2014 Undergraduate Winner of the Hizmet Essay Contest



Nearly every 21-year old American college senior, like me, enjoys watching films. So when my parents invited me to a film premier for Love is a Verb last May in Washington, DC, I was eager to attend. I did not know what the film was about: A “chick flick,” perhaps? While I was standing on line to get into the theatre, I read a flyer that explained Love is a Verb is about a Sunni Muslim scholar and preacher, Fethullah Gülen, and the international movement he has inspired, known as Hizmet (service). As a double major at the University of Maryland in French and history, concentrating on Middle Eastern history, the chance to learn about a contemporary Islamic school of thought inspiring a global movement was particularly appealing.

Happily, Love is a Verb is a superb production. It inspired me to devote significant time, over the last three months, to reading more about Fetthullah Gülen and Hizmet, through online sources and several books. In this essay, I set out to share with others what I have learned about this extraordinary leader and Hizmet activities, whether in Australia or Bosnia-Herzegovena, Tanzania or Texas.


In order to evaluate the societal impact of the activities of the Hizmet movement and ideas of Fethullah Gülen, one must make clear from the start certain realities that become evident  as you read about Hizmet. First, the activities of Hizmet are firmly grounded in the ideas of Mr. Gülen, who I will call Hocaefendi Gülen because this is the title used by those who honor him. Without, Mr. Gulen, the Hizmet network would not have gathered force. Yet, the activities are so well established, that the Gulen Movement, and Hizmet, are no longer reliant on his personal intervention—which means Hizmet will continue after he is no longer alive. Second, the Hizmet movement is a highly decentralized network. There is no central coordinating committee, pulling strings around the world. This decentralization gives the movement great flexibility, and makes it impossible to destroy, since the manifestations of Hizmet in Somolia, for example, are hardly related to the activities Hizmet participants might be unfolding in the Philippines.  As a result of these two characteristics, Hizmet should be considered a durable social and religious movement.

Participants in Hizmet activities are often volunteers, meaning they typically receive no pay or reward for being involved whether they are active in the areas of peace building, interfaith and intercultural dialogue, education, or relief work. Again, this characteristic helps demonstrate the strength of the organization and its power as a social force. Fourth, Hizmet is not designed to proselytize or make others to join the movement, let alone believe what Hocaefendi Gülen believes. Its activities are intended to further education and to open minds and hearts, in order to contribute to the good of the individual, community, society and world.

This essay is organized into four parts: I will review some of the Hizmet projects around the world that I found most fascinating as part of a specific focus on this phenomenon. Then, in order to achieve a conceptual focus, I will place these activities in the context of thinking and interpretation of Qur’an. The teachings and writings of Hocaefendi Gülen form the foundation of the Hizmet movement’s initiatives and thus contribute to producing solutions to a wide range of social issues. To comprehend the importance of Hizmet as a global movement it is essential to place this school of though in the larger context of trend in Islam, highlighting a key concept in which Hocaefendi Gülen’s ideas differ dramatically with other prominent Islamic schools of thought. Finally, I will look at some of the leader’s recent statements about radical Islam to demonstrate how important his approach is to world security and stability.

Education is the Key

The Gülen Movement is probably best known for having established schools around the world, at every level: elementary and secondary schools as well as institutions of higher learning. Since there is no central registry of every Gülen-inspired educational institution, it is impossible to know exactly how many there are, but reliable estimates say there are over 2,000 educational establishments in 160 countries[1] managed and funded by Hizmet participants. Gulen affiliates manage about 145 schools in the U.S. mainly charter schools in 26 states in the 2013-2014 school year.

By all accounts, you will not find portraits of Hocaefendi prominently displayed in the schools he inspires, but you will find other common characteristics: Gulen-inspired schools have a strong commitment to science and math; they follow national curriculum; religion is not a compulsory subject; Turkish language is typically offered as an option, but it is not required either.

The focus on education is directly linked to Hocaefendi Gülen’s experience in Turkey when he was an imam (licensed Muslim preacher) working with youth in Izmir. He saw young Muslims from pious, rural areas, who were drifting toward negative influences in the city because they were away from home and risked losing their faith. To help them, the preacher set up student hostels, sometimes called “lighthouses,” in the early 1970s. He also established, in 1974, classes to help prepare students for the all important university entrance exams. The first Gulen-inspired private high school was established in 1982. To have materials for the students, Gülen encouraged people he knew to get into publishing.

