The Gulen Movement & Turkish exceptionalism
Page created July 2010; last updated Aug 12, 2012
The Gulen Movement publicizes a sort of "Turkish exceptionalism."
Consider a page on the website of Faruk Arslan, a Gulenist based in Canada who by his own admission has been involved with the Movement for decades: "I personally have belonged to this movement for 26 years as a student, journalist and volunteer." Based on the CV posted at his website, Arslan's Gulenist affiliations include volunteer work at the Nile Academy (a private Gulen school in Toronto) and positions at the Intercultural Dialog Institute; Anatolian Heritage Federation; Canadian Intercultural Dialogue Center; Canadian Turkish Friendship Community (CTFC); Sunrise Education Trust of Toronto; Zaman Newspaper (at their Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Canada locations); and Cihan News Agency. All of these are known Gulenist institutions.
Here is what Arslan writes on his page on the Gulen Movement in Canada (color emphasis added; website accessed Dec 2011):
"Despite this, Turkey offers a new paradigm to the old world (the Western civilization) which may challenge the new future because the Third World Countries will seek justice, happiness and equality through Turkey‘s miracle model of human centred universal moralities offered by the Turkish originated ―Hizmet Movement. Neo-liberal and MNCs policies and globalism are still questionable because the culture of American consumerism has already been invading Turkey for over three decades. The consumption culture of capitalism leads to the increase of both the economic growth and destruction within the Turkish miracle, but the new Turkish model offers social altruism to alter any capitalist approach into becoming an escape route. The recent Turkish economic miracle is a state model and it is the Hizmet Movement that has been demonstrated as a civil, moral, holistic engagement model and non-governmental organization which completes the gap between national state goals; certainly, the Turkish phenomenon cannot exist without the Hizmet Movement‘s non-political and non-violent enforcements."
A number of Gulenists have produced "academic" publications "studying" the Gulen schools. Their conclusion is always the same: the schools are exceptional because of the dedication and self-sacrifice of their exceptional (Gulenist/Turkish) staff.
For example, in 2011, Hasan Aydin completed a PhD thesis in Multicultural Education at the University of Nevada Reno that is in fact a thinly-veiled propaganda piece for Gulen schools. Here is his conclusion about the Gulen schools in Nigeria, taken from the thesis abstract (boldface added): "The study concludes that NTIC schools are successful in promoting academic achievement in an environment that also teaches sound values and acceptance of others through curriculum, schools organization, and the quality of the people who work in the schools, people who are diligent, hardworking, giving, and dedicated to improving quality of life in Nigeria through education. Students, it appears, through adult examples of exemplary behavior grow to appreciate those who serve out of love and sense of humanity causing many students to consider career paths that involve service to country." Aydin himself acknowledges a primary limitation of his thesis - a complete lack of comparison to any other schools. This, in fact, is a key characteristic of the Turkish exceptionalism promoted by Gulenists: positive statements about their own country, institutions or members are repeated incessantly without ever putting them in perspective through objective comparison with the non-Turkish or non-Gulenist world. This tactic is universal to all forms of propagandist spin, of course. (As a side note, there is evidence that the Gulen Movement goes beyond simply ignoring the competition - in Turkey, it has been accused of actively undermining rival educational efforts.)
The above examples also show that Turkish exceptionalism is often promoted by the Gulen Movement as a surrogate for, or complement to, Gulenist exceptionalism.
A 2008 piece by Gulenist sympathizer Mustafa Akyol, appearing on the website of the Gulenist Rumi Forum, states that "Actually it is a very oft-repeated dictum to say that Turkey is unique. For many Westerners, the country is the shining star of the Muslim world. It is a secular democracy, a NATO member, and a US ally. Turks themselves note and appreciate the fact that they are different from other Muslims nations, and especially their neighbors in the Middle East. But why Turkey is exceptional?" In literal terms, it is true that no other country is like Turkey. Could not the same be said for every other country in the world? And is "shining star" the appropriate term for "a country that has the second biggest number of journalists in prison after China"?
