Jon Pahl, An Americanist in Turkey

Welcome to our new contributing editor, Jon Pahl of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Jon has been introduced below, with his first guest post "Prius Envy," and now has agreed to come on the blog board. So without further adieu, here's the first in what will be a periodic series of posts on an Americanist in Turkey. Postcript: I also recommend Pahl's review of the film 8-Mile from a few years back (from the journal Religion and Film), as well as his recent book Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Places.

I'm glad Jon has forgiven me for kicking his butt so consistently ( :) ) on the Valpo noontime basketball courts and joined our blog band. Here's the first in his reflections on his experiences in Turkey.

An American(ist) in Turkey

By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

I. Beyond Competing Fundamentalisms

Turkey is the United States’ best friend in the Middle East. But we share more than military might. After a recent trip to Turkey, the central religious commonality between the two nations became clear to me. In both Turkey and the U.S., a vast majority of peaceful and thoughtful people of faith is struggling to free their society from the grip of competing fundamentalisms—one “religious,” the other “secular.” Together, these competing fundamentalisms have produced massive injustice and grotesque violence. Perhaps the U.S. and Turkey can learn from one another?

In the U.S., religious fundamentalists are evident enough—one is in the White House. Their apocalyptic “democratic” messianism—which masks American imperialism and nuclear proliferation that is far more dangerous than anything found in Iran, produced the fiasco in Iraq. Secular fundamentalists have also made a lot of noise, lately. Authors like Sam Harris, perhaps the best-selling name, bash religion in the name of supposedly superior scientific “reason.” They conveniently ignore that this “reason” has produced a century of genocide and environmental degradation. Doesn’t sound too rational to me.

In Turkey, the religious fundamentalists are evident primarily in neighboring Iran, where they form a specter of where Turkey ought not to go. Secular fundamentalists, so dubbed by Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol (with whom we met), are represented historically by the military. They dominate Turkey’s various appointed ministries, and suppress any hint of religion not under control of the State. As in the U.S., the vast majority of people of faith who are NOT fundamentalist—who want instead to turn faith toward peacemaking, are having a hard time finding a voice.

My trip was sponsored, in part, by members of the Gülen movement. I was one of ten Americans on a group tour, and our group was one of roughly five hundred such delegations from the U.S. to travel in Turkey over the past few summers.

The Gülen movement takes its name from M. Fetullah Gülen. Gülen was born in 1938 in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey. In 1958 he received his state preacher’s license, and for many years served as imam in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest province. In 1981, Gülen turned his attention to writing, educating, and activism. Since then, his followers have built dozens of private schools inspired by his Islamic humanism in Turkey, Pakistan, the U.S., and around the globe. In 2000 Gülen was charged by a Turkish state security court with plotting to overthrow Turkey’s secular government. He denies the charges, but is currently living in the U.S., where he is under medical care.

I find little in Gulen’s writings hostile to secular reason, and very little that might be called “fundamentalist.” He is committed to nonviolence. “True Muslims,” he writes, “are those who harm no one with their words and actions.” (M. Fetullah Gulen, Essays-Perspectives-Opinions, p. 42).

Indeed, like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and other advocates of religious social change, Gülen contends that “love is the most essential element in every being, a most radiant light, a great power that can resist and overcome every force.”(p. 49).

Gülen stresses critical humanistic and scientific education, along with interfaith dialogue, as crucial to nonviolent religious faith. Much as John Dewey envisioned a common faith to link science and religion, so does Gülen: “Religion reconciles opposites that seem to be mutually exclusive.” (34) Among them are faith-reason, science-revelation, matter and the spirit. And, we might hope—a modern society and religious faith.

We met with dozens of members of the movement during eight days in Turkey. I now see them as very much in the mode of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. They are committed to creating societies—and indeed to reshaping the globe, around the power of love. They stand in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the “beloved community.” Citizens of Turkey, the U.S., and elsewhere, would do well to pay attention. I tried my best to do so on our whirlwind tour, and will report on my impressions in a series of columns over the coming weeks. Tentative titles are below.

II. Love Jihad? Try Jihad of Love
III. Turkish Family Values
IV. Sacred Space in Modern Turkey
V. No More Scapegoats: The Gülen Movement and Sacrifice
VI. A Common Faith: The Gülen Movement and John Dewey
VII. Youth Will Serve: The Coming Religious Peace in Turkey


John Fea said…

Nice post and welcome aboard. I am looking forward to learning more about the religious climate of Turkey from your entries.

It looks like I just missed the glory days of Valpo pick-up hoops.
Nick said…
Jon wrote: "Authors like Sam Harris, perhaps the best-selling name, bash religion in the name of supposedly superior scientific “reason.” They conveniently ignore that this “reason” has produced a century of genocide and environmental degradation."

Can you give a few examples of where scientific reason directly caused a century of genocide and environmental degradation? This is an extraordinary claim.

Son of Adam said…
It's unfortunate that people the world over can name Bin Laden as a Muslim and a bad one at that, but when people try to do good (globally at that)they are not giving the recognition that they or the people inspired by them deserve. Gulen is such a voice - a modern Rumi, and I congradulate you for highlighting this. More is needed.

It's about time people could mention a good Muslim trying to do good things.
Edward Blum said…
In response to Nick: It seems fair to say that faith alone could not have created nuclear arms - science seems to have played a role in that. Or the Nazi final solution - it was pretty much formulated along modern bureaucratic organization. The best way to see it is probably that no one is clean from creating the violent world that we've made.
Art Remillard said…
I'm clearly not a good one for drawing lines around what is, and is not, religion. I like Ninian Smart's remark:

"While we may begin from the base of more traditional systems to which we in the West and elsewhere tend to assign the name 'religions,' our field should include the study of ideologies and philosophies. There was always something unfortunate about the segregation and, indeed, protection therefore of the category of religion.... [I]t seems obvious to me that a person can analyze nationalism, for instance, through the application of the theory of dimensions of religion."

That being said, Edward Blum's comment reminded me of Ed Linenthal and Ira Chernus's _The Shuddering Dawn: Religious Studies and the Nuclear Age_ (BTW, Smart wrote the preface), a portion of which is on Google books:

The opening line reads, "The many myths and rituals that surround nuclear weapons remind us that these weapons are much more than mere physical objects: they are perhaps the richest and most emtionally charged symbolic in American public life."

All of this is to say, I'm not sure how any society can exist without some guiding ideology and/or worldview, whether it comes from a sacred text or scientific manual.
Nick said…
In response to E Blum: science wasn't the motivating factor that caused people to use nuclear weapons or kill millions of Jews. It was an adherence to dogma on the part of those people who had access to the technology. It was a set of beliefs for which there was no good evidence. That's the very definition of "faith". Consequently one must apportion considerably more blame to religion than to science when it comes to keeping score w/r/t genocide, etc.
jon pahl said…
Regarding the question of "science" causing genocide--I agree with Ed Blum AND Nick that it is a peculiarly dogmatic application of scientific reason that has produced genocide, and the examples Ed cited--of the development of nuclear weapons and the Shoah, are fine examples. In short, its religious science, if you will, that's the problem. I'm working on a book that takes up this problem in American history, working title "An Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence," that tracks the constructions of exclusion and dominance around categories of age, race, and gender in cases of violence from American history. In short--I'm as suspicious of secular fundamentalists as I am of "traditionalist" ones. . . .