Progress Through Piety: Sohbetler (Spiritual Gatherings) of the Women Participants in the Gülen Movement

Abstract:

The view that modernization, the sole path to progress, can only be achieved
through secularization, and that, by extension, Islam, like other religions,
promotes stagnation, ignorance and oppression has prevailed among of those who
adhere to Kemalism, or the ideas of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, as well as
among other ‘liberal secularists’ throughout the Muslim world. Since the 1980s,
a growing number of Muslim men and women have been questioning this dichotomy.
Viewing their faith and piety as a source of guidance and strength, they are
reviving Islam’s message of equality, social justice, education and progress as
a means to societal improvement. Like many contemporary Islamists and Sufis, the
participants in the Gülen Movement are exploring modes for promoting peace and
understanding through education and dialogue with other Muslims and non-Muslims.
‘Liberal secularists’ in Turkey actively oppose Gülen’s strategies claiming them
to be a cover for a hidden plan to establish an Islamic state that will bring
oppression, in particular towards women. By contrast, a growing body of
scholarship on the impact of Gülen’s teachings on women participants shows that
some of them have found direction in their lives, forging career paths in Gülen
schools (Ozdalga 2000), while others have been inspired to seek dialogue with
their spouses to negotiate changes in their personal lives and relationships
(Stevenson 2005). This paper contributes to this scholarship by investigating
the significance of sohbetler (religious gatherings) held weekly in
Kansas City for the women participants. It examines the participants’ views on
the role of their faith and piety in their lives, the contribution of the
Gülen’s teachings to defining this role and the impact of their participation in
the sohbetler on their personal development. Furthermore, it explores
their perspectives on the controversy surrounding the role of faith and piety in
society today.

Introduction

Muslim and non-Muslim scholars influenced by commonly held attitudes in
Western thought frequently assume that secularization is a prerequisite to
fostering progress and development in all areas of society today. Religion is
often viewed as the source of oppression, inequity, discrimination and
hostility, and therefore a hindrance to progress and development in the eyes of
most liberal secularist. Liberal secularist and feminist scholarship
characterized has endeavored to document the ways women other oppressed groups
directly or indirectly, wittingly or unwittingly, cope with, circumvent,
challenge, resist and even struggle to eliminate structures, proponents,
practices and institutions that are based on and perpetuate what they view as
oppressive ideologies including Islam. There is a long tradition of liberal
secularist and feminist scholarly literature on women in general, and Muslim
women more specifically, to uncover evidence of their resistance to structures,
proponents, practices and institutions based on Islam. Veiling, understood as
the donning of any of a number of regionally varying forms of head coverings by
Muslim women, is often viewed by liberal secularist worldwide, in particular in
Turkey, as an outward sign of oppression, and the conscious decision by educated
urban women to veil as active adherence to an oppressive ideology, while the
opposite, the conscious choice to unveil, is often perceived as a victory in the
struggle against oppression.

More recently, scholars have come to realize that religiosity, piety and
ritual practices are not only private endeavors that have little or no bearing
on the rest of the practitioners’ lives except for defining their political
perspectives in today’s world where religion and religious affiliation has
become highly politicized. Awareness is growing that these endeavors are
integral to practitioners’ sense of identity and to their temperament as well as
their approach to many other aspects of their daily lives at home, school and
work. More importantly, these endeavors have repercussions in other areas of
their communities and societies beyond the boundaries of the spheres in which
these endeavors are undertaken. Many recent studies have revealed some of these
repercussions in the case of Muslim women. This literature demonstrates the ways
in which women practitioners are altering older traditions of women’s ritual
practice, or creating new ones, in order to participate in the ongoing
reassessment and revision ideologies and configurations of gender status, roles
and relations in their local contexts (Raudvere 2003; Torab 2007). Other studies
reveal the way different groups of women have carved out niches for themselves
by expanding and resignifying the meaning of existing practices and creating new
ones in order to renew and enhance their own sense of commitment to Islam and to
encouraging others in their communities to follow their example, advice and
instruction. These studies underscore the potential of these women’s increased
commitment to Islam for opening up opportunities and offering techniques which
foster improvement in women’s daily life circumstances, in some cases, enabling
them to replace oppressive conditions with channels for agency and empowerment (Deeb
2006; Mahmood 2004). These and other recent studies demonstrate that the
structures, proponents, practices and institutions promoting oppression derive
from other aspects of local culture and are based on extreme interpretations of
the foundational texts of Islam.

