Darkness Visible: Depression, Anxiety, Disassociation

A story of personal courage and the deliverance from an unrelenting suffering can have a great effect on the motivation of an audience, particularly those that feel crippled in their anguish and cannot appreciate the hope of any release from the prison they find themselves locked in. Indeed, as William Styron states: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.” If one suffers a physical injury, they experience pain and the suffering comes with it, but the elusive and subjective experience of depression is an injury that causes a similar experience of physical pain; the only difference is not knowing where it is coming from. Styron’ short but very powerful memoir Darkness Visible touches on the profound and debilitating experience of depression that almost led him to suicide.

The author of this astonishing memoir begins his personal and heartbreaking decline into depression while at a hotel in Paris, his presence there to accept the prestigious Prix del Duca award for his literary talent. At the time of acceptance, he felt honoured and privileged for the inclusion of his work among many other talented writers. But, it is in France that he begins his tale of the eventual decline into the somber malaise that would almost take his life. “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description.”[1]

Clearly affected by insomnia, Styron confesses to have taken the drug Halcion to aid him to sleep the night before the award ceremony; however his deteriorating condition was clear months in advance as he monitored his own gradual decline of “malaise and restlessness and sudden fits of anxiety.”[2] His previous and lengthy reliance on alcohol was abruptly put to an end that was once used to assist in managing these feelings of anxiety.[3] His depressive state impacted on his capacity to concentrate and his knowledge of medical conditions did not practically assist him to overcome the feelings of “gloom crowding in on me, a sense of dread and alienation and, above all, stifling anxiety,”[4] that he faced. During the ceremony in his honour, he outrageously declined to stay on to the luncheon organised months in advance for him and the members that selected him because of the illness that led to “confusion, failure of mental focus and lapse of memory,”[5] sieged at certain times later in the afternoon by “panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.”[6]

But Styron did what many people often fail to do; he sought help, conscious that his mind was dissolving and his distress increasing, he knew that any further denial would lead to a catastrophic result. After the ceremony and other commitments were over, he collapsed onto his hotel bed, entranced by the feeling of “supreme discomfort… a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced with ‘positive and active anguish’”[7] as well as being afflicted by the inability to sleep, loss of appetite and a decline in the libido. The intensity of his exhaustion gave him the sensation profound misery and self-loathing (what he refers to as depression’ premier badge) that made him “zombie-like”[8] and the storm of madness – or the storm of murk[9] – arrived in time for him to become aware that if this experience of “rare torture”[10] continued it would cost him his life. Death had become a daily presence, where items around them home became instruments to enable this possibility, what he admitted when he chose to visit psychiatrist ‘Dr. Gold’. While Dr. Gold offered consolation, Styron could barely process and describe his ‘desolation’ together with the fact that pharmacology had an impact on his ability to function; while anti-depressants can assist in some serious cases, both psychotherapy and pharmacology did not help.[11]

“The pain is unrelenting and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come.”[12] This eventual hopelessness that the pain of this elusive experience will go away left him in such a wretched state that he chose to throw away his life into the garbage, effectively choosing to die. As he prepared for the necessary arrangements that would lead to his end, one fateful night he had an epiphany. There was a joy available to him and he remembered the hope of happiness that was present; he realised that he could not die, he could not kill himself. The next day, he admitted himself to hospital. His final words to those afflicted by the debilitating illness is to see this hope, that “whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”[13]

There are a range of depressive disorders from major depression that can be short-term up to very long term dysthymia and the severity of these experiences can differ, although usually the symptoms are disabling enough to interfere with usual activities and can be characterised by a melancholic change of mood that often slows a person down. While the brain regulates our moods, for many uninformed people the idea that depression is caused solely from a chemical imbalance fails to consider a number of other factors that interact with or trigger the onset of the disease. The cause of depression is just as elusive as the experience itself, but there are a number of physical, environmental and cognitive factors that can influence the development in addition to brain chemicals including genetic, health and wellbeing, as well as drug and alcohol abuse and chronic medical conditions.

Depression is a non-communicable disease and the leading cause of disability worldwide.[14] As Styrone himself indicated, it is a disease.[15] In Australia, there are currently three million people living with depression or anxiety, with an estimated 45% experiencing this debilitating mental health condition in their life and only 35% of those three million accessing treatment to support their recovery.[16] Those living with the condition experience difficulties with personal relationships, careers and their general well-being and become more prone to substance abuse as well as an increased risk of health problems. There are risks that can increase “triggers” such as a loss of a job or financial loss[17] or chronic health conditions such as injuries from a car accident or ailments such as osteoporosis or arthritis.[18] At a global level, depression effects more than 300 million people with the second highest cause of death for young people aged 15-29 is suicide, whereby depression is known to lead to suicide and a total of 800,000 people take their own lives each year.[19]

“The madness results from an aberrant biochemical process. It has been established with reasonable certainty (after strong resistance from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago) that such madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol.”[20] With a number of medical improvements vis-à-vis technology, brain imaging have enabled scientists to access a more clear picture of the effect depression can have on the brain itself. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) among other sophisticated and computed techniques continue to show that activities in the brain significantly alter when a person is experiencing depression. A person can be affected by chemical neurotransmitters that transmit messages between neurons of the brain and when low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine – organic chemical/hormone – the primary cause an imbalance between these transmissions impair mood and behaviour.

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The regions of the brain that play an important part of regulating mood and ultimately with depression include the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus all within the limbic system[21] and they are less active or significant reduce in size because of the suppression of the production of new nerve cells in the region[22] and why antidepressants can significantly increase neurotransmitters in the brain. The limbic system “has a major role in producing emotion and motivational behaviour. Rage, fear, sexual response, an intense arousal can be localized to various points in the limbic system.”[23] The amygdala in particular and it is often triggered by highly emotional events (strongly related to fear) including a death of a loved one or a severe car accident, and can affect the thalamus that directs sensory experiences to the cerebral cortex and inputs reactions and how one thinks into proper function. When the amygdala is activated, it initiates the evolutionary ‘flight or fight’ and thus gains immediate access and bypassing the function of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for sensory, motor and association including learning and decision making. Additionally, the hippocampus within the temporal lobes play a predominant role long-term memory and recollection and the amygdala is can be activated by the experience of fear and a memory of a fearful experience that occurred earlier in life, leading to highly stressful experience that impairs the hippocampus. Thus, as the scans show, those experiencing depression appear to have a smaller hippocampus in size.

The standard reaction and ultimate taboo that renders comments on the subject of mental health concerns to be, “you’ll pull out of it” or “we all have bad days”[24] have only made the subject of depression even more difficult to socially articulate. It could also be why – together with our limited cognitive abilities should the trauma be experienced during childhood – that people often repress trauma that is revived later in life. Depression has been linked to other concerns including anxiety and experiences of disassociation, where feeling of an aching loneliness is accompanied “by a second self – a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it.”[25] Disassociation has been termed as: “a mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.”[26] This includes feeling a sense of depersonalisation with a lack of control of connection to themselves. Styron shows as dissociative disorders and the eventual loss for any sense of self leads is very closely linked to the experiences of both anxiety and depression. “Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities.”[26] A person who experiences conditions like disassociation, which is descriptive of a detachment of the self from one’s own environment is doing so as a defence mechanism to cope with potentially difficult conditions. Anxiety, can be described as an ongoing and distressing feeling as Styrone felt later in the afternoon that interfered with his daily life.

