A Rare Meeting With Reclusive Turkish Spiritual Leader Fethullah Gulen

By Jamie Tarabay
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Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, left, gives a vase as gift to Islamic scholar and spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, right, during his visit to Istanbul on Feb. 25, 1998. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)

Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish religious spiritual leader, some say to millions of Turks both in Turkey and around the world, and the head of the Gulenist movement. His network of followers span the globe and have opened academically-focused schools across 90 countries, including the U.S.

The hocaefendi, meaning "respected teacher," as he is called, left Turkey in 1998 to avoid charges from the Turkish government of involvement in anti-secular activities. He eventually settled in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, where he continues to preach, write, and guide his followers through television and the Internet.

He is sickly and doesn't travel, yet secular Turks worry his influence in political ranks will grow Islamist influence there and turn the country into a religious state. He is well-known in Turkey and across Central Asia, yet here in the United States, he remains a mystery.

The reclusive spiritualist keeps to his home in the Poconos, attended by believers, praying, lecturing, and claiming his influence is not as wide-ranging as his critics claim it to be. He rarely gives interviews, but I was recently allowed to travel to the idyllic resort-like compound he has been living in for around 14 years and meet with Gulen for an interview. An edited transcript of his translated answers follows:

The Atlantic: It's so rare to have an interview with you, why is that?

Fethullah Gulen: I grew up in a humble family with a shy personality. I accept these kind offers out of respect for those who are requesting such interviews, otherwise, I would prefer to live a secluded life just by myself.

We just saw your living quarters, and I saw a very small bed, a small mat, a small room. When you can have all the space you need, why do you use such a small area for yourself?

My whole life has been this way, during my years as a student, and later on in life I have always lived in such humble spaces. It's because I would like to live like my fellow citizens because I consider myself among them. By no means do I consider myself superior in any sense. Also, it is in my nature. I believe in the hereafter; I believe that's the true life, therefore I don't want to attach myself too much to this world.

Do you still teach every day?

I try to spend time with the students here every day as much as my health allows me. Some days my health prevents me from doing so, but I'd like to continue to study with them for as long as I am alive.

I heard you had no female students.

In Turkey, our friends are running a program in which female students are taking graduate-level courses in divinity. Here, the same system couldn't be replicated, but there are ladies who regularly follow the lectures.

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Sitki Ozcan

According to Islamic tradition, is the role of women limited to motherhood?

No, it is not. The noble position of motherhood aside, our general opinion about women is that, while taking into account their specific needs, it should be made possible for them to take on every role, including the jobs of physician, military officer, judge and president of a country. As a matter of fact, in every aspect of life throughout history Muslim women made contributions to their society. In the golden age (referring to the years during Mohammed's lifetime) starting with Aisha, Hafsa, and Um Salama (the Prophet's wives), had their places among the jurists and they taught men.

When these examples are taken into consideration, it would be clearly understood that it is out of the question to restrict the lives of women, narrowing down their activities. Unfortunately, the isolation of women from social activities in some places today, a practice that stems from the misinterpretation of Islamic sources, has been a subject of a worldwide propaganda campaign against Islam.

If there is one thing that you would say to people here in this country who don't know a lot about you, your beliefs and your teachings, what would that message be?

I don't have a need to promote myself. I've never sought to be known or recognized by people. I simply share ideas I believe in with people around me. If people recognize me despite that, that's their mistake. But my core belief is to seek peace in the world, helping people eliminate certain malevolent attitudes through education as much as possible. An Arabic proverb says: "If something cannot be attained fully, it shouldn't be abandoned completely."

What message do you have for Americans who are concerned about the number of charter schools founded by people you inspire? How do you expect that influence to reflect on that educator's life?

First of all, let me clarify that I have never been personally involved in the founding or operation of any school. My influence, if any, has been through my sermons, talks and seminars. If I have any credit among the people who listen to my words, I have channeled that credit or credibility to encouraging them to establish institutions of education. I have tried to explain that we can achieve peace and reconciliation around the world only through raising a generation of people who read, who think critically, who love fellow humans and who offer their assets in service of humanity.

You don't seek to be noticed, yet you were one of TIME's 100 people, and called a voice of moderation that is desperately needed. Why? And what more could other moderate voices do to be heard today?

Although there are voices of moderation around the world, it's sometimes hard to reach a consensus among them. Perhaps what is more important is to be an example. Could Turkey be an example in this regard? Could this movement be an example, could this community be an example? I believe if we're to face ourselves, ask ourselves, perhaps because we haven't been able to set a good example and fully represent our values, there hasn't been great interest or sympathy in the world. But we are hopeful, that God willing this will happen. These views were not welcome in Turkey, but now they are slowly being embraced. If you remember, when I said 20 years ago that democracy was a process from which there would be no return, certain media organizations that are now supportive of the present government were very skeptical and they criticized me severely.

You said earlier if you live in a democracy where you have full freedom of expression as a Muslim, then there's no need for any other kind of government. What is an example of being a Muslim without that freedom of expression, and what should they do in that situation?

