Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all.
Perhaps I should say up front that I am a practicing Christian, a Presbyterian, and currently a senior elder in the United Church congregation of which I am a member. What am I doing here, then? I have come to tell you about some of the most faithful, humble, and loving people I have encountered anywhere. The God of grace, mercy, and peace has touched their hearts in unmistakable ways. What follows is not a deep discussion of dialogue, but a testimony to it in action.
I first encountered members of the Turquoise Harmony Institute 10 years ago. They were planning a dialogue trip to Turkey, and, through my friend and colleague, Yasien Mohamed, I was invited to come to the exploratory gathering. Much as I trust Yasien, I couldn’t help asking questions. Who was this Fethullah Gülen? Why would a group like this be so generous? Was the “dialogue” real or a guise for indoctrination? I did some homework and was astonished that I had missed a group the scale and significance of the movement. Its roots are in deep faith. In her book, The Gülen Movement, sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh has since summed up its points of departure:
“… based on his interpretations of particular verses of the Quran, [Gülen] teaches that the Muslim community has a duty of service (Turkish: hizmet) to the ‘common good’ of the community and the nation and to Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world; and that the Muslim community is obliged to conduct dialogue with not just the ‘People of the Book’ (Jews and Christians), and people of other religions, but also with agnostics and atheists.”
My curiosity piqued, I went to the gathering and was delighted by the people I encountered there. To my relief, it was a deep meeting of minds around notions of love, service, and dialogue. We were on the same page.
My wife and I joined the party going to Turkey. I could happily talk about the beauty and fascination of that remarkable country, but this is not a travelogue, and the times are now less happy there. My focus is rather going to be on what we have learned and been challenged by in the work of the Hizmet movement, not only on that trip, when we had some extended exposure to it, but in South Africa and the USA.
The fellowship of faith in awe of the living God is the starting point. Everywhere we have encountered the movement, we have been received in that fellowship. It changes the name of the game. In such company, one is not an observer, but a participant. On several occasions in Turkey, I was asked to give thanks at the start of a meal. And we have often prayed together.
Service is the central activity. There is no high-sounding stuff here, because you can’t serve in the abstract. The Hizmet movement is organized around local groups which share a larger vision but are sharply focused on the needs of the immediate community.
The most remarkable achievements are in education. Around the world there are hundreds of excellent schools started by the movement and supported towards independence. These schools are consciously open to the poorer and less developed sectors of society, whose children are liberated to learn and think and prepare themselves to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. They may do so alongside some of the children of more well-off and privileged families. In Cape Town, there are two such schools. Hizmet also founds excellent universities. None of the schools or universities is by any means confined to Muslims. At one of the superb schools we visited in Turkey, the brilliant Mathematics teacher was an atheist. He was welcomed, as he was committed to excellence. In Gülen’s words: “Our ongoing activities are for the good of all humanity. All humanity are servants of the living God” (The Muslim World, Special Issue, July 2005, Vol. 95, Issue 3, pp 325-471).
Dialogue is a key word for Hizmet. It means much more than talking to one another, though in the modern world even that is sometimes a major achievement! Dialogue for Hizmet is engaging with the other, taking the other seriously, and recognizing that in our limited understanding we have a great deal to learn from one another. A precondition for this kind of dialogue is humility. Using the humility which comes from awe for the living God we are able to engage respectfully and fruitfully with people from other faiths, or with no religious faith, not to mention those from other cultures.
Clearly, members care for one another. In any one Hizmet group the membership ranges from the wealthy to those who are struggling financially. Members have a deep respect for each other’s dignity. They need each other: the relationship between members is mutually supportive and generous. Helping one another is done respectfully and without any show or publicity. It is the order of the day. In the few cases I have become aware of despite the discreetness of all involved, the poorer people helped have certainly not received “charity”; rather, their real needs have been responded to and efforts have been made to enable them to gain independence and flourish.
The importance of this discussion is partly in helping set the record straight. For the last few years, the Hizmet movement has been banned and its members mercilessly persecuted in Turkey. This came after the Erdogan government’s corruption was revealed. The movement has bizarrely been accused of terrorism. Its many thousands of dedicated members have been arrested and tortured and even killed. All their assets have been confiscated. And the superb schools and universities and hospitals, which were making such a difference to modern Turkey, have been taken over by the state and closed down. Hizmet has also been subject to the kind of false news and disinformation campaign that is all too familiar in the world today. The modern world faces a crisis – the cynical use of social media to spread millions of false messages generated by computer and to shape ordinary people’s opinions. When this goes along with ruthless autocracy and corruption, we all have reason to be very concerned.
There is risk in dialogue, but for any real bridges to be built between cultures, people of faith must take that risk.
The Hizmet movement is not above criticism and has never claimed to be, but genuine criticisms are minor. I am trained to be a skeptical reader, but in ten years of fairly frequent contact with the movement I have seen no sign at any stage of the kinds of things Hizmet is accused of. If it has terrorist or state-undermining intentions, it has surely chosen the least efficient ways of giving effect to them.
Let me close with a brief theological reflection which I think is true to core Christian and Islamic belief. Without awe for the living God, we move off the path of life and end up trapped in the tangle of our own limitations, often arrogantly sure of ourselves and unable to engage with others. We become dogmatic, self-centered, dismissive and unapproachable, treating those who don’t agree with us as lacking in passion for truth or as flabbily committed to prevailing world values. From there we cling to the false certainties of fundamentalists, substituting limited and limiting ideas for the limitless glory of God, and fostering a fellowship of self-proclaimed “righteousness,” which is used to justify contemptuous dismissal of “others,” sometimes making them the subject of rage, hatred, and violence. Fundamentalists have never been in short supply. Some define themselves in religious terms. Some are openly secular. Some are political under the guise of religion. And some draw genuinely religious people into their gambit. Of course, none of us is immune to the enticements of fundamentalist rhetoric, but “forewarned is forearmed.” Fundamentalists of any form lead to profound traumas in religious, social, and public life. They turn faith into ideology.
The alternative is a spirituality based on awe for the living God. This spirituality enables us to enter into dialogue, talking to others with respect, whatever their sincere beliefs, and listening for what we can learn from them. In our wonder at God’s greatness, we recognize how little we know and how all our intellectual certainties are in need of ongoing qualification. As we study the scriptures, the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible, we are confronted again and again with new, life-giving perspectives and the recognition of how much we still have to learn in our relationship with the loving and gracious Lord of all. It is in response to His love that we are able to go beyond friendship and passion and show the most profound care for others. It is in response to His grace that we are able to be gracious to others. And it is in response to His mercy that we are able to care and serve, entering into the risk of real dialogue and the joy of mutual support.
As-salaam aleikum, peace be with you, or in the voice missing so far from the People of the Book, Shalom aleichem.
We, as Turquoise Harmony Institute, are deeply saddened by the passing of one of our advisory board members, Professor Stanley Ridge, who died on the morning of 30 January 2018 at the age of 76, after a long battle with cancer. He was a man of great compassion and love, implausible persuasive eloquence and wide generosity. His efforts in making interfaith dialogue meaningful and sustainable through his actions and his eloquent articulation will never be forgotten.
He was a sincere Christian who believed that religion embraces all beliefs and races in brotherhood, and exalts love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom.
As Rumi says, “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.
We are all poorer for his loss, but richer for having known him. He will be dearly missed.