by Rev. Mike Urton
The July 15 coup in Turkey has brought the name of Fethullah Gulen and the movement which bears his name to the attention of the international community. On an almost daily basis, we read news reports of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blaming Gulen for fomenting the coup and calling for his extradition from the United States. Since the late 1990s Gulen’s hizmet (service) movement has been very active in the U.S., running a network of 146 charter schools1, about 50 local interfaith dialogue groups and numerous cultural centers across the country. (C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S. 2014).
Gulen’s quest has been to create a contemporary version of Islam, freed from a rigid interpretation. He has encouraged Muslims to take a new look at the foundational sources of Islam—the Qur’an and Hadith—with an eye to create practical solutions to the problems of the modern world, while at the same time combining these new interpretations with “reason, tolerance, science and public discussion” (Yavuz 2013, 6). His hope is that these reforms will inspire a “golden generation” (Sevindi 2008, 5) that will engage the world around it through avenues such as social action and interfaith dialogue (Yavuz 2013, 8).
CALLIGRAPHY IS ANOTHER art form with roots
in Ottomon history which took “this art to its pinnacle
over a five hundred year period.”
While the political issues surrounding the coup and what, if any, role the movement played are still being investigated, the pertinent question for the local church in North America is: How do we reach out to this specific group of Turkish Muslims with the love of Christ?
An important issue to keep in mind is that we are dealing with Turks who have immigrated to the U.S., and as such we are facing a situation in which American and Turkish culture are intermixed. Thus, a basic understanding of Turkish culture will not be enough to reach out to them effectively.
In this case, we need to look for the open doors through which we can develop relationships with them. Two questions will assist us in discovering these open doors. First, what are the common values of the movement that we can engage? Second, how can the local church interact with these values in a way that will assist in opening a Gulenist Turk’s heart and mind to the possibility of following Christ?
Seeking Common Values and Moving to Action
As noted above, two common values of the movement are social action and interfaith dialogue. Another high value among the Gulen movement is art forms. Gulen himself is an accomplished poet, who has had his poems made into an album titled Colors of Peace, featuring different musicians from around the world. Music and the visual arts also play a prominent role in the Gulen movement’s expression of identity.
The Church in North America must consider engaging these values of social action, interfaith dialogue, and the arts in order to construct an effective gospel witness to Gulenist Turks. Now that we have identified these common values, let’s take a look at our second question: how the local church can interact with these values.
Social action. The movement’s emphasis on social action reflects a deep value of loving one’s neighbor. Here, we see something similar to Jesus’ command to us: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Appealing to this shared value, Christians can invite people in the Gulen movement to participate in a local church’s community service projects.
This is a way for Gulenists to see the Body of Christ living out neighbor love, as well as an avenue for them to meet and interact with believers in the church. Inviting Gulenists to partake in events such as stocking a food pantry, building houses for lower income people, tutoring at-risk kids, and hosting backpack drives are just a few examples for involvement.
Interfaith dialogue. The area of interfaith dialogue is one where the movement looks to engage non-Muslim groups in constructive discussions around faith and social issues. Gulen’s hope is that through this platform, religious groups can come together to understand one another and work for the common good of society.
A model that the local church could employ for engaging the movement in interfaith dialogue, developed by Bruce McDowell and Anees Zaka, is called Meetings for Better Understanding (MBU). Zaka and McDowell lay out this method in their book Muslims and Christians at the Table. They offer a list of suggested theological and social topics to engage Muslims in an MBU.
HOSPITALITY IS A HALLMARK value of many
Muslim cultures and this is no less true for the Gulen movement.
The goals of this method are for Muslims and Christians to come together so that the can dispel misunderstandings, “learn how the others live and think,” “gain a better understanding of each other’s religious expression” (McDowell and Zaka 1999, 217), and communicate the gospel to Muslims “who are open to sitting with us to learn and understand” (McDowell and Zaka 1999, 219).
