Gülen-inspired institutions 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

Sur Dersanesi: University preparatory courses

Sur Dersanesi is a pioneer in Mardin in preparing the local youth for the national university entrance exam. Before Sur Dersanesi, a few organizations had attempted to run university preparatory courses in Mardin. However, they had ceased their operations either because of financial hardship or the security problems caused by the PKK and Hizbullah in the 1980s. In other words, they fled Mardin without fulfilling their promises to the local people to prepare their children for the national university entrance test.[1] This unfortunate precedent initially made it difficult for the local participants in the movement to obtain the necessary official endorsement from the local government.

In 1992, Mardin participants in the Gülen movement succeeded in opening their first university preparatory course, which was also their first local institution. Ever since then, the expansion of the movement in Mardin has been focused on opening university preparatory courses. Currently, the volunteers run four university preparatory courses in the surrounding counties of Kızıltepe, Derik, Nusaybin, and Midyat. These courses serve the students not only in their own counties but also in nearby counties. For instance, since there is no university preparatory course in Dargeçit yet, students commute to the closest county (Midyat) to attend the course. Opening another branch of Sur Dersanesi is always one of the top items on the agenda of the mütevelli in Mardin. In that regard, Mardin’s mütevelli is currently negotiating with the local authorities of Savur, another county in Mardin, to obtain a license and rent a building to open a university preparatory course there.

The growth of Sur Dersanesi in Nusaybin is similar to that of its branches in the other counties. According to Murat Salim, a local store owner and resident of Nusaybin, the city has been heavily influenced by both the PKK and Hizbullah: “Between 1989 and 1993, the region was under the complete control of the PKK. For instance, if there was an incident that required a judicial process, the parties had to first see the regional administrator of the PKK. If they went directly to the official court, then the PKK punished them for that wrongdoing.”[2] He suggests that Hizbullah, the counter-guerilla group, took over control of Nusaybin from the PKK after 1993. About this time, Gülen movement participants opened a first university preparatory course in Nusaybin. Murat Salim notes, “Sur Dersanesi in Nusaybin had about ten to fifteen students in 1996, but the number of the students has grown every year. The number was 280 in 2004, 480 in 2005, and 900 in 2006.”[3]

This growth has mirrored the growth in the other counties, such as Kızıltepe and Derik, which are under heavy PKK influence. Fatih Asılsoy, a local businessman in Mardin, recalls that he and Akif Bey, coordinator of the education projects, had to look for a rental building to open the first university preparatory course in Kızıltepe in 1994 while most of the stores were forced by the PKK to shut down during the day time.[4] Today, even though Kızıltepe is still a PKK stronghold, the local people send their children to Sur Dersanesi.

The educational vision of Gülen and the movement participants appeals to the citizens of Mardin for various reasons. For the local people who are not necessarily attracted to the movement’s emphasis on moral values,[5] these schools and university preparatory courses are mere service providers that will educate their children in modern facilities that no other school in Mardin can match. For those who are sensitive about moral values, the Gülen-inspired institutions are places where their children will receive the education necessary for their career, as well as adopt Islam’s ethical values. Several respondents I interviewed, who would fall into the latter group, noted that they sent their children because the teachers at the school are practicing Muslims and do not have such bad habits as smoking or drinking alcohol that could negatively influence their children.

In fact, religious piety and the avoidance of smoking, drinking, and other harmful habits are the main characteristics associated with any individual who is actively involved with the Gülen movement. Therefore, this general public perception about the emphasis on Islam’s moral values makes the Gülen-inspired schools appeal to the Mardinians who prioritize those moral values. However, the teachers’ habits are the reason some other parents do not send their children to the Gülen movement schools. “The teachers do not proselytize or teach religion to the students,” says one parent, “but they dress so well and behave towards students in such a friendly way that my daughters were taking them as a role model… [but] I know that there is no better school to which I can send my daughters.”[6]

So, the reason for supporting the movement varies from the merely utilitarian to sharing a similar moral outlook. However, the mere fact that a majority of Mardinians, regardless of their political views, support the educational vision of the movement in its presence in their county or city shows that the Gülen movement has been able to appeal to various segments of Mardin society by addressing their common needs and providing solid services to meet those needs.

