Amid the continuing political instability in Turkey, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the chairman of the foundation, Mustafa Yeşil, about the organization’s public image in light of the ongoing feud between the movement and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Yeşil graduated from Marmara University with a degree in theology in 1985 before becoming a high school religious studies teacher. After obtaining a master’s degree in social studies from Dokuz Eylül University in 1992, he joined the staff of Zaman, eventually becoming its London correspondent in 2003.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the Hizmet movement? Who funds it?
Mustafa Yeşil: The movement was founded in Turkey, and because of that it is Turkish in character. Generally speaking, it is a movement that inspires faith, but it is not a religious movement. It focuses on the common humanity in all of us, and on peace. It operates in more than 160 countries. As for the sources of funding, it depends upon the donations of members. The movement does not espouse violence or underhandedness. It strives to solve problems through peaceful means.
Q: What is the movement’s base, broadly speaking?
As a transnational movement, there are three basic axes from which the Hizmet movement addresses the three main problems in the region and the world in general. These problems are, first, ignorance, which the movement attempts to combat through education. Second is poverty, which the movement tries to stem by developing businesses and [creating] job opportunities and through humanitarian and social work. And, third, there is conflict within and between societies, which the movement is trying assuage through dialogue.
The movement’s ability to administer and oversee various productive initiatives throughout the world emanates from its moral values and humanitarian principles. Wherever the movement operates, its volunteers work with the same code of ethics, and that is what enables us to endure.
As for the values and principles, the basis of our common principles is discipline. As for values, our overarching goal is to always seek to please God; this is our greatest motivating factor. We are not motivated by material gain when joining the movement. It is instead based on giving to society and the people. Principles such as love and tolerance are constants in the movement and have become second nature to the volunteers. In the end, we are all human beings. We come from different orientations and different climates, but what unites us are our humanitarian principles. Man is the supreme art of the Creator, and this truth shapes our approach. Innovation is a fundamental principle in the work of the movement, for we live in a changing world. The movement is committed to its principles, but not so rigid that it isn’t open to innovation.
Q: What is the decision-making process in the movement?
There is no individualism in the movement. Rather than take on projects on an individual basis, Hizmet takes decisions in a liberal way. People gather and discuss the key issues and decide how to proceed together.
Q: The movement has supported the AKP since its inception, but recently you withdrew your support. Any comment?
During the three terms the AKP has been in government, the movement supported what it felt was right and criticized what it saw as wrong. Their expectations were different; they were expecting full political loyalty, which was never an option. Our loyalty is to our principles and values, not to political organizations.
The movement never planned to turn into a political movement, and our founding principles dictate that. It is very important to us that we adhere to that. But this does not mean that we are completely separated from politics. Democratic societies are home to non-governmental organizations which [seek] to influence politics, and yes, that is what we are doing. We want a better democracy, and we believe that politics should be void of authoritarianism, be it civilian or military. We are a constructive movement, and we do not have a confrontational character. We avoid violence at all costs. We are accused of basically being passive because we do not participate in any violent acts.
In the recent crisis with the ruling AKP, we adhered to the law and defended ourselves only through legal means. Now the AKP is exploiting public resources for partisan gains, and it engages in hateful speech about the movement. However, we continue to maintain our composure. On this topic, we have said before in a statement that the prime minister’s words are meant to incite hatred and could lead to violence. There is negative energy between him and the people, and he cannot control them.
Q: Why the change of heart regarding support for the AKP?
Eighty percent of our supporters voted for the AKP in 2011. That was when the party promised to bring Turkey into the European Union, to end military rule and to establish a new constitution that would protect the civil rights of all Turkish people. But after 2011 the AKP developed a powerful hubris and changed radically. Once the party controlled the Grand National Assembly, they began to try to control the judiciary. That’s when we began to smell corruption in the wind, and it finally exploded and was larger than anything we could have imagined.
Q: Your movement has had accusations leveled at it that you are building a “parallel state,” to use the prime minister’s words.
