discourse and conduct of the religious figures in history they claim to be adhered. Yet, this is still their own business. After all, they will answer to Allah themselves.
THE POST-ERDOĞAN GOVERNMENT AND THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES IN TOW
Considering the influence of religious communities and Sufi orders on Turkish society, how do you evaluate the period before and after Erdoğan?
The incumbent regime has incurred the greatest damage on the religion and the religious communities. These damages will not be repaired in 50 years, let alone 20 years, after Erdoğan. Therefore, since religion is the main reference for these religious and civil movements, they too have been incurred with the same damage. At least since the last year, these civil and religious movements have suffered a critical loss of trust by the society and have turned into institutions that people hate. However, they are either unaware of this or, even if some are, they are suppressed by the intelligence officers embedded within their ranks.
These institutions will realize what a disaster they were in only after Erdogan, a mere mortal, or when his rule ends. They will lose all credibility in the society. They will be crushed by what they did. They will writhe in regrets and reach the point of exhaustion. This is an immutable social rule as well.
With its dynamism and visionary projects, the Gülen Movement has been an earnest added value factor in the country since the 1960s. It is claimed the Movement has been irreparably blocked in Turkey. Can I get your opinion on this view?
Those over 50 are well aware of how, especially towards the end of the ‘70s, conflicts between the left and the right, social divisions and street clashes were at their peak in Turkey. Universities were turned into hotbeds of anarchy, even siblings under one roof turned against one another under the banner of rightist or leftist ideologies, and the streets and avenues of the country were hijacked by armed people. The secret forces and intelligence organizations behind the events kept fueling the incidents with all their might. It was under these conditions the coup d’état of General Kenan Evren happened in 1980. Nothing happened to those behind the coup, because they were already in charge. They were in charge of dividing, fragmenting, turning the sons and daughters of the motherland against one another and segregating the society. By dividing, they kept weakening the structure, and the weaker it became, the easier it became for them to govern.
After the September 1980 coup, the country, ostensibly at peace, was actually pushed into further divisions and clashes. Even though no armed clashes transpired on the streets, the pre-’80 right-wing-left-wing divide continued to widen in various areas. From their own ivory towers, fractions insulted and cursed the masses they considered as enemies. Actually, these hostile groups were the citizens of the same country, of the same geography, and had been oppressed under the same persecutions. However, they had never met closely, never sat down and talked, never got to know one another better.
It was precisely during such a critical period the Hizmet Movement started to open up to the larger public. It provided expression space in its media to the people opposed to one another in ideas and philosophy. It allocated columns in its newspapers, hosted programs on its televisions and brought these seemingly-opposing people together in its organizations. These meetings were put on a schedule and opened to large participation under the name, “The Abant Platform”. The vast majority of those who governed the state also participated in these organizations, gave support or sent messages. Hizmet Movement called this a dialogue initiative. Those who seemed impossible to come together, sat at the same program, in the same hotel, and at the same table. They got to know each other without a veil. They talked and they discussed, and this was widely accepted throughout the country. Bridges were built between different segments of the society. No one felt alienated in these programs.
The Movement focuses mainly on education, dialogue and sublime service to humanity. Its vision is to found a world that encourages people to understand and respect one another. Education and dialogue are two fundamental ways to achieve this.
Education is one cornerstone of the Movement which believes that everyone has the right to access knowledge. This is why, it has opened several educational institutions worldwide, considering no division in religion, geography, race or gender. In addition to imparting knowledge and skills to the students, these institutions aim to raise them as mindful, considerate and tolerant individuals.
Dialogue is another important element of the Movement, bringing together people from different faiths, cultures and communities to better understand one another. Such activities ultimately promote acceptance and respect and build crucial bridges between various societies.
Another important aspect of the Movement is service to people. It believes that people should help one another and make their communities better. This is achieved through voluntary service and community service projects.
Through education, societies and individuals are freed from the swamp of ignorance and introduced to knowledge and wisdom. Through dialogue, conflicts between individuals, institutions or states are eliminated or minimized. Through sublime service projects, poverty and essential human needs are addressed and alleviated, the blessings of the world are enjoyed by all, the needy are protected and cared for, human dignity is not upset, and decent lives are lived.
