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Gulen Inspired Schools: Glocal Schools serving with Integrity and Sincerity

Some say they are the best schools around, and some say they can’t be that good without support from global powers. Some say they serve for global peace, and some other say: “Don’t be naive they must have a hidden agenda”.  I will not get into questions like “water of the mill” as they have been addressed previously. The main question I am going after is, what are really Gulen Inspired Schools? What makes them standout? How can you distinguish a Gulen Inspired School from any other public or community school?

As a parent and educator somewhat involved with several of such schools, unfortunately I do not have a short answer to the above questions. I wish I could summarize my thoughts in two sentences, as Jay Matthews of the Washington Post did for KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, and say “Work Hard. Be Nice”. I really worked hard, but I could not come up with a nice motto like that.  Then I looked at the teaching methods or the curriculum at these schools in order to come up with a set of principles that constitute the design of Gulen Inspired Schools. That did not work out well either, as most schools implement the same curriculum or the standards based teaching methodologies used in the nearby public schools, and if you ask the people involved, they all have their own perspectives. Fortunately, my short analysis helped me to identify the following common three pillars or letters of Gulen Inspired Schools. By no means is it an exclusive list; you could come with your own three or increase them to five or seven, or even reduce it to one common basic principle, but  I will summarize my findings on Gulen Inspired Schools in three letters: G-I-S.

The first pillar or letter: G

Well let’s start with what “G” is not.  First of all it does not stand for Gulen, as Fethullah Gulen himself denounces indentifying these schools with his name. There are two aspects of this disapproval: one his modesty about his inspiration and motivation of ordinary people for very high expectation and achievements, and second is, he is not directly involved with any of these schools except one or two he visited in Turkey.  Fethullah Gulen does not know most of the people establishing schools related with his name, or have not met any of the administrators or teachers that are working at those schools.  Considering the number of schools in over hundred different countries, it is practically impossible for Gulen to know the educators running these schools or the entrepreneurs that have established them.

Fethullah Gulen  is a Turkish scholar and preacher that have always emphasized the role of education in man’s life. This fact does not only stand out in his writings, but also his actions and teachings as well. Gulen himself is an educator that has taught and researched the foundations Turkish Islamic faith and culture. In his writings Gulen provides his own interpretations that are innovative yet compatible with the classical and traditional methods of Quran and the life and teachings of the messenger Mohammad (PBUH).  Most of Fethullah Gulen’s work is about addressing the problems of the modern society, and looking for solutions from the well established and researched principles of the tradition. Gulen’s ideas and even the movement he has inspired pursue the solutions to the three major problems of the society: Ignorance, Poverty and Disunity. Mr Thomas Michel, former Ecumenical Secretary at Asia Desk of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, categorizes the organizations related to Gulen movement according to the three problems they address : The schools are established to overcome the ignorance and illiteracy, whereas charity organizations are set to reach out to needy people in the poor neighborhoods or disaster areas, and interfaith and intercultural centers are set to promote dialogue among people from different walks of life. One might argue that education, charity and dialogue are the basic principles of citizenship, hence every concerned citizen would contribute for such purposes. That is exactly the point why Gulen disapproves naming the institutions established for education, charity or dialogue as Gulen Institutions or Gulen Movement in its entirety.

So if G does not stand for Gulen, what does it represent? I would say Glocalization.  In his approach to education, Fethullah Gulen integrates modern methods and fields to the traditional ways and areas of study. He equally emphasizes the teaching of moral values and modern sciences, and quotes Einstein in his various writings as “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  He actually extends this approach into a method of education addressing both the heart and mind at the same time. So when you look at a Gulen Inspired School you would immediately recognize a modern curriculum integrated with extracurricular activities focusing on global social skills and ethical values. The common language used in all schools is English, that is, almost all subject areas are taught in English. The educators do not only teach basic math, science and technology, but go the extra mile, and help students to attend international math-science fairs and competitions. Most students at Gulen Inspired Schools are decorated with medals from International Science and Technology Olympiads.

If you dig a little further, you will also recognize that these students are well versed in their own culture, and they have managed to harmonize the global modern values with their local cultural traditions. The parents testify that their children attending a Gulen Inspired School did not only earn medal in international Olympiads but also became more engaged with their family and more respectful for their elders in the community. It does not end there: When these students graduate, they follow their teachers in traveling and switching homes to distant cities and countries, and teach the same values customized and adjusted to these new communities. Hence, the letter “G” for Glocalization.

The second pillar or letter: I

As “G” does not represent Gulen, “I” does not represent Islam or Inspiration either.  Gulen Inspired Schools are not missionary schools. A quick analysis will show that these schools are neither “Islamic Schools” nor have any Islamic Sciences included in the curriculum.  Of course conspiring minds will not get satisfied with this observation.  Well then, they should dig more and look at the actual demographics of these schools. Because another quick analysis will show that, at any given school there are many students from various ethno-religious groups, sometimes attending those schools despite the ethnical or religious conflicts in their neighborhoods.