The onset of all these conditions are not fully known, although there are clear indicators such as social and environmental conditions including peer pressure, domestic issues or difficulties at work, traumatic event or experience, health and well-being including a poor diet, drug and alcohol abuse as well as chronic physical ailments, the experience of depression is unique to every individual because our experiences with the external world are different.  For Styrone, his substance abuse, in this case alcohol, was used for over forty years to become the “magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination”[27] and was a means to “calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long.”[28]

In as much as Styron was influenced by the literary genius of Albert Camus, I too have been greatly inspired by this fascinating memoir that describes the rise and fall of a terrible illness, one in which I too have personally experienced. The lack of control, the horrible pain that one cannot describe, and mostly the helplessness was for me pushed to the furthest of reaches when I was taunted by other people who had neither the compassion nor comprehension for how I was feeling. Unlike Styron, I had no help, no support, but circumstances or “the healing process of time”[29] enabled me to eventually recover, however this memoir shows the importance of seeing professionals for help, of the importance of the love of people around you. The subject has for a long time been taboo and indeed, as a worker with refugee and asylum seekers, mental health concerns still remains taboo for many cultures and something I have experienced first-hand with my family and especially my mother. I highly recommend that everyone reads this concise, but accurately clear picture of this terrible illness.

 

 

[1] 5
[2] 6
[3] 39
[4] 9
[5] 12
[6] 14
[7] 15
[8] 16
[9] 46
[10] 48
[11] 55
[12] 61
[13] 85
[14] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.
[15] 5
[16] Op. Cit, Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008).
[17] Price, R.H., Choi, J.N. and Vinokur, A.D. (2002). Links in the chain of adversity following job loss: How financial strain and loss of personal control lead to depression, impaired functioning, and poor health. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 7(4), 302-312.
[18] Jacka, F.N., Pasco, J.A., Henry, M.J., Korn, S., Williams, L.J., Motowicz, M.A., Nicholson, G.C., Berk, M. (2007). Depression and bone mineral density in a community sample of men: Geelong Osteoporosis Study. Journal of Men’s Health and Gender. Vol. 4 (3), pp.292-297.
[19] World Health Organisation, Depression: Fact Sheet, February 2017 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/
[20] 46
[21] Op. Cit, Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008).
[22] Ibid.
[23] Dennis Coon, John O. Mitterer, Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior, Cengage Learning (2008) 69
[24] 37
[25] 64
[26] 43
[26] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders
[27] 39
[28] 40
[29] 32

Dante: Love That Moves The Sun And Other Stars

What is love when no one understands you, when no one can see you for who you are? Esse Est Percipi, ‘To be is to be perceived’ as said by G. Berkeley.

Is the sadness you feel real when no one is there to comfort you, when you are alone and lying in bed thinking about how those that have hurt you are completely oblivious to such an experience, perhaps on the contrary where they believe that no wrongdoing exists at all? What happens when you speak of the wrongdoing and they deny you, perhaps reverse this and claim that you are the one with the problem, competing with you to prove they were right and settle the anxiety they feel for their own falsehoods? Playing games to make themselves believe that they are somehow better than you. Is this why when faced with facts they are suddenly stirred with an emotive viciousness that increases as though the louder and more assertive they are, the more right they become and the more people they gather to agree with them, the more likely you will be silenced? And is it the reason why we appreciate the truth with greater clarity when it is uttered through lies, fictitious stories and parables that explain moral symbols that become the hermeneutic source for our subjective capacity to interpret facts without confronting the harsh and abrupt reality of our own failures?

I spent my childhood wishing for a friend that never arrived and my tenderness and love remained protected by the isolation I endured as I hid away from those contemptible enough to enjoy tricking and humiliating me, laughing at my vulnerability and frightening me. The pain even greater when I hoped for kindness that I never received, as though I were manoeuvring through a hellish purgatory, wandering and wondering if there is anyone out there that can genuinely love. For Dante, this is symbolic of what we experience when we become conscious of love and his Divine Comedy is a poetic allegory that divides such an existential reality into what becomes the three stages of our soul’s journey towards God. The Inferno is that moment of consciousness, where one awakens to a reality where our actions and failures or sins become transparent as well as our aloneness on this dark journey towards hell. As we uncover our own self-deception, we see the treachery in others and the lies and games of those within our environment who pretend to goodness when they only seek the indulgences of this false reality. It is only when one admits to this fraudulence and seeks repentance, to apologise for our own misconduct and become morally conscious that enables an escape from hell and ascend toward Purgatorio, the mountain on which we begin to climb toward heaven in order to see the difference between what is genuine or pure and what is false. The desire to reach the summit is the motivation that compels us to become honest with ourselves and though lengthy the process and arduous the climb, we purge the soul of sin by attempting to embody true love. Dante means to show that if one would ever find this heavenly peace, it is only possible through love. To put it succinctly, one begins this divine experience when they genuinely fall in love.

My will and my desire were both revolved,
As is a wheel in even motion driven
By Love,
Which moves the sun and other stars.

Dante’ lifelong love was Beatrice and highlighted in his publications including La Vita Nuova that attempts to exemplify the provincial methods of courtly love in medieval Italy. Her presence in the Divine Comedy indicate her position in the symbolic experience of Dante as he traverses through these realms, initially falling into limbo as she prayed for Dante to be saved by Virgil – who embodies a person that is wise with virtuous attributes – during his decent into the Inferno. It is almost like she desired genuine love that Dante was not yet capable of giving and prayed that he would one day come to her as one wise and authentic. His experience in Purgatorio is a necessary step that he needs to make as he reaches out to Paradiso where Beatrice is then able to guide him toward the attainment of virtuous attributes that could make a man wise and constant. Dante believes that this love is divine and one must love another through God where she becomes the symbol that enables him to reach Paradiso as she embodies the desire for him to become a better man. Thus his admiration is not aroused by the physical beauty that she possessed, where such considerations merely compel a man to turn away from God, but for who she is and that led to the awakening and the transparency of his own soul and improved the clarity of his purpose.

She – as the sun who first in love shone warm
Into my heart – had now, by proof and counter proof,
disclosed to me the lovely face of truth.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 during the late Middle Ages and wrote the epic masterpiece The Divine Comedy in 1321. Love that moves the sun and other stars is reference to a number of cantos (III – XXXIII) in Paradisio. Dante epitomises the work itself, his biography is found within the cantos as it provides us with the magnificence of his imaginative scope and allusions to his own thoughts and experiences. Highlighting the influence of Beatrice in particular, it also includes figures such as Jesus and St. John along with philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas that helped solidify his faith in God. His family was embroiled in the politics of the time; clashes between rival factions the Ghibellines who were defeated by the Guelphs for which he was a member, soon thereafter found those loyalties broken when Dante was exiled following a division between the Guelphs (Black and White) that led him to be banished for supposed corruption. The treachery he experienced became a part of the Inferno hell that left him disillusioned for the deception and violence he witnessed, his exile the many years that it took through Purgatorio to learn the wisdom to ascertain the difference between right and wrong, all the while Beatrice stood as a beacon or “holy lamp” that helped light his way to the good life. Her death in 1290 was met with pangs of anguish that it almost appears that her place in Paradiso is his lifelong yearning to be with her in what would become his own paradise. Beatrice Portinari is said to have been a woman of virtue and grace, though he briefly met her in advance of his marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, his later encounter with her clearly indicated that he fell in love and she became the muse for his love ballads, none of which mention his wife.

Dante finds himself travelling through a number of spheres in heaven, represented by astronomical or planetary symbols that allude to a series of virtues. Cantos III, for instance, embarks on a lunar journey to the moon when he confesses of his failures and is born again through the love for Beatrice. She became his saviour, a child that she could help gain steady ground about how to live in God’s love or be attuned to what correctly wills or motivates man to reflect with accuracy. A man can find salvation through a virtuous woman; when being pulled by men set on greater harm then good, she struck him with the splendours of the decency that she attached to her heart. Canto X or the Sphere of the Sun alludes to the light of God, to witness the universe and the power therewith in creation and the universe itself can eclipse the worldly attributes for a moment as Dante gives thanks to the monumental reality of the world above.

