An interview with Helen Rose Ebaugh

What is the story behind this book ? How did you start to be interested in this movement?

I teach the Sociology of World Religions at the University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and after the events of 9/11 (bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon) and the negative stereotypes that many Americans had of Islam and Muslims after that event, I began to look for the moderate voice of Islam and Muslims who would come forward to challenge the so-called terrorists. I saw Mr. Fethullah Gülen’s full page ad in the New York Times condemning the bombings and wondered who he was. Then, several years later, two Turkish-Muslim graduate students entered our Sociology Dept and sought me out to take my course and work with me on theses related to the Gulen movement. As a result of my academic work in the area of interfaith dialog, I was also invited to be a keynote speaker at the 3rd. Harran conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, co-sponsored by the Journalist and Writers Foundation. So gradually I began to learn more about the Gulen movement and realized that it promoted interfaith dialog, education, modernization and peaceful co-existence.

Why do you think that the Gülen movement was worth-while to study?

The Gülen movement is a civic initiative that is growing both in Turkey and worldwide. I visited a number of Gulen-inspired schools, hospitals and the relief agency (Kimse Yok Mu) in Turkey and was impressed with the quality of these institutions and the enthusiasm of students and patients associated with them. On an interfaith, intercultural trip to Turkey I met with a number of people who support the movement. My sociological background and training is in the areas of the sociology of religion, social movements and organizations. I focus especially on factors that promote commitment on the part of members to a movement. It struck me how motivated participants in the Gülen movement are and naturally raised questions about what factors lead to such commitment. In terms of my interfaith work, I was impressed with the efforts of the movement to promote interfaith dialog. Given the global nature of the world today and the diversity of cultures and religions that exist in most societies, it is imperative that peoples of all faiths and ethnicities learn to get along with one another in order to have a peaceful world order. I am also beginning to focus professionally on the global spread of religious movements. It became obvious to me that the Gülen movement is fast becoming a global movement and therefore very important to understand in terms of its global dimensions.

You focus on one of the least studied and the most asked questions about the Gülen movement, financing of the Gülen movement. As you mentioned in your book the term “water of the mill” was often resorted in Turkish media to raise question and to express suspicion about the source of organizational incomes. There were even conspiracy theories about the funding of the institutions by “foreign powers” intended to harm Turkish society. After your three year research, can you illuminate us about the water of the mill of this movement?

After interviewing well over 100 participants in the Gulen movement both in Turkey and in Houston, including people from all strata of society, I learned that contributing financially to the projects of the movement is an essential element of participation. From wealthy businessmen and professionals to circles of blue collar workers, I found that everyone, without exception, finds great value and satisfaction in being able to contribute what he/she can to promote the service projects associated with the movement. While a significant number of wealthy businessmen are committed to giving a third of their annual income (sometimes amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars to a million dollars, in some cases) to help movement projects, the average financial contribution is approximately 10% of one’s income. In some instances, these amounts provide entire scholarships to needy students or to purchasing land for a school or building an entire school. In the case of less wealthy participants, it might mean 5-10 people pooling their contributions to provide a single scholarship. What seems important to people in the movement, across all social classes, is to share financially with others who are in need. These concepts of giving, sharing and caring for one’s neighbor, I learned, are deeply embedded in Turkish-Islamic culture. Therefore, I devote Chapter 5 to a discussion of the Turkish-Islamic culture of giving that goes back to traditions related to generosity, hospitality and charity deeply rooted in central Asian civilizations from which Turks hail. We argue that one of the reasons for Turks’ acceptance of Islam in the 9th and 10th centuries are the many similarities between pre-Islamic values and ethics and those of Islam which strengthened and added a spiritual dimension to the concepts. Mr. Gülen, as he began preaching the importance of helping the less advantaged to achieve a good education and opportunity in society, called upon these Islamic concepts to motivate his listeners. When a movement has millions of participants, many of them quite wealthy and successful financially, not only willing but often eager to share financial resources in a cause they believe in, it is possible for large amounts of money to accumulate and to finance the myriad projects that the movement supports.

In your book you mentioned a wide array of financial contributors belonging to different segments of Turkish society, including industrialists, blue-collar workers, and graduate students. What make these contributors to contribute? In some sense, we know that there are thousands of NGOs and we know that raising funds is an important and difficult task for these organizations. What do Gülen institutions achieve that others can not in terms of fundraising? And a second question related to your findings is: how does the movement achieve to secure the support of people from so many backgrounds?

