Gulen charter schools 101 + webinar video

(Video added 1/30/2014)

Some of the videos shown during the presentation have been deleted from the video, but you will find them online.


About Gulen charter schools

In 1999, members of the Gulen Movement, a secretive and controversial cult-like religious group, opened their first charter school in the U.S. (in Ohio). Rapid expansion of the Gulen Movement's network has resulted in the largest charter school chain in the U.S.  (See my guest article in the Washington Post, "Largest charter school network in the U.S.: Schools tied to Turkey." 3/27/2012). During the 2011-2012 school year, 135 Gulen charter schools operated in 26 states

This increasingly well-rooted network provides the Gulen Movement with daily access to the minds of over 45,000 students, and yearly access to hundreds of millions of hard-earned tax dollars. How did it come to pass that most Americans, including these students' parents, are completely unaware of this phenomenon?

The Gulen Movement is one of the most powerful and influential forces within Turkish society. Outside of Turkey, it also operates as an expansive, coordinated, and ambitious transnational human energy force comprised of the devoted followers of Fetullah Gulen. Estimates place the number of Gulen followers at between one and eight million.

For nearly two decades, Gulen's followers have been traveling to other countries in order to operate schools, Turkish "cultural" centers, "interfaith dialog" centers, and business organizations out of which they work to advance their movement's goals. This is an ambitious religious group with a serious geopolitical agenda.

Gulen, a charismatic but very controversial imam of the Nur sect, has been the most influential Islamic leader in Turkey for the past few decades. The Movement and its membership is called by different names: the Hizmet movement (or just Hizmet), the Fethullah Gulen Community (or FCG, or simply the "Community"), Fethullah Gulen's missionaries, the Nurchilar religious movement (used in Central Asia), and the cemaat

The charter school network in the U.S. is part of the expanding global network of schools being operated by members of this group. Estimates place the total number of schools at over one thousand and operating in ~100 countries around the world. In other countries the schools are often locally referred to as "Turkish" schools and they are nearly all private. The charter school system in the U.S. is allowing the Gulen Movement's schools to be publicly funded.

Typically, teams of mostly Turkish-born scientists, academics, and businessmen form a non-profit and then submit a charter school application. Those applications portray the founders -- some of whom have only been living in the U.S. for a short time -- as individuals who decided to start a charter school because they care so deeply about American children.  Many of the non-Turkish-born individuals who appear on the founding and governing boards can be tied to Gulenist "cultural" or "interfaith" organizations. The location where these efforts take place is highly-coordinated because the Gulenist expansion is an imperialistic campaign. For more explanation, read this page.

The charter school applications omit many important things. They make no mention of Fethullah Gulen or how the purpose of the school is to implement Gulen's educational philosophy and vision. The charter school applications make no mention about how the "international teachers" the schools plan to hire will exclusively be from Turkey (along with a few from other Turkic countries where the movement has made inroads). They do not mention that among the foreign languages to be offered will always be Turkish. The applications do not mention the emphasis that will be placed on Turkish cultural instruction. These things are not mentioned in the charter school applications because the Gulenist founders do not want to arouse suspicion. When questioned by reporters, school operators may admit that some staff members may be "Gulen-inspired." 

Secrecy, denial, deflection of the truth, and strategic ambiguity are well worn pages in the Gulen Movement's playbook. Learn how the schools serve the movement HERE.  

About Fethullah Gulen

Gulen was born in 1938 in rural Turkey (post-2001 Gulenist literature uses 1941). From a young age, he began to follow the career path of his father, an imam. Gulen's beliefs are connected to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. For a number of years, Gulen delivered sermons at mosques throughout Turkey. As he matured, Gulen developed his own personal themes and began to amass a large set of followers.  Similar to that of popular Christian evangelist preachers in the U.S., recordings and written materials have been widely produced and distributed by the publishing companies started by Gulen's devotees.

Gulen left Turkey in March 1998 citing health reasons (like many, many millions of people, Gulen has diabetes). At the time he was being investigated for plotting to overthrow the secular republic to replace it with an Islamic state (he had been imprisoned for six months in 1971 under a similar charge). In the spring of 1998, a video was aired on Turkish TV in which Gulen appeared to state the following:

"You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers... You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey... Until that time, any step taken would be too early - like breaking an egg without waiting the full 40 days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside. The work to be done is [in] confronting the world. Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all - in confidence... trusting your loyalty and sensitivity to secrecy. I know that when you leave here - [just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you must discard the thoughts and feelings expressed here."

