Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Religion and the Gulen Schools

Update: In the days since this post went live, it has appeared in the Turkish press that Prime Minister  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has ordered that the Turkish Olympiad, discussed in great detail below, be barred from using any "state halls," as they have in the past.  Tensions are mounting in Turkey, and it's clear to me that American kids in Gulen-linked charter schools across the US are going to be put right in the middle of it. Read on.

This is going to be a controversial post, but here goes. And if you haven't taken our introductory course, Gulen 101: Session One, with Sharon Higgins, please do so. It's necessary background.

So, what's the religious angle of the Gulen-affiliated charter schools? That's the question people seem to be most interested in, although for me, it's secondary to the political connection, and the whole matter of American public schools being used a revenue stream for an active partisan in a foreign crisis. The answer to the religion question is this: the religious connection is complex, but once you know what you're looking at, there it is.

There's an event coming up on April 12 at the Rosemont Theater; the public is invited. It's the Turquoise Art and Language Festival, and the participants will primarily be kids at the private Gulen-affiliated school (Science Academy of Chicago) and the publicly funded charter schools (the Concept schools) from the region. I believe there will possibly be a folk dance group from Wisconsin coming to perform.

It's an "art and language" competition, and they've been going on for a number of years now.1 Over the years these competitions have pretty much been focused on Turkish language, music, poetry, and folk dance.  For a bit more background on the nature of the local competitions, see here.  In the past couple of years, as more eyes are focused on the grow ing Gulen Movement, the organizers have opened the competitions up to other-language acts and also to some generic talent-show fare in an effort to thin out the very specifically Turkish nature of the program, particularly as it relates to Fethullah Gulen's poetry and religious dance.2  In 2013, they let a Polish folk dance win at the Rosemont event. I believe I saw a CMSA group do an energetic salsa dance at a prior competition; they didn't win-- these events aren't really about salsa dancing--but the kids were awesome.

The Festival is "organized and sponsored" by the Turkish American Society, which is a subsidiary of Niagara Education Services, which also runs the Niagara Foundation, which is the Chicago outlet of the Gulen Movement, and which has been doing the junkets for the policymakers, including Speaker Madigan, who in this video is shown being given some face time with Gulen's erstwhile political ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 
A deeply unpopular, scandal-ridden autocrat. And the Turkish prime minister!
Madigan probably thought the photo-op was about him, but in reality it was about bolstering the perception of the widespread influence of Fethullah Gulen. 

All of these organizations, and other related organizations, have offices, or at least mailing addresses, in an elaborate facility in Mt. Prospect, which will be the subject of a future post. Remember, the official story is that the schools aren't related to the Movement, although this post is demonstrating yet another connection. At this very moment, Fethullah Gulen is probably sitting only a few feet away from one individual connected Niagara Education Services, whose name appears as a 2003 board member on Mt. Prospect zoning documents along with the current Vice-President of Concept Schools.3

Salim Ucan is the individual who seems to have invited Alderman Joe Moore to Turkey, and when that particular cat got out of the bag, they had to walk it all back to prop up the story that the schools aren't related to the Movement. Evidently the leadership of the Movement recognizes that it would be a problem if the American public woke up to the fact that a transnational social/religious/political movement was in effective control of a large publicly funded public education system here in the States. 4

So, what's the problem with a language and folk dance festival? There isn't one. But when you look at the context of this particular contest, and you study where the winners go after the contest, you begin to see the deep religious connection. All of the schools in the Gulen archipelago participate in these contests; this isn't an isolated phenomenon.

Much, much more after the jump. Click "Read More" below.

Make no mistake, the focus on the Turkish language is deeply, inextricably related to Gulen's theology, which I'll talk about in a bit. Don't believe me? Do some background research.

If you go to the Rosemont event in April, it will look like a talent show with a heavy emphasis on Turkish themes with some random other things patched in by kids who haven't zeroed in on the fact that it's pretty much a Turkish event where the hosts are basically just being polite about other kinds of entries. Here's a clip of  some of the local kids participating in the 2008 event.

Here's last year's (2013) winner, from the Rosemont Event, who later appears to have competed in Istanbul at the Turkish Olympiad, which I'm getting to.

Here's another American contestant from 2013, performing in Istanbul. She's a student at one of the Gulen charters in Texas. She evidently placed first in one of the categories.

