Special Report: Riga's mysterious festival for world peace

Take note – story published 7 years ago

Relations with Turkey are at the forefront of European Union thinking right now for numerous reasons: NATO member Turkey's confrontation with Russia; the deal by which Turkey shoulders much of the burden of refugees fleeing Daesh from Syria and Iraq; and even in the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to allow the prosecution of a comedian who satirized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

In that context it seems bold of Latvia to play host to an event run by supporters of a man generally regarded as Erdogan's arch-enemy and moreover one listed as a terrorist by the Turkish government.

That man is Fetullah Gulen, head of the so-called 'Gulen Movement'. According to who you ask, Gulen is either an enlightened philanthropist, a canny business tycoon, a charismatic Islamic poet/preacher, a cult leader or - in the case of Erdogan's detractors - a conspirator bent on overthrowing the Turkish government via a shadowy organization with far-reaching influence in the judiciary, military and law enforcement. 

Gulen has lived in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, USA since 1998, initially for health reasons but later in exile after falling out with Erdogan. To be precise he lives at the 'Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center' - a name that hardly helps dispel the notion that there is something cult-like about his global organization.

But you will look in vain for the name of Gulen on the posters of the event his supporters in Latvia are organizing on April 23, which simply announce an "International Festival of Culture and Language" (IFCL) at the famous Splendid Palace cinema in central Riga.

Yet Gulen is the figure overshadowing IFCL, a fact not overtly stated anywhere on the Riga pre-publicity, but clear from Gulen's own webpage which explains why an event originally founded as a celebration of Turkish culture is now banned in Turkey itself.

"After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a massive offensive against the Gülen movement following a corruption scandal in December of 2013, he has publicly said he will not allow the movement to hold its flagship Turkish Olympiads festivities...The ban in Turkey forced the organizers to expand their activities elsewhere and organize more than a dozen similar ceremonies in many parts of the world."

The official organizer of the Riga event is a body called "Dialogu Nams" (Dialogue house) which is registered in the Latvian business register and describes its purpose as "Promotion of social cohesion by ensuring contact between communities, enabling people to participate and invest in the idea of ​​developing dialogue."

From 2011 until March this year it was known by a different name: "Balturka Culture Academy".

Song and Dance and Poetry

The Riga event, scheduled to run for just 90 minutes, will see 34 participants from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Norway, Sweden and Belarus (some of them students at Gulen-inspired schools) sing songs before everyone joins in for a climactic "Universal Peace Song" (words by Gulen who also has a claim to being a poet and lyricist).

It is just one of a series of International Festivals of Culture and Language, many of which are on a far grander scale as this promotional video for this years' events shows.

The stated aim of all this is world peace and unity.

A similar tone of optimism is adopted at the IFLC's main international website where clicking on the "About" section reveals more uplifting poetry:

"Only butterflies of a thousand colors could perplex giant dragons...
When we first took off for the Turkish Olympiad
When we spread our wings for the first time
We found a thousand other butterflies soaring alongside us" 

The supporters of the event with their logos on the event's Facebook page include more Gulen-linked entities such as the Meridian International School in Riga (one of hundreds of Gulen-inspired private schools worldwide) and businesses that do not have direct links to Gulen but do have a strong Turkish link such as the local branch of international payments company InPay, which counts Turkey as its most important market by far with 42% of its web traffic coming from Turkey according to Alexa data.

Another supporter, 'Baltic Education' shares the same Riga address as Dialogu Nams and the Meridian International School.

The event may be harmless. Yet it seems odd that an organization that is so clearly part of the Gulen movement (which prefers to call itself 'Hizmet' and has its own news portal) should make little mention of that affiliation - though Gulen is referenced on Dialogu Nams' brand new website.

With Latvians well-known fans of folk song and dance, is Saturday's free show a veiled recruiting campaign for Hizmet in Latvia?

