Rev. Thomas Michel, SJ, Full Text Version

Wednesday February 29, 2007, Presentation

at Marquette University


Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, academicians, politicians, and journalists have tended to focus on movements within the Muslim world which promote and carry out acts of violence against civilian populations.  While this concern with violence-oriented groups is understandable, I believe that it has tended to overshadow some of the more dynamic and significant developments taking place today within the international Islamic community.  I am referring to international Muslim movements and organizations that are actively working for peace, interreligious dialogue, minority rights, education and development, religious freedom, and gender justice in the Muslim world. 

Precisely because such movements unequivocally and emphatically reject and condemn violence and even incline toward a radical Qur’anic pacifism, they tend to be overlooked in analyses of contemporary Islamic currents of thought, organization and activity.  Yet such movements shape the vision, motivate the commitment, and inspire the social and educational projects of millions of Muslims in many countries of the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North America and represent some of the most energetic and influential forces which are shaping the outlook and vision of Muslims.  In my opinion, they point the direction that the worldwide Islamic community is heading far more accurately than do the increasingly isolated circles of those who are involved in terrorist fringe organizations.

I should mention at the outset some of the limits of this paper.  I will talk about “contemporary” movements, so I will not look at pacifist Muslim movements in recent history, such as that of the Khuda Khidmatgar, the 100,000-strong movement of Muslim Pathans who, under the leadership of Abdulghaffar Khan, carried out a highly disciplined, strictly non-violent program of social change and civil resistance to the British Raj.  That Islamic movement, one of the high points of the history of non-violence in the 20th Century, deserves a lecture of its own.

Secondly, I will talk about “movements,” not individual Muslim pacifist thinkers, some of whom have made significant contributions to non-violent activism.  I’m thinking of people like the Azhar-trained Syrian scholar Jawdat Said, who already in the 1950s predicted that the use of violence by Islamic movements would eventually prove self-destructive, and whose sons were not allowed to graduate from Damascus University because of their refusal to serve in the Syrian army.  Other proponents of Islamic non-violence who have made significant contributions to Islamic non-violent thought are the Syi’i Ayatollah Imam Mohammad al-Shirazi, the Saudi doctor Khalis Jalabi, the Iraqi writer Khalid Khishtainy, and the Indian scholar Ali Asghar Engineer.  Since the term “non-violence” tends to sound rather passive and uninvolved in Arabic, they have coined the term “civic jihad” to indicate the non-violent social activism which they see as the proper response to Qur’anic teaching.

But this evening, I want to talk about movements - three movements, in fact - and to indicate the role they play as agents of personal and social transformation in the world today.  The first is the global network, some 9 million strong, of the students of the Risale-i Nur, the voluminous commentary on the Qur’an authored by the 20th Century Kurdish/Turkish thinker Said Nursi.  The second movement, which is spiritually and historically related to the first, is the educational and cultural community centered about the ideas of the contemporary Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen.  Thirdly, I will take up the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), an organization with members in over 18 Asian countries which is involved in a variety of social projects and causes.  My final disclaimer is that no one in these three movements would describe their group as a “pacifist,” “non-violent,” or even “peace” movement.  That is my attribution.  For them, their movement is simply “Islamic,” and as such, naturally seeks to be an agent for peace, justice, and non-violent social change in the world.

Admittedly, these phenomena are asymmetrical.  The first two are communities of individual Muslims united by a common religious vision and purpose rather than organizations with bylaws and membership lists.  The bond among them is reinforced by a common life lived in residences of study and formation and by the common practice of exercises of spiritual growth.  They derive their inspiration respectively from the sermons and writings of the charismatic scholarly figures of Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen.  They began as national, and to some extent nationalist, movements, but have become transnational and appeal today to Muslims in many parts of the umma, particularly to those living in Western Europe and North America.

The third association, the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), is a quite different type of organization, with an intellectual background in social justice activism and progressive Islamic thought.  AMAN is a young but fast-growing organization that has no single individual as founder or mentor, no national origin or ideological center (its administrative offices are in centrally-located but predominantly Buddhist Bangkok), and no authority beyond that of acting by mutual consent as a non-binding moral force upon its constituents.

A.  Said Nursi: the historical and political context

It is impossible to understand the first movement to be studied without knowing something of the background of Said Nursi, an outstanding Muslim thinker of the 20th Century. Born in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and reaching maturity in the first years of the new Turkish Republic, Said Nursi lived and wrote in a period of rapid social change.  The national issue remained a burning one for Turks throughout the 20th Century.  What form should the successor state to the Ottoman Empire take?  What should be the attitude of believing, practicing Muslims to secularizing Kemalist reforms?  What role should Islam play in the emerging, evolving republic that was in the process of formation and solidification?

