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Emergence and development in Mardin

by Mehmet Kalyoncu on . Posted in A civilian response to ethno-religious conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey

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Fethullah Gülen

Historical background

The development of the Gülen Movement in Mardin has taken place in such a way that it can be explained, to a great extent, by using the diffusion theory developed by McAdam and Rucht to explain the spread of social movements. However, it also presents a unique example of a particular social movement mobilizing individuals who were not previously engaged in any form of collective action, in a nonfamiliar community. In that sense, as opposed to the diffusion theory model of social movement–social movement interaction, the Gülen Movement presents a model of social movement–individual actors. In other words, the diffusion theory model requires the existence of a social movement in the new community that can cooperate with the social movement that intends to diffuse into that community. The Gülen Movement, however, does not cooperate with another social movement that is already active in the community. Instead, volunteers make contact with local individuals, share their vision with them, and mobilize with them to realize that vision in that particular community.[1]

McAdam and Rucht have drawn attention to the role of inter- and intra-movement relations in understanding the spread of social movements. According to their model of the crossnational diffusion of ideas, the initial interpersonal relations encourage the identification of activist-adopters in one country with the activist-transmitters in another. Once the first contact has been made, the inter-movement relations are strengthened through such non-relational channels as media and literature. According to this model, the diffusion of one social movement into another country consists of four fundamental components: the transmitter or emitter (person, group or organization), the adopter (person, group or organization), the item that is diffused (material goods, information or skills), and a channel of diffusion that links the transmitter and the adopter (media, press or persons).

The way the Gülen Movement has spread into Mardin satisfies McAdam and Rucht’s model in that the spreading process has involved all four of the model’s components: The Gülen Movement activists are the transmitters; Mardinian local people (individuals) are the adopters; Fethullah Gülen’s educational vision is the item that has been conveyed; and, lastly, such activities as fellowship circles, books, audio cassettes, and trips are channels of diffusion. However, its spread into Mardin also exhibits a unique characteristic that is not described in McAdam and Rucht’s model. Their model requires the presence of transmitting and adopting social movements as equivalent counterparts. That is, their model portrays the diffusion of social movements as sharing ideas and practices and strengthening relations between two social movements in different societies. Even if the forms of transmitter and adopter vary (e.g., person– person, person–organization or organization–organization), eventually the social movement that is to be diffused carries out that diffusion in cooperation with another active social movement that exists in the new setting. However, the Gülen Movement spreads through the mobilization of individuals in the new setting, including those who are not necessarily attached to each other. Its diffusion consists of the four fundamental components found in the model of the crossnational diffusion of a movement’s ideas; however, the adopter is not a “social movement” but “individuals.” In this regard, the case of the diffusion of the Gülen Movement into Mardin contributes to understanding how social movements spread through mobilizing individuals.

The diffusion of the movement into Mardin started in 1988 with one young man’s visit with Fatih Asılsoy, a hardware store owner who would soon be the first and foremost Mardinian to foster the Gülen Movement’s educational activities. Asılsoy notes that he began to learn about the Gülen Movement and its educational vision through his frequent “tea conversations” with a young man who was doing his military service in Mardin at the time.[2] It took almost a year for this person to tell Asılsoy about Fethullah Gülen, who was a prominent Turkish Islamic scholar and viewed as a leader of a contemporary faith-based civil society movement. Asılsoy attributes the young man’s reluctance at that first meeting to the ongoing political conditions in Turkey and to the existing peculiarities of Mardin at that time.

In general, faith-based or Muslim social movements have been welcomed by the public, especially by people who practice the interpretation of Islam, while radical movements have not found popular support. Nevertheless, the ultra-secular state establishment in Turkey has always viewed all sorts of Islamic movements as a threat to the secular regime and, therefore, has suppressed their development severely. Due to such official policies, several unsuccessful attempts have been made to prosecute Fethullah Gülen himself for allegedly “establishing a religious enterprise against the secular regime.”[3] While such Islamic movements as the Nakshibandi and Kadiri Sufi orders, as well as such moderate Islamic communities as the Nur movement,[4] have been quite popular in Turkish society, the ongoing Hizbullah experience in the southeastern region (which includes Mardin) in the late 1980s and early 1990s made the local people “extremely suspicious of any social movement that has a religious characteristic,”[5] as Imam Abdulbari of Nusaybin notes. Hizbullah’s frequent civilian killings in the region, which it justified on the basis of Wahhabi principles, have made “the local people quite cautious about religious movements,”[6] stresses Murat Salim, a local store owner in Nusaybin. In addition to all of these likely reasons, the “emergency status” in the entire southeastern region due to the PKK problem (the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization) brought many civil initiatives under official scrutiny in Mardin.

Under these circumstances, Fatih Asılsoy and the young man developed a strong friendship through weekly tea conversations (sohbets), during which they pondered the chronic problems of Mardin, such as the lack of sufficient education facilities, the increasing number of unskilled and unemployed youth, and the concomitant problem of unemployed youth joining either the PKK or Hizbullah. These sohbets, which started with only Asılsoy and the young man in 1988, continued and attracted more people from Asılsoy’s immediate friendship circle and other Mardin businessmen and workers through 1991.

The first sohbet group

Between 1988 and 1991, periodic sohbet meetings served as an agent of outreach. These meetings took place in the participants’ houses on a rotating basis, and through them more people were brought to understand the necessity of doing something to combat the deprivations in the city, especially in the field of education. Most of them agreed that the state was unable to provide the necessary education services not only in Mardin but in all of southeastern Turkey. In fact, some of them even thought that the ultra-secular state deliberately deprived the region of schools and other basic services to punish the region’s Kurdish population. Either way, the unchanging realities were that the number of unemployed and uneducated youth in Mardin was steadily increasing and that these people constituted the main recruitment source for both PKK and Hizbullah.[7] Eventually, they all agreed that the local people would have to bear the responsibility of tackling the education problem in Mardin.

