TURKISH GULENIST MOVEMENT IN TURKMENISTAN:
EDUCATORS AND WHAT ELSE?
2009 April 17, 12:57 (Friday)
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Turkish-run schools in Turkmenistan have been surprisingly successful since their start in 1993. The schools, which include language centers, high schools and a university, are loosely linked by their affiliation with the Beshkent Educational Firm, which is the financial organization of the Fetullah Gulen Islamic Movement in Turkmenistan. The schools produce some of the best-qualified students in the country, and fill a sorely missing need in Turkmenistan,s educational system.
The school administrators in Turkmenistan emphasize Gulen,s educational philosophies of promoting dialogue among cultures and emphasizing science and technology as a way for Islam to progress into the modern world. While the schools seem to be doing much good for Turkmenistan, there are concerns that Gulenist charter schools in the U.S. are capitalizing on the local successes to petition for visas for marginally qualified temporary workers. Even so, it may be worth exploring partnerships with these schools as a way to reach some of Turkmenistan,s future leaders.
END SUMMARY. OVERVIEW
2. (U) Turkish Gulenist-affiliated educational institutions are spread throughout Turkmenistan. Beshkent Language and Computer Centers currently have a presence in 8 different cities, with plans to expand soon, and reach upwards of 3000 students with the English language courses alone. Boys, and girls, Turkmen-Turkish high schools are in each of the provincial capitals, and Ashgabat hosts the locally prestigious Turkmen-Turkish University.
Rather than operating as a cohesive, interconnected network, each institution operates largely on its own, and is connected to the others by the overarching educational philosophy of Fetullah Gulen, the movement,s eponymous founder, and the financial support they get through the Beshkent Educational Firm, which is the Gulen movement,s financial organization in Turkmenistan. This firm collects donations from Turks resident in Turkmenistan (as well as possibly from Gulenist adherents in Turkey) and disburses those funds to help support the educational activities of the movement.
3. (SBU) These schools have been operating in Turkmnistan since about 1993, concurrent with the arrival in Turkmenistan of Muammer Turkyilmaz, a Turkish national and self-described &close friend8 of Fetullah Gulen. Turkyilmaz became a Deputy Minister of Education under President Niyazov, and was reappointed by the current President Berdimuhammedov, specifically in appreciation for his work in Turkmenistan. Turkyilmaz seems to provide top cover for the educational operation, and provides the vital personal interface between the schools collectively and the Government of Turkmenistan. Without him, it is unlikely that the schools would have survived long under Niyazov.
4. (SBU) The education centers, schools and university are in high demand because they provide a much higher quality of education than that offered by Turkmenistan,s educational system. All three shifts of the English language courses at the Beshkent centers are always oversubscribed, and entrance into the schools and University are highly competitive. According to an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University who taught in the Turkmen-Turkish University and has extensively researched the Gulenist movement in Turkmenistan and Central Asia, parents want their children to have an education at least at the Soviet level, if not better. After Niyazov,s educational &reforms,8 which gutted the Soviet structures and incorporated his "holy book," the Ruhnama into every subject, Gulenist schools represent the only option to Turkmen parents, in spite of some reservations about the pervasiveness of Islamic behavior modeled in the school and the relatively high cost.
COMPUTER AND LANGUAGE CENTERS--AND CIVIL SOCIETY INCUBATORS?
5. (U) The Beshkent Computer and Language centers offer ASHGABAT 00000491 002 OF 004 classes in Turkish and English languages and various computer programs, to include Microsoft products, AutoCad and others. English courses are the most popular by far, with full classes at each of the five levels over three shifts during the day. As part of the agreement with the Turkmen government to operate the centers, all teachers must be fully qualified in their field, which often means they have graduated from a Gulenist school in Turkmenistan and completed studies in Turkey.
6. (SBU) Another service that the language centers offer is a place for young Turkmen to gather and interact with their peers outside of highly-structured official school venues. The centers have expanded over the years to encompass well-appointed classrooms, administrative offices (at least in Ashgabat) and rooms for social gatherings. During a recent visit, a Beshkent center located next to the Embassy was advertising an upcoming chess tournament as well as other social events. These events are apparently open to any and all comers, not just those who are enrolled in Beshkent courses. Clement highlights the role these centers play by providing this space for social interaction, guided by the instructors, commitment to Gulen,s social teachings.
