Response to Hatchet Job on Turkish Scholar, M. Fethullah Gülen
(In the spirit of providing context and balance, here is the link to the article by Stephen Schwartz which Islamic Studies Professor Scott Alexander rebuts in the below guest editorial to IslamophobiaToday.com: Gulen’s False Choice: Silence or Violence)
by Scott C. Alexander, Ph.D.
I am puzzled by the fact that a man as seemingly intelligent and articulate as Mr. Schwartz appears to have deliberately misread the Op-Ed piece by Mr. Gülen. I say this because, in the very beginning of Mr. Schwartz’s critique, he clearly demonstrates that he has no intention of striving for even the least degree of objectivity and fairness in his analysis of Gülen’s remarks. In fact, I am saddened to say that what Mr. Schwartz attempts to offer as a trenchant critique of Gülen and the global Gönüllüler Hareketi (“Volunteers’ Movement”) amounts to little more than a hatchet job on a religious leader who has inspired thousands, perhaps millions, of men and women to a reawakening of their faith and a faith-based commitment to service.
How else can one explain Schwartz’s absolute refusal to take Gülen at his word, despite the fact that what Gülen says in this Op-Ed piece is utterly consistent with his thought as articulated in numerous publications which span at least three decades? Why does Schwartz imply with insistence that Gülen’s agenda is to enact hate speech laws in the U.S. when Gülen is explicit in the piece that “We can do whatever it takes within the law to prevent any disrespect to all revered religious figures“? Why does Schwartz assail Gülen, who seems to recognize the need to respect the legal systems of various societies in the fight against anit-religious bigotry, but not the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon, Bechara Rai? Just one week after the pope’s visit to Lebanon, Patriarch Rai boldly proclaimed: “We shall not simply accept a condemnation, but shall ask the international community to issue a United Nations resolution that will ban denigrating religions” (http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Patriarch-Rai-tells-Muslim-leaders:-no-insults-against-religions-25903.html).
Although additional evidence for my indictment of what Mr. Schwartz has written can be found throughout his text, there are a few particularly tell-tale moments. For example: in his opening paragraph, Schwartz refers to Mr. Gülen as “enigmatic.” Why? What is “enigmatic” about Gülen? Not unlike Pope Benedict XVI (albeit on a somewhat smaller scale), Gülen is a global religious leader who has a website which makes his writings and speeches accessible to the widest possible audience (www.fethullahgulen.org). The former have been translated into over 30 languages and the latter are available (in Turkish) on a weekly basis, if not more frequently. True, Gülen lives a reclusive life, making few public appearances. But this is no different than many highly regarded but deeply humble religious figures who shun the public spotlight.
In this regard, allow me to return to the papal analogy. Before Pope John Paul II set the novel precedent of papal “pilgrimages” to nearly every continent (and the consequent numerous public appearances beamed around the world), most of his predecessors could well be described as “reclusive.” The faithful could get a glimpse of the pope if they made a pilgrimage to Rome. But even after traveling long distances to Holy See, the best these pilgrims could ever do was to spy the pope from afar as he stood on the iconic balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, or from a considerable distance at a grand liturgical ceremony. And even in this age of comparatively frequent papal travel and satellite TV, popes like John Paul II and Benedict XVI were/are not exactly “out there” in the way that Mr. Schwartz is rather disingenuously implying Mr. Gülen ought to be. Despite the spotlight which Pope Benedict seems to occupy so regularly, he still does not give interviews to the media, and only meets personally with high-level and highly select individuals and groups. In fact, were it not for the fact that the Bishop of Rome is also a head of state–a position which Mr. Gülen decidedly does not hold–one might well maintain that such papal meetings and travels would be substantially fewer than they currently are.
Which raises the question as to whether or not Mr. Schwartz would describe the popes as “enigmatic,” rather than simply “reclusive.” Beyond this, as a Roman Catholic, I wonder whether Mr. Schwartz would describe Benedict XVI in the distinctively negative context in which he portrays Gülen? Would he dub the pope as “an ingenious priest” who controls an “army” of followers? This is certainly the way popes were described by people like Thomas Whitney, Congressman from the Fifth District of New York and one of the founders of the infamous anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Catholic, “Know-Nothing Party. Whitney is the author of a classic mid-19th-century nativist tractate entitled, A Defence of the American Policy, as Opposed to the Encroachments of Foreign Influence, and Especially to the Interference of the Papacy in the Political Interests and Affairs of the United States (New York: DeWitt and Davenport, 1856). In this text, Whitney uses almost exactly the same rhetorical tropes as does Schwartz. Whitney speaks of “the course of Jesuitism” as a “subtle and insidious” force of the papacy, designed to further the designs of “Romanism” in the U.S. which, according to Whitney, is nothing less than the “despotic” and quasi-militaristic conquest of the American Republic (pp. 79-82).
Perhaps I am mistaken, but I’m guessing that Mr. Schwartz would not describe Pope Benedict in the same terms as he casts Mr. Gülen. When I wonder why this is, I am led to the strong suspicion that Mr. Schwartz’s problem with Gülen is not that the latter is a reclusive religious leader who is the inspiration behind a large group of faithful who see themselves as having a global mission. I strongly suspect that Mr. Schwartz’s problem with Mr. Gülen is that Gülen is a Muslim.
This may seem ironic, given the fact that Mr. Schwartz is himself a Muslim. Upon closer examination, however, the irony begins to fade. This is for a many reasons. One is that some of the fiercest condemnations of religious figures and movements tends to come at the hands of co-religionaries who are at significant odds with one another. And this certainly applies to Schwartz vis a vis a great many of his fellow U.S. American Muslims. The mission statement of Schwartz’s “think tank,” the Center for Islamic Pluralism, says that the purpose of the center is to challenge “the dominance of American Muslim life by militant Islamist groups.” Here Schwartz is taking to an even higher level the incendiary, highly subjective, and completely unsubstantiated claim made by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani at a 1999 State Department forum that 80% of the mosques in the U.S. are “being run by the extremist ideology, but not acting as a militant movement.” It is, therefore, not surprising that someone who actively chose to attack the mainstream organized Muslim community in the U.S., has an ax to grind.
What is truly ironic, however, about Schwartz’s ardent opposition to Gülen and the Volunteers’ Movement is that Schwartz has made a name for himself as a strong proponent of Sufi spirituality and an equally strong opponent of certain extremist forms of Wahhabi-inspired Salafism–and so has Gülen. Although I am not a Muslim, I share Mr. Schwartz’s and Mr. Gülen’s
concerns that a certain strain of so-called “Salafis” have entered, however unwillingly, into an unholy alliance with the most virulent Islamophobes. It seems as if these self-appointed champions of Islam are completely unaware of the irony that it is they who pose what amounts to one of the greatest threats to the faith they profess: namely, that Islam potentially be reduced from a dynamic tradition of belief and practice replete with guidance for humanity, to little more than a potent, yet spiritually bankrupt, anti-Western ideology.
Why, then, attack Gülen and attempt to portray him as an extremist when one of the cornerstones of Gülen’s Sufi-inspired approach is his teachings about the principle of hoşgörü (i.e, seeing the good in others) and dialogue? Why not expose the work of extremist Salafis such as Khalid `Abdallah and Muhammad al-Zughbi who–by translating clips into Arabic and using mass media to widely disseminate these clips–apparently played key roles in instigating the violent protests in outrage over The Innocence of Muslims?