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The Turkish Imam and His Global Educational Mission
by Pelin Turgut
October, 1992. the Soviet Union has disbanded and chaos reigns in its former territories. Three times a week, a rattly Russian charter plane filled with young Muslim devotees flies east from Istanbul across barren, low-lying steppes to the capitals of Central Asia. The men are clean-cut, sharply dressed in dark suits and ties, trim of mustache and purposeful. It is the first foray out of their hometown for most, let alone on a plane, but such is their faith in Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Muslim imam they revere. "Fly like swallows," Gulen exhorted, "to these countries that are newly free, as an expression of our brotherhood."
Fly they did. Hundreds of volunteer teachers fanned out across five Central Asian republics. It was the start of a global movement that is now one of the largest and most powerful competing for the future of Islam around the world. There are an estimated 1,000 Gulen-affiliated schools in 100 countries — from Malawi to the U.S. — offering a blend of religious faith and largely Western curriculum. All are inspired by Gulen, an enigmatic retired preacher who oversees the schools — and a multibillion-dollar business empire — from the unlikeliest of locales: rural Pennsylvania.
Tall, lanky and possessing a smooth American accent, chemistry teacher Abdurrahman Sel was introduced to the Gulen movement while a high school student in Istanbul. His dad thought his garrulous nature would make him a good lawyer, but Sel was inspired to become a teacher because Gulen considers it the highest form of service. The only way for Islam to survive godless modernity and regain a place in public life, Gulen believes, is through a new "golden generation" who can combine Western scientific thinking with religious belief. Hence the schools.
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