Are Gulen schools all secular?
Claims vs. evidence
July 4, 2011
In the American press, as well as in Europe and Australia, Gulen schools around the world have often been characterized as secular.
Yet there is substantial evidence that at least some of them are providing religious education and indoctrination.
Of course, private schools of all denominations exist all over the world, so there would be nothing noteworthy in itself in the fact that the Gulen Movement runs religious schools, just as, for example, there are many Christian private schools in the US. However, the specific point addressed here is that numerous statements made in the US media implying that Gulen schools are all secular are misleading.
This apparent disconnect between the reality and the impression that journalists, authors and academicians have of Gulen schools is disconcerting. It leaves one wondering how deeply these individuals have actually researched these schools before writing about them, or whether the nature of Gulen schools has fundamentally changed in recent years, without any public admission to that effect.
Again, the issue addressed here is not religious education per se, rather it is lack of transparency, and inaccuracy.
Statements in the press and in academic publications asserting Gulen schools are secular
Professor Greg Barton, then Associate Professor in politics at Deakin University (currently a professor at Monash University) in paper entitled "The Gulen movement in the national context: parallels with Indonesia" Nov 8, 2005"
"One of the most surprising aspects of the schools is how completely secular they are. In every country in which they operate they follow local state curricula. They teach no religious subjects and there is little about them, save for an emphasis on character and moral development, which could be found in any good school, and a degree of social-conservatism reflected in dress and cross-gender socializing, to mark them as schools supported by an Islamic movement. Within Turkey and a number of other countries it would not be possible for the schools to have any religious content in their curricula. In other countries such as Australia, however, where religious schools are an accepted element of a pluralist education system, there is nothing stopping the hizmet schools from following the example of Islamic schools. But in all cases the schools are committed to following a secular educational model."
The New Republic, Suzy Hansen, "The Global Imam" Nov 10, 2010
"His followers run nonprofit organizations that promote peace, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue, and Gulenist businessmen devote their resources to building secular schools."
"But it is not just Central Asia that hosts Gulen schools. They also exist in far-flung Muslim countries like Indonesia, Sudan, and Pakistan, as well as mostly non-Muslim countries like Mexico and Japan. In total, according to Ebaugh, Gulenists operate over 1,000 explicitly secular schools and universities in more than 100 countries."
Texas Monthly, "Head of the class," William Martin, August 2010
"Many of them have at least some ties to a broad-based movement in which well-educated, pious Muslims have established hundreds of the highest-performing secular schools in Turkey and the surrounding Turkic states."
PBS, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, "The Gulen Movement," Jan 21, 2011
"PROFESSOR HELEN EBAUGH (Dept. of Sociology, University of Houston; Author of “The Gulen Movement”): When Fethullah Gulen began preaching in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Turkey, his message was we don’t need more madrassas. We need schools that would promote science and math and secular subjects, and his contention was that one can be modern and one can be scientific and still be a good Muslim..."
From "The Theological Thought of Fethullah Gulen: Reconciling Science and Islam," Thesis, Erol Nazim Gulay, M.Phil in Oriental Studies/Modern Middle Eastern Studies, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, May 2007
"While some of the activities of Gulen’s followers are secular – the network of modern, secular schools; the television and radio stations that downplay their religious motivations and broadcast an inclusive, universalistic viewpoint devoid of overt Islamic messages – the movement is founded on his theology and religious commentaries."
Evidence that at least some Gulen schools are not secular
Medresas (or madrasas) in Albania
From report "New Islamic actors after the Wahhabi intermezzo: Turkey’s return to the Muslim Balkans" by Kerem Oktem, European Studies Centre, University of Oxford, December 2010
"In what is a significant departure from the ethos of the Gulen movement—secular schools operated in the spirit of mission by good deeds and model behaviour—the Sema Foundation was requested to take over the religious high schools of the Islamic community. The medresas had been established in the early 1990s with donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, yet these donors were gradually phased out. // When the medresas lost their sponsor in the mid-1990s, the serving Secretary General of the Community was seeking for ways to save these schools. The Turkish colleges of the Gülen Cemaat [Religious Community] were already well respected, so he convinced them to take over the first school in 1995. In 1998, the medresa of Kavaje was saved from a Wahhabi group and given into the care of the Gulen foundation. In 2005, the influential medresa of Tirana was given up by a Qatari foundation and placed into the custody of the Gulen community. And in 2010, the Cemaat also reconstructed the medresa in Korça, where it demolished and rebuilt the mosque first built by the Arabs (Kruja, 2010)."