And there, entranced, begin to view the skill
The Master demonstrates. Within Himself,
He loves it so, His looking never leaves.
Look! Where those orbits meet, there branches off
The slanting circles that the planets ride
To feed and fill the world that calls on them.

A number of figures enter into the celebration of this epiphany, including King Solomon, St. Thomas Aquinas and Boethius that allude to their place in assisting one to reach this venerable awakening. They are rejoicing for Dante finally becoming aware of the fallaciousness of the world below him and where his soul deep within him begin to burn from the joy of abandoning all the lies that tied him to that false reality. It is followed in Cantos XI with, “Those idiotic strivings of the human mind!” The toil of worldly affairs including politics and law, where Dante finally finds peace in his should within the arms of Beatrice and being up high in the heavenly spheres where his soul rests in the light of truth. Here, Dante speaks of St. Francis who takes a wife and loves her despite the objections of his father and others, that his dedication to love a loyal and courageous woman though many feared her that represents the potential poverty of a life lived in the love for God and that one may be at risk of losing family and friends in the commitment to what is good. But Beatrice remains the defining guide, whereby in Cantos XIV she shows Dante that there is yet more truth that he is required to find within him, the eternal nature of this experience and whether one will remain committed in their love for God. Beatrice grows and becomes more beautiful to Dante when she chooses to join the light, perhaps representative of the longevity and growth of the beauty of love in a virtuous woman that renders the clarity of the experience eternal.

And so my eyes, regaining their strength,
Lifted once more. I saw myself alone,
Borne with my lady to a higher good.
Seeing the flares of laughter in that star,
Which seemed now far more fiery than before,
I knew full well that I’d been lifted higher.

We begin to see through the light of God all that is wonderful and so what we ‘see’ or understand continuously increases as we rise higher through the celestial planes. In Cantos XVII, Dante is still troubled and Beatrice continues to help him shed light on his feelings by prompting a discussion with Cacciaguida about the future and the difficulties he may face as was forewarned by Virgil. Contingency is met with the potential uncertainty for the future and that while one may experience hardships, in faith one will also experience events that are wonderful. It is to be courageous to face the contingency. When they reach Cantos XXIII or the Sphere of the Fixed Stars (Eighth Heaven), Beatrice is compared to a mother bird waiting for the sun, the light of Christ and enraptures all who experience this power to expand their thoughts beyond the horizon. The garden, for which Beatrice instructs Dante to look upon, contains a rose that is the Word of God and he can see Mary in the rose, the “Queen of Heaven” (Regina Coeli). By Cantos XXVII, Dante – despite being further from the earth – can now see the details within it with greater clarity, his mind now free from the false burdens that blinded him from seeing such details, the sins for which Beatrice speaks of when a man misuses his free will. He returns to earth in Cantos XXX, the light of dawn slowly drowning the light of the stars until he turns to see the beauty of Beatrice once more and both reached the Paradiso in one another, transcending the material world through love and wisdom.

As she then was – a guide in word and deed,
Her work all done – she spoke again: ‘We’ve left
The greatest of material spheres, rising
To light, pure light of intellect, all love,
The love of good in truth, all happiness,
A happiness transcending every rapture.

The final Cantos XXXIII, Bernard of Clairvaux praises the love of Mary as the foundation for the rose or the Word of God who helped illuminate Dante with the truth and the happiness that followed. Indeed, as Beatrice returns to her place in the rose, which is symbolic of the Queen and Virgin Mother, epitomises that she has satisfied her love for Dante as he gazes into the light of the Empyrean. He now understands God and what is right and good on earth.

As one who has now ascended to Paradiso, the bliss and happiness of finding the Divine love and waiting to meet someone genuine on this journey of mine, I believe as Dante does that love can only be real when two people experience this transcendence from the material realm, from the hellish Inferno where one becomes aware of the reality where there exists corruption, lies, and all things vicious. By seeking the divine love of God, one can redeem themselves and when guided by love, mirror our moral position to become virtuous and wise. Only then can one return to ‘earth’ and see the world for what it genuinely is. The Divine Comedy remains a powerful poetic bildungsroman, an epic of gigantic proportions that remains the heart of medieval Italy and the Italian language itself.

Book Review: Ethical Writings of Maimonides

For centuries, from Aristotle to Confucius, Aquinas and Thoreau, moral philosophers have endorsed the idea that a balanced, moderate regularity of character is an important step towards genuine happiness, that excess or deficiency of any sort and the failure to attain a principled attitude toward guiding and cultivating the self toward this mean will lead to the reverse. Thus, one who leads a life attempting to walk down this dutiful path toward a balanced and constant frame of mind is demonstrative of a noble and even a superior person. As said by Socrates, “with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just… all other considerations he will dismiss, for we have seen that this is the best choice.”[i] This choice to lead a life of virtue and justice and abandoning all that is vulgar, vulgarity being interpreted as “the masses and the most vulgar seem – not unreasonably – to believe that the good or happiness is pleasure. Accordingly they ask for nothing better than the life of enjoyment,”[ii] will allow one to adopt a standard that will link them closer to what is beautiful, namely love and honesty.

So what constitutes perfect virtue? Is it defined by the strength of individual will? Is it how one determines right from wrong, the capacity to overcome the influence of a defective ego, the intelligence and the confidence to be autonomous by engaging independently with the world around them? Is it to identify and distinguish the kind of moral values that are functional, valuable and aesthetical, of what is prohibited, useful and authentic, to be capable of ascertaining intent and to act on and maximise moral principles? It is simply the strength of will, the capacity to overcome the proclivity of the ego and the wayward pleasures of our instinctual drives, to recognise the scope of the activity of leading a morally virtuous life by searching for the golden mean. It is to be courageous enough to deliberately abandon a false environment and find the veracity and sense of honour to pursue a life of virtue, to maintain and personify it. “True virtue can only be grafted onto principles, such that the more general they are, the more sublime and noble they become,”[iii] thus distinguishing between the subjective aesthetic toward a universal aesthetic, the former having the possible inclination to waywardness as it remains dependant on the moral disposition of the individual.

It is for this reason that the disposition of the individual and obtaining the correct character traits necessary to reach true virtue is indispensable. Moses Maimonides discussed in detail the importance of this mean in several of his works including Hilkhot De’ot or the Laws Concerning Character Traits and Eight Chapters aside from his more famed work in Guide of the Perplexed. All of which can be found in the Ethical Writings of Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), edited by Raymond L. Weiss with Charles Butterworth. Maimonides (1138 – 1204) was born in Cordoba, during the short-lived Moorish Almoravid Dynasty that ruled over present-day Morocco and Spain. Known as Rambam, he trained as a physician that later enabled him to become court physician to the Sultan Saladin and was well versed in medicine both in reading and in writing. His writings stretched out to include Rabbinic Law and Jewish Philosophy and his influence as a scholar has maintained his place as authoritative figure in Jewish law and ethics. His metaphysical and epistemological writings are included in his prolific repertoire but his studies on ethics and virtue exemplify the type of obedience and dedication required to preserve the divine wisdom and the t’amei ha-mitzvot that explained the reasons for the commandments.