Atak koleji: Elementary and secondary high schools

Atak Koleji is the first and so far the only private school in Mardin. Its construction, which is still ongoing, started in 1996. In the meantime, however, the school has registered students and provided an education. The construction of the school has been funded solely by a wealthy Mardinian family (the Ataks) that has been residing in Istanbul since 1974. The family decided to build the school upon the encouragement of a group of Mardin’s local businessmen and a teacher who share Gülen’s educational vision and believe that increased educational facilities are the only remedy for Mardin’s underdevelopment and the way to solve southeastern Turkey’s terrorism problem. When the Atak family visited Mardin and saw that non-Mardinian teachers, despite all the deprivations they suffered there, were dedicating themselves to educating Mardin’s children and youth at the university preparatory courses, the family was stimulated to contribute to the Güleninspired educational projects in Mardin. They are still contributing.

Just as it is the first institution in Mardin to be funded solely by a civic initiative, Atak Koleji is the first in terms of other characteristics. It has become a meeting place for the area’s different ethno-religious groups, most notably Kurds and Arabs. The school is located halfway between Kızıltepe (Mardin’s largest county) and the city center of Mardin, which are, respectively, strongholds of ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Arab populations. According to reports made by Atak Koleji teachers, even if the Kurds and Arabs have not engaged in a visible conflict, they have not quite intermingled either.[7] As a result, they report, there are elderly ethnic Kurds in Kızıltepe who have never stepped in the Arab-populated city center of Mardin and vice versa. In addition to Kurdish and Arab students, the school also has Assyrian Christian students. It follows a secular curriculum approved (and periodically inspected) by the Turkish Ministry of Education. Atak Koleji is a co-ed school and has about three hundred and fifty students taught by thirty teachers, fourteen of whom are women.[8] This student diversity exemplifies the main thesis of this research: the education projects of the Gülen movement are able to bring together very different segments of society by addressing and providing solid services for the common needs of each segment. Especially in today’s Turkey, where DEHAP (The Democratic People’s Party) is perceived as the political wing of the separatist PKK organization, it is remarkable to see that Atak Koleji has been able to gain the trust of and therefore enroll the children of DEHAP’s most notable figures.

The Atak difference

The school is unique in Mardin for its education system and the opportunities it provides to its students. Like the Fatih, Yamanlar, and Samanyolu high schools,[9] Atak Koleji in Mardin prepares its students intensively for international science contests and for the national university entrance and placement test that every high school graduate has to pass in order to attend a university. Along with the natural sciences (e.g., physics and chemistry) and math, English as a second language and computer science are also taught at much higher levels than they are at the city’s public schools. In fact, the majority of the public schools lack teachers for such basic courses as math and physics, let alone English as a second language and computer science; Atak Koleji, on the other hand, provides students with opportunities to set up their own clubs for English, computer science, physics, and other subjects. The school achieved a ninety-five percent success rate in the university entrance and placement test last year. Eighteen out of nineteen graduates passed the test, and nine out of the eighteen were able to enter medical school. The local people’s passion for medical school has made Atak Koleji even more popular since half of its graduates were admitted to prominent medical schools.

The school prioritizes its students’ development in terms not only of academic skills, but also of social and physical skills. Throughout the year, the students organize science fairs, exhibitions, theater plays, music performances, chess tournaments, and such sporting events as soccer and basketball tournaments. The teachers encourage each student club to organize its own events and participate in those of the other clubs. The school principal Oğuz Ozan explains, “At the end of every school year, a fair is held among the student clubs; these clubs present the activities and accomplishments they have achieved in that year. The local people are invited to the fair and are asked to vote for the best clubs. The students are free to invite as many people as possible, including those with no affiliation to the school, in order to increase the number of votes for their club. Last year, the students brought about five thousand people from the city to visit the fair, and sought to increase the number of their votes.”[10] Ozan believes that this voting application helps familiarize students with democratic election practices.

Similarly, Atak Koleji encourages student clubs to be as active as possible not only within the school campus, but all over Mardin. The villages’ reforestation activities constitute the main portion of the contribution of the student clubs to the city. In cooperation with MARKOYDER (Mardin Village Development Association), the student clubs contact the administrator (muhtar) of a village and set a date for planting trees in the village, which is heavily deforested. MARKOYDER provides the plants, and the students of Atak Koleji plant them in partnership with the residents of the chosen village. In fact, the students become the mobilizing factor and the villagers do the planting. After this activity, the village residents undertake to continue the planting in the rest of their deforested fields.

Atak Koleji in public

Most of the student club activities involve public participation. However, Atak Koleji also holds events and activities throughout the year that are specifically designed to educate students’ parents and local people about the need for more educational facilities in Mardin. These include public seminars, literacy courses, social gatherings, and dinner events.

