Cradled in the cupped hands of a late-night news anchor, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed his fractured nation from the unlikeliest of platforms: a FaceTime chat on an iPhone 6. As his face dissolved into pixels, the president rallied a country on the brink of falling to a military coup d’état.
“We will overcome this,” he declaimed. “Go to the streets and give them their answer.”
Since that night of 15 July, the Turkish government has launched a brutal inquisition set on rooting out those suspected of being connected with the secretive sect accused of masterminding the abortive coup: the Gülen movement. In the eyes of a shaken administration it is a terrorist cult that seeped into Turkey’s highest state institutions, financed by countless cells scattered around the world. In the eyes of its followers, though, the movement is little more than a loose collection of schools and charities bound only by a creed of love, service and sound education.
The fear of Fethullah Gülen
Inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric and former ally of convenience of Erdogan now living in self-imposed exile in the US, the Gülen movement – often referred to as the Hizmet movement after the Turkish word for ‘service’ – combines elements of Islamic Sufi teachings with resurgent Turkish nationalism. Responsible for the running and administration of thousands of schools and universities in as many as 160 countries, as well as on Turkish soil, the organisation had fallen from favour with the current administration in the past few years amid accusations the firebrand preacher was attempting to set up a parallel state within Turkey’s state institutions. Since July, those accusations have seen tens of thousands of students, judges, teachers and military officials stripped of their positions as the government strives to cut the legs out from under the organisation. Now, the government has turned its gaze to the schools and universities beyond its borders.
Fadi Hakura, associate fellow at the Europe Programme of UK-based international affairs think tank Chatham House, told Southeast Asia Globe that the Hizmet movement’s educational wing served as the main vanguard for the organisation’s international outreach. Routinely praised for the high standard of education on offer, the movement’s international schools have historically enjoyed a high level of support from the governments of the countries in which they are based.
“Education is one way for the Gülen movement to build roots in various countries and communities around the world, and it tends to target geographic areas defined by poverty and social inequality,” Hakura said. “With their relatively disciplined education programme, they’re able to achieve some spectacular academic results and popular support in that part of the geography.”
Gülen schools in Southeast Asia
The spread of the Gülen movement to Southeast Asia has been driven by the Pacific Countries Social and Economic Solidarity Association (Pasiad), a self-proclaimed civil association that “aims to help establish good relationships between Turkey and Pacific countries on education, social, cultural and economic issues”. To this end, it has historically provided funding and support to schools linked with the Hizmet movement across Southeast Asia.
Despite its impressive achievements, Hakura warned that the group’s opaque inner workings raised disturbing questions about the end goals of the organisation.
“The Gülen movement has always been a very secretive, elusive movement grouping,” he said. “Never engaged in open transparency in terms of membership, goals, objectives – it’s a very hierarchical… grouping with the primary purpose of enhancing its influence in the circles of power.”
It is this image of the Gülen movement as a shadowy cabal bent on seizing power that has driven Turkish embassies across the globe to petition for the closure of international schools associated with the group. In Cambodia, where the movement established a beachhead into Southeast Asia as far back as the late 1990s, several institutions linked with the Hizmet movement have come under pressure by Turkish ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug to cast off their association with what the Turkish government has labelled the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation.
Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe, Tug alleged that the Zaman international schools in Phnom Penh were part of a vast web of Gülen-aligned institutions responsible for financing the group he believes tried to overthrow President Erdogan’s regime in July.
Tug accused the Gülen movement of operating a hollow front disguising their ambitions behind a network of educational and charitable organisations.
“The Hizmet civil movement is a moderate, tolerant, non-violent and pro-dialogue social movement,” he said. “[But] there’s also the dark underbelly of this organisation, which involves money laundering, bribing and destroying their rivals through abusing state authority by fabricating evidence and wiretapping, video recording and blackmailing.”
Inside Hizmet’s private schools
A former English teacher at Zaman International School in Phnom Penh, who requested anonymity, relayed conversations with the other teaching staff suggesting the school had deliberately targeted people from vulnerable backgrounds.
“What I got from them is that their recruiting mostly takes place in Turkey and in [central Asia],” he said. “They have exams there that are pretty rigorous – to get into university, or maybe to pass university – and what they do is they approach people mainly from poorer families and they give them free tutoring to pass these exams, and they’re then offered the chance to work for them afterwards at these schools that are supposed to be linked.”
