The Gülen movement is active in many sectors, but educational institutions make up its core. It started its first international school in Azerbaijan, and its success there proved vital to expansion across elsewhere; in June, however, the Azerbaijani government moved to close down all Gülen-affiliated schools in the country. This report summarizes a qualitative study of the effectiveness of the Gülen movement’s educational philosophy and methodology.
Azerbaijan gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Like the other 14 countries that emerged from this collapse, Azerbaijan went through a major transition not only of its political system, but also its economic and educational systems. In this difficult period, Azerbaijanis’ hopes and convictions were essential in the transformation from an impoverished country to a modern, democratic nation. In light of this, a number of governmental and nongovernmental institutions have been actively involved in rebuilding Azerbaijan’s education system to reduce social inequality and increase literacy. The schools run by members of the movement -- know as Hizmet -- affiliated with Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen have been key players in this educational restructuring. Indeed, former President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev was an early supporter of the opening of these institutions.
In 2013, these institutions, under parent company Çağ Education Company (ÇEC), joined the Azerbaijan International Education Center (AIEC), financed by the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR). A few months ago, SOCAR announced the closure of the Gülen-inspired high schools and Araz prep schools, due to “difficulties in project management.” Only the prestigious Qafqaz University, a Gülen-affiliated institution of higher education, is slated to continue operations. Although the stated reason for the decision was the financial burden of project management, analysts believe that these closures were demanded by the former prime minister and current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Gülen’s educational philosophy
Hizmet is a transnational civic movement inspired by the ideas of well-known intellectual and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose followers have started schools in over 100 different countries, from Asia to the Americas. These schools express a commitment to cultivating responsibility, love, tolerance and service (the literal translation of “Hizmet”).1 Gülen’s teachings underscore that Muslims need to rediscover compassion, describing it as the essence of Islam. Gülen represents a strong and compassionate form of Islam that responds to adversity with peace.2 It should be noted that schools inspired by Gülen’s philosophy are not religious; they are secular schools following state-prescribed curricula and programs, and are inspected by state authorities in their host countries.3 IN addition to which, Hizmet schools’ students hail from a range of cultures, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. These schools state their aim as fostering the universal values of honesty, hard work, harmony and conscientious service in all their students.4
The study summarized in this report is the first to evaluate the efficacy of the Gülen approach in Azerbaijan, where Gülen-inspired schools have won high praise for their quality, as demonstrated by their students’ performance in national and international academic competitions. The schools have earned a solid reputation as the best in the country thanks to their students’ high scores on university entrance exams; the schools average a 98 percent acceptance rate. Azerbaijani graduates of Hizmet schools continue their education both at home and abroad, with large numbers studying in Turkey, the US, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Singapore and other countries. The participants in the study were well-educated, and as graduates of Gülen-inspired schools, their knowledge of the subject matter was both broad and deep.
The qualitative study comprises interviews with graduates of Gülen-inspired schools, both one-on-one and in groups. Four major themes emerged from these interviews: the effectiveness of the schools’ methods, the schools’ educational principles and moral values, their school-based co-curricular and extracurricular activities, and their contribution to Azerbaijan’s intellectual and social landscape.
The findings of the study revealed that the contribution of Gülen-inspired schools to the quality of education in Azerbaijan is bourn out by the performance of their students on both the national and international level. Participants reported that, over the last three decades, students have won awards in national and international math, science and language competitions. Participants also underlined that these schools practice advanced educational methods and that their students have a higher success rate relative to other schools in the country, in national and international exams and in competitions. According to the participants, the Azerbaijani president, parliamentarians, intellectuals, writers, businesspeople and public figures all recognize the importance of Hizmet schools and appreciate them and the opportunity they provide to Azerbaijani students. Speeches by some of the country’s leading figures quoted in the media support this claim. For example, former Azerbaijani Education Minister Misir Mardanov reported that Turkish entrepreneurs and teachers came to educate Azerbaijani children and equipped the schools with the latest technology. Students representing Azerbaijan in the international arena frequently come from these schools. Former President Aliyev once described the success of the Turkish schools as “a legendary triumph.”5
Participants also emphasized the importance of Qafqaz University in Azerbaijani higher education, reporting that it has been Azerbaijan’s most popular private university since 1996 and, among private universities, fills its available spaces the fastest and has the most competitive student body. The former minister of education also commented on the issue, telling education journal Abituriyent in 2001 that “Qafqaz University has acquired the best place among the private universities.” It has been evident for some time that each year Qafqaz University welcomes many of the students ranked highest in the university entrance exams. Two Qafqaz University graduates who participated in the study said that this was mainly due to the close attention the university pays to its students, its strong organization and the full scholarships it awards to high-performing applicants. “The university always tries to help its graduates find jobs,” reported one participant, adding, “These qualities attract a large number of bright, hardworking students who achieve high scores on the entrance exam.” Many Qafqaz University students have won the presidential scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious scholarships in the country.
