It requires an ongoing effort to even minimally understand the Gulen movement, the secretive and controversial religious group which operates the largest charter school network
in the United States. Details about this group's structure, recruitment and control of members, were recently presented by Fuad Aliyev in “The Gulen Movement in Azerbaijan”
(12/27/2012). His article appeared in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, a publication of the Hudson Institute
’s Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. Aliyev is a Fulbright Scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Azerbaijanis the largest country in the Caucasus, a geopolitical region at the border of Europe and Asia[see maps below]. It has enormous energy reserves, including one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, the Shah Deniz II. Only discovered in 1999, this field will be the origin point for the Nabucco gas pipeline, a project being planned that will bring the first gas ever from the Caspian Sea basin to Europe, via Turkey.Construction has not yet commenced, but if built, the Nabucco pipeline
will be one of the largest engineering projects
in the world. Some estimates say it will be operational by 2017. The Nabucco will join the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean, a project that was first proposed in 1992 and completed in 2005.The Gulen movementopened its first school inAzerbaijan in 1992. This was firstschool it opened outside of Turkey (see this article
about its 20th anniversary from a Gulenist news source).The movement had expanded intoAzerbaijanimmediately after independence was attained in 1991 as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As Aliyev wrote, “Since the arrival of the [Gulen movement] in Azerbaijan, it has made a targeted effort to recruit the children of the country’s elite into their education institutions.” It has beenreported
that the offspring of many influential Azerbaijani officials are attending these schools.Given the timing and other indicators, something to ponder is if interests in these newish energy sources in which Turkey is an integral player might have some bearing on our government’s unique relationship with Fethullah Gulen and his increasingly powerful group of intensely business-oriented followers. Is this somehow tied to thegenerous funding
continually being provided to the Gulen movement for itscharter school expansion? Is it tied tothe strange silence fromUS Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other members of our government about the fact that a secretive and controversial religious group from a foreign country is operating so many charter schools (none in 1998, two in 1999, and now 135)? Is our government enabling the Gulen charter school expansion as some sort of quid pro quo? There is an enormous amount of information which should be presented to the American public so that this large subject can be opened up for a much wider level of discussion.Excerpts from “The Gulen Movement in Azerbaijan” (12/27/2012).Of all the Sunni movements in Azerbaijan, the most influential is the Turkish Nurcular network that is now led by its dominant offshoot known widely as the “Gülen” or “Hizmet” movement. Named for its founder, the Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, the movement is a faith-based educational network that is enormously well-resourced and highly active internationally, especially in the Turkic world that stretches from Turkey into Central Asia...In Azerbaijan, the Gülen movement has succeeded in reaching out to a diverse population, but especially to urban elites. It is different from other Islamic movements in that it promotes its religious teachings not through outright proselytization, but discreetly through its network of secular educational institutions, social media and business associations...... According to various experts, what makes the Gülen movement different from other Nurcular movements is its clear hierarchical structure, its strict internal discipline, the secrecy of its laws, its openness to capitalism and avowedly pro-business stance, and its focus on working through media associations and businesses to develop the movement...In Turkey, the Gülen movement, as with some other Nurcu movements, is a well-structured, hierarchical organization... Students are recruited and controlled at a local level by Nurcu abis (brothers) and by ablas (sisters). According to former members of this network, the movement possesses its own security service that is tasked with rooting out moles and agents of national intelligence and law enforcement services. The movement keeps a database of all its members, and the training of each new recruit emphasizes the need to exercise discretion in revealing their involvement with the Gülen network. Students are additionally instructed to respect and obey the network’s leadership...The secrecy surrounding the movement has aroused considerable suspicion about its activities and ultimate goals. According to Mikhail Davidov, the movement’s underground network operates as a sort of intelligence service that collects information on political, economic, confessional and other dynamics in the Turkic-speaking regions and countries where the movement is seeking to spread its influence. Moreover, it has been claimed that the Gülen network works surreptitiously to infiltrate communities and the governments of Turkey and the [Commonwealth of Independent States] and promote its adherents to positions of power and influence. Because of these and connected fears, the movement has been banned in Russia and Uzbekistan by notoriously anti-Islamic authorities who see it as a subversive threat. Other Central Asian regimes have also been extremely wary of the Hizmet presence. Azerbaijan, by contrast, has always been more open to the movement, and it is in this post-Soviet country where the network has arguably had its greatest success and impact to date...It should be noted that the movement’s media outlets are not explicitly religious. In fact, it is difficult to tell the difference between them and other secular media with an unaided eye...The network in any given country is usually divided into three tiers or groups. The first group includes people who are closest to Gülen and the immediate circle of his most trusted and loyal followers. The second group includes those who work directly for the movement to achieve its larger objectives. The third group includes mainly sympathizers of the movement and they largely consist of journalists, business people, public officials, alumni of Hizmet schools, and friends. While this third grouping is not always formally a part of the network, the network does often mobilize it to pursue various ends...Since the arrival of the group in Azerbaijan, it has made a targeted effort to recruit the children of the country’s elite into their education institutions. It has also sought to involve young individuals who are likely to become the country’s future technocratic, business and political elite; they reportedly have enjoyed many successes in doing this...The secularist Azerbaijani media has fiercely criticized the Nurcu network for brainwashing youth. From time to time, the media will feature the “confessions” of former Gülen members that expose what life is like within the movement. The programs show how young people are recruited, manipulated and then subjected to the strict control of abis or ablas. According to various reports, the movement has tried to bring youngsters studying in their schools into the ishik evi or yurd houses, which are large communal apartments capable of accommodating more than fifteen students and 3 to 4 abis or ablas. In these houses, the elder brothers and sisters teach lessons on the fundamentals of Islam and the works of Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen. Distinguished students get promoted to the level of agabeys, or elder brothers, and they are then expected to recruit other young people. In exchange for their obedience and commitment to the movement, media reports indicate that the students have all their financial and career problems solved. The network pays for their education, provides them with housing, and helps to find them a job in Gülen-affiliated companies or in un-affiliated companies where network members are present...... In the public’s view, the question of whether the movement seeks integration with Azeri society or to transform from within according to a Turkish-Islamist agenda remains largely unanswered. Given the movement’s historical flexibility and its extensive organizational structure in Azerbaijan, it could at least in principle and for the time being seek both ends.