Inside Turkey's Secretive, Islamic 'Gulen' School Movement

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The schools, part of a network of hundreds around the world, aim to create a "golden generation" of educated Muslims by emphasizing science and technology, but some regional governments are worried.

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Children attend a class at Istanbul's Fatih College, run by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher who advocates moderate Islam rooted in modern life. / Reuters

With conservative Muslim believers becoming more visible in Turkey these days, a movement founded by a charismatic Islamic theologian, Fetullah Gülen, is attracting increasing outside interest. The Gülen movement's public profile is defined mainly by a worldwide network of schools that it operates, yet little is known about the inner workings of the organization's educational component.

I was recently invited to visit one of the movement's showcase, high-achieving schools, Fatih Koleji, located on the European side of Istanbul. The visit provided greater clarity on a particularly controversial aspect of the schools' operations - religious instruction.

The Gülen movement's stated aim is to create a "golden generation" of educated Muslims, an aim shared by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At the Fatih Koleji school, statues in Ottoman-era garb and children's artwork sparsely decorate the interior of the sleek, multi-storey school building. Male teachers wear suits, while nearly all the female instructors wear long, white jackets. The obligatory image of the Republic of Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, hangs in nearly every room.

However, portraits of Gülen, who currently lives in the United States, are not to be seen. Students interviewed I interviewed claimed that they only know about the cleric from reading newspapers stories and books; Fatih Koleji, which has students ranging in age from four to 18, does not offer specific instruction about the movement's founder, they said.

The methods and approach of Gülen schools toward religious instruction has fueled lots of speculation about the movement's intentions. Governments in Central Asia in particular are suspicious that the Islamic values espoused by the Gulen movement could potentially pose a challenge to the political status quo in the region.

Hoping to dispel misconceptions, the 37-year-old vice-principal of Fatih Koleji, Metin Demirci, who taught for five years in the movement's schools in Kazakhstan, stressed that all the schools closely follow the curriculum of the public schools in whichever country they are operating.

In Turkey, he said the basic tenets of Islam are taught in a weekly class lasting 80 minutes that also offers instruction on other world religions. "Students learn our religious principles and other religious principles," Demirci said. Faculty members, he claimed, try to serve as role models of Islamic piety, leading by example.

While Fatih Koleji has a prayer room, no student is forced to pray, Demirci continued. Out of 200 students at the school, only about 10 percent of the children follow the Muslim practice of prayer five times a day, he estimated. "They must want it."

One foreign teacher at another of the movement's estimated 30 schools in the Istanbul metropolitan area commented that most students are drawn from religious families, but their faith does not appear to "rub off" on more secular classmates.

One ritual from Turkey's ardently secular public schools, though, appears less prominent at Fatih Koleji. Demirci played down the importance of "Our Oath," a nationalist pledge that students usually recite daily. "It is related to democracy and improving democracy," he said. "I believe in the next two years, we will stop saying this because we don't need it. With democracy, every small child has the right to say anything they choose."

Whether secular or religious, Fatih Koleji's students appear to hail from wealthier families. Tuition stands at 20,000 Turkish lira per year, or about $11,325, nearly the equivalent of Turkey's average per capita income of $14,600. The fee does not include books or transportation to school. Financial assistance is available to qualifying students.

Eager for their children to gain an educational edge amid an overcrowded and underfunded public-school system, many Turkish parents willingly swallow the relatively high cost. "In Turkey . . . the private schools of Gülen are incomparably more successful than the public schools," emailed Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, who has tracked the movement for several years.

"The high quality of the education in these schools is stressed by everybody, even by those who don't like the conservatism of this movement," Balci added.

One 14-year-old boy, playing chess with a girl about his age, said his parents had transferred him to Fatih Koleji from another private school for its higher quality of education and smaller class sizes.

All boys in the school wear blue shirts, girls wear yellow. Class size averages about 20 students, roughly half the size in most Turkish public schools, according to Demirci. Many of the school's classrooms feature digital blackboards controlled from the teacher's laptop that are used for interactive forms of instruction.

Gülen school students begin to learn English in kindergarten, as supposed to 4th grade in Turkish public schools. From the 6th grade, students have the option of learning Spanish or Russian. Special preparatory centers that ready Gülen school students for university entrance exams provide an additional advantage, Balci said.

How the schools are financed remains a murkier detail. Representatives of the movement claim there is no centralized bookkeeping system. Nor even a master roster of how many Gülen schools exist around the world. A senior Gülen movement member, who wished not to be named, told me that "[n]o accurate data is really possible on the number of schools since they are highly localized both economically and management-wise."

Money for Gülen schools is first raised locally, through donations from private individuals and businesses that support the movement, he said. In Turkey, a "sister school" program with longer-established Gülen schools also is a source of funding.

When financial assistance is required outside of Turkey, schools simply bring that "need" to Turkey, the Gülen movement member said.

Some of those schools' students may end up working for the Gülen movement after graduation. Demirci added that the opportunity to travel and to be part of a community attracts many alumni to the teaching profession. "There is an advantage in this," Demirci said. "We have friends everywhere."

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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