Similarly, the existing scholarly literature on women participants in the
Gülen Movement seeks to investigate the impact of their engagement with the
teachings of Fethullah Gülen and Said Nursi on their lives. This literature
highlights the ways their involvement in the Gülen movement has fostered
personal developments that have expanded their educational and career
opportunities and improved the conditions of their daily lives by enhancing
their skills in communicating with family members and spouses and their self of
identity and self-esteem. It has shown that, contrary to the views of ‘liberal
secularists’ in Turkey, their all encompassing commitment to Islam has broadened
rather than narrowed their awareness of their choices in their daily lives and
future endeavors.

In her article on Fethullah Gülen’s perspective and realities at the court
and among the elite of the Ottoman Empire with regard to women’s rights,
Bernadette Andrea (2007) emphasizes the discrepancy between the early
limitations and late development of women’s rights in regions subject to the
Judeo-Christian tradition and the much more advanced rights of Muslim women in
particular at the time of Lady Montagu’s “Embassy” to the Ottoman Empire in the
early 18th century. Furthermore, she reiterates the findings of
several scholars on existing misunderstandings of Europeans with regard to
Muslim women’s daily life conditions originating in the colonial period and
earlier. Andrea describes Lady Montagu’s surprise at finding conditions among
the Turkish women she met and socialized with very different in reality from the
way they were described in the travel accounts she had read. Besides having
property ownership and other rights not available to contemporary European
women, they were dedicated to charitable endeavors and piety instead of
debauchery and decadence as purported to characterize the lives of Muslim women
according to male authors of travelogues. Though not explicitly articulated, her
article demonstrates the potential in the Qur’an, recognized and applied
historically and currently by Fethullah Gülen, for training pious behavior and
ethical comportment and for establishing gender equality, a potential, which was
lacking in the “generally accepted Christian canon,” or simply overlooked,
misinterpreted and not applied through law and daily life practice in 17th
century Europe.

Similarly, scholars studying contemporary women participants in the Gülen
Movement in Turkey and the United States, in particular Austin and Houston,
Texas, have reported that their strict commitment to religiosity and piety has
not hindered these women from pursuing higher education and careers or from
demanding the cooperation of their spouses in household tasks in particular the
care and upbringing of their children. Elisabeth Ozdalga (2003) investigates the
lives of three young women employed at three different schools established by
participants of Gülen in Turkey. Drawing on interviews with these women, she
demonstrates the way their discovery of and personal engagement with the
teachings of Fethullah Gülen and Said Nursi have led these women to carve out
and structure their marital relationships, family life and careers as teachers
in ways that were beneficial to their personal development and life goals. Anna
J. Stephenson (2007) draws on findings collected during research for her masters’
thesis on women participants in the Gülen Movement to describe case studies of
participants residing in Houston, Texas. She emphasizes the effects these
women’s engagement with the teachings of Gülen and Nursi and their involvement
in activities of the Gülen Movement in the U.S. and elsewhere prior to their
arrival on their ability to define different aspects of their educational and
career goals and of their marital relationships. In her article based on
fieldwork conducted among young women participants in the Gülen Movement
residing in Austin, Texas, Maria F. Curtis (2005) explores the personal
development of these women beginning with their experiences of immersion while
living among other young women in dershaneler, or dormitories,
established and administered by participants in the Gülen Movement in the
vicinity of universities in Turkey and ending with their participation in
variously formatted sohbetler, or spiritual gatherings, in Austin. She
underscores the transformations undergone by these women in particular with
regard to their views of their identity as Muslims, as members of the smaller
and larger community of participants in the movement and as Turks, and their
relationship to the Turkish state resulting from these forms of identification.
All of these scholars demonstrate the ways in which the women participants’
engagement with the teachings of the movement and their involvement in
activities and institutions established by other participants have led to
improvements in their personal lives, to their access to the public sphere and
to their aspirations to make a mark, to leave their footprints, in the society
where they are residing and working.

Together these studies present a broad picture of the ways engagement with
the teachings of Gülen and Nursi and participation in the activities and
institutions of the Gülen Movement has enabled women participants to expand
their understanding of and adherence to Islam, while simultaneously opening up
opportunities to them rather than placing limits on them, and assisting them in
struggling to eliminate rather than fostering oppression in their lives and the
lives of others. Conspicuously missing however is the role of faith and piety in
the process of development and refinement undergone by the women participants.
The women participants in the Gülen Movement residing in Kansas City on which
this paper focuses emphasized the fact that their faith and piety are integral
to moving forward, to improving themselves and their lives and to making
progress in this process. Faith and piety constitute the main distinguishing
feature of their approach in particular in comparison to liberal secularists in
their view. This paper investigates these women participants’ understanding of
the role of their faith and piety in this process, and their perspectives on the
controversy surrounding the role of faith and piety in society today.

