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Can Turkey Inspire Reform in the Muslim World?

Tarek M. T. Ezzat, March 3, 2011

Most of the thousand participants gathered in the Arab League building at the center of Cairo for three days to attend an international conference on reform in the Muslim world were interested to know the answer to this question: Can Turkey’s current successful reform experience inspire reform elsewhere in the Muslim World?

The organizers of the conference never expected so many people would attend their joint Arab-Turkish meeting, as around 1,000 participants from 20 countries attended the first day which included a keynote speech by the President of Al-Azhar University, and more than 500 participants were present in the sessions of the second and third days which mainly focused on the experience of Turkey through a study of the Turkish Gulen Movement, and how it compares to reform efforts elsewhere in the Muslim world. Participants presented a flood of questions at each session, together with many requests for comments and sharing experiences from other Muslim countries, which was a clear reflection of the public enthusiasm for the topic discussed.

So why was there such an interest in this conference on “The Future of Reform in the Muslim World: Experiences in Comparison with the Gulen Movement”? And why did Turkey succeed to implement a comprehensive model of reform, while most other Muslim countries failed, especially in the area of democracy and governance? And what are the main lessons learned from Turkey’s efforts for reform in recent years?

Why the Great Interest?

How did Turkey Succeed?

Lessons Learned from the Gulen Movement

Concluding Remarks

Why the Great Interest?

Many meetings, seminars and conferences dealing with reform in Muslim countries have been held during the last 30 years, with many recommendations and suggestions presented and discussed, so why the wide enthusiasm for this recent International Conference which was held in Egypt from 19 to 21 October 2009?

Within the framework of many initiatives in recent years to increase the dialogue of civilizations among nations for better understanding, peace and tolerance in the world, the Centre of Cultural Studies and Intercultural Dialogue of Cairo University initiated a dialogue with Turkish counterparts, including representatives from The Gulen Movement, in 2007. In 2009, after eight months preparation, they held this conference for wider dialogue with Egypt and the Muslim world, in cooperation with the Turkish Endowment (Waqf) for Academic and Internet Studies, and with Hiraa, the first Turkish magazine in Arabic from Istanbul.

One of the main attractions of this conference on the future of reform in Muslim countries is that it presented one of the rare positive examples of comprehensive change in the Muslim world implemented in recent decades, and it discussed in details the experience of reform in Turkey through the movement of Fethullah Gulen.  

How did Turkey Succeed?

So why has Turkey been a success story in reform, while most other Muslim countries have so far not achieved a similar level of comprehensive reform?

Independence is possibly one of the main reasons, and the fact that Turkey was one of the few Muslim countries which was not subject to foreign occupation during the era of European Colonial expansion in the 19th. & 20th. Century. A second factor is Turkey's geographical location and its close contact with Europe, as part of Turkey is in fact inside Europe, which facilitated the transfer of knowledge and experiences during the last century from other European countries, like Germany, France, … etc.   

There is today another positive experience of comprehensive reform taking place in a Muslim country, which is also of wide interest to all Muslims, that of Malaysia. Though it was one of the Muslim countries that suffered from foreign occupation, it was fortunate enough to be governed for nearly 20 years by a leader with vision, Dr. Mahatir Muhammad, who managed to create a strategy and master plan for Malaysia in the 21st century, and who was able to implement that plan with focus on better education and development leading to a strong economy and the country's rapid progress and modernization.

But Turkey is unique for the Muslim world, due to stronger historical ties since the era of the Ottoman Empire, and for Arab countries, in particular due to the geographical proximity and the stronger historical political, commercial and cultural links established over many centuries. Despite being an extreme secular country since the fall of the Ottoman rule in 1924, and despite its many anti-Islamic policies which were enforced since the rule of Ataturk, Turkey has actually also implemented many positive policies, especially its high concentration on investing in modern education, scientific research and healthcare. After the end of last military dictatorship in 1980, Turkey managed to establish an efficient democratic system with free elections, which were also in general free of fraud.    

