Where, when, and how were the schools first established?
The first fruits of Fethullah Gülen’s encouragements and inspirations were obtained in 1979, by opening in İzmir a university preparation course, under the administration of the Akyazılı Foundation for Secondary and Higher Education. It was followed by the opening of student dorms in İzmir. During a period of ten years, the courses and the dorms spread to other countries. Before the establishment of the İzmir Yamanlar Koleji High School, it served as a university dorm, without any charge to the students, between 1975 and 1978. In 1978, the building became a university preparation course. The Yamanlar High School, which started academic studies on 15 November, 1982, is the pioneering institution of the Gülen schools.
Over time, the scope of the movement’s activities expanded further. A series of schools were opened like Fatih, Yamanlar, Aziziye, and Samanyolu. All of these schools, which charge tuition fees, became centers of attraction.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Gülen Movement had ten years of experience in the field of education. Furthermore, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, some names close to Fethullah Gülen had begun to search for ways and feasibility of establishing some schools in Central Asia. Indeed, Fethullah Gülen had already begun talking about Central Asia in his sermons, in various mosques of İzmir and İstanbul.
Fethullah Gülen always credits Atatürk for the ideas of carrying the educational activities to Central Asia. With a quotation from journalist Nazlı Ilıcak,
Many years ago, Atatürk had told us what we are supposed to do today: “Today Soviet Union is our friend, our neighbor, our ally. We need this friendship. But no one can predict today what will happen tomorrow. It can break up just like the Ottomans, just like the Austria–Hungary. The nations that it holds inside its hands firmly now, can slip away. The world can come to a new equilibrium. Turkey has known what to do then. Under the rule of this friend of us are our brothers, whose faith and religion and essence are the same. We have to be ready to help them. Being ready does not mean quietly waiting for that day. We have to be prepared. How do the nations get prepared for this? They do by keeping the spiritual bridges firm and sound. Language is a bridge. Faith is a bridge. History is a bridge. We have to descend to our roots and we have to unite in history which was divided by incidents, we cannot wait for them [outside Turks] to come close to us. We have to approach them.”
In summary, Fethullah Gülen saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union as an opportunity and directed and guided his fellow workers.
In his sermons, after retelling the story of Hijra (the Muslims move from Mecca to Medina), Fethullah Gülen talks about going to the aid of fellow Turks in Central Asia, in order to emulate that event and encourage businessmen and teachers to go there. He made his greatest proposal regarding Central Asia in 1989, in his sermon that he gave in Süleymaniye Mosque of İstanbul, where he explained the process of the new world order to a vast audience.
Fethullah Gülen’s encouragement gave its first fruits in January 1990. A group of 11 businessmen visited Batumi province of Georgia. In May of the same year, a second group of 37 persons went to Batumi first and then to Azerbaijan. This group was both travelling and, at the same time, was studying the legal regulations to transfer students from Azerbaijan to Turkey. After this trip, in every part of Turkey, corporations were established for the schools to be founded. The grand “mobilization” had begun. In many countries of Central Asia schools were opened. They were followed by universities.
By the things it achieved, the movement was carrying Turkey to the world, while it was carrying the world to Turkey. Turkey was now becoming a central power, which could not be torn apart from the world. Fethullah Gülen explains this phenomenon as follows:
Turkey cannot be torn and separated from the world, when it is separated, it cannot be left alive, just like a branch which is separated from a tree. It would dry out. Turkey has to be in integration with the world. In such integration, at the head of the countries to have a sincere relation with us are the Central Asian countries. Namely, there is a sort of Asian unity. In a sense, we are different branches of the same tree.
For this reason, I have oriented my friends to Asia. Maybe, this was a fantasy. But I thought there should not have been any vacuum for others to come there and establish schools. Even the Europeans should not have found vacuum there. The Turkish people with a sense of fidelity supported, and the schools in Asia were opened. Some of them are now able to stand on their own feet. If there were no support for them until now, it would not have been possible to retain this business there. We had an opportunity; we wanted to make use of it, by believing in it firmly, with a sense of responsibility.
One of the individuals who took a personal interest in Turkish schools was the President of Turkey, Turgut Özal (from 1989 to 1993). President Özal did not hesitate to have personal contacts with the Kazak and Uzbek leaders on behalf of the Gülen schools. Fethullah Gülen notes that during the February 28 process (the military memorandum that has been labeled as a “postmodern coup”) which started in 1997, no pressure was sensed in the schools aboard. And as a matter of fact, then President of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel, wrote a letter to Eduard Shevardnadze, the President of Georgia, expressing his personal support for these schools.
With the experience in Central Asia, the Gülen Movement became a global player in the field of education. The most successful in the educational mobilization is Kazakhstan, as 29 schools were established there in two years by the people who came to this country in 1992. Four years later, Süleyman Demirel University was opened. After Turgut Özal wrote a letter of recommendation to the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Fethullah Gülen’s followers found better opportunities to operate in this country.
The schools are now operating in Africa, as well. Turkey, for the first time since the Ottomans, returned to Africa through something outside of the state, the Gülen schools. At this moment, the schools have encompassed the continent of Africa from one end to the other. The most talented and the brightest children of the local population find places in these schools. The children are accepted, sometimes through tests and sometimes through mere selection, are only 1 out of 20 of those who apply and, in some places, 1 out of 40. While these schools have been charging tuition fees, the rate is adjusted according to the conditions of respective countries.
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