As for the assumption that the Hizmet Movement has been irreversibly blocked in Turkey, I do not agree. This is an assumption for three reasons. First, it is historically impossible. Several similar persecutions, forced migrations, tortures, genocides, etc. have happened through the human history. In none of these have the societies suffering such inhumane treatment been depleted and annihilated; quite the reverse, they have flourished and developed with further vigor. Their cultural and technological know-how and experience and their beliefs and philosophical thoughts joined forces with those in new places, and fresh and highly successful results emerged by the fusion of diverse philosophies and thoughts. A keen look into the great civilizations will show that the emergence of these civilizations are not attributed to those who remained inert in their homelands, but to the direct and major contributions of those who migrated, dispersed to different lands, and mingled with diverse cultural and scientific spheres.
Second, this is impossible, given the characteristics of the Hizmet Movement. The Movement is not centered only in Turkey, hinting it could be stopped and annihilated by blocking its path somewhere. Even before the post-July 15 phase, both the businesspeople and the other participants of the Movement had been engaged in a conducive dialogue with almost the entire world, and had reached a stage where they run several educational, health and cultural activities in various countries, and where the local people and administrators embraced and respected them.
In the wake of July 15th, this mobility gained further pace. Tens of thousands of people, especially highly-qualified professionals, were forced to leave their home country for various parts of the world. Although, this may seem like a depletion for Turkey at first glance; in the long run, it will be seen these migrations will lead to a great development and progress, and will be meshed with the culture, technology and philosophy of the host geographies without distancing from one’s own beliefs, morals and philosophy, and will open doors to brand-new starts.
The third and most significant reason why the Movement will not end, in my opinion, is the good tidings given by Allah Almighty in the Qur’an to those who are forced to emigrate: “Whoever emigrates in Allah’s cause will find on the earth enough room for refuge and plentiful resources. He who leaves his home as an emigrant to Allah and His Messenger, and whom death overtakes (while still on the way), his reward is due and sure with Allah. Assuredly, Allah is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.” (an-Nisa, 4:100).
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and his Companions had to leave their beloved Ka’ba, for which they would gladly sacrifice their lives, their property and their children. They also had to emigrate to places where they would be strangers. However, all were welcomed with extraordinary hospitality and honor wherever they went, especially in Madina. In Madina, where they arrived penniless, they soon became the arbiters of the marketplace and became so rich they could not reckon their wealth. They did not run out, they did not perish, and they did not disappear. Quite the reverse, they met even more circles and communities, exchanged ideas with them, and formed islands of peace. All these are clear proofs of the truth and visibility of the glad tidings promised by Allah Almighty through emigration.
THE GÜLEN MOVEMENT HAS NEVER SOUGHT STATEHOOD OR POLITICAL POWER
Here I would like to ask this: While larger but regime-tutored religious communities and Sufi orders are allowed, groups like the Gülen Movement which insist on their independence and exist as civil society organizations are constantly barred by the state. Do you think not allowing independent civil initiatives is an obstacle to the democratization of Turkey?
If independent and civil organizations are not allowed in a country and everything is directed and managed from the top by the state, it would not be right to call it a democratic state. In today’s world, myriad dictatorial regimes call themselves “democracies” but none have any practice remotely close to democracy. As some countries label themselves with Islam and term their form of government as Islamic but have nothing to do with Islam, democracy is nothing but a name, just like that.
Democracy gets reinforced by the existence and activities of civil society organizations. These organizations matter so much in making the voices of various segments of society heard and in promoting participatory democracy. The Gülen Movement has never sought statehood or political power. Its aim is to ensure peace and tranquility in society through education, dialogue and sublime service. To achieve this, the Movement makes great efforts to ensure the individuals who will serve the society are well-equipped, well-read in their era, and that they do not deviate from the rule of law and justice.
In the history of the Republic of Turkey, there have been periods when civil society organizations were considered dangerous, branded with different stigmas and subjected to exclusion and even extermination. Those who took over the regime resorted to unimaginable means to destroy those who opposed them. They punished them, exiled them, sent them to prison, and confiscated their property.