He said the faculty were tight-lipped on matters of politics and religion.
“When I started there the school was saying it was a non-profit,” he said. “When I left, it had turned into a private company.”
Tug alleged that the Gülen movement groomed promising students for positions of power that would allow the group to extend its influence into the highest institutions of state – including, Tug claimed, the military and judiciary.
“Today, what you read in the newspapers, these are all part and parcel of our effort to get rid of these cancers in the state institutions,” he said.
The fight for Islam’s middle path
Zaman spokesperson and president of the Hizmet-linked Mekong Dialogue Institute, Hakan Atasever, denied any connection with the events of 15 July, saying that the schools had always condemned the attempted coup in the strongest terms.
“The school has invited the ambassador to prove his baseless claims,” he said. “As he is the accuser, it is his duty to share any evidence showing the link between the school and the coup attempt.”
For its proponents, the idea of the Hizmet movement as a tyrannical cult intent on political domination is little more than the waking terrors of an increasingly paranoid regime. Writing in Islam and Peacebuilding: Initiatives of the Gülen Movement, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Malaysia Programme coordinator Mohamed Nawab bin Mohamed Osman wrote that, far from being a force of disunity, the teachings of Fethullah Gülen were essential in creating a “middle way” for Islam between extremism and outright secularism.
Osman argued that the Hizmet movement’s opposition to rising extremist ideology, particularly in Muslim-majority Indonesia, could potentially defuse fundamentalist interpretations of Islam as a political force within Southeast Asia.
“The precedence given to universal values in these schools [in Southeast Asia], inherent in all religions, is important in shaping the educated, cultured Muslim who is tolerant and progressive, as Gülen envisages,” he wrote. “The common values which the Gülen movement emphasises are also likely to renew the shape of Islamic understanding in Southeast Asia, and make it once more tolerant and accommodating to other religions.”
Ali Ünsal, director of the high-profile Fethullah Gülen Chair at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, denied in a 2014 report that Pasiad-partnered schools in Indonesia imposed their own system of Islamist values on students.
“In this system, they follow closely the national curriculum of Indonesia,” he wrote in Pasiad Partner Schools’ Education System. “These schools are mostly private schools and not religious schools. They have generally steered away from teaching religious studies, except some classes which are in the national curriculum of Indonesia, but focus on the teaching of ethics and universal human values.”
Sixteen-year-old Samnang – not his real name – a student at Cambodia’s Zaman High School, described an environment of strict segregation between male and female students, but said that a compulsory weekly class on Muslim history and values was the full extent of the school’s religious education.
“We have a lesson – it is called ‘Guidance’ – they talk about their religion,” he said. “Once a week, they tell us about their religion, how they live. How Muslims live.”
Turkey tightens its grip
According to Hakura, schools linked to the Hizmet movement were unlikely to lay out an explicit ideological agenda in their curricula, instead adapting their teachings to fit in with the educational standards of the society in which they are based.
“The Gülen movement has been defined by flexibility and decentralisation in the administration and the implementation of policy objectives set out by the hierarchy,” he said. “And that’s where its perennial strength [lies] – in establishing themselves in various communities and countries around the world.”
Atasever stressed that the running of Cambodia’s Zaman schools was entirely a local affair.
“There is no formal link between [the schools and] any organisation around Cambodia,” he said. “The institutions… may have several partnership agreements with some [others] across Southeast Asia, but so far there has been no solid cooperation except for some workshops or conferences.”
Despite what has been reported in Western media, Tug maintained that the Turkish government had little desire to see the schools themselves shuttered. Instead, he pointed to the Maarif Foundation, a body proposed by Turkey’s education ministry as an alternate source of funding to international schools historically managed by the Gülen movement. In this way, the Turkish government could potentially seize control of Gülen’s support network across the world in its own bloodless coup that would see teachers and administrators linked to the preacher turfed out in favour of government supporters.
“There are many ways we can do this,” Tug said. “I can assure you that the families and the students will not even realise that the process has finished. It will be seamless.”
According to Samnang, though, the damage to Zaman’s reputation may already have been done.
“Most of [my friends] – they want to leave now,” he said. “Some of my friends said that Zaman is having problems with the Turkish embassy, so they don’t feel safe.”