Methodology

This paper is based on field research conducted during sohbetler, or
spiritual gatherings, held weekly in the homes of the participants residing in
Kansas City. The sohbetler are residing in Kansas City and nearby towns.
The community of women participants attending the sohbetler currently
consists of fifteen young women from Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan who
have been in the United States for between one and five years ranging in age
from twenty to twenty-five. One participant is an American mother of three,
married to a Turk, who, though previously employed as a schoolteacher, is
currently temporarily a stay-at-home mother until her youngest reaches school
age. All but two of them are married. Eight of them have one or two children.
Five are enrolled in programs of undergraduate or graduate studies at local
universities, five are employed as teachers or researchers in their communities
and five are currently exclusively mothers and housewives.

Like other aspects of their current life situations and their backgrounds of
origin, their knowledge of the ideas, teachings and works of Said Nursi and
Fethullah Gülen and their connection to the local and wider communities of
participants of these two scholars and teachers before coming to the United
States varied widely. The five young women who are currently stay-at-home
mothers and housewives had limited awareness of this school of thought and
little or no direct contact with its adherents prior to marriage. They became
aware of the teachings, activities and institutions of the Gülen Movement
through their husbands who, in the case of four, brought them to the U.S. The
initial involvement of the fifth young woman participant, an American convert to
Islam, began with her acquaintance and eventual marriage to a Turkish
participant. The other ten had read some works and were actively involved in
sohbetler
, or spiritual gatherings, and hizmet, or service, networks
in their countries of origin. In the case of two women, their parents were
directly or indirectly involved in local community networks and activities.
Currently, all of these young women are committed to applying the teachings in
their daily lives and actively participate in activities and institutions to the
extent that the circumstances of their daily lives allows them to.

The field research consisted of attending, observing and carrying out
informal conversations, group and individual, with the participants. The paper
presents both the perspectives of the women participants as a progression from
initial responses to final conclusions reached by the group as a whole and
individuals. Their responses were elicited by open-ended questions regarding
their experiences throughout their involvement in the Gülen Movement from their
initial contact with participants to their eventual participation in various
activities and institutions. It includes their perspectives that emerged from
their deliberations the role of faith and piety in society today, the
controversy surrounding the position of practicing Muslims in Turkey and
elsewhere and the potential for mutual understanding and collaboration between
Muslims and non-Muslim, practicing and non-practicing Muslims and participants
in the Gülen Movement and liberal secularists in their mutual efforts to work
towards progress and development in society in general and towards the
improvement in the circumstances of women’s daily lives in particular.

Three themes, which emerged in the initial group and individual conversations
about the importance of the Gülen Movement for them, expressed as: “setting
higher standards,” “a bucket with a hole” (or “progress through piety”) and “ablalar
as role models,” serve to structure the main body of the paper. A discussion
of the distinguishing feature of the path of women participants in the Gülen
Movement, in relation to that of liberal secularists, concludes the main body.
The conclusion of the paper summarizes the women participants’ perspectives on
reassessing the controversy surrounding the role of faith and piety in society
today and on resolving the tension among groups bearing different perspectives
and approaches, perspectives which emerged from the research conversations.

“Setting Higher Standards” Through Education, Dialogue and Hizmet
(Service)

The first theme mentioned by the women participants in the Gülen Movement in
Kansas City when asked about the most important aspects of their involvement in
the Gülen Movement was “setting higher standards.” Setting, working towards and
achieving higher standards, the women participants agreed, took place within the
realms of education, hizmet, or service, and dialogue. These three realms
are interrelated and contribute to the pursuit of “higher standards” on a number
of levels.

Education, on one level, encompasses the secular learning program offered in
the Gülen schools established throughout the world. Education at this level is
pursued by the women participants and is offered by the participants teaching in
the schools to the rest of the community. This education raises the level of
general knowledge of the pupils. On another level, these schools seek to
transmit higher standards in terms of moral values and ethical principles
through the example offered by the behavior of the participants working in the
school. All of the levels of learning described here correspond to the
expectations generally encompassed by educational institutions.