Once the “consciousness for education” campaign reached a certain point within the sohbet group, the individuals who were more aware of the education service projects of the Gülen Movement volunteers and the corresponding vision of education brought up the idea of actually establishing such institutions. Starting with the Yamanlar and Fatih high schools in Izmir and in Istanbul, respectively, in 1982, the success of Gülen-inspired institutions in the field of education had gained the public’s approval. As a result, the process of establishing the schools has continued in different Turkish cities ever since.

Amid the increasing deficiency of state-funded public schools, these Gülen-inspired schools seem to have distinguished themselves from their counterparts by their well-rounded and research-based education and their unprecedented success in international science contests. For the first time, Turkey was winning championships in science contests because of the efforts of students attending the Fatih and Yamanlar high schools. More importantly, these schools were established and run as a result of completely civic initiatives. In that sense, they constituted a model for people in other cities. The success of the schools has sent out the resounding message that the citizens themselves can solve their education problems and cannot expect everything from the state. In fact, the Fatih and Yamanlar examples meant that the public could handle the education issue much better than the state.[8]

After becoming acquainted with Fethullah Gülen’s educational paradigm, people in different cities began to visit these two high schools to see how this vision was applied. They then embarked on building similar schools in their own cities. These businessmen were mostly those who had been attending Fethullah Gülen’s public sermons, in which he frequently emphasized the importance of education and called for the building of modern schools instead of mosques. Basically, he used his growing public popularity to encourage people to increase the number of such schools. In other words, one successful school in one city triggered the construction of similar schools in different cities. Hasan Doğru, a businessman who funded the entire construction of a school in the city of Kilis in 1997, noted that he decided to do so after his visits to the Fatih, Yamanlar, and Samanyolu high schools in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, respectively.[9] Another school whose construction was triggered in this way is Sunguroğlu High School in Gaziantep, a relatively more developed city adjacent to Mardin.

Throughout this period, Gülen-inspired schools proliferated in different cities and gained one success after another in both the national university admissions tests and in international science contests. The local people of Mardin learned about these schools through the media. Eventually, the sohbets that had started in Mardin in 1988 were coupled with frequent trips to Gaziantep in order to see what the educational vision of the Gülen Movement was actually about.

A learning experience

During these trips, the still small Mardin sohbet group found an opportunity to see Sunguroğlu High School and the university preparatory courses in Gaziantep and to meet with teachers and businessmen who, respectively, taught at and funded these institutions. For about three years, until late 1991, one trip to Gaziantep followed another, as Asılsoy put it. Through these trips, the Mardin businessmen in the sohbet group both strengthened their relations with each other and their belief in the common cause of Mardin’s education campaign, which had been the main topic of their meetings. More importantly, actually seeing the practical application of the movement’s educational vision caused them to realize that the whole education campaign was not mere rhetoric, but had practical applications.

As the Mardin businessmen visited Sunguroğlu High School, they imagined the same school established in Mardin, a city that faced the chronic problems of insufficient numbers of both schools and teachers. In addition, when they saw students at the university preparatory course in Gaziantep, they imagined the unemployed youth of their city attending these courses and becoming eligible to attend university and thereby avoiding falling prey to either PKK or Hizbullah recruitment.[10] As well as the students and the facilities, the teachers and businessmen affiliated with these schools deeply impressed the Mardin sohbet group. In many ways, these trips to Gaziantep were a learning experience for the Mardin group.

The group had a chance to observe certain values of hizmet discourse in the daily lives of the Gaziantep teachers and businessmen associated with the city’s Gülen-inspired schools. Hayri Bey of Mardin notes, “Most of us were quite impressed to see teachers, who were originally ethnic Turks from modern western cities like Istanbul and Izmir, coming to the underdeveloped Southeast and preparing ethnic Kurdish or Arab students for the university admissions test.”[11] He stresses that these teachers, with their degrees from Turkey’s top universities, could easily have got high-paying jobs in one of the western cities; however, they had decided to come to southeastern Turkey, a place to which teachers usually come only if they have to. Similarly, Davut Bey notes, “We were stunned to see the teachers’ dedication. After teaching classes for eight hours a day, they would stay until eleven o’clock at night or midnight in order to assist the students with their studies in the dormitories. They would do so without extra payment.”[12] More pragmatically, Fatih Asılsoy notes, “Teachers were quite dedicated, but I did not think that they were likely to come and teach in Mardin just as they do in Gaziantep. After all, Mardin was much more deprived socio-economically and insecure, due to the PKK and Hizbullah problems, compared to Gaziantep.”[13]

The Gaziantep businessmen’s dedication and self-sacrifice matched that of the teachers. Hayri Bey stresses that he had never witnessed people competing with each other to donate more for a school building project until he attended a himmet (personal commitment) meeting in Gaziantep during one of these trips. Erhan Bey emphasizes that the people who donated in these meetings included not only businessmen, but also workers, teachers, and civil servants, and that their common characteristic was “the passion for giving.”[14] He stresses that regardless of the size of their income, these people were eager to donate a sizeable amount of their annual income or monthly salaries for the construction of schools and dormitories. Asılsoy offers the concept of ihlas (purity of intention), another theme that Fethullah Gülen has frequently stressed, to explain this extraordinary behavior. Ihlas means to seek only God’s pleasure in one’s work.