Shortly after Gulen departed to the U.S. he was charged with being the leader of a clandestine organization that directly threatened the integrity of the Turkish state. Gulen was tried in absentia and eventually acquitted of conspiracy charges in 2006. Although he was cleared in his homeland, Gulen immediately applied for a visa so he could permanently remain in the U.S. His request was denied, but his appeal was heard in federal court and, in 2008, his petition for a Green Card was granted

In their written denial, U.S. Attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security stated a suspicion about CIA involvement in funding the Gulen movement’s global projects (see section 12). In his appeal, Gulen obtained letters of support from two former CIA officials (one of whom is Graham Fuller, who, in 2010, was provided with an opportunity to promote his new book at the Rumi Forum, a Gulenist organization in D.C.). One theory which has been proposed is that the Gulen movement receives U.S. support for its expansion because it is considered to be a moderate form of Islam. 

Gulen now lives at a compound in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. Despite being cleared of charges, he did not return to his homeland.

Gulen's followers 

Gulen does not approve of the title "Gulen Movement." Instead he refers to it as a ‘volunteers' (hizmet) movement." Hizmet is one of the highest duties in Islam, implying both a religious and national service. Gulen's followers are known as the cemaat. Gulenists refer to themselves as the "Community," and Gulen is referred to as Hoca efendi (esteemed master). Oftentimes, young people first learn about Fethullah Gulen's teachings by attending Gulenist-operated academic tutoring centers known as "lighthouses." Their family members are not always accepting of the fact that they have joined the movement. The movement is a hierarchical brotherhood, where mentors are referred to as abi (elder brother).

The central activities of Gulen's followers have been the establishment of schools, businesses, and communication/media companies (publishers such as Today’s Zaman, The Fountain Magazine, etc.; TV stations such as the English language Ebru TV and the Turkish language Samanyolu; and other companies as well as Gulen-promotional web sites, etc.). The Gulen Movement also establishes regional organizations which either promote Turkish culture or “interfaith dialog.” In the U.S., these organizations (remaining undeclared as belonging to the Gulen Movement and only self-identifying as "Turkish" or Gulen-inspired)  court local public officials, religious leaders, journalists, and other community leaders by giving them awards, dinners, and free, Gulenist-guided trips to Turkey. 

Gulen's educational philosophy and Gulen schools

A religious-based educational philosophy is one of Gulen’s primary themes; he has very specific notions about the way in which children should be instructed in schools, some of which are described in “The Educational Philosophy of Fethullah Gülen and Its Application in South Africa." (Note: extreme caution must be observed when reading material about Gulen or the Gulen movement, as the movement produces a great deal of its own propaganda.)

In 1982, Gulen's devotees started the first Gulen schools in Turkey. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, members of the movement were then able to migrate to the countries in Central Asia (Turkic regions which were once ruled by the Ottoman Empire) and start more schools. These schools have since come under increased scrutiny for their spread of pan-Turkic ideas. The movement continued to expand and, at this point, hundreds of private schools in many countries on other continents have been opened. Local residents usually refer to them as the "Turkish schools."

In about 1999, the first Gulen charter school was opened in Ohio. Since that time, Turk-run charter schools have been opened in 27 states. Additional attempts have been made in other states. These schools are founded and operated by Turkish immigrants (male scientists and businessmen) who can often be tied to the American Gulenist organizations. An unusually strong pattern of similarities in their establishment and operation indicates that these schools are the U.S. members of the larger network of international Gulen schools, however the operators of the schools are extremely reluctant to discuss Gulen, the Gulen Movement, or Gulen's approach to education. Sometimes they will admit that the schools are "Gulen-inspired." Unlike the schools which follow the Waldorf education philosophy proudly do, these schools do not mention their connection to Gulen's educational philosophy. It is never volunteered to the public, or mentioned on the web sites or in the charter school petitions. Readers may wish to contemplate possible reasons for this.

VIEW A LIST OF OPERATING GULEN CHARTER SCHOOLS HERE. A list of proposed, pending schools and other attempts is HERE. In other countries, the Gulen schools are private and charge tuition. In the U.S. the Gulen schools receive public state and federal funds.

