Chapter 5 Being a Teacher in the Missionary Schools of the Gülen Movement in Sub-Saharan Africa: Interactions, Trajectories, and Differentiated Investments of the Role

In: Missions and Preaching
Gabrielle Angey University Paris-Dauphine

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This article focuses on the encounter between two actors of the mission of the Gülen Movement: Turkish teachers dedicated to the cause, and African teachers hired locally. It underlines the gap existing between the two groups as well as their diverging teaching conceptions. Through a sociological analysis of this religious institution, this article is an attempt to explain the origins of these gaps as well as the points of convergence between them. Beyond the observation of objective social status differences, it uses a processual approach of their commitments in the religious institution to shed a new light on the day-to-day reality of a Muslim Mission originating from Turkey in Sub-Saharan Africa.


This article examines the everyday life of a contemporary Muslim mission in Africa through the encounter between Turkish missionaries and African local auxiliaries. The Gülen movement is an Islamic network which appeared in Turkey at the end of the 1960s dubbed by its followers hizmet, “altruistic service”.1 It is constituted of businesses, charities, media, and most of all schools, education being at the centre of this group. After developing schools and exam preparation centres in Turkey, the Gülen Movement expanded worldwide, starting in the 1990s in Central Asia, a few years later in Sub-Saharan Africa, then to the USA and to a lesser extent Asia and Europe, sending men and women from Turkey as missionaries.2 In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the first school was established in Kenya in 1994, the movement was until 2016 present in around 46 countries, with thousands of missionaries and local auxiliaries working in NGO s, media, businesses and schools.

Since 2013, and especially since 2016, the Gülen Movement, whose treatment has historically alternated between phases of political repression and tolerance in Turkey, has endured the most severe repression ever, due to the emergence of a conflict with the AKP government,3 reaching its acme with the failed coup of 15th July 2016.4 This repression was also transferred to foreign countries, through diplomatic pressure from Ankara to close schools or transfer them to a semi-public Turkish foundation, Maarif, through the ban on human and financial transfers within the Gülen Movement between Turkey and the rest of the world, and through the extradition of followers to Turkey to be judged.5 Since then, many schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have been closed, and those still open have undergone significant changes in their modus operandi.6

Mission, especially through education, is central to the Gülen Movement since its beginnings, even if it is not named as such: the religious movement founded in the late 1960s by Fethullah Gülen, at that time a state imam in Turkey,7 has used from its origin the term of hizmet, altruistic service, as the highest duty for a follower to bring up a golden generation (altın nesil), both scientifically excellent and morally endowed.8 Becoming an “educator of the soul” is the most respected type of religious action.9 This conception was first applied in the schools and preparation centres in Turkey which made the Gülen Movement the main private actor in education in Turkey in the 1980s. After its spread to the rest of the world, thousands of Turkish youngsters, who had entered the Gülen Movement as teenagers (through family connections or through the Gülen Movement’s educational structures) and then studied in Turkish universities with the help (financial and/or educational) of the religious movement, flew worldwide through the Gülen Movement’s connections to spread the mission by opening and teaching in schools.

From a national movement of moral restoration in Turkey, the Gülen Movement thus turned into a universal mission movement targeting both Christian and Muslim countries, while denying any attempt to convert individuals. For the followers from Turkey, missionary activity in a foreign country, most of all in continents such as Africa seen as far away and poor, was and is still seen as the highest act of selflessness and is considered as highly desirable. This led Balci to consider the Gülen Movement’s followers as “missionaries of Islam”,10 even though executives of the movement tend to reject this denomination, associating it with Christian missions and colonisation.11 According to these executives, it is the transmission of an ethic, of a type of behaviour which is central, more than conversion to a specific trend of Islam. Thus, open preaching, tebliğ, is replaced by temsil, exemplarity.12 Since conversion to Islam or to a specific religious trend of Islam is not the priority, teachers around the world have to become role models, embodying the Gülen Movement’s values in order to carry out the mission. The individuals charged with these duties include Turkish missionaries but also, to a certain extent, teachers and supervisors recruited locally. These auxiliaries are central to the functioning of the Gülen Institution in a day-to-day basis. Indeed, in the schools settled in Sub-Saharan Africa on which this chapter specifically focuses, individuals from Turkey represent 40 % and locals around 60 % of the total staff (teaching and administrative).13 For the vast majority of them, these locals were not socialised in Gülen institutions in their youth and started working for the schools mainly for financial motives.

Focusing on a time frame prior to 2016, this chapter tackles the question of the encounter between Turkish and African missionary actors in the schools established in Sub-Saharan Africa. My objective is to grasp the interactions, the crossed and self-perceptions and the role investments of Turkish and African teachers working together. This research stems from a field investigation conducted between 2011 and 2016 in Kenya, South Africa and Senegal during the preparation of my PhD thesis in schools established by the missionaries, using observations and non-directive interviews with both locals and followers from Turkey.

In this chapter, I address a set of questions. The missionary model of the Gülen Movement relies upon exemplarity rather than on direct proselytisation: how is this model reappropriated in the field? How does the religious institution approach its local auxiliaries and vice-versa? Are they seen as missionaries in the same way as their Turkish fellows? To what extent do Turkish followers and local teachers, having different trajectories and different levels of investment in the religious community, take it upon themselves to embody this model of exemplarity in their own teaching? What are the registers of interaction between these two groups, with such different profiles and horizons of possibility?

In order to approach a missionary encounter in its daily framework, I first introduce the conceptualisation of an institutional system of interaction, relying on field research in the Gülen Movement’s schools in Sub-Saharan Africa. I then expose the limited encounters in the schools between locals and staff from Turkey both spatially and socially, before trying to explain this through the diverging social positions and career prospects offered to both social groups. Lastly, I detail how this translates into diverging levels of social investments in the role of teachers in Gülen schools.

1 Grasping a Missionary Encounter in an Institutional System of Interaction through Encounters in Sub-Saharan Africa’s Schools

Schools are the central site of interaction where local and Turkish staff meet and work together hand-in-hand on a daily basis. Consequently, studying them is a good way to grasp how the Gülen Movement missionary agenda is reappropriated in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Kenya, South Africa and Senegal, where I conducted my investigation, the Gülen schools (known as “Turkish schools” by the population) are expensive single-sex private institutions attracting politics- and business-oriented African elites seduced by their international dimension, the scientific and business focus of their studies, and the reputation of the teachers for good morality. School fees including boarding range from around 4000 euros a year in Senegal (until the schools’ closure) and South Africa to more than 8000 euros a year in Kenya (where the schools are still operating at the time of writing).14 In these countries, the schools are located in the main urban centres. Until 2017, there were 8 schools in Senegal, representing around 2500 students in total. After the failed coup in Turkey, as a result of diplomatic encounters with the Turkish government, the Senegalese state decided to close the schools, provoking protests from the student’s families which ended in 2017 with their definitive closure.15 The 8 schools in Kenya (about 3000 students) were still operating at the time of writing, as well as the 9 schools in South Africa, representing around 2800 students. In these three countries, a local track is offered (taught in the local language and preparing for the local exams to reach university) in about half of the Gülen schools and others, called international schools, follow an international track in which students prepare for the IGCSE within the framework of the Cambridge System. In both types of schools, though, an international dimension is present (focus on English language, international staff, promotion of cosmopolitanism as a moral value) and Turkish language classes are offered, but are secondary in the curricula. Schools are non-mixed starting from secondary school, and most of them are boys’ schools. This reveals the focus of the Gülen Movement on forming males, called to become executives worldwide who will constitute a powerful network on which to rely. The vast majority of the schools worldwide are non-confessional, with both Muslim and non-Muslim students. South Africa constitutes an exception: due to the existence of a small Muslim community which could only be reached through Islamic schools,16 two networks co-exist, a non-confessional one and an Islamic one. These schools have been placed among the best private schools in Kenya and in Senegal (until 2017) and among good quality schools in South Africa.