These people, including both the teachers and the sponsors, believed that they could achieve real ihlas through selfsacrifice with no expectation of any sort.[15] What the Mardin sohbet group saw in these people’s behavior and daily interaction was actually nothing other than the values of hizmet discourse that Fethullah Gülen has cultivated and communicated through his public meetings and writings since the early 1960s. Observing the discourse values on site, the Mardin sohbet group has, in this way, transferred know-how from Gaziantep to Mardin in order to mirror the education activities in its own city.

The first istişare meeting

The educational vision of the Gülen Movement started to materialize in Mardin in late 1991. After its prolonged involvement with the Gaziantep sohbet group, explains Asılsoy, the Mardin sohbet group succeeded in bringing Akif Bey, an experienced teacher in Gaziantep’s Sunguroğlu High School, to Mardin in order to coordinate the city’s prospective education projects. Simultaneously, the Mardin group internalized the hizmet discourse, as it was the first time the Mardin group had gathered to determine an agenda in the istişare, which took place two days after Akif Bey arrived. The main item on the agenda, notes Asılsoy, was to locate a building to house the first college preparatory course in Mardin that the Gülen Movement volunteers planned to provide.[16]

After a long search, the group found a city-governmentowned, four-storey, half-ruined building in Upper Mardin.[17] Akif Bey and Asılsoy contacted the city council and the governor in order to rent the building. Asılsoy reports, “Neither the council members nor the governor believed that we could accomplish the university preparatory course project.”[18] The council was reluctant to rent the building, arguing that just like previous educational projects, the group would collect tuition fees from local people, register their children, and then run away after a few months because of the city’s socio-economic and security conditions. In response, Asılsoy reassured the council by offering his business and other possessions as collateral against this occurring. During the bargaining process, one council member clandestinely asked for a bribe and guaranteed that he could persuade the council to rent the building at a cheaper price and for a longer period. However, Akif Bey strictly opposed this proposal, saying that “we cannot serve our legal cause by illegal means!”[19] Asılsoy stresses that Akif Bey’s reaction to that bribery proposal, a routine part of daily interaction in Mardin, and his sensitivity to any sort of illegality taught the Mardin group a lesson: the hizmet discourse and illegality are mutually exclusive, and those providing hizmet have to follow the legal path, even if doing so increases their burden. Eventually, the Mardin group rented the building for ten years.

Sponsors and teachers work as laborers

Using Fethullah Gülen’s teachings and hizmet discourse, Akif Bey, who also coordinated the education facilities, consistently assisted the Mardin group in adopting the hizmet principles. It seems that the foremost of these principles was fulfilling the istişare agenda: either establishing a university preparatory course or building a dormitory with their own resources, and seeking other individuals who would be willing to take responsibility for the education projects. So, Akif Bey and the other six teachers who came to teach at the yet-to-be-established university preparatory course cleaned and rebuilt the half-ruined building and encouraged the group’s members to do the same. Davut Bey notes, “It was quite difficult for us to do that in the first place. After all, we all had a certain status within the Mardin community.”[20]

Since he shared these feelings with Davut Bey, Asılsoy pledged to donate funds to hire workers for the reconstruction and cleaning effort. In response, Akif Bey took the money Asılsoy offered, saved it for future expenses, and continued to clean the building. On many similar occasions, Akif Bey sought to teach the Mardin group members to use their extremely limited resources wisely and not to rely on others for what they could do themselves. As the number and size of the projects grew, they hired regular workers; however, they have always adhered to the principle, ‘Do as much as you can yourself and save for future projects.’ Asılsoy remarks, “Working in construction and carrying out ordinary work by ourselves, which we would normally not do, we not only saved money for our future projects, but also tamed our carnal selves and developed a sense of ownership of the education projects that we would accomplish.”[21]

Although this “do-it-yourself ” principle of the Mardin sohbet group sometimes led to wrong interpretations, it also helped them build trust with the local authorities. On the one hand, seeing Akif Bey and the other locally well-known people unloading construction materials and remodeling the old building all by themselves, the local people in the neighborhood were quick to speculate, “Akif Bey and his friends are members of a clandestine organization and do not want to risk anyone else finding out their plans, so they did not hire any construction workers.”[22] Similarly, seeing Zeynel Bey, the manager of a local bank, working in construction, one of his employees at the bank lamented, “Why didn’t you tell us that you needed extra money? We could have helped you. You didn’t have to work in construction.”[23] Nevertheless, the group members kept working at the construction site on evenings and weekends. Doing so taught them self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, stresses Asılsoy.

On the other hand, seeing Akif Bey and other locally wellknown people in the group working on a weekend, the governor of Mardin was surprised and concluded that these people were dedicated enough to accomplish the school-dormitory project they had in mind. The governor’s trust in the Mardin group influenced the council’s and other local bureaucrats’ opinions of this group or, in other words, of the Gülen Movement that soon would be personified by the Mardin group and its education projects. The group has effectively utilized the local authorities’ trust in them as a reference and has sought to establish dialogue with all parts of Mardin society. Being non-political has made it easier for the Gülen Movement participants to develop relations with both right-wing and left-wing people in Mardin. Cihan Sancar, the mayor of Kızıltepe, stresses that she does not share Fethullah Gülen’s worldview, and yet she appreciates the schools and other facilities established with his vision.[24] As Orhan Tutkun, a senior administrator in the Gülen-inspired schools in Mardin, puts it, “We have friendly relations with the majority of Mardin society. More accurately, we do not have unfriendly relations with any segment of the society.”[25]

The first himmet meeting

The principle of relying on their own funds and seeking individuals who are willing to take responsibility for the education projects has been one of the most powerful mobilizing factors in the growth of the movement in Mardin and elsewhere. Relying completely on individual donations and not accepting any sort of government aid made it necessary for the movement to reach out to more people who would assume the necessary responsibility, in order to complete any project at any given time. Basically, the movement had to expand in order to survive. Two concepts of hizmet discourse were emphasized in this growth process: sohbet groups and himmet meetings, which have complemented each other. In addition, the need for the latter necessitated the proliferation of the former, since these meetings are the arena in which people could familiarize themselves with the projects to which they would eventually commit themselves. So, the groups’ proliferation depended on reaching out and sharing the educational vision with more people and getting them involved in the projects.

