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  • Conversations on Life, Knowledge, and Belief: An Overview of the Conference

    Justin Pahl


    November 5-7, 2013, Istanbul

    Conversations on Life, Knowledge, and Belief

    During the first week of November 2013, nearly twenty scholars and thinkers gathered in Istanbul to celebrate The Fountain's 20th anniversary with the conference, "Conversations on Life, Knowledge, and Belief: Sipping from the Fountain of Hizmet."

    Over three days, in beautiful venues all over Istanbul, the attendees engaged in invigorating, lively discussions about issues of interfaith dialogue, the role religion plays in cultivating peace, and the ways that science and religion can work together, instead of in opposition.

    Day One: The Fountain Worldview

    The first day discussions were held at Zaman'sbeautiful headquarters in Yenibosna. After lunch, the conference was opened with remarks from The Fountain'seditor, Hakan Yesilova, welcoming everyone to Istanbul, and briefly laying out The Fountain'sworldview – that as humans, we have far more commonalities than differences, regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity. The Fountain'smission is to highlight these commonalities, and to provide a safe space for constructive, instead of destructive, meetings between people from different cultures.

    The first speaker was the distinguished Abdullah Aymaz, who spoke about the history of the Hizmet movement. He told stories about his experiences with Fethullah Gülen in the 1960s and '70s, when tumult in Turkey resulted in the birth of Hizmet. His stories highlighted the kindness shown towards Aymaz and Gülen by people from many different faiths, and how this shaped the tolerant, expansive worldview now associated with Hizmet.

    After Mr. Aymaz, Kerim Balcı, chief editor of the Turkish Review and frequent contributor to both Zaman and Today's Zaman, spoke on "Zaman's Meta-language." In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr. Balcı explained the origins of Zaman and outlined how Hizmet's values shape their editorial decisions. He laid out the five principles of Zaman:

    1 – Reporting good news is good news

    2 – No sensationalism

    3 – No denigration

    4 – Remain text intensive; respect the intelligence of your audience

    5 – Equal to all political parties

    Following a lively round-table discussion about journalism in Turkey, the two final presentations of the first day took a more metaphysical and religious turn. Ozgur Koca, an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Claremont Lincoln University, spoke on "The Divine Names and the Cosmos." In his deeply intelligent presentation, Mr. Koca talked about the presence of God and his divine names in every aspect of existence. It is possible, Mr. Koca said, to see His majestic names in galaxies and storms, and His gentle names in a mother's love. The world, Mr. Koca explained, oscillates between justice and mercy, the poles of Divine manifestation in balance.

    Mr. Koca, who has written extensively about the environmental consciousness of the Qur'an, tied the presence of the Divine names to ecological awareness.

    "This makes the whole world sacred. You must treat the other as sacred," Mr. Koca said. This sacredness and respect for the other is expounded by The Fountain, he concluded.

    The final speaker of the day was Sophia Pandya, an associate professor of religious studies at Cal-State Long Beach and the author of multiple books on women and Islam. Her talk, "Religion, Science, and Modernity: Fethullah Gülen's Re-Enchantment of the World," places Gülen in context with such thinkers as Sir James Frazier and Max Weber. Unlike these thinkers, who focus on the schism between "rationalist" science and "magical" religion, Gülen represents a fusion between the two. Quoting Gülen, Ms. Pandya showed that the religion and science binary is false, and that, in his words, "Love underlies both religion and technology."

    Like Mr. Koca, Ms. Pandya connected faith – and specifically the Hizmet movement – to environmental awareness. Both science and traditional religions, Ms. Pandya asserted, have damaged the environment – and have done special harm to women. In the gentleness of Gülen's brand of Sufism, vulnerability and sensitivity are seen as strength, not weakness. This runs counter to many religious traditions, and to globalized technology and capitalism, all of which are agents of "warrior" culture. Ms. Pandya closed the first day by asserting that, through the compassion of Hizmet, both science and religion can be made more humane, more responsible – more feminine, even.



