Dressed in their school uniform, children are lined up on the tarmac of Mari airport, the dusty town on the edge of the Karakum desert that was once, as the ancient city of Merv, a busy crossroads of the famous silk road. Some students carry bunch of flowers for the disembarking passengers, a business delegation from Turkey. Another group, in local costume, performs a fiery Cossack dance that involves much jumping and squatting.
In the newly independent Turkmenistan, freed from the Soviet system, these children are part of a generation now being educated in the schools founded by the supporters of Fethullah Gülen, a religious leader from Turkey who has built up a vast educational empire that now counts nearly 300 schools in over 50 countries. In Turkmenistan alone, the Fethullah group runs 14 schools, including a university.
Until recently, Fethullah Gülen was considered a moderate by the state establishment in Turkey, although he had been imprisoned after the 1971 coup for his links with the followers of sheikh Said-i Nursi. Many politicians, among them President Suleyman Demirel, as well as the very secular deputy prime minister Bulent Ecevit who continues to defend him, had given him their open support. Before the December 1995 general elections, the centre right parties had often used him as an example to prove that the Welfare Party (RP), which won the polls but was later closed down by the Constitutional Court in January 1998, did not have a monopoly on Islam.
Since February 1997, the National Security Council, the all-powerful institution which includes the civilian and military leaders of the country, has repeatedly placed political Islam at the top of its list of threats to the nation and vowed to "refuse all compromise" in its fight against religious radicalism. Over the past few months, the net was widened and the list of potential suspects grew longer: investigations have been launched against hundreds of civil servants, teachers, governors and local leaders, accused of being too close to the "forces of reaction". Dozens of alleged Islamist militants have been arrested, elected mayors have been suspended by the Ministry of Interior. Even the very popular mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was sentenced to 10 months in jail for having quoted a religious poem by nationalist hero Ziya Gökalp, that was felt to be too provocative and "inciting hatred and religious differences".
The concept of fundamentalism, in this country that is 99% Muslim and where a mild form of Islam is generally practiced, remains rather vague to the point where religion itself at times appears to be under attack. "Secularism does not mean atheism", says a Western diplomat. "One sometimes wonder if we are not sliding from one to the other here." Other foreign observers do not hesitate to talk of "witch hunt" or "McCarthyism".
Fethullah Gülen, whose powerful network of supporters also own financial institutions like Asya Finans, as well as the daily newspaper Zaman and Samanyolu TV, could not escape the attention of the state institutions. He suddenly found himself accused of hiding dark motives behind his moderate exterior. According to his opponents, his aim was to gradually infiltrate the society with graduates of his schools with the aim of eventually installing a religious regime in Turkey.
In Turkmenistan, in the 14 establishments opened by the "Fethullahcis", as they are called in Turkey, the influence of religion is nowhere to be seen. The theater plays, the poems and the songs performed by the students to celebrate public holidays, the ubiquitous portraits of Ataturk, flanked by that of the local leader, the Turkmenbashy Saparmurat Niyazov, in fact seem to demonstrate a trend of nationalism in parallel with the Turkish official ideology.
Out of 40 hours of weekly curriculum, only one is set aside for a "history of the religions" course while two hours are devoted to philosophy. The pupils are not even all Muslims: a few Russians, Ukranians and Armenians have chosen to register in these high schools, which have acquired a strong reputation for high education standards, particularly in the teaching of sciences and languages. Students have access to well equipped labs and the teaching is done in four languages, English being the main medium, to which the local language, Turkmen, Turkish and Russian are also added.
Their success has turned these schools into a powerful advertisement for Turkey: in Merv, the governor himself turns up at the airport to greet the delegation of 120 Turkish businessmen and industrialists from Anatolia, invited by the Fethullah Gülen community to visit its schools and explore the investment potential of this developing country.
The conservative Anatolian business circles are the main sponsors of these schools, supporting them financially until they are able to raise their own revenues through school fees. In each country, the group works in cooperation with the local authorities, who often provide logistical assistance and supervise the curriculum.
The sum of goodwill towards Turkey generated by this type of international aid and the access to an extended network, is clearly of benefit to these conservative businessmen who, in parallel with their financial stakes in the schools, often set up companies locally. But when the investment is directed towards countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia or South Africa, which have not developed important trade links with Turkey, the motivation is not immediately apparent. "You forget an important element, our faith", explains a member of the community. "We believe inter-country dialogue is needed everywhere. And we want to improve Turkey's image abroad."
The followers of Fethullah Gülen are indeed missionaries, but they are very different from the Western colonizers who used to venture into unknown territory. These missionaries of the post-modern world are linked to business circles and their influence is exercised through the global market. They don't seem to want to impose a religious view, but rather to spread a universal message of tolerance. In fact his efforts in that direction were instrumental in getting Fethullah Gülen an audience with the Pope in rome, in February of this year.
There remain however several question marks and the community members rarely provide clear answers: Fethullah Gülen's opponents are convinced that it is in the dormitories, rather than in the schools, that students are submitted to religious brainwashing. Although they live very simply, like their retiring and modestly-dressed leader, the Fethullahcis have access to large amounts of money but they reveal little about the source of their wealth, nor do they admit to having a central organization with a strict hierarchy, claiming instead to be a loose network of like-minded people.
Fethullah Hoca - the "master", as his followers call him - is himself very modest and generally keeps silent when faced with criticism, in the hope of avoiding a confrontation with the state apparatus. He nevertheless defended his mission and reaffirmed his respect for the armed forces. "If, in these schools, you can show me one word that is against democracy, the Republic or Kemalism and its principles," he said in an interview to Milliyet newspaper, "I shall kiss your hands and feet and I'll say 'close these evil nests'