This focus on African schools allows us to grasp how a religious institution with organisational specificities functions daily. The Gülen Movement is unusual in the sociology of transnational social movements for its informality and its culture of secrecy.17 Due to the historical repression of religious communities in Turkey and to the movement’s transnational expansion strategies, it is characterised by the absence of a formal, commonly-acknowledged national or international hierarchy. It has no proclaimed authority (Fethullah Gülen denies being the leader of a religious movement), and there are no legal links between the schools, business associations, and religious dialogue platforms settled worldwide. The local students, teachers and staff in Africa, as in most countries outside of Turkey, often do not even know of the existence of the Gülen Movement, despite taking part in it. This result is what I call “ambiguous identification”. This draws extensively on Joshua Hendrik’s use of the concept of “strategic ambiguity” to describe the Gülen Movement’s modus operandi.18 He defines it as a strategic variation in the discourse and practice promoted by core followers, depending on the public they are targeting. I propose the idea of “ambiguous identification” to apprehend interactions between the various social groups taking part in the Gülen Movement without presupposing any intentionality linked to a “strategy” (while leaving that possibility open), and examine the “working misunderstandings” within an informal institution. “Working misunderstandings” are defined by Jean-François Bayart as the fact that individuals from different backgrounds, with different expectations and objectives, can come together in shared activities.19

Through an approach drawing on the sociology of institutions, I study how common values, beliefs and practices are maintained and disseminated to different audiences but also within the Gülen institution as a whole.20 In other words, I examine how a “minimal unity” of the institution is maintained, defined by Lagroye as the coherence between “the conceptions of truth produced by the institution and the diverse forms of beliefs and practices”,21 within the framework of a grouping implanted in several countries. Thus, I propose to speak of an institutional system of interaction to describe the Gülen Movement in order to consider, alongside the Turkish missionaries who form the core activists of the institution, those actors who participate in the movement without being bound to it by an “explicit contract” or constituting a “manifest network”, in this case, the African auxiliaries. To forge this notion, I draw from the “system of action” in the sense of Jacques Lagroye, Frédéric Sawicki and Bastien François. The authors define it as “the plurality of groups that can contribute, directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, to the existence of a reference group defined as the presumed existence of large groups of individuals with common attitudes on a set of fundamental issues”.22 However, instead of the reference group, I choose to focus my analysis on the institution as a whole. I consider all the groups that participate in its existence, including those who are not aware of it. Examining the Gülen Movement as an institutional system of interaction underlines “the complexity of the stabilized relationships between the different groups concerned”.23 It is in the interaction with each other that groups involved to varying degrees participate in the production of the Gülen institution. African and Turkish staff are recruited differently, have different social trajectories, sometimes a different faith, a different knowledge of the Gülen institution, and while staff from Turkey stays on average 3 to 5 years in each country, local auxiliaries tend to make their whole career in their country of origin. As part of a coherent yet segmented institutional system of interaction which relies upon exemplarity to accomplish the mission, their knowledges, “know-how-to-be” and “know-how”, and horizons of action are different, and they in turn appropriate the religious institution’s local organisations, by investing them with their own meanings and expectations.

African and Turkish teachers and administrative staff who meet in these schools are part of an institutional system of interaction relying upon “working” and sometimes “non-working” misunderstandings. In the following parts I examine the forms that these “working” and “non-working misunderstandings” take, explain their origin and show how they impact the mission as it is conducted on a daily basis in Sub-Saharan Africa.

2 Limited Social and Spatial Encounters between African Locals and Followers from Turkey

Turkish and African staff tend to maintain relatively distant yet usually very cordial relations in the day-to-day functioning of the schools. While nothing is formally instituted, my observation in the canteens of the Boys’ Secondary Schools in Nairobi and Dakar shows that Turks and Africans often eat lunch separately and do not mix in the teachers’ rooms. The language barrier plays an important role, each preferring to speak his or her native language during breaks. Similarly, in the Boys’ Secondary School in Dakar, a largely Muslim country where prayer is practiced by many, Turkish and Senegalese staff members pray in two separate rooms. P., a Senegalese teacher, explains that “they don’t conduct prayer the same way we do”. In Senegal, P. says that Senegalese teachers have not become “followers of Fethullah Gülen” because “we all already have our marabout” (in Sub-Saharan Africa, this notion refers to masters of Islamic brotherhoods).24 However, every day, in an attempt to reappropriate an institution they are part of without being actively committed to it, Senegalese staff members who wish to do so meet among themselves at 1 p.m. in the teachers’ room to read Gülen’s texts translated into French, which are left at their disposal. No Turks are present at this time. One teacher explains to me, “Actually, we want to understand a bit what all this is all about! But by ourselves, without being told what to think”. This means that the teachers know about the existence of Fethullah Gülen as the religious master of Turkish teachers, who often talk about him. In addition, there is an attempt to reappropriate the text by the local teachers, in order to grasp a little better the basic project of the schools in which they take part: this “empowerment” project involves a free reading of Gülen’s main books, all available in several languages in the school’s library, in English and French translations, without colleagues from Turkey.

The distinction is also clear in the teaching bodies in which local teachers and Turks, having different readings of their role as teachers, invest in a differentiated way. Turkish teachers multiply extra-curricular activities and pray in their own room; they are the ones who must embody “ethical conduct” for others, and push them to conform to it, without explicit constraints.25 Most African teachers are less involved and do not systematically participate in the (unpaid) extra-curricular activities offered to the students: for example, during an observation on a Wednesday afternoon in the Islamic Girls School in Johannesburg, a workshop to prepare for the next Physics Olympiad in South Africa is offered to students, aged 11 to 13, who wish to progress on their project. Seven of them stayed in class with two Turkish supervisors (belletmen are Turkish university students or single men and women who watch over the students in their dormitories) and a Turkish teacher; no local teacher was recruited.

Once observed, the distanced interactions and differentiated investment in their educative role that are sketched here must be put in relation with the staff’s diverging social status as well as life trajectories and level of insertion into the religious institution.

3 Diverging Social Positions between Missionaries from Turkey and African Auxiliaries: Explaining Limited Encounters

The transnational nature of the movement is sometimes a source of tension between locally recruited teachers and Turkish teachers who travel around the world, coming to Africa to carry out what they perceive as a mission (in Turkish, teachers tend to use the worlds “hizmet,” altruistic service, or “dava”26 a cause). Several points of distinction emerge: the positions distributed, subjects taught, languages used, and their salaries and employment status within the schools.

