Where does Gülen stand on: democracy, human rights, and minorities?

Where does Gülen stand on: democracy, human rights, and minorities?


Gülen recognizes democracy as the only viable political system of governance. He denounces turning religion into a political ideology, while encouraging all citizens to take an informed and responsible part in political life of their country. He stresses the flexibilities in the Islamic principles relating to governance and their compatibility with a true democracy [1].

In an interview with Zeki Saritoprak Fethullah Gulen expressed his thoughts on democracy as follows [2]:

Saritoprak: Is it Possible to Reconcile Islam with Democracy? How do You See the Lack of Democracy in Many Muslim Countries, and do You See this Lack of Democracy as a Deficit for Muslim Nations?

Gülen: On the issue of Islam and democracy, one should remember that the former is a divine and heavenly religion, while the latter is a form of government developed by humans. The main purposes of religion are faith (iman), servanthood to God (‘ubudiyyah), knowledge of God (ma’rifah), and beautiful actions (ihsan). The Qur’an, in its hundreds of verses, invites people to the faith and worship of the True (al-Haqq). It also asks people to deepen their servant hood to God in a way that they may gain the consciousness of ihsan. “To believe and do good deeds,” is among the subjects that Qur’an emphatically stresses. It also frequently reminds people that they must develop a conscious relationship with God and act as if they see God, or as if they are seen by God.

Democracy itself is not a unified system of government; it is rarely presented without an affiliation. In many cases, another term, such as social, liberal, Christian, or radical, is added as a prefix. In some cases, even one of these forms of democracy may not consider the other as democracy. However, in our days, democracy is frequently mentioned in its unaffiliated form, ignoring the plural nature of democracies. In contrast to this, many speak of religion as tantamount to politics, which is, in fact, only one of the many faculties of religion. Such a perception has resulted in a range of positions on the subject of the reconciliation of Islam and democracy. Even if these terms are not seen as being opposites, it is evident that they are different in important ways.

According to one of these conceptualizations, Islam is both a religion and a political system. It has expressed itself in all fields of life, including the individual, family, social, economical and political spheres. From this angle, to confine Islam to only faith and prayer is to narrow the field of its interaction and its interpenetration. Many ideas have been developed from this perspective and more recently these have often caused Islam to be perceived as an ideology. According to some critics, such an approach made Islam merely one of many political ideologies. This vision of Islam as a totalizing ideology is totally against the spirit of Islam, which promotes the rule of law and openly rejects oppression against any segment of society. This spirit also promotes actions for the betterment of society in accordance with the view of the majority. Those who follow a more moderate pattern also believe that it would be much better to introduce Islam as a complement to democracy instead of presenting it as an ideology. Such an introduction of Islam may play an important role in the Muslim world through enriching local forms of democracy and extending it in such a way that helps humans develop an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds.

I believe that Islam also would enrich democracy in answering the deep needs of humans, such as spiritual satisfaction, which cannot be fulfilled except through the remembrance of the Eternal One. Yes, in the Islamic world and particularly in my country, Turkey, it is painful to see how those who speak on Islam and democracy and claim to pronounce in the name of religion have come to the understanding that Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled. This perception of mutual incompatibility extends to some pro-democracy people as well. The argument that is presented is based on the idea that the religion of Islam is based on the rule of God, while democracy is based on the view of humans, which opposes it. In my understanding, however, there is another idea that has become a victim of such a superficial comparison between Islam and democracy. The phrase, “Sovereignty belongs to the nation unconditionally,” does not mean that sovereignty has been taken from God and given to humans. On the contrary, it means that sovereignty is entrusted to humans by God, that is to say it has been taken from individual oppressors and dictators and given to the community members. To a certain extent, the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs of Islam illustrates the application of this norm of democracy. Cosmologically speaking, there is no doubt that God is the sovereign of everything in the universe. Our thoughts and plans are always under the control of the power of such an Omnipotent. However, this does not mean that we have no will, inclination or choice. Humans are free to make choices in their personal lives. They are also free to make choices with regard to their social and political actions. Some may hold different types of elections to choose lawmakers and executives. There is not only one way to hold an election; as we can see, this was true even for the Era of Bliss, the time of the Prophet of Islam, and during the time of the Four Caliphs, may God be pleased with them all. The election of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, was different than that of the second Caliph, Umar. Uthman’s election was different from that of ‘ Ali , the fourth Caliph. God only knows the right method of election.

Moreover, democracy is not an immutable form of governing. Looking at the history of its development, one can see mistakes which are followed by changes and corrections. Some have even spoken of thirty types of democracy. Due to these changes in the evolution of democracy, some have looked at this system with hesitancy. Maybe this is a reason why the Muslim world did not view democracy with great enthusiasm. Besides this lack of enthusiasm, the violence of despotic rulers in the Islamic world, who see democracy as a threat to their despotism, presents another obstacle for democracy in Muslim nations.

Human Rights

Human rights values are a persistent theme of Fethullah Gülen’s thought. What is more, Gülen’s views on democracy, pluralism, human rights and freedom of belief directly promote human rights values and norms.

Gülen looks at human rights from three perspectives: (i) the inherent value of freedom vis-à-vis freedom of choice and willpower, (ii) the contingent value of freedom vis-à-vis personal and social development and (iii) metaphysical human rights (kul hakki in Turkish).