Modern Turkey has been characterized as a nation “full of the obsession of dichotomies”: secularity or religiosity, modernity or tradition, science or revelation, reason or faith, state or umma, authority or democracy.  Turks were forced by circumstances to choose, and the resulting choices affected their political and social position, their circle of friends and acquaintances, and often their careers and professional life.  Once having made their choices, many Turks felt they were trapped in a set of ideological expectations not of their making and were looking for a way to move forward. 

The achievement of Said Nursi was his success in offering disciples a way to proceed beyond these dead-end dichotomies in order to build a less fragmented future.  It is interesting to note how the teaching of Nursi would continue to maintain its relevance and its place in the thinking and affection of millions of followers, even as times and issues changed and as the Anatolian context of its origins gave way to movements of transnational and transcultural character.

Said Nursi’s approach to the questions posed by his society also evolved throughout his life.  Born in 1877 in the village of Nurs in the predominantly Kurdish-speaking province of Bitlis in eastern Turkey, Nursi’s early religious formation consisted of the study of the religious sciences in various medreses in Eastern Turkey, where he claims to have been influenced especially by Islamic reformers such as Namik Kemal, Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.

After his early experience of fighting with the Ottoman army on the Russian Front in the First World War, when he was taken captive and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp in Russia at the time of the 1917 October Revolution, and his early involvement at the local and national level in the politics of the young Turkish Republic, Nursi ultimately rejected both military and political solutions to the problems of the umma and devoted himself to teaching personal transformation through study of the Qur’an as the path to regeneration of the Muslim community.  In formulating his reflections on the Qur’an in relation to the needs of modern society, he eventually organized his extensive writings in the form of a 6000-page commentary on the Qur’an which he and his disciples call the Risale-i Nur, the “Message of Light.”  In doing so, he reformulated Qur’anic teaching in such a way as to foster a spiritual transformation in the individual Muslim which was to be the basis for the renewal of the Muslim community.

After an activist youth marked by involvement in political and military affairs, Nursi abandoned interest in both national politics and geopolitical relations and devoted his life to a study of the Qur’an in the light of modern sciences.  His starting point focused on a perceived clash of world views represented, on the one hand, by positivist philosophy, and on the other, by religious faith. For the general run of the religious scholars of his time, modern science was a godless exercise in human pride that led people away from Divine guidance into a tangle of human selfishness and ultimate damnation, whereas secular scholars coming out of the Enlightenment tradition tended to view religion as an obscurantist mix of superstition and fairy tale, harmless of itself, but dangerous when applied in fields of politics, economics, and social structuring. 

In this climate of either/or, Nursi tried to determine the role of faith in providing a needed corrective to a positivist approach to reality.  He believed that the natural sciences, if divorced from a moral vision that could alone hold them together and give them direction, would lead inevitably to both destructive and self-destructive behavior.  It was the role of revealed truth to help modern society to avoid spiritual disaster by forming people with a moral vision in which, as he states: “Conscience is illuminated by the religious sciences, and the mind is illuminated by the sciences of civilization.  Wisdom occurs through the interaction of these.”  Nursi’s effort at reconciling religious faith with scientific knowledge helps account for the disproportionate number of those trained in the secular sciences, particularly in engineering and medicine, among the members of the movements inspired by Nursi’s thought.

Nursi’s conviction of the need to build a united body of knowledge compiled, on the one hand, from a study of the religious disciplines and, on the other, from all that is involved in “the sciences of civilization,” led him to reformulate traditional Islamic thought in terms of the demands of modernity.  It is particularly in three fields that Nursi’s reformulation can be seen: his views on peace, his critique of modern civilization, and his call to Muslim-Christian unity.  It is precisely these elements that characterize the movements inspired by Nursi’s thought and distinguish them from other modern Muslim movements.

1. Towards a Qur’anic pacifism

Although in his youth Nursi’s understanding of jihad led him to defend the Ottoman state against the Russian invasion of the Caucasus, Nursi later declared that the time of the “jihad of the sword” was over, and the pressing need of the modern age was a “non-physical jihad,” or what he called “the jihad of the word,” concluding that the resort to violence showed a lack of self-confidence in the truth brought by Islam.  It is tempting to speculate that his pacifist position was influenced by the traumatic experience of World War I, which produced even greater loss of life in Turkey than the “lost generation” of Western Europe, resulting in a net 30% decline in the population of Anatolia.  Nursi’s reflections on the debacle led him to reformulate the Islamic concept of “martyr” to include all those innocent victims of violence, Christian as well as Muslim, Armenian and Greek as well as Turk, who perished in the slaughter.