The Mardin sohbet group has overcome financial bottlenecks, as well as consequent disruptions in establishing the first university preparatory course and several other Gülen-inspired institutions in their town, by simply resorting to the himmet meetings. Asılsoy recalls, “When we started to rebuild the half-ruined building, our entire fund was roughly equivalent to one thousand US dollars, which was the sum of donations from the teachers. We spent that entire fund even before the construction was halfway done.”[26] Once the funds ran out, Akif Bey suggested holding a himmet meeting with the teachers and the four or five people in the sohbet group to procure funds that would enable them to establish the university preparatory course. Until then, “giving” was a merit that the Mardin group members had heard Fethullah Gülen promote frequently in his public speeches and writings and had talked about and appreciated in their gatherings but had not practiced. The himmet meeting included both donating and a variety of other options: seeking willing donors in either Mardin or other cities, procuring construction materials and equipment as donations from their suppliers, committing an amount of personal physical work in the construction effort, and other things. In fact, Akif Bey had already asked the group members to pledge their own physical work toward cleaning the building. Everyone in the group promised to work either after hours or during the weekend until the construction was finished. Therefore, they were familiar with himmet even if they had not pledged their money yet.

Eventually, group members held the first himmet meeting. Some pledged money, some promised to seek individuals and collect the amount of money they had pledged, and others promised to do both. The earlier trips to Gaziantep, during which the group members had had a chance to observe himmet meetings there, made it easier to hold a similar meeting in Mardin. The donors in Gaziantep had set an example for their counterparts in Mardin. In addition to that, the enthusiasm of the six teachers (including Akif Bey) to donate from their limited salaries encouraged the other people in the Mardin group to donate. That himmet meeting, followed by others, helped complete the establishment of the university preparatory course.

At this point, it is crucial to distinguish between a himmet meeting and a fund-raising meeting. In general terms, a himmet meeting can be viewed as a fund-raising activity, although it goes beyond mere fund raising both in style and purpose. While a fund-raising meeting emphasizes the sum of the donations collected, a himmet meeting emphasizes the act of “giving,” regardless of the amount given.

Participants are encouraged to give (donate) as much as they can; they are encouraged to join the group of givers. In the hizmet discourse, the act of “giving”—meaning self-sacrifice for the good of others—is portrayed almost as worshipping God. Fethullah Gülen frequently recalls the himmet meetings during the time of Prophet Muhammad and praises the Companions for their passion for “giving.” Fethullah Gülen frequently refers to the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr (who donated everything he owned) and Omar (who donated half of everything he owned), while speaking about himmet meetings and the act of “giving.”[27] In this regard, it is not unusual to see peddlers donate half of their daily income or business owners donating half or more of their annual income. The two contemporary examples of such donors that Fethullah Gülen frequently mentions are, respectively, Lahmacuncu Fethi (“Fethi, the sandwich-peddler”) and Kemal Erimez, “the owner of mountains.”[28] The former used to donate all of his daily revenue from selling sandwiches to the fund established for Yamanlar High School, the movement’s first private school, which was established in Izmir in 1982. The latter was a rich businessman who owned diamond jewelry stores and donated his entire wealth to the funds established to open schools in Central Asia. In addition to his financial donations, Kemal Erimez was actively involved in education projects and took a role in opening schools in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, despite his advanced age. He remained in Tajikistan during the civil war in order to open the Tajik–Turk High School in Dushanbe, although the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had urged all Turkish citizens to leave because of security conditions. So, these are examples of people going beyond donating their money by becoming actively involved in the education projects of the movement and seeking to achieve God’s pleasure by forcing themselves to give everything they can.

Mehmet Ali Şengül, another teacher and preacher and one of the first individuals to take part in the service projects in Turkey, notes that at a himmet meeting in a city in central Turkey that was attended by university students and where he was the guest speaker, “some donated money, and some who did not have money donated their watches and jackets.”[29] With regards to giving, Fethullah Gülen suggests that “every child must be educated to get used to ‘giving,’ starting at a very early age. Children should be taught that giving has more merit than taking.”[30] The contemporary examples of those passionate for “giving” are businessmen and most of the teachers at the Gülen-inspired schools, who fund at least one student’s monthly expenses out of their limited salaries.[31] Hadji Burhan of Midyat-Mardin notes, “The Erdem brothers, owners of Erdem Holding, were two Mardinian businessmen in Istanbul who funded the construction of the dormitory in Midyat after we visited them with a group of people from Midyat.”[32] For them, himmet is not ordinary fund-raising but a way of worshipping God, examples of which they have seen in Prophet Muhammad’s life.