    Day Two: Culture, Pluralism, Spirituality

    The next morning, the panel reconvened at the Journalist and Writer's Foundation in Altunizade. After a traditional Turkish breakfast, Professor Elena Biagi, from the University of Milan, presented on "The Hidden Treasure of Language: Gülen and Medieval Sufis along the Path to Identity." Ms. Biagi, who is a linguist and an expert on Islamic culture, proceeded to explore the links between language, spirituality, and physicality. As Fethullah Gülen wrote, "Language is one of the fundamental dynamics in shaping a culture."

    Ms. Biagi began by pointing out that, in Arabic, the word for identity implies a third person, or an otherness. Thus, there is an otherness within all of us. This suggests that the line between self and other is extremely narrow. Continuing, she showed that the roots of stranger and surprise, in Arabic, are the same – meaning we should use wonder when approaching the unknown. This wonder drives our search for knowledge, and through a deep examination – of both the self and the other – we can learn love. Through language, we both express and explore this love. In his advocacy for education, Gülen encourages this search.

    Building off Ms. Biagi's exploration of identity and language, Yusuf Alan, an editor at Tughra Publishing, and the author of a half dozen books, talked about "The Human Being as an Index of the Universe." Mr. Alan explained that the spirit and body interact in the human soul. Expanding on Ms. Biagi's questions of individual duality, Mr. Alan expressed the Divine as humanity's source of wholeness:

    "Because everything is a manifestation of the divine, we are all connected. This is unity."

    Throughout the morning session, the participants were grateful for the presence of Ali Unal, prolific author and translator, who fielded a wide range of questions about the nature of Hizmet, the many nuances of the Arabic language, and the presence of doubt within Islam. His expertise was invaluable in many of the morning's conversations.

    After a short break for tea and coffee, Dr. Samuel D. Henry, a member of the Oregon State Board of Education, continued the discussion of identity and otherness with his presentation, "Creation of Social Capital, Cultural Pluralism, and Migration." Using his experience as an educated man with Caribbean, Native American, and Irish blood, Mr. Henry talked about living both inside and outside of societal norms and expectations.

    "We must locate all aspects of identity," Mr. Henry stated. He proposed doing this through the creation of safe spaces, where people aren't prejudged according to religious, ethnic, or racial assumptions, and can instead be viewed as complete, dignified humans with complex, varied identities. To do this, we must admit our blind spots and biases, and work to eliminate them.

    Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, a professor of religious studies at Nazareth College and the executive director of the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, spoke on the "Etiquettes and Principles of Dialogue." Dr. Shafiq traced the origins of interfaith dialogue back to the late 19th century, when Hindus and Sheiks founded the Parliament of World Religion. He also laid out a few guiding principles for any interfaith gathering:

    1 – The purpose is to learn and understand

    2 – There must be dialogue with one's own community and with other communities.

    3 – Honesty and sincerity are a must.

    4 – All communities are equal

    Dr. Shafiq reminded everyone that dialogues are not supposed to defeat or silence, but to improve education and understanding – something we were reminded of all week during the conference.

    For dinner and the evening session, the conference shifted venues, to a home overlooking the Bosphorous in Kuzguncuk.

    Dr. Nazir Khaja opened the evening discussion with his talk, "The Challenge of Creating Change." His presentation was mainly focused on what he phrased as, "the need for Muslims to learn how to live now in a way that adheres to our old values." Instead of looking outward for change, Dr. Khaja suggested that the focus needed to be on internal development – the need for greater education and economic opportunities.

    The conversation Dr. Khaja started was among the liveliest of the week. It stressed the need for Muslims to shape their own identity, and build their own foundation, instead of one imposed by outside perspectives. This can be done, the panelists decided, through a broader implementation of justice and through real, non-corporate-influenced, democracy. As Dr. Khaja stated, "Restrictive laws are dangerous to Islam. Justice is the Qur'an."

    The last two panelists of the day both made short, but incisive, presentations. Barbara Wettstein, a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles, talked about the greater role faith can play in modern psychology. Using her experiences working with American veterans, Dr. Wettstein lamented that discussions of faith are almost entirely absent in discussions of psychological treatments.

    "What pulls people back from despair are belief, community, and service," Wettstein said. "These are all things faith can offer."

