Religion, Civil Society and Politics in Turkey: Past and Present
On Tuesday February 25, 2014 Dr. Mustafa Sahin and guest speaker Dr. Ori Soltes of Georgetown University came to a panel to explain and explore the continuously straining relationship between Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen and the Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Fethullah Gulen has inspired a vast international network of people, who call themselves the Hizmet Movement, who seek to promote interfaith dialogueand improve their communities and societies through good actions. Prime Minister Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party has brought various economic, democratic, and political reforms to Turkey including lifting the headscarf ban, abolishing the death penalty, and moving the Republic of Turkey closer to achieving European Union membership. Initially the two men and the groups they inspired or led were close allies until 2013. Now their relationship is one of suspicion and interference, with the government accusing the Hizmet Movement of trying to create a state within a state. Both speakers shared their insights into why and how the two former allies turned on each other.
Dr. Soltes was the first speaker and started his lecture by exploring the aspects of Sufism that have inspired Fethullah Gulen. Fethullah Gulen comes from a line of Sufi thought which includes Rumi and Ibn Arabi who saw the universality of mankind and preached a doctrine of love. Through this Gulen’s ideology is one that says that to serve God is to serve mankind and by serving God one is serving mankind. Gulen and many Sufi thinkers say that one must deny oneself for the greater good, see how one can serve others rather than themselves. Dr. Soltes went on to explain that one of the reasons that there was a break was because ideological differences between Gulen and Erdogan, where the former sees improvement as coming from thinking of others and denying oneself and the latter thinking the reverse.
Dr. Sahin’s presentation began with some historical context under the theme of state Islam versus civil Islamic thought. He explained there has long been a tension between state Islam, which was used by rulers to promote their line of thought and their actions and independent Islamic thought which have been popular among the masses and was not always complacent with the established order, something that rang especially true in the Ottoman Empire. Dr. Sahin said that Erdogan’s concerns about the Hizmet Movement is not surprising in the historical context because authoritarian rulers have often viewed popular independent religious movements with distrust. He also explained that among Sufi thought there is an acknowledgement that politics should be designed according to moral and ethical principles otherwise stay away with it view it as a corrupting factor, especially when power is obtained. Therefore Sufis seek to influence people in power through their teachings and actions, hoping that it can cause the leader to follow the moral principles they teach. Therefore the split between Gulen and Erdogan occurred mostly because Gulen’s refusal to be a complacent follower of Erdogan and his party’s polices.
Panel: Religion, Civil Society and Politics in Turkey: Past and Present
I. Mysticism, Democracy and Hizmet: from Mevlanah Rumi to Fethullah Gulen by Prof. Ori Soltes
II. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Turkey: The Recent Debates on Religion for the Sake of State by Dr. Mustafa G. Sahin
Dr. Ori Z. Soltes teaches at Georgetown University across a range of disciplines, from art history and theology to philosophy and political history. He is the former Director and Curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, where he curated over 80 exhibitions. He is also the author of over 230 books, articles, exhibition catalogues, and essays on a range of topics. Recent books include Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source,Searching for Oneness: Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Untangling the Web: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Why the Middle East is a Mess and Always has been, and Embracing the World: Fethullah Gulen’s Thought and Its Relationship to Jalaluddin Rumi and Others.
Dr. Mustafa Sahin is the Director of Academic Affairs at Istanbul Center. He received his BA in International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara and his MA in International Relations at Fatih University, Istanbul with a Master thesis on Turkish Foreign Policy Towards the Palestinian Question. He received his PhD in International Relations at Florida International University, Miami where he wrote his dissertation on Turkish Islamic / social movements and how they view Turkey's place in the world (Turkey and neo-Ottomanism: Domestic sources, dynamics and foreign policy). Previously he was a Visiting Assistant Professor at University of South Florida where he taught Introduction to Comparative Politics, the Middle East, and Politics and Culture in Developing Societies. At Istanbul Center he teaches courses on Islam and Turkey.