Principal Ozan states that they try to use every opportunity to be in contact with parents. In this regard, they hold periodic “Sunday Breakfast on Campus” events to get together with their students’ parents; they go on picnics together; and they hold frequent teacher-parent meetings to discuss the children’s current situations. Through these informal social gatherings, notes Ozan, the school maintains strong relations with parents and makes them feel responsible for their children’s development. In this way, the school shares responsibility with the parents to better educate the students.

Moreover, the school organizes public seminars that are followed by dinner events. Through these public seminars, the school shares its vision and future projects with the local people and seeks their contributions. The contributions come in the form of individual donations, registering their children for school, and personally being involved in carrying out the projects. The goal of these public seminars does not seem to be to convince the local people to send their children to Atak Koleji; rather, it is to convince them to send their children to any school. In fact, the tuition fees mean that only parents with enough money can register a child at Atak Koleji, unless the child is awarded a scholarship by the school.[11] In encouraging the local people to send their children to any school, the ultimate goal is to overcome the indigenous parental traditions of not sending their sons to school after a certain age and of not sending their daughters to school at all.

In addition to public seminars on campus, school teachers organize field trips to the villages in cooperation with MARKOYDER and seek to convince those parents who do not attend these seminars to send their children to school. This approach has been quite effective, especially in increasing the number of girls attending school. When the female teachers of Atak Koleji talk with the parents, they are examples of what their daughters might become if they are educated. In other words, when parents meet with female teachers who observe their religious duties and yet are modern, welleducated, and self-confident, they are easily convinced to send their daughters to school. Mothers in villages, especially, have become more enthusiastic about sending their daughters to school, upon meeting female teachers of Atak Koleji, since they themselves have never had the chance to go to school and, as a result, have experienced many deprivations.

A mother from Surgucu village laments, “I was not allowed to go even to elementary school and was married at a very early age.” She continues, “I did not have much say in my immediate family, let alone the extended one, but I am quite happy for Hatice [her daughter] because she is going to high school now in Balıkesir [a western city]. Even now, her father consults her for her ideas on issues. She has the opportunity to influence her father’s decisions. She will be a strong woman and a good mother.”[12] Hayri Serhat of Kızıltepe, father to three daughters, two of whom are attending university to become a medical doctor and a school teacher respectively, and one of whom is preparing for the university entrance exam, says, “In Mardin, especially in rural areas, parents are willing not to send their daughters to school at all if they are doubtful about moral and security conditions at the school. ...Now most of them send their daughters to the courses and to Atak Koleji because they see the female teachers in these institutions as role models for their daughters.”[13] Thus, the university preparatory courses and Atak Koleji have been effective in increasing the number of rural girls from Mardin attending school.

In addition, the school educates parents through literacy courses and by encouraging them to get involved in student club activities. The teachers at the school make extra time throughout the year for free public literacy courses in order to raise the literacy rate in the city[14] Local women attend the classes on campus and learn how to read and write. For parents who are already literate, the school designs activities to encourage reading. Principal Ozan mentions a “Twenty Minutes’ Reading a Day” program that Atak Koleji has applied on campus. According to the program, every day at a certain time all teachers, students, and support personnel in the school stop whatever they are doing and read a book of their own choice for the next twenty minutes while listening to music in the background. Ozan states that they wanted to involve the students’ parents in the reading program as well. They therefore held a seminar on campus to communicate how important parental involvement in the reading program is to encouraging the students to read more. The school rewards the parents who have read the most books at the end of the school year at the students’ graduation ceremony.

Finally, as a part of its public relations, Atak Koleji holds frequent dinner events for different professional groups throughout the year. The school has hosted lawyers, medical doctors, civil servants, workers, and other professional groups at these dinner events. Through these events, the school has sought to increase the participants’ awareness of the necessity for more education facilities and to get them to contribute to the educational projects. In this way, they have shared the educational vision of the Gülen movement in Mardin.

The school has also organized field trips to surrounding cities for the people they have hosted on campus. The purpose of these trips, according to Atak Koleji’s teachers, is to show the practical results of the educational vision that they have discussed in the public seminars. During these recreational trips, they also visit the Gülen-inspired schools in these cities. Atak Koleji has been so active in public relations and has held so many dinner events that the local people jokingly call it “Atak Restaurant.”[15]


MARKOYDER (Mardin Village Development Association) and MOSDER (Mardin Reading Halls Association) are civic, non-governmental organizations which were established by individuals inspired by the Gülen movement, and which seek to provide educational services to Mardin’s rural areas. Both organizations were founded in 2004 and operate in cooperation with each other and Atak Koleji. MOSDER’s emphasis is, by definition, on opening reading halls in the impoverished rural areas, where there are no university preparatory courses despite the sizeable student population. The main objective of the reading halls, as Şükrü Bey, the administrator of Dargeçit’s reading hall puts it, is to provide books and media so that young people who are not able to pay for the university preparatory course can prepare individually for the national university entrance exam and, if not old enough to go to university yet, can spend time reading instead of wasting it on the streets.[16] MARKOYDER has a larger scope: it makes contact with villages through village administrators or the village mosque imams, identifies the village’s needs, and seeks resources to meet those needs.


