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History of the Educational Projects of the Gulen Movement


By Helen Rose Ebaugh

Establishing the First Educational Projects

Mr. Gülen, together with administrators of the Kestanepazari institution and with the support of local businessmen organized summer camps for middle and high school students, as well as university students. These camps taught secular education courses in areas such as history and biology but also provided religious discussions on issues such as the role of Islam in public debates. Mr. Gülen often evoked the life of Muhammad and the classical period of the Ottoman Empire as good examples of ways in which fidelity to the precepts of Islam promoted greatness.

In addition to the summer camps, starting in the 1970s Mr. Gülen’s listeners began to form a new cemaat around his teachings, similar to the Nursi-inspired cemaat that Mr. Gülen attended earlier. However, what drew people to Mr. Gülen’s messages were his large public sermons in front of thousands of listeners and public lectures, which were recorded and sold throughout the country. His listeners comprised mostly low to middle-income businessmen, with a small number of wealthy ones, and university students. He attracted people who supported his ideas, not only by attending his lectures, but also with financial support and contributions of their labor. In a modification of the Nur movement dershanes, Mr. Gülen helped students, their parents and donors to establish “houses of light” where Islamic education was studied on the basis of Nursi’s writings and his own teachings. These houses of light” became a source for the thousands of educators who would later form the faculty of schools established after Mr. Gülen’s educational philosophy. This is the stage in Mr. Gülen’s career at which a group of people numbering about one hundred began to be visible as a service group, that is, a group that came together around his understanding of service to the community.

Aware of how the youth in Turkey were being attracted into extremist, radical ideologies, including atheistic communism and materialism, as a preacher Mr. Gülen tried to educate the youth about traditional moral values and to attract them away from what he saw as destructive and degrading ideas. Fethullah Gülen also promoted Islamic ideals as an anti-dote to the radical Marxism, Leninism and Maoism that was attracting many youth in the region. He often used his own money to buy and distribute materials that countered militant atheism and communism. He saw the erosion of moral values among the youth as the causes of crime and societal conflict and was resolute to do all he could to influence the youth in what he saw as a healthier and more productive direction.

In 1970, as a result of a military coup, a number of prominent Muslims in the region who had supported religious activities and lectures for the region’s youth were arrested, Mr. Gülen among them. He was held for six months without charge. He was released on the condition that he give no more public lectures. After his release, Mr. Gülen left his official post in Izmir but retained his status as a state-authorized preacher. He continued to urge donors and parents to set up student study and boarding halls throughout the Aegean region. In Izmir he organized summer camps and dormitories where university students could stay, study and develop a sense of identity as Turkish Muslims. In these dormitories, a small group of same-sex students lived together, helped one another with studies, read the Qur’an and writings of Nursi and Mr. Gülen, prayed together, and developed a powerful sense of solidarity. Students learned and inculcated Islamic values of self-sacrifice and social responsibility. The dormitories served as shelters against alcohol and drug use, premarital sexual exploits, and involvement in communist, ultra-nationalist or other radical movements. Many conservative and religious parents encouraged their children to live in the dormitories as they attended university in the big cities in Turkey.

Izmir was a city where political Islam never took hold and where the business and professional middle class came to resent the constraints of a state bureaucracy. Instead this group supported market-friendly policies and pro-Western ideas. Mr. Gülen’s commitment to the free market and his encouragement to businessmen to grow their businesses, make them global and competitive and then contribute a portion of their wealth to support service projects appealed to this entrepreneurial spirit. The funding for dormitories and private schools came from local businessmen who supported Mr. Gülen’s mission of educating the youth both in secular subjects and principles of morality. It was in Izmir that a powerful transnational movement began to crystallize around Mr. Gülen that today includes thousands of loose networks of like-minded individuals.