According to Maimonides, there exists two types of moral standards in an individual, namely those that are pious and those that attempt to find the golden mean, the former considered to be obligatory since such a characteristic is required to encourage the subjective poise required to engage in the middle way.[iv] In his Laws Concerning Character Traits (27-59), he traverses through eleven commandments that attempt to direct one toward the equilibrium required to reach a state of moral virtue that epitomises the ‘right way’ or as said by Solomon, “Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established.”[v] All people have different character traits, different personalities and dispositions, whereby one person may have the calm that another may not as they become intensely angered and impatient. One can be lazy and gluttonous while another ascetic by nature. Maimonides writes about eleven commandments that include 1. to imitate God, 2. to cleave to those who know of God, 3. to love your neighbours, 4. to love converts to God, 5. not to hate brothers, 6. to rebuke, 7. not to put (anyone) to shame, 8. not to afflict the distressed, 9. not to go about as a talebearer, 10. not to take revenge, 11. not to bear a grudge. “The right way is the mean in every single one of a man’s character traits” (29). The golden mean is to find the balance toward establishing a good character indicated by the way they conduct their affairs, by being humble and loving. It is to reach for ‘wisdom’ by finding the mean between the extremes of our character traits before sensibly and continuously practicing until it becomes firmly established.

For Maimonides, it is wisdom to walk in the way of God, to seek the path that leads to God and therefore replicate the virtues or commandments and test your obedience to God as exemplified in the Old Testament. To become “slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, just and righteous, perfect, powerful and strong… and a man is obliged to train himself to follow them and to imitate according to his strength.”[vi] It is to uproot the flaws that one may have and ‘cure’ the ailment of immorality by training oneself to understand opposites. If one is wealthy and has a conceited attitude, he should clothe himself in worn-out, shabby garments that will endure him with much degradation until the haughtiness has left him and he is humbled. Whatever the problem may be that causes one to lose the way of this required balance, the individual should move themselves toward the other end of the same extreme until reaching that unaffected balance. As said by David Hume, “[t]he richest genius, like the most fertile soil, when uncultivated, shoots up into the rankest weeds.”[vii]

Although he discusses aspects of one’s personal conduct, including the way that one may eat or drink, sleep and have sexual intercourse, there is one particular aspect that merits further discussion and that was his view on cleaving to those who lead the way of wisdom. “[A] man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions,”[viii] and by associating with fools one will ultimately enable evil to prosper within. Accordingly, evil is living without adequate care or thought to this measure of behaviour. The human being, says Kant, is aware of the moral law but has failed to incorporate it into his or her maxim, and is thus fundamentally evil.[ix] Regarding the conduct of ones affairs and perfecting eating habits, the way he or she engages with body and desires, and the consistent consciousness to dedicate oneself to moral well being is not simply for the happiness that it enables but also as a way to keep his or her body healthy and strong. There misery therewith when surrounded by the wrong people will prevent one from conducting their affairs correctly. In On the Management of Health (105-113), any such undesirable people and overindulgence leads to excessive mental and physical health issues where strength is spent and “his life and eyes dimmed”[x] or conversely, improving his character traits by cleaving to those who are wise, modest and righteous, his soul ultimately becomes tranquil.[xi] In similar vein, Confucius states that one should, “make conscientiousness and sincerity your leading principles. Have no friends inferior to yourself. And when in the wrong, do not hesitate to amend.”[xii] But it is not merely the afflictions physically, but the afflictions of the soul and the impact of the misery, anxiety and despair that befall people. The remedy is to enable the soul to eliminate the passions and learn to compose oneself ethically and morally by becoming subservient to what is righteous and good. “Thus the passions will diminish, [obsessive] thoughts will disappear, apprehension will be removed, and the soul will be cheerful in whatever condition a man happens to be” [109].

While it is possible that the ego could choose the wrong people to have and thus misconstrue what it means to be surrounded by the right people, the general rule of propriety is that self-development and dedicating oneself to a life of wisdom would enable the faculty accurately observe right and wrong conduct in others and ourselves. The propriety of character and how people conduct themselves and their affairs is a matter of observation and since depravity of character is expressed through impropriety and the product of their behaviour seen by the fruits they produce, the clarity of choice becomes simplified. Those who embody moral virtue and right or wrong behaviour, who – as Mencius expounds – feels a sense of shame[xiii] and is reverently careful in his conduct and affairs is clearly one of right character and mind. This standard establishes a virtuous culture or environment where members equally possess the same will to moral virtue that enjoin to equally share in the development of principles, a formula known as the Kingdom of Ends.[xiv] For Maimonides, “Certain actions necessarily stem from one soul and other actions from another soul” that therefore exemplify the importance of relations with our fellow community.

In Eight Chapters (59-105), Maimonides critically explores piety and the discipline that encompasses morality. Good moral habits initiates the formation of ethics; by obtaining good moral habits, it becomes that very connection between moral virtue and the social and political. Written as an introduction to Pirqei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), he attempts to isolate the permissible and erroneous and the relevance of been rational as n instrument to become empowered to control the appetitive desires. The soul has the power but disobedience through transgressions and the highly imaginative fails to enable the will to become subservient to moral virtues. “For example, moderation, liberality, justice, gentleness, humility, contentment, courage, and others.” (65) This disobedience becomes a disease to the soul that is seen externally in the body, taking pleasure in things that are not good for the body and the mind and never reaching physical excellence. His references to statements made by Solomon enables clarity on his combined efforts to involve Biblical connections to his ethical and medicinal approaches.

And the reason for living a life dedicated to finding the Golden Mean? Virtue – which is mental health – and the golden mean are necessary for a healthy life. In his Letter to Joseph (113-129), that he writes to his disciple Joseph Ibn Aknin, it is to lead by example and develop a pattern of excellent. The chapter provides some extraordinary insights into the man himself, about his vision and his enormous commitment to his moral objective. “In sum, if you are indeed my disciple, I want you to train yourself to follow my moral habits” (120). His affection and criticisms shed an amazing light on his dedication to justice and his love of knowledge, or as St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”[xvii] Love is the unity formed through knowledge and establishes a state of happiness resides, making knowledge fundamental to this development. Through Rabbinical law and adherence to the commandments along with the dedication to attain a balance of mind will the adherent become suffused with love. It is not simply the mean itself that supplies the individual with the tranquillity required to be happy, but the righteous ability to discern the right time and way to think and behave, to rationally approach ones own emotions.

By improving your character and reaching a state of clarity in mind and reason, one will enable the qualities necessary to reach the balanced standard that Mainmonides expects. In the Guide of the Perplexed (129-155), which is one of his most famous works, is to guide those possessing positive character traits by learning to understand God. The work is addressed to Joseph ben Judah and elucidates ways of overcoming the disillusionment and existential angst of philosophy and law by understanding the differences between the practical and the subjective or speculative. Having strong theoretical foundations and thus continuously ameliorating knowledge, one can uncover the mental capacity necessary to acquire to attain a solid understanding of themselves and the world around them. That laws are not natural but necessary to manage the natural. “The Law as a whole aims at two things: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body. As for the well-being of the soul, it consists in the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacity” (139). The final chapters, Treatise on the Art of Logic (155-165) and The Days of the Messiah (165-177) continue along with the same themes. By distinguishing biblical themes such as the world to come, formulations that deal with immorality and the benefits of the laws particularly the coming messianic era will provide one with an understanding of repentance. “It has become known that the life of the world-to-come is the reward for performing the commandments and is the good that we merit if we have kept the way of the old referred to in the Torah” (169). Discussing the instrument of logic as a necessary condition of the mind in order to appreciate the correct approach of practical reasoning and to think and behave correctly remains an important aspect to the power of rational thought.

I was compelled to his work for my love of history whether it is ancient or medieval, in this case the latter. I have a strong appreciation for literature such as the Ethical Writings of Maimonides that promotes the value of ethics and the moral concerns relating to our conduct and behaviour. His criticism is harsh, views absolute and his beliefs that the actions of our soul, our intent, the choices that we want to make and whether we are thinking correctly formulate the groundwork necessary to compel the right choices that we act out in reality. The book provides additional insight into rabbinical literature and the significance of moral laws that authoritatively posit the necessity of moral conduct. By finding the golden mean and teaching oneself to discover a proper balance of thought and behaviour, compelled by our desire to lead a virtuous life, Maimonides believes that we can reach both physically and mentally excellence in health and in moral virtue.

