Fethullah Gulen the Turkish cleric who grabbed the headlines in the past few years due to his leadership of the “Fethullahcilar Group” within the Nurcu sect and his occasional pronouncements on Turkish politics, shared his views with a small group of Turkish journalists in the United States on topics ranging from the future of the embattled Islamist Refah Party to the problems in the Southeast.
Gulen gave a two-hour interview on Thursday to journalists representing the Turkish Daily News, Milliyet and NTV at the home of one of his disciples in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the presence of the representatives of the daily Zaman and an intimate group of his followers. Mr. Gulen is in the United States for a while, visiting American hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio and New York City because of his heart problem, diabetes and cholesterol. In PART I, of our interview, we will share Gulen‘s take on the future of Refah, which is facing the possibility of being shut down by the Turkish Constitutional Court for violating laws on secularism, as well as his contacts with Americans, the crisis that Turkey had, and his views on the nature of religious freedom in Turkey. In PART II of our interview, we’ll share Gulen‘s views on the Southeast and the Kurdish issue, the nature of Westernization and Kemalism, the eight-year education reform and the controversy over imam-hatip schools, his interpretation of statism and nationalism, and his negative reaction to rumors that he’s perhaps thinking of forming a political party.
Throughout the interview, Gulen emphasized that the worst of the political crisis in Turkey is over and there is no possibility of turning the clock back on Turkey’s bright future. On the future of Refah, he was very candid, indeed. He said the closing down of Refah by the Constitutional Court was no ultimate solution. Instead, he suggested that elections should be held while Refah is still tied up in court. If that happens, then the voters will not want to vote for a party which is facing closure, and instead will vote for other alternatives, he stated. Gulen put Refah’s real electoral strength at 15 percent, and said that most of those who voted for Refah consisted of those who were not happy with the way things were, i.e., the “protest votes” that other observers also pointed out. Gulen, who said he had been visited by Morton Abramowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Ankara and head of the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace, made it clear that he did not agree on the assessment of some U.S. observers concerning Refah’s future strength. The unnamed U.S. observers present their own wishful thoughts as theories, he added.
Here are excerpts from our interview:
QUESTION Could you please tell us about your contacts with the Americans since you arrived in the United States?
GULEN A few American observers visited me thinking that a sick man who had just arrived from Turkey would better understand Turkey’s similar problems. I can’t tell you the names of all of them, but one was Morton Abramowitz [former U.S. ambassador to Ankara at the time of the Gulf War]. He worked for a long time in Turkey as an ambassador. I knew about him through our mutual friend, Kasim Gulek. But I had never met him previously in person. We talked about the chain of causes and effects that shaped social events. I basically told him the same things that I had said during a program on our TV channel, Samanyolu TV. Later on, Abramowitz wrote me a “thank you” letter.He said our meeting had been very productive, and he also wanted to go to Turkey and have similar talks. He asked for my assistance in the matter. I understand Abramowitz is currently writing a book on the Middle East in which Turkey has an important place. I tried my very best not to have Turkey shaken by these temporary storms. I told Abramowitz that American public opinion should be confident that Turkey, as a country which had waged a serious national war of liberation, will overcome these difficulties as well. There is no need for panic, I said, and told him that this message must be taken all the way to the White House, to the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon as well. Turks are a well-established nation, a strong nation. Nobody can break us apart, even if they intend to. That’s what I explained to Abramowitz.
QUESTION On Samanyolu TV you said, “We left behind a period in which everybody made mutual mistakes.” Is this period behind us now? Did it leave any residues?
