The Turkish Imam and His Global Educational Mission:
October, 1992. the Soviet Union has disbanded and chaos reigns in its former territories. Three times a week, a rattly Russian charter plane filled with young Muslim devotees flies east from Istanbul across barren, low-lying steppes to the capitals of Central Asia. The men are clean-cut, sharply dressed in dark suits and ties, trim of mustache and purposeful. It is the first foray out of their hometown for most, let alone on a plane, but such is their faith in Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Muslim imam they revere. 'Fly like swallows,' Gulen exhorted, 'to these countries that are newly free, as an expression of our brotherhood.'
Fly they did. Hundreds of volunteer teachers fanned out across five Central Asian republics. It was the start of a global movement that is now one of the largest and most powerful competing for the future of Islam around the world. There are an estimated 1,000 Gulen-affiliated schools in 100 countries — from Malawi to the U.S. — offering a blend of religious faith and largely Western curriculum. All are inspired by Gulen, an enigmatic retired preacher who oversees the schools — and a multibillion-dollar business empire — from the unlikeliest of locales: rural Pennsylvania.
Tall, lanky and possessing a smooth American accent, chemistry teacher Abdurrahman Sel was introduced to the Gulen movement while a high school student in Istanbul. His dad thought his garrulous nature would make him a good lawyer, but Sel was inspired to become a teacher because Gulen considers it the highest form of service. The only way for Islam to survive godless modernity and regain a place in public life, Gulen believes, is through a new 'golden generation' who can combine Western scientific thinking with religious belief. Hence the schools.
Sel signed on for Central Asia in 1993 and drew Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan. 'It wasn't even on a map or in the encyclopedia,' he recalls. 'There was no Internet then. But I was just out of university, I was single, and it was all a big adventure. Besides, we owed the people of Central Asia a moral debt. They are our brothers.' Many Turks see Central Asia as their ancestral homeland and share an ethnic and linguistic bond with its people.
From Kazakhstan's then capital Almaty, Sel traveled by bus and shared car to the grim mining city and a shell of a school building donated by Kazakh authorities. 'There was no heating. I taught in fur hat and gloves for months. We spent our weekends mixing cement and laying bricks.' At first locals were wary of these strangers who couldn't speak their language, wore a tie even on weekends and refused vodka, as ubiquitous as water. 'Everyone expected us to leave after a few months,' Sel says. 'But when we stayed, they embraced us.'
Sel is now director of 28 high schools in Kazakhstan, from three when he first arrived. Entrance is by competitive exam. This year, 30,000 students applied for 1,400 spots and everyone I spoke to in Almaty, from a fashion editor to a construction magnate, wanted their child enrolled. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's nephews are among Sel's students.
Gulen, the 68-year-old retired imam behind this colossal enterprise has never visited Central Asia. He leads an ascetic life on an estate in Pennsylvania, where he has lived since 1999 for medical reasons, and to avoid facing (recently dropped) charges of seeking to overthrow the secular regime in Turkey. Gulen declined TIME's request for an interview, citing poor health.
His life mission has been to create a new Turkish-affiliated Muslim elite, well versed in science and technology, successful in a global free-market economy, yet extremely devout. The schools — they are autonomous, so not technically 'his' — teach an English-language Western curriculum emphasizing science and math in the classroom (though creationism is offered as fact alongside evolution) and Muslim family-values-style conservatism outside it. In an era when most denominational schools are struggling, the Turkish schools, as they are known, are thriving.
'Gulen propagates a kind of 'educational Islamism' as opposed to a 'political Islamism,' ' says Bill Park, a defense studies lecturer at King's College, London, who covers Turkey. Through the schools, Park says, Gulen hoped to effect 'an 'Islamization' of modernity.'
Gulen's method is similar to the way in which Catholic Jesuits spread religion by emphasizing a well-rounded education. In fact, Gulen's first recruits were instructed by Christian missionaries with experience in Africa and South America. The method is also deeply controversial, and Russia and Uzbekistan have closed several of the schools. Depending on whom you ask, Gulen is either a saint or the next Khomeini (although he criticizes Iran and Saudi Arabia, for giving Islam a bad name). To followers, he is Hodjaefendi (respected teacher).
