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CENTRAL ASIA:
FETULLAH GÜLEN'S
MISSIONARY SCHOOLS

The Nurcu movement founded by Said Nursi (1873-1960) is probably one of the most important religious organizations in Turkey. After Nursi's death in 1960, the Nurcu brotherhood fragmented into several sub-communities with different interpretations of religion, different goals and different positions on political issues [1] . Nowadays, Fethullah Gülen controls the most powerful of these groups. His followers are also active in Central Asia but, with the possible exception of Turkmenistan, the movement is unable to operate in an open and public manner.

Fethullah Gülen was born in Erzurum in eastern Turkey in 1938. Deeply influenced by his family, his religious environment and by the writings of Nursi, Gülen began his career as an official preacher for the government in 1953. In 1966, he was sent by the direction of religious affairs to Izmir, where he created a brotherhood with a small group of students and disciples. His community, or cemaat, is designated as the Fethullahci movement, alhough its members do not appreciate this term. Basically, Fethullah Gülen's ideas serve to accomplish three intellectual goals: the islamization of the Turkish nationalist ideology; the turkification of Islam; and the Islamization of modernity. And therefore, he wishes to revive the link between the state, religion and society.

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Development of an educational network

No one knows exactly the size of Gülen's enormous community of followers and sympathizers, but most agree on an average es­timate of 3 million members. The movement obtains much of its support from young urban men, especially doctors, academics and other professionals. The movement has grown in part by sponsoring student dormitories, summer camps, colleges, universities, classrooms and communication organizations. Without any doubt, education is central to the identity of the community and favoured its growth in the Balkans, Central Asia and the Turkic world in general. However, Central Asian Turkic Republics enjoy a special position in Gülen's strategy

The collapse of the Soviet Union opened opportunities for Turkey. The state and private companies quickly designed special policies to develop their presence and influence in Central Asia. But very soon, Fethullah Gülen took the lead with his businessmen, supporters and his community teachers. Economic and cultural networks were established between the cemaat (groups within the movement) and the different social and economic actors. Several Nurcu delegations visited these countries and invited Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen and Kyrgyz officials in Turkey to convince them to advocate the replication of Nurcu educational structures in their home countries.

Those early connections helped to inaugurate in each of the Central Asian republics dozens of schools. Statistics show that in January 2001 the movement In Kazakhstan had already 30 high schools and one university, welcoming 5,664 pupils and employing 580 teachers from Turkey. In the same period, 11 high schools and one university were established in Kyrgyzstan, with more than 3,100 pupils and 323 Turkish teachers. In Turkmenistan, the community controls 14 high schools and one university for 3,294 pupils and 353 teachers. Finally, in Uzbekistan (until September 2000, when all were closed because of a diplomatic crisis) 17 high schools and one intemational school, employing 210 teachers and welcoming 3,334 pupils, had been founded.

These schools can be said to focus on modem and scientific education. Religious matters are completely absent from their curricula. In all these countries, as a consequence of the Soviet legacy and of the local leaders' suspicion, religion has no place in the educational system. The movement's schools are managed by Turkish and national administrators and teachers. Usually scientific matters (e.g. biology, physics, and computer science) are the main courses and are taught in English and Turkish languages The national language is of course very much present, as is the Russian language, which is still maintained as a language of communication throughout the area.

The Nurcu community is considered elitist in Turkey, and this is also true for Central Asia. Selective competitions are organized every year to identify the best pupils. As a consequence of the conservatism of the cemaat, 95% of the schools are restricted to boys, with only one or two schools in each republic for girls, although all three universities accept both male and female students. Thanks to the modern scientific education, the opportunities for learning English and Turkish, and the favourable chances in passing the universities' entry exams, Nurcu schools have a very good reputation among the local populations. The crisis of the national educational systems partly explains the high performance of the Nurcu schools.

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The schools' raison d'être

Turkish media have very often interviewed Fethullah Gülen and his followers about their intentions for Central Asia. They were always given the same answer: "We are here to help the sister republics of Turkey." This supposes the creation of "cultural bridges" between Turkey and Central Asia. Detailed research on the activities and the project of the communIty shows that the Nurcu movement in Central Asia is a real missionary movement. Its mission is to re­establish Islam in the region, which has been dominated for the last 70 years by an atheist power persecuting Islam. To that objective, the Nurcu employ methods similar to those of the Jesuits. Indeed, like Jesuits, the Nurcu have developed an elitist method of recruitment; they wish to change society through education; and they perceive education as a global supervision of pupils in and out of school. Also, the missionary movement entertains excellent relations with the target populations too in order to "convert" them.

Despite similarities, the Nurcu missionary method has its distinctive characteristics. Schools, in spite of allegations in the Turkish media – especially in the Kemalist media – , are not a direct instrument of proselytism. Because it is too dangerous for the existence of the community itself In Central Asia, Nurcu missionaries never openly or directly proselytize.

Their hocaefendi, or "respected lord", Gülen advocates two main ways of spreading Islam, tebligh and temsil. The first, and very classical, tebligh is to profess and teach openly the "good" mission. But since nowadays tebligh activities are developing everywhere, the temsil method seems to be preferred. With temsil, Gülen expects his followers to represent in their daily activities the proper and exemplary way of life. Through temsil the Nurcu will never profess openly the philosophy of Islam, rather they live it. For example, teachers of the movement's schools have to be polite, immaculate, and respectful. These ethics of life demand from the missionaries both hard work and the acceptance of hizmet insani ("in service"), or helping others. They must respect the country, its flag, its history, and must prove to be good examples, in particular for the young generation. They are not allowed to pronounce the name of Gülen or Nursi, nor are they permitted to spread Nurcu literature, at least not openly. While in some cases a minority of pupils in some small cities (not very well controlled by the central educational authorities) are subjected to more direct proselytism (tebligh), the most important aim ofthe cemaat is to spread the message without expressing it directly.

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The future of the community

Bayram Balci is a French scholar, who received his political degree in political science from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Grenoble) in October 2001. His doctoral thesis was devoted to Fetullah Gülen's schools in Central Asia.

This article was originally published in ISIM Newsletter, No. 9, 2002. Posted on Religioscope with permission. We highly recommend ISIM Newsletter (http://www.isim.nl/newsletter/). About ISIM, read our descriptive entry (in French) in the Resources section of Religioscope.


[1] See Hakan Yavuz, "Being Modern in the Nurcu Way", ISIM Newsletter, 6 (2000), p. 7.

© 2002 www.religioscope.com

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