But the main question still remains unanswered: why are the majority of Arab and Muslim countries not yet going through the process of comprehensive reform experienced in countries like Turkey and Malaysia?

In addition to good education, Turkey also used to be the world’s number one superpower for many centuries, as the Ottomans assumed a political leader’s role in many parts of Europe, Asia and Africa for more than five centuries, and therefore had an important heritage in reserve as a reliable reference for progress and the creation of civilization.

But what else helped them achieve reform?

Lessons Learned from The Gulen Movement

Social reform movements, like the Gulen Movement established by Mr. Fethullah Gulen in the late 1970s, were key contributions by the Turkish civil society that complemented reform efforts undertaken by the state. The Gulen movement, as one of the main social reform movements in Turkey in recent decades, understood very well the socio-economic and political changes taking place not only in Turkey, but also in Europe and around the world.

With a pragmatic approach, inside Turkey, the movement decided to avoid political confrontations with local authorities, whether the military or the secular local elite. Where political doors were closed and locked, Gulen and his followers saved their effort, time and resources and moved to other reform areas where they could benefit their country and contribute to progress and development. Political change would eventually take place later on.

With this approach, Education became their top priority, and they managed to establish more than 700 schools throughout the country which offered a distinguished level of modern quality education, with a new approach, that of serving society. In these schools, the best teachers are recruited and trained not only in technical teaching matters, but also to offer students something extra, the manners of Islam and its refined spiritual teachings. These schools became important centers for building a new generation of modern Turkish leaders, professionals, scientists … who were to be in harmony with society and with others, and who had in them the mission of reforming their country and serving their society in all fields of life. Teachers in these schools consider themselves to be on a mission for reform, not just performing a regular teaching job. With their love for teaching and their love for others, they were able to make an important positive impact on the generations that graduated from their schools. Education is indeed the foundation of any true reform.

Social solidarity was another important pillar of their reform movement  
The Gulen Movement was also able to take advantage of the gap which existed between the Turkish people and their religion, which the anti-Islamic extremists among Turkey’s ruling secular elite created since the time of Ataturk, and established this reform movement on the foundation of a long-term “soft” Islamic agenda, with Sufi roots going back to Nursi, Rumi and Al-Ghazali. As a distinguished and respected writer, thinker and leader with a vision for a better future for his country, Gulen was respected by all, and was focused on the building of civilization through the rebuilding of society, rather than being distracted by politics and political struggles with others who had different ideals and objectives. Building consensus among the Turkish people, and finding common grounds with others, then working together, each in his areas of concentration, for the well-being of all people, was a key success factor. It is not important who is to rule the country, but what is important is that all members of society have a chance to discuss their problems and suggest alternatives to implement positive change for the well-being of all. Political opposition in this context is not just for the sake of opposition, but by offering alternatives and solutions, problems were resolved, and a culture of peaceful co-existence was reached which enabled all parties to work together for the common good of the country.

Social solidarity was another important pillar of their reform movement, and through the efficient collection and distribution of Zakah and charity, the Gulen Movement was able to help thousands of families out of poverty, and to offer educational grants to thousands of students both at the school and university level.

Building bridges with others for reaching consensus was one of the main factors which allowed the Gulen movement to help the country advance and progress. Mr. Gulen was able to bring people together and make them identify common grounds, despite their differences, then work together.  

Through The Writers and Journalists Foundation, which Mr. Gulen participated in founding in Turkey in 1994, he was able to offer Turkish intellectuals and leaders from all schools of thought, political parties, religions and ideologies, a meeting platform to discuss national issues and identify alternatives and solutions for progress and advancement. By applying the values of tolerance and respect for other people's opinions, and benefiting from their experiences and ideas, The Gulen movement was able to help create a dynamic and positive environment for change.  