Locally recruited staff, during my visits to the schools, largely came from the relevant country: all the non-Turkish staff in Senegalese and Kenyan schools were nationals. In South Africa, the Nizamiye Islamic School for Girls in Midrand, one of the Islamic schools, was an exception. In addition to a mix of South Africans—Indians, Blacks and a white teacher giving the optional Afrikaans course—several teachers came from abroad: one from Algeria and one from Egypt. However, these teachers were recruited locally, as they had been living in South Africa for several years, having married South Africans. According to the director of the Islamic school, this cosmopolitan recruitment results from the desire to “avoid falling into the community trap” by having “Muslim” teachers from one and the same community: Malay or Indian. The cosmopolitanism of the African staff of these schools gives an image of a cosmopolitan Muslim school that is “open to the international”, as opposed to the de facto community schools that dominate the landscape of Muslim schools in South Africa. This element is used in advertising the school to entice Muslim families to enrol their children. This relative cosmopolitism is contextual to the South African religious and educative landscape and allows these Gülen Movement schools to play both the Muslim and the international excellence cards.

During my visits in the three countries, I was able to observe that, with one or two exceptions, the administrative staff at the executive and senior management levels (school principals, directors of studies, managing directors of the country’s schools, accountants) was exclusively composed of Turkish men, who had been followers of the Gülen Movement since their teenage years, most of them originating from poor to lower middle-class backgrounds (which is the case for the vast majority of the missionaries, who benefit from significant social promotion by entering the Gülen Movement), and who graduated from mid-range Turkish universities with the support of the Gülen Movement in Turkey. The management of each of the establishments was therefore in the hands of dedicated followers. At Yavuz Selim Bosphore College in Dakar, the head of school, Ndeye, a Senegalese, is an exception. Some of these Turkish executives also hold the position of teacher. Positions at the bottom of the administrative hierarchy, such as secretaries, are more likely to be held by local African women. While many Turks hold both teaching and administrative responsibilities, local teachers are, with few exceptions, limited to teaching and placed under the authority of a Turkish supervisor. It should be noted that in girls’ schools, teachers are, with few exceptions, women, but administrators are exclusively men. In boys’ schools, most teachers are men (a few women are employed as Turkish language teachers), and all administrators are men. Locally recruited teachers make up most of the total teacher contingent. For example, in the Nairobi Boys’ College, there are 17 Turkish and 20 Kenyan teachers. In each of the schools visited, African staff outnumbered Turkish staff by 60–80 %.

There is a typical distribution (with exceptions encountered in the field, however) of subjects between Turkish and African teachers: science subjects, the most central and prestigious in these schools, are generally assigned to teachers from Turkey, whereas African teachers are confined to human and social sciences (literature, history, geography, philosophy, “self-development”, etc.) and local languages (such as Afrikaans, Xhosa, Swahili, Wolof, French, English, with the exception of Turkish).

In the three countries visited, the Turks speak only English (sometimes not fluently), very few speak French and often at an intermediate level. Interactions with students are conducted in English, and most Turkish teachers teach science in “international” English, allowing for the understanding of basic information. In Senegal, I met two Turks, present for almost 5 years, who spoke French at an intermediate level. The others spoke only English. The new director of the secondary school for boys, at the time of my visit, spoke neither English nor French, and was taking intensive English classes. He therefore always had a Turkish assistant at his side who translated his words into English for the French-speaking Senegalese teachers. Efforts to learn vernacular languages (e.g. Swahili, Wolof, Xhosa) are very rare among the Turkish staff. As a result, conversations in the corridors or in the teachers’ rooms are often separated between Turks and locals.

Segmentation also occurs at the level of salaries, as Turks benefited until 2016 from an “expatriation bonus”, which some African teachers denounce, as in the case of this woman, a 35-year-old Muslim South African teacher at the Islamic School for Girls in Nizamiye:

I know that Turkish teachers don’t earn the same as the locals, they are paid more. We, the locals, are paid 7,000 rands [490 euros] a month while they will be paid something like 13,500 rands [941 euros] a month. They are paid by Fountain Education while we are paid by Sama School [now Nizamiye]. Even our status is different. The Turks don’t want us to know, but sometimes I see the pay slips in the secretary’s office.27

The teachers are paid by two different administrations: the foundation, connected to Turkey, for the Turks, and the school itself for the premises. A., a 40-year-old follower, arrived in South Africa in 1999 to finish his master’s degree and supervise the establishment of the first South African Gülen school, one of the few examples of highly skilled executives of the institution who settled for a long time in Africa. At the time of our interview, he was the executive director of the schools in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein and former director of the Turquoise Harmony Institute. He explains the logic of differentiated salaries:

Yes, it’s true that they are paid differently: first, the salary of the Turks is calculated in relation to the market income of the country of integration. We have an idea that also, if the housing is very expensive, we help them. For example, this is the case in Angola where rent is very expensive. In South Africa for Horizon schools, it should be around 1,200 dollars [1,130 euros], compared to the salary of a South African, which should be around 1,000 dollars [950 euros]. But it is normal that their salary is not quite the same because the Turks are expatriated, there are additional costs: also they must be able to afford a round-trip plane ticket per year so we give a little more money. In addition, for us, the Turks, we continue to pay a mutual health insurance from Turkey so it costs a little money too. And also we have to take into account the fact that some people take care of their family that they bring from Turkey: so those who have a family earn a little more money.28

In Kenya, a locally recruited teacher at the Light Academy is paid 550 euros basic salary, which is above the average for private and public salaries. A Turkish teacher is paid around 1,000 euros with bonuses. There is therefore an expatriation bonus for Turks, institutionally managed within each foundation (at the national or regional level of one to three countries), which leads to a difference in financial treatment between local and expatriate employees. This is a typical distinction in international organisations such as humanitarian NGO s, but in the context of an institution that emphasises the ascetic dedication of its self-sacrificing missionaries coming from Turkey, it is administratively hidden and can create tensions.29 Indeed, in 2011, in Senegal, a group of local teachers denounced low salaries and late payments by the Yavuz Selim school group, criticising “the exploitation of local teachers”.30 The school group responded by denouncing a campaign of destabilisation by other school groups and claiming that the salaries paid were within the norm of privately paid salaries.31 In this Senegalese case, it is worth mentioning that in 2014, at the time of my field research, Senegalese teachers at the Yavuz Selim boys’ college, who accounted for about 60 % of the staff, also worked (apart from three tenured teachers) as state-employed teachers in public schools, teaching on temporary contracts at Gülen schools to supplement their income. The only three Senegalese tenured teachers were former students of Yavuz Selim. For many Senegalese teachers, classes in this school were therefore a supplement to their insufficient civil service salaries.

All of these objective elements distinguishing the status of locals from that of teachers from Turkey have consequences in their interactions. However, they are not sufficient to explain the encounter between the missionaries and the local teachers and the “working” and “non-working” misunderstandings it creates. Beyond simple objective elements, a processual approach focusing on the different life trajectories of the Turkish and African teachers, in relation to their insertion into the Gülen institution, sheds new light on their encounter. Because of the different positions they occupy in the Gülen institution, including the institution’s hold on them, and the horizons of action in which they are primarily inserted (international career as missionaries for the Turks, local career as teachers for most locals), I argue that teachers’ investment in their professional function are quite distinct between Turks and locals.

4 Diverging Investments of the Role Linked to Social Trajectories

Turkish teachers in the African schools of the Gülen Movement undergo a specific trajectory in the religious institution which partly shapes their experience. African teachers have different life trajectories which create different relations to their educational role.

