Gülen schools is a strange subject, so much information is actually available on it but not the information you search for. For instance, we don’t even really know how many Gülen schools there are. Because there isn’t an organizational structure that ties the schools directly to Fethullah Gülen. (To get to know him, you should definitely read this piece by Claire Berlinski.) He’s more like an honorary leader who inspired them. The schools are generally founded by members of Gülen Movement (a.k.a. Cemaat in Turkey, meaning “the Communion”) that is neither an NGO nor a group that requires any kind of registration. But in 2011, Helen Rose Ebaugh of University of Houston, said on CNNTürk “the best estimate is that there are around 2000 schools, half of them are abroad.” These schools include universities, language schools, high schools, elementary schools and dersanes – that are privately owned schools that prepare Turkish students for university entrance exam (YGS), public personnel selection exam (KPSS) and so forth…
Gülen schools abroad definitely have more sympathy and respect in Turkey than those at home do. They enjoy quite a lot of intellectual support, not only from notoriously pro-government and pro-Gülen Movement (GM) authors, but also from truly respected names of various sides of the political spectrum.
“Bridges of Peace: The Turkish Schools That Opened to the World”, first published in 2005, contains articles and interviews of twenty seven academicians and writers on Gülen schools abroad, sheds some light on possible goals of the schools. A big proportion of the contributors are well-known supporters of AKP and the GM yet to see some names there might really surprise Turkish readers or informed non-Turkish readers. The first surprising name is the late Bülent Ecevit, former Prime Minister of Turkey, who was leading a left-wing party and was very fond of secularism. The first thing impressed Ecevit who was also a poet, was the importance given to teaching of Turkish language at the schools. For him, Ottoman Empire didn’t bother much teaching Turkish in its lands and these schools are now fixing that very mistake. It can be inferred from his statements on the interview that Ecevit saw Turkish way of Islam as the best alternative to Saudi Arabian and Iranian kinds, which, according to him, do not fit to our age and therefore Gülen schools representing Turkish Islam should be favored. In a trip to Albania he received teachers of a Gülen school there and he said “I know I will be criticized by some, but I appreciate the works done here.” And as he anticipated, he was criticized vigorously. Another name worth mentioning is the late Gündüz Aktan who served as Turkey’s ambassador to Kenya, Switzerland, Greece and Japan respectively, and was an MP from MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). Aktan argues that while judging merits of these schools, internal squabbles should be put aside. He tells how he was amazed by success of the language schools opened in Japan: “First they opened a language school. It was to teach Turkish, then they decided to add courses of other Turkic languages and Russian, imported teachers. When I was leaving Japan in middle of 1998, there were -if I am not wrong- three language schools in three different cities. And I saw reports in the Japanese press that Turkish was ranked as the 4th foreign language that the Japanese were most interested in.” He says that the teachers who made Turkish language popular there in just two years, had a missionary spirit and they were working for very low salaries. “I sometimes even wondered whether they were hungry”, he adds.
İlber Ortaylı, a professor of history who has a huge following in Turkey, also implies that Gülen schools could actually be called missionary schools: “A society that felt disturbed much by the missionary activities in 19th century… now spreads similar schools.” He argues that such schools abroad are a matter of political influence and should be supported, emphasizing “Secular France is behind its Catholic schools. Britain is behind its Protestant schools.” But he also notes that conversion is hardly observed, just like happened at missionary schools within the Ottoman Empire. For Ortaylı, perhaps the biggest perk of the schools is that they would create Turcophile communities in other countries, especially among the elites: “We have seen no Russian who became Muslim. But the kids learn Turkish and grow very fond of Turkey… In future, this will, of course, create a well-educated Turcophile class. Because those are smart kids, selected by exams and are being trained meticulously at low-size classrooms… They embrace Turkish traditions and lifestyle, like showing respect to the elders, being clean and not drinking alcohol… That’s why parents in St. Petersburg and Moscow -including the elites of the cities’ bureaucracy- fancy these schools much.” He also points out that the schools also help Turkish entrepreneurs who do or want to do business in foreign countries and in return, they are glad to make contributions to the schools. There other interesting names in the book: Strictly Kemalist academician Prof. Toktamış Ateş (one of the editors of the book); worldwide famous Kyrgyz author Cengiz Aytmatov and Prof. Büşra Ersanlı who is a socialist and a supporter of pro-Kurdish BDP…
Surely not everyone thinks these schools are such houses of endless goodwill. For instance; some Kemalists and socialists believe that Gülen schools, especially those in Central Asia, are actually tools of American imperialism and they were established to bring the people there a new ideology and identities that are pro-American. But the real dissidence surfaces when it comes to activities of GM within Turkey, which, of course, include its educational works.
