How do Fethullah Gülen and his followers view democracy?


How do Fethullah Gülen and his followers view democracy? Do they see democracy as a vehicle or as goal? If it is a vehicle, then to what kind of social order or a regime do they aspire?

By and large, I had explained my views on the issue of democracy but I can add this much: Democracy is a system which gives people the possibility of living through their own feelings and thoughts. The tolerance is an important part of its depth. It could even be said where there is no tolerance, democracy cannot be talked about. But, unfortunately some wretched people who have no stomach for tolerance while saying democracy everywhere have desired to dry up the sources which are sustaining democracy. In a country where democracy prevails, it is necessary for everyone to be able to retain his or her life while benefitting from the rights and freedoms. If a segment of that society is to be disturbed by the existence of another segment, then this disturbed segment’s claims, “We are democrats, we favor democracy,” to say the least, would not be sincere and honest. Without the existence of tolerance it is impossible for democracy to take root. In actual fact, it is imperative for those who defend democracy to tolerate those who do not share their views and open their hearts to everyone.[1]

When Fethullah Gülen remarks that ethnic and cultural characteristics of people and their differences should not be cause for their exclusion, he makes a preference in terms of faith:

To accept people as they are and whoever they are does not mean to place the believers with the nonbelievers into the same camp. In our opinion, the status of the believer and the nonbeliever is according to their own value and worth.[2]

Would this difference (whether one is Muslim or not) determine the extent to which one is entitled to benefit democracy? Does Islam approach democracy with some reservations and conditions in the opinion of Fethullah Gülen?

Democracy is never opposed to the spirit of Islam. Furthermore, it is impossible to turn back the process of democratization. Democracy is of different kinds. There are social democrats, Christian democrats and liberal democrats in the world. I would like democracy to develop some day to such an extent that in that process of development, a setting is prepared in which all of the needs of individuals, material as well as spiritual, worldly and other worldly. One day democracy will develop so much that I think, let alone I, no one will oppose it. I never fell into hopelessness about this matter in my lifetime. In order to progress, it is necessary to leave hopelessness behind.[3]

To the question whether it is possible to find a more perfect system than democracy, Fethullah Gülen replies that it is possible through two ways:

It is possible that the creature called human being, with his logic, reasoning, senses, understanding of freedom conception, philosophy of freedom, the family structure, the structure of the state, could establish a higher system than what is expected from democracy. Second, this system could be shown and represented by those figures and architects to represent it. Namely there could be implementation of it and there could be a tendency toward it in this world. Of course these things we are talking about, in the end, are some assumptions.[4]

What can be said as of today?

The state of affairs at the moment is a human reality. When I said, “Democracy is a given today, it is impossible to go back from it,” I had wished to mean these. As a matter of fact many anti-democrats, even anti-republicans always said “democracy” and “republic,” but their deed belied their words and the values they defended. Despite this fact, democracy evolved and developed. Why would not believers think of taking advantage of such an atmosphere of freedom, and benefit from such a setting?[5]

Fethullah Gülen reproaches both the faithful and those who try to narrow the boundaries of democracy in the name of democracy. This brings us to the question of tyranny and theocracy in Islam. According to him,

As some people might abuse anything, they may misuse Islam, and they may exploit religious in order to establish a regime of dictatorship. But this does not mean that there is a tyrannical side of Islam. Until today they criticized Islam with theocracy, but in actual fact, Islam has nothing to do with theocracy. Theocracy is a system of government which came into existence through the interpretations and implementations of the church fathers. In Islam there is neither the church nor the church fathers. In the sense the Westerners understand, the Presidency of Religious Affairs do not have the authority to make laws. The highest level in Islam is the level of servanthood to God. And the largest of the freedoms is this freedom. One finds the possibility of getting rid of all shackles by virtue of this freedom. Nowadays they have fabricated something called fundamentalism. This is also a concept originated in the West. Some referring to a movement in Iran and some others a movement in Saudi Arabia are reprimanding Islam.[6]

According to Fethullah Gülen, the scholarly approach requires to treat the issues from the perspective of the contemporary conditions prevailing at the time. This is only natural, because democracy is a process and consonant with the development of the society it develops also. “Democracy is a process which has to steadily progress.”[7] This state of affairs is valid for all the countries and for all humanity: “The West does not say ‘We have reached the point we could,’”[8] i.e. Fethullah Gülen implies: We should approach the matter in Turkey in the same way.

When asked how he sees the role of the state, Fethullah Gülen remarks that a state, which is ruled with good principles and good laws, is in itself a value.

