by BRUCE B. LAWRENCE for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on NOVEMBER 29, 2012:

What can we learn from an aging Turkish Imam with a pan-Turkish cultural movement to his name and a deceased Algerian philosopher — both of whom command attention as devout Muslims and men of science — about civilizational rebuilding in the modern era?

Scholars gathered in Algiers from Nov 21-22 at the College of Islamic Sciences at the University of Algiers to find out.

“The Philosophy of Civilizational Rebuilding, according to Malek Bennabi and Fetullah Gülen: Guidelines for Creative Thinking & Effective Action” was the theme for the conference, and I was invited to give a paper on this weighty subject.

I had been teaching in Istanbul during Fall 2012. My assignment there had been to train graduate students, both Turkish and non-Turkish, in theories and methods that apply to civilizational studies.

I had also been traveling and giving lectures elsewhere in Turkey, including a memorable lecture to 400 students at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya — where the topic was Islam and Global Civilization and included a survey of constitutionalism, citizenship and cosmopolitanism, along with numerous approaches to Islamic civilization in the crowded marquee of world civilizations that claim to be both global and universal.

Just who were Fethullah Gülen and Malek Bennabi? Why was their thinking paired to address the topic of civilizational rebuilding, and how would their views advance an initiative that spanned centuries and engaged some of the best minds, from Ibn Khaldun in late 14th century North Africa to Arnold Toynbee in mid-20th century Britain?

Bennabi is Algerian, Gülen Turkish. While Bennabi was trained in Paris as an electrical engineer, Gülen promoted science as a zealous spectator. Inspired by the ideas of the Turkish mystic and renowned Qur’an commentator, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960), Gülen embraces science as a divine gift.  He also advocates science education, especially mathematics and physics, independent of religious instruction.

The major difference between Bennabi and Gülen is instrumental. While Bennabi, a prolific Algerian writer and philosopher, did not form a movement, Gülen, also a prolific author, became the catalyst and icon for a movement named after him.

The Gülen movement was initiated by Gülen in the 60s, went nationwide (Turkey) in the 80s, and globalized by the 90s through educational initiatives in many countries including in Central Asia (following the collapse of the Soviet Union), and later in Europe and the U.S.

The movement has opened more than 500 schools in about 100 different countries, and now has an international media group and a business network to its name.

And, it is a movement that is inseparable from the intense debate in Turkey about Islam and democracy. The ascent of the Gülen movement paralleled, even as it anticipated and, some would say, fostered, the rise to power of the AKP —the pro-Islam ruling party in Ankara since 2002. With Gülen schools, newspapers and TV programs occupying prominence in the Turkish public square, the Gülen movement has become renowned — and in some quarters feared — for its ability to project Turkish nationalism with Islamic devotion to all parts of the globe, including the U.S.

Controversy and the Gülen Movement

For those unfamiliar with Gülen or the movement named after him, there are two recent reports highlighting both the man and the movement. One, prepared by Claire Belinski, offers an alarmist review of the Gülen schools; see its dire warnings here.  The other comes from CBS; Leslie Stahl’s more measured interview on Sixty Minutes.

Both these veteran journalists call attention to the secretive nature of the Gülen organization. Its short-term goals seem laudable (who could object to better science education?), but there are no precise figures on the scope or size of the movement, nor have its leaders provided a public statement about either its finances or its long-term goals.

And so suspicions of the movement’s intentions abound, as both Belinksi and Stahl make clear, particularly as regards the methods and approach of Gülen schools toward religious instruction. Many academics say the Gülen movement is promoting a pan-Turkish cultural agenda, while other educators wonder if the Gülen movement isn’t exporting Islam (especially in the US) via schools that claim to be secular and receive government funding.

While secularists in Central Asia, the U.S., Europe and even Turkey, are the most fearful, there are other, equally devout Muslims who claim that the movement is too compromised by its continuous engagement with secular politics and practices.

There are about 120 schools started by followers in the US (as of 2011) — mostly in urban centers in 25 states, and these schools account for one of the largest collections of charter schools in America according a New York Times investigative piece published last year.

[For more on the nature and problems of the export of Gülenist education, a general overview of the movement’s role in domestic politics, as well as overseas educational projects, see the comprehensive study by Berna Turam, Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement (Stanford University Press, 2006).]