The American qualifying contests are held in six regions around the States, and the winners will go to the Turkish Olympiad, held in cities across Turkey,  to compete with thousands of other kids from the Gulen schools all over the world over the course of sixteen days. The opening ceremony will probably be in Ankara; the closing ceremony will probably be in Istanbul.  The Turkish Olympiad was founded by followers of Fethullah Gulen and is very much about burnishing his image.  Because the Gulen Movement is in a state of virtual war with the Turkish government, it's going to be an interesting Olympiad this year.  The Turkish Olympiad is the culminating event of year for the Movement, and it's a Gulen-style production through and through; no expense is spared. For now, just keep in mind that the local charter school kids (along with the private Gulen-affiliated school kids) will be performing in this local competition in order to get to Istanbul. It's not all the kids; it's just some of them, and they work hard for the honor.

Here's the little promo video compiled from last year's local competition, which was at that time called the Intercultural Art and Language Contest.

Some of the Turkish people working with me become uncomfortable when I start talking about these things because they like the idea of Turkish culture and language being taught to kids and celebrated in general, and they have a nostalgic regard for many of the things you see in the above videos. I have no problem with that; I think most people are interested in language arts and folk dance. It's just that these pursuits, in these particular schools, are deeply connected to a very specific theology, and to the propping up of what appears to me to be a personality cult, or at least a sect that is very closely focused on one individual imam.

It's at the intersection of the Gulen Movement with the public school kids where I get involved. In a moment, let's have a look at some footage last year's Turkish Olympiad, an extravagant international festival that serves as a time capsule for the Movement's former political connections.  You can get an idea for the scale of this thing when you take a look at the video clips widely posted online. Last year's Olympiad in Istanbul included an appearance by the now widely reviled prime minister and apparent friend of Mike Madigan, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who used the event to hector the protestors in Gezi Park.

In address to the audience, Erdoğan slammed violent protesters amid approval roar of thousands of spectators. He said the 'real Turkey' representing the most parts of Turkey gathered at the stadium.
Here's the actual speech he gave. Notice the love from the audience. Do you hear any booing? Me neither. The people in the audience very likely agree that they're part of the "real Turkey," as opposed to the fake Turkey that the Gezi protesters live in. (The video is set to start at 1:14. You may have to refresh the video to start it at 1:14. Or you can just manually skip to 1:14.)

Erdoğan's and Gulen's marriage of convenience has long since devolved into a tense, operatic divorce; it is doubtful that the prime minister will be making another cameo, unless he brings along a very, very large net. Erdoğan is busy blaming the Gezi violence on everyone but himself, and Gulen is playing the blame game, tooBut before the divorce, there they were, in a highly nationalistic accord. The Turkish Olympiad is also a platform for propping up the political friendships of this very conservative government and its secretive partner-in-power, the Gulen Movement, or at least it was.  In the 2007 Olympiad, for example, they gave an award at the Olympiad to the late Saparmurat Niyazov, one of the craziest, most brutally repressive dictators in the history of that sad genre (Hendricks, p. 199).  If you'd like, I could compile a list of the American kids who got to be in the audience to cheer for that.

Here's a lovely performance at the opening ceremony of the 2013 Turkish Olympiad.

And what song is that, you ask? I'm surprised you didn't recognize it; it's the poem Bir Isik Sun (A Light in the Sun) by Fethullah Gulen, set to music. I don't dare transcribe the poem here, even in an English translation-- the Movement is highly protective of Gulen's copyright. Here are the lyrics. Just note the Turkish flags in the visuals and the crackling patriotic energy, and the apparent organic relationship between the Turkish nationalist energy and the themes of the cleric's poem. 

Gulen's particular theological goal is often summarized as "the Turkification of Islam, and the Islamification of modernity." It's all very wrapped up in an idea of the Turkish national identity and a story about Turkish history, an interpretation of Islam, and a holy reverence for the Turkish language. The ardor for the language and history and national religious identity is at the very root of the theology, and it's not like anything I've experienced here in the States. I've lived in states with a strong English Only mentality, and I've been neighbors with folks who feel strongly that the US is a Christian nation, but there is no analogous phenomenon here to the importance that Turkish and Turkey have in the theology of Fethullah Gulen.  

Before Erdoğan gave his charming speech at last year's closing ceremony, the audience was treated to a student singing the ever popular Hicran ve Umit (Separation and Hope) also by Fethullah Gulen. It's a showstopper (This video is set to start at 18:40. You may have to refresh the video to start at 18:40. Or you can just manually skip to 18:40):

What's are the words of the poem? I could tell you but then I'd have to sue you. Here's a translation.  Once you read it, you see that its language fits into this characterization of Gulen's theology by Joshua Hendrick, in Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, on p. 90. 

Many of Gulen's poems that I've read are mournful, brooding pieces about a terrible loss, and the possibility of a new dawn or a new era, presumably --if you study the theology-- when the Golden Generation is in place, and the products of science are tools used in the name of belief. All very consistent with Islamic revivalism and revivalism more broadly. It's right there in the songs, the sermons, the published articles.

