Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and Hizmet/ Gülen Movement: A Comparison

Various factors in my life have brought me into an intersection between SGI and the Dialogue Society/ Hizmet/ Gülen Movement, which came together at a meeting a few weeks back.(1) I’ll offer here a few unstructured thoughts on what they have in common. First, briefly, for those unfamiliar with them a brief introduction to the two groups.

SGI: Soka Gakkai International is a Buddhist organisation that looks back to the medieval Japanese religious reformer, Nichiren and follows one of the lineages that came from him. However, during the mid-Twentieth Century this branch took a particular turn under an educational reformist who opposed Japan’s wartime ambitions, which under the current leader, Daisaku Ikeda, became an international, lay (non-priestly), movement. Ikeda provides a figure head upon which the Value-Creation Society (a common translation of the name) bases its thought, with his books, ideas, and writings being influential. This leads many followers into service in the world. Practice is based around chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra, the central Buddhist text for this movement, which is seen to have transformative power. They have a growing Western following including various celebrities like Orlando Bloom and Tina Turner.

Hizmet: a Turkish Sufi inspired movement whose name means ‘service’, but also often known as the Gülen Movement after its figurehead, Fethullah Gülen, an educational reformer, Sufi ‘mystic’, and Islamic teacher. Hizmet operates at many levels, one is as a Sufi Order, which brings people together to serve God (Allah of course simply being Arabic for ‘[The] God’). One manifestation of this is as a business network for observant Muslims in Turkey and worldwide, inspired by Gülen’s Sufi teachings, but globally they also operate, often under the name Dialogue Society, as an intercultural dialogue organisation engaged in community service and education. Indeed, one major function of Hizmet in Turkey, and worldwide, is providing schools and even universities to provide quality education and moral values.

Controversy: I should mention that both organisations have various controversies associated with them, with quite serious allegations being levelled at their leaders. How far these are genuine or inspired by ‘political’ enemies or other rivals is unclear, but details can readily be found online.(2)

Comparison: first, both may be termed New Religious Movements (NRMs) – a term much used by scholars though often debated but I think useful here – in that as they exist they are very much late Twentieth Century additions to the religious scene.(3) However, like many NRMs they do not see themselves as ‘new’ but rather based on ancient lineages, citing significant medieval (or earlier – which relates to Buddhist and Islamic self-understandings) figures from whom they come; Nichiren for SGI and figures like Rumi for Hizmet. Yet, each also relies upon its figurehead as a charismatic leader. The notion of ‘charisma’ in this sense often looks to the sociologist Max Weber who used it to speak about the sense of authority and leadership which a specific individual has or embodies. Here Ikeda is seen as the third in line from a recent reformulation but in creating the specific SGI matrix, and in leading in new ways he more than his two forebears is the key figure, and his writings are voluminous. Hizmet meanwhile will not see Gülen as a leader, although informal (or semi-formalised) structures link him through the whole movement and clearly his words and writings are foundational and inspirational. Indeed, in each case there is also no clear successor so the movements will rely upon the structures that have been set in place (and both certainly seem well capable of continuation and growth after the charismatic leader’s death). Moreover, while in one sense ostensibly religious movements, and founded on very clear traditions, they both see much of their main work as ‘secular’. As noted, Hizmet means ‘service’ and SGI can be translated as ‘value-creation society’, though in each case very clear religious principles underlie and run through the work they do. (There is a huge debate here around the inadequacy and recent Western lineage of the terms ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ as I’m using them here, but given the preponderance in contemporary usage and understanding they are ones that, to some extent, the movements will buy into or employ so my usage of them here in fairly conventional ways is somewhat justified, however, we need to be aware that they don’t really work as concepts, even as they get employed by the movements(4)). For both this work centres on education, and they both are involved in running educational institutes, Hizmet especially focuses on schools, but both also have universities. Related to this later point, both movements also have an academic outreach aspect as well, which may in part be seen as a way to help build respect and credibility for their organisation, especially as both have aspects of controversy as we have mentioned.

This point brings us to the political aspect, and in their home countries, Japan and Turkey, the organisations although often styling themselves as non-political have also had associations with specific political parties and have made it known they have favoured certain ones. This has often been where scandal and corruption allegations have come in. SGI now do not allow anyone to have a leadership member in their organisation and also have political office, especially with their favoured party, in Japan. Hizmet meanwhile have had very high profile fallings out with their erstwhile partners the Justice and Development (AKP) Party and its current leader and Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Erdogan.(5) I don’t intend to explore it here, but simply to note the way they have become embroiled in such matters as a point of similarity.

Other similarities include a focus on dialogue, both intercultural based on understanding and peace between individuals and nations, and interfaith. It forms a core part of the thinking of both leaders, and Ikeda has spent years in many high profile dialogues with leading thinkers and intellectuals around the world, now published in over seventy volumes of books, while he has also spoken at the UN and elsewhere with peace and reform proposals.(6) Gülen has also seen dialogue as central (indeed, it is surprising one of Ikeda’s published dialogues is not with him), and in the UK Dialogue Society as well as work for dialogue between Turkey and the West a series of books on Dialogue Theories has been initiated as has an academic journal on Dialogue Studies.(7) Both leaders have therefore pushed this as a central focus. Notably, though, in its early days, especially as it spread in the West, SGI was not known for its dialogic style and was seen as an aggressive proselytizing form of Buddhism which, following Nichiren’s lead, was quite polemical, but the past couple of decades have seen them mellow and they are now often the Buddhist representatives at many interfaith dialogues in the West. Hizmet has been far less centred on interfaith dialogue.