4.1 Highly Invested Teachers from Turkey: The Sociological Roots of a Pedagogy of Sacrifice

Missionaries from Turkey working in the Gülen Movement’s schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have specific social characteristics as well as a long-time religious career in the Gülen Movement. Most of them come from working- or middle-class rural backgrounds in Turkey and encountered the religious institution during their adolescence. They have been progressively integrated into the infrastructures of the Gülen Movement in Turkey which come to encompass large parts of their existence: living in dormitories or shared religious apartments, studying in Movement-affiliated schools, universities or exam preparation institutes in Turkey, taking part in extra-curricular activities during weekends such as religious reading camps for students which mix sports, prayers and readings of Said Nursi (the main inspiration of Fethullah Gülen’s conception of Islam)32 and Fethullah Gülen’s books. For the most pious and intellectually gifted, scholarships as well as free housing are often offered on an individual basis, funded until 2016 by wealthy businessmen supporting the dava. Consequently, for many, their insertion into this network provided them with significant social promotion (notably in terms of cultural capital, allowing them to graduate from university). The most motivated and those considered suitable by the institutions are selected to be sent as teachers around the world after graduation, which is the most symbolically prestigious function in the community. Later, most of them build their families through arranged marriages with other Turkish followers organised by the institution itself, and enrol their children in the schools they work in. Until 2016, a follower who became a missionary and showed dedication was virtually guaranteed a job for life in the Gülen Movement, worldwide or in Turkey, and to see both his social position and prestige in the religious institution increase progressively.33 Since 2016, these logics have been undermined by the dramatic weakening of the Gülen Movement both in Turkey and internationally, but this is beyond the scope of this chapter. What matters here is to examine the impact of this type of institutional career, as well as the objective elements described in the previous section, on the way staff from Turkey invests in its pedagogical role in Movement schools.

Indeed, a real pedagogy of sacrifice appears in the discourses of Turkish missionaries interviewed. Teachers should be available at all times, going well beyond teaching hours. That is what M., a teacher and director of studies at Nairobi’s secondary school for boys, explains:

We always go the extra mile. For example, in a regular school, the teacher starts at 8 o’clock and leaves the school at 4 o’clock. Our teachers remain here much longer than that. From time to time, they arrange extra classes even. They commit themselves; they sacrifice their own hours. They try to be around the students all the time, so that there is no distance in the student/ teacher relationship. Teachers even visit them at their homes.34

After classes, Turkish teachers offer extra tuition to students with difficulties, mostly on a pro bono basis. In preparation for exams, extra classes are offered to students during weekends or evenings to intensify the revision process. But this extracurricular activity is not limited to extra classes. The idea is to develop a very close relationship with the students, so that teachers become at the same time instructors, educators, spiritual guides and best friends. As Bayram Balcı explains, “The most important thing for the brotherhood is not the conversion to a religion but the diffusion of an ethic, a type of behaviour. This is done by the method of exemplarity, the temsil. It is therefore necessary to behave in accordance with the message one wants to convey, without naming it directly”.35 Exemplarity is understood by Turkish teachers as not participating in corruption, not smoking cigarettes, not drinking alcohol, working day and night, being very neatly dressed, very polite, and a good father or mother. They must be exemplary and sacrifice themselves for others, and their behaviour must allow them to establish a relationship of emotional closeness with the students. This is illustrated by this account of an initial “failure” turned into a success, reported by a Turkish teacher in Senegal, concerning his past experience in Azerbaijan:

One day, a Turkish teacher came to complain to me about a pupil in the class where I was the head teacher: he told me that this pupil had been very insolent with him. I was very angry, so I went to fetch a stick. When I came back into the classroom all the students stood up and you could feel that they were afraid. They probably thought I was going to hit them. So I went up to the cheeky student, handed him the stick and said “hit” (“vur”). He didn’t understand, so I repeated “hit” (“vur”). “For if you are insolent, it is because I have not been a good enough teacher for you. That means it’s my fault and not yours. So hit me.” When I said that, I almost cried. The student refused to hit me. As the tears streamed down my face, I handed the stick to the student next to me who also refused and so on. Then all of a sudden, we all started to cry. For 40 minutes the whole class was crying. And believe it or not, at the end of the year, 16 out of 26 students got 5/5 in all subjects. This had never happened before. Love (sevgi) is the key to our success.36

The dedication of the teacher and the importance of setting an example are characteristic elements of the conception of teaching conveyed by the Gülen movement and performed by Turkish teachers worldwide. These testimonials point to the fact that the teacher must become more than just a teacher. He must become a friend, but also a source of inspiration for the children:

The closer the relationship with the student, the most [sic] easily he will open. What we try to do here, is to create the teacher image, that the teacher is a respected personality who can also be a close friend at times. So, when the student is sick, you will find out that it is the teacher that is standing by his bed, even before the family can do that. It is based on love and mutual respect. It is the key that opens every door. As long as they think they are being cared for, they can do anything for you [the kids]. It is much easier with kids. It is like magic: that bond is there.37

A relationship of “love”, which is manifested by the constant availability of the teachers, by listening to the students’ personal problems, by the moral formation they provide and by the link maintained with the families of students, is established. This relationship makes it possible to “shape” children, which, according to the above testimony, is much easier than “shaping” an adult. The link to the institution is based on emotional attachment to a guide, both moral and academic, embodied by the teacher.

How is this ethics of education transmitted to the teachers in the first place? Are they specially formed for it? Their socialisation since their teens in the networks of the Gülen Movement in Turkey, where the frontier between private and professional disappears in order to reach a higher level of ethical conduct, as well as the activation of dispositions to selflessness and hard work (long working hours as students, regularly changing one’s housing in the Gülen infrastructures to focus on the collective cause rather than on personal connections, the enticement already as teenagers to take younger students in hand and help them study), plays a big role in their pedagogical ability as young teachers in Africa a few years later.38 Once they become teachers, Gülen followers keep being formed in the framework of their continuous education: pedagogical programmes, in which they are strongly enticed to participate, are organised in the schools, focusing on subjects such as the use of NTIC s in teaching or how to teach in English.39

The Turkish executives in senior management positions tend to develop speeches that take up Gülen’s theme of holistic education (not only academic but also moral) but reformulated in the scientific language of educational pedagogy. These executives, several of whom are pursuing PhDs, reformulate in lay terms the institutional will to forge the educated individual. More than an instruction, it is a true moral education that the school must provide. But for this, it must intervene in a comprehensive way, considering all the “legs” of the table or foundation of the student. The idea of a multiplicity of factors involved in the construction of students leads to the affirmation of the need for educators to intervene in the main pillar that supports the individual alongside the school: the family. A former career teacher, director of the Dakar platform for interreligious dialogue and in doctoral training, outlines the pillars of a successful education:

I am myself preparing a PhD in educational sciences in Mali, in Bamako. I show that there are five factors for school success: the environment, the family, the school, the teacher and the student himself. Concerning the family, there, it means that the parents who send us their children, they already know that we, we are people who have an ideology (ideolojik insanlar): they choose us because, by the results we obtain, they understand that we have values. This already means that our principles are suitable for families. So, every term at least, the main teacher [each class has a main teacher] and two or three teachers go to visit the families. We see each family at least once every three months. If the family is too bad, if the father is an alcoholic or something else, then we can take the child and put him or her in a dormitory. But this is rare.40

For him, these five interdependent elements form a pentagon. The family plays a central role and collaborative relationships must be established between the teacher, the student, and the family. In fact, Turkish school staff maintains regular contact with students’ families in sub-Saharan Africa, based on the principle that the key to success lies in a close relationship between educator, parents and child. This other testimony emphasises the way in which teachers engage with their pupils’ private sphere:

Any student who comes to the school, the class teacher, together with the administrator or other teachers, pays a visit to the house, takes a cup of tea with the parents, tries to understand the background they come from so that individual assistance can be accorded to the student as well; otherwise when you are teaching a class, how can you differentiate between one student and another, without knowing the kind of individuality he has? It requires the teacher to be closer to the student, to understand the background, to understand the family. Of course, that creates such a nice bond between the teacher and the family that the student starts appreciating it: ‘My parents can call my teachers at any time, my teachers can call my parents at any time, we also invite parents to our home’. This kind of unseen exercises really impresses the parents because they also realise it is a sacrifice that is being made. It goes beyond obligational duty.41

The individualised follow-up of the students and the willingness to place them in their social context in order to adapt the educational approach are the added values of Gülen Movement schools in relation to families.