In many places around the world, including Turkey until the 1950s, Muslims didn't have full freedom of religion. Even personal practice was not allowed, and they had to practice in secret. I remember when I was in elementary school around the age of 6 and when I did my noon prayer during recess once, I was locked in the basement as punishment by the principal. Such pressure was real. Today, on the one hand, some Muslims face oppression and in response, certain individuals commit suicide attacks. Religion doesn't condone or justify responding to those who oppress with oppression. Today, Muslims face oppressive conditions in some places, and Christians in others. Some things take time. All humanity should embrace a peaceful attitude, but this can only be achieved in the long term through rehabilitation of society. Can we achieve this? We will achieve whatever we can, and for our unrealized goals, we will be rewarded for our intention.

Many people love you, but there are also many people who fear you. Some want you to return to Turkey, and others fear what you might do should you go there.

I am neither the first nor the last to create such polarized attitudes and perspectives. Indeed throughout history, friends of the truth have faced obstacles and enmity, including the messengers of God. Perhaps, when looking at this situation, we should say that maybe we haven't represented ourselves or explained ourselves accurately to people. When we reflect on this, we should say, "If we were able to make it clear that we have nothing for them to be concerned about, then they wouldn't harbor enmity against us." We should give others the benefit of the doubt. Around the world, whole societies experience paranoia. And people in Turkey are also affected by this. We should act and express ourselves in such a way that eliminates every negative thought or suspicion. But we should also accept the fact that some people have historically entrenched attitudes and cannot change. So it is not possible to be praised and loved at the same degree by everybody.

Some statements concerning Jews or Israel in your early sermons have been perceived as anti-Semitic. How do you respond to this?

We can consider this matter from different angles. First, it is always possible for a person to go through an evolution in his thinking. In an article I wrote years ago I asked: Are you today the same person as yesterday? And are your interlocutors the same people as yesterday? Neither you are exactly the same person, nor are your interlocutors, which means tomorrow neither of you will be the same person either.

The actions and attitudes of your interlocutors affect your views and expressions. During the interfaith dialogue process of the 1990s, I had a chance to get to know practitioners of non-Muslim faiths better, and I felt a need to revise my expressions from earlier periods.

I sincerely admit that I might have misunderstood some verses and prophetic sayings. I realized and then stated that the critiques and condemnations that are found in the Koran or prophetic tradition are not targeted against people who belong to a religious group, but at characteristics that can be found in any person.

In some cases my words have been taken out of context. Sometimes people with questionable intentions selectively extract statements from my speeches and writings without regard to the context or circumstances. My efforts for interfaith dialogue were criticized as softening Muslims' perspectives on Jews and Christians. I have not done anything that I did not believe to be in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed. He was the one who stood for a funeral procession of a Jewish resident of Medina, showing respect for a deceased fellow human being.

It is a fact that I criticized certain actions of Israel in the past. But in my mosque sermons, I also categorically condemn terrorism and suicide bombings that target innocent civilians.

Why do you choose to stay in Pennsylvania?

Although there are no legal obstacles for my return to Turkey, I am concerned that certain circles are waiting for an opportunity to reverse the democratic reforms that were started in the early 1990s and accelerated in the last decade. I am concerned that these elements will try to take advantage of my return by putting the government in a difficult position. I have to sacrifice my intense desire to return to my homeland in the interest of both Turkey and the good work of volunteers of the (Gulen) movement around the world. I feel that I need to live with my pain of yearning to return and stay here until there are no more concerns about the consolidation of democratic reforms. Additionally, while in Turkey, I would seek corrections and possible legal actions against libel and slander. Here, I am away from such harassment, and I am less affected by them. I find this place more tranquil.

How do you view Turkey's current political ambitions and place in the world?

Turkey is in accession talks with the European Union. Part of Turkey is considered in Europe and the other part in Asia, and sometimes it is considered in the Middle East. It stands in a very important place geographically and politically. It is crucial for Turkey to preserve and advance its achievements in democratization, thanks in part to its ongoing relationship with the European Union.

Turkey also needs to make use of certain dynamics to take on a more active role in the region. For instance, if there is a favorable view and positive perception of Turkey due to its historic ties in the region, Turkey should be careful to protect those perceptions. It should protect its reputation. Good relationships and influence depend on love, respect, and good will, and collaborating around mutually agreeable goals. Is Turkey doing these fully today or not? This is a question that deserves discussion. If Turkey is indeed able to develop good diplomatic relations in the region, I believe it will be in the interest of Europe, the United States and the world. But I don't think Turkey is doing what it can toward this end at the moment.

How would you define your vision of Islam and the kind of Muslim you are?

I consider myself an ordinary Muslim who is constantly working to put himself in the framework established by the Koran and the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed. I study the works of experts of jurisprudence, Koranic commentary, hadith commentary, and Sufism. In the past I was asked about my views on the spiritual dimension of Islam. I was asked whether I belonged to a Sufi order or whether I was against Sufism. Although I do not belong to any Sufi order and I have never attempted to establish one, I can say that the righteous masters of Sufism have influenced me greatly.

Finally, my understanding and vision of Islam cannot be understood only through my words. My lifework and the projects through which my friends and I hope to serve humanity should also be considered. The educational dialogue, humanitarian assistance initiatives represent our vision better than words.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/a-rare-meeting-with-reclusive-turkish-spiritual-leader-fethullah-gulen/278662/