Gülen: International Man of Mystery?

For those who have only experienced Gülen second-hand or through the mainstream media, it is difficult to convey the sense of both awe and deference that most feel toward the 72 year old imam (religious scholar) who since 1998 resides in the U.S., whether for medical or security reasons or both.

Gülen himself did not attend the conference. (For yet another alarmist essay that interprets his American exile as due not to diabetes but as a convenient ploy by Gülen to avoid treason charges from the Turkish authorities, see Rachel Sharon-Krespin, “Fethullah Gulen’s Grand Ambition: Turkey’s Islamist Danger”, Middle East Quarterly,Winter 2009:55-66.)

To evaluate Gülen beyond the spotlight on the Gülen movement is as difficult as it is necessary, but some in Algiers tried. A celibate, non-bearded, reclusive cleric, Gülen does not seem to be a promising or likely leader for a global movement. Several speakers at the conference pointed out the contradiction between who Gülen seems to be — a tearful, tolerant, long suffering exile — and the movement bearing his name, at once the largest and the least understood Turkish cultural export to a global market.

Location, Location, Location

The conference in Algiers, was but one more in a series of high profile public events sponsored all over the Middle East, Europe & Asia as well as North America by the well funded, smoothly efficient, members of the Gülen movement. It was organized and largely funded by Hira magazine, a major publication of the movement. Named after the cave outside Mecca (Hira) where the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation in 610, Hira magazine was founded in 2005 as a cultural bridge between Turks and Arabs. Its twin goals were, and remain, to provide a forum in which pressing issues that confront contemporary Islam can be addressed by leading Muslim thinkers, but also at the same time to incentivize the global Muslim community to project a coherent, compelling vision of its relationship to the modern world.

While I was skeptical about the conference agenda and wondering if my attendance at the conference would label me a “Gülenist,” my curiosity about the location choice and theme won out. I attended, as the only participant from North America.

It was the first Gülen-sponsored conference to be held in North Africa — a region turned upside down by political revolutions  —  and it was also the first to compare Gülen with another ‘national’ hero —Bennabi — esteemed both as an Islamic loyalist and a radical modernist. (Bennabi, who had studied in France, could not return to Algeria immediately after the 1962 revolution because of his pro-Islamic stance, and so lived in Egypt for a time before returning to Algiers, where he held weekly salons, or open meetings, in both Arabic and French until his death in 1973).

The timing of the conference was crucial: Algerians had just observed a watermark in their own history. In July they celebrated the 50th anniversary (1962-2012) of their independence from France. In May they held parliamentary elections  in which the ruling party won almost half the seats and Islamist parties fared poorly. (The main Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, has been banned since 1992.)

So, it was an opportunity to take stock. Despite the riches of oil and gas (97% of Algerian exports derive from hydrocarbons) and the influence of the Arab spring (that started next door in Tunisia during late Dec 2010), there didn’t appear to be any major initiative afoot in Algeria to forge a new national reconstruction. Fifty years after 1962, where was the liberty touted for millions of Algerians?

A feeling of urgency to forge a new order was palpable, and looming large among several past heroes whose calls for reform had gone unheeded, was Bennabi.

I spoke with a couple dozen Algerians at the conference who all agreed that Algeria had reached a political stalemate, but everyone was intent to head off an Arab Spring in Algiers.  Algerians are still smarting from the violence of the Algerian Civil War during the early 90s, including atrocities that were blamed — fairly or unfairly — on the Islamists.

Malek Bennabi and the Post-Colonial Muslim World

Others outside Algeria have already noted the importance of Bennabi. Ali Allawi, in his wide- ranging survey, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (Yale University Press, 2010),dedicates an entire sub-chapter (pp. 68-73) to Bennabi. As a counterpoint to political Islam, with its focus on the public domain of government and governance, alliances and rivalries, interests and strategies, Allawi cites the creative analysis of Bennabi: to revisit the roots of Islamic civilization.

Bennabi focuses on the religious principle at the heart of every civilizational endeavor, but especially Islam:

It is not enough to be Muslim. One must be a reasoning, rational subject, relying on moral principles in a ceaselessly probing endeavor to connect with first principles. It is the moral Islamic person who embodies the distinctive aesthetic sensibility that has marked the greatness of Islamic civilization. It is neither bureaucracies nor business ventures that evoke the hope of the future for Islamic creativity. It is instead, to quote Allawi, “pride in craftsmanship, deep knowledge of the structures of professions, of the workings of productive organizations, attention to detail and method, diligence and perseverance in application” (72) that can, and must, precede “the successful transplantation of modern economies into the post-colonial Muslim world.” (73) Education at all levels is the key to this still abstract yet morally profound agenda.

