Once students of Gülenist schools now regretful

AYŞE ŞAHIN
ISTANBUL
Published 05.08.2016 01:09
Once students of Gülenist schools now regretful

If there is one feeling common among non-Gülenist students who once studied at educational institutes linked to the movement, it is regret. Coming from different backgrounds, some of them share how they feel about having graduated from these schools and what their thoughts are in the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup attempt

Some were not entirely numb to the Gülen Movement's shadiness and sensed the irregularities in their practices earlier than others. They had reservations about the morality of their methods and modus operandi, hence opted to keep their distance. Some, on the other hand, were thinking highly of the movement's objective and efforts to promulgate a moderate understanding of Islam across the world, thus remained a sympathizer for a longer time than others. There were also those who had nothing to do with the movement ideologically, but were interested in its ability to prepare the students for the university admission exams. Chasing success in the fateful exams, even non-Muslim students were drawn to it.

These students, who once studied at Gülenist schools and had a chance to observe its members from close, now express a common feeling: Remorse for choosing them.


Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ).

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt, with all signs indicating that it was planned and conducted by Gülenists in the military, the students who graduated from Fatih University - an affiliation of the Gülen Movement - launched an online campaign demanding the revision of their diplomas, with a petition to be sent to the Prime Ministry and Higher Education Board (YÖK).

The petition states, "We, the downtrodden students, who graduated from Fatih University, which is affiliated with the Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ), do not want to see the signature of a terrorist organization on our diplomas. Although we have no connection with the terrorist organization, we feel unsettled to have completed our education at this institution," defining the signature on their diplomas as a "stain."

Bahar Şerefoğlu, a 2010 graduate of the university says: "I chose to do my degree at Fatih University counting on its competence in education. I'm not even from a conservative background. But seeing everything that is happening, I totally regret my choice."

The Gülen Movement, which was initially founded as a humble education-centric religious organization, grew throughout the years into a vast network of schools, universities, hospitals, bank offices and media outlets. What was once perceived as a well-intentioned charity organization

began to fall from grace after the Dec. 17 operation - an attempt to topple the government through judicial means - and has since been implicated in dozens of offenses ranging from illegal wiretapping activities to spying. The latest in a series of accusations the movement is facing - and obviously the most serious one - is a bloody coup attempt that killed hundreds of people on the night of July 15. According to evidence collected thus far, the thwarted coup attempt was orchestrated by Gülenists who infiltrated the army to overthrow the government. The statements of the soldiers under arrest for complicity in the attempt also underpin the accusations.

Although the gravity of crimes with which the movement was allegedly associated continued to swell even before the failed coup attempt, very few students had imagined they could go this far.

"There were many things I did not approve of about the movement and things that I found dubious. As more of their offenses became public I edged away from them. But taking up arms and killing people? Could I see that coming? Absolutely not," says Feyza Ermiş, 29, another student who went to private Safiye Sultan High School and a prep school linked with the Gülen Movement.

The movement is now officially defined as a terrorist organization with a current mass struggle against Gülenists to weed them out of state institutions. Now, as part of these efforts, any donation to the group amounts to financing terrorists, any vocal positive view is considered propaganda of terrorism and being a follower of the movement means membership to a terrorist organization.

But things were not always so. The movement once had an immense clout both politically and socially. It could easily drum up sympathy, notably from religious circles, with its purported aim to convey Islamic teachings across the ends of the world. The movement, to this end, opened hundreds of schools in almost every continent, from Africa to the U.S., and assigned thousands of volunteering tutors dedicated to its so called aim. And this, to many, seemed appealing if not admirable.

It also had considerable political power. Not so much to play a king-maker role in Turkish politics, but enough to draw some politicians to its side since the end of the

1970s. Some political figures sought its support and explicitly supported it back, aware of its influence both at home and in the international sphere.

But the magnitude of its network and its financial strength comprised only a minor part of its domain of influence. It achieved key power through education, namely through subservient judges, police officers, teachers, professors and members of the military. The movement is believed to have trained hundreds of thousands of youth to reach a competency to be placed in specific positions in key governmental bodies.

Behiye Özdemir, who spent three years at their school and was also a boarding student at a Gülenist institution, says, "They targeted children who came from poor families. By granting students scholarships and extending a helping hand to their families, Gülenist teachers obliged students to make choices in compliance with their demands. Such that they would say, 'You will study law, you will be a teacher,' et cetera. These students felt they owed gratitude toward these teachers for helping them to get into a proper university. I guess it is this feeling of gratitude that lies under members' blind devotion."

Özdemir adds, "As for the others - average students like myself - we were only a source of income for them."

Another graduate from a Gülenist school, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, "The Gülenist teachers justified their efforts to prepare students to be placed in key institutions in the government by asking their students a rhetorical question: 'Would you not prefer judges, prosecutors, professors and members of the military to be religious?'"

Such efforts to place Gülenist students in high ranking positions started to lead to significant contradiction between the two apparent objectives of the movement. On one side, members of the movement were in pursuit of fulfilling the obligations of Islam and conveying how to be a good Muslim, while on the other, they saw no harm in violating the must-dos of the religion to achieve their political aims. It is now common knowledge that Gülenists, by concealing their connection to the movement and their religious background, could seep into even the military, the most secular structure of the Republic. Rumor has it that in order to camouflage their identity they consumed alcohol - an act considered sinful according to the Islamic faith - with other members of the military, stopped observing their five-times-a-day compulsory prayers and their wives removed their headscarves - another compulsory practice required to be observed by Muslim women.

Sociologist Hatice Yalçın, 30, who spent four years at a Gülenist school, says she witnessed how "concessions were made in the pretense of conveying religious beliefs" and how Gülenists lied in the name of "holy causes." She says, "I saw how my teachers were exploited down the line in the most capitalistic ways. I saw how the movement's sole aim was economic gains, how they acted like cash-machines. I was only 13 when I saw all this. I was fortunate to sense the irregularities of the movement at such an early age and formed no bond with them ever since."

Yasin Şahin, born and raised in Australia, says his parents had chosen to send him to the Gülen-affiliated Sirius College in Melbourne, formerly known as Işık College, not only because it was a private school, but because it was within a Turkish community. Şahin says, "I always found it weird that religious studies teachers would visit selected students' houses. And then they would deliberate between each other and select students that fit their criteria to be part of a sohbet [talk] group they call pastoral care. Once those students get to years 11 and 12 and have learnt everything about their religion from Fethullah Gülen's sohbets and books, they are then promoted to becoming an 'abi' [brother] or 'abla' [sister]," and adds that he has no doubts that Gülenists are behind the failed coup attempt.

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