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The Gulen Movement and the Dialogue of Civilizations, Interview with Dr. Jill Carroll

Islam Online. Tarek Ezzat, November 2, 2009

Following the International Conference held in Cairo from 19 to 21 October 2009 on "The Future of Reform in The Muslim World: Comparative Experiences with Fethullah Gulen's Movement in Turkey", Dr. Jill Carroll, Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, who participated in this three day conference in Egypt, answered these questions from IslamOnline:

IslamOnline (IOL): Thank you Dr. Carroll for taking the time of presenting your views as an American academic on the Gulen movement and its impact in the US, and around the world

IOL: How and when did you first hear of the Gulen Movement? Do you consider it today to be a well-known movement in the US?

Dr. Jill Carroll:
I first heard of the movement in December 2004 when I travelled to Turkey as a guest of the movement to visit several of the schools and the other NGO initiatives there.  It was an eye-opening trip and I was very impressed.  Upon my return, I began doing research on the movement to learn more.

I have continued my involvement with them on interfaith initiatives, and have come to see that they are very visible in the U.S.  They have interfaith and dialogue initiatives in many cities (a few dozen) all over the country, as well as charter schools in various cities.

IOL: In addition to its focus on quality education, what do you consider is the main strength of the Gulen Movement in the area of reform for developing countries?

Carroll: They are very focused on community building from a relational standpoint.  The schools succeed not merely because of a good curriculum, but because of the human element - the teachers and administrators who are utterly devoted to the students and who engage with the parents in a very personal way, the sponsors who fund the schools until they can stand on their own financially who are focused on building a stable institution within the community - all these things do more than simply "educate" students to do well in science and math (which is important in itself, to be sure).  The Gulen people go above and beyond to create a community institution that becomes the center of many good initiatives in the area.

The Gulen people will work with anyone who shares their basic vision for human improvement and community - people of all faiths and no faith
This is not only true for the schools.  NGOs focused on interfaith dialogue, intercultural exchange or business development do the same thing in many areas.  They want to build community relationships so that everyone is working together for positive outcomes for everyone - and they will work with anyone who shares this goal regardless of their faith, origin, lifestyle, whatever.  

This is a crucial difference between the Gulen movement and many other organizations and groups.  The Gulen people will work with anyone who shares their basic vision for human improvement and community - people of all faiths and no faith, people of all different lifestyles and perspectives, people from all different backgrounds, etc.  It makes no difference to them.  Do you care about making a positive difference in the world?  Will you give of yourself - your time, resources and energy - to make a difference?  Are you willing to work with others as part of a team to accomplish this?  Do you believe in love, compassion, service, truth and integrity?  Are you trying to be the best person you can be, coming from a clean heart and pure intentions?  Do you look first at your own faults before looking at those of others?

If you can answer "yes" to these questions, the Gulen community wants to work with you.  Period.  These are the most important things about you, from their perspective.

IOL: Has your personal perception of Islam changed after being involved with the Gulen Movement during these years?

Carroll: Somewhat, yes, but on the whole, no.  I never had a negative view of Islam in the first place.  I am a scholar of world religions, so I have studied about Islam for many years, given lectures on its history, beliefs and practices and know that it is a great faith that has contributed many wonderful things to human culture over the centuries.

After 9/11 however, in America, many people were upset and confused about Islam, so I was called upon to help explain Islam to people, and to make sense of the violence committed against innocent people in its name.  During that time, I encountered the Gulen movement and all their myriad positive activities.  They have helped me to share with people a positive face of Islam - concrete, practical, modern, focused on the future, not violent or angry, yet also very observant and traditional in terms of Islamic values.  I appreciate having them as colleagues and working with them.

IOL: You have recently written a book on the Dialogue of Civilizations. How do you see the current situation of the Dialogue of Civilizations between Islam and other cultures, including the Western culture? Do you consider there has been progress in this field in recent years?

Dialogue is happening, and it is achieving good results.  But, we cannot let up on this effort - we have to keep moving forward to create dialogue
Carroll: I think there has been progress, but sometimes it's as if we take two steps forward and one step back.  It's slow-going and very subtle.  In the West, I think many people have sought out information about Islam because they want to compare what they see in the media (a negative view) with what they know of their friends and co-workers who are Muslim.  We have up to 10 million Muslims in the USA, and many people in the larger urban areas know Muslims personally.  So, they want to understand this better.  