Until very recently, American news organizations have done little to inform the public about the Gulen Movement and its schools, and of any deeper significance and associated controversies, so broad public awareness about the Gulen charter schools has not yet occurred.  But that may be changing.

The first story produced by the mainstream press was "Objectives of charter schools with Turkish connections questioned" by Greg Toppo (USA Today, 8/17/2010). For a list of articles about the Gulen movement and its schools, go HERE.

In addition to the Gulen Movement's strategy of secrecy and "strategic ambiguity" (discussed in Joshua Henrick's thesis, see below), another reason this national phenomenon has gone unnoticed for so long is because charter school authorization is fragmented and oversight is local and inadequate. It has taken a while for anyone to become aware of this multi-district, multi-state charter school pattern in operation. 

Each year that goes by, more and more U.S. tax dollars have become involved with the establishment and support of these Gulen charter schools without any honest public discussion or bureaucratic evaluation about if it is right or wrong for American taxpayers to be funding them. 

Gulen school characteristics

Taken individually, the Gulenist schools seem quite promising and their oddities are not noticeable. However, despite the schools and school clusters claiming to have no, or minimal, affiliation with one another, they have extremely unusual similarities, which they even share with the international Gulen schools such as PakTurk (check the Web site's News & Events). The characteristics of these schools will include most of the following:
  • Emphasis on math and science; yet little experimental science
  • Science fairs; math competitions, robotics clubs (“modem” education)
  • Major emphasis on awards, mostly won by a small fraction of the students; many of the competitions are sponsored by a set of affiliated organizations (I-SWEEEP, Pacifica Institute, etc.)
  • High scores on standardized tests, even in cases of very challenging demographics
  • Chronic problems with special education compliance
  • Excessive information requested upon application which can be used to screen students (test scores, home language, parental workplace, etc.)
  • Relentless self-promotion through press releases and the courting of local public officials
  • Schools occasionally featured on known Gulist news outlets, such as Today’s Zaman, Ebru TV, or Samonyolu TV
  • A number of the supposedly-unrelated schools have unusually similar websites and logo motifs
  • High teacher turnover; teachers, administrators disappear and appear mysteriously
  • Departed administrators will appear at other supposedly-unrelated schools in the network
  • Large number of Turkish or Turkic teachers, many with poor English skills
  • Excessive use of H1B Visas to fill staffing needs (See Gulen schools and their booming H1B visa applications)
  • 99.9% of the founders, board members, and administrators are male and have Turkish or Turkic names
  • Administrators and many teachers lack experience working in any schools outside the network
  • Teachers socialize to an unusual degree with students; character education often taught by male Turkish or Turkic teachers
  • Home visits offered to all families; school sleepovers
  • Turkish language classes, during or after school (Turkish does not rank as a major language but it is stressed as being extremely important)
  • Turkish cultural activities such as Turkish clubs, elaborately costumed student participation in regional "Turkish Olympiads" (see "Learning to love Turkey") and class trips to Anatolian/Turkish festivals
  • School-sponsored trips to Turkey, usually disguised as “International” or “Europe” trips (scan the photo galleries on the school Web sites). Students can earn credit as they are immersed and indoctrinated in a Gulenist environment abroad.
  • The dominant Turkish and Turkic presence in staff members, curriculum and student activities is never mentioned as a feature of the school in the original charter school application
  • School leaders deny, deflect, or minimize their connections to the Gulen Movement. 
Additional information
“…The details of many important affairs can be protected only if they are kept secret. Often enough, when the involved parties do not keep certain matters secret, no progress is achieved. In addition, serious risks might confront those who are involved, particularly if the matter concerns delicate issues of national life and its continuation.
“If a state cannot protect its secrets from its enemies, it cannot develop. If an army reveals its strategy to its antagonists, it cannot attain victory. If key workers are won over by the competitors, their employers cannot succeed.
“Explain what you must, but never give away all of your secrets. Those who freely publicize the secrets of their hearts drag themselves and their nation toward an inevitable downfall.”
  • Some of the motives for the GM's involvement in our public school system are described by Nazli Ilicak, a Turkish journalist and political figure who wrote this in a column for Sabah (a daily Turkish newspaper): 