Nursi’s criticism of materialist tendencies in society and politics and his opposition to Turkey’s engagement in wars and unholy alliances caused him to be imprisoned repeatedly. He saw a tendency in modern governments to foment a kind of false nationalism by picturing those of another nationality or religion as the enemy against whom war must be waged.  Meanwhile, the governments concentrate on providing amusements to distract people by favoring consumerist market policies to “create needs.”  The result, he states, is a sort of superficial happiness for the elite few while the rest are cast into distress and poverty.  By contrast to the policies of political elites, the Qur’an, he states, proposes an alternative to the use of force to resolve conflicts, proposing instead negotiation, compromise and uprightness, rather than the employment of brute force oriented toward the short-sighted goal of “winning the war.”

Said Nursi’s opposition to war as an inhumane and ultimately useless endeavor aroused much opposition for, in the Turkish Republic as elsewhere, citizens were expected to support whatever wars were being waged and to trust that the government knew what was best for the security of the nation; thus, anyone opposing the war was accused of disloyalty.  Nursi astutely observed that ruling parties and cliques often actually foment conflicts and wars in an attempt to increase their popularity and rally support for what otherwise would be unpopular or incompetent regimes. 

Nursi was often challenged because of his commitment to peace.  Critics claimed that war against foreign incursions provided an opportunity to revive Islamic zeal and to assert the moral strength of the nation.  They charged Nursi, who proposed prayers for peace and negotiated settlement, with indirectly supporting the invaders’ aims.  Said Nursi replied that he wanted release from the attacks of aggressors, but not by using the same methods which the attackers were employing.  In other words, he rejected the practice of opposing force by force, holding that religion teaches people to seek truth and uprightness, not to try to achieve their aims by use of force.  In consequence, he counseled his students to make better use of their time by studying the Qur’an than by engaging in military service.  The ultimate formulation of this position came toward the end of his life: “I swear that if one of you were to insult me and trample my honor but not [make me] give up serving the Qur’an, belief, and the Risale-i Nur, I would forgive him, make peace with him, and try not to be offended.”

In the long run, he concludes, preoccupation with international crises is of secondary importance to the personal, interior transformation that comes through the study of Scripture.  One can see in Said Nursi’s position the freedom of the honest individual who renounces an obsession with transitory events which will be forgotten in a few years in favor of the search for eternal, unchangeable truth.

2. Critique of modern civilization

One of the most difficult challenges facing modern believers is the need to assess critically the modern civilization in which they live.  In Nursi’s Turkey, the institutions of European civilization were adopted as the model of progress to be emulated by Turks.  Islamic practices and way of life were regarded as relics of the past and obstacles to progress.  The spontaneous reaction of many religious leaders was to condemn the Republic as atheist and to call for a return to traditional religious values.  Nursi’s analysis is more subtle and articulated.  He acknowledges that modern life is a bewildering mix of contradictions.  There is much in modern civilization that is attractive, much that is useful and that makes life easier, more comfortable, and more enjoyable.  At the same time, anyone who takes seriously the gift of religious faith is aware that modern civilization often sets itself in opposition to a life of faith and obedience to God.

It is not simply that modern civilization tends to exile God to the margins of daily consciousness and activity.  Modern civilization also offers a value system that is at odds with that of faith.  It defines happiness differently from religious thought; success and failure are counted in different terms.  Self-fulfillment is regarded as the basic human motivation, and possession of consumer goods is considered a mark of personal achievement.  It follows that competition becomes the moving force of modern life, with the world divided into the winners and the losers.

Those for whom God is the beginning, the center, and the end of existence, and for whom God’s will is the criterion of good and evil, need a way to sort out what is valuable in modern civilization from what is ephemeral and destructive.  The great achievement of Said Nursi is that he was able to provide modern Muslims with the interpretative tools needed to analyze modern civilization and distinguish between what is of genuine and lasting value in modern life from the harmful and self-destructive tendencies that lie beneath its glittering surface. 

In pointing out the contrast between the societal values proposed by modern civilization and a Qur’anic vision of society, Nursi holds that the Qur’anic vision differs only in detail from what had been proclaimed by all the prophets before Muhammad.  It is a vision that Muslims share with “true Christians” who follow the teachings of the prophet Jesus.  Jesus’ Christian followers sought to build Europe on these prophetic values, but the effort was sabotaged from the start by their reliance on Greco-Roman philosophy.  His insight into a spiritual affinity with committed Christians, rare among Muslim scholars of his time, is the basis of his call for “Muslim-Christian unity” which has had profound effects on the thinking and practice of his many disciples.

