That time I worked for a religious sect

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Of all the language schools I’ve worked for over the last 18 years, only one has gone on to help organise a military coup. The school in question (in North London) was part of a global network belonging to Fetullah Gülen, the Muslim sect leader accused of orchestrating the anti-Erdogan coup attempt in in Turkey July 2016.

I started working at the school in late 2007 and stayed for about nine months. At first I thought it was a normal school that just happened to be owned by Turks, but was intrigued when, upon learning who I was working for, several politically-minded Turkish people I met around that time reacted with outright revulsion. I also found out from a former student from Uzbekistan, who had been part of the group while studying in Ankara, that they had some connection with a group of terrorist fascists from the 1970s called the Grey Wolves. Turkish leftists told me that where Gülen’s movement had taken power in more remote areas they had imposed quite a strict version of Islam, and that then Mayor of Istanbul (A Gülen supporter) had recently banned beer-drinking in the street. Given that the job apparently involved potential for travel, I was quick to picture myself running round Chechnya with an AK47. It would make a refreshing change from teaching Korean design students and unemployed Italian graduates the language for sucking up to their bosses on their unpaid internships. In any case, I knew a little bit about the murkiness of Turkish politics (the Deep State, the Susurluk affair, the succession of military interventions to prevent a non-secular government being elected) and (especilaly since I’d never been to Turkey) I thought it would be a good way to learn more.

Nevertheless, rumours aside, the people I worked for all seemed very nice. They were good-natured and courteous and they plied me between classes with strong tea, sujuk, olives and overflowing fruits platters. The students (mostly men in their 40s) were also polite, attentive and motivated. They were also respectful of my role as a teacher, almost excessively so. They taught me a slightly mad Turkish proverb: ‘if you a teach me one thing, I will be your slave forever’.

As for politics, although I was on the lookout for any furtive radical inclinations, I didn’t detect any secret jihadi fervour. Their views seemed occasionally naive but certainly well-meaning. They were very excited about a conference which had just taken place in UCL on their work of their founder, with several leading academics and a number of UK parliamentarians. They talked a great deal about education, quoting Gülen himself on the need to open the minds of the young and to educate women. My boss told me that their organisation had recently been kicked out of Uzbekistan, with all the school closed down at a whim of the regime. We talked about the prospects for meaningful democracy in Central Asia (he had spent several years in Tashkent and I’d recently read Craig Murray’s book), and he said things would change once ‘our people’ were in charge. This set off a muted alarm bell, but he said it in an almost reassuring way, or at least as if he was a loyal employee of a corporation looking to expand its commercial domain.

My students (mostly from the organisation or there under its auspices) taught me a huge amount about 20th Century Turkish history. When it came to the Kurdish question they were sentimental and a little patronising, saying that the Kurds didn’t seem to understand what the Turkish State was trying to achieve, but they never seemed aggressive in their attitudes. At the same time, all of them were very enthusiastic about a  TV crime series called ‘Tek Türkiye’, which seemed to promote a quite brutal model of policing. I did recognise a strain of nationalism but it didn’t strike me as untypical or remotely fanatical.  

Where differences in our worldviews emerged, they were always conciliatory. They were sympathetic to the new Government (Erdogan’s party was then called the APK) and their apparent progressivism seemed to reflect what I was reading in the press about his more enlightened form of Sunni Islam. An article appeared in the Guardian which reported on Erdogan’s relationship with the then Spanish Prime Minister Jos’e Luis Zapatero and the Turkish PM’s mission to create “a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles”.

When it came to the classes, there was a slight clash between my expectations and those of my Academic Director, as his formal approach conflicted with my then teaching ‘style’. This involved my being attentive to whatever came up and exploiting learning affordances, or, if I was hungover, then same thing in far less high-falutin words. He asked me more than once for a complete booklet of the week’s activities in advance, which at that time was a bit like asking me to conduct the course in 13th Century Japanese. Luckily he didn’t insist.