Between 1972 and 1975 Mr. Gülen held posts as a preacher in various cities in the Aegean and Marmara regions where he continued to preach and promote ideas about education and service to the community. At the time educational opportunities were scarce for ordinary Turkish people and some citizens thought that most, education was infiltrated by radical political elements, both on the left and the right. Parents whose children had passed the required entrance exams for high school and university were caught in the dilemma of wanting their children educated but fearing the highly politicized atmosphere of the schools. To address this dilemma, Mr. Gülen encouraged small business owners to set up boarding houses where students could pursue an education in an atmosphere that he hoped was removed from the politicized environment. To support these houses and opportunities for education, local people who shared Mr. Gülen’s service ethic set up “bursaries,” accounts that supported the activities. Again, it was local people who saw the need for quality education and were influenced by Mr. Gülen’s service ethic and who stepped forward with the resources to put his ideas into action.

Over time, the students who lived in the boarding houses became major advocates of Mr. Gülen’s service ideas and returned to their villages and towns to spread the word of their valuable experiences and opportunities. Armed with a good education, they became merchants, businessmen and professionals in their communities and began to join together to provide the financial support to keep the boarding houses and consequently other service projects going. At the same time, Mr. Gülen’s talks and lectures were recorded on audiocassettes and distributed throughout communities in Turkey. He was the first preacher whose lectures were made available in audio and videocassettes to the general public in Turkey. Through his students’ activities in their communities and the new technological channels of communication, Mr. Gülen’s service discourse began to spread in Turkey.

In 1974 Mr. Gülen was posted in Manisa where he began the first university preparatory courses in an attempt to prepare ordinary Turkish children for higher education. Up until this time, it was almost exclusively the children of wealthy families who were able to go to university. By providing top notch preparatory courses, a broader swatch of middle and working class children were prepared to take the mandatory exams in order to get into universities and to succeed once there.

The Establishment of Gülen-Inspired Schools

With the neo-liberal policies of [then Prime Minister] Ozal in the early 1980s and greater opportunity for the establishment of private schools, in 1982 the first two Gülen-inspired high schools opened, one in Izmir and the other in Istanbul. These were followed in the course of the next two decades by hundreds of such schools throughout Turkey and eventually to the Turkish republics of the former Soviet Union, then to other successor states of the Soviet Union, the Balkans, South Africa and finally the West. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2000, Prime Minister Ecevit recognized in his speech the importance of Gülen-inspired schools all over the world, and how these schools contribute to the cultures and well-being of Turkey and other countries.

Mr. Gülen encouraged his listeners to invest in private secular elite high schools where he hoped to combine Islamic morals with secular knowledge. These schools are based on a secular curriculum approved by the state and use English for instruction. The only Islam that is formally taught in the schools is the hour that is allowed by the state for religious instruction in comparative religions with the textbook selected by the state. All the schools, as well as other Gülen-inspired institutions are independent units administered and funded by local groups. Yet the personnel in these schools are joined in what Agai calls an “educational network of virtue, based on the fact that the leading figures were socialized within the cemaat, participate in the cemaat’s life and are connected to each other through the close interpersonal links created in the cemaat. Many of the principals and teachers in the schools, both within Turkey and outside of Turkey, come from among educators with substantial involvement in the cernaat. The cemaat makes sure that qualified and motivated people move within the network to where they are needed to serve.

In the schools, however, there are also teachers who are not participants in the Gülen movement and may never have heard of Fethullah Gülen. However, without the commitment of Gülen-inspired teachers who view their work as religious service, these quality schools would not exist. Many parents send their children to these schools because they recognize them as the best education possible for their children. As Agai remarks, Mr. Gülen managed to strengthen the influence of his cemaat through opening it and making it part of a larger conglomerate of educational networks. While the institutions rely on the cemaat for motivated teachers and financiers, Mr. Gülen aimed his ideas at a broader audience interested in education and modernization.

Source: Summarized from “Ebaugh, Helen R. 2010. The Gulen Movement A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam. New York: Springer. Pages 27-30.”