3. The need for Muslim-Christian unity

Nursi’s advocacy of an intellectual and spiritual dialogue between Muslims and Christians dates to 1911, a half-century before the Second Vatican Council urged Christians and Muslims to move beyond the conflicts of the past to build relations characterized by respect and cooperation.  Nursi’s repeated promotion of Muslim-Christian unity is even more striking in that his words frequently date from periods of tension and even warfare between Muslims and Christians.  Said Nursi believed that the opponent of human happiness and ethical uprightness is unbelief.  Unbelief is not only theoretical but practical, manifested in people choosing to find their own path through life, not seeking divine guidance, not caring about God’s will or wise design for humankind, not wishing to give up their own pet desires and ideas to submit to Gods teaching about human nature and destiny. 

Nursi held that in seeking to affirm a divinely guided way of life in the modern age, Muslims find their natural partners in Christians who are committed to following the teachings of Jesus.  “Muslims should unite not only with other Muslims, but also with the truly pious Christians.”  For such a common effort to succeed, Christians and Muslims will have to refrain from disputes between these two families of believers.  In saying this, Said Nursi did not deny that there are theological differences between Muslims and Christians or suggest that those differences are unimportant.  His point is that focusing obsessively on differences can blind Muslims and Christians to the more important task they share, that of offering the modern world a vision of human life and society in which God is central and God’s will is the norm of moral values.

It is a sad fact of history that Christians and Muslims, despite their being communities called to worship and obey the one and same God, have often been in conflict and even at war with one another. Energies which should have been employed to cooperate in the establishment of God-centered societies have been dissipated in mutual suspicion, domination and bloodshed.  Writing at a time of tension between Muslims and Christians at the end of World War I, Said Nursi called for an end to this historical impasse.  He affirmed the right of Christian peoples such as the Greeks and Armenians to liberty as something commanded by the shari’a and called upon both Muslim and Christian to recognize the deeper problem as being that of the moral and spiritual degradation into which all had fallen.  The real enemies facing Muslims and Christians, he held, are not one another but the prevalence in the modern world of ignorance, poverty, and disunity.

Said Nursi urged that Christian-Muslim relations should move in the direction of peace, reconciliation, and even friendship. In 1950 he sent a collection of his works to Pope Pius XII in Rome and received in reply, on 22 February 1951, a personal letter of thanks.  A few years later in 1953, Said Nursi visited Patriarch Athenagoras in Istanbul to pledge friendship and seek cooperation in facing the challenges of the modern age.  He held that if they can root their mutual relations in love, Muslims and Christians together can build a civilization according to God’s plan in which human dignity, justice and fellowship will be the norm.

4. Influence upon his followers

Said Nursi died in 1960 at the age of 84.  He was buried in Urfa near the traditional birthplace of the prophet Abraham, but the military feared that if his place of burial were known, the tomb would become a site of pilgrimage and mobilization among his followers.  They secretly disinterred and moved his body during the night, so that until today, the final burial place of Said Nursi is not known.

Nursi’s disciples were kept under close surveillance by the military in Turkey until the mid-1980s.  Some were arrested, others blacklisted and prevented from entering universities or obtaining jobs.  Homes and dormitories were raided for handwritten copies of the Risale-i Nur, which was forbidden to be published and passed from hand-to-hand as a kind of samizat.  Today the movement is no longer persecuted in Turkey and carries out its activities openly.  The Risale-i Nur has been published in its entirety in Turkish and parts have been translated into many languages. A reliable estimate of the number of adherents to the Nur movement falls somewhere between 5-6 million members, although I have seen estimates as high as 9 million.  The students of the Risale-i Nur meet twice a week in over 5500 residences to study and discuss Nursi’s Qur’an commentary.  The movement is propagated on the internet by a variety of websites and conducts seminars on the Risale-i Nur in many Muslim regions.

What is significant is the influence that the ideas of Said Nursi have had in shaping the attitudes of the members of this movement.  Their measured critique of modern civilization, their peace activism, and their openness to dialogue with Christians can all be traced to key themes of the Risale-i Nur.  I conclude my treatment of Said Nursi with an email I received on the occasion of the death of Pope John Paul II from a young Turkish member of the movement who was doing his year of compulsory military service.  The letter clearly expresses the way Said Nursi’s central areas of concern have shaped the thinking of a typical disciple. 

“I read in newspaper that Pope John Paul II passed away...I was so sorry..I started to pray for him, ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ileyhi raciun’ (we came from God and to Him we will return).  He returned to God with thousands of good deeds.  For me, the most important thing is that he worked for peace, that means he worked for children, innocent people, for us, for dialogue, for tolerance, for understanding, for unity.  During his lifetime, he was always with God and I hope that after this life God always will be with him. 