[i] Plato, Republic [618e]
[ii] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics from I.M.N. Al-Jubouri’ History of Islamic Philosophy, (2004) 74
[iii] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 2:217
[iv] Raymond L. Weiss, Ethical Writings of Maimonides, Dover Publications New York (1975), 7
[v] Proverbs 4:26
[vi] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 30
[vii] David Hume, Moral and Political Philosophy, Simon and Schuster (2010)
[viii] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 46
[ix] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, 6:32
[x] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 40
[xi] Ibid., 43
[xii] Confucius, The Analects, Chapter XXIV
[xiii] Menicius, Bk. vii., pti., c.vii., v i.
[xiv] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 4:439

Book Review: The Master and Margarita

I believe that genuine love between two people is possible. Any attempt I make to express this always appears inadequate and yet, images of a breathtaking dance as two melt through and into one another, magnetic lips fastening as a voltaic current sweeps through the body until it ends as both whisper to one another face to face deep into the night, her fingers intertwined through his as she draws her nose towards his neck, her hair gliding down over his chest as she slips away into a long and safe sleep. But they are dreams that cause me nothing but anguish as I can never truly explain the authenticity, the existential aesthetic, the timelessness and whether it is merely me and only me that can love as deeply as I know I can feel. But to reach that authenticity, one needs to truly understand themselves and to understand God or that we are in a universe much greater than we can ever comprehend. When I read the following by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita it almost clearly explained how I felt about the eternal and the indestructable that is expressed between two genuine people who meet one another:

She was carrying some of those repulsive yellow flowers. God knows what they’re called, but they are somehow always the first to come out in spring. They stood out very sharply against her black dress. She was carrying yellow flowers! It’s an ugly colour. She turned off Tverskaya into a side-street and turned round. You know the Tverskaya, don’t you? There must have been a thousand people on it but I swear to you that she saw no one but me. She had a look of suffering and I was struck less by her beauty than by the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes. Obeying that yellow signal I too turned into the side street and followed her. We walked in silence down that dreary winding little street without saying a word, she on one side, me on the other. There was not another soul in the street. I was in agony because I felt I had to speak to her and was worried that I might not be able to utter a word, she would disappear and I should never see her again. Then, if you can believe it, she said:

    “Do you like my flowers?”

    ‘I remember exactly how her voice sounded. It was pitched fairly low but with a catch in it and stupid as it may sound I had the impression that it echoed across the street and reverberated from the dirty yellow wall. I quickly crossed to her side and going up to her replied: “No”.

    ‘She looked at me in surprise and suddenly, completely unexpectedly, I realised that I had been in love with this woman all my life.

Mikhail Bulgakov was born in the Russian Empire in 1891 and is considered one of the greatest playwrights and authors of fiction amongst other greats such as Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoyevsky. His novel is both a comical and a frightening fable that pirouettes between the literal and the metaphorical. The story is broken into a framed narrative concerning morality and reality that entertains the decline in Russia’ commitment to spiritual love both individually and within a social and political atmosphere during Stalinist era. The plot links the love story between the Master, a writer in despair, his lover Margarita and her sacrificial and almost divine love for the Master verified through the machinations of Satan who tries to tempt her away from such love, along with the symbolic conversation between Yeshua or Jesus with Pontius Pilate.

Allegorical and highly imaginative, the clarity of the semblance between the story and the Stalinist era is easy to discern. Woland, or Satan, delights in the power he has over others, his cruelty almost cheerful and calm and this disinterest is clearly accommodating the characteristic of Stalin himself. One of the particular aspects of Woland’s behaviour is the torment toward the intellectual community of Russia, a resemblance to the painful experiences Bulgakov himself had endured at the time. Initially careful with his artistic approach and early in his career able to successfully write and produce plays, following his move to Moscow the playwright struggled with anguish as is similarly seen with the Master character in the novel as his plays were continuously banned and criticised. By 1929, however, all work by Bulgakov was forbidden and while he sought to emigrate, remained and continued to work despite the authoritarian measures against his creativity. It was during this period he began working on the Master and Margarita.

For Bulgakov, there appears to be an artistic triptych regarding the nature of our existence, namely there exists a psychological line segment where on one end you have good and on the other evil, with the mean being love. The formula, as such, of reaching the midpoint between good and evil is usually followed by proof, a test that verifies the intent and is usually authenticated by taking a leap of faith. The outcome is subjective, but independently so that even through temptation or fear, one can confidently choose love and thus, the midpoint is almost transcending anything that is actually good or evil. “Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil” [F. Nietzsche] Margarita, despite not being with the Master neither knowing his whereabouts, nevertheless remained dedicated to him. This ‘faith’ in him and the strength or the eternal nature of her love for the lost and tormented soul of the Master is a unique expression between the plotlines of good and evil. Namely, her love is unconditional, transcending the biblical rules or divine laws and overriding any utilitarian or deontological modes of moral action. She loves him and neither good nor evil can change that. “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved” [E. Fromm].

Unconditional love therefore involves this sacrificial element, demonstrated biblically with Jesus and in addition to the story there stands another narrative based during the time of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, where a conversation between Yeshua and Pontius Pilate takes place. This biblical aspect to the tale noticeably contrasts with the story relating to Satan or Woland, the Good vs. Evil, thus it is clear that the purpose or intent of the novel itself is about Good vs. Evil in both the individual and in society, the story between the Master and Margarita being about personal love and the rest being about the importance of a divine love or love of God socially and culturally. Under Stalin and Russian Communism at the time, the absence of God and religion in society is symbolically seen through the interactions between Pilate and Yeshua, the former a representation of Russia and the latter of the divine, and becomes an analogy that the absence of faith would ultimately lead to ruin. While rational, Bulgakov used fiction as a prophetic warning that an immoral society as in Russia at the time will lead to disaster and only a moral society can produce a positive and contented environment that is sustainable. “The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life”[E. Fromm]

Love, therefore, is the ultimate maxim and clarity to reach this pinnacle of consciousness can only be done so through choice, through free will as Margarita proved by the choice she made for the Master; the freedom of ones Will is often influenced not just by temptation but also by fear. Lars Svendsen explored the nature of fear in several different areas including political, social and the emotional and purports that fear is caused by our environment – socially and domestically – as it dictates a fear to think independently and be free, thus ‘tempting’ society to trust in the whole outside of oneself [society, family etc &c.]. “[F]ear has become a kind of culturally determined magnifying glass through which we consider the world” [Svendsen 2008]. This is comparative to the Stalin era as is also mentioned by Svendsen, who ruled with Machiavellian tyranny and that the threat of an impending difficulty unconsciously forces one to second-guess the decision making process as an automated reaction and thus mind-controlled. Bulgakov satirised what was essentially a waning morality in Russia at the time. This period was of significant instability and totalitarian violence under the communist regime and the eradication of religious – namely Christian – values. The opening chapter itself finds the devil having a conversation with two who confidently discuss the non-existence of Jesus [biblically referred to a culture forming an ‘anti-Christ’]. The novel parodied disappearing individuals that at the time were a reality under the regime of Stalin as seen by the reactions following events and this is perhaps the reason why Woland or Satan placed particular interest in Margarita, as she herself appears to be the only person who is fearless. “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices”[M. Bulgakov]. In doing so, her fearlessness is the reason for her capacity to love genuinely.