So, let's review. The kids at the April 12 event in Rosemont are competing for a chance to go to Istanbul, to gather with kids from Gulen-affiliated schools around the world, where they'll experience and participate in an ecstatic reception to musical interpretations of Fethullah Gulen's poetry, which conveys his theological message, which is at its heart about the Turkification of Islam and the Islamification of modernity, although to people unfamiliar with the theology, this will not be apparent; it will have instead more of a generic revivalist feel.  Many of the kids will perform Gulen poems during the competition and along the way.

And then, sometime during the Olympiad, to work the audience into a frenzy of patriotic religiosity, Gulen himself will make a cameo by video, as he did last year (The video is set to start at 23:01. You may have to refresh the video to start it at 23:01. Or, you can just manually skip to 23:01):

He's a weepy preacher, famous for the tears. It's all very reminiscent to me of American televangelists (who also, as I've alluded to, sometimes connect their own theology to a supercharged kind of patriotism or nationalism or to that most distilled form of American religious patriotism: NASCAR). Indeed when you think about it-- when you look at the message in Gulen's poetry, the underlying theology of the sermons and writings, and then you look at the Turkish Olympiad as a whole, you realize that Gulen is using the Turkish Olympiad to shape, mold, foster, and generally encourage the Golden Generation of his religious vision. Study the sermons; it's what he's doing.

They're revivals, in other words, these Turkish Olympiads.  It's less obvious here in the States, where the competitions have a cultural/folk dance type of tone (although not entirely disconnected from Gulen poetry and religious dance), but the ultimate goal is to get kids excited about and competing for a chance to go to what amounts to a revival overseas. It's all very interesting, isn't it? By the way, there are also cash awards for basically all the attendees, and all expenses are covered by the Movement.

Look at this highly religious event in the States. If you weren't familiar with the behavior, the language, the iconography, the themes of Christianity, the whole context, you might not pick up on what's going on. You might think it's just a rock concert. It is a rock concert. But it's also a frenzied fundamentalist jamboree.

 It doesn't surprise me that Concept is making inroads with a fundamentalist church in Chicago, or that it is highly successful in Texas. The generic religiosity of the Movement here must be appealing to evangelical populations who aren't looking too hard at the specifics. The essential creationism underlying the Movement must resonate. As for the arch-conservative political alliances, the power-seeking, the secrecy underlying all of it, that's very hard for people to penetrate without making a study of it. And if evangelicals actually do the research, and they see what's there, it may very well be that they're making the same geopolitical decision that the American government seems to be making; that is, better to work with these guys than fight off the mullahs.

I just think it's all strange territory for American public education.

Are there more flagrant examples of religious connections in public education? Yes. Does that make this phenomenon in the Gulen-linked schools okay? No. Not in my opinion.  Is this the only religious link between American public education and the Gulen Movement that I can think of?

No. But that's for a post in the future.

So that's that. Many of the people running the Movement charter schools like to say that they're not affiliated with the Movement-- that at best some of the people connected to the schools at the very most "might have been inspired" by Fethullah Gulen, but the truth is that that culminating event for the children going to these schools around the world is an event founded by Gulen himself,  perfectly aligned with his theology, in which Gulen himself will be appearing on the big screen, unless the Turkish police kibosh that this year.

So where does that leave us?

1. The Movement itself is embroiled in a bitter political struggle in Turkey in which it has been complicit in the widespread suppression of basic civil rights and engaged in a very secretive, very sketchy type of behavior that would look like racketeering here in the States.

2. The schools linked to the Movement have in one important respect identified in this post, played a central role in the fulfillment of Fethullah Gulen's religious vision.

3. Illinois not only funds the schools, which almost certainly fund the Movement,  but its political establishment has been co-opted to the point where our legislature is-- in a couple in a couple of material respects-- doing public relations work for the Movement and unable to look critically at it.

I have no problem with the Turkish Olympiad per se. It's not my kind of thing, particularly after the honoring of Niyazov, but it's an event in another country, and it looks like fun, at least compared to other religious revivals I've been to. If it weren't connected to taxpayer funded public education, I wouldn't be writing about it.

But let's not try to pretend that there isn't a religious connection between the Movement and the schools.

PS: Some things for the record.

1. Nowhere in this post do I say that Islam is bad. Islam is not bad; it's good.
2. Nowhere in this post do I say that kids in the US are being proselytized in the charter schools by teachers.
3. Nowhere in this post do I say Turkish people are bad. They are not bad. They are like people everywhere.
4. Nowhere in this post do I say that Turkish language or culture is bad. Indeed I like Turkish music, folk dancing, and the sounds of the language.

Tim Furman, 2014
with research by Sharon Higgins

New to the topic?
Please see some of my previous posts.

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