As Gülen’s influence as a scholar and preacher increased, his admirers and followers wanted his advise about how to help create the better world he described. Education is an area that requires many contributions—teachers, financial supporters, tutors, mentors, service and material providers, cooks, janitors, drivers, etc—and it is at the heart of defining if your next generation will be productive and mentally healthy. Hocaefendi Gülen considers engagement with education to be central to faith and citizenship. It is also a practical solution to the extensive poverty in developing nations, a poverty that had led to radicalization especially in some Muslim countries. It is in this dedication to bringing all the elements of a community together to support students that you also see the origin of service (Hizmet) as being at the heart of Gülen’s thought: Through service to community, believers glorify God while inhibiting their own more selfishness. Therefore, in schools, we find a location where individual and community achievement meet faith and service in a sustainable relationship that ultimately improves the individual, community, society and world.

When Communism ended in the Soviet Union, a number the Central Asian republics suddenly had to chart their own course. Historically, this region was part of the Ottoman Empire and has cultural ties with Turkey. Hocaefendi Gülen saw the value of helping to educate talented youth in the newly independent countries of Central Asia in order to help create new leaders, especially ones who will be honest, reliable, loyal, well informed, and charitable because Gülen-inspired schools put strong emphasis on character building, and the importance of personal values. The Gülen-inspired school network in Central Asia has grown to include approximately 30 primary and secondary schools in Kazakhstan, 15 in Kyrgyzstan, 15 in Azerbaijan, and 10 in Tajikistan[2]—all within the last 20 years! These schools created an important link between Central Asia and Turkey, giving access to the ideas, culture, and economic prowess of this emerging power that Turkey is. The schools also connect students to a longer cultural history, helping to lend identity in a time of potential political uncertainty.

Hizmet’s mission to initiate excellent schools in societies experiencing some form of transition, trauma, or socio-economic challenge can be seen in the Middle East in Egypt. The Salahaldin International School (also known as the “Turkish school”) opened in New Cairo, Egypt in May 2009. The school uses the U.S. education system for a K-12 student body. The primary language used is English; students can opt to take Turkish if they want. Currently, there are about 900 students at the school. A famous Egyptian hafiz cut the ribbon to open the school and recited verses from the Qur’an.[3]

What is most significant about the Salahaldin School is the fact is that it exemplifies how the commitment to education for Hizmet, is also an act of peace building and dialog: The students at this school will obviously see there is no gap between dedication to Islam, and an international capacity for communication, and study of the sciences as is invariably promoted at the school. Instead of taking a side in the simmering struggle between a radicalized Islam and the West, this school builds bridges between the different civilizations. This co-existence at the school between fostering Islamic identity while offering a “Western” education benefits Egyptian society as well as the individual students.[4] It is not an exception: similar schools are present in Pakistan, where over 6,000 students are being educated in 22 Gülen-inspired schools—serving a similar need to model how Western education can co-exist comfortably with Islamic knowledge and pious values.

Humanitarian Relief and Charity 

One of the most dedicated of the many Gülen-inspired activities that can all be called faces of Hizmet, the relief organization Kimse Yok Mu[5] (“Is Anybody There?” in Turkish) is certainly the most impressive. The objective of the organization is to fight poverty and build a more healthy, prosperous world. All its activities are implemented through volunteers. For example, Kimse Yok Mu was providing aid to refugees from the civil war and famine in Somalia in the Dadaab Refugee Camp. The group was trying to reduce mortality rates of people dying, especially children, as a result of malnutrition and lack of medical care. So instead of helping and leaving when the situation stabilized, the relief group inspired by Hocaefendi Gülen started constructing a medical center in Somolia: the Deva Research and Training Hospital, a 60-bed facility functioning as a general hospital with operating rooms.[6] One of the first things done, was to send the Somali staff for five months of training in Turkey. Such a facility will certainly become an important medical facility for the region—all as a result of Hizmet.

In similar efforts on the theme of providing humanitarian relief in medical care, to cite just one recent example, in a collaboration between Kimse Yok Mu and the Istanbul-based Ufuk Doctor’s Foundation (not to be confused with the Ufuk Dialog Foundation,[7] based in Nigeria, and dedicated to peace-building and dialog in that major country), a medical mission of 15 doctors, 1 nurse, and 2 coordinators headed out to Tanzania this month for a week-long medical mission involving urgent exams and surgeries. Over the last year, the foundation’s 45-person team performed 10,000 medical exams and 200 surgeries for free.