In a similar fashion, along with others in the Mardin sohbet group, Fatih Asılsoy donated as much as he could in the first himmet meeting and promised himself he would donate ten times more in the next year’s himmet meeting.[33] He adds that he asked God in his prayers to help him fulfill his promise. However, Akif Bey recommended that he donate an amount of himmet five times more than what he had in mind. Asılsoy recounts, “Thank God! I was able to pay my annual himmet, which was about five times more than that of the previous year, in the two months following the himmet meeting.”[34] Erhan Bey, who participated in this himmet meeting, mentions the “passion for giving” that he observed in the himmet meetings in Gaziantep as the main motivating factor for him.[35] Over time, these meetings became standardized as annual himmet meetings in which participants would pledge their annual donations. Yet, they have also remained a tool that is utilized in case of financial crisis.

The issue of accountability

Who monitors the flow of donations and whether the funds are spent wisely? The operational structure of the movement is designed to minimize any likely mismanagement of the funds collected and suspicions in that regard. Firstly, all of the decisions regarding a service project are taken by a group of people who are in charge of the project in question. The individuals in the istişare group are also those who procure the funds both by donating on their own and by seeking other donors. Therefore, they become automatically alert to any misuse of the funds. Orhan Tutkun, general manager of a group of Gülen-inspired schools in Mardin, explains, “The managing board of the company that runs all these educational institutions in Mardin consists of local Mardin people who are also the most prominent donors.” He stresses that the local people who donate in the himmet meetings are knowledgeable about the status of the ongoing projects at any given time, for they are personally responsible for many of them. Therefore, it is quite easy for them to monitor how the received donations are used. Tutkun adds, “The donors mostly feel obliged to seek other donors upon realizing that the donations already accumulated are not sufficient to complete the project in hand.”[36] On this issue, Vahit Atak has a pragmatic approach, saying, “Seventy percent is a good return on an investment. I was initially cautious about where the money goes. Seeing well-educated graduates of these schools is worth every dollar I donate, even if some thirty percent of it might be wasted due to likely mismanagement.” He adds, “Also, I do not believe that the teachers and administrators of these schools would steal the donations. After all, if they were interested in money, they would not come to Mardin for sure.”[37]

It seems that the project groups in the movement have sought to maintain transparency in financial issues by charging a group of donors, instead of an individual, with both procuring and allocating the funds. Since most donors are somehow involved in the project for which the donations are being pledged, they monitor the flow of donations and check on whether they are spent wisely. This group (instead of individual) monitoring of funds does not necessarily rule out the possibility of mismanaging the funds, but it does seem to minimize it. For those projects in which the donors have no direct involvement, information is available in the istişare meetings, as those who attend these meetings discuss not only new projects, but also those that are ongoing.[38]

Thinking big

Thinking big and the consequent need for more funds to establish more university preparatory courses led the Mardin mütevelli (board of trustees) of the Gülen-inspired schools to larger cities, such as Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. The increasing number of the students in the first university preparatory course made it necessary to establish a second one that could hold more students. Ibrahim Bey, the project coordinator who succeeded Akif Bey, proposed that the mütevelli contact Mardinian businessmen and other wealthy people living in the large cities in order to seek their financial support for ongoing and future education projects in Mardin. During a visit with wealthy Mardinians, a businessman in Istanbul donated the land which would be used for the current university preparatory course building in downtown Mardin. In cooperation with their counterparts in Istanbul and other large cities, the Mardin mütevelli reached out to both Mardinian and non-Mardinian businessmen and sought their contributions, either in cash or supplies.

Some businessmen, especially small- and medium-size manufacturers, have donated their own products (e.g., furniture, construction material or school appliances), which has made the procurement and mobility of resources proceed faster. Hayri Bey of the Mardin mütevelli notes that they collected truckloads of furniture and appliances on most of these trips.[39] Another significant contribution has come from Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. In 1996, the establishment of the new university preparatory course was dis rupted again because the funds that had been collected from the people in the Mardin sohbet groups had all been spent.[40] Asılsoy notes that in the himmet meeting held prior to building the downtown facility for the university preparatory course several people donated both money and their cars.[41] Nevertheless, new funds were still needed. Malik Bey, the project coordinator who succeeded Ibrahim Bey, proposed visiting wealthy Mardinians in the larger cities again. Malik Bey, Asılsoy, and several other people in the Mardin mütevelli visited Ismail Bölükbaşı, a wealthy Mardinian businessman in Ankara who owns a chain of gas stations, in order to solicit about five billion Turkish lira (approximately twenty-five thousand US dollars). They explained the situation back home and expressed the need to complete ongoing projects. To their great surprise, notes Asılsoy, Ismail Bölükbaşı promised to donate three times the amount they had asked for every month.[42] Similar examples of ‘giving’ have followed, one after the other, as a result of other visits to wealthy Mardinians.

At this point, one could argue that the Gülen Movement has brought the concept of vakıf (charitable trust), which was utilized during the Ottoman era, back into daily life in a modernized fashion.[43] The experience of the Mardin mütevelli demonstrated that the ordinary people they contacted, whether rich or not, were all eager to donate for a cause that they thought would be beneficial for the common good. Moreover, Fethullah Gülen and people inspired by him have mobilized idle resources, not for building larger and modernized mosques, but for building modern schools that follow officially endorsed, secular curricula. In that regard, the movement’s development of education facilities in Mardin has been made possible largely by mobilizing idle resources from elsewhere.

Those the Mardin mütevelli contacted in the larger cities were mostly aware of the Gülen Movement and its education campaign, so it was not difficult for the Mardin mütevelli to procure resources from them. In addition to sharing the vision of the Gülen Movement participants with the Mardin mütevelli, the non-Mardinian contributors helped establish Mardin’s education facilities out of a sense of contributing to the development of one of their country’s least-developed and most problematic areas.