One of the forums he established in 1998 is the Ebant Platform for dialogue, which organizes regular meetings near a beautiful lake in Northern Turkey, where businessmen and intellectuals from different countries meet to discuss issues of joint concern and interest. These meetings were later also held elsewhere around the world. It is interesting to note that the first president of the Ebant Platform for the first five years was a Muslim, and the second president was agnostic, which reflects the true level of tolerance and respect for others within the movement.

Finally, in the age of globalization, the Gulen movement was able to understand the changes taking place in the world, and take advantage of these changes to further advance their cause. Through the business world and the companies they established, they were able to expand on a global level and communicate with many others in Turkey and around the world through the modern media outlets they were able to establish and own.

As a reform-oriented movement, they are now not only limited to reforming Turkey, but they also offer their social reform experience to the whole world, as serving humanity is part of the teachings of Islam. Today, The Gulen Movement has a growing global impact on promoting dialogue among different faiths, disseminating information, providing health care, fighting poverty, promoting social justice and solidarity, caring for the environment, enlightening public opinion, enhancing the peace process and renouncing violence and terrorism whatever its source.

Concluding Remarks

The lessons learned from the conference and from the Gulen experience were many. The wisdom of Mr. Gulen and his movement in building consensus and working in priority areas of social reform which people need and which are open to voluntary efforts by civil society, rather than simply insisting on political change, was an important reminder that political change in Islam takes place after people change what is in their selves. As mentioned in The Qur'an, ( Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts) (Ar-Ra`d 13:11)

The Turkish experience however was a result of its unique historical environment and circumstances, and other Muslim countries should not expect that it could be successfully replicated in its totality, but for example they can benefit from broad ideas and systems, such as real democracy, which allows building consensus by identifying common grounds. What other countries can benefit from is the approach taken by Mr. Gulen in dealing with others, especially non-Muslims, and those who believe in a secular view of the world. There are many common grounds where all people can meet for cooperation and common benefit and Islam encourages such cooperation for the common good.

Diversity in the reform models originates from "The Islamic reference". Giving a floor for diversity among viewpoints that operates under a unified system is essential and is a clear demonstration of how Islam is a comprehensive system. Moreover, this diversity reflects the true origin of views and is in line with the nature of the political and social realities and responds to the essence of the human nature which is against stereotyping and calls for diversity. Such diversity goes in parallel with the essence of Islam which calls for diversity in harmony with the diversified nature of the universe and social life.

Going back to Islam and granting it as a source of reference is what opens doors and welcomes different interpretations that run in parallel with our reality, that aims at promoting reform, development and welfare to all nations. Such reform achieves maximum efficiency when implemented through institutions like charitable associations and companies, rather than through individuals, and institution-building was one of the factors for the long-term success of Mr. Gulen and his movement.  

Two other important general lessons from the Gulen experience are useful to bear in mind. The first is that business leaders from the private sector are important partners in making this positive change take place. It is better to help the poor by giving them a fishing rod than to give them a fish to eat each day, as rather than always keeping them dependent on others, they become independent and eventually productive partners in development, and capable of supporting others who are in need. In today’s world this means support for the creation of successful new small and medium business enterprises, which the business community is capable of funding and managing as part of their contribution to social reform. The second lesson is that serving others, altruism and living for others, rather than simply living for one’s selfish personal interests, together with love for the well-being of others, Shura (mutual consultation) and good Islamic manners, are all important ingredients we need to implement in our reform efforts, which are all part of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his guidelines for the well-being of the Ummah (Nation). Finally, reform is a long-term process which needs patience, vision, dedication, consensus for working together and a lot of effort and hard work, not just speech. For the success of such reform efforts in the Muslim World, quality education and good Islamic manners will always remain the main keys for success, together with Shura and democracy.

The intention for reform, from a Muslim point of view, should always be serving society and serving others for the sake of Allah, as expressed in the words of Prophet Shu'aib, peace be upon him, who said: (I desire naught save reform so far as I am able. My welfare is only in Allah. In Him I trust and unto Him I turn (repentant).) (Hud 11:88)
And this right intention is the crucial factor for the success of reform in all Muslim countries.

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