Spreading the word
On our last day in Istanbul, we learned more about the Gülen movement’s efficient – and expensive – mechanism for bringing visitors to Turkey. From humble beginnings just four years ago, the non-profit organization Bakiad has grown to the point where last year it coordinated the visits of 250 groups, totaling about 3,000 people, most of them from the U.S. and Canada. The number this year will be higher than that.
Why do they do it and how do they do it, I wondered? Is there some hidden agenda or is it really a pure form of altruism, as one member of our group put it? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. I don’t think any hidden agenda exists – no desire to transform Turkey into an Islamic state with Fethullah Gülen as its Ayatollah Khomeini.
I’ve decided that to understand what’s going on here, you have to ponder Turkey’s current place in the world. It wouldn’t make much sense for a group, say, of North American evangelicals to start bringing delegations of foreigners over to see how the church fits into the life of the nation.
But Turkey is in such a dynamic position at this moment in time, and its fanatically secular government, which by and large (with major exceptions) served the mainstream population well from independence into the late 20th century, has so outlived its usefulness that I’m guessing Gülen and his followers sense a moment of great opportunity. They may not even know exactly why they are doing what they’re doing, but sponsoring delegations certainly builds goodwill.
It has been hard for me to wrap my mind around Turkish realities, and I’m sure I haven’t succeeded after only a 10-day crash course. But what appears to be happening is that the secular elite has become more of a drag on progress, in other words less progressive, than people who in the past might have made us nervous. By this I mean devout Muslims, who in the Turkish context see a liberal democracy as essential to moving Turkey forward economically and politically.
As Americans, our instincts are to side with secularists. But in Turkey, they have become repressive. It strikes me as absurd to prohibit women in universities from wearing head scarves, or practicing Muslims from serving in the military. Of course we’d all hate to see Turkey become like Iran, or even like Pakistan, where friends of the Taliban occupy important positions within the military structure. But that seems much less of a threat in Turkey than elsewhere.
We had dinner last night in the home of Hussein Deveci, a retired army colonel. It was the most relaxed, genuine, family-feeling event of the entire trip. When his children were young, Deveci learned about Gülen schools and their stellar academic record. Deveci is a guy with a gruff exterior that’s about a millimeter deep. Underneath he’s a big softy, and a wonderful family man. He decided that if the Gülen schools were the best, and he wanted the best for his children, then that is where he wanted them to go.
So he enrolled his two sons and daughter in Gülen schools. But he had to do so surreptitiously, because the military brass would have been shocked an appalled. The Gülen schools we visited follow the national curriculum, but intensify it. These are not madrassas. There are no religious education classes other than those required by the state.
But to the military brass, sending your children to a Gülen school would demonstrate a disturbing lack of commitment to the secular ideals of Kemal Atatürk. And in Turkey, and especially within the military, that’s a mortal sin.
Deveci retired eight years ago, in his late 40s, when it became clear that he would never become a general. Was his willingness to buck the status quo, even secretly, part of the reason? I’ll never know. But since retiring, he has become more active in the movement. His wife wears a head scarf, a major no-no in military circles.
But I digress. Lack of sleep will do that. Back to Bakiat and its sponsorship of delegations from the U.S. and Canada. According to Ahmed Dastan, the organization’s assistant secretary general, Bakiat has to raise millions of dollars each year to fund the delegations. Wealthy business sympathetic to Gülen put up the lion’s share of the money.
I have not been able to get any hard numbers from anyone, which I find curious. The Gülen movement people protest almost too much that there is no central organization, and so a strict accounting is almost impossible.
But Dastan did say that last year, Bakiat spent about $1 million flying delegations to various points within Turkey on Turkish Airlines alone. Considering that we took three flights within Turkey, and none of them was on Turkish Airlines, the figure must be a lot higher than $1 million.
Add on hotel rooms, meals, rented mini-buses, hired guides at historic sites and other miscellaneous cost and the mind begins to boggle.
I asked Dastan if the major donors want some kind of tangible return on their investment. He said that so far, the answer is no. “These visits create a chemistry of friendship, and our donors see this a very important. They are happy to see the growth in the number of visitors as well.
Is this sustainable? At what point will the donors decide the visits should stop increasing in numbers and frequency? I guess we’ll find out as time goes on. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.
Yesterday, I finally figured out who the Gülen people most closely resemble. It’s the Mennonites. Devout, socially conservative, and deeply committed to social justice. I’ve long admired the Mennonites for their urban ministries. I once wrote a story for The Denver Post about a group of Mennonites in the Wet Mountain Valley who devoted themselves to raising the children born to incarcerated women.
The Mennonites never draw attention o themselves and their good works. The Gülen movement people have decided to start seeking recognition, and in a big way. Other than that, the similarities are striking.