The first private school: “Teach them to fish...”

The idea of opening a private school—in fact, the first and only private school—in Mardin came about during one of the Mardin mütevelli’s trips to Istanbul in 1995. The wealthy Mardinians living there advised the Mardin mütevelli to contact the Atak family.[44] During their visit with the family, the Mardin mütevelli explained the situation of Mardin’s education projects and invited the family to see the projects on site. Dr. Vahit Atak, owner of a private hospital and several shoe factories, expressed his family’s desire to do something for their impoverished hometown. He suggested that they build a public bakery to distribute free bread to Mardin’s poor people every day.[45] In response, Ibrahim Bey, the project coordinator at that time, suggested that this would be like feeding the poor people a fish every day. He then asked why they did not teach the poor people how to fish, that is, provide them with the skills needed to earn their bread every day.[46] Mahmut, Vahit Atak’s brother, was initially opposed to what he thought were the vision and activities of the movement and, according to Vahit, thought that the Gülen Movement was a religious movement that was deceiving people and sought, as its ultimate goal, to establish an Islamic state. Nevertheless, the Mardin mütevelli convinced the Atak brothers to visit Mardin.

This visit not only changed their idea about what should be done for the poor in Mardin, but also about the educational vision of the Gülen Movement. The most striking experience for them was seeing the teachers constructing the building that would house the university preparatory courses. Vahit Atak mentions how he was ashamed to see teachers sacrificing their time and energy for his hometown, “After all, none of these teachers was from Mardin or from southeastern Turkey for that matter. They had all graduated from good universities and could have made good money elsewhere.” He continues, “Yet, they came to Mardin, where socio-economic deprivation was at its peak and security was not guaranteed because of the PKK terror in the early 1990s.”[47]

On the same trip, they witnessed similar scenes in each province of Mardin. In Midyat, recalls Vahit Atak, they saw a half-finished and disrupted university preparatory course building that could not be continued because of a lack of funds. By the end of this trip, realizing that the current number of university preparatory courses was not meeting the demand in Mardin and that the number of applicants was increasing, the Atak brothers decided to build a school instead of a bakery. Seeing the actual need on the ground, what had been done to meet that need, and that the number of Mardinian students eligible for university increased dramatically after the university preparatory courses were established, they made up their minds. Also, unlike his brother, Vahit Atak already knew about the Gülen Movement and had visited several of the schools. Therefore, he knew what to expect as a return on his investment. This pre-knowledge expedited the realization of the private school idea.

The way Vahit Atak adopted the hizmet discourse illustrates the general pattern of how the movement has mobilized resources and expanded the field of its activities. Long before meeting the Mardin mütevelli, Vahit Atak had heard about the Gülen Movement and its educational vision in Istanbul from a 1988 conversation with his neighbor. Ever since then, he had participated in the sohbets in which Fethullah Gülen’s educational vision was always one of the main topics. Moreover, he was already contributing to the educational activities by giving scholarships to poor students in Gülen-inspired schools. He had also joined several trips to the Fatih and Yamanlar high schools. He had formed a good impression of the education system in these schools, a secular education system strengthened with universal ethical values displayed in the teachers’ attitudes, as Vahit Atak puts it. He notes that he had observed quite an improvement in the manners of his extended family’s children who were students at Fatih High School.

In addition, during his visit to Yamanlar High School, Vahit Atak had attended one of Fethullah Gülen’s public addresses where Fethullah Gülen had urged the audience to build schools. After that, Vahit Atak stresses, he started to consider building a school as an option. The Mardin mütevelli’s visit to the Atak family coincidentally took place in the days following Vahit Atak’s visit to Yamanlar High School. Therefore, he did not resist the Mardin mütevelli’s request to build a school identical to the Fatih and Yamanlar high schools.

The process that started with Vahit Atak’s first encounter with participants in the Gülen Movement in a sohbet meeting and eventually resulted in his decision to build a school in Mardin has repeated itself, with different actors, in most of the places that now have a Gülen-inspired school. Therefore, one can conclude that the sohbet meetings are a sort of public sphere that communicates the educational vision of the Gülen Movement to more and more people and that, consequently, meeting participants, depending on their capacities, have contributed to realizing that vision.

The proliferation of sohbet groups

The sohbet meetings have been the main tool in reaching out to more and more individuals and sharing the Gülen Movement’s educational vision.[48] They have constituted the pool of individuals out of which the mütevelli groups, which have felt more responsible for carrying out the education projects, have been formed.

This process is evident in the development of the activities of the Gülen Movement in Mardin. It started in 1988 with conversations over tea with several local people in which such general themes as the need for educational facilities and the problem of youth unemployment and its contribution to increased support for both PKK and Hizbullah were discussed. These conversations gradually assumed a more organized form through the participants’ collective decision making that then brought the education project of the Gülen Movement to fruition in Mardin first, and then in many different Turkish cities.

The participants in the first Mardin sohbet group, Fatih Asılsoy, Hayri Bey, Davut Bey, and a few others, felt responsible for completing those education projects and therefore traveled to larger cities to seek funds and physically helped build the facility for the university preparatory courses if needed. Basically, they moved on from the sohbet meetings and became mütevelli members by willingly taking on direct and indirect responsibilities. Through a similar process, Vahit Atak has become a mütevelli member in Istanbul. He learned about the educational vision of the Gülen Movement through the sohbet meetings in which he participated at his neighbor’s invitation. As he notes, he serves in the Mardin mütevelli on a voluntary basis and tries to develop that town’s education infrastructure.[49] Thus, for both the Mardin group and Vahit Atak, the process of becoming a mütevelli member and assuming more responsibility started with the sohbet meetings. That is to say, the individuals in the sohbet groups, depending on their personal preference, may or may not take on more responsibility. This does not necessarily require more financial capacity, but more individual dedication.