7. (SBU) Judging by visa applicants, the Beshkent language centers produce competent English speakers, provided students complete level four or five. However, we often see visa applicants who have plateaued at the third level and who want to go to the U.S. to study English at any of a number of English Language Centers that offer rolling admissions via the internet. Most of these applicants claim they picked the school because &a friend they studied with8 at Beshkent &is there, and told them the school has good instructors and teaches English well.8 Given no long term plans as to why English language would be useful, these applicants are usually denied visas due to questionable intentions.
TURKMEN-TURKISH HIGH SCHOOLS: DISCIPLINE AND ADAPTABILITY
8. (SBU) Turkmen-Turkish high schools are located in the capital of each province. The schools operate as boarding schools and segregate the sexes, which goes against the typical Turkmen model, but fits with the Gulenist movement,s more conservative take on Islam. Principals tend to be Turkmen, with a Turkish deputy or administrator. Increasingly, Turkmen alumni of the Turkmen-Turkish high schools are coming back, after attending (likely Gulenist-affiliated) universities in Turkey or elsewhere, to teach. As the schools increase their enrollments, this trend is likely to continue, which provides at least one opportunity for these especially successful graduates to put their skills to use.
9. (U) In the first year at the school (approximately equivalent to fifth or sixth grade in the United States), students are exposed to a rigorous curriculum that essentially prepares them for the following years. English language figures prominently in the first year, and continues for subsequent years, as do courses in math, the sciences and technology alongside Turkish language and all the required subjects for a Turkmen education (History of Turkmenistan, and, previously, Ruhnama, among others). Following Gulen,s philosophy, science subjects are taught in English, as that is the international language of science and will enable graduates to exchange ideas with other people. Social studies and other topics are taught in Turkmen.
10. (U) Turkmen-Turkish schools are notable for the structure they provide the students: the day is highly scheduled, from rising in the morning, through the school day and including free time in the evening before dinner where students are free to pursue hobbies. Schools also organize sport events for their students, akin to intramural competitions. Weekly assemblies provide an opportunity for the students to hear from the administration about goings on in the school. Students can visit their families on weekends or holidays, but many choose to stay at the school, which offers enrichment activities.
11. (U) The school in Mary seemed well-equipped, with a ASHGABAT 00000491 003 OF 004 computer lab of some 30 computers, a well-appointed cafeteria, sports hall and two dormitory facilities (with plans to build a third). Books in the library are in English, Turkish and Turkmen. The principal admitted that many of the English-language books were printed in Iran since they can obtain them more cheaply there, but would welcome books from any source.
12. (SBU) The schools have survived for so long and thrive currently due to their adaptability. When the Government of Turkmenistan required that education be conducted in Turkmen rather than Russian, the schools made the switch immediately. They also taught the Ruhnama (Niyazov,s infamous book) for the time that it was required (it seems to have been quietly phased out of the curriculum). The schools also hew to the Turkmenistan Government,s educational philosophy of promoting pride in Turkmenistan, and promote it with various student-created posters that are portrayed prominently around the schools.
13. (SBU) This fusion of advancing technology and dialogue among nations while instilling civic virtue and patriotism seems entirely within Gulen,s philosophy, at least as the staff at the school in Mary explained it. One teacher, a Turkmenistan citizen who graduated from the school, attended university in Turkey and returned to teach at his alma mater, explained that "respect for one,s country, traditions and family goes hand in hand with dialogue with other people: they are two wings of the same bird. You cannot get anywhere without both.8
INTO THE WORLDWIDE MOVEMENT: TURKMENISTAN, THEN WHERE?
14. (U) Graduates of Turkmen-Turkish high schools and the Turkmen-Turkish University in Ashgabat are usually the most qualified student visa applicants in Turkmenistan. They have completed a relatively rigorous curriculum and have been taught critical thinking skills. They have a fairly sophisticated world view and value education. The Deputy Chief of Mission for the Turkish embassy in Ashgabat reports that graduates of these schools do extremely well on Turkish university entrance examinations and often receive significant scholarships.
15. (SBU) On the other hand, in summer/fall of 2008, the consular section received a number of visa applications for highly-skilled temporary workers (H1B) to go teach in charter schools in the U.S. The applicants all had in common a tie to a Gulenist school, either in Turkey or in Turkmenistan. Their qualifications were uneven at best. Some were bona fide teachers with several years of experience and advanced degrees.