The aspect revealed by these two testimonies can be seen as a specificity of the mission abroad. In contrast, in Turkey, young people joining the Movement (some of whom will become missionaries) are indirectly prompted to reduce links with their biological families. In that case, the Gülen Movement is to become the future follower’s new family. Turkish followers’ approach to African students, meanwhile, is to tighten links with their families. The reason for this distinction is two-fold: first, pragmatically, this is a way for the institution to develop a network within African countries, with parents belonging to the economic and political elites which can be useful in reinforcing the schools in these countries, developing Turkish-African business, and activating powerful local lobbies in times of crisis as was the case in Senegal when the schools were threatened with closure.42 Secondly, this also corresponds to the reality of the overseas mission’s objective, as opposed to that in Turkey: the project is not (primarily) to recruit new professional activists as is the case in Turkey but rather to morally influence local elites, change their ethics of behaviour, and gain their support (as sympathisers, and not as Gülen followers even if this may sometimes happen, as I show below). In order to implement this project, African young students are not enticed to reduce the link with their families; on the contrary, families are invited to take part in school activities and vice-versa.

Lastly, interviews reveal the coherence of the Turkish followers’ discourses as transcribed above: they correspond to what Lagroye calls the intensity of the religious institution’s hold over the followers from Turkey, which, as I will show, contrasts with the lesser hold it has over its African auxiliaries.43 As I explained, the Turkish followers are recruited in their youth, and early on entered the Movement’s globalising networks in Turkey where values such as selflessness are conveyed to them through devices such as sohbet, or religious camps. What’s more, most of them come from poor backgrounds, and the institution allows them to acquire unprecedented social mobility. While in mission, their whole life revolves around the Movement—their work, their spouse, their children, their hobbies, their faith are all linked to it—to which most of them have dedicated their lives. As Kanter explains in her studies of utopian communities in the nineteenth century,

Sacrifice operates on the basis of a simple principle from cognitive consistency theories: the more it “costs” a person to do something, the more “valuable” he will have to consider it, in order to justify the psychic “expense” and remain internally consistent.44

The consistency of these professional activists’ discourses, at least in their self-presentation, reveals an individual need for stability which was built progressively as their commitment to the institution increased.

Concerning the local African staff, there are two overlapping channels for their selection: while most are recruited “externally,” some are former students of the schools, recruited directly after their university studies. Are their position, their experience in these schools and their relationship to the role of teacher and the way they talk about it identical?

5 Exterior African Teachers’ More Distanced Investment in Their Educative Role

S., a South African Muslim woman, is a social science teacher at the Nizamiye school in Midrand. She was recruited four years ago. Our first interview is conducted in the women teachers’ room, but the door remains open. In this room are mainly non-Turkish teachers and a young Turkish woman, an English teacher, who seems to be very much liked by the local teachers and with whom I talk as she is one of the few socialising with them. S. comes from Durban. She is South African, from a family of Indian origin. She has been living in Johannesburg for 11 years and came to work here because “the pay is better in Joburg”. Her sister used to live there and left her job as a teacher, which S. took over. She started as a teacher in another Muslim school: the Johannesburg Muslim School, “a more Indian school,” than the SAMA school [belonging to the Nizamiye foundation network, the Gülen Movement Islamic schools in South Africa] which she finds more multicultural: “In Sama, we are very mixed in terms of origins”. She has a degree in pedagogy in sport, sciences and geography. A Turkish family lived in her building in Johannesburg and she often helped the little girl, who attends the SAMA school, to do her homework. The girl’s father, who was also her future husband’s cousin, told her that there was a job opening at SAMA in “social sciences” (one subject in the school). She passed the interview and was accepted. She has been working there as a teacher for 4 years. She explains to me that she does everything at the same time: history, geography, society, self-development, “because they don’t care about social sciences in these schools” which corresponds to the scientific focus of the schools (which sometimes do not even include a literary track). This is how she describes the school the first time we met in the school itself:

There is more sense of family and togetherness here, and here they make you feel good. And also I interact with so many different people, a teacher from Egypt, another from Algeria, plus the Turkish women. Here, there is no gossiping. In other schools, it’s your status in the society that matters. Like in the Indian society, it depends on your sect or on your money. The school here is more cosmopolitan.

She says she has heard of Fethullah Gülen who “inspired” the Turkish schools in South Africa for the first time in the school, through the guidance counsellor, the Turkish wife of the school director (also Turkish), who organised “little talks” for local female teachers during which abstracts from his books were read.45 These events actually correspond to a declination of the sohbet, a religious discussion, which is a central weekly ritual for Gülen Movement followers. It is a central practice for the Turkish followers gathered by gender and social category in small groups once a week, in Turkey and while in missions in foreign countries. During these sessions, texts by Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen are read and discussed and put in dialogue with the members’ struggles in their daily life; prayers are also performed, under the supervision of an abi (big brother) or an abla (big sister). When targeting individuals who are not followers during the mission, this practice is sometimes presented in a lighter version, still separated between men and women, often under other names such as “little talks”, “tea and talk sessions”, “guidance and counselling sessions”, or “moral orientation sessions”, for local students and teachers. These sessions usually take place in more private places, and outside of working hours. Prayers are not usually performed, and readings are more varied, not limited to Turkish Muslim intellectuals. For instance, in one Johannesburg school, a session on pacifism was conducted using texts by Nelson Mandela as well as by Gülen. While generally no direct call to join the Movement is made to African teachers or students, these are the moments, albeit informal, where the Movement’s action is closest to direct preaching.

In the interview above, S. praises the special characteristics of her Nizamiye school, located in the Mayfair district, a Muslim neighbourhood of Johannesburg. The Nizamiye schools are part of the Islamic schools of the Gülen movement. However, among the Islamic schools of Johannesburg, they are apart: the fact that the founders of these schools are Turkish and therefore exterior to the national stakes, and the cosmopolitanism of the profiles of the teachers, who include Turks, South Africans of all origins, Algerians and Egyptians, contrast with her former school, which was “more Indian”, and therefore more communitarian. S. thus derives greater freedom from what she defines as her daily assigned “status” in society. She also praises the warm atmosphere and the investment of Turkish teachers in the schools, which create a sense of “living together”.