American sympathizers chime in
The Gulenists are joined in their effusions by various Americans who may have motivational factors such as a sincere desire to promote "moderate Islam," or who perhaps are swayed by honoraria checks, grants, campaign contributions, and free trips to Turkey. Gulenist tactics of psychological manipulation and persuasion have also proven effective on some Americans, and the sheer persistence of dedicated Gulenists likely wears others down. Here are some excerpts from sympathizer Helen Rose Ebaugh's book "The Gulen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam:"
"The most important element in any altruistic social movement, including the Gulen movement, is the desire of its members to give of their time, money and energy without expecting a material gain in return."
"In the strategic plan of Sema Hospital, there are no financial goals. Rather, the emphasis is on employee and patient satisfaction."
Note: Sema Hospital is a "Gulen-inspired" hospital.
"He says that there are many people who would not give you a cup of tea without guaranteeing that they will get two cups of tea from you in return. However, Mr. Gulen contrasts these people with those who are devoted to supporting the good works inspired by his teachings. ...... Mr. Gulen went on to praise the people of Anatolia as miraculous people who support projects that they see as worthwhile and that help to solve the problems of the world and the future of their nation."
Following is a quote from a 2011 article displayed on one of the Gulen Movement's innumerable websites (link) on the opening reception of the ATAF, later renamed Turkic American Alliance, a new umbrella Gulenist political lobbying organization.
"Describing Turkish people as the most clever and generous people in the world, Bill Cassidy, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, expressed his gratitude for a Turkish-American society opening of two charter schools in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005."
[Side note: The Times-Picayune reported on January 27, 2012 that "Other privately funded trips by Louisiana members included an 11-day, $12,540 trip by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, to Turkey. It was financed by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians." The Turquoise Council is a Texas-based Gulenist organization.]
We do not deny that some individuals from Anatolia may be engaged in worthwhile efforts in the fields of education or charitable works (individuals involved in worthy efforts come in every nationality and ethnicity; they can be found in every country in the world). But it is difficult to believe that the Gulen Movement, with followers numbering in the millions, consists only of self-sacrificing altruists. Indeed, Joshua Hendrick's 2009 PhD thesis on the Gulen Movement offers a more mundane view that Gulenists are motivated by a desire for economic and political power, and that their activities represent a very successful system of long-term investment towards these goals. Just as high school graduates who intern at no salary are doing so in the expectation of increased future earnings, young men and women working for the Gulen Movement expect to gain useful social connections and job opportunities in the future.
Moreover, there is substantial evidence, some of which can be found in internal school emails published on the website www.charterschoolwatchdog.com, that the Gulenist charter schools in the US are a source of funds for the Movement. Further evidence is provided by a New York Times article of June 7, 2011 by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Stephanie Saul, outlining how the network of Gulen charter schools in Texas is a source of prime contracts for businesses with ties to Turkey and the Gulen Movement. These insider contracts are not unique to Texas; they can be found at every Gulen charter school. For example, a June 1, 2012 independent audit of Fulton Science Academy (a now-defunct Gulen charter school in Georgia) showed numerous connections of vendors used by the school to the Gulen Movement. As Hendrick notes in his thesis, the Gulen Movement is also building a powerful political lobby. An article in the Hurriyet Daily News (a Turkish newspaper) entitled "The Gulen Movement Plays Big in Washington" touches on the power that the Movement has already amassed. There is far more at play here than a simple desire to improve the world through volunteer service.
Brainwashing on Turkey trips and in Gulen charter schools
It has already been noted on another page that writers, journalists, poiticians, academics and others returning from Gulenist Turkey trips seem to all return with the impression that there is something exceptional about Turkey.
Parents and employees at Gulen charter schools are not immune to this brainwashing. A parent's letter published in an Alpharetta newspaper on Dec 20, 2011 in defense of the Fulton Science Academy Middle School, a Gulen charter school in Georgia, lists the offering of Turkish language instruction as one of the "reasons for passion" about the school. (Note: At the time this letter was written, this parent also happened to be an employee of Fulton Science Academy. This fact was not disclosed by the newspaper.) The parent writes: "Did you know that this language (that Fulton County staff said in their initial memo was a 'weak language') was actually identified as one of the critical languages by the United States Department of Education? Did you know that Turkey tripled in size in the last 10 years and has already become a regional power in Europe and Asia? This doesn’t seem ‘weak’ to me."
