• Articles

    Pieces on Risale-i Nur and its Author
  • 1

Fethullah Gülen’s Response to the “Clash of Civilizations” Thesis

By Dr. Richard Penaskovic

Unlike Huntington Mr. Gülen is not an academic. Rather, he writes as a preacher, a journalist, a visionary, and as an activist. His thoughts are simple yet profound, poetic rather than pedestrian. He finds his inspiration in the Qur’an, the hadith, the Sufi mystics, particularly Rumi the poet, and in the ideas of Said Nursi. Gülen was greatly influenced by Nursi and is accepting of Western modernity, defending such modern ideas as dialogue, democracy, and tolerance.

What does Gülen say about the clash of civilizations? Gülen does not mince words. He fears that such talk about a clash of civilizations might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gülen notes that as a consequence of such a claim, readers may form expectations in the very same way they expect an answer to prayer. By arguing that the future will involve a clash of civilizations, Huntington converts such an expectation into a purposeful goal. Gülen fears that with such a goal in mind, various policies and strategies will then be marshaled to reach and attain such a goal. Gülen also has a different vision of the future than does Mr. Huntington. Where Huntington speaks of conflict between civilizations and variant cultures, Gülen is much more sanguine and upbeat about the future.

Gülen would like to see a new philosophy of life developed. The new generation should be educated at every step of the way from kindergarten to the university level in a creative way. In this connection creativity means the ability to go beyond the confines of convention.

Gülen observes that Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilizations takes conflict as its fundamental presupposition. During the Cold War there was indeed a clash between two opposing power blocks, viz., the NATO countries versus the Warsaw Pact countries. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, a clash of civilizations based on religious and cultural differences is being prepared. The creation of these new enemy fronts lays the foundation for the rule of the power blocs in the West. These power centers in the West have put their populations on alert against a conjectured and feared enemy, namely, Islam. In this way the masses are being prepared for war.

In contradistinction to Huntington Mr. Gülen notes that no religion has ever been based on conflict. In the early centuries of Christianity war was condemned and many Christians were pacifists, e.g., Tertullian. From time immemorial Christianity did not lay down any rules regarding war until St. Augustine in the fourth century elaborated the just war theory. The Islamic religion has likewise been based on peace, world harmony, and security. The Arabic term, jihad, from the root j-h-d means spiritual warfare or using all one’s strength, moving toward an objective with all one’s power and resisting every difficulty. The primary meaning of jihad is this: keeping one’s carnal instincts and drives under control so as to make progress in the interior or spiritual life. Only in its secondary meaning does jihad mean war. Islam believes in jihad as a right to self-defense only in exceptional cases, just as the human body attempts to fight against the germs that have attacked it. Gülen notes that Islam has always breathed goodness and peace and has considered war a secondary event. War can only take place in accordance with certain rules and principles, analogous to the criteria for the doctrine of the just war in Christianity. These principles and rules have served the purpose of limiting war, mindful of the words in the Qur’an 5:8.

In short, Islam developed a line of defense so that property, life, and freedom of belief can be protected. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda hijack the Qur’an for their own malevolent purposes and are guilty not of jihad or a defensive war (that can only be declared by a legitimate ruler), but of hirabah or terrorism. Gülen states that one ought to seek Islam through its own sources and its own true representatives throughout history rather than through the actions of a small minority that distort it. Gülen’s positive response to the clash of civilizations thesis consists of three parts encapsulated in the words, tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and compassionate love.

The term, tolerance, appears about sixty times in Gülen’s book, Love & Tolerance, not to mention the many times it appears in Gülen’s oeuvre as a whole. Gülen finds the notion of tolerance and forgiveness deeply rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah or the customs/traditions of Muhammad (Qur’an 25:63; 25:72; 28:55). The servants of God say nothing unbecoming when they have ugly words thrown in their face. They also know how to ignore ugly or bad behavior. They take the high road bypassing negativity by acing with dignity. Gülen calls such people “heroes of tolerance.” Their characteristic marks are tolerance, gentleness, and consideration for others. Gülen points out that when God sent Moses and Aaron, to the Pharaoh who claimed to be a divinity, God ordered them to speak softly and behave tolerantly (Qur’an 20:44).