Table 6 of this report lists 5 medresas operated by the Gulen Movement in Albania.
From a website "Islam in Albania," article entitled "The Gulen Movement in Albania: New Opportunities," by Besnik Sinani:
"In all the countries of the Balkans (and beyond) where the movement is active, it operates so-called colleges but no religious schools except in Albania, where Sema Foundation, one of the many organizations that are part of the Gulen network, operates five madrasas. This is obviously a departure from the traditional activity of the Gulen movement. If we add to that the fact that members of the Gulen movement in Albania are running to a large extent the operations in the leadership of the Muslim Community of Albania (AMC), we can conclude that the movement, in the case of Albania, has departed from its policy of operating exclusively non-religious schools. As the head of a Muslim NGO that I interviewed in January 2010 told me, 'As far as we know, it is the first time in Albania that the Gulen Movement has done this thing.' "
Contrast this with the Jan 2011 statement of Helen Rose Ebaugh quoted earlier, that Gulen's message was "we don’t need more madrassas."
Gulen Movement's involvement in Albania's first Islamic University, opened April 2011
The Gulen Movement is involved with an Islamic University that just opened in Albania. From Islamic News Daily, April 9, 2011:
"The first Islamic University in the history of Albania was inaugurated on Thursday in the suburbs of Tirana, the country’s capitol. ... A representative of the Sema Foundation, one of the Albanian Islamic Community collaborators for the university, confirms that schools like this serve humanity."
Note that the Sema Foundation, or "Fondacioni Sema," is known to be a Gulenist organization running Gulen K-12 schools in Albania (reference: Oktem report and Sinani article mentioned above).
Islamic Gulen school in Egypt
A document entitled "Title: Group Project Abroad Short Term Seminar for K-12 Teachers on Contemporary Islam and Muslim Communities in Egypt and Tanzania, Boston University and Harvard University, Overseas Project Itinerary," downloaded from a Harvard University website (May 2011), contains the following item:
"Day Thirteen - Education in Egypt - Tuesday 13 July
Topic: Meeting with educators teaching at an Islamic school, following the Fethuallah
Gulen system, most likely the Salahaldin International School"
Notdeleted.net has a webpage with detailed information about the Islamic nature of the Salahaldin school.
In the same vein, an article about the Salahaldin school, shown on the website of the Interfaith Dialogue Center of New Jersey, a Gulenist organization, states:
"The school is affiliated with the international movement of widely known, liberal Islamic thinker Fethullah Gulen. // Islam stands out as the cornerstone of the school’s curriculum. // Quran sessions are a pillar of the school’s vision. All grade levels including kindergarten are expected to learn how to memorize and recite Quranic verses at least twice a week, according to Shimshek."
Islamic Gulen schools in South Africa
The website of notdeleted, which reports on the Gulen Movement in the Netherlands, has a page devoted to the Sama schools, which are run by the Gulen Movement in South Africa. This page shows a picture with an advertisement by the Fountain Educational Trust (which runs the Sama schools) saying "Would you like to study at Southern Hemisphere's biggest Islamic complex?"
A paper by Yasien Mohamed, entitled "The educational theory of Fethullah Gulen and its practice in South Africa," and downloadable from Fethullah Gulen's website, states that
"The Fountain Education Trust (FET), also inspired by Gulen, also follow the state curriculum (Interview, K. Ozdemir, 31 May 2006), but they are in charge of the Islamic schools called the 'Sama' schools."
Gulen school in Maldives has three teachers for Islam
The website (accessed July 2011) of the Lale Youth International School, a Gulen school in the Maldives, has a roster of teacher names.