Despite this parent's assertion that Turkey "tripled in size," a quick check of the map shows that Turkey's borders have remained unchanged over the past decade. Presumably what the parent meant to say was that the Turkish economy, as measured by the GDP, has tripled. This is a point that Gulenists as well as supporters of the AKP (Turkey's current ruling party which the Gulen Movement has supported) push relentlessly. However, it needs to be seen in perspective. First, if the GDP is corrected for inflation, so that it represents actual purchasing power, then it has only increased by about 50%. A number of other countries have seen similar or larger growths in their real GDP over the past decade. An Excel spreadsheet downloadable at this US government website gives "'Real Historical Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Growth Rates of GDP or Baseline Countries/Regions (in billions of 2005 dollars) 1969-2011 updated 12/15/2011." The source given is "World Bank World Development Indicators, International Financial Statistics of the IMF." Based on these data, it was found that Turkey's real (purchasing power) GDP increased by 56% over the period 2000-2011. However, eighty-two (82) other countries had a greater increase in their real GDP than Turkey over this period. Bangladesh's real GDP increased by 87% and Indonesia's GDP by 77%. Bahasa Indonesian and Bengali are also listed as critical languages by the US government; both have far more speakers than Turkish. Logically, all the enthusiasm of the Fulton Science Academy parent for the teaching of Turkish in US schools could therefore apply just as well to Bengali or Indonesian. Should the US, then, have Bengali- or Indonesian-themed charter schools, with large numbers of teachers brought here from Indonesia and Bangladesh on H-1B visas, and students offered a choice of only Indonesian/Bengali or Spanish as a language?
Over the top
A wildly propagandist youtube video on the Turkish Language Olympiads promotes Turkish as the worldwide language of peace and friendship, a talking point that appears in many Gulenist publications as well. (It is never mentioned that the main attraction of the TLO to most students and their families is the very generous prize money that virtually all participants receive.)
Then there is the line appearing on some websites for the Turkish Olympiads: "We have observed that the children who study Turkish keep out of trouble and maintain a friendly attitude."
Even more over-the-top is a June 2011 Zaman article entitled "Italian students find relief in Turkish," which the author apparently did not intend to be humorous. A quote: "During their studies, one thing that students told Professor Kiziltan caught her attention. 'They told me when they don't feel good, they feel the need to read something in Turkish and this comforted them,' she said, adding, 'This means Turkish has a rhythm, a beauty to touch the hearts of children; it is attractive.' "
Turks can rightfully be proud of their literature and poetry, but attributing magical healing powers to their language is a stretch.
No nationality or ethnicity can be shown to be intrinsically "better" than others - and nobody wants to hear such claims, either
The potential for "Turkish exceptionalism" to backfire was noted in a 2008 article by Wojciech Tworkowski entitled Realism Mixed with Romanticism: Turkey’s Relations with the States of Central Asia, published by the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland: "Convinced of its cultural superiority, Turkey approached new partners from the paternalistic position of the ‘elder brother’, and met with incomprehension and sometimes even humiliation when it appeared that the post-Soviet levels of education or welfare system were higher than the Turkish one at the beginning of the 1990s." (This statement almost certainly refers at least in part to the Gulen Movement, as it has been a major actor in Turkey's post-Soviet relations with the Central Asian republics; this was the first part of the world outside Turkey where Gulen schools were established, beginning immediately after the Soviet Union's demise.)
"Turkish exceptionalism" is fully as improbable as "American exceptionalism," or any other theory that holds that one nationality is somehow superior to others. Naturally Turkish people love Turkey; we Americans love the US too, and Danes love Denmark, Fijians love Fiji and so on for every other country. Of course in our hearts we all feel that our own country is special, but it does not go over well to broadcast it loudly to the rest of the world and expect them to concur.