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Walking in the Shoes of Others: Stepping in and out of Turkey
Sep 1, 2012
What inspires migrants to leave home, friends and country to cross over into unknown worlds? Often many make the journey driven by the prospects of better life opportunities. Others seek escape of refuge from oppressive regimes. Some journey the paths onto the other side having themselves been abandoned by their countries of origin. Some patterns of migration have been fueled by natural disasters; others may be voluntary or forced movements of whole communities, or individual trajectories. Early colonial conquests throughout history have also seen these migratory paths as journeys of conquest or plundering, of seeking new markets, of evangelism, of stamping one's identity on the alien land. Usually these migratory relationships produce contestations of power and hierarchy between host and source countries: those in authority begin to become more conscious about how they police their boundaries of geography, class, race, caste, and religion – their identities. Although migration patterns are oftentimes constructed around the opening up of new ventures within the host countries, it is usually understood as a posing of a threat to any culture. The foreigner is always regarded with skepticism as she or he usually heralds new sources of influence. The migrant himself or herself is usually caste with uncertainties and ambiguities around their future. Some more orchestrated movements of peoples, such as the movements during the slave trades of the 16th and 17th century, have led to patterns of inequity and injustice which permeate over many centuries (Bourne, 2011).

Permanent migration, unlike casual tourism, is not just a temporary pattern of visitation. It is a conscious choice of making home within the walls of someone else's citadel, about stepping into their worlds. However, we live together now in the age where stepping into the world of others need not be restricted to direct one-to-one physical contact. Why do people need to move at all? Increasingly the electronic highway permits most of us access into the thoughts, minds and the geographical worlds of others. The television, the oral, print and visual media, the internet network are producing highways of virtual tourists scanning and accessing the worlds of others, without sometimes even the hosts being aware of their vicarious presences of others in their lives. Touristic escapades into the world of others can happen from the electronic comfort of one's armchair.

However, a distinction needs to be made between these flippant voyeuristic tourists, and more permanent migration. Tourists are welcomed into most countries, significantly because of the huge revenue they deposit into the receiving country as they "taste the exotic other." Permanent migrants by contrast are usually viewed rather more suspiciously. In this article I choose to focus on how Turkish citizens influenced by the Hizmet philosophy underpinned by Fethullah Gülen choose to understand their journey into the world of others, outside the borders of the society in which they were born (Çetin, 2011). What drives these members of the Turkish community to leave their native land and venture out? Are these adventures a matter of tourism, a matter of foreign infiltration, an economic plan, a matter of migration of a worldview of Islam? I make three broad arguments in this article: that this particular Hizmet form of migratory pattern is not a uniform goal for different parts of the globe; that this mandate is often understood in philosophical rather than pragmatic material terms, and that these migrants evolve in different stages in their settlement and relationships with the "motherland Turkey." I will argue that living abroad for these unique "Turkish tourists" is sustained by a particular operational orientation of the Hizmet communal way of life. They become more than just visitors to foreign lands: they are bringers of philosophical insights for building deeper valuing and respect for dialogue and tolerance across the globe. But, is this a new kind of disguised evangelism? Do they walk in the shoes of their host countries?

Firstly, in reflecting on how the Hizmet philosophy has spanned across 140 countries, Mustafa Yesil, President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (Istanbul) argues that the goal of crossing borders is not one of deliberate expansionism. Instead different individuals have chosen to interpret their mandate in multiple perspectives. The Turkish ambassadors are not exporting a single model of either educational, business, scientific, artistic, technical, or cultural know-how into the recipient countries. Hizmet, by definition is an attempt to reach out into the lives of others, to assist in collaborative partnership for the well-being of all who are engaged drawing measurably from the sources within the host context itself. The philosophy of Hizmet begins with a deep-seated respect, but also critique of their host countries. Foreign support from the source country (i.e. from Turkey) is sometimes a foundational option to spearhead projects.

So for example, when a school inspired by the teaching of Gülen is set up, the negotiations always revolve around the matching with the local cultural, political and curricular context of the society within which they are relocating. Nevertheless, the organization upholds the core Hizmet philosophical value of "a community serving the well-being of humanity." When being set up in the context of corruption and greed, or rampant materialism, the philosophical carriers of Hizmet choose to realize alternate values. It recurs that matters of quality home, family and communal relations permeate their operations. In countries where abject poverty and malnutrition are dominant the Turkish Hizmet custodian usually chooses to address basic human dignities. The aim of these philosophers is to activate views of collective agency amongst the communities including a rethinking of the very values that the locals may have discarded (Agai, 2002). The Hizmet philosophy aims not to impose a value system, but to assist community members to realize what valuing system underpin their social systems, which perhaps have been forgotten or suppressed in their own contexts. The intent of examination of these values is to develop self and sustainable development.