This list includes 3 teachers whose job titles are given as:
1. Islam Teacher - Primary
2. Islam Teacher - Secondary
3. Quruan [sic] Teacher
Activities at the Turkish Hope School in Bangladesh
Probe News Magazine, a Bangladeshi publication, published an article entitled "At the Turkish Hope School," by Shafiq Rahman about the International Turkish Hope School, a Gulen school in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Here is an excerpt:
"International Turkish Hope School has a strong sense of social responsibility. It has stood besides the flood victims in their time of need, it has organised iftars during Ramadan, it has distributed meat during Eid and given warm clothes to the poor during winter. It played a praiseworthy role in the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr. It even appealed to aid organisations around the world for funds. It constructed a school for Sidr affected persons on Galachipa in Patukhali, with funds from Kimse Yok Mu or the Solidarity and Aid Association. The same year they sacrificed 169 cows during Eid-ul-Azha and distributed the meat among the cyclone victims."
Note that this quote is provided here simply as evidence of the Islamic orientation of this school.
Facebook pages associated with Gulen schools in Afghanistan and Turkey contain religious references
Many Gulen schools around the world have Facebook pages, including schools that do not have their own website. The Facebook pages of some Gulen schools in Afghanistan and Turkey (accessed early 2011) were observed to have numerous explicit religious references, as well as references to Gulenist teachings and publications. These pages display the school logo, and often there are repeated posts from someone using the school logo as an avatar. While it might be argued that these pages are not "official," that is, are not officially acknowledged by the school administration, they are nevertheless evidence of a definite Islamic orientation of these schools.
One hour per week of official religious instruction in Turkey; Movement runs "a few" imam-hatip schools outside Turkey
The quote from Greg Barton given above "Within Turkey and a number of other countries it would not be possible for the schools to have any religious content in their curricula," can be contrasted with the following line from the book "Schooling Islam" by Robert Hefner and Muhammad Zaman, Princeton University Press, 2007, "In Turkey, the general curriculum for the network's schools prescribes one hour of religious instruction per week, ..."
This source continues: "...while in many other countries the schools do not offer any religious education at all. With the exception of a few Iman-Hatip-type schools abroad, these institutions can thus hardly be considered Islamic schools in the strict sense."
Thus, the Hefner and Zaman book is saying that the Gulen Movement does run a few "Imam-Hatip-type schools" outside Turkey. The location and names of these schools are not specified by the authors. Imam-hatip schools are religious schools that were originally aimed at preparing students for a career as an imam, or preacher.
Gulen was sued in 2000 by parents who alleged their son was indoctrinated with fundamentalist ideas
A Rand Corporation report from 2004, "The Muslim world after 9/11" by Angel M. Rabasa, contains the following:
"Concerning the ideology, the values, and the intentions of Gulen’s movement and his impressive network of schools, the jury is still out. ... First on the list is the cultlike nature of his organization. In its diffuse and secretive structure, it resembles other clandestine movements, having layers of membership and revealing only the most bland and superficial content to those on the margins. The expanding network of schools, largely staffed and certainly directed by members of the organization, is gaining powerful influence over the next generation of the educated elite in all its operating countries. In that connection, and given his purported modernism, it is noteworthy that Gulen establishes and supports boys’ schools almost exclusively. Several other hints imply that there may be more to this movement than meets the eye. In one instance, he has been the subject of a lawsuit by parents who sued Gulen for allegedly indoctrinating their son with fundamentalist ideas. German Islam-expert Spuler-Stegemann concludes that while Gulen is considered to be a conservative in his Islamic values, but democratic, moderate, and willing to engage in dialogue, 'his actual intentions are not known.' "
A reference to this lawsuit can also be found in an archived page from 2000 of the Anadolu News Agency, now available on the website of the Hellenic Resources Network. The page refers to a Sabah article; Sabah is a major Turkish newspaper currently controlled by the Gulen Movement, but back in 2000 it was in different hands and was apparently considered "liberal." Here is the summary:
"SABAH (LIBERAL) FIRST COMPLAINT AGAINST FETHULLAH GULEN
Arife Kaya, a mother brought a complaint against Fethullah Gulen, a sect leader and said that her son who studied in the schools of Fethullah Gulen started to say that 'it is a sin to shake the hands of a woman.' A case is pending before the State Security Court (DGM) against Fethullah Gulen, who is in the U.S."
We have not yet located the original Sabah article, or determined the outcome of this lawsuit.
What does all the above have to do with the Gulen Movement's activities in the United States? One main point: are apologists who write about the Gulen Movement attempting to provide accurate information to the public - or are they somehow complicit in an attempt to obscure the Movement's true goals?