July 31, 2014

Academic excellence and moral values in education: Hizmet Teachers and Gülen-inspired Schools in Urban Tanzania

Kristina Dohrn*

The Gülen Movement (GM) is a primary actor in the emerging connection between Turkey and Sub-Saharan Africa. Schools established by GM followers are playing an active role in shaping the educational landscape of diverse countries in this region. Feza Schools in urban Tanzania are an example of the GM’s global reach in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Unlike other schools established by religious groups and actors in the field of education, Feza Schools are directed to a religiously mixed clientele and religion is not explicitly addressed in school curriculum. The motivation for founding and supporting these schools, however, is grounded in Islamic belief, and education is central to Gülen’s thought and to the practice of his followers. Gülen describes education as a “sublime duty that manifests the Divine Name, Rabb (Upbringer and Sustainer)” (Gülen 1997). He calls for a practice of education that reconciles religion and science. In his writings, Gülen reminds his followers of the hereafter and calls for an engagement in the field of education through material support or through direct employment (Gülen 2004, Gülen 1997).

The role of the hizmet teachers is crucial in order to understand the ideational background of Gülen-inspired schools (GISs). Fethullah Gülen distinguishes between education and teaching and stresses the importance of not simply imparting knowledge but to be also responsible for building the characters of the students by teaching them moral values (Ergene 2008, Gülen 21997, Gülen 2004). According to Gülen, education will help to shape a new generation, a “golden generation” (altın nesil), that will be able to combine scientific knowledge and moral values in an effort to lead society toward its own betterment (Agai 2004: 254-256, Gülen 1997, Gülen 2004, Yavuz 2013: 97-99).

Hizmet teachers at Feza Schools in Tanzania form a tight community (cemaat) inside the school. Other than the Tanzanian teachers, they are responsible for the moral formation of students; an ambiguous task that is framed in rather universal terms and that takes place in different ways in different settings. Besides a class called “social ethics” as well as meetings in smaller groups, teachers are expected to transmit moral values through their own exemplary conduct. This extended understanding and practice of teaching is central to the GM’s educational engagement in Tanzania and its religious implication. Hizmet teachers at FGSHS [Feza Girls' Secondary and High School] consider their practice of teaching as way of serving an Islamic cause (hizmet) and as part of their ambition to lead a virtuous life, thus, embodying the values of the cemaat (community). For hizmet teachers, leaving their homes, traveling to Tanzania and sacrificing their lives for the sake of educating the next generation becomes a way of dedicating themselves to a greater religious end. Teaching, in this context, can be considered a way to render personal actions as consistent with the GM’s moral code.

“Academic excellence, moral values, global view” – Feza Schools in Dar es Salaam

Since their first years in operation, Feza Schools were generally regarded as among the best performing schools in the country. This assessment was typically ascribed in correlation with Feza Schools’ performance on national exams that are published every year and that are intensely discussed in the country’s major newspapers. According to these statistics, private schools generally perform better than public schools. Likewise, government-run schools are perceived as deficient with regard to their facilities and the quality of their staff (Dilger 2013: 455-456).20 Among private schools, religiously oriented, predominantly Christian schools often top the list of performers. Due to increasing school fees, however, religiously oriented schools, including Feza Schools, are often restricted to wealthier populations whose families can afford the high cost of private tuition (Dilger 2013: 462).

The conflicting notion of an engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa as a way of helping the neediest parts of the world contrasted with the class bias of the schools was also addressed by some of my informants. A teacher from FGSHS, for instance, expressed that when she first came to Tanzania, she felt disappointed. Images of Africa presented in GM-affiliated media in Turkey prepared her to live in poor and challenging conditions, which she was willing to endure as a “sacrifice” for hizmet. By contrast, the well-equipped living conditions at the FGSHS dormitory and the social background of the students first led her to question her travel to Tanzania. She explained, however, that after having conversations with other teachers, she came to understand the importance of educating children from Tanzania’s upper class. What they would need, she argued, was an induction of “moral values” (Field Interview: May 2013). As FGSHS was one of the country’s best performing schools and graduates would look into a bright future, she considered it essential to morally educate individuals who would one day become leaders among the Tanzanian economic and political elite. As morally educated leaders, they would be competent to solve Tanzanian’s problems of poverty, social inequality and disunity in the future.

