Predictable Irrationality of Hizmetophobia: Islamophobia in the Case of Hizmet Movement

Aristotle defines human beings as rational animals, emphasizing reason as a characteristic of human nature. Two thousand years later Descartes rejected the traditional notion of humans as “rational animals,” suggesting instead that they are nothing more than “thinking things”1. Today both seem to be challenged further, especially when we consider decision-making and judging others. Using many interesting case studies, Dan Ariely demonstrates in his bestseller that when the issue at hand is somewhat complicated, where even the complexity is as little as an additional choice in a survey form, we humans make rather irrational decisions without thinking. The story does not end there, no matter how silly our initial decisions were, those become anchors for us, and we make a habit of repeating them in the long-term — hence the title of Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational.2

As all people do, xenophobes exhibit irrational behavior now and then as well, but nowadays we see a much more predictable and common pattern, especially against Muslims. From the fear-mongering hate websites to the recent political debates, bashing people of Islamic faith has become a rising trend. Those volunteers inspired by Fethullah Gulen, promoting education and dialog through private schools and interfaith and intercultural centers, are no exception. As they experience success and grow into a global movement, they have been subjected to increasing levels of bigotry. When Dan Ariely coined the term “predictably irrational”, he probably did not have this specific example in mind, but it fits to a “T” in describing the backlash against Islam in general, and against Gulen and the Hizmet Movement in particular.

Misunderstanding the Hizmet Movement

Understanding the Hizmet Movement is not an easy task. Even sociologists are having difficulty in describing the movement inspired by Fethullah Gulen. A detailed discussion of the movement is beyond this note; thus we refer the reader to The Gulen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam by Helen Rose Ebaugh or The Gulen Movement: Civic Service without Borders by Muhammed Cetin. But Gulen himself objects to these titles or actually to the term “Gulen Movement”, as self-annihilation is a fundamental principal in his belief system, as it is for any other Sufi Muslim. The holy book of Islam reads “Whatever befalls you of good is from God” (Quran, 4:79), so he does not claim anything in any of the good community service provided by the movement. He prefers the Turkish term “hizmet” referring to “altruistic service for the common good”, or “gonulluler” referring to the “volunteers” contributing to this service for the common good.

Nevertheless, some people still choose to see no good or altruism in any of these activities, and instead, they accuse the entire movement of having a “hidden agenda”. This position makes it difficult to have a meaningful discussion about the activities of the movement. Instead of learning about the movement, the individuals and groups have simply decided to fear or hate the Hizmet Movement. It could be due to the fast pace of our lives in modern times that we hardly find any time to read scholarly articles or do a thorough analysis of notions that are new to us. Maybe that’s why some of us make our opinions by simply subscribing to certain RSS feeds or blogs or only following our friends’ tweets. More often than not, pretty much like little goslings, we determine the first blogger scribbling around a complicated topic as our opinion leader, or the mother goose, to be followed without thinking.

When it comes to Hizmet Movement, the case is no different. Therefore, it takes only one self-acclaimed expert to misunderstand Fethullah Gulen. Soon enough, the noise reaches to a threshold that some papers or TV channels feel like they need to report about it. Or worse, they mistake the sheer volume of blog sites as evidence of fact or the “truth”. Under the pressure of deadlines, not every reporter or journalist does the required research or personally interviews the right people to discover the facts about Gulen or Hizmet. Some even choose to be another gosling, and just re-tweet the aspersions from others, even if the allegations are baseless, unfounded, and moreover often conflicting with each other. Then, the bloggers refer or link back to these “new” news stories, generating a vicious cycle.

Take dialog initiatives of Hizmet as an example. Dialog in general is good, right? None of us would object to that especially if it is conducted between people from different walks of life, and its sole purpose is the common good of humanity. But not for Gulen, nor for the people inspired by him! If they promote interfaith and intercultural dialog, then there must definitely be a “hidden agenda”. The absurd claim in Turkey used to be that Gulen was a crypto-Christian and Hizmet was a missionary movement. Gulen’s visit to the Vatican has long been depicted as evidence for his Christian mission. I don’t know what kind of steganalysis they used in examining Gulen’s picture with Pope John Paul II, to see that in all his wisdom, the Holy See could not see? The absurdity did not end there, as this particular claim did not sell well abroad in predominantly Christian countries. Thus, the conspiracy was revised, and  Hizmet was depicted as being an Islamic order pursuing a global caliphate with Gulen as the awaited imam for the end of days.

