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Turkey: Fethullahci Schools -- A Greenhouse For Central Asian Elites?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The Nur ("light" in Turkish) movement is generally considered one of the most important Islamic reformist currents to have appeared in Turkey in the past century. One of this movement's subcommunities, founded by religious thinker Fethullah Gulen, seeks to breed a "new generation" of socially integrated Muslim believers who will eventually achieve high government positions. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered the Gulen community -- which is one of Turkey's most powerful socio-religious movements -- a unique opportunity to expand abroad, notably in Central Asia. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports in this second of a two-part series.

Prague, 8 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The full-scale expansion of the Fethullah Gulen community beyond Turkey's boundaries coincided roughly with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The emergence of five new independent Turkic states in Central Asia and the Caucasus region gave Gulen's educational projects a formidable impetus and the religious thinker a unique opportunity to expand his activities abroad.

Over the six years that followed the Soviet collapse, the group succeeded in opening more than 100 schools and universities in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as in Russia's Turkic republics of Daghestan, Karachai-Cherkessiya, Tatarstan, and Bashkotorstan.

Gulen's Nurcu schools also appeared in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan -- all countries with sizeable Turkic minorities.

The Gulen community also expanded in former Communist Eastern Europe --- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Romania -- and Asia.

Today, the group supervises an estimated 150 educational institutions abroad, approximately the same number as in Turkey.

The community is also present in many Western countries where Turkish immigrants live, including Germany, France, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Gulen's teaching institutions in Central Asia -- not to be confused with state-sponsored Turkish schools -- include mainly high schools ("lise," in Turkish), but also half a dozen universities.

Those include a university named after former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, the Ahmet Yesevi University in the southern Kazakh city of Turkistan, the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University in Bishkek, and the International Turkmen-Turkish University of Ashgabat.

It is in Kazakhstan, where it has some 27 schools, that the Gulen community has been the most successful -- a circumstance generally ascribed to this country's comparatively greater openness to foreign influences.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, the Gulen community has known varying fortunes.

In 1994, Uzbek President Islam Karimov ordered most "fethullahci" teachers out of his country. The remainder were expelled four years ago, thus effectively bringing to an end the Gulen community's activities in that country.

It is unclear whether Karimov's decision was sparked by his fear of any religious movement not strictly controlled by the state, or a reaction to Turkey's decision to offer shelter to Uzbek opposition leaders.

U.S.-based sociologist Berna Turam, who has researched the Fethullah Gulen movement in Turkey and Kazakhstan, says its aim in setting up schools abroad varies according to region.

In Western Europe, Turam notes, the community's schools represent a way for immigrants to help strengthen their children's sense of their Muslim, Turkish identity. But in Central Asia, the schools were initially perceived as mere agents of Turkish expansion, which raised concerns among local populations.

"Initially, [people] thought that the Turks came here to replace the Soviet domination," says Turam. "That was the initial feeling and that is totally understandable. Why, after all, did all these Turkish schools appear all of a sudden after the fall of the Soviet Union? So, the initial feelings and responses were actually cold. But later on, apparently, the parents started to appreciate these so-called 'Turkish schools,' which [in Kazakhstan] are called 'Kazak-Turk schools.' These schools became successful and people's suspicions decreased."

Like other former Soviet republics, Central Asian states have been struggling to maintain high education standards since they gained independence.

Yet, economic depletion has forced them to reduce their education budgets, leading to a significant decrease in teaching standards. In addition, unattractive salaries have drained the profession of many of its most competent teachers and university professors.

With its teams of dedicated Turkish-born teachers and its emphasis on modern technology, the Gulen community has helped local governments overcome this situation.

As in Turkey, a strong emphasis on sciences, ethics, and self-discipline is what characterizes Centrals Asia's fethullahci schools. Training is given mainly in English, but also in Turkish, local languages, and occasionally Russian.

Although Gulen's teachers are devoted Muslim believers, they do not teach religion at school and strictly observe Turkey's state-sponsored secular curriculum. They are also open to non-Muslim students, including representatives of ethnic Slav minorities.

Better standards of education and a strict entrance selection process have both contributed to maintaining the prestige of Gulen's schools and universities. Yet comparatively high admission fees make them mainly elite institutions.