MOSDER has several branches in Mardin, one of which is in the highly impoverished and isolated Dargeçit province. Dargeçit does not have a bank, despite its more than seven thousand inhabitants, and has one entrance, which also serves as an exit and a military checkpoint. The main reason for such deprivation and heavy military control seems to be a combination of the local people’s implicit support for the PKK, frequent clashes between the PKK and the Turkish security forces in the vicinity of Dargeçit, Ankara’s neglect when it comes to developing Dargeçit, and the resulting absence of investment. MOSDER’s reading hall opened in February 2005 and serves about one hundred and fifty students. The students are encouraged to spend as much time as possible there reading or studying for the national university admissions test. The students stress that the reading hall has helped them organize their preparation for the university admissions test by providing them with a study place and test books, and that without these they would not be able to prepare very well in their poor and crowded houses. In terms of procuring the testing materials and books, MOSDER cooperates with both Atak Koleji and Sur university preparatory courses in Mardin.


Compared to MOSDER, MARKOYDER has a more comprehensive scope for its activities, from providing educational facilities to distributing food and clothing to poor villagers. The operational relation between the two organizations is such that MOSDER goes into a village if MARKOYDER identifies a need for a reading hall in that village, and they cooperate in opening the reading hall. In addition, MARKOYDER, in partnership with the teachers from Atak Koleji, visits families in the villages and tries to convince parents to send their children to school, especially their daughters, since the indigenous conservative culture impedes girls from going to school. Fethi Bey, the head of MARKOYDER, reports that they have been in contact with more than a hundred villages so far.

MARKOYDER and Atak Koleji also work together in rural reforestation activities. MARKOYDER identifies deforested villages and procures the necessary number of plants from the relevant public institutions. Then, the students and teachers from Atak Koleji and the people of the local villages plant the saplings. MARKOYDER also provides food aid to the villages as part of its portfolio of activities. The main food distribution takes place during and after Kurban Bayram, the three-day Muslim festival, when every Muslim that can afford to do so sacrifices a sheep or a cow and donates two-thirds of the meat. MARKOYDER collects meat donations from Mardin and other Turkish cities and then distributes the meat to the poor villagers. First, such solid and immediate services in neglected areas gain public trust for the projects and services by the people inspired by Fethullah Gülen. Second, when the local Kurdish villagers see the mostly non-Kurdish teachers distributing this aid, be it food or clothing, which has been donated by mostly non-Kurdish people living in other cities of Turkey, it lowers—if not totally eradicates—the impact of the idea of an “inherent Kurdish–Turkish” conflict.

One may not conclude that these activities, all of which cause Turks, Kurds, and Arabs to intermingle, have caused overall popular support in the area for either the PKK or Hizbullah to decline. However, one may conclude from the interviews with local recipients of the donations as well as local participants in the activities, who sometimes may be the same people, that the greater the local people’s involvement with the Gülen movement, the less affinity they have for either the PKK or Hizbullah. This change contributes to understanding why the local people accept the movement and, similarly, why the movement is popular in Mardin.

MARKOYDER’s sohbet meetings with the imams have been instrumental in lowering popular support in the area for Hizbullah and for radical Islamist groups. A local Mardinian notes, “There are about forty to fifty unofficial religious schools in and around Mardin. The state does not allow them to operate.” These unofficial religious schools train imams that are relatively closer to radical Islamist groups like Hizbullah and al-Qaeda. MARKOYDER’s sohbet meetings with the imams, some of whom have radical tendencies, focus mostly on the moderate interpretation of Qur’anic texts. Hasan Bey, a local Mardinian who organizes these meetings, emphasizes the moderating effect of these sohbets on the imams. Abdulbari Hodja, an imam in Nusaybin, declares that the hizmet culture provided by the Gülen movement has substantially changed his outlook on being a pious Muslim.[17]

