Investing in the Afterlife: Inequality, Charity, and Hopes for Salvation in the Hizmet Movement

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 9:42 AM
Room: Harbor Lounge B
Oral Presentation
Kim SHIVELY , Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown, PA
As Turkey’s economy has liberalized over the last 20 years, economic inequality has intensified and become a major focus of public concern and discussion.  A response to this inequality has been an increase in the number of charitable non-governmental organizations, including faith-based benevolent groups spearheaded by upwardly mobile, pious Turks who seek to “do good” for society as a form of religious devotion.  One such religiously oriented Turkish philanthropic association, the Hizmet (“service”) movement, is organized by followers of the influential Turkish preacher, Fethullah Gülen.  Based on ethnographic research among members of the Hizmet movement in Turkey and the United States, this paper will demonstrate how Gülen’s teachings on economic activity and social responsibility suggest that a path to salvation for the wealthy emerges from the plight of the poor.  More specifically, the movement has promoted an idea that individual financial success may serve as a type of worship by which the believer gains God’s reward in the afterlife.  However, this conversion of economic success into religious merit depends on the believer’s intentions (niyet), in that economic activities are recognized as worship only if the believer maintains the proper spiritual disposition toward God.  This includes the acknowledgment that a person’s economic attainment is only partially attributable to the individual’s own efforts, but ultimately it is God’s blessing (ihlas) that is responsible for success. Reciprocally, an affluent individual should repay God’s beneficence with material beneficence to society through zakat (alms-giving) and other charitable activities organized by the Hizmet movement.  These charitable acts will potentially earn that philanthropist a place in heaven.  Such a notion that the wealthy rely on the needy for salvation serves to reinforce inequality, even as the effects of that inequality may be mitigated by acts of pious benevolence.