Some were so carried away by their own conspiracies that they compared Gulen to Khomeini, even though the two have no commonalities beyond being Muslims each of whom lived some of their lives in exile. Unlike Khomeini, Gulen always had friendly relationships with the existing administrations. Moreover, he has always promoted pluralist, transparent democracy. Although he met some bureaucrats or politicians several times in Turkey, he personally was never involved in politics. That is, he never registered for a party or ran for office. As for the people affiliated with the Hizmet Movement, Gulen never promoted a specific party in any election. As free-thinking people, these volunteers choose to vote for left or right, as they wished during any elections, and none of them pursued political goals except maybe a handful who made it clear then that was their own decision. Professor Thomas Michel of Georgetown University, who studied Gulen and Hizmet for many years and personally observed the movement activities in the Philippines, has said, “This movement has never been engaged in politics. It has reached millions of children all across the world and helped with their education regardless of their races, languages, religions and nationalities.”3  But interestingly or predictably enough, conspiracy theories about Gulen becoming a global political power still sell like hotcakes.

We can take another example from education which constitutes the core of the movement activities. Establishing schools is the main line of contribution to each community in which the Hizmet Movement provides services. That is true not only for Hizmet or Gulen, but for many civic movements or even for individual Good Samaritans. For example, the Peace Corps or Rotary International contribute to education all over the world, and people don’t seek any hidden agenda behind these activities. On a much smaller scale, with all criticism aside, most people think Greg Mortensen was a public hero as he dedicated himself to opening several schools for girls in Afghanistan. His book “Three Cups of Tea” was a bestseller for four years. But if you ask the same people about Hizmet opening more than 1000 schools in more than 100 countries, then they say “No, that’s not my cup of tea!”. Some even go further and predictably conspire that these schools are for proselytism, although they all follow the standard curriculum as dictated by each host country.

A third example is charity. Helping the needy is a common good that is pretty much universally accepted — I mean if we were to think reasonably, but again that does not apply for Gulen or the Hizmet Movement. Although most people inspired by Gulen left every bit of their assets behind, and went to help needy people in another country, and opened schools, hospitals, gave out clothes, and served food, they are still accused of having insidious intentions. Some groups even claim that they have an intention for global domination? By giving charity to others? Go figure!

Seeing this movie again and again, I guess Mr. Gulen finds all these smear campaigns, predictably irrational. It is no use to look for any logic or rationale in these claims, as they seem to miss the very fact that Fethullah Gulen is a public figure for more than four decades now, and most, if not all, of his speeches are recorded, and all of his articles are periodically published. In the 50 years of recordings, only a few sentences were cherry picked out-of-context and were used in a defamation campaign in 1999. The prosecutors went through every bit of his life, and audited every institution that was remotely related to him, and after years of investigation, he was acquitted on all charges. But that did not stop his opponents, including newcomers to the party who still keep using the same old conspiracy stories in their smear campaigns. Just Google Gulen or Hizmet Movement and see it for yourself!

In a recent interview with Deutsch Tuerkische Nachrichten (German Turkish News), commenting on such claims, Fethullah Gulen responded again, that neither he nor any person affiliated with the movement has been charged with “infiltrating” a state post in Turkey or in any country in the world for that matter. “I have been in contact with the public through my articles, speeches, and activities since 1958. Lawsuits were filed against me with charges similar to the ones you have mentioned [infiltrating state posts] after military coups. Yet, no evidence has been put forward to prove the charges, and I have been acquitted in all cases. Furthermore, none of the millions of people who are said to be members of the movement have been sentenced due to the charges mentioned. So, is it not clear that the accusations are capricious?”4 Gulen asks.


Understanding Hizmetophobia and the Hidden Forces that Shape it

As the courts concluded, these accusations are arbitrary and capricious, but why do people keep making these erratic allegations again and again against Gulen and Hizmet? Like any other type of phobia, Hizmetophobia, seems to be an anxiety disorder. Phobia is defined as the “persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding despite the fear, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational”5. So by definition, Islamophobia in general, and Hizmetophobia in particular, is irrational, and as can be seen in real life examples on a continuing basis, it is very predictable as well.