Please pray for me also.  I want to get out of the army as soon as possible.  I don’t want to carry a gun, I want to carry my books, Risale-i Nur, Qur’an, Holy Bible, instead of bomb and guns.  I hope I can meet and talk with you again, I need your prayers.  Sincerely, your brother Muhammed.”

B. The Gülen Movement: a new direction for the Nur movement

The second movement I want to talk about that associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen, who is simultaneously the founder, leader, and teacher of the movement.  The Gülen community is also inspired by the thoughts and writings of Said Nursi, but there are some significant differences between the two movements. 

1. Islam as service to society

Like Said Nursi, Fethullah Gülen was born and educated in the far eastern region of Anatolia, in the city of Erzurum.  He began his career as a teacher of religion and preacher in the mosques, first in Eastern Anatolia and then in Izmir.  In 1958, at the age of 20, Gülen became aware of the writings of Said Nursi, which had a formative influence upon his thinking.  Gülen became a teacher of the Qur’an studies in the Mediterranean city of Izmir, and it was in that modern, cosmopolitan environment that the movement had its origins.  In the 1970s, by means of lecturing in mosques, organizing summer camps, and erecting “lighthouses” (dormitories for student formation), Gülen began to build a community of religiously motivated students trained both in the Islamic and secular sciences.

The importance that the lighthouses, residences, and study halls play to this day in the formation and cohesion of the movement must not be underestimated.  Students not only supplement their secular studies in high school and prepare for university entrance examinations, but they form friendships and a network of social relations, receive spiritual training through the study of the Qur’an and the Risale-i Nur, and pursue their educational goals in a social environment free from the use of alcohol, drugs, smoking, premarital sex, and violence.

The Gülen community gradually began to move in a direction distinct from the original thrust of the Risale-i Nur movement, as Gülen himself produced new ijtihads which distinguished the community from that of the original students of the Risale-i Nur

Nursi had focused on personal renewal of the Muslim through the study of the Qur’an and wanted to help the modern believer move beyond the dichotomies omnipresent in Turkish society of his day through a spiritual transformation that would come about by the study of the Risale-i Nur.  By contrast, for Gülen personal transformation is secondary to social transformation.  In both cases personal transformation is oriented toward reforming and reshaping society, but while for Nursi the emphasis is on the individual Muslim who must be changed through an enlightened encounter with the Qur’an, in Gülen’s vision it is the social effect of conscientious, dedicated, committed Muslim social agents that is the key to renewal of the Islamic umma.  Whereas for Nursi the key term is “study,” the central idea of Gülen is “service.”  Members of the Gülen community hope to change society through a pattern of education that draws from and integrates disparate strands of previous pedagogic systems.  Although Nursi was already aware of the limitations of traditional systems of education available to Muslims in Turkey, it was Gülen and his movement that gave their time and energy toward working out an effective alternative.

2. From student initiative to international movement

In the 1980s, in the new social and economic climate that emerged in Turkey during the presidency of Turgut Özal, the Gülen movement grew from involving a small number of students in a few cities like Izmir to become a huge educational endeavor with important business and political links.  Although stemming from a broadly-conceived religious motivation, the schools are not traditional “Islamic” schools, but secular institutions of high quality, as shown by the performances of students in science olympiads and the like. 

In the 1980s, the community moved beyond its schools into the media with the publication of a daily newspaper, Zaman, and a television channel, Samanyolu.  Today Zaman is published in 20 countries with an average circulation of a half-million.  In all, about 35 newspapers and magazines in various languages are projects of the Gülen community.  The monthly journal in Turkish, Sizinti, the longest continuously published Islamic magazine in Turkey, with a circulation over 500,000, has enjoyed uninterrupted publication since 1979; the English version, Fountain, has worldwide circulation in the tens of thousands.  The influential weekly newsmagazine, Aksiyon, is a Turkish equivalent of Time or Newsweek.  In addition, the community puts out a number of professional journals, for doctors, engineers, teachers etc.

The movement has addressed the thorny question of the secular state in Turkey.  The Writers’ and Journalists’ Foundation, which is associated with the Gülen movement, organized the Abant Workshops in which Turkish intellectuals, politicians, and journalists from every ideological stance were brought together to study and discuss issues related to Turkish state and society.

After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1989, the Gülen community was a key player in filling the gap in the educational system.  Hundreds of schools and universities were set up throughout the former Soviet republics, both within the Russian Federated Republic - particularly in its predominantly Muslim regions like Tatarstan, Yakutia, and Chechnya -, in the newly independent nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the pluralist regions of the Balkans such as Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Moldova, Bulgaria and Kosovo.  Television programs were prepared which were destined to be aired in the vast reaches of Central Asia, and scholarships were granted for study in Turkey.

