gulenThe 700 children who have come to Turkey for the Turkish Language Olympics — an annual event described in my feature “Turkish language fest shows preacher’s global reach” — will know little if anything about the controversy here over the powerful socio-religious community behind their schools. (Photo:School girls sing at Turkish Language Olympics in Istanbul, 3 June 2009/Halit Omer Camci)

Getting ready to perform in a huge auditorium in Istanbul more often used for international conferences, the 30-odd signing competition entrants appear giggly and excited, fussing over their elaborate folk costumes. Most are visiting for the first time and have been completely charmed by Turkey – just as Turkey has been charmed by them.

The children attend schools run by individuals or associations inspired by the teachings of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen. He is revered by many Turks as a tolerant, moderating force in Islam, but suspected by some secularist Turks of harbouring a covert political agenda. Gülen groups are active in publishing, inter-faith dialogue, charity and above all education.

A look at the invited audience here to watch the Olympics reveals where the Gülen community fits in the social fabric of Turkey. The vast majority of the women wear the Muslim headscarf and elegant ankle-length coats. These are the same observant professionals who vote for the ruling AK Party.

Turkey’s ardent secularists are suspicious of the Gülen community, but some concede the Turkish Language Olympics have put the international schools in an excellent light. The youngsters, often with full scholarships, are given chances they might never have had in local state education. When you speak to the children they are ambitious and confident and communicate in excellent Turkish, even though not all are from Turkish backgrounds. This helps stir nationalist hearts in Turkey.