TURKISH FETULLAH GULEN NETWORK'S PRESENCE IN AZERBAIJAN
2008 August 5
d (d). 1.
(C) Summary: The Fetullah Gulen network is one component of Azerbaijan's Islamic scene. The network's Turkish orientation and emphasis on establishing quality educational institutions has enabled it to establish a presence in Azerbaijan. "Chag Oyretim" ("Modern Education") -- a private Turkish company in Baku -- oversees one university (Khazar University) and at least twelve high schools in Azerbaijan.
The Gulenist network also has developed links to several Azerbaijani media outlets and a local Turkish business association. While the GOAJ generally is hostile to foreign Islamic influence, Fetullah Gulen representatives have negotiated a good relationship with GOAJ insiders, which appears grounded in the broader context of the close bilateral relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey and Chag Oyretim's ability to provide high quality educational opportunities. The GOAJ still appears to keep a watchful eye on the group's activities, however, particularly as the largely secular elite remains wary of organized Islamic influence in Azerbaijan.
End Summary. History and Background ----------------------
2. (C) Fetullah Gulen is a Turkish Islamic teacher who has written over sixty books. Gulen's thinking emphasizes the importance of a renaissance within the Muslim world, reconciling science and Islam, and promoting interreligious dialogue. Commentators often refer to the "Gulen movement" because Gulen's thinking has spurred the creation of approximately 500 schools throughout diverse portions of the globe, including the United States, Africa, Latin America, Europe, Turkey, and Central Asia.
Gulen has a considerable support base among Turkish businessmen, but Gulen has lived in the U.S. since 1998. Gulen's thinking is rooted in the teachings of nineteenth century Turkish theologian Said Nursi. After Nursi's death in 1960, there were several divisions among his followers, and Fetullah Gulen emerged as the most prominent disciple. Given the linkage between Nursi and Gulen, some commentators refer to Gulen followers as "Nurcus." Gulenists do not refer themselves as Nurcus, however, as there are some theological disputes between the teachings of Gulen and Nursi.
3. (C) In the Azerbaijani context, local Islamic expert Nariman Gasimoglu told us Gulenist influence is not a monolithic or institutional whole. According to Gasimoglu and other contacts, Gulen's teachings represent a broad philosophic orientation, rather than a coherent organization or strict theological creed. It's All About Education ------------------------
4. (C) Gulenist influence in Azerbaijan primarily is felt through its schools, according to local commentators. The private Turkish company "Chag Oyretim" ("Modern Education"), which has been operating in Azerbaijan since 1992, oversees one university (Khazar University) and at least twelve high schools in Baku and several regions. The schools have a strong emphasis on math and science. The curriculum includes ethics and/or philosophy courses, but there are no theology courses.
The vast majority of Azerbaijani students attend Gulenist-affiliated schools not out of a religious motivation, but because they provide a better quality education than most local public schools, according to local commentators. Based on Embassy visa interviews and conversations with local commentators, the demographic of students attending these schools is gradually expanding from children of the secular, ruling elite to children of the upper-middle class who are seeking a good quality education.
5. (C) In addition to educational institutions, several Azerbaijani media outlets have Gulenist links -- including Khazar television station, Khazar Radio, Zaman newspaper, and BURJ FM radio station -- according to local religious expert Elshad Miri and Agil Khajiyev, a former employee at the State Committee on Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA). Miri told the Embassy that Gulenists also work closely with the Azerbaijan International Society of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSIAB), an organization that seeks to enhance Turkish businesses in Azerbaijan. The precise nature of these reported Gulenist links remains murky, however. Local contacts and scholarly works about the Gulenists often observe that Turkish businessmen are important backers of the movement, but the specifics are unknown. Good Relations with the GOAJ ----------------------------
6. (C) In general, the GOAJ seeks to prevent the activities of foreign Islamic missionaries in Azerbaijan, particularly Salafi activists from the Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabian Wahhabis, and Iranian Shias. In the politically chaotic period of the early 1990s, the GOAJ had little control over foreign missionaries and many GOAJ insiders favored the presence of Turkish missionaries as a counterweight to missionaries from the Gulf state and Iran, according to Baku State University professor and Islamic expert Altay Geyushev.
