9. When religions meet. Interview of Fatih Yegul, Executive Vice President of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute of the Greater Toronto Area (IDI GTA)
After the Charlie Hebdo events, the question of comprehension and communication between people from different religions and/or atheists appears more important than ever. Are certain religions dangerous? How can we really trust people with beliefs that seem completely different than ours?
The questions are numerous and the debates endless.
I wanted to understand more what religions have in common. This is with this idea in my mind that I participated to an Interfaith Dinner, organized by the Intercultural Dialogue Institute, whose topic was “How we talk to God”.
At this occasion I could listen to representatives of five of the main religions in the World (Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism) explaining, the ones after the others, how they pray. Click here to access the photos and videos of the Dinner.
A few weeks later, I went back to the institute to interview its Executive Vice President, Fatih Yegul. I learned about his personal story, the IDI, and his vision of the similarities and differences between the religions.
Fatih, can you tell me a few words about you?
My name is Fatih Yegul. I am a Turkish Canadian and I am Muslim. I immigrated to Canada with my wife in 2007. So, I have been living in Toronto for more than eight years now. I am the Executive Vice President of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute Greater Toronto Area and I also have an educational background in engineering.
Why did you move to Canada? And why Toronto?
You know, Turkey is a strange country. Every ten or twenty years there are bumps on the roads toward functioning democracy. So either you have a coup or an authoritarian regime. Around 1996 or 1997, there were a lot of interventions from the army. I was a university student who really cared for the freedoms and was “a little fed up” with the system. So I decided to leave the country at the first opportunity. I made a search and there were a few countries who accepted skilled workers as immigrants. Canada was one of those. I made my application in 2001 and got accepted in 2005.
I am affiliated with a loose network, called the Hizmet or Gülen network. Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish scholar who initiated the Hizmet movement. When we arrived in Canada with my wife we asked the people of the network if we could be of any help to them. They connected me to people in Toronto. We first thought we would go to Calgary but at the last minute we changed and ended up in Toronto. It didn’t matter, Toronto or Calgary for us. Toronto is a wonderful city. I think it was a good decision.
“I have never felt like a stranger in this city”
How did you adapt to Toronto?
There was a friend of mine who came from Turkey to do research at Ryerson University for one year, with his wife. After about 8 months, we were having a coffee together and he said “Fatih, you know, I have never felt like a stranger in this city. It has been only 8 months since I have been living here, but I feel like home”. I must say myself that I do feel like home too. I like this. Of course I miss my parents and other relatives but this city is very welcoming. The people like the city.
How did you get involved with the Intercultural Dialogue Institute?
The founders started the Institute in 2005, a bit before I arrived. The intercultural Dialogue Institute is also inspired by the Hizmet movement. This movement has three main legs: The first one is education, the second one is helping the needy and the third one is interfaith dialogue. In almost all the big cities in the World, you find a similar organization. When I arrived in Toronto, my friends asked me if I could volunteer for the organization. I started to volunteer for the Canadian Interfaith Dialogue Centre (that was the first official name of the organization). We get together with my counterparts from other branches of IDI every five to six weeks to discuss what we can do. Most of our tasks are local and sometimes we do national work.
“There are many cultural events occurring in the GTA, but very few of them bring the awareness of intercultural gathering”
Can you explain more your role inside the institute?
There are 2 executive staff here. My colleague and myself. I take care of the East part of GTA and my colleague takes care of the West part. Together, we are hosting many events and attract quite a lot of people. In 2014, in 35 events, we gathered around 2500 persons, GTA East and West together.
The main idea of our gatherings is to create occasions to bring people together and generate the awareness that dialogue between cultures is very important. There are many cultural events occurring in the GTA, but very few of them bring the awareness of intercultural gathering. So when we invite people, they feel the need to talk to others, who have different beliefs. When doing so, people start to learn about each other directly, and not through books or the Media (which are doing ok but the information is better at all times with a direct interaction, which encourages the creation of cultural sensitivities at the same time).
How many people work for the IDI?
In Toronto, we have only two paid staff members. In the other cities, it is one. So in total in Canada, I would say that we are around 12 people, but we count hundreds of volunteers.
“The essence of people is made of love”
What do you think of the impact generated by the IDI on the people?