The movement has no plans to build a state within a state, because it does not have the historical framework to impose control on the community via state institutions. It adheres to the theory of civilian Islam. The movement calls for democracy because it is the best way to live. We believe that differences need not be the cause of conflict in society. The movement does not conceal any hidden agenda and we do not practice dissimulation in any way. We have credibility, and this is all we have. One of the most important political principles of the movement is that it maintains its independence. We have no contacts with any government organizations or foreign institutions, whether financially nor administratively. This is the major cause of our current dispute with the Justice and Development Party (AKP), for we did not succumb to the political will of the AKP.
Q: How large is your movement?
We have no enrollment system, and thus we have no records on new members or withdrawals. Whoever feels that the movement is beneficial and subscribes to its tenets can join, and he will earn increased responsibility as time passes.
Q: How many people does your movement employ?
It is impossible to know how many members the movement has for two reasons. First, we do not have a membership system. And, second, the movement is not a centralized body, but there are some indicators that can help us make a guess at membership numbers, such as our newspaper subscriptions and our student enrollment. Observers have placed the number anywhere from 4 to 6 million, while others have estimated that as much as 25 percent of the population of Turkey supports the movement in one way or another.
Q: Is the movement organized in any specific way?
Both funding and decision-making in the movement is organized on a local level, but there is an umbrella organization that manages these activities. For example, all of the Movement’s schools in Turkey are part of a consortium called the Union of Private Schools, and all of the movement’s institutions are connected to each other in some way through their work and occasional joint projects. Another example is the Turkey Foundation, which provides technical support for teachers who are studying the Turkish language outside the country. They organize lessons, publish books and organize the Turkish Olympiad, in which students from 160 countries compete.
Q: What media institutions does the movement manage?
The movement has been at work since the early 1970s. Things were difficult back then, and it seems they still are. The secular elite that held power at the time were wary of the movement’s work, and so they put a lot of restrictions on us. The secular media were also interested in us and wary of us. The movement wanted to interface with the public, and so we began circulating the newspaper Zaman in 1986 as a means of responding to the accusations leveled at us. The paper initially sold 5,000 copies, but has since become the most widely distributed paper in the country, selling roughly 1.2 million copies, more than twice the distribution of other leading periodicals. This displays the attitudes of Turkish society towards us. There is another newspaper, Bugün, which is published by a businessman who is sympathetic to us. It sells about 200,000 copies, so the movement sells 1.4 million out of the 5 million papers distributed across Turkey.
In the field of television, the movement manages the Samanyolu station, which provides many specialized channels, covering news, culture, economics, children’s interests and more. Conservative and liberal groups across the nation watch these channels.
Q: There is talk of your great influence within the judiciary and the police force. Is this justified?
[Laughing] It took a very long time . . . We’ve had to answer this question on several occasions, and it got to the point that we had to issue a statement regarding it. We’ve been running educational institutions for 40 years, and graduates of our schools have now made their way into the private sector and the bureaucracy. They’ve taken official positions, as is the right of every Turkish citizen, and the diversity of the community should be reflected in the government. For a while the secular elite considered the administration a closed circle, which did not lend itself to participation by ordinary or religious citizens. This began to change under President Turgut Özal, and people who supported the movement began to enter official institutions.
As to the accusation that the movement has built a parallel state, it was nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from the corruption scandal that erupted on December 17. This corruption was much worse than anyone could have expected. It was grand in scope and highly systematized, and they attempted to seek a fatwa in favor of it. So they leveled this baseless accusation against us, although they possess all the means by which any evidence could be brought to light.
Q: How does the movement respond to being declared a terrorist organization by the government?
They are trying to instill fear within the hearts of the people. This kind of talk is almost a joke, and we should laugh at it. In the 1970s we were accused of being passive because we refused to get involved in street wars. We promote dialogue and understanding, and all of our principles are based on solving problems through dialogue. They cannot sell this to the people, because no one will believe them.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally published in Arabic.