Mohammad, may his name be blessed, was tolerant toward Abu Sufyan, who persecuted the Prophet throughout his lifetime. The Qur’an in 45:14 orders those whose hearts are filled with love to show tolerance and forgiveness to those who deny belief in the afterlife. Muslims are enjoined to be tolerant and forbearing toward others, expecting nothing in return. Like Yunus, the Turkish poet, true Muslims should not strike back against those who hit them. If attacked, a Muslim has the right to strike back with equal force. However, the Muslim who forgives the attacker has a higher level of faith than the one who exercises the right of self-defense. Muslims should not hold grudges against those who abuse them either. Tolerance means we can benefit from ideas with which we disagree. Those who disagree with us, have something to give us provided we are truly open to what they say.

Gülen directs attention to the fact that if we do not forgive others, we in return have no right to expect forgiveness. All human beings are part of the same human family in the sense that we are fellow passengers on the ship called planet Earth. Gülen exhorts all of us to pull together to construct a better world built on tolerance. His optimistic and hopeful view of the future leads him to say that the twenty-first century will be called the age of tolerance. And he wants this tolerance to become permanent, that is, to last for all ages. His views about the future stand diametrically opposed to those of Mr. Huntington.

Gülen remains convinced that interfaith dialogue is sorely needed in today’s world, one which is torn apart by conflict. Dialogue for him means the coming together of two or more persons to discuss common issues. In the process of dialogue the partners form a close bond. On this score Gülen probably has in mind the Quranic word for dialogue, viz., jidal which means to be intimately engaged in a discussion or debate with another person.

Gülen notes that religion acts as a balm reconciling opposites: religion and revelation, this world and the next, the material world and the spiritual one. Optimally, the natural sciences ought to be steps of light leading people to God but instead have become a source of unbelief particularly in Western civilization. Islam, on the other hand, has always emphasized spirituality and spiritual matters. Since Christianity has been the religion most influenced by unbelief, Gülen envisions dialogue between Muslims and Christians as indispensable and exceedingly necessary.

Gülen argues that the very nature of religion demands a dialogue between all the major world religions. This dialogue has particular urgency for the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. There are as many reasons for Muslims and Jews to engage in interfaith dialogue as there are for Jews and Christians to come closer together. Historically speaking, the Muslim world has a solid record of dealing with the Jewish people. Jews have always been welcomed in times of troubled water, e.g., when the Ottoman Empire embraced Jews after their expulsion from Andalusia. Furthermore, Muslims were not involved in the Shoah or Holocaust, and Muslims have neither discriminated against them nor denied them their basic rights.

For historical reasons Muslims are and have been reluctant to enter into dialogue with Christianity. Western powers have killed more Muslims in the last century alone than all the Christians killed by Muslims in the history of the world. Today even liberal and educated Muslims feel that Western policies are designed to weaken Muslim power. Muslims wonder whether the West is continuing its thousand year systematic aggression against Islam with far more sophisticated methods than it has used in the past. No wonder Muslims are cold to the idea of entering into dialogue with Christians.

One of the main points Gülen makes repeatedly about interfaith dialogue is this: for interfaith dialogue to succeed we must forget the past, ignore polemics, and focus on common points. Some of the common points are these: both religions take their lineage from Abraham and the prophets. Both are monotheistic religions, that is, they believe in the oneness (tawhid) of God, revere Jesus and Mary, believe strongly in the power of faith, and call upon their followers to lead holy lives by means of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and, in some Christian denominations, pilgrimage. It would be mutually beneficial if Islam and the West could enter into dialogue with one another. Whereas the West possesses economic, military, scientific, and technological strength, Islam has a powerful, uncorrupted, and living spiritual tradition rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah or way the Prophet lived.