Hakan Yavuz observes a possible barrier to an MBU when he writes that the Gulen movement does not “engage deep theological issues” (Yavuz 2013, 194). Thus, the movement’s focus on social action provides a better way for pursuing dialogue with them. A good example of a social topic to dialogue around is hospitality. Hospitality is a hallmark value of many Muslim cultures and this is no less true for the Gulen movement.
After tracing the theme of welcoming the stranger in the Bible (Lev. 19:34, Rom. 12:13, and Heb. 13:2), a Christian presenter could discuss the ultimate fulfillment of hospitality when God himself invites the alien sinner to table fellowship (Matt. 8:10, 11, Eph. 2:11-13, Rev. 3:20, 19:6-9).
The arts. One final value to interact with the Gulen movement around is the realm of the arts. There are specifically three art forms that the movement holds dear in which Christians can participate. These areas include poetry, visual arts, and music.
Poetry, especially the works of the thirteenth-century Sufi mystical poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, is deeply ingrained in the movement’s identity. Concerning Rumi’s poetry, Gulen himself writes, “If the spirit of the anthology of Rumi’s poems, which are the essence of love, passion, divine presence, and excitement, were to be extracted, what would exude are the cries of love, longing, and hope” (Gulen 2010).
It is easy to see how the themes of divine love, longing, and hope from Rumi’s poems are ones with which Christians can interact. One poem which emphasizes the themes of love and longing is entitled The Reed Flute’s Song. An excerpt reads:
Listen to the story told by the reed, of being separated. ‘Since I was cut from the reedbed, I have made this crying sound. Anyone apart from someone he loves understands what I say. Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back…The reed is hurt and salve combining. Intimacy and longing for intimacy, one song. A disastrous surrender and a fine love, together. The one who secretly hears this is senseless…Every thirst satisfied except that of these fish, the mystics, who swim a vast ocean of grace still somehow longing for it! (Washington 2000, 95-97)
While understanding the theme of longing that Rumi presents here, one can find a similar idea in the Psalms. Utilizing passages of scripture like Psalms 42, we find the authors’ use of the metaphor of thirst as a way of expressing longing after God. This Psalm describes how the writer is led to despair over the fact that he longs to meet with God at the temple, but is somehow being denied this privilege (vss. 2-4). Yet in the end, he encourages his soul to put his hope in his God and savior (vss. 5, 11).
Collections of Christian poems such as The Valley of Vision also delve into the themes of love and longing. An excerpt from the poem Longings after God in this volume reads:
Blessed Lord, let me climb up near to thee, and love, and long, and plead, and wrestle with thee, and pant for deliverance from the body of sin, for my heart is wandering and lifeless, and my soul mourns to think it should ever lose sight of its beloved. Wrap my life in divine love, and keep me ever desiring thee, always humble and resigned to thy will, more fixed on thyself, that I may be more fitted for doing and suffering. (Bennett 2002, 127)
While this Psalm and Christian poem do not mention Christ openly, the themes that are mentioned in them connect directly with ones in Rumi. Thus, these poems could be used to communicate the truth, beauty, and wisdom of the Christian life and perhaps pique the interest of Gulenists to learn more.
Other themes in Rumi which lend themselves to introducing the person of Christ can be found in his poems A Community of the Spirit, A Just Finishing Candle, and Reality & Appearance, which unpack the themes of shepherd and light. Here, along with the shepherd imagery of Psalm 23, a Christian could introduce Jesus as the Good Shepherd from John 10:1-18. With regards to light, one could read from John 8:12, where Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The Visual Arts & Music
The visual arts and music are two other art forms where the local church can meaningfully engage the movement. Ebru and calligraphy are two Turkish art forms which are close to their heart. Ebru is the art of water marbling where colorful patterns are created “by sprinkling and brushing color pigments on a pan of oily water and then transforming this pattern to paper” (Turkish Cultural Foundation 2016). This art form was used in the days of the Ottoman Empire “to decorate books, imperial decrees, official correspondence and documents” (Turkish Cultural Foundation 2016).