Gülen views humans as the centre of the universe. For him, humans are the purpose of creation. Following the Islamic tasawuf (roughly translated as meaning and spirit of Islam) concept of ‘all beauty and fairness require to see and be seen’, Gülen states that God is All-Beautiful and All-Fair and that He wanted to see His beauty and wanted His beauty to be seen. It is for this reason that God created humans. Humans have intellectual, emotional and bodily faculties to observe, enquire, understand, admire, praise and love God. Thus, humans were created as intelligent and conscious beings

that can travel from the created to the Creator, marvel at the beauty and majesty of God’s art and arrive at some estimation and understanding of His attributes, names and qualities. Gülen argues that all creation manifests God’s infinite names and attributes and that humans are “intelligent mirrors” who can turn and look at what creation is manifesting and appreciate their Creator.

However, there is an important ‘magical switch’ in humans which turns all of this on and differentiates it from angels, who also marvel, worship and love God, and that is the element of choice. This “choice” is what makes humans human. The fact that man chooses to recognize and worship God changes everything. Gülen explains that with this choice, humans can surpass angels in piety or fall lower than demons in barbarity. God wants humans to “choose” Him. Thus, choice was bestowed on humans as a gift and, simultaneously, test from God.

Once the matter is approached from this perspective, preserving the freedom of choice bestowed upon humans by God becomes an intrinsic, inherent and inalienable right of one’s very humanness.

Being free and enjoying freedom are a significant depth of human willpower and a mysterious door through which man may set forth into the secrets of the self. One unable to set forth into that depth and unable to pass through that door can hardly be called human.

Summarily put, the universe was created for humans; a human is defined by its ability to choose. Choice is protected by freedom. Freedoms therefore allow humans to fulfill their purpose of creation. Hence, for Gülen, human rights which protect freedom of choice have an inherent value and must be promoted at all cost to preserve the balance of creation and purpose of existence.

While this is not a new outlook, and many Islamic scholars have shared this view, the fact that Gülen is willing to make the logical connection between this religious definition of “choice” and faith-neutral doctrine of “human right norms and practices” is quite significant [3].


Fethullah Gülen’s approach to minorities and minority rights can be understood within the general frame of democracy and democratic rights. Moreover, Gülen’s efforts for interfaith dialogue and tolerance in Turkey also improved general approaches towards minorities in Turkey. Although, Turkey is a secular country, minority statuses were determined according to religious affiliations. The concept of “minorities” has only been accepted by the Republic of Turkey as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1924 and thence strictly limited to Greeks, Jews and Armenians, only on religious matters. Since then, Orthodox Greeks, Gregorian Armenians, and Jews are considered minority groups in Turkey.

Gülen’s efforts in interfaith dialogue started with his meetings with the leaders of these religious groups within Turkey, later expanded to other countries. Gülen has proved through his thoughts, statements and actions that Islam is a religion of peace even though it is almost completely associated with fundamentalism, extremism and violence in the west because of radicals in the Islamic world. And he is famed for the very intimate ties he had established with the late Pope John Paul II and with Patriarch Bartholmew of Constantinople, the Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan and many other representatives from other religions [4].

Fethullah Gulen’s efforts are also welcomed by the minority leaders in Turkey. At prayer meeting, Roman Catholic Apostolic Vicar in Istanbul Monsignor Georges Marovitch Marovitch thanked Gülen for his pioneering efforts on peace in Turkey and on the dialogue process. He said: “Hodjaefendi is like a Mevlana model of our era. He invites everyone without discriminating against anyone. His door is open to all and we came by answering his call.”

Prominent Jewish businessman Ishak Alaton said: “Conferences were held at the Istanbul Sports and Exhibition Center. The hall would be completely full. Some 3,000 or 4,000 people would come. Gülen would enter the hall accompanied by the chief rabbi of the Jewish community to his left and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew or Patriarch Mesrob II [Mutafyan] to his right. They would come as the practitioners of three different religions. This would be followed by an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience. The people would applaud interfaith friendship, fraternity and rapprochement. This picture was largely the work of Fethullah Gülen, and the society lent its full support to it. This is what I experienced. I, too, attended these meetings and concluded that they were vitally important.[5]”

At the iftar dinner of Journalist and Writers Foundation in 2003, Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan said “ For a short time ago, even the people of same faith could not come together around a table, but now, people of different faith groups are coming together. This very important for Turkey. It was Fethullah Gülen and the foundation he is honorary president who first time gathered people of different faiths around the same table, and now we are walking on the road he has opened.”

The Syrian Metropolitan, Mor Filksinos Yusuf Cetin also stated that the contribution of Gülen and his friends to Abrahamic faiths and humanity are very important. He said: “None could dare to invite Christians and Jews to iftar dinners before, but now, they cannot share us.”

All these statements from the leaders of the minority religious groups in Turkey underline the importance of the work that Fethullah Gülen initiated. Since Gülen is a well respected Muslim scholar in Turkey, his actions are very important in this regard.


[1] Cetin, Muhammed. 2010. Introducing Fethullah Gülen. Fethullah Gülen Forum: http://fethullahgulenforum.org/articles/18/introducing-fethullah-gulen

[2]The Muslim World, Special Issue, July 2005 – Vol. 95 Issue 3 Page 325-471

[3] Keles, O. Promoting Human Rights Values in the Muslim World: Towards an Inclusive Civilization in Gülen’s Thought and Practice: http://en.fgulen.com/conference-papers/peaceful-coexistence/2508-promoting-human-rights-values-in-the-muslim-world-towards-an-inclusive-civilization-in-gulens-thought-and-practice

[4] Kenes, Bulent. 2008. Gülen’s ideas address the entire world. The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/24/turkey.islam

[5] Dumanli, Ekrem. 2009. İshak Alaton: Ergenekon case a milestone for Turkey. Today’s Zaman: http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?load=detay&link=176178


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