Questions about good and evil are raised through the plotlines, particularly the latter and why evil exists in the world. From an Augustinian perspective, it is due in part because “evil” is not a thing that is created and therefore the source of its existence is merely the will to turn away from what is essentially our nature, our nature being naturally good since all that God created is good. Thus, it is the choice to avoid, turn aside or corrupt the will away from goodness, thus perverting the will and ultimately becoming evil. “Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his works unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil”[St. Augustine]. Kant offered a secular theory toward the concept of evil, whereby humans by nature are naturally inclined toward goodness but also evil under the umbrella of a radically free will. As a consequence, only by free will are we able to choose what is right and thus when we do not make the choice to do good, we are thus evil. But the latter ‘evil’ is graded into several levels, being:

“The possibility of hubris is accounted for by the concept of freedom. There are thus three levels or gradations of evil: (1) mere counterlegality, (2) the lower level of countermorality, occasional single-cases of evil, and (3) the worse level of evil  “as a rule”… full-fledged evil designates the constitution of an agent or of an agents maxim”[O. Hoffee, 2007].

Thus (1) is a type of failure of will, a morally right person who slips or is too weak to maintain a strong will to commit to any lapse in judgement, whereas (2) is a corruption of the will, an intent of not wanting to perform morally right actions unless there appears an incentive for doing so, thus moral goodness is merely self-interest hidden under the guise of morality. On the other hand (3) is wickedness, that one narcissistically places the self above all moral laws and conforms only to moral laws as a way of promoting the self. This includes an act in which an individual wills with intent to commit evil solely because it contradicts moral laws, a type of wilful arrogance. Whilst it has been argued that Kant’s claim of the worst kind of evil is objectionable since an indication of evil is the level of harm that it produces, it is according to Kant the subjective motive that is evil and not just the outcome. In this instance, perhaps consider a sociopath and the fact that there are many sociopaths who are not actually violent, the latter perhaps because it is not in their own best interest rather than for any moral worthiness.

The similarity with Johann Goethe’ Faustus, a satirical play about striking a deal with the devil, is clear, particularly with the division of the work whereby with Faustus the play is divided into two parts with the first set in reality and the second figurative or subjective. Faust is considered noble in character with his utmost desire for knowledge until Satan or Mephistopheles claims to God that he is capable of luring him away from righteousness. Faust himself is struggling with the existential crises that befalls those that became aware or conscious of the vanity of such pursuits and whilst attempting to alleviate the struggle through ethereal or magical attempts toward an infinite knowledge – since infinity would imply a type of combustion of vanity – he sadly realises the futility and perhaps the trickery of such an attempt. Finally, Faust is seduced by the temptation set by the Devil, particularly through Gretchen with whom Faust is attracted to and ultimately their relationship ends in sorrow and death, only Gretchen herself – when rejecting the final advances to be removed from prison by Faust – is ‘saved’ leaving Faust to remain grievously ashamed.

While it is knowledge or access to knowledge otherwise inaccessible to the human mind and cognition in general that became the desire compelling Faust, his fatal relationship with Gretchen or, ultimately, his failure to understand that love is the answer to his quandary and that the very ‘infinite’ exists in a free will that chooses righteously, the ultimate result is a cyclic return to the very same point of his initial misery. His thoughts at the beginning of the fable when facing his existential crises compelled him to the idea of suicide and thus an exposure of his unhappiness. The outcome of this unhappiness that led him to agree to the advances or temptation of the devil also led to the misery and death of Gretchen and members of her family. This result was Goethe’ exposure of the importance of our moral responsibility toward others as part of our endeavours toward reaching happiness. “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honour.”[Romans 12.9] Hence why Mephistopheles, or the Devil, is banished to the ‘Eternal Empty’ or symbolically the unhappy place of living without the fulfilment one receives when choosing the will to be good. It is a dark or heavy feeling where one can never be satisfied or that place lacking in the longevity required for a peaceful approach toward the entrance gates of infinite happiness that Faust longed for. Since one cannot know love save for the love that they have within and what they are able to give to others, the riddle to love itself is unknown as this ‘within’ or subjective self is infinite, hence why love surpasses knowledge and becomes the very purpose of existence that Faust initially craved for. In the choice to commit to love through our own free Will can the scales between good and evil truly balance. Faust finally tames the desires for war and of his own nature that he experiences happiness, becoming conscious and thus the devil is unable to take his soul due in part to Gretchen’s unconditional ‘sacrifice’ through forgiveness of Faust and in part because of Faust’ dedication to reach the infinite, albeit doing so imperfectly.

The Master and Margarita is a gripping story based within an entirely corrupt Moscow, inhabited by citizens with loose morals and a waning spirituality. Bulgakov manages to entrance the reader by capturing the approaching story in the very first chapter, when Satan himself and his extraordinary entourage gracefully stroll into the city with almost a haughty, arrogant elegance. While fantastic in nature, the bizarre fictional themes reveal within them the very nature of the book, of good and evil and the purpose and power of love. It can be said that reaching happiness is our ultimate motivation, however happiness is reliant on its sustainability and longevity. Desires and a passion for ultimately futile endeavours eventually result in the sorrow and misery one initially attempts to escape from, as seen from the opening scenes of the play of Faustus and continues through with Faust’ relationship with Gretchen. This is the paradox; that in order to reach a state of happiness, one must first traverse through the murky realms of knowledge toward the gates of love; that love surpasses knowledge and yet it is not in knowledge can one attain happiness. From the multiple layers of narrative, stories within stories, metaphors, satire and political and spiritual agendas truly makes the Master and Margarita one of the most successful and inspiring novels of the twentieth century.

Bulgakov is certainly among the very few great writers to have ever lived who is capable at combining fantasy and satire into one complex yet simple whole, just like my other favourites writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. His capacity and concern for ethical problems that he is able to express using metaphors and surreal situations or plots is irresistible, skilful and admirable.

The Gülen Movement in Turkey: The Politics of Islam and Modernity

The Gülen Movement’s growing power and influence, followed by its public criticism of the AKP government in 2010 and 2013, and finally the coup attempt in July 2016, has led to an unprecedented crackdown on the Gülen Movement in Turkey. The purge has ousted thousands of employees from major state and civil society institutions, including the military, judiciary, and education institutions, as well as the mass media. The rise and fall of the Gülen Movement has been one of the defining issues in Turkish politics in the twenty-first century.

Book Review

Caroline Tee

The Gülen Movement in Turkey: The Politics of Islam and Modernity

(London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016) 227pp

ISBN: 978-1-78453-588-9

Introduction

The turmoil following the gradual dissolution of the Ottoman Empire during the late nineteenth century led to the sharp rise of Turkish nationalism. During this period, the Young Turks (Jöntürkler) attempted to define the ‘nation’ and what it meant to be ‘Turkish’. Following international and domestic chaos during the Great War and the Balkan War, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic and transformed the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into a modern, secular nation-state. The state abolished the caliphate, controlled the appointments of imams, rescinded religious courts and schools, and created new laws that further limited the power of religion in Turkish public life. These political and cultural reforms were intended to transform civic culture by strengthening loyalty to the new Turkish Republic. Nevertheless, winning popular acceptance for this new secular nationalism was an uneven and complex process that was not fully embraced by all sectors of Turkish society.

Accordingly, leading religious intellectuals such as Bediuzzaman Said Nursî sought to challenge the new nationalist ideology or Kemalism, which was influenced by the work of Ziya Gölkalp who strongly suggested suppressing any connections to the former Ottoman regime. Nursî believed that reinforcing Islam would establish a balance with secularism in all areas of Turkish society, particularly in education and intercultural dialogue. When the Turkish political system moved from a one-party authoritarian regime to a multi-party system in the middle of the twentieth century, discussions of Islam that had long laid dormant began to emerge and the scale of this divide between Kemalist secularists and religious Turks became clear. Beginning in the 1960s, these cultural and religious tensions during a period of economic turmoil gradually prompted civil violence and led the military to government interventions. This phenomenon continued in the 1970s, leading to a series of demonstrations, violence between the secular and Islamist factions and political assassinations. It was only with the 1980 coup d’état and the sweeping reforms that were initiated following the deaths of thousands that the Turkish-Islam Synthesis (Türk-İslam Sentezi) was introduced, in an attempt to establish a political balance between Kemalism and Sunni Islam (Hanafi). Political parties – like the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) and the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) – were shut down both in 1998 and 2001 respectively, leading to a cycle of socio-political tension.It was in this atmosphere that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged.