To get the view, we need to mention ışık evleri (can be translated as “houses of light”) that are houses where the GM trains university students. These rented houses are supervised by older students called ağabeyler (elder brothers) and ablalar (elder sisters). The GM, in general, selects especially poor, smart and hardworking students when they are preparing for university entrance exam (or much earlier) and when the students get in a university, they transfer them to an ışık house. In these houses, they have to obey their supervisors which often means they have to read certain newspapers like Zaman, journals like Sızıntı; watch TV channels like STV and some religious channels, join religious conversation meetings, study and practice their religion, avoid wearing open clothes and having a girlfriend or a boyfriend… Although they do not bluntly force the students -anyone is free to stay on or leave-, they constantly suggest to pray and be religious. A study titled “Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization” done by Boğaziçi University in 2008, presents some interesting stories from students who stayed in ışık houses and the GM dormitories. A teacher from Aydın complains about one of his/her 6th grade student’s decrease in performance and constant sleepy look. After investigating, the teacher finds out that the student’s dormitory makes him wake up very early for the morning prayer and read books of Said-i Nursi, a deceased cleric that the GM hugely respects. Another teacher from Batman, who found out that one of his students suffers from the same problem, says “The kid wakes up 4:00 am in the morning to perform morning prayer, then studies Arabic. He hardly has any time left for the school’s lessons.” The teacher also points out that the GM “catches” bright students from rural areas when they are at 6th or 7th grade. There are also complaints that some kids estranged and turned hostile to their families after staying at GM’s houses.
And there’s the matter of dersanes. Since public schools ridiculously fail to train their students for university entrance exam (YGS), there are private schools focuses specifically on preparing students for such exams and they’re called dersanes. The GM is known to have many of those. According to a report by daily Cumhuriyet, there are 4.000 licensed dersanes in the country and 60% of them are the GM’s. 80% of dersane publications are also theirs.
Of course, there have been more serious developments than the funny little things I have personally seen. For instance; in 2010, head of ÖSYM (Student Selection and Placement Center) Ünal Yarımağan resigned due to allegations of cheating in KPSS (Public Personnel Selection Exam). The allegation was that the questions were stolen and given to GM’s dersanes. After Yarımağan who publicly complained about the changes imposed on ÖSYM by the government was replaced by Ali Demir, about a dozen of scandals occurred including shady exams allegedly tied to the GM and its dersanes and a plagiarism accusation to Prof. Demir. (The British academic who made the accusation accepted a written apology published in a magazine, aborted the investigation on Demir.) A report also revealed that majority of ÖSYM personnel are first and second degree relatives of each other. The scandals stained reputation of ÖSYM that supervises all the exams that select and place personnel for state institutions, and increased existing suspicions about the GM. It’s widely believed these current corruption cases including the ones in the police organization (some of them were revealed and documented in a book by Hanefi Avcı, a former chief of police) are related to the GM. We have a disastrous educational system and many corrupted state officials but in past we at least knew that exams and selection processes were fair. Now hardly anybody thinks so. A poll published in 2011, suggests that 72% of people do not trust ÖSYM and only 18% think that Ali Demir should not resign.
Having said all this, I also see a structure that takes young students early, injects them a certain lifestyle (or in most cases ensures that students retain conservative lifestyle of their parents); helps them get in good universities through providing studying opportunities and shelter either for free or at very low costs; and expects support (financial support or various favors) of the students when they reach good positions in the civil service and private sector.
In conclusion, whether Fethullah Gülen is a benevolent man or not, whether his schools are exporting an ideology based on religion or not, whether they have an ultimate plan of turning Turkey into an Islamic state or not; existence of an entity this big and influential and has its arms and legs in business, police organization and elsewhere in the state; is doomed to alienate others. That is why, while at annual Turkish Language Olympics GM shows off its muscles by shipping its students from 140 different countries and all pro-government media -including the state television TRT- covers the event, a very good proportion of the Turkish society really creeps out. (Though 2013’s event was overshadowed by Gezi Park protests.) Not because they don’t like foreigners learning Turkish; not because, as some would like to assert, they dislike and look down on rural people and Islam and therefore AKP and the GM; but because they feel besieged. And they have very good reasons to feel so.