    Jessica Rehman, a doctoral student at Cal-State Riverside focusing on women and gender in Muslim societies, gave an illuminating presentation about the children's cartoon, "Burqa Avenger." The cartoon, which caused a media storm upon its release in Pakistan, depicts a female school teacher who, at night, dons a burqa and fights extremists with education and kindness. Rehman raised interesting questions about whether the burqa can be re-appropriated as a symbol of empowerment. Her presentation sparked an intense, intelligent conversation amongst the panelists about the importance of veiling, and led to a (perhaps) surprising consensus – that veiling is far less important that other tenants of Islam, and that a personal definition of modesty is, ultimately, an individual decision.



    Day Three: Perspectives on Scientific Thought, Faith, and Philosophy

    The final day of the conference took place at a tea house not far from the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, right on Istanbul's Golden Horn. Despite a rainy start to the day, after a beautiful breakfast, the panelists were excited for one more day of discussions.

    Dr. Erkan Kurt started the morning with "Practical Naturalism and Science-Religion Co-operation." Dr. Kurt, an assistant professor of Islamic theology at Celal Bayar University, talked about the need for co-operation and corroboration between religion and science. Speaking on the interaction between nature and the Divine, Dr. Kurt expressed optimism that bridges can be built between two disciplines that have, far too often, been posited as opposites.

    Dr. Larry Seidman, who calls himself the "Rational Rabbi," offered one of the week's most personal discussions of faith. Re-counting his shift from engineer to rabbi, Dr. Seidman talked about his own struggles with questions of faith, evil, and the Divine. Referencing "sancta" – holy acts that bring us closer to God – Dr. Seidman defined a very personal form of faith that emphasizes a close personal dialogue between believer and divine.

    Drawing on the Jewish ideas of keva – the fixed acts or prayers of a believer and kavvanah – the intentions behind an act or prayer – Dr. Seidman argued that what matters isn't the ritual performance, but the intention behind such actions. Despite individuals having different sancta and different rituals, if their hearts are in the same place – working towards making the world a more peaceful place – then they can find a great deal of common ground.

    Russell Powell, the next presenter, took the conversation in a more pragmatic direction. Professor Powell, who has served as the chair of both the AALS Section on Islamic Law and the Islamic Law Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association, used information that he's gathered over the last year from interviews with nearly a thousand Turkish residents. His data provided an interesting perspective to the practical realities of the larger conversations that had taken place over the week – about the diversity of religious beliefs within Muslim and Secular communities in Turkey.

    Howard Wettstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, talked about his own philosophical struggles with his faith over the years. He framed faith in a unique, descriptive way:

    "Faith is a relationship and a dialogue, and it's full of failures – on both sides."

    Wettstein's presentation led to a fascinating conversation about the differences in practice between various religions, and the importance those religions place on such practices.

    Afreen Siddiqi, a professor of engineering at MIT, once more took the conversation to a move pragmatic place. In a talk titled, "Reformation and Revitalization of Science and Technology Education in the Middle East," Dr. Siddiqi showed the ways in which universities in the Middle East are beginning to build relationships built around research and shared economic goals. Her research underscored the need for greater science education in the Middle East. She connected economic and political development to a more knowledgeable populace. This focus on education is one of the core principles of Hizmet.

    The final speaker of the week was Zaman S. Stanizai, a professor of mythological studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and of political science at Cal-State, Dominguez Hills. Stanizai, who writes poems inspired by Pashto and Dari Persian poets, began his emotional, heartfelt talk with two poems. From there, he provided an eloquent summation of what the previous presenters had discussed – the need for a true global democracy that is free from the exploitations of vulture capitalism. Dr. Stanizai focused especially on women, and the need for their education and empowerment.

    "Democracy cannot be operated in islands," he said. "We must focus on the concerns of our human family."

    It was a powerful, moving end to an exciting, informative three days of discussions. Everyone agreed that regardless of differences in practice or definition, at the end of the day, the important question is are we using our own personal faiths to work for a higher good – to work for a more peaceful, prosperous, and compassionate world. If the answer to the last question is yes, the differences in the paths we take to that ultimate answer are far less important than that we end up at the final destination together

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