It might therefore translate in many different ways in different social contexts. In the age of materialism in the western world the goal of the Hizmet activist is to be a beacon of alternate values; in the age of subjugation, personal and social liberations may be opted for; in the context of youth not taking responsibility for their action, then more pastoral roles may be offered. These are not absent of any core ethical valuing: the goal to realize the wonderment and potential of all human beings reaching their fullness of being. The choice for simple rather than lavish lifestyles characterizes these operations. The Hizmet philosophy of self and social upliftment is usually translated into many spheres of everyday life simultaneously: in terms of what it means to be a leader; in what it means to open up the minds and hearts of the young through schooling; in promoting rather than demanding fairness, respect and dialogue in business. The intention is not to draw attention to the doer, but the purpose of the action and its communal influence.

Secondly, it is easy to interpret, given the widespread reach that the movement underpinned by the Gülen teaching has achieved, that Hizmet is a disguised economic plot to enter into the markets of the foreign world. Mehmet Altan, a Turkish academic and journalist suggests that it should be understood that Gülen's brand of modern Islam is an intersection of both the material and the spiritual wellbeing of a society. He suggests that Gülen introduces a more current interpretation of Islam in the modern world. Islam needs to find its presence in the everyday reality of its times, and will therefore be always a responsive and relevant religion. Altan argues that the fact that there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in 57 countries internationally, one would expect that there would be a proportional representation of the international wealth generated from these sources. This ought to be an economic reality. Muslims do not, he suggests, realize this full potential. Economic productivity is however, not an end in itself: it is a means for the broader upliftment and development of the society as whole. However, most so-called Muslim states who claim to be promoting this kind of productivity are more preoccupied with asserting their rights of access to supreme power in political and exclusive economic terms. The rampant econometric and political forces lead to a generation of fundamentalists who choose to assert their so-called Islamic identity through the use of force and terror. Productivity is understood in oppositional, competitive and dichotomous terms.

Gülen himself argues against this particular interpretation as being anti-Islamic since the core principle of Islam is to promote peace, dialogue, and tolerance. True Islam does not, in his view, promote a backward ritualized set of culturally interpreted routines that continue to oppress individuals into forms of subjugation, nor is Islam intended as a process of setting up hierarchies of alienation and othering. A more authentic understanding of Islam is guided by the interest to realize the full potential of all persons, of all classes, genders, or creeds. One will get to know God more closely when one understands more closely the plight and hopes of fellow human beings. Islam is not just a way of life, but a matter of a continuous internal journey for greater clarity of purpose and service to one's fellow beings. One serves God through service to one's fellow human beings. This spans across boundaries of race, gender, geography or creed. Hizmet as a philosophy therefore should know no bounds in terms of medium or method, shape or form. It is to be guided by clarity of intention and purpose of action. This conception of Islam recognizes the need for the faith to be located in the specific contextual landscapes with which its people operate: in the lived reality of the present (Gülen, 2011).

As a Catholic myself I am intrigued by how this Hizmet philosophy resonates parallel interpretations of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church (Vatican, 1962a) which was a particular assemblage of the organized Church to examine its presence and operations in the modern world. The unified Church Council encouraged Catholics to open up to the real presence of the modern world in which the people of God existed. The Church (its clergy and laity) was exhorted to recognize the breadth of creative and productive diversity across the globe and that forms of liturgy and worship should be guided by such celebration and valuing of each other's richness. One example is the shift away from all Church services conducted in Latin, the official language. Instead in order to access the worlds and lives of the community, local languages are used in praise and worship services and masses.

The Church cannot live in isolation of the many different representations of man's relationship to the Creator. However we aim to seek "the common ground" across all religions and faiths. Hence inter-faith dialogue was the expressed mandate of the renewing Church (Vatican, 1962b). Migration into the world of others is therefore both an external and internal journey. The exhortation of Nostrae Aetate (Our common ground: On other faiths) (Vatican Council, 1962b) declares as follows:

"The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions… The Church therefore has this exhortation for her members: prudently and lovingly through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions and in witness of Christian life and faith acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual moral goods found among these people, as well as the values in their society and culture" (ibid. 1962,2) (my emphasis added).

Thirdly, migration of Turkish persons living abroad should not be understood as a completely fulfilled agenda at the commencement of the journey. This agenda is likely to evolve over time: is likely to modify, solidify and yet expand. Kerim Balci (Chief Editor of the Turkish Review) argues that we need to interpret the following kinds of migratory patterns when examining the Turkish volunteers of the Hizmet movement, but these patterns are perhaps equally applicable to any of the types of migratory patterns globally, across time and space. The first generation of movers may be argued to be engaging in a "horizontal migration": a migration in which they share what they presently know about their base disciplines, fields of areas of interest, skills or labor (for example, in education, business, science, agriculture, etc.). This generation is characterized by a listening mode which pays attention to the values of the society in which they are embedded. Their agenda is usually one of assimilation into the world of the other; of recognition and understanding of how to make sense of the other's worlds. However, this generation usually stays closely aligned with their original mother country values, beliefs and operational levels of competences.