The new century saw a further expansion of the educational activities of the Gülen community as it moved beyond the boundaries of Muslim-majority regions into China, Western Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.  Here the pedagogic approach underwent some adaptation. In many parts of Western Europe, the economic and bureaucratic difficulties of opening and supporting new schools discouraged and often prevented this activity.  Moreover, in these regions, the movement often encountered a level of education of high quality.  The educational task became not so much one of competing with the existing national public school systems, but of ensuring that immigrant Turks and others would have an adequate educational background to be able to compete and succeed in the government schools.  Thus, in many parts of Western Europe, the Gülen community has focused on weekend classes and tutorials aimed at supplementing the instruction given in state schools and at preparing for standardized exams. 

In the schools associated with the movement in the United States, mainly located in regions with a high concentration of Turkish-Americans, the challenge has been to provide an opportunity for students to attain a high level of academic achievement.  In fact, particularly in scientific fields, in states like New Jersey and Texas, schools run by members of the Gülen movement have been among the most highly awarded schools in the state.  These schools are not “Islamic schools” in that even though the inspiration for the schools is found in enlightened Islamic ideals, both the teaching and administrative staff and the student body are made up of the followers of other religions as well as of Muslims.  In some cases, moral instruction is offered once a week, but in most cases religion is not taught in the schools.           

The most recent figures show more than 600 schools and 6 universities in 75 countries on five continents.  The schools do not form a centralized “school system.” Each school is established and run by individual members of the Gülen community in a privately registered and funded foundation.  The teachers receive a common spiritual training and are sent to wherever the need is considered greatest, but there is no central governing board that sends out instructions on educational policy, curriculum, or discipline.

3. Commitment to dialogue

The community inherited its commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation from the writings of Said Nursi, but this commitment has been given new impetus in the writings of Fethullah Gülen.  In his speech in 1999 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Capetown, Gülen presented an optimistic vision of interreligious harmony.

In future years, the new millennium will witness unprecedented religious blooming and the followers of world religions, such as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others, will walk hand-in-hand to build a promised bright future of the world.

From 1911 until his death in 1963, Said Nursi repeatedly called for “Muslim-Christian unity” to oppose godless tendencies in modern societies.  While endorsing Nursi’s appeal, Gülen goes beyond Nursi’s view in two important respects.  Firstly, dialogue and unity is not limited to “good Christians,” as Nursi had proposed, but is now to be extended to the conscientious followers of all religions.  Secondly, the motivation for this dialogue is not simply a strategic alliance to oppose atheistic and secularizing tendencies in modern life, as Nursi had held, but is called for by the nature of Islamic belief itself.

The goal of dialogue among world religions is not simply to destroy scientific materialism...Rather, the very nature of religion demands this dialogue.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Hinduism and Buddhism pursue the same goal.  As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and Books sent to different peoples throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim.

To further its pursuits of interreligious dialogue, the Gülen movement has created the Intercultural Dialogue Platform as a project of the movement’s Istanbul-based Writers and Journalists Foundation.  The IDP has been particularly active in sponsoring and organizing “Abrahamic” encounters with high-ranking representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The Gülen movement also organizes associations for the promotion of interreligious activities at the local and regional level, such as the Cosmicus Foundation in the Netherlands, the Australian Intercultural Society in Melbourne, the Friede-Institut für Dialogue in Vienna, the Interfaith Dialog Center of Patterson, New Jersey, Houston’s Institute of Interfaith Dialog, and the Niagara Foundation of Chicago, all of which take independent initiatives toward promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation.

C. The Asian Muslim Action Network (A.M.A.N.)

The third organization under consideration is the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN).  In structure and orientation, AMAN is quite different from both the followers of Said Nursi and the movement associated with Fethullah Gülen.  By contrast with those communities, AMAN does not focus on the teaching of a charismatic individual, nor does it arise out of the historical and cultural experience of being Muslim in a single nation or culture.

AMAN has been, from its inception, an international network of progressive Muslims in 18 Asian countries, bringing together “individuals, groups and associations of Muslims in Asia subscribing to a progressive and enlightened approach to Islam.”  It was founded in October, 1990, by a small but influential group of Muslim scholars and social activists in order to respond, as is stated in the AMAN charter, to the numerous challenges faced by the peoples of Asia “ranging from mass poverty to elite corruption, materialistic life style, increasing ethnic, religious, and communal conflict, violence against women and children, and environmental degradation.”  From this list of concerns, it can be seen that the scope of the organization is quite wide, addressing both structural issues as well as those requiring personal renewal.

