Who’s Going to Rule the World? Fethullah Gülen?

For much of my longish life I have been hearing tales, historical, contemporary and fictional, about the latest megalomaniac individual or evil empire determined to rule the world. Traditionally the contenders have based their claims on the possession of some kind of superior weapons technology – but times have changed. We are well into the post-modern era, and most predictions of earlier ages about what the world would be like in the year 1984 or 2000 seem naïve and laughable to us now. It is pretty clear that the task of ruling the world has moved way beyond the power of one individual (if that was ever a realistic possibility). The vast military resources of the one remaining global super-power have proved insufficient to rebuild even minor third world states in the US’s own image. So now we have nothing to worry about, right? We can get on with the job of lighting up our own small corners with iPhone 4s and Galaxy SIIIs without fear of global annihilation.

Uh-uh, sorry folks. I’ve got bad news. There’s a new battle shaping up, and it’s about the enemies within.

One reason I enjoy living in Turkey is that I don’t feel so much like crying when I read the local news. Back in New Zealand, before heading to work, I used to listen to a morning roundup on the radio of what ‘they’ were doing to my beautiful country. I confess, there was a time back then when the idea of joining some revolutionary band of bomb-throwing anarchists began to have some appeal. Now, however, from a distance of some 17,000 kilometres, I find I can read news of events in the Land of the Long White Cloud with more objectivity, and the tears don’t flow as once they did.

Let me give you an example of the madness, though, from my own field of professional interest. The National (read Tory) Government in New Zealand, in its 2012 budget, announced its intention to save $43 million by putting the lid on teacher recruitment. The inevitable result of this, of course, would be a steady increase in class sizes in schools around the country. Luckily, the government has a select band of tame ‘education experts’ who can be called upon to explain why this won’t be a bad thing. One of these, a Professor John Hattie, has apparently conducted research showing that class sizes are not a major factor in student learning. As far as I can learn, Professor Hattie’s research has not involved any actual time spent teaching actual kids in actual classrooms – he has been an ivory tower academic since 1975. Not sure I would take my car to be repaired by an ‘automotive expert’ with no hands-on experience, regardless of how many years he’d been studying the theory, but that’s just me.
Well, there are experts and consultants, it seems, and you can count on these guys to back each other up. One of the latter, a Dr John Langley, was quoted as saying, “If I had a choice of putting my child into a class with a poor teacher with twenty kids or into a class of thirty kids with a good teacher I’d go for the latter. It’s as simple as that.” Reassuring to know the government has access to people with such incisive problem-solving ability, and New Zealand taxpayers can feel satisfied that Dr John well deserves his no doubt generous consultancy fee.

These days New Zealand has a system of proportional system for electing representatives to its legislative assembly. The system was instituted in 1996 in response to overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the old first-past-the-post, two-party system such as exists in the UK and the US. Unfortunately post-modernism has insinuated its way in here too. The several small parties that manage to win the occasional seat in the legislature are run mostly by fringe lunatic refugees from the far right or left of the two main parties. The main role of these minor participants seems to be putting forward outrageous proposals which the government can proceed to implement in slightly modified form after the initial public anger has died down.

One of the more fanatical of these minor political groupings is a coterie of doctrinaire libertarians known by the acronym ACT, arguing with religious fervour for deregulation, privatisation, flexible labour markets and reduced taxes for the wealthy. And one of the more significant achievements of these neo-liberal economic geniuses has been the move to privatisation of the prison system. A recent editorial in the New Zealand Herald observed that, ‘Something is clearly awry when a Government proclaims the economic benefits of a new prison’.  Nevertheless, Auckland’s oldest prison has already been outsourced to private management, and a newly built facility soon will be. The group to which the NZ Government is entrusting the care and security of its criminals is a multi-national outfit name of Serco – which a Guardian journalist has described as ‘. . . probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of.’  OK, come on, you may say. Leave aside your left-wing socialist prejudices and tell us how they are doing. Well, a recent report on the first eight months of Serco’s management produced the following findings:

‘ . . .  as well as two prisoners being wrongfully released, the British firm had failed to meet 40% of its performance targets and was fined $150,000 after a prisoner escaped.
Targets for random drug testing and prisoner management plans were also not reached.
Annually, Serco can earn up to approximately $3 million in incentive payments, but instead it is having to pay for under-performing.
On top of the $150,000 fine it got after prisoner A. F. escaped, it was fined $25,000 for accidently releasing an inmate early and $50,000 for failing to file progress reports.
Another $25,000 fine is pending for releasing another prisoner early.’

In spite of these criticisms, the government is standing by its decision. Corrections Minister Anne Tolley said ‘ . . . there needs to be some improvement, but she also described it as a “bedding in” period for Serco’.