Its initial success was due to support from influential religious and social institutions, like the peculiar and autonomous Gülen Movement. Strengthened by this significant and influential alliance during the first decade of the twentieth-century – particularly with leading figures in the judiciary loyal to the Islamic movement’s leader, Fethullah Gülen – tensions surfaced between the ruling AKP and Gülen, after Gülen criticized the government for its anti-Israel rhetoric following the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla crisis in Gaza and additionally for its use of excessive force during Gezi Park Protests in May 2013. The political alliance was ruptured when notable AKP figures were arrested or questioned for corruption, money laundering and bribery charges in what became one of the largest and most controversial legal cases in Turkey, leading Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to brand the Gülen Movement a ‘parallel structure’ [Paralel Devlet Yapılanması] or a state-like organisation without democratic legitimacy. While it is important to distinguish between the enigmatic figure of Fethullah Gülen who leads an ascetic lifestyle in the remote Pennsylvania countryside of the U.S., and the contemplative Sufi cleric who vis-à-vis the movement holds identifiable wealth and influence in Turkey and across the globe, it is undeniable that political polarization and the AK Party’s use of pro-government discourses has served as a platform to promote an authoritarian legitimacy, thus deepening the confusion.

Gülen’ Hizmet Movement

Caroline Tee’s The Gülen Movement in Turkey: The Politics of Islam and Modernity is an essential introduction to the topic, which addresses the Gülen Movement’s intentions, networks, and its broad influence in Turkish society. The book begins with Fethullah Gülen himself and the influence of Islamic theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursî – particularly the effect his seminal work Risale-i Nur –on Gülen’s own spiritual framework. Raised in Erzurum, which is socially and religiously conservative, Gülen gained his traditional religious education at a Sufi tekke (lodge), which were the religious institutions of both the Naqshbandi and Qadiri Sufi Orders. He continued his formal education in Islamic jurisprudence and by the age of eighteen became a state-qualified Imam. Several years later, Gülen was posted to the center of Izmir as the director of the Qur’anic school in Kestanepazan Mosque, and though he desired to move to a more conservative environment, and away from the liberal atmosphere of the western provinces of Turkey, he remained in Izmir and developed his vision of spiritual reform with the intent of reinvigorating Islam and bringing it to a wider audience. He gained a small following both at the mosque and through regular meetings at coffee houses, creating the Hizmet or ‘Service’ movement during the rigid secular posture of the state in the 1960s.

The movement began to grow when his vision for an altın nesil, or ‘golden generation’ was implemented through organized summer camps that aimed to educate the next generation of Turks in both Islam and the modern sciences. This illustrates the influence of Said Nursî who also envisioned the revitalization of Turkish religious culture, which had been vastly transformed by modern secularism by calling for positive action (müspet hareket) from pious individuals to engage in all areas of the public sphere. Said Nursî also emphasized the importance of education in both Islam and the sciences, with Gülen’ pedagogy following Nursî’s attempt to change the impression that religion is inimical to science. Eventually, the summer camps became after-school centers (dershane) that gradually began to expand into other cities across Turkey, despite the growing social and political tensions between leftists and right-wing factions during the 1970s.

A complete overhaul of the constitution following the 1980 military coup d’état, ushered in a period of economic liberalization led by Turgut Özal. And the new Turkish-Islam synthesis (Türk-İslam Sentezi) that emerged removed some of the restrictions on religious life in Turkey. Tee explains how the Gülenists began investing in business and media interests and taking advantage of new international opportunities particularly in the Central Asia, which provided the movement with fertile ground for geographic expansion.

The Gülen Network

The second part of the book contains the core of Caroline Tee’s research into Gülen Movement’s membership and its approach to scientific education. Tee uses anthropological fieldwork to explain how Gülen’s Islamic creationist movement teaches science within an Islamic framework. Tee describes her experiences with the Gülenist educational system, which is characterized by strong academic achievement. Gülenist schools are preferred by conservative religious families for their moral and religious commitment and secular curriculum. Nevertheless, Gülenist schools are not explicitly linked to Gülen and are not promoted as such, instead the connection to Gülen is a matter of local knowledge illustrating the decentralized and low key nature of the Gülen Movement. “Both he and his followers prefer to speak of a loose connection of initiatives that are all ‘inspired’ by his teachings, but do not constitute a single coordinated entity” (p.57). Any organized efforts to coordinate initiatives are usually through local affiliations between several schools in a given region or city, while well known and prestigious schools established by Gülen followers such as Yamanlar Koleji in Izmir and Fatih Okulu in Istanbul have franchised a number of schools directly.

One intriguing element of the Gülen network that Tee brings to light is the concept of “service” (hizmet) in Gülen-run institutions, such as assigning a chemistry teacher Irem, “against her personal wishes” to a particular school far away from her home in northwest Turkey (p.54). Referred to as fedakarlik or self-sacrifice, they consider themselves as educators rather than mere teachers, thus functioning as a representative or role model to guide or inspire the ethical and personal education of the students. Such dedication lacks financial rewards but is motivated by a spiritual eschatology and the belief in sevap (good deeds) that will be rewarded on Judgement Day. This clearly suggests a formal membership structure within the movement that transcends mere professional networking. Tee conducted her fieldwork in two Gülen schools in order to ascertain how science is taught within a secular curriculum yet framed by Islamic theology and the philosophy of Said-Nursî. Tee also exposes the considerable influence of religious ontology in science classes at the Gülen schools. For example, an educator in a middle-school science class, who was teaching students about a skin disease, claimed that the disease was given to a person as part of a divine test (sinav) and that the students should give thanks for not having such a skin disease. While remaining within the required boundaries of scientific education, the staff attached an Islamic ethic to the content, educating students through religious inferences in an attempt to establish coherence between science and religion.

Tee discusses Islamic creationism as an essential belief within the Gülenist framework (Chapter Four), the Gülen Movement’s argument being that science has become secularized, particularly through the theory of biological evolution that has created an unnecessary rift between science and an Islamic education. Gülen has written about evolution in his book Yaratılış Gerçeği ve Evrim among other sources and not only rejects the theory of evolution but views it as an attempt to justify atheistic materialism. Tee shows that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk advocated evolutionary biology and the secular policies of his time enforced the addition of evolution in the school curriculum at the founding of the Turkish Republic. Said Nursî opposed this change, which radically changed the fabric of Turkish society through what Nursî saw as the coercive disassociation with Islamic values. Accordingly, Gülen opposes the inclusion of evolutionary theory in the curriculum, and an anti-evolutionary agenda has allowed the movement to reconcile modern science with Islam and harmonize what were once two mutually exclusive categories.

Overall, the Gülenist target is to combat atheism through education. Gülenists belief that failing to adapt to the social requirements of modernity by refusing a scientific education merely favors Darwinian adherents; thus Gülenists battle atheism by teaching science through an Islamic lens. Tee explains that from the outset the movement has prioritized spreading Islamic values through local recruiting and international networking, particularly engaging students in Gülenist schools in foreign countries. The schools provide scholarships, educational and employment opportunities and other opportunities for self-improvement. This emphasis on competitive achievement is one reason why Gülenist schools emphasize participating in the Science Olympiads, a prestigious international competition that provides students with the opportunity to compete for financial rewards, as well as improve their chances of getting admitted to prestigious universities. These competitions also play a vital role in changing the status quo, by allowing “Islamic actors to engage successfully with a critical aspect of modernity” (p.77). Higher education institutions, such as Irfan University – which is economically supported by a group of investors sympathetic to the movement, some of whom are extremely wealthy Turkish businessmen – is described by Tee as unfinished, but nevertheless lavish and impressive, hosting a number of high-achieving students and staffed by academics with strong credentials and research excellence. Higher education offers the movement a way to increase its global influence.