At the Second Plenary Assembly of AMAN, held in Dhaka, Bangladesh in the year 2000, on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the organization, Asghar Ali Engineer of Bombay, chairman of AMAN, noted the motivation for creating the network: “With the advent of democracies in South and Southeast Asian nations, awareness about democratic rights, human rights, and women’s rights has been growing fast.  However, although there was a great deal of secular theorizing on the issue, there was a lack of Islamic thought, and still less of activism.”  In other words, AMAN is responding to the need felt by progressive Muslims in Asia to reflect on questions of poverty, democracy, civil rights, human rights, and the status of women from an explicitly Islamic point of view, as well as the need for Muslim activists to work for those rights.

In the 15 years since its creation, the organization has grown quickly. In addition to individual memberships in 18 Asian countries, 76 local and national Muslim organizations in Asia have become members of AMAN.  Local chapters have been established in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, and Sri Lanka, and its programs include the active participation of Muslims in China, Iran, and the republics of Central Asia. 

The plenary assemblies, held every three years, are not business meetings so much as a convergence of workshops and study sessions.  At the Third Plenary Assembly, held in Bangkok in December, 2003, participants from 21 Asian nations took part.  The program included workshops on “The culture of peace” (with 1,300 national and international participants), “Multi-ethnic Asia” (260 participants), “Interfaith dialogue” (2,600 participants), “Women and peace” (56 participants), “Youth for peace” (370 participants), “Poverty and peace” (42 participants), and “HIV/AIDS” 670 participants.

At the fourth plenary, held in November 2006 in Jakarta, the AMAN workshops focused on themes of globalization, human rights, HIV/AIDS, interreligious dialogue, and peacebuilding.  The AMAN Council which met immediately after the plenary set the main focus of the organization for the next three years on justice and peace as the main arenas of AMAN social engagement, with secondary concern for health, HIV/AIDS, humanitarian assistance, emergency relief, and education.  Five international commissions were set up to deal with 1) Asian minorities, peace processes, refugees and asylum seekers; 2) women and gender rights; 3) education, research information technology, and interfaith cooperation; 4) civil society, governance and advocacy; 5) representation to regional organizations.  Peace missions aimed at disengagement and reconciliation are to be sent to Papua in Indonesia and to Sri Lanka as Asian initiatives in the peace process. 

Parallel to Aman Watch, an AMAN project which monitors human rights violations in Asia, the organization created Gender Watch which is to follow, report and publicize exploitation of women and violations of gender equality at the cross-Asia level.  Three other projects were taken up aimed at coordinating a continental approach to pressing problems: 1) humanitarian assistance and care for those living with HIV/AIDS, 2) a study on ecology, economy and sustainable development, and 3) developing contacts in China.

AMAN has published over 20 books on topics of concern, mainly focusing on themes of peace and Islamic renewal in Asia.  Its publications include: Culture of Peace, New Visions for Peace, Understanding Peace and Conflict Transformation: a Religious Perspective, Islam and Modern Challenges, and a Resource Book on HIV/AIDS Prevention.  Its latest project is the monthly AMANA news service, which has, up to now, produced its first six issues.

AMAN is quite open to working together in shared programs with other organizations, as well as with bodies linked with one or another religion in Asia.  As such, AMAN has undertaken joint initiatives with Christians on peace education and on questions of justice for ethnic minorities, with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, a continental association of 17 Catholic bishops’ conferences in Asia, and with the Christian Conference of Asia, an ecumenical body composed of over 120 Churches and Synods, of Orthodox and Reformation origin, in Asia.

AMAN’s approach to Islamic practice is what a senior council member of the organization, the Malaysian political scientist Chandra Muzaffar, calls a “values approach to Islam,” which he contrasts to a fiqh [i.e., jurisprudential] approach, with its “rigid religious-secular dichotomy.”  Muzaffar states: “It is only too apparent that a non-dogmatic approach to Islam which recognizes the primacy of eternal, universal spiritual and moral values while acknowledging the importance of rituals, symbols and practices is the most sane and sensible way of living religion in todays world.  I describe this as the values approach to Islam.” 

One of the most effective projects of AMAN is its educational work with Asian youth.  The organizations conducts training courses and youth camps focused on developing Muslim leadership which can address the principal AMAN concerns of poverty, social justice, environmental degradation, human rights, questions of peace, harmony, and reconciliation, development issues and advocacy on behalf of “marginalized and vulnerable sectors of society such as women, children, and ethnic and religious minorities.”  Recent seminars and workshops have included the following topics: “Community-based peace education,” “Preventive education on HIV-AIDS,” and “Human rights from an Islamic perspective.” 

