Reclusive cleric Gülen’s followers pose biggest threat to Turkey’s Erdogan

February 5, 2014

(Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania September 26, 2013.  REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency)

At the FEM University Preparation School in Uskudar, a conservative district on the Asian side of Istanbul, young men are quietly receiving specialized coaching in how to pass the exams that give access to the most important jobs in Turkey.

To a casual eye, nothing seems remarkable. As in nearly all Turkish schools, a portrait of modern Turkey’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk hangs in every classroom. Ataturk’s address to youth hangs on the wall at the school’s entrance.

There are no visible references either to the religious movement which runs the school, known as Hizmet, or “Service” – or to the movement’s founder, cleric Fethullah Gülen, based in the United States for 14 years. But the teachers are almost all Gülen followers, as are many of the pupils and their parents.

The government wants to shut schools like this one down, officially arguing that test preparation academies provide an unfair advantage and place a financial burden on families who feel they must pay tuition or their children will under-perform.

But for Gülen supporters, the proposal is just the latest attempt by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to curb a movement that has emerged as a challenge to his domination of the country.

Gülen’s followers are believed to control as many as a quarter of the exam preparation academies in Turkey, giving a seemingly innocuous religious movement an outsized role in shaping the views of the country’s future elite.

“My family directed me here. They wouldn’t want me to go to another prep school, nor would I. They like this movement and want me to be involved too,” said Taha Ramazan Sisman, 18, who says he plans to study medicine when he enters university this year – and then serve the movement upon graduation.

Read the full stor y by Humeyra Pamuk and Seda Sezer here.

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