The difference in the way the women participants understand one’s motivation
for obtaining an education, and in particular pursuing higher education, was
related to their commitment to Islam and to their faith and piety. In addition,
they view it as an opportunity to apply the teachings of Gülen in their lives,
as the woman participant articulates in the following quote:

“When I read Gülen’s teachings about education, they rang a bell with me
since I really believe in power of knowledge. Gülen’s interpretation of the very
first revelation to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is very unique and gave
me a fresh perspective. The first revelation begins: “Read! In the Name of your
Lord, Who has created (all that exists).” Gülen emphasizes that this command
from God is very relevant today and that it illustrates the importance of
education. I have applied this concept to my life by embracing books even more
than I had before and by targeting the goal of attending medical school.”[1]

Here the choice to pursue higher education is tied to Gülen’s interpretation
of a chapter from the Qur’an. Furthermore, just as they viewed every other
positive endeavor in their daily lives, the women participants perceived their
pursuit of higher education as a means to seek God’s approval, to fulfill His
command and imitate the Prophet Muhammad’s example in their daily lives. This
participant, like others, also explained that her decision to pursue higher
education and her career choice were directly linked to the opportunity to serve
the community through her future employment, which would expand her
opportunities to seek God’s approval. To the women participants, education
allowed them to raise the “standards” in their lives both on an intellectual and
spiritual level.

Hizmet, or service, is broadly understood as any action undertaken to
assist others. It encompasses the smallest act that responds to the needs of
someone encountered at any moment in daily life. Hizmet includes
performing any task that will benefit others, whether fulfilling requests made
by others in one’s daily life or offering one’s services in the context of
communal institutions, such as participating in activities organized by Gülen
participants on any level, as described in the following passage by a woman
participant.

“I have participated in number of events organized by people who share a
common vision. These activities included community outreach activities,
volunteer-tutoring of younger students, leading and participating in youth
group-like activities, participating in big-sister-like activities,
participating in Ramadan dinners with various members of community, fundraising
activities for orphanages and so on. The degree of my participation varied in
these activities. In some of them I was responsible for organizing, preparing
and leading the activity. In some of them I was simply a participant who
attended the event, in particular the Ramadan dinners. Whereas in others I
co-shared the responsibility with others in coming up with a plan and in
executing what needed to be done. Participating in these activities is very
important to me because this is what I believe in. I believe in helping others
in any way I can and leaving a positive imprint in this world and in my
community. I believe in the importance of interfaith and intercultural
dialogue.”

Performing hizmet opens up opportunities for interaction and dialogue
and can result in a learning experience on a number of levels, as emphasized in
the following quote.

“Being involved in these activities with people who share the same values has
changed my life for better because it makes me feel like part of something big
and important instead feeling alone and isolated. It is part of human nature at
times to feel alone and isolated and as if nobody knows what one is going
through, whereas by being actively involved with a community I have realized
that we have so much in common with others and that others can benefit from my
experiences and how I overcame or dealt with certain issues just as much as I
can benefit from theirs. Another benefit of being involved in these activities
is that we motivate each other and help each other to sustain our conviction and
our dynamics. One last benefit I would like to mention is that no matter how
much desire one possesses to do good and carry out certain actions, there are
always times when we need help in achieving those goals because they are not a
one-person-job, thus this is where a few sets of hands, legs and brains come in
very handy!”

As this woman participant points out, hizmet fosters interaction,
dialogue and learning between those offering the service and those receiving it,
but also among those sharing in the preparatory work for larger service
activities. Most importantly however, according to the women participants,
hizmet
, regardless of the time and energy it involved, was offered
voluntarily, without any expectation of recompense, monetary or otherwise, and
it enabled them to please God.

Dialogue is the third means for promoting “higher standards” in one’s own
life and in society, in the view of the women participants. Dialogue is integral
to the education or any learning process because it makes possible an exchange
of ideas. Dialogue encompasses any level of communication, whether embedded in
an organized activity of the movement or simply between two individuals, that
involves a conscious effort to understand the thoughts, ideas, attitudes and
perspectives of others. Dialogue can lead to a rapprochement between individuals
and the groups they belong to. It eliminates misunderstanding and dissolves
tension that harbors conflict. It opens up space for and channels meaningful
interaction. The women participants emphasized intercultural and interfaith
dialogue but included dialogue between members of different groups residing in
the same country, bearing the same cultural background and adhering to the same
religion. It falls into the category of hizmet, as it was aimed at
improving the lives of others and society as a whole. Engaging in conscious,
reflected dialogue also entails setting an example for others, and constitutes
yet another means to gain God’s approval.