This process is intact in Mardin today. The Gülen Movement volunteers continue to use the sohbet meetings as a means to communicate their educational vision to more people in Mardin. As the movement has reached more people and the number of the sohbet groups has increased, these meetings have become more homogeneous in terms of the participants’ social characteristics. The main purpose of this seems to be the idea of increasing commonalities among the sohbet participants. These commonalities are based on the participants’ similarities in profession and residential proximity so that they can better connect with each other and continue their dialogue outside the sohbet meetings. Otherwise, the groups are not based on the participants’ socio-economic status or ethnicity.

Mardin’s sohbet groups have been categorized mainly according to the participants’ professions: doctors, teachers, workers, civil servants, imams, and so on. I participated in a doctors’ sohbet meeting, which was basically a social event for civil servants in the health-care sector.[50] The event included a dinner and tea conversation in which the main themes were the shortcomings of the local health-care system, the difficulties of working in this sector, and what could be done to improve the conditions. One participant stated that the meetings are quite refreshing for him after a week of heavy work in the hospital, and that they provide an opportunity for him to see friends he would normally not see, since everyone has a busy schedule.

The sohbet meetings include a short discussion session following a reading of part of a book either by Fethullah Gülen or by another author. The books or articles read usually emphasize the values of the hizmet discourse: altruism, giving with no expectation of return, self-sacrifice for the common good, piety, and self-criticism. Murat Bey of Kızıltepe, organizer of the imams’ sohbet meeting, notes that there has been a substantial change in many imams’ ideas since they started to participate, “Some imams who more or less have some affinity with Hizbullah and approve radicalism initially had a problem with the Gülen Movement’s educational vision and questioned why the movement is not taking up arms or establishing a political party. …After several sohbet meetings in which they acquainted themselves with the Sufi interpretation of Islam in Fethullah Gülen’s writings, their views in favor of the use of violence in the name of religion have been minimized, if not eradicated.”[51] Therefore, the sohbet meetings have had a moderating effect on those imams.

The Gülen Movement does not seem to be a male-dominated movement. Every activity from sohbet meetings to mütevelli groups is held among women as well.[52] The ethno-religious identities of the women vary greatly and include Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrian Christians.[53] A history teacher in Atak High School notes that “the sohbet meetings and other social activities, such as the breakfast and dinner events, constitute our main tools to communicate with our students’ parents.”[54] She states that at least once a week, the mothers of the Atak High School students as well as their friends, who are not necessarily related to the high school, get together in the sohbet meetings to discuss and set an agenda to reach out to more women and get them involved in their activities. The most notable of these activities are reading competitions and group visits to villages; distributing food, clothes, and books in these villages; and trying to convince parents in the villages to send their daughters to school. She emphasizes, “The parents in the rural areas are quite sensitive about their daughters going to school and losing their morality. Seeing us as a role model, they trust us and are easily convinced to send their daughters to school.”[55] In addition, she explains that every month the women organize a reading competition, encourage each other to read as many books of their choice as possible, and reward the winner at the end of the month. Like the men’s meetings, the women’s meetings constitute the pool of individuals from which the mütevelli groups are formed. “Some of the women,” explains the history teacher, “like to be more involved in organizing events and take on more responsibility, so they become the members of a mütevelli group, which requires more time, effort, and dedication.”125

One of the most critical questions about these meetings is the following: What is it about the sohbet meetings that brings people together? By the same token, what is it about them that prevents the sohbet groups from dissolving as a result of the likely differences of opinion among the participants? First, it seems there are several issues, as opposed to just one, that might appeal to the participants. Based on my interviews with participants, I conclude that some joined to socialize with people who have common interests, such as the same profession or living in the same neighborhood; for some, it was the teaching aspect, as well as the reading and discussion sessions; for others, it was the Sufi interpretation and practice of Islam taught in Fethullah Gülen’s writings; and, finally, for some, it was the education campaign of the movement. This last group of participants seems to be more dedicated and involved in organizing activities and carrying out the education projects. They not only donate but also seek donations from their friends and relatives. In this way, still being a part of the general sohbet groups, they naturally form the local mütevelli groups.

In the next chapter, I will examine the institutions and their activities that have come into being as the result of the diffusion of the movement in Mardin. These institutions include the Sur university preparatory courses, Atak High School, and the reading halls.