See above with the following addition: As a comparison, in the United States, financial contributions to churches amounts to about 63% of all philanthropic giving Virginia Hodgkinson and Murray Weitzman, Giving and Volunteering in the United States, 1992). This amounts to over $50 billion dollars of which more than 80% comes from individual donations. Most religious organizations and NGOs rely on member contributions to survive, with most of the monies going to the “good works” of the organization. Whether organizations and movements rely on tithing, collection baskets, membership dues, etc., giving to religious organizations in one form or another is routine and expected in societies around the world. Why, then, are people so suspicious and curious about the large amounts of monies contributed to the works of the Gülen movement? I find the donations quite in line with contributions made to other religious and philanthropic groups around the world.

In your book you underlined the Turkish culture of Philanthropy and explained basic aspects of this cultural issue. Why do you think Gülen was able to revive this tradition?

Mr. Fethullah Gulen was very aware of and supportive of Anatolian culture, especially as it was manifested during the Ottoman era. He consistently advocates a return to many aspects of Ottoman culture, one of which is the hospitality shown by Turks not only to family and friends but also to the stranger and the unexpected guest. Mr. Gülen provided concrete ways in which those who listened to him could express the traditional values of sadaka, zekat, kurban, vakif, etc.

During your research in Turkey and among Turkish Diaspora, you had a chance to visit and became familiar with different institutions, which you mentioned at length in your book. What is the main pattern of these organizations? And what makes these organizations so successful?

I outline these patterns in Chapter 6 which include the following:

  1. Each institution is permeated with the motivating ideas of Mr. Gülen which include his insistence that educating the youth is the answer to poverty and internal conflicts in Turkey, that education must include spirituality along with modern education, emphasizing Turkish nationalism, the importance of interfaith and intercultural dialog and the value of hospitality and serving one’s fellow human beings.
  2. Each institution is characterized by the strong commitment of personnel to the goals and vision of the institution.
  3. A decentralized, local structure that focuses upon involvement of local people in determining their needs and supporting ways to meet them in terms of schools, hospitals, dormitories, etc. Participants feel a part of what is created and have a hand in bringing it to fruition by planning, financial assistance, volunteer work, etc.
  4. The Gülen-inspired institutions are known throughout Turkey as quality institutions, whether schools, hospitals, prep courses, etc. Being a part of something that is valued in terms of its quality creates motivation to continue to assure quality.

In your book you also mentioned the critics of this movement and their arguments about the Gülen movement. According to your research, what do you think the bases of these fears and anxieties? And did you encounter any findings that support the arguments of these critics?

For over 70 years the Republic of Turkey has been governed as a secularist state modeled after the system of laicization in which religion is relegated to the private sphere. Secularism is one of the six Kemalist principles based on the reforms introduced by Ataturk in the early decades of the twentieth century. Critics fear that the Gülen movement has, as one of its aims, to reverse the secular republic inspired by Ataturk in favor of a fundamentalist Islamic state. Having read hundreds of pages of Mr. Gülen’s speeches and writings and having talked to over a hundred of his followers, I see no evidence that Mr. Gülen or the movement he inspires intends to take over the Turkish state and replace it with an Islamic one. In fact, both Mr. Gülen and his followers shy away from political discussions do not organize grassroots political action groups and are not focused on changing political structures. Rather than a political movement, the Gülen movement is a social movement that aims to change the hearts and minds of individuals toward greater tolerance and modernization in terms of educational and scientific advances.

What do you think the major contributions of these institutions to their host societies? For example, you mentioned the activities of these groups in the United States as well. What is the main contribution of these groups in terms of intercultural and interfaith dialogue?

I speak now of the two cases with which I am most familiar, the United States and Melbourne, Australia. In Houston, Texas, the Institute of interfaith Dialog has become, in the short span of a decade, one of the most visible and successful organizations to promote interfaith dialog in the city. By means of symposia, luncheon speakers, dinner programs and cultural events, IID brings together people from various faiths to dialog, visit with one another, share a meal together and exchange ideas. For example, each year IID sponsors a Ramadan dinner for about 300 people from the various faith traditions in Houston who sit with one another at the same table and talk over dinner. IID also sponsors the Abrahamic Dinner each year at which a different topic is discussed by speakers. This year three women, a Jewish rabbi, a Methodist bishop and an Islamic female doctor will discuss women in each of their traditions. Well over one hundred people sign up each year for this event. Perhaps most importantly, the Gülen group has made many personal contacts in the city and routinely has friends over to their homes for dinner and are invited by Houston folk from various traditions to dine in their homes. During Hurricane Ike last September, the Gülen group invited many people whose electricity was disrupted to stay at their center, The Turquoise Center, where they had power. A number of local people accepted their invitation and spent from days to a week as guests of IID. Getting to know Muslims on a one to one, personal basis is perhaps the most powerful contribution the Gülen movement is making to the city.

