In the mid-1990s, Aygul attended one of the hundreds of “Gulen schools” that were established throughout Turkey by the unregistered network of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999 and is at the center of an extradition wrangle.
It began around two decades after Aygul’s Kurdish-Alevi family migrated to Ankara from a village in the eastern Turkish region of Tunceli. Southeastern and eastern Turkey are traditionally home to many of the country’s estimated 8 million to 10 million Alevis, a branch of Shi’ite Islam, and there are both ethnic Turkish and ethnic Kurdish Alevis.
Alevis differ from Sunnis and Shi’a in many ways, including the way they pray. They don’t pray five times a day. Their spiritual ceremonies are accompanied by music and folk songs. They attend neither mosques nor the hajj pilgrimage, as most Muslims do. Alevi women needn’t cover their heads and arms in public in the fundamentalist style. And drinking alcohol is not banned in the Alevi faith.
Aygul — whose name I’ve changed to protect her privacy — had been born in the Turkish capital and had grown up as something of an urban girl, maintaining her family’s Alevi faith but adopting Turkish as her first language.
Her father was employed as a “kapici,” or doorman, in charge of maintenance and cleaning in a building with multiple apartments. Her mother didn’t usually work but occasionally cleaned a few homes to augment the family budget.
“We started to send Aygul to one of Gulen’s schools when she was 15,” her father told me. “Why not? Those schools were very good at preparing students for college. They had excellent teachers. They were also very cheap, and we couldn’t afford other, expensive, good schools.”
Gulen, who was still in Turkey at the time, had a wide network of schools, foundations, charities, and media outlets, amounting to perhaps thousands of institutions with many thousands of employees. After first appearing in Turkey in the 1970s, the Gulen schools and universities had multiplied for decades and expanded abroad beginning in the 1980s.
The schools — which were said to have been funded by sympathetic businessmen and other, undisclosed sources — were part of Gulen’s stated effort to build a “golden generation,” one aggressively pursuing educations in the natural sciences and foreign languages and also committed to Islam and “Turkish national objectives.”
After a while, Aygul’s parents started to see changes in her behavior: wearing the Islamic head scarf, praying regularly, refusing handshakes with men. Her mother feared that her daughter was “being brainwashed in school as well as in those lengthy after-school hours.”
Newcomer students at universities, schools, and in private after-school tutoring courses under the auspices of the “Hoca Efendi” — or Master Teacher, as supporters referred to Gulen — had senior colleagues or occasionally “imams” to help and “guide” them. Senior brothers “abis” or sisters “ablas” were assigned to upper-school boys and girls, respectively. The Gulen movement rented thousands of apartments where such students gathered — girls and boys separately — for tutoring, guidance, and training in the sciences, English, ethics, and religion.
They were the “agents” of Gulen’s missionary and sectarian work launched in the 1970s.
Aygul’s father told me he liked Gulen’s school “as long as they provided my daughter with good and cheap lessons and ensured a university entrance and later a good job.” The latter was particularly attractive in Turkey, where national exams and oral interviews presented (and still present) major hurdles to admission to university or government service.
But Aygul’s mother rebeled after two years. As a result, her parents withdrew Aygul from the Gulen school and sent her to a regular public school and “regular” after-school tutoring to get additional support in the sciences and foreign languages and to prepare for university exams.
Nobody could have predicted at the time that some two decades later, in July 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would blame a failed coup attempt on Gulen and his purported sympathizers within Turkey’s army, courts, education system, and other government institutions, in addition to its private sector.
Since the failed coup, the government has closed down all public and private institutions identified by the government as “related to the Gulen terrorist organization.” That has included 15 universities and 934 schools and tutoring centers, as well as hospitals and clinics, foundations, associations, and businesses. Around 77,000 government employees — including army and police officers, judges, prosecutors and teachers — have been fired.
Aygul, meanwhile, is an optimistic and ambitious junior lawyer with a degree from an Ankara law school.
I asked Aygul about her feelings and whether she was pleased that she had left the Gulen school after two years.
“Yes,” she said, “especially after finding out that, as you know, they kept stealing the university and government employment exams’ questions to [elevate] their sympathizers in the government ladder.” She was referring to a scandal in 2010 in which so-called Gulenists in higher education and the government-placement bureaucracy were accused of providing other Gulen supporters access to exam questions in advance.
Aygul’s father chimed in, saying: “Not only illegal; it is also against any religion’s principles, while they claim to be the true faithful. … But what makes me angry is that Erdogan and Gulen were the right and left hands of the same body until 2013, supporting each other. Now one [Erdogan] is fighting a war against the other [Gulen], laying all the blame in the world on his former ally.”
When Erdogan’s AKP won Turkish parliamentary elections in 2002 and built a one-party government, it appeared to have enjoyed the active support of the Gulen movement. Such backing looks to have continued in the next elections and, in return, the movement and its activities were tolerated and even supported by the AKP government from its inception until 2013.
Beginning in 2010, however, Erdogan seemed to be distancing himself from the Gulen movement and purging government agencies of its supporters. Within three years, Erdogan appeared to have broken entirely with Gulenafter the emergence of a series of audio and video recordings — which the president suspected the Gulen movement of leaking — hinting at corruption in the AKP government and Erdogan’s inner circle.