B. Jill Carroll,
A Dialog of Civilizations: Gulen's Islamic Ideals & Humanistic Discourse
(Gulen Institute, 2007)

Fethulla Gulen is a Turkish Muslim whose beliefs are quite different from those of the Muslims who have kidnapped the headlines in recent years. He believes in co-existence with other religions, the integration of Islam and modern science, the importance of secular education and, for the most part, non-interference in governmental affairs. He is well known in Turkey and several nearby nations. Estimates of actual members of his movement range widely, from 200,000 to a few million, but his influence is much broader than this might imply, probably as great within Turkey as any Islamic religious figure.

Because the government has a complex and at times tense relationship with Islam, it is nearly impossible for a well-known Turkish Muslim leader to avoid political conflict. (B. Jill Carroll doesn't mention that Gulen has been living in the United States since 2000 because he faces prosecution for treason in Turkey.) Gulen's moderate views make him a target for both secularists who believe his hidden agenda is the establishment of a strict Muslim state, and Islamic extremists who call him an apostate since, for example, he is opposed to making Sharia (Muslim law) the basis of Turkey's legal system.

The book's author has a Ph.D. in religious studies and is an associate director of the Boniuk Center for the Study & Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, where she also teaches. Since Muslim extremism is in total conflict with the purpose of the Boniuk Center, it is not hard to see why Carroll would be interested in Gulen's views. Gulen and the Center are in complete agreement on the importance of civilized discussion between those with differing beliefs, and Carroll has based her book on the idea of a dialogue between Gulen and selected representatives of non-Islamic thinking. Disagreeing with authors such as Huffington and Lewis, she is out to demonstrate that Islamic views have much in common with those of other cultures.

She makes her point by discussing how several of Gulen's most important concepts would have been viewed by selected non-Islamic humanists (as she characterizes them). She writes that while many other thinkers would have served as well, she chose five that have been of particular interest to her for many years. The book is short. In chapters of roughly 20 pages each, the author concentrates on these concepts and philosophers: (1) inherent human value -- Kant (whom Gulen particularly admires); (2) individual freedom -- Mill; (3) ideal humanity -- Confucius and Plato; (4) appropriate education -- Confucius and Plato; and (5) personal responsibility -- Sartre.

Carroll has taught classes on these philosophers, has met with Gulen and is familiar with at least several of his many books. She therefore is credible when making the case that his views on key humanist topics are indeed largely consistent with those of the other thinkers discussed. This is a worthwhile effort, particularly since she has chosen to use a popular rather than academic writing style. But her choice of comparison figures, an artificial attempt to fashion their "dialogues" with Gulen, and the discussion of philosophical concepts such as Kant's categorical imperative partially offset the accessible style, pushing the book in the direction of a college thesis.

In the chapter on human responsibility, for example, Carroll makes a case that Sartre's atheistic existential choice is akin to Gulen's belief that we must be ourselves based on a love of faith, other humans and freedom. This academic exercise isn't convincing, and so not the most effective way to show that Muslims can value human choice. The book would have been more topical and of greater impact if, instead of comparing Gulen to somewhat arbitrarily chosen philosophers, it had gone into a deeper discussion of Gulen's views, the extent to which they are based on passages from the Qur'an and other Islamic traditional sources, how they differ from current mainstream Islamic thought, and why Bin Laden and Zawahiri reach such different conclusions. (Bin Laden would, in fact, probably accept much of what Gulen has to say. The key disagreements would likely be related to Jihad, separation of state and religion, and the pursuit of compromise with non-believers.)

While Kant, Sartre, et al, depended largely on reason, Gulen, as an Islamic scholar, must rely heavily on a reading of the Qur'an. And so Carroll has shown that the Qur'an is subject to interpretation and not necessarily in conflict with humanism. Her book is worth reading for this fact alone, since Harris and others have quoted widely from the Qur'an to make the exactly opposite point. (You mean a major religious text, Osama, can be interpreted in more than one way? Those who would like to explore the issue can try Karen Armstrong's A History of God. She describes the intellectual atmosphere of the early Caliphates in a way that places them much closer to Gulen than Bin Laden.)

Though I unfairly wish Carroll had written a different book, I can and do recommend this one as a welcome counterbalance to those shouting culture clash or demanding Jihad. If you are interested in philosophy and in a more positive and hopeful view of Islam, A Dialog of Civilizations is well worth your time.

review by
Ron Bierman

16 May 2009

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