Gulen was born in a poor eastern Turkish village and began studying the Koran as a child under the tutelage of his father, a preacher. He was 'electrified' as a young adult by the work of Said Nursi, a Sufi-inspired Islamic thinker of the early 1900s who emphasized the individual dimension of faith and sought to reconcile Western scientific thought and Islam. Gulen trained as a state-licensed preacher and, from 1966, he began building up a base of devotees in the western city of Izmir.
He started summer camps teaching Islamic tenets and then persuaded local businessmen to fund private dorms for low-income university students from rural areas. Students were given free room and board in exchange for a daily diet of prayer and listening to Gulen audiotapes. It was the start of a vast network of schools, universities and businesses, all promoting Islam-based ethics. He toured Turkey throughout the 1980s and '90s to cement it.
Like an American evangelist, Gulen's appeal lies mainly in his delivery. He is media savvy and emotional, frequently breaking into poetry or tears. That strikes a chord with millions of Turks who feel that modern, secular Turkey has alienated them from their Muslim belief. He also glorifies the Ottoman imperial past, appealing to a time when religion was a part of public life and the Turks were far mightier.
His is not a new interpretation of Islam — he believes that Islamic tenets as revealed in the Koran are unalterable — but he engages with modern concerns like running a successful business or how to pray while on a plane. He doesn't sport a beard and he wears suits. Since 9/11, he has made interfaith dialogue a priority. His followers hold dozens of such meetings across North America every week.
To secularist Turks, however, Gulen is a sinister figure, a puppet master readying his cadres for the great Islamist takeover. They accuse Gulen of taqiya, an Islamic concept by which believers can conceal their real intentions if circumstances so require. One oft-cited tape released in 1999 featured Gulen calling on his supporters to 'work patiently' and 'creep silently' into state institutions in order to gain power. He claimed his words were manipulated.
Secularist hostility makes the movement secretive. There is no reliable data on the size of Gulen's following because one doesn't sign up to join and it has no official legal status. But it is growing in power. Gulen supporters are estimated to number at least 6 million, according to academics researching the phenomenon. (More surprising is a former Interior Minister's estimate that 70% of Turkey's national police forces are Gulen devotees.) 'If they were a political party, they could post 20 to 25 MPs,' says Nedim Sener, an investigative journalist. 'Any movement that wields that much power needs to be transparent, like an NGO. Who belongs to it? How is it funded? What goes on in the schools they run? What are its political goals? These are all issues shrouded in secrecy.'
To my Catholic-school-trained eye, the schools I visit in Almaty and Bishkek appear familiar. They are largely segregated. Uniforms are compulsory. At the girls' school in Almaty, students wear checked skirts that are a little longer than their peers at other schools. Makeup is frowned upon, collars are buttoned and there is an emphasis on being 'a good girl.'
I am allowed to roam freely and speak to the students, a bright-eyed, earnest bunch who make the average Western high schooler seem terribly decadent in comparison. There are no punk kids smoking secretly in a corner, no baggy, low-waisted pants or pierced noses. They all want to be engineers and doctors 'useful to my country.' A group of seniors swotting for the SAT reel off a list of Ivy League schools they're applying to. I tease them by telling them about keg parties and they are mildly horrified. 'I guess you can never say never,' says Nazerkem Idibayeva, 16, cautiously adjusting wire-rimmed glasses. 'But I don't think I will ever need beer to have fun.'
The schools owe their success in part to strict control. Every minute of the day is structured. Boarding is mandatory and students live with older 'brothers' and 'sisters' who act as both confidants and mentors. Originally these came from Turkey but local graduates have taken over. Temsil, or leading by example, is key, not least because proselytizing in most Central Asian nations is banned. 'The kids are socialized into a Muslim way of life,' says Berna Turam, a sociologist at Northeastern University who has spent a decade studying the Gulen movement. 'There is a very religious universe indoctrinated by extracurricular activities. That's what makes the schools like Catholic schools.'