GULEN Turkish democracy has passed through a dire strait. As you know, existence in the universe was chaos at first, out of which order emerged. Turkey similarly emerged from a chaos.But it may take a while for it to access the exit ramp to absolute order. The military has intervened. A government was formed along lines favored by the military. Other people’s games also played a role in this as well. These were not fortuitous developments in a country where we wanted democracy to reign.But it was more like cutting a gangrenous organ with the surgeon’s knife. It is, of course, not possible to transfer from such a chaotic situation to a state of order and harmony. Now, Turkey is involved in a new process. The common sense of those who hold power played a role in this. Our president [Demirel] may have played a role in this, too. It could be the result of people belonging to different parties trying to find an outlet from this crisis. What’s clear is, right now, the country has retreated from the edge of a cliff. I hope no one will ever again pull the nation into that vicious circle from which we emerged.
QUESTION What do Turkey’s people expect from this government? What do you think will happen within the next six months?
GULEN The fact that the crisis, with all its complications, has blown over is what’s most important for me. Just like the a-rhythmic beating of my heart because of which I traveled to Cleveland, Turkish people also developed an irregularity in their hearts. It is great that such a crisis is left behind to a large extent, and no anti-democratic intervention took place… Those who organized [the intervention] may have good intentions. I’m not in a position to question anybody’s good intentions. But the fact is that all of us were living very tense days. The fact that such days are behind us, is remarkable in itself. That’s the first thing. Secondly, if we are to proceed to an even more perfect democracy, that can again be achieved through democratic processes. You can’t arrive at democracy through anti-democratic causes. That’s also a crucial achievement. If the current government transcends this temporary crisis and holds elections with a good electoral law that all would approve, then Parliament would become the direct breath and voice of the people. Then the people will be represented there. Then we’d have the opportunity, to a certain extent, to sail towards the good, beautiful and auspicious state of affairs.
QUESTION Some American experts in Washington agree that Refah may have lost in the short run. But in the long run, these experts claim that Refah can make a comeback, with an even larger slice of the electoral pie. Do you agree with that assessment?
GULEN No, I don’t and I don’t want to, either. We heard future predictions by similar experts concerning the “clash of civilizations” or the “clash of religions.” I think they are presenting their own wishful thinking as theories. I’m not even sure how much goodwill they have in making such predictions.
According to the laws of causality, seemingly disparate events join together for a given effect. Therefore, we have to consider events in their totality. In economics for example, they say, “If such and such conditions do take place, then it is probable that such an effect will take place.”
Now, let’s say that the military did present an ultimatum [to RP-DYP coalition on Feb. 28, 1997], or a set of recommendations. But that was brought about by a series of very unique events that happened back then. There is a very low probability that similar events will come together in the future to yield the same results.
American experts may be predisposed to see things that way because Turkey is in a position to revive and stand on its feet, as a power onto its own. Turkey is in a growth mode. I’m not in a position to say if our American friends are like that [i.e. people who don’t like Turkey’s emergence as a power], but there can be this kind of person all over in the world, in Germany, China, etc. So there may be the same kind of people in the United States as well.
We are looking at a different picture now. The picture has changed considerably. It would require years, perhaps four to five years, for things to slide back to their old state. Until then, I’m sure the Turkish people will get wise and own up to their democracy and their voices. There would be no going back.
The second issue is, if Refah can garner the same or more votes in the future. Well, my dear friends at Refah may not like to hear this, but I think Refah’s real electoral potential is 15 percent of the popular vote, and actually. may be not even that.
Since there was no strong government in Turkey that suggested trust, all the protest votes of those who were unsatisfied with the system went to Refah [in the Dec. 1995 elections, when the RP got 21 percent]. Such unsatisfied voters may come together and try to do something, but since they are temporary, they may end up doing more harm than good. Some of these Refah voters are after a house, a neighborhood, a small advantage. Some of them are trying to solve the immigration problem. These could be people who are living in a dream world and wondering if we could return to the opulent days of Suleyman the Magnificent. Such people, I think, form one-half of Refah’s voters.
I don’t believe in the assessment that, “These are people who have been wronged by the system. Their rights were trampled, and so they will again vote with the party that they think has also been wronged by the same system.” That strikes me as an inaccurate prediction.