In a second discussion, over dinner at her home, S. completes her remarks by making some criticisms absent from our first talk at the school, about the heavy pressure she feels:

Every Thursday, the [Turkish] teachers do women’s sohbet where they invite us [the locals]. But I don’t want to go. My life is my family while they [the men and women of the Gülen movement] are crazy, their whole life revolves around this community, they spend their lives working, they are workaholics. The Turkish women go to the sohbet, then they help the students, then they pray all together, and then they go home. It is almost 8 pm and there is no food at home. Meanwhile, their husband is also out and comes home late. For them, life is the group. I understand, they are abroad, they are happy to stay among Turks, but maybe because I don’t have the same culture, I can’t live like that. So I often lie to avoid going to the sohbet.46

Despite her satisfaction at working in this school, S. illustrates the fact that local teachers recruited from outside are involved in a different way than Turkish teachers, who are always active outside school hours performing a pedagogy of sacrifice. S., for her part, works to “make a living” and wishes to preserve spheres of her life that are distinct from the movement, especially her family life. It should be noted that S. married a Turkish man who came to South Africa because of family problems and who was imprisoned there for “manslaughter”. He is a “marginal” in the Turkish community in South Africa, and is very critical of the Gülen movement. S., a wife of a Turkish man on the fringe who does not belong to the movement, and an active SAMA teacher, is more likely to adopt a distanced discourse on the Gülen movement, while recognising the advantages of the school setting on an individual level. Here, she expresses a criticism of the confusion between private and public sphere, which is very clear in the enticement by Movement executives of local teachers to join sohbet groups organised specifically for them after working hours.

Another example is C-Jay, a Christian drama teacher in a Gülen school in Nairobi. He is a Kenyan theatre teacher in his thirties. He heard about the school from a friend, who told him it had “potential”. It is one of the best schools in the country in theatre for the KCPC exam (the Kenyan national exam at the end of high school, regulating access to university). When I ask him what his job interview was about, he explains:

In an interview, you don’t look for the obvious: how special can you be in terms of you among the others? Also, they wanted someone with the sense of initiative. And I am like this. I am always trying to do the best thing, not the right thing. I try never to leave any kind of duty I might have. That’s what they were looking for.

He describes his relationships with Turkish teachers as “relationships of understanding, of flexible interactivity”. He heard about Fethullah Gülen through a Turkish teacher who distributed an issue of Fountain magazine (the English edition of Sızıntı, the main magazine of the Gülen Movement) revealing the similarities between Islam and Christianity. “If the seed is good, what will come out is good: even if I am not Muslim. It brought me extra inspiration to shape the person I was already.” He says he is satisfied with the monthly salary of 550 euros per month, which is much higher than civil service salaries and higher than in most private sector schools.47

C-Jay also praises the “competitive” nature of the school, which has led to successes, including those of his students in national theatre competitions. The investment of all in these institutions is therefore an asset for him. And it is, according to him, thanks to his voluntarism that he was chosen at the end of a job interview. His salary, although lower than that of his Turkish colleagues (during the interview, I could not tell if he was aware of the salary gap), suits him because it is higher than in most other Kenyan public and private schools. He also declares that his investment is rewarded with bonuses when he is paid for extra-curricular activities, which is not the case for his Turkish colleagues who do these activities as volunteers.

Most local teachers are selected first through a merit-based selection process and secondly through an examination of their good character conducted by Turkish officials. According to the Turkish principal of the Nairobi Secondary School for Boys, the good character interview is whether the teachers are “serious,” “responsible,” if, as C-Jay says, “the seed is good”. The spiritual dimension also appears, but without discrimination in favour of Muslims. It is necessary to have a “spiritual life”, to “respect the religion”, explains the director who himself has hired several teachers. It is a question of recruiting individuals who, in their own way, also adopt an ethical conduct that makes them compatible with the company of Turkish professional activists. Thus, S. confided to me, after several meetings, that she is a smoker: she always hides to smoke her mid-day cigarette, and carefully washes her mouth and hands, because “it would be very badly seen here, they recruit people who do not smoke, who do not drink in principle. I think they would fire me”.

The interviews reveal how the movement seeks to sensitise local teachers to its understanding of teaching as a “mission”. Indeed, discreet proselytising takes place among African teachers, who are invited to participate in sohbet with teachers, read books by Fethullah Gülen, and support actions (humanitarian or commercial) organised by their peers outside their working hours.

Yet, once hired, African teachers invest in the school institution in a totally different way than teachers from Turkey who see their activity as an all-encompassing religious mission. However, we have seen that the codes of “know-how-to-be” are transmitted: although the internal rules do not mention that teachers cannot smoke (even outside the building), S. understood by herself that it would be inconceivable to admit to being a smoker. In addition, some of them read Fethullah Gülen’s texts in English translations provided to them by the Turkish teachers, either under the supervision of an abi or abla or on their own (as in Senegal) to “understand what it is all about”.

After underlining the distinct investment of local African teachers freshly recruited, it is necessary to take into account the specific profile of former local students becoming teachers. Indeed, these locals tend to have a specific position in the Gülen institution. This translates through a specific investment in the role of teacher.

5.1 Former Local Students Becoming Teachers: A Position of Intermediary in the Religious Institution

Several local teachers were educated in the schools in which they work today, which changes the relationship to the Gülen institution and to their role as educators. In Kenya, the schools of the Light Academy Foundation recruit some of their former Kenyan graduates to work as belletmen (tutors) in the institution’s dormitories. They rub shoulders with Turkish belletmen, who come to continue their studies on site before working in the schools. In 2011, the Nairobi Secondary Boys’ School had 12 belletmen (all male) who guarded the dormitories, provided after-hours tutoring to the students, and co-organised the sohbet: six of them were Kenyan and six from Turkey. As for the Turks, these belletmen study during the day in public universities of Nairobi. Their tuition, accommodation and food are fully paid for in exchange for their work.

The Kenyan belletmen, who are of particular interest to us here, are mostly former Light Academy scholarship holders (from Nairobi or elsewhere in Kenya), meaning excellent students of more modest social background than their fellow comrades. After their high school graduation, they are directly hired. In exchange for their belletmen work, their housing and tuition fees at the public university are covered. In all three countries, former students who work for the movement as belletmen or as teachers come from less affluent backgrounds than their peers and were “taken care of” by teachers in Turkey early on, when they were students. During their higher education, the movement continues financing their studies in exchange for services rendered. They can continue their studies in their host country, as for the Kenyan belletmen described above; they can also study abroad, in Turkey, also through the Gülen movement.

This fits the profile of D., a 30-year-old Kenyan teacher from a Gülen school in Nairobi. A particularly good student from a modest home, he studied at a public school in Nairobi until the high school entrance exam where he achieved excellent results. He was then recruited by a Gülen School, which offered him a scholarship and accommodation throughout his studies until he passed the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination. In 2004, upon graduation, the teachers at his school offered him a scholarship to study at Haceteppe University in Ankara. Upon his return, a job as a teacher at the Gülen School of the Light Academy in Nairobi awaited him. During the interview D. repeatedly expresses his gratitude to the Gülen movement. He is one of the “active” teachers in the schools, those who join the Turks for extra-curricular activities such as picnics or distribution of humanitarian food during Ramadan. However, D. does not call himself a “member” of the Gülen movement, but rather a “sympathiser”.48 It is important to note that in the Movement, there is no formal ritual that makes one a member or a sympathiser, so this rather blurry distinction makes self-definition by individuals very significant.