The schools also vigorously promote Turkic pride. They all teach Turkish language, and Istanbul occupies the aspirational place in students' imagination that New York City does elsewhere in the world. Unlike Western-looking Turkey, in identity-seeking post-Soviet Central Asia this blend of ethnic pride, Muslim values and secular education is welcomed. 'Under Russian rule, we forgot our traditions and values,' says Dana Arystanbekova, 33, who runs a large construction firm in Almaty and recently enrolled her daughter Dinara in the girls' school. 'The schools have a very high level of education in English and they also teach good Turkish, Muslim values, terbiye [manners].' The schools started out free but now collect tuition — the aim being not to teach the poor but to train a future elite. Tuition in Almaty is $5,000 a year. Running a school costs about $800,000 a year and that's where businesses come in — and the tithe.
Here's how Gulen, Inc. works: in 1991 Gulen gathered several dozen businessmen from different Turkish cities and to each he entrusted a different city in Central Asia. The man from the western city of Adapazari got Bishkek, the one from Izmir got Almaty. Each sent a delegation to live there and establish businesses importing food or textiles or TVs. The group took advantage of the infrastructure vacuum created by the Soviet collapse and built up ties with officials. Eventually they were granted vacant buildings or classrooms. 'Mutualism,' says Sel, ever the science teacher. 'The schools and businesses feed each other.' Like cells, every country's program is fully autonomous, with their own office back in Turkey. Though just a two-hour drive apart, administrators in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan barely knew each other.
Saulesh Kusainova, then 35, was in charge of facilities at the Ministry of Education in Almaty in 1992 when a group of Turkish men appeared in her office. They spoke neither Kazakh nor Russian but 'I understood they wanted a building for a school,' she says. She eventually gave them two classrooms, one each for boys and girls, and was paid with bags of cash transported from Turkey. 'I knew instantly they were good, decent people,' she says, taking a framed photo of Gulen, whom she calls her teacher, from her purse. 'It was impossible not to be affected by them. At that time, Kazakhstan was a mess and these people came to help us.' Many people I speak to cite gratitude. 'Kazakhstan then was like Afghanistan today,' says Muhsin Karademir, a Kazakh real estate developer. 'You couldn't walk down the street because someone would pull a gun.'
The schools serve to reinforce the businesses; graduates patronize them and a network of alumni builds. Restaurateur Sancak Demirci started out in 1994 with a small shop serving kebabs in downtown Almaty. Two years ago he expanded to a sleek, marbled, two-story venue, and is about to launch three franchises across Kazakhstan. 'When you are called on to serve and you believe, you do anything,' he says. 'Imagine a kind of love beyond what you feel for your children, that's what this community shares. Whatever I own, is for the schools.' He says he contributes half his monthly earnings to the cause.
Schools are less reliant on Turkish donors now that parents and graduates contribute. 'I don't know anyone who doesn't support these guys,' says Karademir. 'I'm not a religious guy. But I admire the work they do. Would I have come here under those conditions? Hell, no. But they did. People recognize that and are grateful.'
The movement has two faces. Pushing abroad, largely under secular regimes, it is maturing and becoming more tolerant. To be sure, the youthful men who run it abide by a strict code. (The decision makers are all men, their wives rarely work.) They believe in one truth and see everybody else as in need of saving. But they also teach children of all religions, watch Kung-Fu Panda with their students, often speak fluent Russian and jump over bonfires at Newroz, a pagan new-year tradition. 'If people are scared of us,' says Sel, 'it means we haven't explained ourselves. To judge someone's lifestyle is up to God, not me.'
Add a quest for power to that fervor, though, and it gets complicated. In Turkey the movement is insular, growing and seems to harbor a mysterious political agenda. 'On one level you have activities like the schools, which are hard not to be impressed by,' says King's College lecturer Park. 'Then there's the political element, which appears suspicious because it's rich, secretive and nobody really knows what it's up to.' Gulen says he is opposed to theocracy, yet his supporters suggest that they would like more space for Islam in public life. But how will that come to pass? The future shape of secularism in Turkey — and around the Islamic world — might rest on that answer.
The Turkish Imam and His Global Educational Mission: "
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