At the conclusion of the conversation on “setting higher standards” for
themselves and promoting them in society through education, hizmet and
dialogue, the women participants began to re-examine their terminology. They
acknowledged the fact that there was no official set of standards, and that
their goal was to promote improvement in moral values and ethical principles in
society. In their own lives, this improvement also encompassed acts of faith and
piety, as expressed in the following quote:

“There is no exact definition of having higher standards. The idea is that we
believe that we are in a struggle in this world and we should always try to be a
better person. For example, if you are giving charity, try to give more, pray
more, be more altruistic and helpful etc. We never think that certain amount of
praying is enough. We should always try to get closer to God by increasing good
deeds and decreasing and eventually ceasing to commit bad deeds and considering
pleasing God in every aspect of life.”

The word “higher,” all of them agreed, is appropriate because it underscores
the goal of striving to improve one’s own attitudes, expectations, levels of
knowledge and awareness and modes of behavior as well as of encouraging others
to do the same. Ultimately, what emerged through the discussion of the phrase
“setting higher standards” and the three realms of activity described above for
working towards setting and reaching higher standards is the idea that one can
and should constantly reassess one’s develop standards by stepping back and
scrutinizing one’s attitudes, expectations, levels of knowledge and awareness
and modes of behavior with regard to every aspect of one’s daily life existence.
This is an important element of the approach of the Gülen Movement in the view
of these participants. This element entails an emphasis on continuous forward
movement, advancement of knowledge, improvement in comportment and personal
transformation, all of which are indicative of progress.

A Bucket with a Hole: Progress Through Piety

Making progress is the second important goal of their mission, according to
the women participants. The progress, expressed in simple terms, entails making
each day different from the preceding day, learning something new each day and
to improving their behavior and actions from one day to the next. As one woman
participant explained it, one can understand the meaning of this goal by
envisioning oneself as “a bucket with a hole,” a bucket in which water can never
remain for a long period of time. Stagnant water, she explained, collects
impurities and becomes contaminated, whereas water that is regularly
replenished, or that flows as in a river, undergoes constant renewal.

This idea stems from ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet,
according to the women participants. As one participant explained further,
“Hazrati Ali had very high standards and his knowledge was exceptional.
Nonetheless, he said that his knowledge is like a drop of water in an ocean. So
how can we say that we are well educated? All of us have something to learn. So
our purpose is to learn at least one new thing in each day.”

Here the emphasis is on learning, but it encompasses both knowledge one might
learn from reading or attending an educational institution but also knowledge
acquired through every day life experiences.

The progress cannot be made through the acquisition of knowledge and
experience alone. This acquisition is supported and fostered through spiritual
development. Spiritual development entails increasing the number of prayers and
devotional recitations one performs. Furthermore, emphasis is placed more on the
progress in one’s capacity for behaving in accordance with moral values and
ethical principles and the increase in devotional observance that results than
on the content of the knowledge and experience acquired. One of the women
participants elaborated her views on this process as follows:

“Daily life is a constant struggle. We believe that human being has the
ability to be even better than angels and at the same time fall to lower than
devils. God gave us the ability to separate what is good and bad and let us free
in our choice. This world is like an examination, and we are trying to score as
high as we can. There is no certain score for passing the examination. We should
try to answer all the questions. In other words, we can never be sure about
ourselves, there is no guarantee for going to heaven even if we are practicing
Muslims. Therefore, we always try our best not to stay at a certain level in
terms of practicing religion. But of course we can never be perfect. Faith is
between fear and hope. We always hope for forgiveness. In addition to that, we
do not know which question will receive a higher score. I mean God may forgive
us because of a very small good deed. It is not a math calculation. If you pray
a lot but break someone's heart you might be in trouble. Making each day
different means trying to improve spiritually by praying, doing good deeds and
trying to have a better personality and have good morals.”

Here emphasis is placed on the renewal and improvement of one’s moral and
ethical standards and spirituality, on the mutual support of the actions in the
private spiritual and the public, everyday realm and on the individual nature of
the process. The progress is measured on an individual level but the outcome and
repercussions of the individual renewal and improvement has benefits for the
individual and for society. Individual progress entails an increase in one’s
ability to provide more service to society and to be more effective as an
example to others through one’s comportment.

There is however no specified set of standards, no way of measuring one’s
performance or progress, they all agreed. Instead the process of monitoring
one’s progress depends on personal scrutiny and judgment but there is a network
of support and assessment to guide and facilitate one’s progress, as described
in the following quote:

“The highest standard is to gain the approval of God. Nobody knows if he or
she gains or does not gain this approval. And also whoever thinks that he or she
is a very good person, that he or she is better than the others and that he or
she has gained the approval of God and will enter paradise, he or she will start
to fall down immediately. We can say that these standards are not our creation.
Our purpose is to follow the way of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his
companions. Of course, consultations with those who are spiritually more
advanced than we are help us to reach higher standards and to constantly improve
ourselves. They guide us to better ways and higher levels in all our thoughts
and actions.”