Dialog and Bridge Building

Hizmet dialog groups such as the Rumi Forum in Washington DC, Niagra Foundation in Chicago, Alliance for Shared Values in New York and the Australian Intercultural Society[8] established in Melbourne in 2000 all provide an extraordinary variety of opportunities for faith groups and cultural organizations to communicate, learn about each other, share meals.[9]

One positive objective of these organizations in the West is to highlight the Muslim community.

With the Western media’s increasing focus on the violence of some small number of politically-motivated organizations that call themselves the true representatives of Islam, it becomes essential for Muslims who value freedom of expression, respect for religious and ethnic identity, hard work, the accomplishments of business and science—undoubtedly, the majority of Muslims in the world—to be heard, in dialog with other social representatives. This is one of the services that Hizmet dialog groups such as these in the United States and Australia provide.

Hizmet is often very clever and creative in the ways it finds to highlight Turkish culture and the link between culture and peace. For example: food. In Orange County, Ca, a recent event drew thousands of people. The Anatolian Cultures and Food Festival became a vehicle to explore food, culture, politics, and faith.

The Thinking of Fethullah Gülen

One of the benefits of the film Love is a Verb is that it situates Hizmet activities in the thinking of Hocaefendi Gülen. Because the leader is an Islamic scholar, as was his father, when we talk about his thinking, we are talking about his interpretation Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet. Every Muslim scholar’s job is interpretation of the Qur’an, hadith (words of the Prophet), Sira (biography of the Prophet). Gulen has drawn from these sacred documents as well as the Risale-i Nur (a collection of Turkish Islamic scholar Said Nursi’s commentaries and interpretations of the Qur’an),  and both Turkish and Ottoman cultural tradition, to develop a theology very appealing to the Anatolyan middle class created with Turkey’s economic gains over the last 30 years.

University of Utah political scientist Hakan Yavuz wrote an excellent book, Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement, which explains how, for Gülen education has a religious function while being a vehicle for social reform. Through education, we learn more about the Creator. At the same time, education addresses poverty and those who contribute to educational endeavors, are participating in a form of sanctified charity.

Yavuz sees Hocaefendi Gülen’s interpretation as a new form of Islam because it brings the act of believing and that of behaving in helpful, socially beneficial ways close together. Motivated by piety, religion becomes the method for improving the human condition. As well, Hocaefendi Gülen has defined a form of “ethical Islam,” which values consensus. Social participation and dialogue with other groups are of great importance. Within this ethical call to participate and help improve society, however, the individual is called to service without being forced to participate. The concept of volunteerism is valued. Neither the state nor community should have the power to force individuals into action. Importantly, Hizmet, based on the ideas of Hocaefendi Gülen, considers critical thinking to be a foundation for learning that glorifies God therefore it is not standing in contradiction to divine revelation. As Yavuz writes, “The gist of Gulen’s theology is to raise religious consciousness through action in the here and now and by building moral community.”[10]

So based on the understanding of Hocaefendi Gülen, there is no contradiction between Islam and rational science. There is also no contradiction between Islam and the entrepreneurial spirit: free enterprise opened opportunity for Muslims to succeed and glorify Allah. Gulen urged Turkey’s new entrepreneurial class to work hard and succeed, not for personal gain, but to enhance the spiritual well being of society, using the fact that Prophet Muhammad was a merchant as literal support for the importance of the commercial endeavor.

Hocaefendi Gülen’s agenda puts a strong accent on social space. Private schools, private enterprise, democratic institutions, volunteerism—all assume a social structure that is pluralistic and fundamentally tolerant of other ways of life—a stance Gulenists consider recovered from the Ottoman legacy, not imported from the West. “We are the heirs of the culture that has the world’s broadest, most comprehensive and most universal tolerance,” said Gülen. Going beyond tolerance is Gulen’s notion of dialogue, requiring respect for the “other.” One of the movement’s prime action items is inter-faith dialogue, actively seeking engagement, especially with the so-called “people of the book,” Christians and Jews.