The state has always supported the groups which swore unconditional allegiance to itself. At times, it intimidated or openly criminalized those who did not.
Considering the countries with emerging democracies, their most striking feature is the power of civil society organizations.
Even the smallest civil groups bear substantial power in these countries. These groups do not hesitate to deploy diverse but democratic means to get their rights.
In countries like ours, which are backward in terms of democracy and human rights, the situation is exactly the opposite. The state has the sole say, and when it passes a law, it does not matter if civil society does not want it. There is repression and exclusion, and the human rights are trampled upon.
MUSLIMS’ GREATEST HANDICAP IS THEIR MISUNDERSTANDING OF ISLAM
How do you evaluate the fact that the Turkish society, which according to the statistics is 90% Muslim, both supports the persecution of their Muslim brothers and sisters in faith and supports the Erdoğan regime known for its injustice, corruption and oppression, in every election? Do you think Muslims do not care about rights, law and justice?
The figure of ninety percent has no basis in reality, it could be said the majority in Turkey are Muslims, but the unlawful policies of the regime, especially in the last decade, have brought this percentage down considerably. People who were not Muslims in the past, but at least did not hate Islam, now hate Islam, religion and religious values. Moreover, some Muslims exclude themselves from the kind of Islam claimed by the AKP and openly state that they do not follow such a brand of Islam. They cannot be considered wrong in this. This is because the Islam to which the regime claims to belong is directly opposite to the true Islam described in the Qur’an and practiced by Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Several principles clearly stated in the Qur’an have been violated by the partisans of the incumbent regime, and the regime has become a symbol of oppression, theft and corruption, bribery and nepotism, robbery and thieving. Although the leaders of the regime constantly claim they take Islam as their sole reference, their reference is certainly not Islam, but their own whims and fancies. However, media power, state pressure, threats and blackmail, persecution and unlawfulness have intimidated, frightened and wimped out several civil society organizations, bought some from within, placed intelligence officers in some, and placed the so-called civil structures under the command of the state.
In addition, both its historical codes of the consideration of the state authority in the Turkish society and the illiteracy of large sections of the population, or even if they are literate, their inability to see and evaluate events in all their dimensions, have led people with this characteristic to attach themselves insentiently with the state apparatus and the state representatives. Such an attachment has comforted the state leaders, made their work easier and pushed them to the distorted mindset that whatever they did, they could somehow blame “the state” and get away with it.
Another significant factor in the backing of the regime is the population density, especially in the rural areas of Turkey and the slums of the big cities. This population density largely receives social support from the state, especially in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions, and are steered with nominal aids such as coal, bread and pasta. This prevents a substantial portion of the society in Turkey from opposing the incumbent regime which calls itself “the state” which threatens them with starvation and withholding aid in the event of a regime change.
Another segment of civil society is are the structures termed as “Sufi orders”, “religious communities” and “religious foundations”, which thrive in symbiosis with the incumbent regime. Connected to the regime with a virtual umbilical cord and benumbed to inaction, such structures have their willpower seized. Also emboldened by their envy and jealousy towards the Hizmet Movement, these structures have virtually identified themselves with the current regime. Therefore, it cannot be expected from the relentless supporters of the regime, consisting of these layers, to raise their voices against the atrocities taking place.
Perhaps the greatest handicap of this segment we term as Muslims is their misunderstanding of Islam. The vast majority of these groups have reduced Islam to mere rhetoric. Some others have limited the practice of Islam to prayer, pilgrimage and fasting, profuse recitations of the Holy Qur’an and performing small pilgrimages during Ramadan, and to keeping beards and donning headscarves. Islam, meanwhile, is also law, justice, morality, honesty, abstinence from cheating, not being silent in the face of injustice, standing by the oppressed, caring the public property, avoiding bribery, slander and lies, and respecting the right of neighbors. Worships are reckoned with Allah. However, such public conduct are reckoned both with the people and Allah. Worships are restricted to certain times and circumstances, but law, justice and other principles apply round the clock daily, are continuous and not limited by circumstances. This contradictory and chaotic situation is not only characteristic of Turkey, but also of the so-called Muslim countries in general. Knowing this, politicians can easily fool the society and deceive them with a few slogans based on religion. This is exactly what is happening in Turkey nowadays.
