17 April 2014, Thursday
Today's Zaman

Foreign Policy rankings and Fethullah Gülen
Muhammed Çetin

26 June 2008, Thursday /
Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, has come in first on a list of the top 100 living public intellectuals in a survey organized by the British magazine Prospect and Foreign Policy, a US publication.
The results apparently surprised the organizers: The top 10 individuals in the poll were all Muslim intellectuals, two of whom were Turkish citizens. The rankings are already generating discussion and their implications are relevant to many people from different backgrounds, cultures and societies, whether they are Muslim or not. Here we should acknowledge the editors of the journals and those who conducted the survey for permitting the selection of these nominees, for not interfering with the voting process and for sharing its results with the whole world.  

Even a cursory reading of what has been written about the rankings reveals several points about the winner of the survey, the other highly ranked individuals and the reactions to their ranking.

Prospect's editor, David Goodhart, admits to not having heard of Gülen before and feels Gülen's supporters "made a mockery" of the poll, but that the result "flagged up significant political trends" in Turkey. From this, we might conclude that the results of the poll and the reactions to it "flagged up" a regrettable gap in Western journalists and editors' knowledge of Turkey and the Middle East.

Nevertheless, since Gülen was included among the nominees by the editors, it must mean that he was already known at least to some and acknowledged for his contribution to faith, dialogue, education, culture and peace.

The fact that he is still not known among certain spheres in the West could be attributed to several causes: Until 2004, there was not much interest in Gülen and his movement academically. Since then, there have been a number of conferences and hundreds of academic articles written on the Gülen movement and its contribution to global societies. Another factor is the lack of acknowledgment given to him by "enlightened" intellectuals in his own country. They would like to see Gülen as just a preacher or an ordinary "mosque imam." They can no longer, however, deny Gülen's immense contribution to the thought and action of the movement. So, to see him only as "religious leader," rather than as a prolific writer, a social initiator, a promoter of interfaith dialogue, an intercultural reconciliatory opinion-maker, an activist, a peaceful progressive civil society mentor and an authentic Islamic scholar is an injustice to Gülen and the public.

Western commentators' analyses of the results and the voting process also show a further lack of understanding of the Middle Eastern context. For example, while the organizers attributed the results to "a sustained campaign by Gülen's followers" after the Zaman newspaper publicized the poll, could that ever account for the position of Orhan Pamuk at No. 4? Pamuk's views on faith and Sufism, for example, do not seem to sit easily with those of Gülen. Are Pamuk's supporters also reading Zaman? The Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi came in 10th. Are Zaman readers supposed to have organized a stream of voters for Ms Ebadi? Why?

The high rate of return to the survey in Turkey and the Middle East can be accounted for by a number of factors. Within the Gülen movement, for example, the rate of computer literacy and access to computers is very high. Yet another reason for the high return rate is that the movement's participants are educated members of the urban middle class: They have technical and cultural competence and a strong economic-functional position, which make them more likely to mobilize. The participants prioritize individual achievement in the private sphere and expansion of the freedom of expression, democratic participation and self-government in the public domain. These days communication through information networks in social movements is strong and participants in such networks are often more committed than those who have formal membership in political parties.

But the cases of Ebadi, Pamuk and the seven other Muslim intellectuals remain inexplicable to the poll's organizers. Could it be that a certain view of the Muslim world as "backward," "downtrodden," and "stuck in the Middle Ages" is being challenged? The results show that the Muslim world is not on the wrong side of the great "digital divide." It has embraced this branch of modernity with zeal and competence. It is clear from these results that Muslims will gladly, enthusiastically and fearlessly participate in all kinds of open voting, given half a chance. This is not the time for onlookers and poll organizers to lurch into a half-baked conspiracy theory and refuse to heed what the Muslim world is telling them: that the people prefer peaceful and even democratic influences and are eager participants in all kinds of civil society activities.

The use of certain words in hasty analyses by journalists may lead to a cross-cultural failure in understanding or even to misunderstanding Gülen and his movement. For example, "Gülen is both revered and reviled in his native Turkey." We know how the protectionists "revile" him, but terms such as "revere" also have some connotations and implications inappropriate for a faith-inspired civil society initiative coming from a Muslim background. The participants in the Gülen movement appreciate Gülen for his knowledge, scholarliness, sincerity, integrity, commitment to altruism, profound concern and compassion for others. It should not be ignored that all these qualities come from his Islamic education and upbringing. However, they do not result in any sacred celebration of Gülen or any others in the movement.

In spite of the slim knowledge of the poll's organizers, so far the Gülen movement has been better -- that is, more objectively -- studied abroad than in Turkey. Because a protectionist elite prevails in Turkey's academic institutions, free scholarly discussion within Turkey still seems a rather distant ideal. Freedom of speech in Turkey, especially in academia, is not what it is in the West. Nevertheless, the great majority of people in Turkey know and appreciate Gülen and the movement despite the polemics of the protectionists. This fact is often overlooked. Commentators would do well to turn their attention to the results of surveys and research on the movement done by independent scholars and institutions.

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