What Gülen-inspired institutions mean to locals

According to my interviewees’ responses, Atak Koleji seems to be matchless in Mardin in terms of the education it provides the students. Similarly, Sur Dersanesi, the university preparatory courses, and the reading halls seem to provide the locals with opportunities that the state cannot offer and that perhaps only a small percentage of Mardinians could afford on their own. The material value of these services is clear. However, the local people also seem to attribute a special meaning to these institutions, for they view them as being more than just schools. There are contextual reasons for this special meaning: the local realities of severe unemployment, terror, a conservative culture, and a chronic shortage of schools and teachers. These correspond almost perfectly with what Atak Koleji and the university preparatory courses are committed to eradicating. Therefore, the fact that each of these contextual reasons is important to the parents, although to varying degrees, makes Atak Koleji, as well as the other Gülen-inspired educational institutions, something more than what such institutions, by common definition, are.

The local people who have placed their children in these institutions comment that they see the Gülen-inspired institutions as a way of enabling their children to resist the influence of both the PKK and Hizbullah. Although they do not reflect the entire Mardin community, those parents who send their children to the university preparatory course view it as a way to rescue their children from the recruitment pool of both the PKK and Hizbullah. Based on this proposition, one cannot argue that the movement’s activities have decreased local support for the PKK and Hizbullah, but we can conclude, based on the parents’ statements, that their main motivation is not necessarily to help their children go to university but to keep them away from the streets, which constitutes the main recruitment pool for both the PKK and Hizbullah. Moreover, the increasing number of students in Sur Dersanesi in all branches indicates that those who pass the national university admissions test set an example for the students that will take the test the following year. These repeated successes also increase the popularity of Sur Dersanesi, as well as of other institutions established by Gülen movement participants.

Aside from their educational success, Gülen’s popularity among the local people contributes to the popular support for these institutions. This may not be the main factor for choosing the Gülen-inspired institutions, but it apparently is a secondary reason for the locals’ trust in them. Oğuz Ozan, the principal of Atak Koleji, recounts, “An Assyrian Christian couple was initially hesitant to register their child for a school where the student body was predominantly Muslim but felt comfortable when they learned that the school had been established by the local Mardinians who follow the teachings of Fethullah Gülen.”[18] So, there is a variety of reasons for the local people to support the activities of the movement in Mardin. According to my interviews with the locals, people support the educational vision of Gülen and the movement because they see in it an antidote to the terror problem, or because they want their children to have a better future, or because the Gülen-inspired institutions are seen as tolerant and open to everyone. These widespread comments may not account for the overall decrease in popular support for the PKK and Hizbullah in the city. However, based on my interviews, I argue that the emergence and development of the movement has caused local people whose children have been educated in these institutions to reduce their support for both the PKK and Hizbullah.

[1] I obtained this information through my interviews with the local people who helped the movement open its first university preparatory course in Mardin in 1992.
[2] Excerpt from my interview with Murat Salim on February 9, 2006, in Nusaybin, Mardin.
[3] Excerpt from my interview with Murat Salim on February 9, 2006 in Nusaybin, Mardin.
[4] Excerpt from my interview with Fatih Asılsoy on February 6, 2006, in Mardin.
[5] These are the moral values that Gülen introduced in the hizmet discourse. See chapter 2, “The Hizmet Discourse of the Gülen Movement.”
[6] Excerpt from my interview with the respondent on February 8, 2006, in Nusaybin.
[7] This information is based on my interview with the Atak Koleji teachers on February 3, 2006, in Mardin. Several other respondents of both Kurdish and Arab origin confirmed this information at different times and places.
[8] This information is based on my notes from my trip to Atak Koleji on February 3, 2006.
[9] These are the most notable private schools associated with the movement and the best known ones because of their success in the international science contests.
[10] Excerpt from my interview with Oğuz Ozan at Atak Koleji on February 3, 2006.
[11] The principal reported that fifteen percent of the students are granted scholarships according to their performance on the scholarship test held at the beginning of the school year.
[12] Excerpt from my interview with a groups of women from Surgucu village on February 2, 2006.
[13] Excerpt from my interview with Hayri Serhat on February 9, 2006 in Kızıltepe, Mardin.
[14] I did not obtain specific figures for either the general literacy rate or for the female literacy rate. However, my respondents confirmed these facts.
[15] At different times and places, several people that I interviewed used the same term to refer to the school’s large number of public events held throughout the year.
[16] This information is based on my interview with Şükrü Bey on February 11, 2006, in Dargeçit, Mardin.
[17] Excerpt from my interview with Imam Abdulbari on February 9, 2006, in Nusaybin, Mardin.
[18] Excerpt from my interview with Oğuz Ozan at Atak Koleji on February 3, 2006.