This response indicates that humility is central to the assessment process
and that, while the process is individual in nature, assistance can be sought
from those who are spiritually more advanced. Seeking assistance especially at
early stages in one’s spiritual development is highly advisable and beneficial,
according to the women participants. Ablalar, or big sisters, in
particular within the context of sohbetler, or spiritual gatherings,
headed by them, most commonly serve to provide this assistance in most cases.

Ablalar as Role Models

Ten of the women participants had participated in regular sohbetler
and progressed under the guidance of ablalar for two or more years. They
viewed this experience as enriching and integral to their initial spiritual
development. This experience established the firm foundation on which they are
now able to build. They learned to monitor their personal development and the
balance between their spiritual growth and their capacity to apply the moral
values and ethical principles they acquired in the initial phase of supervised
training with their ablalar.

In recounting this initial phase, many of the women emphasized the importance
of the role their ablalar played in their development, as in the
following quote:

Ablalar try to affect us both by being a role model, a living
example, and by persuasion. When you see them around always helping others, you
just admire them and want to be like them. Some ablalar have considerable
knowledge about Islam, Gülen's books and they try to share what they know with
us. Generally, this happens during daily sohbetler in lighthouses.
Sometimes, they kindly warn you if you make a mistake and try to help you
correct your faults. I can tell that the most influential point of ablalar
is they exercise what they tell us, you actually see them living according
to their beliefs.”

All of the women acknowledged the two-fold nature of the role of the abla,
her function as a teacher and as a role model. In their function as teachers,
besides actually reading the texts under study in the sohbetler and
guiding the discussion of the texts, ablalar monitor the progress of the
participants by collecting lists of their weekly activities. These lists
encompass additional prayers and recitations and hizmet performed by the
participant. This function encourages the participants to improve their
activities from week to week and assisted them in learning to eventually monitor
their own progress.

Most of the women underscored the significance of the abla‘s function
as role model, as articulated in the following quote:

Ablalar help their students to improve themselves. They try to
motivate them and try to help with their homework for school. They also try to
teach them something about religion, if possible. But the most important and
beneficial way to learn something from an abla is by observing her. Her
attitude and behavior are more effective than what she says.”

Some of the women described the deep admiration that they developed for their
ablalar and their desire to emulate every aspect of their behavior. Some
of them continue to maintain contact with their ablalar. In addition to
the opportunity of learning from the abla by observing and attempting to
imitate her, the sohbetler provided the possibility of developing a sense
of belonging to a group and of group support, as well as nurturing atmosphere,
all of which enhanced the participants’ capacity for personal and spiritual
development, as expressed in the following quote:

Sohbetler in the U.S. and Turkey are almost the same. We gather and
one abla reads an Islamic book. It could be a book by Gülen, an
interpretation of the Qur’an or Risale-i-Nur. We discuss whatever we read and
try to figure out the implications of reading and ways we can apply those to
real life. Sohbetler are interactional. They are not like lectures.
Everybody who attends tells what she understood. There is a very nice and
harmonious atmosphere in sohbetler. Sometimes we go jogging, eat
delicious food after the sohbet and have fun together. When I was in
college, during daytime, I was always busy with courses and worldly issues. When
I returned home and attended the sohbetler. The abla kept me
focused on the other world, on my responsibilities and on the idea of struggling
to be a better person. I felt like I was getting my spiritual food from
sohbetler
.”

Most of the women underscored the importance of the nurturing atmosphere and
group support as well as a source of friendship and social activities provided
by the sohbetler in the initial phase of involvement in the movement.

Sohbetler vary widely according to the needs and expectations of the
composition of the group of participants and the broader community in which they
are located, as described in the following quote:

“There are different types of group depend on their situation. Their levels
are different. In Turkey these groups are distinct, though not always
homogeneous. The distinction is based on the level of knowledge about religion
and the movement. At beginning level sohbetler are like meetings with
some supplemental social activities. The purpose is to acquire the basics. At
intermediate level, sohbetler are more advanced in terms of expectations.
In some cases, the group starts to participate in activities organized by the
movement. At the advanced level, the group is aware of and committed to the
goals of the movement. They participants are expected to begin to actively help
other people and to eventually serve as ablalar. There are other levels
of participation as well. For example, my father is no longer a teacher in a
Gülen school. He is now a businessman, but he is still involved with the
movement. He attends sohbet and he tries to find finance support for the
movement. My mother is a housewife but she is very involved socially in the
movement. She attends to sohbet, excursions and conferences. She
coordinates fundraising activities to support the finance of poor students.”