ART FORMS SUCH AS POETRY, music, and visual arts
are deeply ingrained into Sufi mystical practice.
Calligraphy is another art form with roots in Ottoman history which took “this art to its pinnacle over a five hundred year period” (Turkish Cultural Foundation 2016). In a poem that Rumi composed in honor of Hakim Sanai, a Sufi poet who had greatly influenced and inspired him, he eulogized Sanai’s life by writing, “Be quiet and clear now like the final touchpoints of calligraphy” (Washington 2000, 99).
A musical instrument that is revered in Turkish culture is the Oud. The Oud is a tear drop-shaped stringed instrument somewhat like a guitar, but with a rounded back and a slanted head.
As part of their activities for the local community, many Turkish cultural centers in the U.S. founded by the movement offer Ebru, calligraphy, and Oud classes. These lessons provide an excellent opportunity for those with artistic gifts in the local church to befriend Gulenist Turks. Learning these art forms will communicate a tremendous amount of respect for their culture. As one achieves greater levels of proficiency, these arts may also be an open door to present the person of Christ to Gulenists who resonate deeply with these expressions.
These forms of engagement with the movement also have broader application for those reaching out to other Sufi Muslim groups, as well as those working among diaspora peoples. Missionary Cynthia Strong notes that, “Sufism is a mystical spiritual dynamic that can be found everywhere in the Muslim world” (Strong 2006, 180).
Art forms such as poetry, music, and visual arts are deeply ingrained into Sufi mystical practice. Christians who are reaching out to these groups would do well to discover which of these art forms speak deeply to the particular group of Sufi Muslims with which they are interacting. As with the Gulen movement, learning these art forms could help to build an effective bridge to introducing Sufi Muslims to the person of Christ.
This may be especially true for Christians who possess artistic abilities. Using these gifts would open up an avenue for Christians to express the truth and beauty of the gospel through these art forms. Exactly how this will look is left up to the creativity of the Christian artist who is walking in dependence upon the Holy Spirit (cf. Exod. 31:1-4).
This model of working with the Gulen movement and other Sufi Muslims may also prove helpful in dealing with diaspora people groups in general. According to a report released by the United Nations, “In 2015, the number of international migrants worldwide reached 244 million,” which is about 3.3% of the world population (United Nations 2015). It also states that, “Northern America hosts the third largest number of international migrants (54 million)” (United Nations 2015).
This has brought to the North American context a rich opportunity for the Church to have global impact by reaching immigrant communities in our midst, who still have connections in their country of origin.
The Role of Contextualization
This has also created the phenomenon of hybridization in which the local has become fused with the global, or in other words, a situation where immigrant communities retain some of their cultural identity while also adapting and adopting elements of their new host culture (Ott 2015, 48). This results in people experiencing multiple identities informed by both their culture of origin and their new host culture.
Brian Howell argues that employing contextualization methods among immigrants in North America which have been effective among populations in their home countries “will elide critical differences in the ways cultural minority groups experience their cultural context here” (Howell 2011, 80).
Craig Ott points out that the challenge for such a hybridized environment is that it is “ever shifting under the contextualizer’s feet” (Ott 2015, 52). One of his suggestions for meeting this challenge is that “contextualization must be more radically rooted in biblical truth and identity” (2015, 51). Howell believes that in order to do effective ministry among the rapidly changing multicultural immigrant communities of North America, the local church must focus on the biblical virtues “of hospitality, justice, and compassion, rather than assert principles of ‘contextualization’ or ‘culturally appropriate’ missiology” (Howell 2011, 80).
Certainly, these issues raised by Ott and Howell apply to developing an effective strategy for reaching out to diaspora communities. Yet, one more point could be added here in dealing with groups that have common values. This is where engaging with groups like the Gulen movement can prove instructive for reaching other diaspora migrants. Above, we asked two questions concerning the common values of the movement and how the local church can interact with them. These same questions could be applied to other diaspora groups with common values in order to develop an effective outreach to them.
