Yetkin Yildirim and Suphan Kirmizialtin
Gülen differentiates between teachers, who simply pass on information and training, and educators (Gülen 1996a, 36). Educators communicate information, but also help students to build their characters and learn self-discipline and a sense of direction, as well as tolerance (Michel 2003, 75). Gülen describes the ineffectiveness of those teachers who are not educators as follows:
People unable to derive inspiration from the Divine Light coming from all around the universe are incapable of leading the people to the realization of true humanity… They spend their time in relating the good deeds and accomplishments of others, which can neither arouse enthusiasm nor give uplifting thoughts to the minds nor empower the will of their listeners (Gülen 1996c).
The core Golden Generation would be made up of educators; thus, teacher training is essential to Gülen’s vision. However, Gülen movement does not have any type of formal institution to train these teachers other than the informal organization of Light Houses (Michel 2003). Mostly these teachers have come across Gülen’s works independently and have taken it upon themselves to serve humanity through teaching (cf. Özdalga 2003).
In his book on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Gülen describes the essentials of good education and sets the Prophet as the model of an ideal educator. He emphasizes the importance of addressing “all aspects of a person’s mind, spirit, and self” (Gülen 1996b). Gülen points out that an educator is judged by the quality, comprehensiveness and universality of his teaching methodology (Gülen 1996b).
Gülen perceives part of the educator’s role to be “filling science with wisdom so that it will be applied usefully to society” (Agai 2003, 58). Additionally, teachers can use their knowledge of science and their experience to help their students. For instance, one teacher in a Gülen school helps her students navigate the pitfalls of adolescence using her knowledge of psychology (Özdalga 2003, 105).
Gülen’s followers believe that values are taught through example, not through lecturing. Gülen teaches that the human possession of free will entails an obligation to discipline it, and it is the struggle for discipline that determines humanity (Gülen n.d., 2). Educators in Gülen schools teach ethical values through example, rather than preaching them.
The teachers in Gülen inspired schools view knowledge as something to be developed both to strengthen their own faith and worship and to pass on to their students. One teacher quotes Gülen as saying “Read a lot. If your glass gets filled up, you can always empty it.” She goes on to explain, “An empty glass does not contain anything to be given to others. But as you learn more and fill up your glass, you also will have something to give others. The teaching profession is exactly like that” (Özdalga 2003, 103).
During the time we spent with teachers from Gülen inspired schools, we observed that most of them share certain characteristics in line with Gülen’s teachings. All of them are well-versed in Gülen’s teachings, especially when it comes to love for all humanity, piety, humility, self-criticism, and professional activism. All of them are committed to good works and devote time to their students after school and on weekends, although it is not required of them by the schools. They embody the ethics of hard work and tolerance.
One particular teacher working at a school in Georgia (the country by Black Sea) stated that although their salaries are barely enough to make a living, they organize yearly fundraisers among themselves to sponsor a few more poor students to study at their school. He went on telling us a story about one student whom they visited in his home during one of their regular house visits. They saw a family so poor that they decided not only to sponsor the student for school expenses, but also to help his family. He mentioned that this student graduated from their school successfully and is now working for an international company.
Gülen’s educational model in practice: The schools
As mentioned above, action is an indispensable part of Fethullah Gülen’s philosophy. To him, philosophical systems and theories do not have a real value unless they are applied to real life. Thus, in the early 1980’s he and his followers had begun a passionate educational project of building educational institutions all over the world to bring the Golden Generation to life.
Gülen’s educational projects began in Turkey, and in less than two decades, there were many schools and dershanes, or institutions offering supplementary courses, in Turkey. There were a larger number of dormitories (Özdalga, Agai 2003, 48). Gülen believes that building a school is more virtuous than building a mosque (Gülen 1998b, 17). Many people would expect that a movement, inspired by religious convictions, would focus on teaching religion at the expense of sciences in its schools. However, to Gülen, knowledge, whether religious or scientific, is an Islamic value by itself if it comes with ethical teaching (Gülen 1997c). Thus, teaching science from an Islamic perspective is perceived to serve humanity as well (Agai 2003, 62).
Islamic understanding of tolerance, to Gülen, allows differences in beliefs and cultures to continue to exist once universal values are recognized (Agai 2003, 65). Thus, the schools do not teach specifically about Islam; instead they communicate universal values of honesty, hard work, harmony and conscientious service (Michel 2003, 71).
The movement’s schools follow the official curriculum of the host countries (Agai 2003, 51). In Turkey, they teach religion one hour a week; in other countries, they may not address it at all (Agai 2003, 51). It is usual for the language of instruction to be English in these schools, since English currently is the international language of science and research, thus providing students with the ability to follow the latest developments and research from international publications.
These institutions are like any other school in terms of curriculum and materials. Laboratory and computer equipment for science and language classes is up-to-date. Yearly reports comparing these schools to other schools show that they compare very favorably, particularly in Central Asia (Özdalga 2000). The president of Kyrgyzstan gives the following example: “A successful Sebat College student won the first gold medal for Kyrgyzstan in the World Science Olympics. We never achieved such a success before. I believe, this student may be our first Nobel price winner in the future.” Another example of such school is the Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance in a city where half of the population is Christian and the other half is Muslim. The school provides more than a thousand students more positive ways to interact than the violent example set by military and paramilitary forces. The school lives up to its name, providing a bastion of tolerance in an otherwise religiously polarized area of the Philippines. Michel (2003) describes the school as having excellent relations with Christian institutions in the region (70).
There is no lack of brilliant ideas for the betterment of the world. Most of these ideas, however, are idealistic and break down when implemented in the real world. Gülen’s ideas and ideals have stood up to scrutiny in practice; his followers have translated his teachings into a viable educational model, with successful graduates to show for it. Scientific ideas are combined with moral ideals that come from religion in this educational model.
While the moral side of the student is developed through example, the intellectual side is explicitly developed in the classroom, resulting in informed, intelligent, and insightful young people. All aspects of one’s character need to be nurtured; that also includes an understanding and tolerance for other people. Therefore, these educational institutions contribute to world peace by mutual understanding. It can be argued that graduates of these schools are good candidates to be strong supporters of world peace because of this vision of tolerance and understanding.
Gülen’s educational philosophy and the schools where it is put into practice also illustrates that Islam does not need to be marginalized in countries without a large Muslim population. It does not need to be kept separate from science. Instead, there is a place for Islam throughout the world, because of the universal appeal of the religion’s ethics.
Excerpted from the paper “Golden Generation: Integration of Muslim Identity with the World through Education”, which was presented at the AMSS 33rd Annual Conference at George Mason University Arlington Campus – Virginia on Sept. 24 – 6, 2004 by Yetkin Yildirim, Ph. D. (University of Texas at Austin, TX) and Suphan Kirmizialtin, (University of Texas at Austin, TX). You may download it from the following link http://www.amss.org/pdfs/33/33finalpapers/YetkinYildirim.pdf
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