Journeys through life take strange twists and happen in mysterious ways – some would say providential, although I might not – but one does wonder at times.
My journeys with the Gülen movement began one Summer Sunday morning in 2008, when a judge friend of mine announced from the back of church, as we were about to leave, that she was putting together an interfaith trip to Turkey and looking for volunteers. I wasn't sure what it was about, but the price was right. I had some vacation time left and had never been to Turkey. So, always ready for something new in my life, I signed up.
Part of what interested me in the trip was that I knew little about Turkey or Islam, other than what I had learned through history books in the early 1960's. Most of that, of course, was unfavorable ... the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and Africa, the attempted conquest of Europe ... and told from an atavistic western Christian view. My views, of course, had matured over the years, but still were not particularly insightful or deep. It was time to learn more. Nor was I at all familiar with the Gülen movement (or Hizmet, "service," as people in the movement prefer to call it).
A few weeks after we returned from Turkey, it was suggested to me that I write a book on the political trial and acquittal of Fethullah Gülen. I really hadn't been aware of the trial. I resisted initially because of my regular job and my teaching. Eventually, I went ahead with it because I've always been interested in international human rights and enjoyed writing, especially about civil rights. Another incentive was that, unlike most political trials, Gülen actually won, thanks to a confluence of factors – one being pressure from the European Union, which Turkey was trying to join. The EU had prescribed a set of human rights and legal norms that Turkey had to adjust to. That process is still going on.
It took three weeks of interviews in Turkey and the United States, a good deal of research, and about a year of late nights and weekends to write the book. Struggling with the archaic Turkish legalize in which court documents were drafted was a very difficult task for the translators, and yielded convoluted English translations, which read like American legal writing in years long past, before efforts to modernize it.
The book came out in May 2011: Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen. There are separate chapters on Fethullah Gülen and the movement and on the history of Turkey.
Altogether I traveled 133,739 miles in 28 trips, and spent about two months on the road. I gave 47 speeches or talks, 26 of which were in the United States and often on the movement and civil society. I also did a half-dozen television interviews. Talks outside the United States were always about the book, which is now in English, Turkish, German, Dutch, French, and Spanish, with other translations in progress. (I donated most of the foreign royalties back as my own contribution to Hizmet, so inspired have I been by its work.)
What always struck me about the trips was the kindness and sincere dedication of the people who work with the movement or associate themselves with it. They passionately believe in Hizmet. They strive to create greater civil society throughout the world and expand interpersonal dialog with people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. They generously give of their personal time and resources to this worthy endeavor, and are unfailing in the respect they show to others and attentive to the goal of dialog.
It is customary that Muslims, who support Hizmet, commonly give 10-20% of their income to support Gülen-inspired projects around the world, the majority of which are in Turkey. Some people give substantially more. This is similar to the idea of tithing in the Hebrew Scriptures and is one of the five pillars of Islam (concern for the needy and almsgiving).
About a billion dollars in the aggregate is raised or dedicated each year to support various aspects of Hizmet, but is not collected together. Rather, people or groups of individuals decide to fund a project, such as a hospital in Africa. I talked to a former principal of a large group of Gülen-related schools in Pakistan. Those schools were supported by businessmen in Istanbul. There is every expectancy that a school or hospital, for example, eventually will become self-sufficient and that beneficiaries of Gülen-inspired projects will later support those projects after they get their feet on the ground. In a number of instances, for example, former students of Hizmet schools have returned as teachers in those schools.
Everywhere I went, people were kind enough to drive me around to events and wherever I might need to go. I always had an interpreter with me. Everyone was kind and solicitous to a fault. I always asked individuals I met how they became involved with Hizmet. The two most common answers were either through a Gülen-inspired education project (often it was one of the college preparatory courses and sometimes one of the schools) or through the example and encouragement of friends involved in the movement.
Certainly, a highlight of my journeys was getting to know people with the movement, talking with them, and having meals with them. We discussed our work, our families, our ideas for the future, and the meaning of spirituality. From the beginning, these journeys were always a mutual education opportunity. Over those four years, the journeys deepened my own commitment to justice and my personal spirituality.
It was always a pleasure to speak with people who came to my talks. It's impressive to hear how they have thought about the direction of their lives, and humbling to receive their gratitude for taking the time to speak with them, although, in reality, it's a mutual journey – or "souls seeing each other," as the Sufis put it.
I was taken aback often by the great respect they showed me. A couple of times, men kissed my hand – a symbol of respect for elders. Small gifts were commonplace ... a Sufi CD, prayer beads, some art work (often a mosaic dish), or a woven throw rug. I always traveled with TCRP tote bags and t-shirts and sometimes Obama t-shirts (he is enormously popular in Turkey), Austin music CDs, and the like so that I could show my appreciation for their kindness.
My only regret was not being able to speak Turkish with the people I met or even master common day-to-day salutations and pleasantries. I now understand in a personal way how much easier it is to master language as a younger person, and how much more difficult it becomes with age. Fortunately, I put Latin and Spanish under my belt in high school and college – almost a half-century ago. And, luckily, so many people I met on these journeys spoke English.
I called this essay "journeys" because, for me, they more substantial than a series of trips. They were a learning experience – and a spiritual encounter. The conversations I had with people in the movement as we walked along the Mediterranean in Izmir, or sitting on the steps of a mosque in Istanbul, or in their houses, or at Gülen's table deepened my appreciation for their own personal faith and commitment to larger society. That, in turn, inspired me to try to do better in my own life. I began to read more about Sufism and its mysticism, which drew me closer to Christian mysticism. My own personal journey through life is now richer and deeper spiritually because of the events that unfolded to me. I had the good fortune to experience the richness of interfaith and intercultural dialog. Mysterious, indeed, is life.
As the Irish say, it was a fortunate wind that blew us here together.
Read more: http://www.hizmetnews.com/