During this time of political and social turmoil surrounding the Gulen movement both in Turkey and aboard, the local church in North America has an opportunity to reach out to them in their time of need. Through engaging them in their values of social action and interfaith dialogue, we can demonstrate common concern, as well as testify to the truth of the gospel. By learning and honoring their art forms, we can touch their hearts deeply, showing them that the relationship with God that they long for is found only and completely in Christ.
Using this suggested model for interacting with the Gulen movement, we can develop strategies for reaching other Sufi Muslim groups, as well as other diaspora communities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the mass migration to North America has provided the local church with an opportunity to reach people from unreached parts of the world, some who still have contacts in their country of origin.
Now, the Church in North America not only has the opportunity to send missionaries to the ends of the earth, but they also have the opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission by reaching the unreached among us.
1. “The first Gulen charter school opened in the U.S. in 1999.” From Valerie Strauss “Largest charter network in U.S.: Schools tied to Turkey” The Washington Post (March 2012) https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/largest-charter-network-in-us-schools-tied-to-turkey/2012/03/23/gIQAoaFzcS_blog.html
Bennett, Arthur, ed. 2002. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust.
Citizens Against Special Interest Lobbying in Public Schools (C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S.). 2014. Gulen
Charter Schools in the United States. A Guide to the Gulen Movements Activities in the U.S. turkishinvitations.weebly.com/list-of-us-schools.html(September).
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Howell, Brian. 2011. “Multiculturalism, Immigration and the North American Church.” Missiology: An International Review XXXIX(1): 79-85
McDowell, Bruce A. and Anees Zaka. 1999. Muslims and Christians at the Table: Promoting Biblical Understanding among North American Muslims. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing
Ott, Craig. 2015. “Globalization and Contextualization: Reframing the Task of Contextualization in the Twenty-first century.” Missiology: An International Review 43(1): 43-58.
Sevindi, Nevval. 2008. Contemporary Islamic Conversations: M. Fethullah Gulen on Turkey, Islam, and the West. ed. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi trans. Abdullah T. Antepli, Albany: State University of New York Press
Strauss, Valerie. 2012. “Largest Charter Network in U.S.: Schools Tied to Turkey.” The Washington Post (March)washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/largest-charter-network-in-us-schools-tied-to-turkey/2012/03/23/gIQAoaFzcS_blog.html.
Strong, Cynthia A. 2006. “A Mystic Union: Reaching Sufi Women.” In A Worldview Approach to Ministry among Muslim Women. Eds. Cynthia A. Strong and Meg Page, 179-188. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Today’s Zaman. 2013. Islamic Scholar Gulen’s Poems Turned Into Songs For International Album. (March)en.fgulen.com/press-room/news/4538-todays-zaman-islamic-scholar-gulens-poems-turned-into-songs-for-international-album.
Turkish Cultural Foundation. 2016. Calligraphy. turkishculture.org/traditional-arts/calligraphy-115.htm.
Turkish Cultural Foundation. 2016. The Turkish Art of Marbling (Ebru). turkishculture.org/traditional-arts/marbling-113.htm.
United Nations. 2015. Migration Wall Chart 2015. un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications
Urton, Mike. 2014. “Can Christians Serve Halal Meat to Muslim Guests?” In Journey to Jesus: Building Christ-centered Friendships with Muslims. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale
Washington, Peter, ed. 2000. Persian Poets. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wikipedia. Oud. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oud.
Yavuz, Hakan. M. 2013. Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Rev. Mike Urton is the Assistant Director of the COMMA network (www.commanetwork.com), a coalition of Christian agencies and individuals that network together to reach and disciple Muslims in North America. He has been serving among the Muslim population of Chicago for fifteen years. He blogs at commanetwork.com/editorials.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 4. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. As of January 1, 2018, used by permission from Missio Nexus, PO Box 398, Wheaton, IL 60187. Email: EMQ@MissioNexus.org. Website: www.MissioNexus.org/EMQ.