Well, once you have accepted handing over prisons to the private sector you have pretty much overcome, or chosen to ignore, all the arguments that can be mustered against privatization. So it is hardly surprising to see the free-marketeers turning their attention to schools and teachers. Unfortunately, private sector education has been around for a long time, and has often been associated with elitism, poor teaching, violence, and dubious educational standards. But even supposing they do find a good establishment, the wealthy resent having to fork out high tuition fees in addition to paying taxes, some of which are used to finance state-sector schools. So, our privateers have come up with a system which allows organisations to receive government funding for a school, while at the same time getting a special deal allowing them to avoid much of the normal regulation and overseeing. It’s called the Charter School system.

However, again unfortunately, there seem to be glitches in the system. In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University in the US, produced a report stating that ‘17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools; 46% showed no difference from public schools; and 37% were significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts’.

Fethullah Gülen

Now, if you have read this far, you may be wondering what all this has to do with my topic, which, you will remember, was ‘Who’s going to rule the world?’ But I assure you, I hadn’t forgotten. I want to redirect your attention to those figures in the CREDO report, and in particular, the 17% of charter schools [reporting] academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools. A Turkish colleague of mine recently sent me the link to a ‘60 Minutes’ documentary looking into the connection between some very successful charter schools in Texas, and a certain reclusive expatriate Turkish citizen by the name of Fethullah Gülen.

I watched the documentary with interest, because I have been hearing this gentleman’s name in Turkey for some years, generally spoken in tones of fear and loathing that suggest some kind of hybrid monster cloned from the DNA of L Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Attila the Hun and the Ayatollah Khomeini. I was hoping for some conclusive evidence of evil-doing, since I was assured that Americans were now seeing Fethullah Hodja in his true colours. The programme, then, I have to say, turned out to be something of a let-down. The presenter, a long-serving correspondent for CBS with a big reputation as an investigative tele-journalist, visited schools supposedly associated with the Gülen ‘movement’, and tracked the elderly Hodja to his secluded residence in the Poconos, a mountainous region in north-eastern Pennsylvania.

She and her camera crew spoke to school administrators and students. As far as I could see, they learned that:
  • The school administrators are normal-looking, secular and articulate.
  • The students are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids who love their school.
  • The schools are among the most highly rated in the country in terms of academic success.
  • There is a waiting list for entry exceeding the total capacity of the schools.
  • There is no religious education taking place, and certainly no observable Islamic character.
  • Curriculum focus is on mathematics and science.

They were unable to interview the Hodja himself since, apparently, he has been ill for some months and rarely appears in public. His representative assured the interviewer that he takes no direct interest in the running of the schools. The most sinister information emerging from the programme was the presenter’s comment that some people in Turkey believe Gülen and his ‘movement’ have a ‘secret agenda’ though the details weren’t made clear – one assumes that’s because otherwise it wouldn’t be secret.

Undoubtedly the activities of the ‘Gülen movement’ are beginning to arouse interest beyond the shores of the Hodja’s native Turkey – however there seems to be some debate about the nature of these activities.

My Apple Desktop Dictionary defines a movement as: ‘a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas: the labor movement’, or the cubist movement.
Merriam-Webster Online suggests: ‘a series of organized activities working toward an objective; also: an organized effort to promote or attain an end, eg the civil rights movement’.

Two questions seem to arise here: Does a ‘movement’ require a leader in the sense of a person who takes responsibility for organizing and coordinating its activities? And, is a ‘movement’ good or bad, according to the definition?

Addressing the first question, it seems to me that the key factor in a movement is a concept or philosophy, rather than a ‘leader’ in the normal sense of the word – a concept such as: that labour needs to organize to counteract the power of employers; that human beings deserve equal rights before the law regardless of race; the use of ‘multiple perspective and complex planar faceting for expressive effect’ in a work of art. Participants latch on to an idea formulated by an initiator or trend-setter and the movement takes on a life of its own which may be quite independent of that person. Subsequently leaders may emerge but again, the movement continues or dies out more or less regardless of the existence or activities of those persons. Think of Martin Luther King or Pablo Picasso. As for the second question, in general, movements tend to be, to a greater or lesser extent, revolutionary, in the sense that they are usually a reaction to the prevailing status quo, and their appeal is that they offer some kind of new approach to what is perceived to be an existing problem. I guess they will ultimately be judged according to which side of the fence the judge is sitting on – or alternatively, by their results. ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Luke: 6, 43) has always seemed to me a good criterion to use in evaluating any group or individual.

So let’s get back to the Gülen Movement. First of all there is an official website. You won’t find the ‘hidden agenda’ of course, because that would, of necessity, be hidden. But you will find a very fascinating and comprehensive source of information about the man, his beliefs and goals. According to the brief bio, he ‘is an authoritative mainstream Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader and educational activist who supports interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and opposes violence and turning religion into a political ideology. Fethullah Gülen promotes cooperation of civilizations toward a peaceful world, as opposed to a clash’. On this website you will find poetry and articles about education, the rights of women, the link between virtue and happiness . . . and other interesting topics too numerous to mention. You will find that Gülen cites as a source of his inspiration the 13th century Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, renowned for his inclusive philosophy of love and peace. 