Gülen speaks forcefully about the power of compassionate love. This notion of compassionate love appears in many of Gülen’s writings and sermons . Where does he derive this idea? His sources seem to be the Qur’an itself, the hadith or stories about what Muhammad did, and in his reading of the Sufi tradition, particularly Mevlana Rumi, the poet and mystic. Gülen considers the love of God to be the purest source of compassionate love in the world. On the individual level we may call compassionate love the sultan that reigns on the throne of the human heart. On the social level there exists nothing more real or more lasting than love in any nation or society. Gülen waxes poetically in speaking of love describing it as the most radiant light, the greatest power in the world, and the chain or link that binds one person to another. For Gülen it is axiomatic that our love should be as vast as the ocean and we should take every soul to our bosom.

These three entities– tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and compassionate love– are Gülen’s positive response to Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis. Where Huntington sees conflict, Gülen sees peace. Where Huntington has a decidedly pessimistic view of the relationship between Islam and the West, Gülen speaks of hope and optimism. How do we account for the difference between the two perspectives? My answer would be this. If Huntington views the world as a political scientist, Gülen looks upon the same world through the lens of his Muslim faith.

Gülen’s faith may be compared to a glass of water, without color, without odor, without taste, yet when held up to the light of day it is a prism that reflects and captures all the beauty, mystery, and wonder in the universe. Reality does not change. But our view of reality does change depending on the vantage point from which we approach it. Faith gives us “new eyes.” Faith is akin to the plastic lens we put on to see a movie in three dimensions. If we take off this lens during the movie, the screen looks blurred. With them on, reality appears the way it is. Mr. Gülen would remind Mr. Huntington that there are many more things under the heavens than are thought of in his political philosophy. There are several practical implications to what Gülen proposes.

First, one must distinguish between Islam as a religion and global Islamism, which is a political ideology dressed in religious imagery and apocalyptical language. As a religion Islam stands for tolerance, peace, dialogue, and compassionate love. However, ideologically, global Islamism is decidedly similar to secular ideologies of terror such as Leninism, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and the Red Brigades, who were prepared to unleash violence against their own people.

Second, Gülen would remind us that if we want to start a revolution, we must begin with ourselves. We must eliminate from our vocabulary such words as “hatred,” “enemy”, and “revenge.” Rather than striking back at others, we must ‘retaliate’ against others using gentleness and forgiveness as our modus operandi. We are called, says Gülen, to reach out in love to others with whom we interact on a daily basis. Thus we will be agents of change within our own circle of friends. In this way we will bridge the gap between Islam and the West in an infinitely small but important way.

The differences between Huntington and Gülen are stark. Where Huntington thinks in terms of polarities, Islam or the West in conflict with one another, Gülen opts for a more holistic view of global politics. Gülen sees Islam and the West working together in a harmonious fashion. In this connection the operative term for Gülen is dialogue. I would also point out that Huntington as a representative of the Western mind-set takes a wholly secular view of global politics. Gülen, on the contrary, takes a transcendent point of view, that is, he looks at global politics through the lens of his Islamic faith.

Source: Summarized from “Gülen’s Response to the “Clash of Civilizations” Thesis” by Richard Penaskovic. This paper was presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London. Click here to visit the conference web page.

Richard Penaskovic is Professor of Religious Studies and Immediate Past Chair of the University Senate and University Faculty at Auburn University in Alabama, USA. Penaskovic possesses a B.A. in philosophy, the equivalent of a MA in theology from the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, and received the doctorate in theology magna cum laude from the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. Penaskovic has over 100 publications to his credit. His latest book, Critical Thinking and the Academic Study of Religion, is distributed by Duke University Press. His many articles and book reviews have appeared in such journals as The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Augustinian Studies, Theological Studies, The Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Louvain Studies (Belgium), and The Heythrop Journal (London). He has appeared on radio and TV in the United States and his current research interests are the Muslim-Christian dialogue, spirituality, and ecclesiology.