On the other hand, the negative media onslaught is relentless - in part because violence in the name of Islam against innocent people continues to happen and the media reports it more than it reports all the good things done in the name of Islam - so it's very hard to compete with that.

I think dialogue is happening, and it is achieving good results.  But, we cannot let up on this effort - we have to keep moving forward to create dialogue even when political powers put into place harmful policies between countries.

IOL: Do you feel that the current world financial crisis which started in the US two years ago is today making the dialogue of civilizations more difficult, as people become more unsecure due to job and income loss, and therefore less tolerant of the Other?

Carroll: Probably sometimes that is the case.  However, at least here in the USA, it's not the Muslims who are highlighted as taking people's jobs or contributing to the bad economy.  Muslims in the US tend to be very educated, professionals who are appreciated (doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspeople, etc.).  Instead, the pressure is put on low-income immigrant workers (Mexicans, other Hispanics, etc.) who may be here illegally.  That group, more than Muslims, is getting targeted in the recession.

IOL: How has President Obama's recent initiative towards the Muslim world been perceived in the US, especially by the right? Is it true that his Cairo speech last June was not welcomed by many Americans?

Carroll: President Obama is the subject of extreme opinion on both sides.  Some on the left love everything he does no matter how possibly problematic it may be.  Some on the right absolutely hate him and everything he does no matter how good it might be for the country as a whole.  On the right, people rejected President Obama's speech in Cairo as being a concession to the Muslim world.  Of course, some in the extreme right think that he himself is a Muslim who is keeping that a secret, so they are suspicious of his outreach to the Muslim world.  On the other hand, many people in the center, more moderate perspective (which is where the largest percentage of Americans are) were happy that he reached out in civility and diplomacy, to try to create a working relationship with countries in the Muslim world.  They view this as a far better approach than the one launched by the former President.

"The West" is a large entity that is very diverse.  Europe and America are very different from each other
Most Americans are now much more focused on domestic issues than foreign issues.  So, health care reform and the larger economic issues are more pressing in people's minds than the relationship with the Muslim world.  The one exception to that is Iran and the nuclear issue there, and the ongoing issue of committing US troops to Afghanistan and Iraq  But, even the two wars are off the radar of many Americans who have lost their jobs, the homes, and their health care.

IOL: Do you see the West on a collision course with Islam, especially in the context of the current rising wave of Islamophobia in Europe?

Carroll: I don't see a collision as inevitable.  It is possible, yes, and in Europe it is much more likely than in America.  People in the Middle East and elsewhere must realize that "the West" is a large entity that is very diverse.  Europe and America are very different from each other.  And, within Europe, the countries of Britain, France, Germany and Netherlands are very different from each other in terms of their policies, history and culture regarding immigrants and Muslims.

The kinds of assimilation issues that Muslims have in Europe, and the pressures they feel in Netherlands, Germany, France, etc. are virtually absent in America.  For one, America is much much larger than Europe as a whole, so people are more spread out, have more room, etc.  Secondly, America has fewer Muslims than Europe as a whole.  Thirdly, America is an immigrant nation in ways that European countries are not.  Finally, the American model of secularism is designed to protect and even celebrate religious expression in a way foreign to, for example, France's secularism (modeled also in Turkey).  The secularism in France is suspicious of and hostile to religion, especially to Islam because of its history of colonization.  We don't have this in America - we didn't colonize Algeria or have the areas of the Middle East as part of our "empire" as Britain did.

America has different issues traced to its cultural dominance and imperialism, as well as our current policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel that cause friction and disagreement, but these are of a different category than issues of lifestyle, assimilation and identity which plague Europe and its Muslims.   America is a very religious country, and our Muslims enjoy tremendous religious freedom, often much more than they had in their home countries in Asia and the Middle East.  Moreover, we don't define citizenship as much by origin, religion, race, etc. mainly because we are a young country, which was begun by immigrants.  So - people who agree to the fundamental principles of America - freedom, equality, human rights, rule of law, etc.) - are welcomed regardless of origin.  America is not perfect on this, of course, but it is definitely a different model of "belonging" than is operative in much of Europe.

So, I don't see an inevitable collision course across the whole of the West.  I think things will continue to be tense in some parts of Europe.  But, there are solutions to those tensions available to wise politicians and policy makers.

I understand that you are a great fan of Rumi. Are his writings becoming more popular in the US? And does the average American reader associate Rumi with Islam?