The exact number of Gülen-run educational institutions remains unknown as they do not “publically affiliate with one another” (p.55) and they do not identify with Gülen or even share a common name or logo as institutions often do. Tee tackles – albeit briefly – some important questions that lie at the heart of the movement’s ambiguous status. For example, is there an Islamist agenda at the core of its endeavors? Skeptics label the movement a cemaat (religious community), implying its interests do not lie solely in the principle of positive action in civil society, which is what the movement emphasizes. These concerns have been exacerbated by Gülen’s public sermons reminding his followers to be responsive to the dangers of materialism. However, the movement’s economic interests allow it to continue to project its influence and demonstrate the strength of Islam by building international institutions of higher education. In a similar vein, staff working at Gülen-run institutions straddle an ambiguous personal and professional position, where spiritual goals are integrated into their curricula. While this educational homogeneity strengthens the quality of teaching and increases overall academic achievement, its lack of clarity has led to several legal cases against Gülenist schools in the United States, for mismanagement of funds and failing to clearly outline its affiliation with the Gülen Movement. Other contradictions include Gülen’s statements that he supports secularism and seeks only to change the nature of Turkish secularism, which actively opposes Islam. Yet in other statements, either directly or indirectly, Gülen encourages the complete collapse of Turkish secularism and replacing it with an Islamic state.

 

Gülenists and Politics

Caroline Tee focuses much of her work on the structure of the organization and its ambiguous position in Turkish political, judicial and civil society. She argues that while there is no official criteria for joining the movement, it consists of a multi-tiered level of commitment that includes not only the core followers such as teachers at Gülen-led schools, but also those on the periphery of the movement including sympathizers (onaylayanlar) and consumers. Consumers are those who use the movement’s products and services, whether consciously or unconsciously, and play a vital role in strengthening the success of the movement. Tee’s analysis slightly differs from Joshua Hendrick, author of Gulen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World who argues that the movement consists of four – rather than three – groups of affiliates that engage with the movement. Hendrick divides the core group of Gülenists into two: the ‘aristocracy’ who are surrounded by ‘friends.’ In the third part of the book, The Wider Context (chapters six, seven, and eight) provides an overview of the Gülen Movement’s place in Turkish politics, vis-à-vis their impaired relationship with the AK Party, as well as its global status, particularly with respect to the United States.

The Gülen Movement’s intercultural dialogue initiative through The Journalists and Writers Foundation (Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfi), where Gülen himself serves as honorary chairman, promotes dialogue between Muslims and other religions and cultures. The Gülen Movement’s emphasis on intercultural dialogue stems from Said Nursî, who also promoted interfaith communication. The movement attempts to find common ground between the major religions of the “People of the Book” (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) as a strategy for peaceful engagement and effective networking, promoting Islam as well as Turkey and the movement as a whole. Since 1999, Gülen has lived in Pennsylvania and is often referred to by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Pennsylvania’daki adam (the man from Pennsylvania). Gülen’s move to the U.S. has been subject to allegations that he has relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Indeed, it is interesting to note that a former CIA agent and senior staff at the National Intelligence Council supported Gülen’s application for a green card. Nevertheless, the move to the United States established the global presence of the movement and the rapid expansion that followed. The movement now has a presence in over 120 countries globally, though membership overwhelmingly rests with Muslim and Turkish adherents despite its transnational scope. It is not clear, however, what led to Gülen’s decision to immigrate to the United States, but his residency there has certainly allowed the movement to thrive on an international scale.

For most of the past decade, the movement has avoided politically or religiously sensitive discourse, instead engaging in debates that build and cultivate relationships, which allowed the Gülen Movement and Erdoğan’s AKP to coexist. According to Tee, the movement has not embraced political activism, despite the fact that loyal Gülenists were the leading figures in the corruption investigations against senior AKP officials. The 2013 corruption probes led Erdoğan to declare war on the movement, arresting or dismissing loyal Gülenist sympathizers, and claiming the movement was a serious threat to national security by attempting to destabilize the government. Tee attempts to clarify whether the Gülen Movement is indeed an exclusively civil-society institution or something more. “By going public with a raft of toxic allegations, it is clear that the Gülenist’ intention was to unseat now-President Erdoğan and precipitate a change in the Turkish administration” (pp. 163-164). By the end of 2015, the AKP had taken numerous steps to extradite Gülen from the United States to stand trial prior to formally declaring the Gülen Movement as a terrorist organization [Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü or FETÖ]– which occurred just after Tee’s book was published.

While Tee states that her research intends to explain the movement as an Islamic group using “the burgeoning field of the sociology of science and Islam” (p. 5) as part of her research, yet she nevertheless attempts to analyze the political dynamics between the 2013 Erdoğan-Gülen split utilizing a historical approach in the context of political Islam. They were initially united by their common Islamic roots in the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and the shared goal of reducing the power of the military elite. The collapse of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) in 1998 led by Necmettin Erbakan and the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) in 2001 led to the establishment of the AKP [2001], which held the belief that Islamic conservatism would remain unsuccessful as long as a strong secular, military presence continued to play a central role in Turkish politics. The AKP has maneuvered to reduce the constitutional powers given to the military through the infamous Ergenekon, Balyoz and Poyrazköy trials, which portrayed the military elite as operating a ‘deep state’ that was intent on overthrowing the government. These trials were only possible with support from senior judicial and executive staff loyal to Gülen. Many prominent figures were arrested and eventually given life sentences, all of whom have now been released since the Erdoğan-Gülen rift began in late 2013, although Gülen has denied any involvement in the cases. Nevertheless, Tee makes it clear that Gülen is guilty of numerous contradictions and inconsistencies, and even his previous teachings of an anti-Christian and Jewish nature raise doubts as to his genuine acceptance of secularism and of intercultural dialogue.

As a detailed study of the Gülen Movement, which unlike other Islamic groups places a strong emphasis on science education, Caroline Tee provides an excellent – albeit brief – overview of the subject and certainly whets your appetite for more. Without probing deeply into the political or social terrain of the subject, which can be found in other sources, she explains the history and root causes of the Erdoğan-Gülen feud, providing details about the sweeping attacks made against Gülen schools and dershane, the various businesses including Bank Asya, and the public vitriol directly against the movement. She also provided a clearer picture about the movement’s schools by engaging with students and teachers at various levels within these institutions in several cities around Turkey. Tee’s fieldwork is a vital contribution to the scholarship on the Gülen Movement, because it shed lights on some of the opaque aspects of the movement and its global success. She also exposes some of the movement’s contradictions, such as the requirement to preserve public order and stability as part of one’s membership, yet there are no formal initiation rites or any clearly defined criterion for membership itself. However, since positive action with the goal of integrating Islam into modern society is a key part of the Gülenist agenda, the difficulty to ascertain – particularly in light of its ambiguous position – whether followers adhere to this agenda would have been a valuable contribution in Tee’s research. This is what Joshua Hendrick has argued is the movement’s deliberate ‘strategic ambiguity’ which is due to the repressive political and social climate in Turkey.[1] Indeed, as Tee herself states, “the Gülen Movement functions today as an ostensibly apolitical community, but one which has managed to accrue significant power and influence”(p. 3) The use of social anthropology as a theoretical framework to understand the internal hierarchy and structure of the movement using interviews to supplement fieldwork is a valuable approach that contributes to our understanding of the movement’ social influence, which has become the basis for its success and power.

[1] Joshua D. Hendrick, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, NYU Press (2014) pp 206-232