Statelessness would mean chaos. Being without a state would be disorder. It would mean setting up different understandings against each other to clash. Statelessness would mean instability. It would mean all the enmities to get out of control and march on all the different thoughts. Think about the non-existence of a government temporarily in Turkey. Even if the administrators in this state are the socialists, think about non-existence of them for a moment, there would be such a fight, even among those who share nuances within that ideology; and the flood of blood would sweep aside everyone. Different Sufi orders would be at each other’s throats. The differences between the sects would become a cause for war. People who use different languages would be up against each other. Just like the provincial principalities in ancient Anatolia, the mosque attendants in group of religious communities would become a mosque principality. A little powerful, a dynamic speaker would rise and take several people behind him, and start provoking others. For this reason, we are obligated to make a choice whether we would prefer to have a state or not. We still say the state which has an intrinsic value in itself. But if the talents or traits of the administrators of this state are very low, we do not have to make them a crown on our heads. It is out of the question.[9]

Fethullah Gülen’s views about democracy can be summarized as such: Democracy is for humans, without democrats, democracy cannot exist. Democracy is a good form of government. The guarantor of it is a just and egalitarian government.

Then, who is the guarantor of a just government? According to him, it is morally perfect and virtuous human.

Authors of utopia like Farabi, talking about virtuous cities, brought to the fore the cities. But, what should always be given priority is the human. The city, civilization, the country, and the town should follow it behind. For democracy the existence of the meritorious, virtuous human beings is very important. In my opinion, Islam gives a very good education and training of democracy to the humans. Democracy can be reconciled perfectly with the virtuous people who have gone through Islamic moral training.[10]

If it is to be asked how many kinds of Islam exist, and then accordingly, how many democracies, Fethullah Gülen replies it is a matter of their application.

The conception of democracy and its implementation in France is different from the conception of democracy and its implementation of it in England or those in Germany present differences. Islam has no problem with democracy. Even to a great measure, if you look at the codified non-canonical laws of the Ottomans, many people talk about the Ottoman period as one of secularism, as long as they are not in contradiction with the basic rules about the faith creed and worship, new innovations took place in making laws in legislation.[11]

In short, managing worldly affairs and solving extant problems require new rules and regulations. In order to meet them, the laws of common laws were enacted. If there is no principle in the Book, the Sunnah or the fundamental sources to be used as a guide, the current administration and ruler should govern. Additionally,

When this decision is made, if nothing could be found with a clear stipulation in the basic sources, then an effort is made not to contradict these sources. When viewed from this perspective, Islam has no problem with democracy and with secularism [as long as it is not repressive]. Although secularism basically involves legal discipline, if you say the system is completely a secular system and try to exclude religion, if you try to enforce a secularism, which is a philosophical one, which could be rendered as “irreligiosity,” you would cause conflicts in the society. Then so many anti-secular and anti-democrat people would come into existence. It is incumbent upon us to point to the fault of the people who cause this disruption as much as those who do the disrupting.[12]

Considering Fethullah Gülen’s views that democracy is compatible with Islam, the question arises, “Why do so many Muslim countries not have a democracy?” To this critical question, his replies:

On the issue of Islam and democracy, one should remember that the former is a divine and heavenly religion, while the latter is a form of government developed by humans. The main purposes of religion are faith [iman], servanthood to God [ubudiyyah], knowledge of God [ma’rifah], and beautiful actions [ihsan]. The Qur’an, in its hundreds of verses, invites people to the faith and worship of the True [Al-Haq]. It also asks people to deepen their servanthood to God in a way that they may gain the consciousness of ihsan. “To believe and do good deeds,” is among the subjects that Qur’an emphatically stresses. It also frequently reminds people that they must develop a conscious relationship with God and act as if they see God, or as if they are seen by God.

Democracy itself is not a unified system of government; it is rarely presented without an affiliation. In many cases, another term, such as social, liberal, Christian, or radical, is added as a prefix. In some cases, even one of these forms of democracy may not consider the other as democracy.

However, in our days, democracy is frequently mentioned in its unaffiliated form, ignoring the plural nature of democracies. In contrast to this, many speak of religion as tantamount to politics, which is, in fact, only one of the many faculties of religion. Such a perception has resulted in a range of positions on the subject of the reconciliation of Islam and democracy. Even if these terms are not seen as being opposites, it is evident that they are different in important ways.

