By James C. Harrington
The September 11 terrorist attacks made Americans suddenly turn their attention to Muslim countries and Islam itself. Unfortunately, we had little to fall back on. Our school history books had painted general panoramas about the battles of civilizations and religious “infidels.” The media and popular culture likewise had perpetrated crass stereotypes.
Quickly, it became “Islamic terrorists,” rather than El Qaeda terrorists,” as if Osama Bin Laden represented all Islam. He doesn’t — any more than Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant terrorists represented all Christianity. Moderate Islamic countries have been trying to set the matter straight, especially Turkey, which is positioning to join the European Union.
In mid-October, I was part of an interfaith group that visited Turkey at the invitation of people involved in a moderate Islamic movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen. This movement, which has enormous following in Turkey, believes in interfaith dialog, human rights, tolerance, peace, and sharing one’s resources with the less fortunate — and the primacy of education. The movement has no formal structure and is rather loosely coordinated — something difficult for Americans to get their heads around.
People from around the world have visited Turkey in such groups — more than 500 alone from Texas. Our delegation was about as diverse as could be, including religious beliefs.
The idea was to have us travel all around Turkey and just let us observe and meet people and draw our own conclusions. Our guides were scrupulous in avoiding even a hint of trying to form our opinions. Nor could they, given the independent minds in our group.
During our twelve days there, we went to ancient archeological locations and historical religious sites for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We visited schools connected to the Gülen movement and had nightly dinners in families’ homes all across Turkey. Everywhere, the message was the same: Islamic faith requires love, tolerance, respect for others, sharing one’s possessions, hospitality, and acts of service — values generally shared by all religions. As practiced by believers in the Gülen movement, it is reminiscent of early Christian communities.
Supporters of the movement give 2.5% of their annual income, if not more, to build and sustain more than 700 schools and universities around the world. Most are in Turkey. These institutions practice the principles of Islam, but do not teach Islam. They are essentially secular, disciplined, state-of-the-art, high-achieving academies. Tuition is reasonably priced, and there are scholarships for about 25% of the poorer students.
This educational alternative is key, especially when there is only room for one of every 18 high school graduates in Turkey competing for college admission. Or as an alternative to the radical madrassahs in Pakistan that have traditionally filled an academic void.
As a journalist from Turkey’s largest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, which has Gülen ties, pointed out, the United States, Europe, and Turkey all need each other. Turkey needs the West to help raise its human rights standards and deepen democracy there. The West needs Turkey because it supports a moderate Islam and can show a viable alternative for other Islamic nations.
It is in everyone’s interest to build a bridge between East and West and bring an end to that historical separation. Turkey can help open that door. Our trip taught us that an important step in this process is building personal relationships with others of different cultures and beliefs. This is something which we Americans need to do more of.