DIYANET HAS BECOME AN APPARATUS OF THE REGIME
Here I would also like to ask you about the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its recent controversial decisions. What may you say if I ask you, “In light of the recent events, what is the impact of the religious stance and conduct of the Presidency of Religious Affairs on the current circumstances?”
Actually, the founding purpose of Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) was to monopolize Islam in Turkey and render it a front for the official ideology of the state. Religion is an indispensable need of the society. It only makes sense when this need is addressed in a timely and apt manner. Diyanet has never been independent. The massive influence of retired military officers on the Diyanet in the past is a fact known to all. However, despite all this pressure and insistence, the Diyanet presidents could generally keep religion away from the influence and pressure of daily politics – albeit to varying degrees occasionally – and have kept the Diyanet as an independent, all-embracing and inclusive institution, protecting it from the siege of the politically-motivated individuals.
However, for the first time in its history, this institution has been so publicly and directly politicized and made subservient to a dirty politics. Especially during the tenure of the two presidents, it has been completely out of control, acting like a party mouthpiece in every activity it carries out.
The prominent managers of the Diyanet in the last decade have positioned themselves as if they were privileged members of a political party, interpreted the Qur’an and the Sunnah by distorting them for this purpose, and not only corrupted religion and alienated different segments of the society from religion, they even made people hate it. To put it bluntly, institutions are as religious as individuals, and the Diyanet was expected to be a solemnly religious institution. However, during this period, it has self-destructed by placing its institutional religiosity at the service of politics. Unfortunately, (Prof. Dr. Mehmet) Görmez’s and (Prof. Dr. Ali) Erbaş’s zealous efforts to shift the axis of the Diyanet to the political orbit of the AKP have formed a critical discrepancy between the institution’s name and denomination.
The vast majority of the representatives of the Diyanet, who are tasked to explain the religion to the society in line with its true essence, have interpreted the religious precepts to protect and save the ruling party, and have not been a strong voice against theft, bribery, oppression, violation of public rights, lack of law and depletion of universal human values.
In its current state, the Diyanet has lost its characteristics of encompassing, gathering and keeping an equal distance to everyone both at home and abroad, and has been transformed into the propaganda center of a political party, and a dirty party at that. In this state, the Diyanet has little to offer to society in religion while acting almost the guardian of the regime. A sentinel that makes the illicit (haram) look licit (halal) and halal look haram!
We can see more clearly how massive and profound damage the Diyanet with this preposterous stance has caused to Islam and Islamic values in Turkey after the AKP’s curtain fall.
Occasionally, there are discussions about the need for a reinterpretation of Islam. What do you think about this fresh interpretation proposal, thought to be proposed for the Islamic world to get out of the spiral of problems it keeps experiencing?
Islam is a universal religion in both time and geography. Its universality is closely related to its source being divine and that it has survived to the present day in its entirety. We have a holy scripture and it is the Qur’an. For fourteen centuries, Muslims have strived to shape their lives in line with this universal scripture, the Holy Qur’an, and faced with new circumstances in every period, they have benefited from the Qur’an’s universal structure. Issues such as the schools of Islamic jurisprudence emerged in the historical process, the different interpretations and opinions within these schools, and the rulings on the problems arisen over time through the absolute decrees in the Qur’anic verses constitute the most obvious indication that the Qur’an has always been open to interpretation.
If by “the reinterpretation of Islam”, the new jurisprudence needed in every period is meant, this has already been done for fourteen centuries and still goes on. However, if this reinterpretation is meant as a “reform”, that is, a restructuring, subjecting the Islamic precepts to impossible interpretations, tampering with them to the point of distortion, taking Qur’anic verses out of their context and considering them historical, then this is simply a fantasy or conjecture. Although similar statements have been put forward occasionally by some dreamers in different periods and countries of the world, they have not been and cannot be realized.