This profile can be compared to that of the Oblates of the Catholic Church as described by Pierre Bourdieu and Monique de Saint-Martin, “dedicated and devoted to the institution” these are young people of popular origin who join the institution at an early age and who dedicate themselves to it because they feel that they owe their lives to it.49

Another, more original profile in terms of social origin can be presented here. P., 30 years old, is a Senegalese computer science teacher at the Bosphore-Yavuz Selim College of Senegal. At the time of our meeting, P., has been working at the Secondary Boys’ School in Dakar for a year and a half. He is not married and has no children. He defines himself as Tidjane. The Tijāniyya is a Sufi brotherhood founded by Ahmed Tijānī in 1782 in Algeria.50 It is the most widespread Muslim brotherhood in Africa, and the largest brotherhood in Senegal. P. comes from the first graduating class of the same middle school and high school (2003) where he teaches today, Yavuz Selim. His father was an academy inspector in Rufisque at the time and has since become the mayor. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in section S2 (biology, mathematics, physics), P. studied English for a year at the University of Fatih (belonging to the Gülen Movement in Istanbul up until its closure in 2016). Disappointed with the level, he went to Rabat to study computer science using his own network of Senegalese alumni of Yavuz Selim. There he obtained a bachelor’s degree and validated the first-year of his MSc. He kept in touch with the Gülen Movement there, as his teachers at Yavuz Selim informed their “brothers” in the Movement in Morocco and lived with them during his final year of study. In 2010, he returned to Senegal, but he could not find a job for 6 months. He then left to try his luck in Mauritania for 3 months hoping to get a position in a big company. Not succeeding, he hesitated to return, despite repeated requests from his father, feeling “uncomfortable returning without work”. He recounts the default choice that led him to the Yavuz Selim schools:

A Turkish chemistry teacher from Yavuz whom I had liked very much and with whom I had kept in touch all this time called to tell me to come to Senegal in the Yavuz Selim Boy’s school. He said they had a job for me. I didn’t want to, I wanted to work in a company since I had a degree in computer science. So, I said no. But then the Turkish teacher warned Mr. N’Deye, a Senegalese, who is in charge of schooling here. They called my father themselves and told him to tell me to come home, that they had a job for me. So finally, when my father asked me, I had to obey.

In the school, P. plays a dual role: he is a computer teacher and manages the online administrative network on the one hand, but he also acts as an “intermediary between Turkish and Senegalese since the Turks don’t speak French often. I, therefore, can help with the administrative dialogue”. This is how he describes his experience as a teacher at Yavuz Selim:

What I have noticed here is that the Turkish teachers are closer to the students: not only during classes but also afterwards, on weekends they organise picnics, activities, they come to visit our parents. We have outings. The relationship is more relaxed. Especially compared to the teacher/student relations among Senegalese. In general, it is super-hierarchical and after their class, they leave. Every year the teacher here must visit the parents of each student at least once. You also do the follow-up, you call them when they are absent, or when you have their report card. Afterwards, as was the case for me, where the former teachers would call us to eat, we do the same. We invite former students, and we invite them to eat, to play basketball. So as not to lose contact with them. For me, it’s like doing again what the elders did for us.51

P. is the only Senegalese teacher in charge of “moral orientation sessions”, a weekly course (for which he is not paid extra) in which he directly uses the notion of sohbet (the term used by the Turkish followers among themselves only), unlike C-Jay who uses the notion of “guidance and counselling session”. P., unlike almost all other Senegalese teachers, speaks Turkish, knows the Gülen movement, and has studied in Turkey for a year in a Gülen Movement university. This in-depth knowledge allows him to make the link between Turks and locals, and to solve administrative problems. For him, it is a question of “redoing what the elders did for us”. He therefore accepts extra-curricular responsibilities, such as the sohbet, and participates from time to time in humanitarian food distribution during Ramadan: he invests in his role more than his non-tenured colleagues. At the Secondary Boys’ School, only three Senegalese teachers are tenured, while all the others are temporary teachers: all three are former students of the school. They enjoy an advantageous position, distinguishing them in part from other local teachers.

Consequently, there are two typical profiles of African teachers in Gülen schools: that of career teachers, recruited on the basis of resumes and interviews, who tend to refuse to become more involved in the movement’s activities or only on payment, considering their employment as a livelihood, but who nevertheless assimilate a certain number of practices and discourses specific to the institution; and that of former students enrolled in the Gülen schools, often on scholarships, who express their gratitude to the movement by working in the same schools once trained, and participating in extra-curricular activities alongside missionary teachers from Turkey. In the case of P., who was in difficulty for several years, this job is a way to get out of the impasse in which he found himself, that of the “double bind” (to succeed by himself and support his family) which prevented him from returning to Senegal. Theses distinct trajectories condition a differentiated treatment (salary, responsibilities, legal status) but also a differentiated investment in their function, and a clearer and more sympathising vision of the mission performed by the Turkish followers in their country, corresponding in return to a distinct position within the Gülen institution.


This chapter used a micro-sociological perspective to examine a type of missionary encounter in an Islamic transnational education group in today’s Sub-Saharan Africa. It focused on a type of missionary actor that is very often neglected, the local auxiliaries, who make it possible for foreign actors to implement their educational project locally: in this case, African teachers working in the Turkish schools of the Gülen Movement. Here, the specificity lies in the fact that this religious institution opens schools that do not openly proselytise to recruit new followers, but rather use exemplarity. Similarly, while the Turkish staff is composed of faithful followers socialised in the institution since their adolescence in Turkey and committed to it, the local staff is not required to believe in the Gülen Movement’s religious role and to adhere to its beliefs. Their objectively distinct treatment as well as their distinct trajectories in the institution create diverging investments in their educational role as well as in their interactions.

Yet, even though they have separate experiences of the institution, they both work for the same one and “know-how” and “know-how-to-be” are transferred to them and reappropriated, though in different degrees. In day-to-day relations, working and non-working misunderstandings can emerge in the form of social tensions but also reappropriations of the mission by the local teachers. Reappropriations are notably visible in the case of former students in the African schools, generally from humble social backgrounds who become “transnational brokers” of the mission, positioning themselves as in-between the foreign missionaries and the locals: heirs of universal missions, revealing the continuity between past and present.52


M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito, Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003); M. Hakan Yavuz, Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gülen Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).


Central Asia was historically the first region of expansion of the Gülen Movement due to the fall of the USSR which left a gap in the educational and humanitarian sectors, as well as the historical ties between the Ottomans and Central Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s was very open to greeting foreign actors in the educational field due to the liberalisation programmes many countries underwent in the framework of structural adjustment programmes.


The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) is a conservative party in Turkey, founded in 2001, which has been in power since 2003.


On the evening of 15th July 2016 a coup attempt was launched by a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces against Recep Tayip Erdogan, president of the Turkish Republic and the government. It failed overnight but caused the death of over 300 people. Erdogan accused the Gülen Movement of being the mastermind of this coup and launched an unprecedented cleansing of state institutions as well as a repression of private institutions suspected of being close to the Gülen Movement.


Hamit Bozarslan, “Le coup d’état raté en Turquie”, Esprit, 9 (2016), 10–15. Gabrielle Angey, “The Gülen movement and the transfer of a political conflict from Turkey to Senegal,” Politics, religion & ideology, vol. 19, no. 1 (2018), 1–16.