Ethical principles and moral values
The second theme that emerged in the interviews was the ethical principles and moral values of Azerbaijan’s Gülen-inspired schools. Participants reported that the values taught in the schools led to transformative personal experiences, and listed honesty, peace, tolerance, hard work, integrity, self-discipline, harmony and service as some of the character traits that their teachers helped them develop. One participant put it this way: “Before I enrolled in the school, I was acting just like I was living for myself. I was neither thinking of others in society nor trying to give benefits to the community.”
More salient, however, is the stress the participants put on their teachers’ method of moral education, which they said was taught in an entirely secular -- never Islamic or religious -- context. (Participants said that the teachers scrupulously avoided teaching religion, though one described them as “very good Muslims.”) Teachers acted as role models, embodying with their actions and behaviors the values they wished to instill in their students. And this method, according to the interviewees, was very effective in helping students build a strong sense of values.
“Teachers are working hard and practice these moral values themselves too, not only telling us,” one participant said; another described his teachers as “modeling these values and beliefs through practices. They rarely speak out in order to say what is right in terms of what is acceptable in society.”
Through these students’ perspectives, one can see that teachers in Hizmet schools believe that values are not to be taught in lectures, but that “the human possession of free will entails an obligation to discipline it, and it is the struggle for discipline that determines humanity.”6 Consequently, the educators in these Gülen-inspired schools prefer practice to preaching.
School-based co-curricular and extracurricular activities
The third major theme of the study consisted of school-based co-curricular and extracurricular activities at Azerbaijan’s Gülen-inspired schools. This particular strategy is based on the idea of encouraging experiential learning and is aligned with national and international educational standards. In other words, while following the Azerbaijani national curriculum, Gülen-inspired schools also implement Western educational models that take into account both the academic and socio-emotional needs of children. Participants enthusiastically endorsed the application of these models, which provided them an educational experience they had lacked in other school environments. Extracurricular activities also strengthen relationships within the school community -- between teachers, belletmens (tutors) and students.
Participants stressed well-planned and productive class hours as the key component of their success. These schools provide instruction in four languages: Azerbaijani, Turkish, English and Russian. Language-learning activities and small contests are organized to encourage students to practice their language skills, and participants said that these activities were a great source of motivation and encouragement.
School administrators and teachers also consider school-parent relations very important for the academic and emotional development of students, the study revealed. Participants said that school administrators, teachers and parents regularly meet to discuss the progress of pupils and their academic and psychosocial needs. Teachers visit students at their homes to enhance student learning and boost involvement. “It is important to know as much as possible about the student to be able to guide him or her in the right direction,” one participant said. Others added that these visits also benefit the parents, who get a better idea of the school’s educational method. “Through these meetings, closer integration between home and school life can be achieved.”
Contributions to Azerbaijan’s intellectual and social landscape
Education is a determining factor in the intellectual and social development of nations. Azerbaijan, despite ongoing concerns about educational accountability and policy implementation, has made important efforts toward educational reform over the last few years, and the country’s economic prosperity and dynamic youth population allow for further improvement in the educational system. As they have in other countries, Gülen-inspired schools have been deeply involved in the process of improving educational outcomes in Azerbaijan. Graduates of these schools have taken on senior positions in corporations and started their own enterprises. Participants reported that the Azerbaijani youths educated in these schools use their intellectual skills, which they hone at leading universities, to reshape the intellectual and social landscape of their country.