Applied to day-to-day life, Gülen’s theology supports character education with an emphasis on responsibility, respect, caring, citizenship and giving back to society. All of these ideas can be found in the Qur’an, yet making these values the foundation for charity work, schools around the world, and cultural programming is a remarkable innovation—and directly supports the emphasis placed on education.

Having started with reference to the film, “Love is a Verb,” it is interesting to note the theme documented by the film which I observed in my research: The Gulen Movement, or Hizmet, is a religious movement because it is primarily inspired by the Qur’an. And by following this way, the individual achieves greater enlightenment, but the larger goals are in sinc with the individual faith goals: Hocaefendi Gülen is telling Hizmet particpants that these charitable activities will improve the lives of others, will improve society and the world, which are the constant larger objectives of the faith experience. Individual enlightenment fosters social (on the level of community and world) improvement, and this occurs in a framework that is inclusive, full of love and charity.

Contrasting Interpretations of Jihad

In earlier times, say twenty years ago, the story could end here, having identified an exceptional religious leader and reviewed the implications of his ideas on his followers. Unfortunately, we live in a time of epic conflict between versions of Islam that emphasize violence, like the Islamic State, and interpretations of Islam that consider tolerance to be a divine value. Last week, Fethullah Gulen made a statement[11] about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He said, “Any form of attack, suppression or persecution of minorities or innocent civilians is an act that contradicts the principles of the Qur’an and the tradition of our Prophet, upon whom be peace and blessings.” Because of current events, I believe it is essential to look at Hizmet and the Gülen Movement in light of larger issues dividing Islam itself, focusing on jihad as a representative, and importanrt, topic.

The jihad is a controversial topic today, especially since the term has been associated with threats made by radical Islamist groups against the West and with acts of aggression.[12] However, the doctrine of jihad has experienced a long journey in its development. Formulated in the eighth century and interpreted by scholars since, exegesis of the doctrine depends on the geopolitical context and the government in power. Jihad, in the literal sense, means “striving,” denoting the internal and external struggle believers must experience for the sake of God.  Although jihad entails interior and exterior struggle, the external aspect, regarding fighting and warfare, has been the primarily source of conflicting interpretation among medieval and modern scholars alike. Hocaefendi Gülen’s interpretation, however, is among the most reformed among modern scholars and embodies the Hizmet movement’s mission to improve society.

Modern interpretations of jihad date back to the late nineteenth century and vary immensely. Historian Michael Bonner describes how there was a surge in modern jurists emphasizing the defensive nature of the jihad.[13] Although a majority of medieval scholars placed importance on the offensive component of jihad, the modern interpretation agreed with al- Shafi’i’s (d. 820) collective versus individual obligation to defend Islam which was written in the Iraqi context. Among these modern interpretations of jihad, the Hizmet movement calls for peacemaking by cleverly interpreting the violent verses in the Qur’an by associating them with the early development of Islam.[14] For the Hizmet movement, offensive warfare is not considered an appropriate action for established Islamic states due to geopolitical changes in the world.

On the other hand, certain modern scholars disagree strenuously with the defensive warfare interpretation of the jihad. Sayyd Qutb (d.1966) is an example of a scholar who largely disagreed with this approach to the jihad and formulated his own opinion based on the exegesis of a majority of medieval scholars. According to Qutb, in order to complete the struggle for the sake of God, preaching is not enough.[15] There needs to be “movement” to implement God’s authority, meaning, anyone who resists God should be opposed.[16]  To accommodate the peacemaking components in the Qur’an, Qutb declares: “It is not the intention of Islam to force its beliefs on people, but Islam is not merely ‘belief.’”[17] He goes on to state that Islam “strives from the beginning to abolish all those systems and governments which are based on the rule of man over men and the servitude of one human being to another,” emphasizing that Islam’s role is to free Man from his selfish ways. [18] Qutb criticizes those who support the interpretation of a defensive war, calling them “defeatist-type people.” [19]  He starts by criticizing early medieval Meccan scholars who had trouble reconciling the jihad with the refrain from fighting mentioned in the Qur’an and goes on to denounce those who concentrate on the defensive component instead of the offensive. He states that the military operations during the Hijra period (622 CE) were not made solely in the defense of Medina, rather, “The aim was to protect the resources and the center of the movement—the movement for freeing mankind and demolishing the obstacles which prevented mankind from attaining this freedom.”[20] Again, Qutb emphasizes the larger scope of the jihad to combat Jahiliyya and recreate a pure Islamic past reminiscent of the time of the Prophet and the Rashidun. Qutb’s writings and interpretations have been a key component for “new jihad” which refers to the ideology of some contemporary political Islamic groups deemed terrorists after the air attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