[1] This behavior is visible in the development of the movement in Mardin. Despite the fact that there were other movements in Mardin prior to the Gülen movement, according to my respondents, the movement volunteers have not associated with any of them. Rather, they have sought to communicate with individuals and build their own movement and institutions.
[2] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[3] See Latif Erdoğan, Küçük Dünyam (Istanbul: Milliyet Yayınları, 1995), 57.
[4] For a definitive account of different religious groups in Turkey, see Niyazi Öktem, “Religion in Turkey,” Brigham Young University Law Review (January 2002): 371–403.
[5] Excerpt from my interview with the Imam Abdulbari in Nusaybin, Mardin, on February 9, 2006.
[6] Excerpt from my interview with Murat Salim in Nusaybin, Mardin, on February 9, 2006.
[7] Most of the Mardinians I talked to have cited unemployment and lack of education as the main reasons that make it easy for both the PKK and Hizbullah to recruit the youth in Mardin, especially in the rural areas dominated by the Kurds.
[8] During my interviews with Vahit Atak (who sponsored the construction of Atak Koleji) and the other Mardinians who have been actively involved in the school projects, all of them stated that the state could not provide the necessary educational facilities in their city.
[9] Excerpt from my interview with Hasan Doğru on March 9, 2006.
[10] In Turkey, every high school graduate has to pass the university entrance exam to attend university. Mardin was one of the least successful cities in Turkey in terms of its graduates passing this exam.
[11] Excerpt from my interview with Hayri Bey in Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[12] Excerpt from my interview with Hayri Bey in Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[13] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[14] Excerpt from my interview with Erhan Bey in Mardin on February 4, 2006.
[15] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 4, 2006.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Upper Mardin is also called Old Mardin. The city was historically centered at the outskirts of Mardin hill, also the site of Mardin castle.
[18] Upper Mardin is also called Old Mardin. The city was historically centered at the outskirts of Mardin hill, also the site of Mardin castle.
[19] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[20] Excerpt from my interview with Davut Bey in Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[21] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[22] All of my respondents who were the members of Mardin’s first sohbet group mentioned this incident during my separate interviews with each of them.
[23] Excerpt from my interview with Davut Bey in Mardin on February 7, 2006. In fact, all of my respondents mentioned this incident as well.
[24] Cihan Sancar is the mayor of Kızıltepe, a county with a population of 200,000 people. It is the center of Kurdish nationalism and the stronghold of the PKK. She is a member of DEHAP, the far-left party that is publicly known as the PKK’s political extension.
[25] Excerpt from my interview with Orhan Tutkun in Mardin on February 11, 2006.
[26] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[27] Gülen’s public address, “Gönül Dünyamızdan I,” was delivered in the city of Afyon on June 27, 1980, and is one of the early examples of when he mentioned the sacrifices of Abu Bakr and Omar while defining the concept of fedakarlık (sacrifice) and diğergamlık (altruism).
[28] The names of these two men were frequently mentioned by movement participants during my interviews with them. Mr. Erimez owned large pieces of land including hills that had olive trees; hence the title.
[29] Excerpt from my interview with Mehmet Ali Şengül in Pennsylvania on February 12, 2006.
[30] Excerpt from my conversation with Fethullah Gülen in Pennsylvania on February 11, 2006.
[31] Orhan Tutkun, a senior administrator in the Gülen-inspired schools in Mardin, noted that every teacher in those institutions meets the monthly expenses of at least one secondary or high school student.
[32] Excerpt from my interview with Hadji Burhan in Midyat-Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[33] The first himmet meeting took place during spring 1992. Excerpt from my interview with Hadji Burhan in Midyat-Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[34] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[35] Excerpt from my interview with Erhan Bey in Mardin on February 4, 2006.
[36] Excerpt from my interview with Orhan Tutkun in Mardin on February 10, 2006.
[37] Excerpt from my interview with Vahit Atak, the businessman who funded the construction of Mardin’s Atak High School, in Istanbul on January 28, 2006.
[38] I attended an istişare (collective decision making) meeting in Mardin. The local people and teachers at the school were discussing such issues as upcoming cultural activities, opening a new reading hall in Savur, and constructing a second university preparatory course in Mardin. They hold these meetings every other week.
[39] Excerpt from my interview with Hayri Bey in Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[40] By 1996, the number of sohbet groups had already increased. I will examine the proliferation of these groups in a later section.
[41] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 7, 2006.
[42] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy and Hayri Bey in Mardin on February 5, 2006.
[43] I owe this insightful comment, along with many others, to my thesis advisor Dr. Charles King, Government Department, Georgetown University.
[44] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy in Mardin on February 7, 2006. This information was confirmed by all of my inteviewees. The Atak family is from Mardin and, as Vahit Atak explains, moved to Istanbul in 1974 because of local socio-economic deprivation and security problems.
[45] Excerpt from my interview with Vahit Atak in Istanbul on January 28, 2006.
[46] The actual analogy was made by Ibrahim Bey during that meeting, as confirmed by both Vahit Atak and the participants with whom I spoke. I think it is useful to put it here in order to better understand the philosophy behind the movement’s education campaign.
[47] Excerpt from my interview with Vahit Atak in Istanbul on January 28, 2006.
[48] It is important to note that even though the movement has been essentially a civic education movement, as it has achieved a global reach and become active in societies with different religions, races, cultures, and languages, its second most emphasized theme has, perhaps, been the need for intercultural dialogue. While the movement was still only in Turkey, this dialogue was intra-cultural. So, the movement has used its education campaign to help build bridges between different social segments in Turkey first and then in other societies.
[49] Excerpt from my interview with Vahit Atak in Istanbul on January 28, 2006.
[50] The event took place in the evening of February 5, 2006.
[51] Excerpt from my interview with Murat Bey in Kızıltepe-Mardin on February 6, 2006.
[52] The Mardin case does not answer the question of whether men and women hold events together or separately because such mixed gatherings are not normal in the culture of the city. However, in other encounters with the activities of the movement in such cities as Istanbul, Ankara, and Trabzon, I saw that men and women held events together.
[53] With regards to both men’s and women’s activities, my respondents reported that Assyrians participate in the education projects in Mardin and that several of their children attend Atak High School. The absence of the Yezidis is, to a great extent, due to the fact that they mostly live in the rural areas and are a small group.
[54] Excerpt from my interview with the respondent in Mardin on February 10, 2006.
[55] Excerpt from my interview with the respondent in Mardin on February 10, 2006.