This quote reveals that sohbetler vary widely in their structure,
content, purpose and the composition of their participants. In this way, they
serve the various types and levels of needs of expectations of the participants.
Likewise, their current sohbetler provide the women participants with the
necessary regular contact and mutual in maintaining their efforts in monitoring
and enhancing their spiritual development.

Distinguishing Feature of the Women Participants: ‘Being Closer to God’ as
a Guiding Principle

The final line of inquiry encompassed the controversial role of faith and
piety in society today, and the tension between practicing Muslim and liberal
secularists in Turkey. I pursued this line of inquiry in my dialogues with the
participants in the sohbetler by specifically addressing the difference
between the activism of the women participants and women belonging to non-governmental
women’s organizations in Turkey and the possibility of collaboration between the
two groups. Drawing on my research with the latter, I described my findings that
many of these organizations, like the women participants, are seeking to improve
the circumstances of women’s lives in their society. These organizations have
been actively assisting rural women and women of rural origin living in urban
centers to improve the conditions of their daily lives. As members of these
organizations, many women activists, in addition to their successful campaigns
to change the Turkish penal code to prevent early marriages, oppressive behavior
and honor killings as well as all of the ensuing side effects like suicide among
teenagers, have been actively engaged in teaching them communication skills to
improve their relationships with their parents, spouses and children and to
realize and demand their rights and the rights of their daughter to secondary
and higher education and to the pursuit of employment. In spite of their firm
commitment to women’s education, the responses of these women activists to my
inquiries regarding their lack of advocacy for lifting the headscarf ban are
similar. Although the headscarf ban excludes some Turkish women from pursuing
higher education or working in fields that would otherwise be open to them based
on completed degrees or forces them to pursue degrees in other countries, none
of the women’s organizations to which the activists belonged were involved in
supporting efforts to have it revoked. While some activists diplomatically
claimed that their resources are limited, and that joining the struggle to lift
the ban was not one of their current priorities, most explained that the ban was
hindering only women who were wearing the headscarf as part of a political
agenda that was ultimately aimed at establishing an Islamic state and forced
veiling for all women as in Iran.

In response to my presentation of these findings and my inquiry into the
distinguishing features of the participants in the Gülen Movement compared to
these activists who are also struggling to improve the lot of women in Turkish
society and into the possibility of the two groups working together, the women
participants in Kansas City offered the following responses. According to one
women participant:

“This is a tough issue. Both devout and less devout women can seek progress.
They can be very successful and influential members in the society as long as
they have the motivation to do so. The difference is that devout Muslim ladies
pursue higher education and seek to be active members of the society not just
for this world. For example, I want to be a professor, but this is not only for
showing people how smart I am and for gaining reputation. I want to serve God
through my job by serving as a good example to my students and by changing
people's mind through my publications. Hopefully, if I can become a professor
one day, my real purpose would be in the other world, not in this world. We
should use worldly opportunities and our positions as a tool to achieve and
promote higher standards in terms of spirituality and being closer to God. The
idea is to serve God by serving society and to do whatever you do for the sake
of God, for becoming closer to God.”

Another woman responded by stating that:

“I think they could work together and it might be a good idea. The problem is
that some of these organizations are secular. They see religion as an obstacle
to modernity and progress of women whereas women participants in the Gülen
Movement get strength from religion. For some secular women, criteria for
modernity is taking off the scarf and wearing less clothing, therefore they do
not even want scarved women to have education and high status in society. It
depends on which organizations are being considered. This prejudice does not
hold true for all organizations. But please note that sometimes there is bias on
both sides. For example, some religious women think that those secular women
spoil family structure. In fact, I think the situation is getting better. There
is less tension and more respect between secular and practicing women. Once they
have interaction, they realize that they have a lot in common and there is no
point in looking each other as if enemies.”