In 2003, AMAN instituted the “School of Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation,” an annual course to train peace advocates in the techniques of conflict analysis and reconciliation.  AMAN undertakes “training for trainers” workshops to prepare local and national animators and annually awards scholarships for researchers working on questions in the above-mentioned fields; almost 500 activists have taken part in these leadership training courses.  In recent years, AMAN’s Research Fellowship Program has funded the research of 22 young Muslims on topics related to the general theme “Islam in Southeast Asia: Views from Within.”

The stated concern for the “marginalized and vulnerable” has brought AMAN into the area of human rights. In 2001, the organization set up AMAN Watch as a regional Muslim expression of human rights concerns, which monitors human rights violations in predominantly Muslim regions of Asia, as well as the violation of the civil rights of Muslims in both majority and minority situations.  AMAN Watch is one of the cooperating associations in the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Religious Groups for Human Rights (RGHR) association, which is an Asian coalition of Buddhist, Muslim and Christian organizations advocating human rights.

AMAN has given particular attention to the situations of ethnic and religious minorities.  Most countries of Asia have minority groups distinguished by language, religion, race, or cultural background from the majority.  Almost invariably, such groups suffer various forms of discrimination: the minority groups are often mistrusted and unwelcome in the dominant national society, treated with bureaucratic resistance and indifference, and in some instances subject to violence and persecution.  The fact that their native language and religion is usually not that of the dominant majority (Hindus in Pakistan, Christians and indigenous in India, Buddhists in Bangladesh, Muslims in China, Christians in Myanmar, Muslims and indigenous in the Philippines etc.) further isolate the ethnic minorities.  AMAN championed the cause of the minorities by publicizing their plight and complaints at both the Dhaka and the Bangkok assemblies.  Together with their Christian partners (FABC, CCA), AMAN has proposed an Asia-wide consultation on the situation of ethnic minorities, and have announced plans in 2007 for a joint study of the forms of discrimination experienced by Asia’s indigenous minorities.

By contrast to persuasive influence that Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen have respectively played in the movements they inspired, AMAN has no single intellectual mentor, but is guided by a constellation of prominent Asian Muslim scholars.  A survey of some of the more important figures will give an idea of the intellectual background and orientation of AMAN leadership.

Asghar Ali Engineer, AMAN Chairman, is an Indian Muslim.  Son of a religious scholar of a prominent Ismaili family, he was trained in the religious sciences and also in engineering, hence his name.  He has been a fervent advocate of reform in the Bohra community (for which he was once beaten severely by paid thugs) and has written extensively on communal violence, women’s rights, liberation theology, pluralism, and the role of Islam in secular societies.

Other leaders of AMAN are of varied background, but united in the conviction of the need for progressive Muslims in Asia to speak with one voice and to act in concert.  Chandra Muzaffar is a political scientist from Malaysia who is president of JUST, the International Movement for a Just World.  Imtiyaz Yusuf, with a doctorate in Islamic studies from Princeton University, directs AMAN’s School for Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation.  Professor Chaiwat Satha-Anand is a Thai professor of political science, a well-known professor of peace studies; for some years, he has directed the International Peace Research Association’s (IPRA) commission on non-violence.  Habib Chirzin is an Indonesian community organizer and human rights activist based in Jakarta and president of the Islamic Millennial Forum.  The General Secretary, Abdus Sabur, is a Bangladeshi activist with a background in alternative community organizing.

Although AMAN is predominantly a Muslim organization based on Islamic principles, the organization accepts non-Muslim members who agree to the ideals and goals of the organization. Its various programs are open to non-Muslim participants and speakers, not only to Christians, which would not be unusual among Muslim associations, but also to Hindus and Buddhists, which is somewhat more uncommon.


These examples of Muslim movements are making their impact on the international Islamic umma.  They are, for the most part, young movements dating back to the past 30-40 years, growing quickly by attracting bright, idealistic, highly motivated young people.  They have developed an esprit of living and promoting an enlightened understanding of Islamic faith and tradition, and their enthusiasm is attracting others to these movements.  They understand Islam as a religion that teaches peace, love, justice, cooperation, human rights, equality of human dignity and see the mission of the Islamic community in the world to be that of rahmat lil-alamin, to be a blessing to the universe.  In my opinion, it is such movements as these that will chart the course for the direction that the Islamic community will take during the coming century.


Funding and Sponsors:

The Helen Bader Foundation, the Departments of Philosophy, Theology and History, the Edward Simmons Religious Commitment Fund, the Diversity Fund, the Office of Mission and Identity, Manresa, Campus Ministry, the Wade Chair Fund  and the “Aquinas and the Arabs Project” at Marquette University.



© Thomas Michel, S.J.