April 18, 2010


Muslim radical lives in the Poconos -- but it's not what you think
(Dan Berrett, April 18, 2010, Pocono Record)

For more than a decade, one of the world's most influential and controversial Muslim leaders has been convalescing on 26 acres in the Pocono Mountains.

In Ross Township — not far from the Blue Ridge flea market, a giant corn maze dubbed Mazezilla and a go-kart speedway — you will find a small metal sign bearing the name of the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center.

It is here that Fethullah Gülen, 68, lives.

Gülen is an ailing Turkish cleric whose vision of an Islam that embraces science, education and interfaith dialogue has earned him millions of followers — and the suspicion of many in Turkey's secular establishment. [...]

None of the neighbors with whom the Pocono Record spoke said they had ever heard or seen what Williams described.

Instead, they said they'd shared picnics with the center's residents, and had received visits from them after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Gülenists had knocked on their doors to apologize for what had been inflicted on innocents in the name of Islam.

"You couldn't meet a nicer bunch of people," said Howard Beers Jr., a Ross Township supervisor who lives next door and enters the property six or seven days a week, often unannounced and not through the front gate, to do construction work.

"If anyone would walk in on something, it would be me," Beers said. "As long as I have ever been there, I have never, ever, seen a gun or heard a shot. All this stuff is totally, totally unfounded." [...]

A recent visit to Golden Generation revealed tranquil surroundings — a retreat, not a compound — landscaped with old-growth trees, a pond, basketball court, soccer field and several residences under construction.

Middle-aged, mild-mannered, mustached men in modern dress strolled on the grounds, apart from groups of children and hijab-wearing women.

They bore no weapons — just ornately designed plates and boxes of Turkish desserts, which they offered to American visitors.

"We are the very opposite of what that man says," said Bekir Aksoy, president of the center.

And yet, Gülen is still seen by some as a threat to the established order of the Muslim world. But it is not quite for the reasons Williams described.

To understand why, the reclusive cleric must be placed in the context of the world's 1 billion Muslims.

A threat to orthodoxy

"The West looks at Islam and says it's a monolith," said Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University's School of International Service and author of the book, "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam," who is supportive of Gülenism.

But like all large groups of people, Muslims can hold disparate beliefs, observe their faith to different degrees, and embody varying cross-currents and complexities.

In broad terms, a large number of Muslims belong to the literalist camp. It is typified by the Wahhabi sect of the religion and hard-core Islamic governments like Saudi Arabia's, which recoil from the influence of the West and see the Koran, the Muslim holy book, as the literal truth.

At the other end of the spectrum are secular Muslims, such as the Turkish government, who are suspicious of Islam, and see it as a force to be subordinated to the state or kept to the confines of one's home.

Between these two poles are other groups, including a small cluster called Sufis, out of whose mystical tradition Gülen arises.

The Gülenist interpretation of Islam publicly preaches the virtues of being outward looking, peaceful and respectful of religious diversity. If Gülenists are known for anything, it is for their abiding faith in inter-religious dialogue.

"The Gülen Institute rigorously and, I think very rightly, advocates prayer and interfaith dialogue and the role that they can play in helping ease tensions between peoples in our very complicated world," James Baker, the former secretary of state, said to a Houston gathering of the institute in 2008.

They also promote engagement in science and education. While their work has a political aspect — in the sense that many Gülenists are concerned with social justice and communal responsibility — they profess to remain divorced from the hurly-burly of partisan politics.

"Power's dominance is transitory; while the dominance of truth and justice is eternal," Gülen wrote. "Sincere politicians should align themselves and their policies with truth and justice."

Gülenism disturbs both poles of the Islamic spectrum — the secular and the fundamentalist.

"Modern Turkey is self-consciously secular," said Ahmed. "To them, anyone talking about religion, like Gülen, and appearing to be an attractive and alternative paradigm would be a threat. He would seem to undermine secularism."

Ahmed put this threat in starker terms when describing Gülen's effect on the literalist wing of Islam.

"If the Taliban had Gülen and George W. Bush in the same room, they'd go for Gülen first," said Ahmed. "He'd change their society."

David Cuthell, executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, went further, saying Gülen was trying to reconcile both poles of thought.

"If there's going to be a Reformation in Islam," Cuthell said, "this is where it's going to be coming from."


Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2010 5:48 PM
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