The emergence of the so-called Islamic world from the spiral of problems has nothing to do with the interpretation of Islam by reform. This is because in the fourteen centuries of the Islamic history, different schools of thought have emerged from the different interpretations of the Islamic teachings in both the theological and practical disciplines. Leaving the extremes aside, different schools of jurisprudence such as Ashari-Maturidi in belief and Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali in practice emerged and have continued to exist widely throughout history. All these are within the folds of Islam and accepted as Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’ah, those who adhere to the Sunnah and who unite upon it, not turning to anything else, whether that be in matters of belief (‘aqeedah) or matters of actions subject to jurisprudence (shar’i) rulings. Therefore, the existence of different schools of jurisprudence alone shows there is no single interpretation in Islam, and that there can be different and new jurisprudence according to the periods and conditions and the situations in time. What should not be forgotten here is the universality of the basic principles of Islam and their immutability over time. However, in addition to the immutable ones, there are also the decrees pertaining to Islamic transactions with an emphasis on independent reasoning that can change and be interpreted differently as per the needs of society and individuals and the conditions of the time, and there has been no harm in interpretation. Indeed, this is an indication of the flexibility and universality of Islam.
The fundamental principles of Islam never contradict universal values such as human rights, justice, equality, freedom and peace, so it begs no need to interpret these principles. These principles are valid at all times and in all places and cannot be changed.
As for the spiral into which Islam, and therefore Muslims, has fallen, it is not because of the reinterpretation of these rulings. The way out of this spiral is to understand what the Qur’an states, heed its order of precedence and succession, follow the order from the primary (main) to the secondary (second most important) as it was when the Qur’an was first revealed, and above all, to transform Islam from discourse into action.
The only way for Muslims to escape from this spiral is to rid themselves of ignorance, which the Qur’an and the Sunnah emphasize, and practice science and spread it to all strata of society. The way out of this spiral is for Muslims to rid themselves of the networks of hypocrisy in their midst, leave the footsteps of the impostors posing as Muslims and not to fall for their tricks, and therefore to move away from the internal fights, conflicts and excommunicating one another from Islam as encouraged by these types.
The way out of this spiral is for Muslims to rid themselves of the ignorant and bigoted clerics and advance in science, technology and art. The way out of this spiral is for Muslims to show, first among themselves and then in the whole world, that they are the people who practice true peace, friendship, coexistence, law and justice, that they uphold universal human values, and that they demonstrate these not by words but by practicing them in daily life.
RELIGIOUS GROUPS FAILED THE TEST
Finally, I would like to know how you see the future of the religious communities and their role in the future society, based on the claim that the religious groups in Turkey are divided into the “religious communities that face myriad pressure and coercion due to their insistence for independence” and the “religious groups supporting the government despite all its crimes”.
Especially in the last decade, the structures that make up the bulk of the civil institutions, sometimes called Sufi orders, sometimes religious communities, sometimes something else, have performed poorly. The outward appearance of these structures supporting the government is deplorable. It is as if they are trumpeting the government, not the religion or the historical heritage to which they belong, despite the exposure of the government representatives’ hundreds of scandals. Although several clear principles of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which they claim to believe in and defend, have been openly violated, it is as if these structures have turned into mute devils and all have become beggars at the current regime’s door. Some have fallen in love with a few buildings, some with money, some with a few men placed in state positions, and they have become tongue-tied, like nightingales force-fed on mulberries losing their birdsong.
The contradictory situation of these structures with the religion and cultural heritage they defend does not escape the public’s notice. Indeed, the lavish lives of the representatives of these structures, their indulgence in luxury and extravagance, and their convoys in blues and twos have turned into a great repulsion in the eyes of the public, except for a few partisans, and they have lost their credibility. Although their tragicomic situation is not much visible now, when the Erdoğan regime, which they leaned on and trusted like a holy edifice, disappears, the quagmire these communities have fallen into will be seen much more clearly. In short, the Erdoğan regime has done more damage to religion and the religious than the Mongols ever did. All the institutions and structures (Diyanet, Schools of Theology, Imam-Hatip High Schools, Sufi orders, and religious communities) that voluntarily promoted Erdoğan and suddenly turned statist have executed themselves with their own hands in this process. As I have mentioned, they will be destroyed the same as their totems. They will not be able to convince anyone any more. No one will follow them. Cut off from the society, they will be reduced to the low sound of buzzing flies in the background. They will never recover from this.
Thank you for sharing your valuable remarks with us.