You know, we are not the only ones to encourage intercultural dialogues. There are others which are doing a similar job and that’s really good, because there are a lot of unwanted events happing in Europe, here, in the USA… You wake up one morning and you see that some crazy people went to kill other people. Three Muslims here, four Catholics there… These are biases created in people’s minds. So we need to find the ways to break the fear of the unknown. People are just afraid of each other because they don’t know each other. The essence of people is made of love. If people realized this, many of the problems that we have would be solved. But this is a long process. In the IDI, we believe that we have to work locally with events that promote “people to people” dialogue. It may take a long time, but eventually people will realize that there is the potential in all human beings. Everybody deserves respect because they are human beings. So the idea behind the IDI is all about creating this awareness.
“we should start with the commonalities first, which are more numerous than the differences”
In your opinion, what are the fundamental similarities and differences between the religions?
Of course there are theological differences as in all religions and I believe people know the basic differences. But based on my years of experience with the IDI, I believe that the common essence is the love between people. That’s the common thing. Love of the created because of the creator. If you look for the differences, you will find differences as well. But I don’t think they are as important as the commonalities. So if we start discussing about the commonalities which, in turn, will create trust between people, then we can speak about the differences as well.
“You really have to look at the story at the time of the prophet and how he dealt with it”
Some people are anxious about Islam and bring up excerpts from the Quran such as “Muslim people cannot be friends with Jewish people”, or “Muslims should multiply and impose their supremacy on earth”. As a Muslim, what is your opinion about it?
It is true that there are verses which are a bit like that, but you have to connect that to the life of the prophet Muhammad who exemplified how you should interpret those words in the Quran. So you cannot just take the text and interpret it as you wish. You really have to look at the story at the time of the prophet and how he dealt with it.
I am not a theologian, but we know that prophet Muhammad had relations with Jews. We also know that he had relations with Christians. People of Mecca were oppressed. He asked his followers to go to what is now the current Ethiopia, and at that time it was run by a Christian king that the prophet Muhammad qualified as “just”. He really took care of those people. He connected with them. But this is just one example. Another one is when he died. He gave his armor to a Jewish neighbour so he could get some loan from him. The relations with the other religions were there. So you cannot just take part of the text out of context and interpret it as you wish. There are many things like that, but it is better to talk directly to an imam, and you would surely learn more.
It is common sense, right? How can you have a peaceful World if you treat people like that? Also, my religion does allow me to marry a Jew or a Christian lady. So, are they going to tell me that you cannot be a friend with your wife? Am I not going to love my wife if she’s Christian? It is not that simple. You see similar stories in the Old Testament as well. But if you talk to scholars, they give you interpretations and they tell you how you should interpret. We should interpret the text in its historical context.
Do you have books/documentaries that you would recommend?
Yes, that might sound a little bit propagandist because I am affiliated with the Hizmet, but I will give you the name of a recent documentary which is called “Love is a verb”. It deals with the history of the Hizmet movement. I really liked it. I watched it twice. As for the book, I would recommend one from Fethullah Gülen, “So that others may live”. It is all about being selfless.
“I am hopeful the good will overcome the evil, but that will take time”
How do you see tomorrow?
You know, I might look a bit pessimistic today, but for the future I am optimistic. If we keep going with this work of Interfaith, complemented with education of the new generations with these principles, that you can love the others, then, I am hopeful. But this is a generational issue. It is not something that we will overcome overnight. We should keep up with what we are doing, educating the adults, but we also have to take care of the other generations. I am hopeful the good will overcome the evil, but that will take time.
Is there a person that you admire?
I would say Gandhi. He is very symbolic. He is the one who initiated the non-violence. He showed another way to people. A second one would be Martin Luther King. And if you ask me for a more current one, I would say Fethullah Gülen.
If you had one wish to ask to god, what would that be?
I would ask him to put a spark in everyone of us, that would make a person think of the other people more than themselves. People should think more about the situation of the World and not just about their small circle. Of course, it is important to take care of your relatives, but there is a lot going on in the World. Being in good shape, having a good home, having a good car, a good family, and being okay with that… well… you know… it is not much. If everybody really cared about the lives of others, starting with their own locality of course, then I think the World would have been a different place. It sounds like a symbolic thing, but… who knows?
Thank you Fatih