Another woman responded as follows:

“I think it is most honest to view this issue from the perspective that
practicing Islam does make a difference. What some scholars are trying to say is
that practicing Muslims face the same challenges as non-practicing ones. They
too deal with temper tantrums or teenage issues. They too have problems in their
financial, family and business life and so on. However, what is being overlooked
here is the DIFFERENCE IN RESPONSE to all these issues. Of course we are all
human. We have similar human tendencies, whether positive or negative. However,
the way a practicing believer responds to these challenges or even to the
blessings of this life is significantly different. For example, when a
nonbeliever accomplishes a great success or is blessed with a child, it is very
easy for that person to become arrogant and conceited. Whereas when a believer
faces the same situation, the first inclination is to give thanks to God
immediately. The same is true for hardships. It may be difficult for a
non-practicing person to deal with problems since they may question the reasons
behind them and become outraged with the facts. Whereas, for a believer, there
are so many consolations for even the tiniest problem that it would require me
to write a few pages just on this topic. Some of those consolations are: there
are worse things than what we are challenged with; we still have so many more
blessings than some people; in the realms of the global world and destiny, there
are too many reasons that justify the existence of the certain problem; this may
be just a small reminder to us that we are going astray and that God is warning
us while we are still in this world so that we can correct our ways and repent
before its too late; and if nothing else, with a proper response, this can be a
way for some of our sins to be erased.”

These responses demonstrate the centrality of the faith and piety as defining
various aspects of their own approaches to life in general and to resolving
important problems in today’s society. They recognized the differences and
acknowledge the difficulties but welcome opportunity and value the benefit of
cooperation between participants in the Gülen Movement and liberal secular women
activists.

Conclusion:

During the course of the conversations that evolved from my research
inquiries, the women participants in Kansas City reflected more intensively on
the goals of the Gülen Movement and their roles in working towards those goals.
These reflections encompassed pondering the situation in the world today in
broader terms and the position of the movement within that broader framework.
This exercise in reflection and dialogue led their formulation of two important
conclusions.

First of all, they concluded that today’s world is wrought with many
problems, a large of which have resulted from a weakening in the transmission of
moral values and ethical principles for daily life from one generation to the
next. Parents are the primary transmitters of these moral values and ethical
principles. Schoolteachers and other community role models serve to enhance or
correct this primary training. Historically, religion provided the source and
foundation of moral values and ethical principles in society. The ongoing
recession in religious affiliation, belief and practice has contributed to the
weakening in the moral and ethical foundation of society. Like religious
practitioners, parents with a secular perspective are equally capable of
inculcating moral values and ethical principles in their children during the
upbringing process. Today, however, moral and ethical training must be even more
deeply ingrained in each individual than in the past as the world today is
filled with people at all levels of society who have ceased to honor moral
values and ethical principles in many areas of their lives, and the temptation
to follow suit is great. Many people today feel that they must participate in
immoral and unethical practices in order to compete on a number of levels, or
simply to maintain their current positions.

Secondly, the women participants recognize the urgent need for organizations
and groups to work together to struggle against this situation. They acknowledge
the fact that their commitment to Islam may create a barrier in some instance.
The fact that most, though not all, of the women participants cover their heads
increases the likelihood that they will encounter challenges to their attempts
to interact with people. They realize that this practice an their
allencompassing commitment to their faith and piety is viewed as problematic by
some groups of people in Turkey and the U.S. They are aware of the common view
of liberal secularists in Turkey that a woman who consciously chooses to veil
has a veiled mind, as does her spouse, as one liberal secular activist in Turkey
once explained in justifying her rejection of women with headscarves in Turkey.[2]
Nonetheless, they feel that that being a practicing Muslim does not interfere
with other aspects of their lives and that veiling does not necessarily hinder
women from having fulfilling, happy and even career-oriented lives. They are
committed to seeking to change the attitudes and behavior of the people they
encounter in their daily lives and to their contributions to the goals of the
Gülen Movement to work to bring about understanding and peace through its
ongoing initiatives to encourage interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

In this paper I have attempted to show the degree to which the women
participants’ to adherence to Islamic belief and practice is central to every
aspects of their identity and lives. Their commitment to their faith and piety
is integrally intertwined with their daily life activities, their ongoing
personal development, their education and career goals and their interpersonal
interactions and relationships. In their view, their faith and piety, their
constant pursuit of God’s approval and their unceasing endeavor for self-renewal
and improvement all serve as a means of support and a source of enrichment. It
is their faith and piety that provides the foundation for establishing equitable,
healthy and mutual enriching forms of interpersonal interaction at every level
in their lives.

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Footnote

[1] This woman participant is currently enrolled in a pre-med program at a
local university.

[2] This activist was referring to the wife of the current prime minister of
Turkey. She explained that his wife is veiled, which means he is also veiled, in
other words, his mind is closed to the possibility of change and progress, in
particular with regard to women. Interestingly, this integral connection between
women with headscarves and their husbands had other repercussions in Turkish
society. Threatened with losing their jobs, many men in prominent positions were
forced to conceal the fact that their wives wore headscarves by secluding them
in their homes, or relocating them outside the urban centers where they worked.

by Dr. Ali Ünsal