    “We discussed the subject among ourselves: If 600 schools are bought this way in the United States – and that’s what the members of the Gulen movement are striving to do, - and if 200 students graduate from each one of these schools, then 120 thousand sympathizers of Turkey join the mainstream out there every year. We are trying to lobby against the Armenian genocide resolution every year. And yet, through education, we can teach tens of thousands of people the Turkish language and our national anthem, introduce them to our culture and win them over. And this is what the Gulen movement is striving for.”
  • Sociologist Joshua Hendrick studied the Gulen Movement for several years. It was the topic of his 2009 PhD thesis: "Globalization and Marketed Islam: The Case of Fethullah Gulen." Twenty-four introductory pages are offered for free viewing HERE. Here Hendrick writes on hizmet and loyalty (pg. 181):
    According to Ergene, the GM is a "community" of individuals who by their own free will agree with the "truth" that is explained by Fethullah Giilen. This "truth," in short, is that "service" (hizmet) to individuals, society, and humanity is the responsibility of all Muslims. According to Giilen, "people of service" (hizmet insanlan), "are so faithful to the cause to which they have devoted themselves that, deeply in love with it, the willingly sacrifice their lies and whatever they love for its sake." Devoted followers of Fethullah Giilen, therefore, refer to themselves as "hizmet insanlan," and to the larger GM as "Hizmet."

    In his study of the impact of GM businessmen in Central Asia, Mustafa Sen argues that what Giilen and his charismatic aristocrats contend to be "service to humanity" is actually blind obedience in the interests of power. Rather than acting in accordance with their own free will, Sen argues that followers of Fethullah Giilen are practitioners of a successful deployment of Foucaultian bio-power. After being recruited through an elaborate process of social conditioning, Sen contends that followers of Fethullah Giilen constitute a deeply loyal, militantly disciplined organization that achieves its goals in accordance with a very specific sense of purpose, and self-regulating sense of determination. Sen concludes that successfully socialized recruits in the GM, "have not only learned the inner language, symbolic universe, short and long-term goals and ideals of the community, but have also internalized perception, evaluation, and interpretation schemes dictated by the community through systemic mental, spiritual, and bodily practices." According to the first account, the GM is a project focused on cultivating love, devotion, and service to humanity. According to the other, it is a self-disciplined, militantly devoted fellowship of brainwashed followers. By both accounts, however, the GM is viewed as a specific community with a specific worldview that engages in specific methods to achieve specific goals.
  • The Gulenists spend a great deal of time, money, and energy on courting charter school families, public officials, reporters, academics, and various community leaders, and giving them awards, gifts, and free trips to Turkey. Investment for these projects is generated in the form of religious donations (himmet). As Joshua Hendrick explains in his 2009 PhD thesis "Globalization and Marketed Islam: The Case of Fethullah Gulen" (p. 251):

    "Original benefactors expect no immediate return from their himmet. They are told that himmet is a religious rite, and that trust networks in the GM will assure that it goes to a "faithful" cause (e.g. to pay for a student's scholarship, to provide start-up capital for a new school, to send a group of influential Americans on a two-week trip to Turkey, to sponsor an "academic" conference devoted to Fethullah Gulen, etc.)"
Cooperation between and overlapping membership of these various institutions i extensive and confusing -- largely because Gulen-inspired institutions rarely own up to that fact. The websites of its schools, universities, media outlets, charities, and dialogue groups almost never directly refer to Gulen's inspirations...
Furthermore, the movement is loosely structured and decentralized, and each of its ventures are individually financed (and usually self-financing), and run on a voluntary basis by sympathizers with the network. The movement consist of numerous businessmen's associations, education trusts, and the like -- each acting independently. Nor does it have a member ship as such, and Fethullahci are often loathe to declare themselves openly as such. Indeed, the distinction between members, followers, sympathizers, and collaborators is blurred, and the movement is coy about revealing its scale -- which it might not accurately know...

  •  "Collusion is an agreement between two or more persons, sometimes illegal and therefore secretive, to limit open competition by deceiving, misleading, or defrauding others of their legal rights, or to obtain an objective forbidden by law typically by defrauding or gaining an unfair advantage. It is an agreement among firms to divide the market, set prices, or limit production. It can involve "wage fixing, kickbacks, or misrepresenting the independence of the relationship between the colluding parties". In legal terms, all acts effected by collusion are considered void." (Wikipedia)
  •  YouTube videos of how Fethullah Gulen's sermons incite crying and screaming: AND
  • Two important psychological principals of which to be aware: Backfire Effect and the Black Swan Theory.

Revised and updated on 5/31/2012