Wikipedia will tell you, not surprisingly, that the Gülen Movement is inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Hodja. A key concept is the Turkish word Hizmet, meaning service, which connotes using your talents for the common good without looking for personal reward. On the other hand, Gülen does not discourage followers from making money through business – merely encourages them to use some of their energies to help the less fortunate. 

A recent Time magazine article  wrote about a meeting with members of the Gülen Movement in the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır. In an economically disadvantaged region of the country with a large Kurdish population, local businessmen have been raising money for the foundation of elementary schools and public reading rooms. While the article does say that many Turks view the Gulen Movement with suspicion’, on the face of it, you’d have to think that the fruits of its efforts seem quite positive, even laudable.

According to another website called Gülen Inspired Schools’,  there are over a thousand such schools around the world, including 130 in the United States. Independent audits suggest that these schools produce excellent academic results, ranking them among the most successful in their respective countries. Interestingly, administrators deny any control by the Hodja, or a central body associated with him, unlike, say, Catholic Church-run schools. Investigators have found no evidence of religious teaching, Islamic or otherwise. On the contrary, Gülen has been quoted as saying, “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God,” and the common thread running through the schools seems to be a curriculum focusing on these modern subjects.

Sounds ok, on the whole, what do you think? Still, I have to confess I found one or two negatives in my searchings. An article in the New York Times in 2006  reported that some of those Texas schools had been allegedly giving construction contracts and making other favourable deals with firms ‘connected to’ the Gülen movement. More seriously, Mr Gülen himself was apparently put on trial in 1999 for ‘attempting to overthrow the government.’ Still, when you consider that the present Prime Minister of Turkey served prison time in those days for a similar offence, you’d have to think that the legal criteria must have been somewhat more stringent than we would expect in the US or New Zealand. In his younger days, the Hodja also apparently fell foul of the military authorities after the 1971 coup in Turkey, being arrested, tried and convicted. Not surprising, then, that he chooses to reside in the USA – although Turkish courts did clear him of all wrong-doing in 2008.

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your patience in reading so far. I’m not here to be an apologist for Fethullah Gülen or any political or religious ideology. I merely want to outline the philosophies and fruits of two movements, and ask you to consider who you would prefer to see ruling the world.

God or Mammon?

On the one hand, let me present bottom-line accounting, out-of-control free-market capitalism, as championed by Wall Street bankers, multi-national corporations and the so-called mainstream media. Key elements of this ideology are: privatisation of state-owned enterprises, belt-tightening (especially for the middle and lower socio-economic classes), welfare cutbacks, labour-market flexibility and outsourcing of manufacturing to countries with lower wage costs. MBA management courses churn out white-colour clones who can manage any enterprise, without needing to know anything about the activity of the industry they are managing. Governments are hijacked by corporate and financial interests with no personal morality or patriotism whatsoever, whose only belief is in the power of money to buy whatever they want, and a philosophy, if you can call it that, based on a firm sense of personal entitlement to rape the planet of its resources and exploit its people wherever they may be. Reduced taxes for the wealthy are an important tool in economic management. Why should the tax-payer pay for schools, hospitals, post offices, railways, electricity supply, relief for the the unemployed and disadvantaged? The tax-payer’s money is needed to bail out the banks when they have finished milking ma and pa small investors, superannuation funds, poor borrowers – and there’s no one else in the capitalist system to defraud.

On the other hand, let’s postulate a group of people with a personal morality based on religious beliefs, and a philosophy founded on a concept of altruistic service to the community. A group of people who operate without the need for a centralised bureaucratic structure, their operations inspired by a teacher with a vision of a better world and directed by their own confidence in the truth of his message. A group of people who, in spite of their lofty ideals, do not divorce themselves from the real world, but rather work within it, using their knowledge, skills and resources to provide educational opportunities and support to young people in their communities.

In the end, I guess, life choices are never so simple. I don’t imagine you will get the opportunity to cast a vote directly for one or the other. But I like the sound of this:

Along the winding road to The Truth
A hero, all selfishness banished,
The key to the mystery of creation in his heart,
Weaves his way through time to reach his goal.

Moving ever upwards he breathes the air of eternity;
He has met with Khidr: he knows the way.
And to fellow wayfarers he gives the good news of dawn;
A message of hope in a night of choking darkness.

In his hands burns a torch; he spreads light everywhere
And he brightens the Way for all who would follow;
His ascent radiates peace and serenity;
His amber fragrance permeates every atom of creation.

Wherever he treads finds life and becomes green:
The hills and valleys, plains and mountains are all dressed in color:
And on every breeze is borne the perfume of spring;
Blossoms appear, flowers burst into life, trees are quickened.

His mind nurtured ever by eternity,
And everlasting melody flows from his lips:
All he sees is the richly colored tapestry of life to come,
The belief in which is part of his every being.

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