It is that focus on the individual and the special, crucial role of education that links Bennabi to Gülen. In several reviews, both favorable and critical of the Gülen movement, the distinctive role of education is often noted.

Much of the educational fervor of the Gülen movement was on display at the Algiers conference, not directly but through the politics of linguistic preference. A roll call of the twelve major speakers indicated seven in Arabic, three in English and only two in Turkish, but there was simultaneous translation in all three languages – English, Arabic, and Turkish.

Notable for its exclusion was French: the French language was used neither in a presentation, nor in translations, nor at any official moment in the conference. Post-colonial Algeria was, and is, struggling to project its de-colonial, non-Francophone presence on a regional and global stage.

Contrast and Convergence

The genius of the conference organizers was to link Gülen with Bennabi, and thus the hopes of a republican, but putatively “Islamic” Turkey with the needs of hydrocarbon-rich but politically stagnant and non-Islamist-led Algeria.

The two men contrast and yet converge. Each tries to walk the tightrope between authenticity and modernity. Each acknowledges the superiority of European/Western culture in the public sphere but at the same time projects the resilience of Islamic norms, and the opportunity for Islamic values, to supplement, not replace, the instruments of a high tech, post-industrial and post-colonial world.

Walter Mignolo, author of the highly acclaimed, The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Duke University Press, 2011), has also noted Bennabi’s stark realism: Algeria was a colonized country, and it could not be truly free until it faced the burden of its colonial past, which included the susceptibility to be colonized (for which Bennabi coined a new term,colonisabilite).  In order to reverse the uncritical acceptance of norms, values and concepts from the dominant European (or American) power, one had to revisit the colonization of knowledge. In short, one had to reconstruct a new edifice of civilization.

It should come as no surprise then, that there were no concrete programs to emerge from this pioneering, exploratory endeavor on “the philosophy of civilizational rebuilding.” Cynics may point to the self-serving nature of its format, for both the Turkish organizers and their Algerian hosts, but I would argue that there is also a further, more accurate conclusion to draw: No one should underestimate the need for all Muslims, but especially the younger generation, who are the most numerous, to do more than seek employment or education or residence abroad.

To remain in their countries of birth, Generation D Muslims, those born of the Internet age, must find dignity from the wellspring of culture along with opportunities generated by effective economic reform. Turkey provided the lead ahead of the Arab Spring, and while it does not, and should not, export a Turkish model, its partnership with other Muslim nations, to celebrate a common civilizational heritage, augurs well for fresh thinking and new beginnings.

One speaker even dared to suggest that Gülen and Bennabi represent opposite but needed strengths. It was Bennabi, she suggested, who issued the clarion cry for an intellectual struggle (jihad fikri), while Fethullah Gülen has heralded the need for a civil struggle (jihad madani). Each supports and complements the other. No matter what the loyalties or aspirations of the reader of these words, can s/he think of a better way to define the current jihad/struggle within the Muslim world? It is a path not charted, yet it broaches a Turkish-Arab challenge to other Muslims as well as concerned others in the global community.

Bruce Lawrence is an emeritus professor of religion at Duke University and a Carnegie Scholar. He was the inaugural director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC) and is a member of the DISC Advisory Board. Research areas have included the comparative study of religious movements; Indo- Persian Sufism; the religious masks of violence; contemporary Islam; and religion and cyberspace. Lawrence’s current projects examine how religious minorities are treated in Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia and the Philippines.  He is serving as an adjunct professor in Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University in Istanbul, Turkey this Fall 2012. 

*front page and interior photo of picture of Fethullah Gülen (l) and Malek Bennabi (r) courtesy of Bruce Lawrence 

We have started a category on this site called MyTIRN where original scholarly working papers, essays, book Q&As, and book reviews written specifically for TIRN (and sometimes ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN) will be showcased. This is a MyTIRN selection. 

This article was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center —in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies— aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See www.islamicommentary.org/about and www.tirnscholars.org/about for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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