While not exhaustive, this is probably a pretty fair overview of some major similarities.

Differences: I won’t spend too long on this as its not my intention, but it is worth mentioning some specific differences. First, while SGI has in its diasporic reach tried to shed any sense of being a Japanese tradition to become another strand of ‘Western Buddhism’ (which is a whole question in itself), Hizmet has strongly kept its Turkish flavour and identity and even emphasizes it. This partly relates to the fact that SGI is an explicitly missionary religious movement, while Hizmet sees itself as appealing to predominantly Turks, but also showing a different – we may say moderate Sufi – form of Islam. It may be noted that these days, at least officially SGI holds itself back from overt proselytism and does not seek to pressure people to join. SGI is also notable in that while most Buddhist groups in the West tend to appeal to a very literate and well educated middle class demographic, it has also had an appeal to the working class. Indeed, while it has an educational side to university level, such education is not a focus within it. For Hizmet, however, its primary target is university educated and middle class Muslims, and there seems to be a strong preference for people to pursue learning with many in higher positions within the organisation having at least a Masters Degree and often PhDs. In part this is partly linked with its focus as a Turkish organisation that wants to help strengthen and build Turkey as a country which includes educationally and economically; this in turn leads back to our previous point.

Conclusion: As NRMs with charismatic leaders focused upon service to the world, dialogue and with an educational ethos in various ways it is perhaps natural that we will see links between SGI and Hizmet. Each is also very distinct, with a rationale and focus coming from their own context and purpose so the similarities shouldn’t be overstated, nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate on the way that each exemplifies what may be seen as some key concerns of religious and cultural movements of the mid to late Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, in areas like peace, education, and dialogue. They are therefore, arguably, both very much NRMs of our time.

References (this includes published books, chapters, and academic journal articles, but not links to websites from the text or in the notes).

Welch, Christina and Paul Hedges, 2014, ‘Charisma, Scriptures, Revelation, and Texts: Sources of Religious Authority’, in Paul Hedges (ed.), Controversies in Contemporary Religion, Volume 1, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, pp. 57-80.

Chryssides, George, and Margaret Wilkins (eds), 2006, A Reader in New Religious Movements, London and New York: Continuum.

Hedges, Paul, 2014, ‘Discourse on the Invention of Discourse: Why We Need the Terminology of “Religion” and “Religions”’, Journal of Religious History, 38:1, pp. 132-48, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9809.12141/abstract.

Fitzgerald, Timothy, 2007, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, Oxford: OUP.

Urbain, Olivier, 2010, Daisaku Ikeda’s Philosophy of Peace: Dialogue, Transformation and Global Citizenship, London: I. B. Taurus.

Urbain, Olivier, 2013 (ed.), Daisaku Ikeda and Dialogue for Peace, London: I. B. Taurus.

Urbain Olivier, forthcoming, ‘Daisaku Ikeda’, in Frances Sleap and Omer Sener (eds), Dialogue Theories 2, London: Dialogue Society.

NOTES:
(1) Specifically I attended an event at the Dialogue Society headquarters in London to discuss a new book they are producing, Dialogue theories 2, which includes at my suggestion a chapter on SGI’s founding figure Daisaku Ikeda, and so I met there the erudite Olivier Urbain, Director of SGI’s Toda Institute.
(2) For instance, on SGI: http://articles.latimes.com/1996-03-15/news/mn-47383_1_soka-gakkai; on Hizmet: http://www.latitudenews.com/story/pennsylvania-based-imam-pulling-strings-in-turkey/. I have to say that in my dealings with both groups I have been struck that the members tend to be very nice, ordinary, and down to earth people who feel inspired by their specific religious tradition to work for others and do good in society. Obviously, this may be a front on traditions bent on corruption and domination, however, the very accessible and public record of both leaders – and what is spread amongst their members – is very much about peace, love, and tolerance.
(3) While it is common to see SGI classified as an NRM (e.g. Chryssides and Wilkins 2006), it is not so common for Hizmet, however, it can be understood this way as Christian Welch argues (see Welch and Hedges, 2014: 75).
(4) One of the best studies is Fitzgerald 2007, however, I would argue that he overstates parts of his case especially as it relates to the concept ‘religion’, and for my assessment see Hedges, 2014.
(5) See for instance: http://www.dailysabah.com/nation/2014/03/05/erdogan-slams-controversial-imam-fethullah-gulen or http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-27203125. For Gülen’s BBC profile see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-13503361.
(6) For sources see the information here: http://www.ikedacenter.org/. Olivier Urbain has written extensively on his dialogic work and principles (see Urbain 2010, 2013, forthcoming).
(7) See, e.g. http://www.dialoguesociety.org/publications/publications.html, and http://www.churches-together.net/Articles/212107/Home/Resources/Inter_faith/Towards_a_Culture/The_G%C3%BClen_Movement.aspx.

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