November 15, 2014

Fethullah Gülen’s educational philosophy, its global practice in the secular world

Graham E. Fuller

Islam has a long tradition of philanthropic contributions (zakat, or tithe) by the wealthy to aid the poor and to build mosques. Gülen shifts that approach: he has said that Turkey has enough mosques; instead he urges that philanthropic “good works” are more usefully directed towards building schools or hospitals. Through this vision, Hizmet has slowly built a large network of private schools, initially in Turkey and now increasingly around the world, at this point numbering well over one thousand schools. They are not religious schools, nor do they resemble “parochial” (private Roman Catholic) schools in the US. In Turkey the Gülen schools teach the curriculum established by the Turkish Ministry of National Education. They contain no religious instruction apart from a standard course on Islam long mandated by the secular Turkish government in all public schools as part of Turkish culture. Hizmet schools in other countries follow the curricula set by their own governments.”

Because the issue of Islam and religious education in Kemalist Turkey has been politically charged for so long, the Gülen schools initially became the object of controversy, especially given the schools’ spread and success. Opponents of the Gülen movement accused Hizmet schools of having a “hidden agenda” in seeking to influence children outside of class towards Gülen’s religious values. While there is no special religious content in the Gülen curriculum in any country, Hizmet members freely acknowledge that the values, philosophy and style of life and dedication of the teachers hopefully do serve as a model to students. The teachers do seek to impart a moral vision and commitment in the example of their own lives. If the students make any ultimate commitment to the movement later on, members say, they are responding to the positive image and role model of the commitment and world-outlook of their teachers, most of whom are connected to the movement. Apart from education, the schools also stress social values and good conduct; parents praise the discipline, courtesy and seriousness of their students as well as the high quality of the education in modern facilities.

A striking contribution of the Gülen educational movement is its ability to turn secular education and its social benefits into a positive goal for religious families who otherwise might have sought religious education for their children, particularly among Turkish immigrants in Europe. “For decades, Turkish immigrants in Europe ensured that their children maintained their Turkish-Muslim identity by sending their offspring to schools in Turkey. The fact that many are now choosing to tread the path prepared by Nursi and Gülen, namely trusting that the acquisition of secular knowledge will strengthen their children’s religious identity, can justifiably be termed “revolutionary.” This suggests an entire new fusion of secular education with religious values that replaces the centrality of religious education for pious Muslims; it becomes a vehicle to attain Muslim pride through educational accomplishments in the secular world. Furthermore, it represents a two-way street in social integration: while the movement in one sense might initially be seen to “Islamize” the middle class through focus on the calling to service, it also transforms that same new pious middle class into a social force that understands, and is comfortable operating within, the secular world. This process overcomes the cultural firewalls that exist in so many other Muslim countries between religious and urban secular classes.

The spread of the schools outside of Turkey further attests to this. Initially established in traditional areas of Ottoman influence such as the Muslim states of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans, they later spread to Christian countries such as Russia itself. Over ninety percent of the students in the Caucasus state of Georgia, for example, are Christian. There is a Gülen school in Moscow. Schools are growing in Africa and in Indonesia. They are invariably highly subscribed and receive a vote of confidence through the attendance of large numbers of children of the local elites. They are self-sustaining through tuition fees.

Instruction is normally conducted partly in English, partly in the local language, while courses in Turkish are offered as well. The teachers are usually volunteers from Turkey who go off to spend a number of years in other countries teaching, and at the same time learning the local language and winning goodwill for Turkey and the schools. And whereas critics have sought to portray the Nur movement and later the Gülen movement as somehow reactionary and obscurantist, the facts would dictate otherwise. Sciences, mathematics and computer sciences rank high in the curriculum. The goal for the students is to be prepared for making their way in modern society for society’s greater benefit—a clear universal human value.

And there are practical benefits for Turkey as well: graduates of these schools usually end up with feelings of closeness to Turkish culture, functioning as local ambassadors of goodwill to Turkey in government and business. In many countries the first graduates left the schools over a decade ago and now occupy significant places in the governments and commercial sectors of their country. For businessmen associated with the movement, it represents a valuable business network as well; they have often established the early foundations for a Turkish community in many of these countries and have a ground floor in establishing trade ties. Many cities in Anatolia have sister cities in Central Asia and the Caucasus that facilitate trade and other ties between them. In short, the schools help create a form of Turkish “soft power” that facilitates both diplomatic and business openings for Turkey.

Despite the schools’ overall success, they are not without criticism. Some complain that the students admitted to these highly subscribed schools abroad are primarily from the elites of each country. While that may have been initially true in the effort to gain early acceptance from local governments, the schools now reach out to admit qualified students from all social classes; some 20 to 25 percent of the poorer qualified students receive scholarships.

The schools early on suffered from the paranoia of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia who have little toleration for criticism or freedom of expression. Uzbekistan, for instance, recalled 300 Uzbek students back from Turkish universities in 1999. The reasons were specifically political: the highly authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov was concerned that Uzbek students in Turkey were becoming politicized in the open environment in Turkey and beginning to engage in anti-Karimov activities abroad. Because political Islam has been a key underground source of anti-regime activity in Uzbekistan—as it is all over the Muslim world—Karimov accused Turkey of fomenting Islamic “fundamentalism and terrorism” in Uzbekistan. The charges are absurd since both the Gülen movement and the Turkish state are outspokenly opposed to violence and terrorism. But in 2000 Uzbekistan shut down all Hizmet schools. Turkmenistan pursued a similar course of anti-Turkish reaction in 2011 although that is now changing. Not surprisingly, the kind of independent thinking fostered by the schools were producing students too independent-minded for insecure and rigid regimes run by “presidents for life”—especially when the well-qualified students then moved into the local government. Rumors were spread that the schools were operating on behalf of the CIA or Islamic fundamentalists. The US Peace Corps and the international Doctors Without Borders were similarly expelled from the once politically bizarre environment of Turkmenistan.

Moscow too has consistently been concerned about the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim regions of Russia. But investigation found no links to “fundamentalism” in the Gülen schools. Nor do the Gülen schools wish to be contaminated by such an association. As we noted, many Christian students attend the Gülen schools not only in Russia, but elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. There the schools filled a special gap: under decades of Soviet anti-religious campaigns, communism had come to represent the sole “moral” or ideological value of society. With the collapse of communism and its ideology in 1991 an ideological vacuum opened, revealing a hunger for some new spiritual values. The Gülen schools provided quality education and a balanced and modern antidote to radical Islamic forces that sought a foothold there, a process that found favor in the West.

The Gülen-inspired schools (or “Turkish schools” as they are often known) have now spread to 120 countries, the majority of which are not even officially Muslim, as far away as Africa and Latin America, the United States and East Asia. They have sometimes been established in countries where no Turkish Embassy or Turkish community had previously existed. In the end there can be no doubt that the schools serve the broader Turkish national interest in the goodwill that is created, similar to the American Peace Corps. Hizmet provides a major network of international connections.

Excerpt from: Graham E. Fuller. “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East.” Chapter 12.

Published on, 7 November 2014, Friday

Related Articles