According to one of these conceptualizations, Islam is both a religion and a political system. It has expressed itself in all fields of life, including the individual, family, social, economical and political spheres. From this angle, to confine Islam to only faith and prayer is to narrow the field of its interaction and its interpenetration. Many ideas have been developed from this perspective and more recently these have often caused Islam to be perceived as an ideology. According to some critics, such an approach made Islam merely one of many political ideologies. This vision of Islam as a totalizing ideology is totally against the spirit of Islam, which promotes the rule of law and openly rejects oppression against any segment of society. This spirit also promotes actions for the betterment of society in accordance with the view of the majority.[13]

Both an understanding of religion as closed to democracy and a vision of a society that is isolated from religion are unacceptable to Fethullah Gülen. Why shouldn’t religion and democracy be reconciled? Why should they be incompatible? If religion, as an institution that meets the needs of humans, seems to be attractive and has followers, then it must have some compatibility with politics and be able manage social life. What is important is how this is to be done, which is related to human intelligence and capabilities.

According to Fethullah Gülen, religion is based on the sovereignty of God and democracy is based on the votes of the nation. On this point, Fethullah Gülen does not compromise on the maxim that the sovereignty belongs to God: Sovereignty is “a matter left by God at the disposal of human beings.” As such, who implements this sovereignty is crucial. He emphasizes that the sovereignty, namely the will, which is a determining factor for the management of the society should be taken away from a dictator or an oppressor or any other individual and handed over to the general public. And he likens this situation, in a sense, to the application during the period of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. He explains:

Cosmologically speaking, there is no doubt that God is the sovereign of everything in the universe. Our thoughts and plans are always under the control of the power of such an Omnipotent. However, this does not mean that we have no will, inclination, or choice. Humans are free to make choices in their personal lives. They are also free to make choices with regard to their social and political actions. Some may hold different types of elections to choose lawmakers and executives. There is not only one way to hold an election; as we can see, this was true even for the Era of Bliss, the time of the Prophet of Islam, and during the time of the Four Caliphs, may God be pleased with them all. The election of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, was different than that of the second Caliph, Umar. Uthman’s election was different from that of Ali, the fourth Caliph. God only knows the right method of election.[14]

Lately, we are witnessing an intervention described as “exporting democracy” or “taking democracy” to some authoritarian nations. But according to Fethullah Gülen,

No nation has the right to establish pressures on another by saying, “You have to take this, you have to be civilized,” or “You have to understand civilization in this way, you have to interpret democracy in that way,” and to take what it wants by resorting to brute force or coercion. It is the business of no one to democratize another nation, according to their understanding to civilize another country. It is none of their business because this consideration is always open to mistakes, injustices; it can always be misused by utilizing it as a pretext to establish pressure and arbitrary enforcement. It can lead to playing with other nations’ dignity, honor, and national unity [and national sovereignty].[15]

Such an intervention does not necessarily have to come from the outside; sometimes it comes from within the country. There are those who think that it is their right to interfere with the elected government by “arrogating authority and enforcing the rights on their own.” For example, active duty or retired state officials and various civil society members (who act more like state officials rather than members of a civil society), have said as much. According to Fethullah Gülen:

To anyone, no matter what his or her previous position was, while looking into the eyes of the members of Turkish society, performing such shameful acts should not be allowed. We would like to believe we live in a free and democratic setting. We have difficulty in understanding such militant remarks in a democratic milieu. If it continues as it is, it would erode all the trust in democracy and the state.[16]

He states that the world order is shaped according to the preferences of the strong, powerful states:

Almost everywhere, weak, powerless, and underdeveloped countries are ruled, to a great extent, by a brute force, and without any accountability to any authority. From one end to the other in the huge Islamic world, so far unparalleled oppressions and deprivations have been experienced in the most terrible manner. The representatives of crude force, who are in charge of the destinies of nations, who want to dominate, for a long time now, in order to legitimize the vices they have committed or to demonstrate the reasonableness of their deeds, have been saying foolish things like, “Official ideology is in danger,” “Modernity is under threat,” “There are enemies of democracy everywhere,” “Secularism has is going away.” They are creating fear and worry in the minds of innocent masses.[17]

After saying these, he is stating that resistance against oppression and injustices is a human right; however, individual acts to resist them are insufficient:

It is another ill fortune for all of us that a heroic voice does not arise to say to all of these, “Enough is enough.”[18]

He explains how the democratic rights and freedoms, like the right to life, the right of speech, the right to express oneself, could be gained through a collective resistance against the tyrants and the powerful.

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