Angey, “The Gülen movement and the transfer of a political conflict from Turkey to Senegal”; Gabrielle Angey, “Dans les limbes: Dispositions et reconfiguration du travail sur soi des fidèles du mouvement Gülen face à l’événement du 15 juillet 2016”, Genèses, no. 124, (2021).


Fethullah Gülen was born in 1938 or 1941 in Erzurum, where he was initiated into the teachings of the Nakşibendi sufi order before discovering the writings of Said Nursi, who founded the nurcu movement, itself stemming from the Nakşibendi sufi order. In the 1960s, he became a state imam (in Turkey imams are civil servants). He was imprisoned for 7 months after the 1971 military coup, accused of threatening the secular nature of the Turkish state, but was cleared of these accusations. In the 1980s he quit his position as a civil servant to dedicate himself fully to the religious movement that emerged around him. In 1999, Gülen left Turkey for the USA and has not returned.


Yavuz and Esposito, Turkish Islam and the Secular State, 58. With regard to the translation of Fethullah Gülen’s works by the translators of the Nil Yayinlari publishing house, it is noteworthy that the numerous Islamic terms used in the Turkish text (originating from Arabic) are removed and replaced by terms referring to Christian culture: thus, “hizmet” and “dava” (a cause) become “mission” in the English version.


Fethullah Gülen, “A movement originating its own models,” The Fountain Magazine, online, (1997).


Bayram Balci, Missionnaires de l’Islam en Asie centrale: Les écoles turques de Fethullah Gülen (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose/IFEA, 2003).


Interview with an intellectual and journalist of a Turkish newspaper related to the Gülen Movement, Istanbul, June 2010.


Balci, Missionnaires de l’Islam en Asie Centrale, 209–237.


Gabrielle Angey, Le mouvement Gülen entre la Turquie et l’Afrique subsaharienne: Expériences croisées d’une institution transnationale, PhD diss., EHESS, 2017.


Price ranges dating from 2015/2016 (last year when the schools were opened in all three countries) taken from the websites of the following Gülen schools: Light Academy in Kenya, Yavuz Selim in Senegal, Fountain and Horizon Education in South Africa.


Angey, “The Gülen movement and the transfer of a political conflict”.


Eric Germain, L’Afrique du Sud musulmane: Histoire des relations entre Indiens et Malais du Cap (Paris: Karthala, 2007).


Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).


Joshua D. Hendrick, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World (New York: New York University Press, 2013).


Jean-François Bayart, “L’historicité de l’Etat importé,” Les Cahiers du CERI, no. 15, (1996), 23.


Lagroye and Offerlé define an institution as follows: “A system of relations, whether it takes the form of a device or a grouping, is worthy of analysis by the sociology of institutions, if it is regulated and not left to the chance of recompositions and circumstantial arrangements between individuals, if the behaviours of its members are at least partly, determined in the long term by their membership in this group, if the preservation of the rules and know-how that characterise it is an important stake for those who deal with it, and if mechanisms for the supervision and control of practices are effectively organised”, Jacques Lagroye and Michel Offerlé (eds), Sociologie de l’institution (Paris: Belin, 2011), 15.


Jacques Lagroye, Appartenir à une institution: Catholique en France aujourd’hui (Paris: Économica, 2009), 4.


Jacques Lagroye, Bastien François and Frédéric Sawicki, Sociologie politique (Paris: Dalloz, 2012), 269.




Interview, Dakar, 16 September 2014. Here the Senegalese teacher compares Fethullah Gülen to a marabout, thus criticising the Gülen followers who tend to be critical of the Sufi Islam in West Africa because it relies upon a strong personification of the leader. By saying so, P. suggests that Gülen followers who have the same religious behaviours are thus Senegalese Muslim fellows.


Marie Vannetzel, Les Frères musulmans égyptiens. Enquête sur un secret public (Paris: Karthala, 2016), 316. Vannetzel forges the notion of ethical conduct as a synthesis of “life conduct” proposed by Max Weber as “a systematisation of practical action, inspired by religious motives […] which takes the form of an orientation of action according to unified values”, and conduct in the Foucauldian sense as “ethical techniques of the self”, i.e. the ways in which individuals adjust their behaviour to the principles which they believe should order human existence.


In the Islamic tradition, the Arabic term daʿwa means “the call”. In the Sunni context, this refers to promotion of the cause of Islam either directed towards non-Muslims or towards fellow Muslims in an effort to help them deepen their Islamic faith and practice.


Participant observation, Johannesburg, 29 August 2014.


Interview with A., Istanbul, 17 March 2015. Translated from Turkish.


Pascal Dauvin and Johanna Siméant, Le travail humanitaire: Les acteurs des ONG, du siège au terrain (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2002), 59–103.


Journal Rewmi,, accessed 03/05/2017.


Journal Leral,, accessed 03/05/2017.


Said Nursi (1878–1960) created an innovative Islamic social action movement, the nurcu movement, in conflict with the Ottoman and then Turkish authorities in the early twentieth century. This offshoot from the nakşibendi brotherhood sought to rehabilitate Islam in a modernising Ottoman and Turkish society, which, according to Said Nursi, was in danger of sinking into Western materialistic decadence by denying its Muslim identity. Action, social more than political, is advocated to fight against the three main evils of Muslim societies in change that Said Nursi diagnoses: poverty, ignorance and intolerance. See Şerif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).


Gabrielle Angey, “Mehmet et Ayşegül, ou les mobilités multiples d’ ‘oblats’ de Turquie au sein du mouvement musulman transnational de Fethullah Gülen”, in Religions et classes sociales (Paris: Editions ENS, 2021).


Interview, Nairobi, 18 May 2011.


Balci, Missionnaires de l’Islam en Asie Centrale, 209–237.


Interview, Dakar, 8 September 2014. Translated from Turkish.


Interview, Nairobi, 18 May 2011.


Angey, “Dans les limbes”.


Angey, Le mouvement Gülen entre la Turquie et l’Afrique subsaharienne.


Interview, Dakar, 8 September 2014. Translated from Turkish.


Interview, Nairobi, 18 May 2011.


Angey, “Transfer of a political conflict from Turkey to Senegal”. Although the Senegalese schools were closed in 2017, the mobilisation of the Senegalese parents’ network made the “Turkish schools case” a central topic in the Senegalese press, and even discussed in the Senegalese parliament. This action postponed the closure for several months.


Lagroye, Appartenir à une institution.


Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Commitment and Social Organization: A Study of Commitment Mechanisms in Utopian Communities,” American Sociological Review, vol. 33, no. 4 (1968): 65.


Interview, Johannesburg, 1st August 2013.


Participant observation, Johannesburg, 29 August 2014.


Interview, Nairobi, 26 June 2011.


Interview, Nairobi, 26 May 2011.


Pierre Bourdieu and Monique de Saint-Martin, “La sainte famille: L’épiscopat français dans le champ du pouvoir,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 44, (1992): 5.


Jean-Louis Triaud and David Robinson, La Tijâniyya. Une confrérie musulmane à la conquête de l’Afrique, (Paris: Karthala, 2005).


Interview, Dakar, 9 September 2014.


Yves Dezalay, “Transnational Brokers. Cosmopolitan Heirs, Imperial Mercenaries, and Missionaries of the Universal”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 151–152, n°1–2 (2004), 4–35.


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Missions and Preaching

Connected and decompartmentalised perspectives from the Middle East and North Africa (19th-21st century)



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