Gulen Inspired Schools are mostly defined as “Peace Islands” as they provide a safe harbor for children from all walks of life, and also following Gulen’s example, the schools promote respect for other cultures and thoughts of life. Throughout their education students learn to appreciate other faiths and cultures as well as their own. Fethullah Gulen is also known as neo-Rumi, as he promotes opening one’s mind and heart to all beliefs and cultures and have a seat in their heart for any person no matter what the other’s background is. Rumi  is quoted as “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.” Gulen goes beyond that and encourages everyone to reach out to the other, that is, even if they do not come to you, you take the first step, go to others and establish a medium of dialogue.  Following the examples of Rumi and Gulen, Gulen Inspired Schools establish bridges or “peace islands” closing the gap among various nations and civilizations.

Getting back to the “I” in G-I-S again, I believe, “I” stands for “integrity”, both in the meaning of moral soundness, and also an undivided or unbroken completeness or totality with nothing wanting.  Being a holistic concept, Gulen Inspired Schools’ holistic approach to education, can be depicted best by “integrity”, as these schools do integrate the modern sciences and technology with the traditional wisdom. Educators at these schools utilize both the modern concepts and traditional methods together in order to educate the whole-child. The curriculum is designed around the state-of-the-art technology and sciences whereas the extracurricular activities expose the children to global ethical and moral values. Moreover the students learn respecting the local culture and values of their own as well as the other cultures and faiths. In the long-term, they learn not to only coexist but also to co-work and collaborate together for the common good of entire humanity.

Moreover, the students develop strong moral values by avoiding from bad habits and corruption with the help of guidance and character education provided at these schools. The students are exposed to high expectations from very early grades, so that by their graduation, they all do become exemplary citizens in their own communities. Hence the ultimate goal of every Gulen Inspired School and every student at each of these schools is integrity, that is, to overcome the challenges of ignorance and prejudice through a quality education integrating the best practices of the past and the present.

The third pillar or letter: S

I guess the most striking pillar in Gulen Inspired Schools is this third one: Sincerity.  However one should not read this the other way around, that is, it does not mean other educators or other schools are insincere or pretentious. It is just that, sincerity stands out as the most distinguishing attribute of anyone involved Gulen Inspired schools.

At first, the motivation of the entrepreneurs establishing these schools can best be articulated by the concept of sincerity, as they are not pursuing any missionary goals or any hidden agenda, but only actualizing the basic principles of charity and reaching out to others. In “The Gulen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam” , Helen Rose Ebaugh, studies the Turkish-Islamic Culture of Giving, and concludes that the Gulen Movement is a revival of Turkish-Islamic Philanthropy.  Most of the Gulen Inspired Schools are run by non-profit organizations supported by donations from decent, honest, hard working businessmen. They could invest their money in many other ways that could earn them much more profit in very short time, but they prefer to donate all that to these schools without any business or profit expectations.  What would you call this, if not sincerity?

Secondly, parents and children are choosing Gulen Inspired School despite the not-so-minimal tuitions and limited seats available per grades. The admission rates at some locations go below one in hundred due to the high demand. Almost all the schools require a higher level of engagement from parents than other public or community schools. Students are also aware of the work load and high expectation they will be held at these schools. It takes parents and children a much more extra effort and time to regularly commit to a Gulen Inspired school. Despite of all these challenges, they to choose these schools; a decision that requires significant sincerity on their side!

Thirdly, the commitment of the teachers working at these schools can also be best articulated with the concept of sincerity, as you cannot explain such devotion in terms of any materialized measures.  Most teachers travel to far distant countries and cities, some to places that they have never even heard of. Some work in very poor conditions on minimal wage. Some do have the appropriate facilities but not all. But they all do volunteer in after hours and help with extracurricular activities, and none give up due to any of the obstacles that come with this territory. Some have switched careers to education from engineering or social sciences, so they continue on learning new methods and ways to improve their teaching. Finally, they all enjoy going the extra mile for students, and visiting parents and families at their homes, providing one-on-one tutoring.  Why do they do all this? For a few extra bucks they will never get? I seriously doubt it. Again the best term to articulate this is sincerity.

Last but not least, when you objectively evaluate the facilities, the staff, the administration of these schools, you might find out that they might not be your favorite. I mean these schools could have average teachers or not-so-perfect administrators or facilities lacking labs and libraries. There is no specifically-designed curriculum or agreed-on teaching methods described for Gulen Inspired Schools. But overall they all are successful, and most of the time, despite the lack of mentioned factors.  All these different people with different backgrounds at different parts of the world, and there is still very high demand for these schools. What brings all this success? Once again, I know no other term than the sincerity of people involved in the common good.

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