By Malik Ibrahim
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 schools, about 50 local interfaith dialogue groups, and numerous cultural centers across the country.
His 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 Quran and Hadith, with an eye to creating 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.” His hope is that these reforms will inspire a “golden generation” who will engage the world around it through avenues such as social action and interfaith dialogue.
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 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. As such we are facing a situation where American and Turkish culture are intermixed.
In reaching Gulen Turks we need to look for the common values 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 leverage these values in presenting Christ?
As noted above, two common values of the movement are social action and interfaith dialogue. Another is art forms, such as poetry, music, and visual arts. The church in North America needs to consider engaging these values of social action, interfaith dialogue, and the arts in order to construct an effective gospel witness to this movement.
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 to, “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 them to see the body of Christ living out neighbor love, as well as an avenue for Gulenists to meet and interact with believers in the church. Inviting them to partake in events such as stocking a food pantry, building houses for lower income people, tutoring at risk kids, and backpack drives are just a few examples for how to involve them.
Interfaith dialogue is 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. The goals of this method are for Muslims and Christians to come together so that they can dispel misunderstandings, “learn how the others live and think,” “gain a better understanding of each other’s religious expression,” and communicate the gospel to Muslims “who are open to sitting with us to learn and understand.”
However, the Gulen movement does not engage in deep theological issues. Their focus on social action provides a better way for pursuing dialogue. 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).
Poetry, especially the works of the 13th 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.”
The themes of divine love, longing, and hope from Rumi’s poems are ones with which Christians can interact. Utilizing passages of Scripture such as Psalm 42 with its expression of longing after and placing one’s hope in God not only connect with familiar ideas in Rumi, but may also help to communicate the truth, beauty, and wisdom of the Christian life.
Other themes in Rumi which lend themselves to introducing the person of Christ are 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.”
Visual arts and music are two more very effective bridge-builders with Gulen followers. Ebru, the art of water marbling, and calligraphy are two Turkish art forms which are close to their heart. The Oud is a tear drop shaped stringed instrument somewhat like a guitar and is highly revered in Turkish culture.
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.
During this time of political and social turmoil surrounding the Gulen movement, 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.
 “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
 Citizens Against Special Interest Lobbying In Public Schools (C.A.S.I.L.I.P), “A Guide to the Gulen Movements Activities in the U.S.” http://turkishinvitations.weebly.com/list-of-us-schools.html (accessed August 11, 2016)
 Hakan M. Yavuz, Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 6.
 Nevval Sevindi, 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, 2008), 5.
 Hakan M. Yavuz, Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement, 8.
 Bruce McDowell and Anees Zaka, Muslims and Christians at the Table: Promoting Biblical Understanding Among North American Muslims. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999), 217.
 Ibid., 219.
 Hakan M. Yavuz, Towards an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gulen Movement, 194.
 Fethullah Gulen, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. (December 2010) http://rumiforum.blogspot.com/2010/12/mevlana-jalal-al-din-rumi.html#axzz45AyavhKl (accessed April 13, 2016)
 See for example “The Reed Flute’s Song” in Persian Poets, ed. Peter Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 95-97.
 See for example “A Community of the Spirit,” “A Just Finishing Candle,” and “Reality & Appearance” Ibid., 93, 100, & 140.
 Turkish Cultural Foundation, “The Turkish Art of Marbling” (Ebru) (2016) http://www.turkishculture.org/traditional-arts/marbling-113.htm (accessed April 13, 2016)
 Turkish Cultural Foundation, “Calligraphy” (2016) http://www.turkishculture.org/traditional-arts/calligraphy-115.htm (accessed April 13, 2016)