QUESTION What do you think the effects of Refah’s closing by the Turkish Constitutional court would be?
GULEN Some American experts believe that Refah will be closed eventually. I don’t agree with them. One does not need to shut down Refah.
A more logical thing to do would be to keep the party open but to continue with the prosecution in the court. When the elections are held, confidence in a party will be shaken if that party is tried in court. It creates the impression that it is a party about to be shut down. So no one would vote for such a party. These votes, to a large extent, would shift to parties close to Refah, in a democratic manner. The goal would be accomplished.
Perhaps [the powers that be] would like to do it this way. Then no one would come under any blame. Then Refah would still be open, but the court cases would continue. Then they can say, “Well, what can we do? The voters decided that way [i.e. against Refah].” I think that would a more logical path to take.
QUESTION Wouldn’t there be a reaction arising out of indignation?
GULEN I know the Turkish people. I don’t think there would be such a reaction.
Refah has shown a very high level of performance as an organization, in terms of registering members. No one can deny that. Actually, if the other parties also worked just as hard, we would not have the balances in Turkey altered the way they have been.
But Refah received votes from those who were unhappy under other governments. I don’t think the same situation will occur again.
Let’s look at it this way: There is a TV station which broadcasts along the lines defended by Refah and it has a certain audience.There are also dailies that support Refah. If you put together all their circulation, it wouldn’t reach even 50,000.
One thing is clear — mass psychology is important in voting for Refah. It’s not that people vote after they decide freely on their own.
Our friends at Refah should not be sorry. But it pays to mention that there is a Refah reality, and there is also the reality of Turkey. Our choices have always been in the [latter] direction.
QUESTION What if Refah supporters become further radicalized?
GULEN Attila Ilhan has a saying that I like: “The intellectuals always mess up everything. The people then come and make them right.”
The Turkish people have a remarkable instinct, if you will, to choose what is right and proper. People will not resort to radical tactics. Those who do will go after certain promises made to them.
If our people are not provoked to take it into the streets, they will act with foresight and sagacity. This is the case both on the right and on the left.
QUESTION What do you think about freedom of religion in Turkey?
GULEN Freedom of religion and worshipping is much more advanced in Turkey than in others. From that point of view, Turkey is far ahead of Iran, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. We should know the value of this freedom. There is no limitation of personal worship in Turkey, or within a family context.
Some, however, may have gone too far while exercising that aspect of Islam. The priorities have not been right. Moreover, the reaction has been equally overdosed as well. Thus, the conflict between the parties on this issue is not one of common sense and tolerance. We have to strike a balance in this regard.
Turkey is similar to the United States in that both resemble a mosaic of different groups and both were formed on the foundations of old empires. In both of them, the most reasonable form of governance is democracy. And in a democracy, the paths for me to worship my creator should be wide open. There should be no obstacles between me and my Lord.
QUESTION Turkey faces another problem, for quite some time.Some call it the “Kurdish problem,” and some “PKK terror problem.” Can this issue be also solved by the tolerant approach you are advocating in other issues?
GULEN It is better to call this the “southeast problem,” with roots reaching far back into the history. Yavuz Sultan Selim (Selim the Grim) had stuck a deal with the local tribes in that area. Four centuries after that, there was no problem in the region. When the Russian armies were withdrawing from the area [after WW1] they left their arms to the Armenians. Thus some people in the southeast got certain ideas and acted in unison with the Russians. A lot of people both withstood the Armenian cruelties while fighting the Russians.
What happened in the southeast can not be projected onto the people of the whole region. That would be an unfair accusation directed at our people. This issue is still not understood well today.
The state dispatched its army there. The soldier does the things that is to be done by employing force. One should not seek logical solutions orrational solutions in things that are accomplished by force. It is very rare for those who hold the power to use their logical faculties.
For example, Selim the Grim, may his place be in heaven, and for whom I have great admiration, when he was on his way to fight at Caldiran, was he following the path of his force or his logic and reasoning? Would it have been better if a logical solution were found so that the two Turkish powers did not have to face one another and upset the existing international balance of power?
