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Social Reform and Fethullah Gulen: the Cairo Perspective
Nov 1, 2009

In Egypt the impression of Turkey in recent times has been shaped by the fantastic goal the soccer player Hasan sas scored against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. “Yavas yavas Hasan sas” is the first thing an Egyptian says when meeting a Turk-at least those Egyptians who want to sell souvenirs in Giza and other popular tourist sites. This impression is bound to change. The conference entitled “Future of Reform in the Muslim World: Comparative Experiences with Fethullah Gulen’s Movement in Turkey” (October 19–21) was held at the Arab League headquarters in the very center of Cairo. Located on a scenic spot on the Nile coastline, a few hundred yards away from the world-famous museum where the mummies of the pharaohs are kept, this facility provides the stage for a great deal of political activity among member Arab states. But this time it opened its gates to discuss a civil-society movement originating from outside the boundaries of the League: the Gulen Movement of Turkey.

Organized by Cairo University and Hira Magazine, the conference lasted three full days and featured many prominent social scientists, mainly from the Arab world: Dr. Ahmad El-Tayyeb, the rector of Al-Azhar University, Dr. Mohammad Emara (Egypt), Dr. Nadia Mostafa (Egypt), Dr. Ibrahim Elbayoumi Ghanem (Egypt), Dr. Abdel-Halim Oweis (Egypt), Tarek Albishri (Egypt), Dr. Ridwan Elsayed (Lebanon), Dr. Leonid Syukiyaynen (Russia), Dr. Samir Boudinar (Morocco), Dr. Fathi Malkawi (Jordan), Dr. Jill Carroll (USA), and Dr. Johann Hafner (Germany), to name a few. The grand hall of the Arab League headquarters was packed with an audience of 400 and more participants – seated or standing – from Egypt and neighboring countries. The huge roundtable in the middle of the hall hosted twenty scholars, either presenting a paper, observing or commenting on the topics. Aired live on the web, the conference explored islah, an Islamic concept that is often simply translated as “reform” in English but which in fact is loaded with a much deeper and wider frame of reference.

There was enormous media attention to the event: at least fifteen television networks and seventy-five reporters followed the conference and interviewed the participants. While dozens of requests to reserve seats had to be turned down, more than twenty-thousand viewers followed the event on the web. The conference drew an exceptional level of interest in the event, much higher than the average academic activity.

Throughout the conference there were occasional references to recent history, accompanied by expressions of regret or frustration. Yet, many scholars offered some insight with a vision of the future in line with the main theme, a focus on the nature of the Gulen Movement. They expressed their perception of the movement as a new and potentially wide field for research into islah. How have reform trends appeared in the Muslim world in the last half century? How do we interpret the spread of Gulen’s call and his movement on a global scale inside and outside Islamic countries? How has this movement succeeded in positively communicating with western elites with its scientific institutions, media and cultural entities in comparison to other reform movements? What are the prospects for future cooperation with this movement to take advantage of its successful experience in fighting problems and future challenges in the Muslim and the Arab world? How does this movement, which seems to act as a social movement organization rather than an NGO, develop successful relations with established systems in the countries where it works without conflict? These were the questions that were discussed on the floor.

Until recently, Turkish-Arab relations have been somewhat delicate. On both civil and official fronts over the last couple of years, firm steps have been taken by both sides to close the chasm that divided these nations; these are in fact nations that share many historical and cultural roots. This Turkish-Arab rapprochement is not an artificial one based on temporary mutual interests. The “problem-free” policy adopted by the Turkish government vis A vis neighboring countries should be appreciated in a number of ways. Without hands-on support from the grassroots level, however, such policies have little chance of success, if they are not doomed to complete failure, particularly in the context of the Middle East, where international interests are extremely complex.

The frustrations voiced by Arab scholars and politicians at this conference and elsewhere are to be expected in the context of the political and economic tensions that have lasted for decades in the region. There is no need to mention the international disputes which prevent the progress that has been long-awaited and desperately needed by millions. In this regard, this conference might serve as a new beginning, for participants strived to replace frustration and despair with hope and strong will and encouragement for islah. Despite some exposure to Gulen’s works and the literature produced about him, there is still much to be learned. First-hand experience and observation are certainly necessary, particularly to achieve an accurate analysis of a civil society movement that is as broad as the Gulen Movement and to understand what their contribution to the social reform and renewal of the Islamic world can be. Some of the testimonials expressed throughout the conference, specifically during the last panel, were of great use for many among the audience. The Salahaldin International School, which opened in Cairo only a few weeks ago, with its well-equipped campus and high standards of education, and which draws on worldwide experience, will become a visible testing-ground for those who are willing to explore this initiative. In the message Fethullah Gulen sent to the conference, he emphasized the importance of education and schools like Salahaldin in islah: “Education is pivotal in islah efforts, for it is directly linked to the human being in the person of the teacher and the student. A teacher who is dedicated to his or her mission in the spirit of worship can bring about a new human in his students, a new human who looks to the future filled with hope, whose heart beats with love and peace. Raising new generations is dependent on a precise revision of education. This revision requires educators to free themselves from sticking to working hours, which are limited and insufficient, and to work without pause in the consciousness that they are building new human beings with all their faculties.”

More than five hundred questions were handed in to the panels throughout the conference. Many inquirers asked how they could become a member of the movement. The speakers explained several times that this movement-which is frequently called the “Gulen” Movement for the lack of a more concise term-is not an organization in which you become a member by simply having your name listed. Nor is it a school in which you can enroll by paying a certain fee. “The Gulen movement is similar to a well-conducted symphony as its basic aim is to unite people and bring about solutions to their problems,” Pakinam El Sharkawy from Cairo University said. A professor of political science at Cairo University, El Sharkawy, the commentator on the sixth panel, said that the movement does not seek to defeat others but to bring people together and to remove prejudices between them: “The movement tries to respond to strong winds by creating a soft and soothing atmosphere.” Professor Jill Carroll from Houston, Texas, underscored a similar theme about the movement and praised its contributions to the main concern of our times, how we can coexist in peace and respect while preserving our differences.

Cairo is a place that everyone should visit at least once in a lifetime. This was my second time in eight years. And this time, I saw a great deal more than on my last visit. The conference offered a great deal to the hundreds who attended, and there was much that encouraged us to be more hopeful for the future. The new terminal at Cairo International Airport, which also opened recently like Salahaldin International School, now welcomes its guests with great confidence and arrival there promises a lot more than sightseeing.

Hakan Yesilova is a staff editor at The Fountain magazine.