In Melbourne, Australia, where I visited last December for the World Parliament of Religions, I visited a number of Gülen related institutions there and was a guest sponsored by the Gülen group at the dinner for 200 Muslims from around the world. The governor of the province of Victoria, Australia, was also a guest and gave a welcome in which he praised the work that the Gülen movement was doing in his province. Besides outstanding schools, he mentioned the many interfaith activities they sponsored as well as their work with local police forces to help reduce juvenile crime in the city.

What can other NGOs and social groups learn from this movement?

Since Rosabeth Kanter’s pioneering work in the 1970s, social scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that giving and sacrifice on the part of members to the goals of a group increases their loyalty and commitment to the group. Belonging to a closely knit group whose members share goals and provide good works in society gives individuals a sense of meaning and identity. Rather than alienating members, asking much of members binds them to the group and makes them feel a part of something greater than themselves. NGOs need to learn how to motivate members to be contributing and active participants in the projects of the movement. In addition, participants in the Gülen movement have honed their skills in organizing in a grassroots fashion so that local members buy into the projects of the group and feel a vital part of making events and projects happen. Gülen folk do not just “talk the talk” when it comes to educational and interfaith dialog projects but they “walk the walk” in terms of successful organizing for goal achievement. They have learned how to get things done, regardless of local context. They are able to move into an area, establish ties with local leaders, define the needs of a community and organize people to meet those needs. This explains why the movement is spreading rapidly to over 100 countries on 5 continents.

This is a more academic question to help for those who want to research this movement after reading your book. You used resource mobilization approach as the main theoretical tool to understand working of the organization, what other approaches would you recommend for researchers to concentrate. And how do you think studying the Gülen movement contributes to the sociological analysis of social movements?

I consider the Gülen movement a good example of global religious movements throughout the world today. There are a number of current projects that are focusing on the spread of religious movements, carried especially by the migration of immigrants from their home countries to a worldwide Diaspora. The Gülen movement has definitely become a global movement and provides the opportunity to study factors associated with the spread of such movements such as: ways in which movements adapt to social, economic and political factors in various locales; networks that exist among members worldwide; ways in which global movements are financed; variations in the reactions of local people to the movement. Comparative research on different religious movements is important to identify similarities and differences based on countries of origin, religious background and character of the movement as it impacts its spread, ease of adaptation to local environments, etc. As the Gülen movement is included in these comparative analyses, we will be able to see its social movement characteristics more and more clearly.

A final question regarding the future of the Gülen movement. You gave a historical trajectory of the movement in your book, what would be your projection about the future of the movement?

I predict that the movement will continue to be robust and to expand globally for several reasons:

  • As Turkish people migrate beyond their borders, a number of them have experienced the movement within Turkey and seek out others in the diaspora who are also participants in the movement. Rapidly, a community of Gülen inspired folk grows in these areas.
  • As people in the world become more and more aware of the global nature of the world, more people (influenced by the media) realize that diverse ethnic and religious groups must learn to dialog and interact with one another in order to have a peaceful world. The Gülen movement, wherever it is found, promotes interfaith and intercultural dialog and becomes a prime actor as an interfaith group wherever there are Gülen inspired people.
  • Many youth educated in Gülen inspired schools and universities are now professional immigrants all over the world. These people tend, overall, to be grateful for the opportunities provided them in Turkey in these quality institutions and want to promote the movement wherever they are.
  • Schools are being opened by Gülen inspired people all over the world and students are excelling academically and bringing attention to the quality education provided in these schools. I see this trend continuing.
  • Even in the event that the Gülen movement is curtailed in Turkey because of political coups, persecution, etc., the movement is no longer a Turkish-bound initiative but has spread far beyond the borders of Turkey. As a global movement, it would be very difficult to curtail.

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