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PS Portions

A Muslim Reformer and His Community Comes under Fire (Again)

— Why We Should Care about the Hizmet Movement


By Jon Pahl

Dr. Jon PahlDr. Pahl has visited Turkey six times in the past five years, and spent a month in the country this past summer. He sends this report, and is available and eager to speak in congregations in more detail about the topics raised in this column.

Turkey is in trouble. The recent bombing of a peace march in Ankara is only a symptom. Among the many threats facing the birthplace of Saint Paul, and the center of so much of historic Christianity, is internal dissension. Especially troubling is a recent smear-campaign against and political persecution of the Turkish Muslim Reformer Fethullah Gülen and those inspired by him.

For the past seven years, I’ve been studying Mr. Gülen’s life, and the peacebuilding activities of the Muslims, Christians, and Jews who have found encouragement in his sermons and writings. Gülen has published over 40 books, including Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, which I use regularly in my teaching here at LTSP. Collectively, this peacebuilding work — which now spans 160 countries, has come to be called “the Hizmet movement.”

Hizmet is the Turkish word for “service.” The kinds of reforms within Islam that Hizmet enjoins would go a long way to solving many of the problems in the Middle East and around the globe. Practically, volunteers within Hizmet (there is no hierarchy or central organization) sponsor three activities: building schools (mostly math and science academies); developing social enterprises and businesses to support that educational mission (publishing houses, media, relief agencies); and organizing academic conferences and public events dedicated to interreligious dialogue.

Throughout his life — he was born near Erzurum in northeastern Turkey in 1938 — Mr. Gülen has been imprisoned, on the run, and faced death threats. He now resides in exile in a retreat center in the Poconos. Since 2013, the ruling party in Turkey has made him a scapegoat for his efforts at calling out Turkey’s ruthless military and political corruption, and for trying to integrate Islam with scientific rationality and interfaith cooperation. Journalists and writers associated with him have been imprisoned in Turkey (along with many others), and the schools and businesses associated with Hizmet have been subject to police raids and other forms of political oppression.

So why should readers of PS Portions care? As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so famously put it: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Even more, I’m convinced that strong and persistent pressure by U.S. Christians can protect the livelihoods (and lives) of Hizmet volunteers. And, finally, concerted action by people of faith (individuals, congregations, and agencies) can surely help advance the worthy causes associated with the movement.

The problems of violence across the Middle East — including the growth of ISIS that stems directly from the tragic U.S. invasion of Iraq, will not be solved long-term by any military measures. What will bring greater peace to the Middle East (and the rest of the globe) is when we find ways to educate young people, to generate wealth for social causes, and to appreciate and understand the dignity of difference that our faiths can teach us.

If, as Martin Luther once claimed, “and a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none, and a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all,” then all Lutherans — all Christians, can be, should be, people of Hizmet.

Dr. Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of History at LTSP. He can be reached at One of his books-in-progress is tentatively entitled Fethullah Gülen as Peacebuilder: A Life of Hizmet.

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