Carroll: Rumi is one of my favorite poets and has been a best-selling poet in America for a few decades now.  His works are widely translated and have made their way into "pop" culture.  Those Americans who read him associate him with Sufism more than with Islam as a whole.  Of course, Sufism is part of Islam, but it is a part that has sometimes been in favor, sometimes out of favor with mainline Islam over the centuries.  So most people just think of him as a mystic or contemplative and put him in the same category as Jewish Kabbalist mystics or Christian mystics.

He is mostly seen as a spiritual, mystical or esoteric writer with a more universal spiritual appeal.  Not specifically Muslim or limited to an Islamic perspective.

IOL: What is your main impression after attending this three day conference in Egypt? And what do you consider its main positive outcomes were?

Carroll: First, it was my first visit to Egypt and I was so impressed with the Egyptian people I met, the organizers of the conference and the esteemed scholars and other guests of the conference.  It was a privilege to spend those three days with them.  I got to take a quick trip to Giza to see the pyramids and to visit a museum, the Citadel and a few other places in the city.  Cairo is overwhelming with its history and size and energy.

Second, I think the conference was important because it brings the Turkish and the Egyptian worlds together.  These two countries and cultures are dominant players in the Middle East and in the world.  I think it's important for them to transcend whatever historical, social and political issues that have divided them, so that they can work together to lead the region in a positive path.  Imagine what could be possible if these two areas could harness their combined strengths?  It could be really great, not just for the region, but for the world.

Third, I think it's important for Egypt and the Arab world to see the Gulen movement and its successes, and to consider whether any of it could be implemented in Egypt and in other parts of Africa, the Middle East, etc.  The Gulen movement is very successful - and it is transnational and sustaining now for a few decades.  It has a proven track record, and it has achieved that record working in myriad political, social, cultural and economic conditions.  I see nothing in Egypt that would prevent its methods from being successful - and nothing it hasn't had to deal with already in some other country.

So, I hope that Egyptians and other important thinkers, activists and policymakers in the Arab world will take a hard look at the Gulen movement - and at themselves - and try to create a shared vision of the future and a plan for progress that can inspire large portions of the population, and can be practically attained.  This conference was the important first step in that process.

IOL: What do you consider were the main factors which made Turkey take this leading initiative with the Arab and Muslim world? And do you think the Gulen Movement can inspire reform in Muslim countries like Egypt?

I think the movement can and will inspire people in the Arab world and in Egypt.  And I think it will be successful
Carroll:  Turkey is uniquely positioned to allow the growth and success of something like the Gulen movement.  The social, political and cultural conditions of Turkey allow for its growth both within Turkey and outside Turkey in other "Turkic" countries and even beyond those.  Given these decades of success, the Gulen movement is in a position to approach the Arab world and say "let's work together" to create something positive and to bring reform to the region.

I think the movement can and will inspire people in the Arab world and in Egypt.  And I think it will be successful.  Some will resent its success because of old rivalries or because its success will undermine traditional power centers, but.......this is the way of reform in the world.  When people and communities begin to feel themselves strengthened through education, growth and achieving their natural human potential, they become less tolerant of the "powers that be" which want to keep them suppressed and controlled.

IOL: Finally, what would be your main general recommendations for further reform in Muslim countries? And what would be your advise for academics and intellectuals for efficient social reform?

Carroll: This is a huge question, and I don't have the answers.   However, I think no country - Egypt, America, Turkey, anyone - can afford to stay narrow and focused only on its own needs, its own concerns, and then develop accordingly.  We live in a global environment now where regional and international collaboration is a necessity for growth, strength and progress.  This is a perspective and paradigm change for many places.  So, I would advise that Muslim countries keep this in mind as they continue the difficult work of defining themselves in a post-colonial era.

Secondly, I would advise to take a hard look at what clearly works regardless of where it comes from.  Good ideas are good ideas regardless of their origin - the Arab world, the West, Turkey, Asia, wherever.  It makes no sense to discount methods and strategies simply because we don't like where they came from.  America has to learn this with regard to issues of health care, capitalism, etc. when looking at what has worked in other countries.  We have to reform ourselves using other countries' methods as a model.  I think Muslim countries must do this as well, and the best ideas may come from Turkey or somewhere else.  Embrace them, bring them into your culture, tweak them in ways that make them integrate into your culture and values, and then go forward.

The world is a big place - a wonderful place, but also a dangerous place.  We must avail ourselves of the best possible answers to our problems no matter who offers them.  We have to come together into a larger vision and project for our global community.  No one of us is an island.  We are destined to live together - together! -  on this earth.

IOL: Thank you very much for your views and ideas

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