Others claimed teaching experience by &assisting,8 &volunteering,8 or &substituting8 at a Gulenist school (language center or high school) in Turkmenistan. These minimally-qualified applicants prompted further investigation, and it turns out that the charter schools in the U.S. are also part of the broader Gulenist movement. The minimally-qualified applicants, petitions were returned to DHS for revocation based on a lack of qualifications, such as their inability to speak English, possession of degrees not related to the subjects that they intended to teach and further lack of understanding of basic math concepts (when they were going to teach math or science subjects).
16. (U) As indicated above, many Gulen graduates return to teach in the system from which they graduated. Others find jobs abroad, such as in Turkey or the Emirates. Still others, especially Turkmen-Turkish University graduates, land jobs with international companies operating in the country. In nearly every case, these students are bright up-and-comers that Turkmenistan would do well to hold onto if at all possible, provided of course that the government can learn to accept citizens with critical thinking skills.
BUT WHAT ABOUT FETULLAH?
17. (SBU) When asked about Fetullah Gulen and his philosophies, the universal response was a preparatory intake of breath, followed by a closely-hedged answer at first. After establishing that EmbOff was truly in an information ASHGABAT 00000491 004 OF 004 gathering mode, and had no preconceived notions, interlocutors opened up. The Deputy Director of the Ashgabat Beshkent Computer and Language Center emphasized Gulen,s focus on language and dialogue among peoples as a way to resolve conflicts. The administration and staff of the Turkmen-Turkish School in Mary each had a slightly different take, some emphasizing science and technology, others the focus on civic responsibility and still others highlighting dialogue. The principle of the Mary school likened Gulen to any other pedagogical theorist, and emphasized that the methods seem to work for them, but implied that if another philosophy came along that proved equally effective, they would incorporate it into their practices.
18. (C) Interestingly, Turkish DCM Hakan Chengiz danced around the entire question of the Turkish schools in Ashgabat. He underscored that there is no official relationship between the Turkish Embassy and the Turkish schools, although the Embassy does administer university entrance exams for graduates of the schools. When asked specifically about Fetullah Gulen and his philosophies as they pertain to education, Chengiz rather diplomatically noted that &he is a controversial figure.8
CONCLUSION AND COMMENT: EDUCATORS AND WHAT ELSE?
19. (SBU) The Beshkent/Turkish school system clearly fulfills a desperate need in Turkmenistan,s educational system by actually teaching students necessary skills, such as critical thinking, science and technology subjects and foreign languages. Turkmen parents will pay significant, additional entrance fees to enroll their children in these schools, in spite of some noted differences with typical Turkmen culture. Judging by visa applicants, the schools truly are educating the next generation of Turkmenistan, and may make up for Niyazov,s reforms.
20. (SBU) Based on these interviews, there seems to be no overt &evangelization8 of Gulen,s secularist take on Islam in the Turkish school system in Turkmenistan. Rather, the teachers and staff who are involved in the Gulenist movement live their beliefs, serving as an example for their students.
21. (SBU) Given their track record of success in Turkmenistan, and their top cover, the Gulenist schools in Turkmenistan might be a partner in the long run for fostering civil society growth, or providing more, and better-qualified, candidates for exchange programs. Consular is already working on plans to discuss the Summer Work-Travel program with the Turkmen-Turkish University, as these students would likely be the only qualified applicants in the country, and could make use of the cultural knowledge.
22. (SBU) On the other hand, we are concerned by the link with charter schools in the U.S. that have petitioned for marginally-qualified H1B candidates (The Kentucky Consular Center and our posts in Turkey have started compiling a list of these Gulenist charter schools in the US for use in visa adjudication). These applicants were simply not convincing, did not seem as fully &in tune8 with Gulen,s approach to education and might be using the reputation of the school as a cover to get to the U.S.
Post, after discussions with others in the region that see similar applicants, recommends that these H1B candidates receive a high degree of scrutiny before any visas are approved, especially since it seems that our consular sections are uncovering additional information that may enhance DHS adjudication of these petitions. Further, Consular Affairs, Fraud Prevention might, in concert with the Department of Homeland Security, wish to investigate or audit these Turkish-run charter schools in the U.S. for compliance with U.S. immigration law.