Bayram Balci of the Istanbul-based French Institute of Anatolian Studies is one of the few scholars who have extensively researched the Gulen movement in Central Asia. He says some features of the group's missionary activities in the region suggest a parallel with the Roman Catholic Church's Society of Jesus.

"[For Gulen's followers] the top priority is to spread modern, scientific teaching with a view to forming new cadres for these countries. That doesn't mean that they do not teach religious values. Simply they're kind of teaching a behavior based on ethics. They do not teach religion per se. For them this is not the priority. In all my works, I've been comparing them with the Jesuits. I call them 'the Jesuits of Islam,' because they give a high-quality education and kind of promote a sense of elitism. Teaching religious values comes only after that," Balci says.

Balci says the moral integrity that generally characterizes Nurcu teachers has also contributed to making the Gulen schools popular among both local governments and residents.

Another leading expert on the Gulen movement, political scientist Hakan Yavuz of the University of Utah, says the close ties that the group has been maintaining with Turkish business circles have also played a major role in its Central Asian expansion.

"The movement is successful, [first] because of its stress on education and because, as in Turkey, public education in Central Asia is in a poor state. Second, the foreign language [issue] is something very important. A third important thing is that [the Gulen community] has close ties with the middle class and bourgeoisie, especially with merchants and business groups. These schools are also networks to do business in Central Asia," Yavuz says.

Paradoxically, while many state officials in Turkey view the Gulen community with suspicion, the movement's foreign expansion has served Ankara's interests by paving the ground for extensive business cooperation between Turkey and Central Asia.

The group has also been instrumental in both promoting a, sometimes imagined, commonality with Turkey and trying to stir pan-Turkic feelings among Central Asians.

In his recently published book on the Gulen movement in Central Asia, Balci describes how every Monday students in fethullahci schools attend the raising of the Turkish flag and sing both their national anthem and that of Turkey.

Sociologist Turam says Gulen's followers initially put the emphasis on the Turks' Central Asian roots to claim a "blood connection" between their home country and the "newly liberated" former Soviet republics.

"Most of the time, when you asked [Gulen's] followers: 'Why do you go there and open schools? Why are the schools in Central Asia so concentrated, so high in numbers?' the [main] answer you received was something like 'Oh, because our brothers are there, because we [Turks] came from there and because [we are] blood brothers.' So it is more nationalism, nationalist feelings and ethnic belonging [that] apparently called [them] to Central Asia. In other words, the secular teachers of the Turkish state and the Islam-oriented teachers of the Gulen community share the same discourse in terms of 'Let's go back to our roots and let's connect these countries together.' This kind of similar discourse over Central Asia facilitates cooperation between the [Gulen] movement and the [Turkish] state," Turam says.

While describing Gulen's ultimate goal as a "bottom-up Islamization approach of society" through education -- as opposed to what he says is the "top-down approach" of Islamic parties -- political scientist Yavuz agrees that, as far as Central Asia is concerned, the community's primary aim of breeding a new generation of scientifically educated believers meets the objectives of many Turkish secularists.

"Their goal is to create a new generation [that] is socially conservative, nationally oriented toward Turkey and 'Turkishness,' [and] scientifically endowed with new knowledge and new information. They have been active in Central Asia to create an 'altin nesil,' [or golden generation]," Yavuz says.

In a 1998 interview given to "Aksyon," the news magazine owned by his community, Gulen described his ideal Golden Generation as made of people "with minds enlightened by positive science and hearts purified by faith, [people] who would be an example of virtue, who would burn with the desire to serve their nation and humanity, and who would live not for themselves but for others."

Father Thomas Michel, who serves as secretary for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Society of Jesus in Rome and has visited the Fethullah Gulen schools in Kyrgyzstan, believes Gulen might achieve some success in his Central Asian teaching endeavors.

"What I hope is that they would be training a group of people who really can compete on an international level with the graduates from any other schools and yet who are not only kind of seeking jobs, security and advancement, but actually trying to do something good. And I'd say that that's where their real importance lies," Michel says.

Yet the real impact of Gulen's educational project remains to be seen.

Balci says fethullahci schools represent only 10 percent of Central Asia's education system. It's not enough, he says, if the aim of the schools is to really "transform" these countries -- at least in the short or middle term.

"But who knows?" Balci says. "Maybe it is a long-term endeavor over the next 30, 40 or 50 years. However, unless one can read Gulen's mind, this is a question no one -- not even people who have been working on the movement for years -- can answer."