Certainly not, according to Turkish citizen Abdullah Sinan Ciftler, a Riga resident for more than five years after previous stints at schools in Mongolia and Poland, and now principal of Riga's 92-pupil Meridian School. Talking to LSM in a Riga cafe he makes no secret of his own passionate adherence to Hizmet's principles and clearly takes his role as an educator very seriously.

"I've been with them [Hizmet] for 30-something years," he says. "The song Universal Peace is inspired by a poem of Gulen's from the 1970s, dreaming of a new world of peace and tolerance. There is one phrase of his which keeps me at peace with anyone and everyone: 'Spare a chair in your heart for anyone to sit in'. This is my life philosophy and that to me is the most inspiring part of his teachings," says Ciftler.

"We see segregation growing in all societies. What we believe is only the kids can do something. This is not a short-term project. We don't expect that this year or next year something's going to change but this is a cultural investment for the whole world, a universal world, for the future.

"We don't sell tickets, we don't make money from it but people are going to see that something is really happening in terms of peace, tolerance and mutual understanding."

Asked if the event is designed to introduce a new audience to the ideals of Hizmet, Ciftler says:

"Not exactly. We don't impose Hizmet ideas, but we never hide that we are inspired by Gulen... this just an event, but we don't have to say we are inspired by Gulen all the time."

"Gulen and his followers are practicing Muslims, trying to live as peaceful, tolerant, simple Muslims. Cult is not the right word."

"We never recruit people. We never impose ideas. The aim is to show people that we can come together and work for peace. Most probably we will never see 99% of the audience after the event, on Saturday we will not register people at the entrance. The doors are open. People can come, sit, watch, enjoy and go."

Similarly Ilhoms Khalimzoda from Tajikistan, one of the Dialogu Nams organizers who is also a student while running InPay's Latvian operation seems entirely genuine in his belief that Hizmet can help make the world a better place.

"We believe we can make a big contribution to integration in Latvia and elsewhere," he says.

While Gulen's name may be absent from the posters for the IFLC event, he certainly did get a mention at the last event organised by Dialogu Nams - a screening of a documentary film called "Love Is A Verb" about Gulen and the Hizmet movement.

Directed by US filmmaker Terry Spencer Hesser it managed to raise more than $100,000 from a crowd-funding campaign in just two months, despite only asking for $66,000 - presumably one of the perks of having such an extensive network of contacts.

Latvian member of parliament Juris Vilums and various other celebrities were among the attendees, as a series of interviews with them immediately after the screening shows. Among their number were musicians from the musical group 'Baraka' who coincidentally will be the headline act at the April 23 festival in Riga.

It should be noted that Gulen and Erdogan are former political allies who are now the bitterest of adversaries, their rivalry resulting in Erdogan's brutal crackdown on media seen in his eyes as pro-Gulen.

On the other hand, investigative journalists who have attempted to probe the Gulen organization have also found themselves on the wrong end of the law, most notably in the case of investigative journalist Ahmet Sik who was jailed for a year in 2011-2 after publishing a book called The Imam's Army about the Gulen movement. In 2014 the book won Sik one of the highest accolades in the journalistic world, the UNESCO World Press Freedom Award.

Plans for the Future

Saturday certainly won't be the last Latvia hears of Dialogu Nams and Gulen. Already plans are underway for a conference to be held at the University of Latvia on countering extremism, says Khalimzoda.

According to Ciftler and Khalimzoda, the IFLC event is funded entirely from their own resources. Officials from the Culture Ministry, Education Ministry and Riga City Council have been invited to join the audience to judge for themselves whether similar events might be worth supporting in future, they say.

"From my perspective, Hizmet was and is in the same place as always: defending human rights, promoting democracy, standing against extremism... Hizmet could be one of the prototypes or solutions to rooting out extremism and hatred," says Khalimzoda.

Both men come across as sincere and clearly feel their own lives have benefited from following the teachings of Gulen.

And whatever reservations one may have about Gulen personally or the nature of his organization, it would probably be churlish to object too strongly to kids singing songs - provided there's no pressure to join in with the Universal Peace Song... unless it happens to be a particularly catchy number.

The official website of Saturday's event is HERE.

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