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

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."

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Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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