The second generation of migrants (sometimes offspring of the first generation, but sometimes a new wave of migrants altogether) tends to be more adventurous in their engagement with the host country. They tend to be more assertive in enunciating their own brought cultures. The next generations usually are able to transcend the class or status of their former generation and usually represent hybrid interpretations of the cultural values. This, Balci refers to as a "vertical migration." It is usually the co-existence of these two generational forms that produce communities of particular cultural aggregations, as new forms of exerting power and influence are available. In the context of the Hizmet activities, the second generation usually draws from the quality of interaction established with the host countries and its peoples by its predecessors. In Turkish context, the second generation is a class of more confident proponents of the valuing system of the Hizmet worldview. It is usual that the host country have already seen the benefit of the Hizmet influence within their society and the second generation choose to build on this reputation.

A third wave of migration may be said to characterize these Hizmet activists. This constitutes what Balci refers to as a "re-migration": a return to the "motherland" (of Turkey). It is important that this is not understood as a form of narrow nationalistic agenda to assist in the equally important contributions that are needed within the native (Turkish) society itself. This reverse migration is a response to the growing needs for a development of the agenda of reconstruction and transformation within the source Turkish society as it expands its footprints economically, socially, politically, culturally and especially educationally. Having been exposed to the global discourses of the many parts of the world in which they have served, these re-migrants may be said to introduce into the base (Turkish) society a quality of international discourse which societies seem alien even to the source (Turkish) society itself. Another interpretation of the re-migration is that the Hizmet philosophy, if powerful enough, should be able to sustain itself without the need of the presence of its original advocates. Local proponents take on the responsibility of sustaining its values.

The "foreign" re-migrants into the native homeland are sometimes treated as disrupters of the formative truths of a social system and this is notably present when more conservative entrenched values dominate in the source country. Reverse migration is not always welcomed by those who have remained sedentary in the home country. This pattern of migration forwards and backwards is cognizant of the impact that when one interacts with the world one is likely to shape it, as well as be shaped by it. The important consideration is the question whether the core values of the Hizmet "community serving humanity" philosophy still abides within these reverse migrants?

It is important to understand how the Hizmet migration is able to sustain itself especially when it enters into worlds which are vastly different to the home base traditions, religious practices and values. Engagement with the world of the others is done within the context of a brotherhood / sisterhood of fellow believers around an extended conception of "houses of light" in the form of houses, residences, dormitories, and other facilities where these pioneers socialize. The movement draws strength from the closeness of this supportive network which rally together to address the potential otherness of the environment within which they find themselves. The collective band of proponents share common cultural practices of dance, dress, diet, and resonant outlooks on worship and well-being. They therefore serve as a source of support and strength to each other, refining the values of their mission, clarifying of their goals. The leader of such a brotherhood/ sisterhood of support serve as a custodian and moral guide holding individuals in check and ensuring that the deeper philosophical intentions of their actions and practices are not subverted. This becomes a home community away from home: a living presence of their origins and sources in an external environment.

This article has attempted to argue that the migratory patterns of Turkish bearers of the Hizmet philosophy traverse the globe for different reasons, with different modes of operation, yet still underpinned by the quality of service. In the process they change and are changed by the many people they meet. They become part of the global humanity and commonality of value of purpose in our existence is thereby promoted. However as successive waves of migration evolve the challenge about this is a philosophical rather than material expansion which needs to be carefully guarded. Gülen (2011) argues, as do many religious and spiritual foundations, that one should be aware that one is patently in this world, but not of this world. We share a responsibility to guide the world to a better realization of its potential fullness of being; towards a greater goal of good. Therefore we cannot simply succumb to the world's present values. We are here on a mission of realizing greater love, tolerance and dignity to all whom we meet. Our patterns of exit and re-entry from our home countries should be guided by this deep sense of quality of realizing the true freedoms of all whom we meet. I am surprised how much we across different religions, social and cultural systems share about these goals of and for good.


This paper draws from interviews conducted with the following sources during a cultural exchange visit of the author to Turkey in May 2012:

1. Mustafa Yesil: President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation

2. Mehmet Altan: Journalist, political commentator, academic

3. Kerim Balci: Editor-in-chief, Turkish Review

My thanks to Atilla Dag, Regional Director: Turquoise Harmony Institute, Durban, South Africa who provided the translation and interpretations of interviews during my May 2012 visit to Turkey.


Agai B. 2002. "Fethullah Gülen and his movement‘s Islamic ethic of education." Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies. Spring 2002. 11 (1). 27-47.

Bourne, R. 2011. Update of Ramphal Commission report on migration and development. Presented to the Commonwealth Secretariat Advisory Council on teacher mobility, recruitment and migration meeting. Stoke Rochford Hall, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom. 01-02 June 2011.


Çetin, M. 2011. The Gülen Movement: Civic Service without Borders. New York: Blue Dome Press.

Gülen, F. 2011. Towards a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance. New Jersey: Tughra Books.

Vatican Council 1962a. Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope). Pastoral constitution of the Church In the modern world. Document of the Second Vatican Council. Rome.

Vatican Council 1962b. Nostrae Aetate (Our Common Ground). Declaration on the relationship of the Church to other religions. Document of the Second Vatican Council. Rome.