In this context -- and against the broader backdrop of the close bilateral relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey -- the Fetullah Gulen network gained a presence in Azerbaijan. The Gulenists were not the only Turkish-oriented group that gained access to Azerbaijan, but it was one of the best organized. Geyushev and other local contacts also speculate that Chag Oyretim likely paid or continues to pay unofficial "operational fees" to GOAJ insiders to keep relations on a good footing.
7. (C) Government insiders' willingness to send their children to Chag Oyretim schools is a key indicator of the Gulenists' ability to establish and maintain warm relations with the GOAJ. According to Miri, Presidential Administration Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev's grandchildren go to a Chag Oyretim school, along with several other Presidential Administration officials' children. Another name that often comes up in conversations on links between the Gulenists and GOAJ officials is Elnur Aslanov, Chief of the Presidential Administration's Political Analysis Department.
Aslanov is a younger face at the Apparat, whose stock appears to be rising and who reports directly to Mehdiyev. The willingness of senior GOAJ officials, who tend to be extremely secular in their outlook, to send their children to these schools strongly suggests the GOAJ is not afraid that Fetullah Gulen schools are a Trojan horse for Islamicizing Azerbaijan's youth. Former SCWRA employee Agil Khajiyev also told us that SCWRA chief Hidayat Orujov has very warm personal relations with Chag Oyretim officials.
8. (C) While Azerbaijani elites appear comfortable with Chag Oyretim's secular education efforts, the GOAJ still keeps a watchful eye on the movement's activities and goals in Azerbaijan. For example, Kafkaz University's theology department was closed in the 2001-2002 timeframe, while Azerbaijani authorities allowed the theology department at Baku State University to continue functioning.
According to Geyushev, the decision to close the theology department at Kafkaz, but not at Baku State University, reflects a roader distinction the GOAJ has toward the activties of the Gulenist network and the official Tukish State Religious entity (Diyanat). Geyushevnoted that particularly before the Turkish Justice and Development (AKP) party came to power in 2002, the GOAJ drew a tight distinction between the Gulenist movement and the Diyanat, with Baku being much more comfortable with the Diyanat. While the GOAJ still perceives a distinction between the Gulenists and the Diyanat (Religious Affairs Directorate), some GOAJ insiders are increasingly suspicious of the Gulenists and the Diyanat -- perceiving that there may be more Gulenist influence shaping the Diyanat. (The imams at ten mosques in Azerbaijan are on loan from the Diyanat and the majority of the literature at Baku State University's theology department is from the Turkish government authority, according to Khajiyev.)
9. (C) Local contacts report that since AKP came to power in Turkey, some GOAJ insiders increasingly are wary of Fetullah Gulen's activities. Geyushev told us that in late 2006, there was a policy debate within the GOAJ about the pros/cons of clamping down on the Fetullah Gulen network. Some key Azerbaijani elites -- including Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade and the Ministry of National Security -- favored clamping down on the Fetullah Gulen movement as part of a broader anti-Sunni campaign, but Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan intervened on behalf of Chag Oyretim during a meeting with President Aliyev. Geyushev argues the Chag Oyretim schools' continued ability to function is closely linked to domestic Turkish politics, namely the AKP's ability to stay in power. There are also are periodic arrests of alleged Turkish missionaries, although the Embassy does not know if these individuals are linked to the Fetullah Gulen network. Comment -------
10. (C) There is considerable debate whether the Gulen movement represents a threat to secular governments. Skeptics argue the Gulenists seek to transform societies from the inside-out by developing sympathetic elites in a country's government and business circles. Proponents argue the Fetullah Gulen movement is a moderate, mainstream phenomenon, pointing to Fetullah Gulen's teachings on reconciling religion and science and the need for religious dialogue as evidence. The Embassy has no direct derogatory information on the movement's goals, although Gulenists' penchant for secrecy raises questions. For example, Gulenists seeking U.S. visas at the Embassy often are evasive about their religious views and their work-related duties in the U.S.
(NOTE: Many U.S. visa applicants at the Embassy seek to work at Gulenist-linked schools in the U.S.) Gulenists also organize "lighthouses," which serve as low-cost housing options for university students in Baku. We have met with one Azerbaijani who stayed at one of these lighthouses in Baku and eventually left because the organizers reportedly sought to control his personal life, including forbidding him to marry his intended fiancee.