In new jihad, the threat is identified as the “Crusader-Zionist alliance” where “Crusader” refers to the United States and “Zionist” to Israel.[21] In particular, the youth who participate in the New Jihad, such as ISIL, hope to restore a universal caliphate, although many have little knowledge of their holy books.[22]  New jihad activities, particularly the violence conducted by these groups, have been widely denounced by moderate Muslim groups, such as Hizmet participants including Hocaefendi Gülen himself, and radical scholars alike. New jihad is accused of having perverted the doctrine of jihad. One of Gulen’s major criticisms of the new jihad is the extensive use of violence as he said in last week’s statement.

As a result of new jihad activities, many innocent people, including women and children, have been killed or harmed, a tragedy the movement considers abominable since there is no justification for such actions in the Qur’an, hadith, or Sira sources.[23] Second, the Hizmet movement concerns itself with the extreme and unnecessary violence, particularly the extensive use of suicide bombings. Overall, the Hizmet movement disapproves of the actions taken by new wave jihadis who are insufficiently versed in the doctrine of jihad and have misinterpreted “lesser jihad” by using callous and destructive means to achieve political aims.

Deep Relevance Today

I sincerely believe that Hizmet, the movement Inspired by Fethullah Gülen, can answer the world’s most compelling problem: religious violence inspired by a false reading of the Qur’an. As a result of over 30 years of practical experience in bringing people together, advancing peace and interfaith dialog, promoting education, and implementing charity, this movement understands West and East, and has allies all over the world. Hizmet, if it keeps faithful to its source of inspiration and strength, has the power to continue changing the world, at this crucial time, God willing.


[1] http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304027204579332670740491570

[2] http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/02/04/gülen-movement-and-turkish-soft-power

[3] http://hizmetnews.com/898/world-famous-hafiz-naina-turkish-schools-serve-humanity/#.VAPNlSiuorw

[4] http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/turkish-school-takes-us-approach-get-foothold-egypt

[5] http://www.kimseyokmu.org.tr/?lang=en

[6]  http://hizmetmovement.blogspot.com/2013/03/turkish-volunteer-doctors-back-from-somalia.html

[7] http://ufukfoundation.org/Dosyalar/Dokumanlar/Ufuk%20DF%20catalogue.pdf

[8] http://www.researchgate.net/publication/242486664_How_the_Hizmet_works_Islam_dialogue_and_the_Glen_movement_in_Australia_and

[9] The many and variety of Iftar dinners sponsored by Gülen-inspired groups is amazing, and can be seen on innumerable websites including, for example, a Buddhist iftar dinner sponsored by the Australian Intercultural Society this year: http://www.intercultural.org.au/news/338-at-vegie-mum-restaurant.html

[10] Yavuz, Hakan. Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 89.

[11] http://www.todayszaman.com/diplomacy_islamic-scholar-gulen-rebukes-isil-for-brutal-atrocities_356381.html

[12] See, for example, a headline in the popular British newspaper The Daily Mail: “The Al Qaeda Fanatic from Britain who Funded Jihad Trip to Syria by Mugging Londoners with a Taser” (November 30, 2013): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2516137/The-Al-Qaeda-fanatic-Britain-funded-jihad-trip-Syria-mugging-Londoners-Taser.html

[13] Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practices, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), 160.

[14] Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practices, 161.

[15] Sayyd Qutb, “Jihad in the Cause of God,” Oxford Islamic Studies Online, 2013, <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/book/islam-9780195174304-chapter -62

[16] Ibid.

[17] Qutb,“Jihad in the Cause of God,” 2.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Qutb, “Jihad in the Cause of God,” 1.

[20] Qutb, “Jihad in the Cause of God,” 5.

[21] Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practices, 163.

[22] Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practices, 164.

[23] Joas Wagemakers, “Protecting Jihad: The Sharia Council of the Minbar al-Tawhid Wa-l-Jihad,” Middle East Policy, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 2011 (accessed November 25, 2013), 150.