I also taught a group of teachers from Turkey, who were among the smartest and wittiest students I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach. Another memorable student was a 14-year-old from Rotterdam. He had clearly grown up deep within a conservative Turkish immigrant milieu and, horrified at my suggestion that Turkey, like anywhere else,  had a fair share of gay people, argued back that not only did Turkey have no gay people, his adopted homeland (The Netherlands, lest we forget) didn’t have any either.

While few of them did or said anything to shock and offend me, I can’t say I was always as well-behaved. Once, given widespread confusion over the meaning of the word ‘speech’, despite my miming and trying to get them to name any famous speeches that Atatürk had made, I decided to draw upon my, well, drawing skills (which are non-existent but come in handy sometimes for comedy purposes). I drew a picture of someone who looked a bit like Mussolini (I couldn’t remember what the Father of Modern Turkey looked like), stuck a fez on his head (er…), and gave him a speech bubble reading ‘blah, blah, blah’ with a couple of umlauts and cedillas floating around in it. I thought it was an efficient means of communicating my point, and it certainly got their attention. In the mid-morning break students from other classes crowded into the room to admire my artwork. One of them, clearly awestruck at my mastery of desin, remarked with not atypical Turkish gravity, ‘In Turkey…you die’. My elevated position of Respected Knower Of All Things seemed to have stood me in good stead and my life was spared.

The bigoted Dutch/Turkish teenager wasn’t typical of the 2nd-generation immigrants I met. I also taught a pair of 13-year-old German/Turkish brothers who I would happily place in my personal top 10 of funniest-and-most-charming-people-I’ve-ever-taught. Their mother would send me daily meals of ichli kurfter and other treats. The brothers were part of a group mostly made up of 15 or so very sweet kids from Turkmenistan. I suspect that in their three weeks in the UK me and my fellow teachers were the only locals they spoke to, such were they shepherded around. They left me with enough CDs and postcards of their country to suggest they’d brought enough to go round everyone in London.

When those groups weren’t around I was just left with the local staff of the Gülen organisation. Occasionally someone who I’d been teaching for several months would disappear, and upon probing I would learn that he had been relocated overnight to Nigeria or Russia. What they were doing in London apart from gamely fielding my inquiries about Turkish politics and struggling with the present perfect continuous was a bit of a mystery. I knew that there was some sort of fundraising which involved Turkish businesses, but I let myself believe that the invitations they were making to local kebab shops to contribute to the cause weren’t too forceful. They also had some vague relationship to the movement’s (leading national) newspaper ‘Zaman’ (Time).

As it happened, my Uzbek friend had come back into contact with members of the Movement, and, down on his luck, gone to stay in one of their houses for a few weeks. This involved getting up to pray at 5am and having very lengthy debates about which food products from Lidl could be considered Halal, but no apparent talk to the need to violently overthrow the state.

The managers of the school were ambitious. They wanted me to get them up to British Council inspection standard in a few months, but with only the occasional proper class it was a forlorn hope. By the autumn of 2008 it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for the time being. Even sending people down to Oxford Street to hand out leaflets for free classes wasn’t working. The school closed soon after and the premises were given over to a company promoting educational tourism.

I’ve vaguely followed developments since then. At some point Gülen broke away from Erdogan to the point where he and his group became public enemy number 1. The coup last summer shocked me and others I know who have had contact with them in the past, but it did put me in mind of that comment made by my boss about Uzbekistan. I don’t know if Hizmet (the more recent name for the movement, meaning ‘the Service’) shares Erdogan’s evident leanings towards Isis, or at least his willingness to use them to suit his strategic ends with regard to the Kurds. I suspect not, and the circumstances of the split suggest (without wanting to be either naive or cynical) that some principles were at stake. If those pleasant, courteous and seemingly very sweet people I taught over the course of those few months are also supporters of the most brutal forms of political violence (as the Turkish state alleges), there’s clearly something about life, people and the world which I haven’t understood.

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