Now there are certain problems in the southeast that can be solved by application of force.But they need to be supported by logical reasoning and political solutions as well.
Education problem must be solved in the region. Let me share with you something that I heard from an adviser of former prime minister Tansu Ciller.
The prime minister has a study conducted at the region. They notice that there has been a sudden drop in terror events in Van. When the reason was researched, the effectiveness of the Serhat High School became clear. All the sons of local sheiks and tribal chiefs were educated at this high school. They received a certain culture. That’s when terrorism shifted into idle gear.
Bediuzzaman (Said-i Nursi) has suggested the Ottoman sultan of his time, Sultan Abdulhamid, to open a university in Van, with the name Medreset-ul Zehra.The university would have a faculty of divinity as well.The school would educate in Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish.
He says Turkish should be “vacip,” Arabic “compulsory,” and Kurdish (Zaza) “caiz.”I don’t know anybody else in Turkish history before that said Turkish should be “vacip. “Vacip is a religious term denoting something that if you do not carry it you commit a sin.”Caiz” on the other hand means it’s okay if you do, and still okay if you don’t. That was Turgut Ozal’s approach to Kurdish. But after 70 years tension is still high on this language issue, which goes to show that in 70 years we still did not raise people who can stomach this issue.
The state could not follow up what the army did with its own policies, educational policies.There has not been serious policies on this issue. For example you could add three points to the score of those students who enter the central university placement test from the southeast. Because their education levels are low.That would have solved a lot of problems.
We at the Zaman daily conducted a survey in the Southeast.Results showed that 95% of the respondents do not like PKK at all. Of the remaining 5%, only a fraction want independence and some want federation, like in Germany and the United States.
Sometimes the state’s protection has been perceived as oppression by some. Whether the state did actually oppress anyone, I can’t say. That would be lack of respect for my state. But the impression was created by propagandists who provoked the people.
Thus the issue must be reviewed once again with such factors in mind, with an eye towards generating alternative solutions.
QUESTION What are your views on 8-years compulsory education? Many among the Islamists do not like the law proposal to that effect since then there would be no junior-high level imam-preacher schools. What would be effects of such Islamist concerns on the rest of the Turkish society?
GULEN With your permission, I first of all must rectify an error. There is no “Islamists” or the “Islamic camp. “This is one of the issues that I am sensitive about. None of us here would agree to be abstracted from Islam. That’s something that comes from our religion, history and veins. That’s in our blood cells.Such terms as “Islamist radicalism,” “Islamist segment” may offend those who believe in and practice their religion a bit more than the rest.
No one is superior to another before God. To say I am more Muslim than you are, for example, would be the worse disrespect before God. Because faith is hidden in our hearts. Only God knows who has more faith.
Returning to the issue of education, I feel grateful for those This is a feeling shared by all Turkish people. If this fakir did accept any awards I did so on behalf of the people. We are attaching great importance to these centers of science where the “architects of tomorrow” are raised. Such schools are put into service in the name of our state and nation. The state has external pressures against opening schools in Asia, for example. It has to consider what Russia or the U.S. would say. But the volunteers self-financed these institutions. It would be admirable to see our educational system to be adopted by others as well all over the world.
As to 8-years of compulsory education, I wish the compulsory education was 11 years, really. How great it would be if everybody finished at least a high school and learned a foreign language as well. But in this issue we are again faced with extremism and the counter-extremism.
Regardless of this controversy, the Turkish nation has long time ago left behind the search for its identity. It decided long time what it is and what it wants to be. If the people believe in God, no one would be able to turn it away from this path. Thus the people will learn about their God and Holy Kuran after the primary school, junior high, or the high school. But learn they will.
As we approach the 21sy century, everybody returns to the dynamics that kept him standing firm on two feet. Some return to church, some to the synagogue, and some to the Buddhist temples. They return to what they regard holly. It is not possible to turn humanity away from this goal.