For inhabitants of Dar es Salaam, Feza Schools were generally not perceived as “religious” schools. This was because religion was not addressed at Feza Schools the way it was at its Christian corollaries. In the latter institutions, religious knowledge was disseminated directly in classrooms, in “Bible Knowledge” and “Divinity Studies.” In addition, students were often expected to attend the church services. Similarly, in Islamic secondary schools, where most students were specifically Muslim, there were obligatory classes in “Islamic Knowledge” and Arabic, and the students had to participate in midday prayer in the mosque (Dilger 2013: 453). By contrast, the curriculum at FGSHS did not contain explicit religious material. Furthermore, students came from different religious backgrounds. Most of them were Muslims (approximately 60-70 %) but there were also Christian students (approximately 30-40 %). Religious values, however, were integrated in a class called “social ethics,” which was taught every Friday and which was envisioned to be a space for moral guidance. Designed by hizmet teachers under supervision of the hizmet headmaster, the curriculum incorporated diverse topics (e.g., the negative aspects of gossiping, the importance of respecting one’s parents). Although these teachings were founded in Turkish Islam, topics were addressed in rather universal terms.

Teaching moral values in this way was also practiced in meetings of smaller groups of about five to seven students, referred to as çay saati (tea time), which took place in the dormitory several times a week and which was guided by a hizmet teacher or belletmen (supervisors in dormitories). The teacher chose and prepared a specific topic that could also provide a response to a ”problem” or to a “problematic” behavior that was observed among students. Although these meetings were occasions in which the moral formation, inspired by the ideas of Fethullah Gülen, took place, at çay saatı ethical values were not connected to a specific religious background. A teacher named Emine explained this. Before she came to Tanzania, Emine lived for nine years in Yemen, where she studied education and taught at a GIS in Sana’a. At the time of my research, she lived in the gated community called “Ankara” in Dar es Salaam together with her husband and her three-year-old daughter. In an interview setting, Emine underlined the importance of character building during çay saatı, which she stressed was not attached to any particular religion:

In çay saatı the issue is not the religion. The issue is to become a good person, to have a good character and a strong character. Here in Tanzania you can see also spoiled people…so our goal is only to make them realize their essence. So what is the essence? It is to be a good person because Allah created us in that way”. (Field Interview with Emine: October 2013)

Although Fethullah Gülen himself was not a subject-matter in class, and although “moral values” were addressed and framed in rather universal terms as they were during social ethics classes and çay saatı, the larger effort to influence the moral formation of students is central to the educational ethos of the Gülen Movement as a whole. Through the diverse activities in and beyond the school, teachers aimed to realize the educational ideal of Fethullah Gülen and his vision of bringing up a generation educated in science and moral values. Such engagement was perceived to be of religious merit (Agai 2003: 57-58, Agai 2004: 254-256, Balcı 2003: 221- 224, Gülen 1997, Gülen 2004, Yavuz 2013: 97-99).

Focusing on similar practices in Central Asia, Balcı (2003) linked the GM’s activities to missionary work. I am reluctant, however, to consider the GM’s educational engagement in Tanzania as being solely missionary in intent and impact. Especially in the religiously mixed setting of FGSHS, hizmet teachers did not aim to convert Christian students to Islam.

Acting as role models, hizmet teachers not only cultivated these ideals in their everyday lives but also embodied them and performed them in an effort to positively influence the character and conduct of students. Teaching and ethical practices are thus closely connected.

*Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Excerpted from the article “Translocal Ethics: Hizmet Teachers and the Formation of Gülen-inspired Schools
in Urban Tanzania”in Sociology of Islam 1 (2013) 233-256.

Published on http://www.gulenmovement.us, 12 July 2014, Saturday