His name is Fethullah Gülen, and for many years, he was a rarity. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were few—if any—Muslim Clerics who would have spoken well of the progressive values of the Western world. Gülen was one of them, and remains a staunch advocate for interfaith dialogue and tolerance.
He has personally met with the leaders of other faiths, including Pope John Paul II. He has established hundreds of schools across the world that teach math, science, and ethics. He has advocated for a more moderate path for Islam, one which embraces education, cooperation, and social activism. Gülen was, notably, one of the first Muslims to publicly denounce the 9/11 terrorist attacks, rebuking the violence and firmly cementing a global following.
An Islamic scholar, preacher, and social advocate, he has maintained these views for over 40 years.
Today, in a world where many believe that the wall between the Islamic and Western worlds is unassailable, we need people like Gülen more than ever.
Fortunately for us, Turkish journalist and writer Faruk Mercan has brought together a collection of interviews with Gülen in his book, “No Return From Democracy.” Within are Gülen’s thoughts on everything from democracy to human rights to terrorism.
Let’s take a look at what he has to say.
Islam and Democracy
Can Islam and democracy be reconciled?
This is the question at the heart of one of contemporary society’s most enduring ideological conflicts. As an Islamic scholar, Gülen hints at an answer.
“The argument that is presented is based on the idea that the religion of Islam is based on the rule of God,” he says, “while democracy is based on the view of humans, which opposes it.”
He goes on to say that “The principles and form of government that form the basis of democracy are compatible with Islamic values. Consultation, justice, freedom of religion, protection of the rights of individuals and minorities, the people’s say in the election of those who would govern them…[are] principles espoused by both Islam and democracy.”
Gülen surmises that the problem is that many Muslims assume that democracy takes power away from God and gives it to human beings. But this isn’t true—democracy is simply governance entrusted to humans by God.
There is no fundamental divide between the Islamic world and that of democracy, and Gülen believes that once this is understood, there will truly be no return from democracy once it is embraced.
Fundamental Human Rights
Gülen stresses that Islam, contrary to what is claimed by extremists, “is not a despotic or repressive religion when it comes to human rights.”
He goes on to reference the Medina Charter, which was signed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and established a multi-religious Islamic state in Media in 622 CE.
This document affirms life, property, religion, mind, and progeny, establishing essential rights and freedoms for Muslims and non-Muslims. Gülen considers the Medina Charter to be one of the first declarations of human rights in history.
Within Islam, it is not the words of the Quran which deprives certain groups of their human rights—that is the work of extremists who misunderstand the peaceful nature of Islam, and have given themselves over to political ambitions.
In the end, Gülen makes one overarching point on this matter: discrimination goes against the value God places upon the human being.
Establishing productive dialogue between the Islamic and Western worlds has been on Gülen mind for decades. His take?
“Let us talk, not quarrel.”
Gülen sharply notes that “savage people realize their aims through fighting, through conflict. Cultivated and intellectual souls believe that they will attain their aims through thought and discussion. I am of the view that we left the period of savagery far behind.”
He also points out that the inability to peacefully accept one another robs everyone of paradise, costing lives and livelihoods. So why not try the alternative?
He does, however, acknowledge the difficulties of the peaceful path, admitting that there will always be those who seek to isolate their society through violence. Gülen says that we can only “grit our teeth” and avoid returning blow for blow. If we wish for peace, we must live by peace.
This, he says, is process that takes time—“a climate of conflict cannot be done away with all at once.”
For now, Gülen recommends that we strive toward a system of universal values—things like understanding and compassion and rationality. This is one of his goals in establishing the huge network of schools that he has laid out over the years.
Unity comes through peace—there is no other way.
The Terror of Jihad
Terrorism is a word inextricably linked to the Islamic faith. But according to Gülen, it shouldn’t be. “In true Islam,” he says, “terror does not exist. No person can kill another human being. No one can touch an innocent person, even in time of war.”
Remember that Gülen is an Islamic scholar and cleric. He knows the Quran. He knows the Prophet. And knowing all of this, he declares that “some religious leaders and immature Muslims have no other weapon to hand than their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.”
But there is one Islamic truth that these terrorists do not realize: God’s approval cannot be won by killing people.
The problem, Gülen says, is that Islam is no longer being followed as a faith, but a culture—a way of life. It has been restructured to suit the whims of individuals and governments. True Islamic faith has become exceedingly rare.
With the value Islam places on human life, terrorism can never be condoned. On this, Gülen is clear.
No Return From Democracy
Bound up in democracy are essential human rights and freedoms, appropriate separation of powers, and a commitment to peace through dialogue. This is the shining gem that has so fascinated Gülen throughout his life, even in times when he was the only voice of his kind.
Gülen demonstrates the compatibility between Islamic and Western values by living at the intersection of both. A devout Muslim who is dedicated to his faith, he also embraces the progressive values that have slowly made the world a better place.
And in that example, we find hope for reconciliation between these two seemingly-disparate cultures.