The gears of destiny started to turn. Those who resist this movement may end up getting squashed in between the teeth of these gears. Thus those who believe that they stop this tide are wrong. People will learn about their religion even if all the books are burned. They’ll read it from English, Italian, French books but still they’ll learn about it.
Both sides [i.e. those who push for 8-year compulsory education and those who resist it] are not acting in a balanced fashion. We need an equilibrium here.
I remember when the junior high section of priest-preacher schools were shut down, the graduates from normal junior highs again enrolled in priest-preacher schools, for example. Or those who finished the high schools enrolled in divinity faculties at college level.If there is a tendency for people to go for such an education to resist this would be like to fight the nature.
So there of course would be priest-preacher schools and should be. I wish instead of Iranian and Saudi mullahs we could dispatch priest-peacher school graduates from the European interior to the Pacific coast. Instead of being unproductive, I wish they could explain our culture in those far away lands. Orientalist missionaries spread out all over the world and created confusion. Let our balanced people carry dialogue, tolerance and love to those places. I’m not sure if the need would be met or not when we have twice as many priest-preacher schools. But the point is, we can not direct these activities, we can not channelize them.
Priest-preacher schools were put into service since Ataturk’s time. The person who opened the maximum number of such schools is [the current President] Suleyman Demirel.During Ismet Inonu’s time these schools were opened as well. Such openings continued even through our Westernization process. I don’t think the current leaders of Turkey are proposing to close these schools down. Such a thing can’t happen. Such an idea is leading to strife in this country. They should erase such an idea from their minds.
QUESTION What is your take on Westernization, and Kemalism, which represents Westernization idea?
GULEN I don’t know the degree to which the interpreters of Westernization, both today and during the formative years of the Republic, represent Kemalism. But I know this much: Ataturk was not an atheist. Those Marxists and Leninist projected their own atheist beliefs on Ataturk.
We know a lot on this score. Ataturk always kept Semsettin Gunaltay next to him. And Gunaltay was a hodja of divinity. An important divinity scholar who educated a whole generation of students.
There are others at the time like Rifat Borekci hodja, Seyit Bey, and Aksekili who served as head of Religious Affairs Directorate for years.The founding fathers of the Turkish Republic got along well in continuous harmony with such people.
I remembered a story which I listened from somebody I trusted greatly. One day Semsettin Gunaltay enters the tent of late Ismet Inonu. On the wall of the tent is a map that explains the military moves of our Prophet Mohammed (S.A.) during the campaign he conducted at the Arabian peninsula. “I am studying how our prophet made such maneuvers with such a minimal force, and in such a short time,” Inonu reportedly explained to Gunaltay.
Now it is plain wrong to take such people and project upon them one’s own emotions. It is very easy to forget the conditions under which the war of independence was fought and republic was formed. It is easy today to talk fast and loose about what happened back then. Did they, for example, decided to leave the twelve islands [to first Italy, then to Greece] as easily as some think to day?
I heard it from General Ilhan: When Ataturk met with General MacArthur, he told MacArthur that “The twelve islands are very important for Turkey’s security. The conditions of the past have took them away from us. Our rights and demands in the Balkans and Iraq are very important for us.”
“One day Soviet Union will disintegrate,” Ataturk told MacArthur. “Those who rule Turkey must not forget what they’ll do in the Turkic world once the Soviet Union breaks apart,” he said.
I served as imam for 3 years in Edirne before I served in the military. A lawyer, who was 70 years old back then, told me this story. He used to be an assistant to Ismet Inonu. One day when he entered the tent of Inonu, he found Inonu kneeling on his prayer rug and praying: “My God, it was our duty to take this struggle up to this point.But from now on, it is your duty to secure the victory of my nation.”
So it is not fair to claim that founding leaders like Ataturk, Ismet Inonu were atheists. I don’t know to what degree those who claim so are Kemalists.