In the interviews, participants pointed to the devastating impact that the Soviet Communist regime had on society and education. Muslim citizens were subject to particular persecution: They were harassed, and their religious and cultural values were ridiculed. Although Azerbaijani society was strong enough to withstand the artificial indoctrination of the Soviet political-ideological belief system, after 70 years of the totalitarian regime it was almost impossible for anyone to be completely safe and secure. One participant noted: “Today in our country, there are two generations that are fundamentally at variance in terms of their worldview. It is the responsibility of the new generation to build peace and prosperity, by which people can live their values in the aftershock of a lost history.” The participants said that the graduates of these schools are different from their peers, not only in terms of their academic knowledge base, but also in their worldview and their view of themselves as citizens of Azerbaijan -- and the world. “We were taught motivation and love of contributing to the development of our nation. Then, we saw that these [educational] institutions are doing the same good things in other countries. […] Yes, they are creating islands of peace; and the colors of world [cultures, languages, ethnicities, etc.] display a wonderful picture of brotherhood.”
The findings of this study show the effectiveness of the Gülen-inspired educational institutions in Azerbaijan and their importance to the development of the country. Graduates of Gülen-inspired schools contribute to the betterment of the Azerbaijani education system and the development of the nation. The stories the participants told paint a clear picture of the contributions that Gülen-inspired schools are making to the country’s intellectual and social landscape: dedicated teachers providing quality education and forming strong ethical principles and moral values in their students. The participants reported on shared characteristics that all teachers in these schools possess, which could be called the modeling-enthusiasm-dedication constellation. The findings suggest that this constellation plays a key role in students’ academic, social and emotional development. The findings also suggest that Gülen-inspired schools’ educational philosophy is consistent with its practice.
Though space constraints prevent a full description of the study’s results, it is clear that participants had developed close emotional bonds with their schools and believed that Hizmet schools are doing good work toward bettering education in Azerbaijan and around the world. The continued closure of the schools could have harmful consequences for the country’s quality of education and society at large. Those consequences will not be ascertained for many years, and of course no compensation would be adequate. We shouldn’t forget excellence in our effort to support the education of children. Note that here, political squabbles are trumping excellence.
Despite the positive results of the study, this author would encourage further research on the effectiveness of the Gülen-inspired schools’ educational methodology with a larger number of students. Also, it would be interesting and indeed important to shed light onto parents’ experience of their children’s academic and socio-emotional development in these schools. Although thematic generalizability is certainly possible, this research, like any exploratory case study, has limited generalizability.7
*College of William and Mary, Virginia: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Michael D. Graskemper, “A Bridge to Inter-Religious Cooperation,” in International Conference Proceedings: Muslim World in Transition; Contributions of the Gülen Movement, ed. Ihsan Yilmaz et al. (London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, 2007), 622-31.
2. Akbar S. Ahmed, foreword to The Gülen Movement: Civic Service Without Borders, by Muhammed Çetin (New York: Blue Dome Press, 2010), ix-xii.
3. Yüksel Aslandoğan and Muhammed Çetin, “The Educational Philosophy of Gülen in Thought and Practice,” in Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World: Contributions of the Gülen Movement, ed. Robert A. Hunt et al. (Somerset, NJ: The Light, 2006), 29-50.
4. Thomas Michel, “Fethullah Gülen as Educator,” in Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, ed. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 869-84.
5. “Azerbaijani ambassador says Turkish-Azeri relations rock solid, free from disturbance,” Today’s Zaman, Nov. 9, 2010, accessed Dec. 17, 2013, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-226682-8-azerbaijani-ambassador-says-turkish-azeri-relations-rock-solid-free-from-disturbance.html.
6. Fethullah Gülen, “Education From Cradle to Grave,” The Fountain 20 (1997): accessed Nov. 21, 2013, http://www.fountainmagazine.com/Issue/detail/Education-from-Cradle-to-Grave.
7. Sharan B. Merriam, Case Study Research in Education: A Qualitative Approach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988).
Published on Turkish Review September 2014 issue