In a deeper analysis, Hizmetophobia or Islamophobia, or xenophobia of any kind for that matter, is directly related to how we identify ourselves. If we analyze who or what we are, and seek to identify ourselves relative to others, then we are just anti-Muslim, or anti-American, or anti-black, or anti-white, or in short, anti-“other”. With this approach, instead of having axioms to define our identity, we simply base our very being against an “other”. We know or define others from our own perspective, and if we were to have any doubts of our own values and intentions, then instead of looking inwardly, we would question the intentions of the “other” group. To move away from this mindset, each individual or organization needs to look inward. So those who are questioning the intentions of the Hizmet Movement in charity or education activities, could start this process by explaining their contributions to humanity.

In a recent book edited by John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, “The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century: Islamophobia”6, a number of well known scholars analyze the roots and different aspects of Islamophobia.

Jocelyn Cesari of CNRS, French National Center for Scientific Research, explores the structural causes for discrimination in “Islamophobia in the West: A Comparison between Europe and America”, and concludes that “Islamophobia overlaps with other forms of discrimination like xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments, and the rejection of the validity of cultural differences”. In “Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism: Measurements, Dynamics and Consequences”, Mohamed Nimer of American University observes that Islamophobia and anti-Americanism are interconnected and reinforce each other. “Feeding this relationship are mutual misconceptions that Americans and Muslims have of each other, incorrect notions that result in harsh rhetoric and violent behaviors”

Ali Halit Aslan, long-time Washington correspondent and columnist of Zaman, concludes in a recent column that, “Hizmetophobia, as a version of Islamophobia, is wrong. I call on all Hizmet critics in Turkey and abroad to refrain altogether from negatively stereotyping a widespread civic movement without presenting credible evidence other than conspiracy theories, gossip and personal fears. Instead, genuine efforts must be made to analyze this crucial movement with an open mind. That would provide valuable advice and constructive criticism for Hizmet as well as lessons for the larger Muslim Spring.”7

Ibrahim Kalin of Georgetown University explores the vicious cycle of these phobias as, “I refer to two consequences of Islamophobia that concern both Muslim-West relations and the larger debate about multiculturalism. First of all, Islamophobic acts prevent Muslims from fully participating in the political, social, cultural, and economic life of societies in which they live. While Muslim communities themselves share the blame for failing to claim their agency, Islamophobia feeds a constant sense of victimization and marginalization among second- and third-generation Muslims.  It makes them feel foreign, distant, and unwelcome. It creates parallel societies both conceptually and physically, whereby the civic cohesion of different ethnic and religious communities within the society becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. Second, the constant presence of pressure and intimidation bars Muslims from self-criticism. Confronted with frontal attacks driven by racist and Islamophobic attitudes, Muslims of various religious and political bends, shy away from openly criticizing fellow Muslims, and end up defending some of the most extreme illogical ideas and actions, which would under normal circumstances be rejected as contrary to an Islamic ethos.”

At the end the forces that shape our phobias against others are not that hidden. They stem from the same weaknesses each and every one of has, and had had since our grand ancestor Adam (PbuH). We all know the story of Abel and Cain. We still inherit the weaknesses our granduncle Cain had, that is, instead of basing our activities on well-defined pure intentions; we simplemindedly compare ourselves with others, and just try to vanquish the other. At the age of globalization, we don’t have the luxury of such irrationality.

As John Esposito concludes in the aforementioned study:

Globalization and an increasingly multicultural and multi-religious West test the mettle of cherished democratic principles and values. Islamophobia, which is becoming a social cancer, must be recognized and be as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, a threat to the very fabric of democratic pluralistic way of life. The continued threat and response to global terrorism coupled with the resurgence of xenophobia and cultural racism threaten the fabric of liberal democracies in the West and their Muslim citizens in particular. A fine line must be drawn to distinguish between the faith of Islam and those who commit violence and terror in the name of Islam, between the majority of mainstream Muslims and the acts of a minority of Muslim extremists and terrorists. Blurring these distinctions risks the adoption of foreign and domestic policies that promote a clash rather than a co-existence of cultures. They play into the hands of preachers of hate (Muslim and non-Muslim, religious and political leaders, and political commentators) whose rhetoric incites and demonizes, alienates and marginalizes.


2. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely, HarperCollins, 2008.
6. “The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century: Islamophobia”, John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, Oxford University Press, 2011.

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