On the other hand, people like Mehmet Akif, and Bedi-u Zaman selective take everything that is useful from the West, including their technology. Thus those people were also not opposed to the West. We should not ape the West mechanically. Today what makes West “the West” is its science and technology that examines every corner of the world and the universe. To do the same is incumbent on us all Muslims. If we haven’t done so yet we neglected our duty to our nation.
So in this sense one can not think of the believers being opposed to the West or the United States. Of course while being open to the West we must also protect our interests, identity, color and national honor. We don’t want to melt like a snow flake melts inside a swimming pool.
QUESTION Are you going to open an university in America?
GULEN When I first came to America in 1992 I observed that those who came from Turkic countries entered as a Kazakh, a Kyrgyz, as Karacayli and got assimilated within mainstream America. Then they did open a school with the financial help of Pakistanis and Arabs but that did not reflect the spirit of the schools we have in Turkey. So I asked my friends and associates to close that school down.
Then during my visit to Washington, my friends found this hospital building in Staunton, Virginia, that was about to be abandoned. The city said if we could renovate it we could use as a school to accommodate over 1,000 college students. If all goes well, we could build extra units to accommodate even more.
QUESTION What’s your impression of Americans?
GULEN My contacts with Americans are largely limited to my hospital visits. I can tell you that they got a serious work ethic, professional ethic, division of labor, tremendous methodology. They really apply the Hippocratic oath that doctors take in Turkey as well. I shared my fascination with my friends as well.
If the American elite and intellectuals are all this good, America can survive for another fifty years.
QUESTION Hakan Yavuz published the critique of what he called “the Neo-Nurcu” movement, and he is writing a book about it. He accused you movement by being very pro-state and pro-nationalist although he claimed Bediu Zaman’s original ideas defended the individual’s freedom against that of the state. He said your community was a like a bee hive that did not dare criticize your ideas or challenge you.
GULEN I don’t think he grasped certain things properly, I guess. We are far away from nationalism in the sense of “racism” or “Turanism. “The Anatolian people are so pure at heart that you can’t implement such a racist nationalism anyway.
Bedi-u Zaman says nationalism should serve Islam, be its shield. But not replace Islam. Today you can’t say no to that. Perhaps Hakan Bey did not see this reality.
Racism is one thing nationalism is another. It is natural for all to love his nation.To talk about a “nationalism that replaced religion” is a serious mistake.I hope [Hakan Yavuz] will correct that.
As to the charge of “statism,” every country has a state, with an internal, external, economic, vs. policies.All peoples are governed by states.State is the foundation upon which the governments govern the people.If the state is damaged while we are criticizing the government, that could be a catastrophe for the nation. If he is regarding such an approach as “statism” he is wrong again.
Talking about free market economy… Our prophet was trading in the markets of that time fourteen hundred years ago.He opened those markets which were run by the Jews to the Muslims as well.
I personally never visited the schools we opened in Asia. I don’t know their numbers. All I do is, when our friends ask for my advice I oblige and they listen, go and do the rest, all on their own. There is a collective consciousness working in different regions of the world.
I tell them what I think as a prisoner of their respect. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. How I wish those who lead our people don’t force them to listen to themselves, but instead do things such that people will realize that it would be to their benefit to listen to such leaders and will voluntarily listen to them.I can’t have anything against listening of that kind.
It seems that Hakan Bey failed to realize all that. Let me say this: If all these projects carried out all across the globe are all being conceptualized in the mind of a boy who was born in a village, then these projects are doomed to failure from the very start.
QUESTION The rumor has it that you will form a political party and enter politics?
GULEN I consider such speculation as a great insult for me.My path consists of searching for God. It is wrong to portray a man who found something in his life according to his own measures as still looking for something. Those who found God have found everything. All other yearnings are futile in life. I always had meetings with political figures but my attention has never wavered from the ultimate goal of my life i.e. searching for God).