The development of the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, in Kurdish-populated cities goes back to the late 1980s. The first Hizmet institutions were university exam prep centers (dershane) in Diyarbakir and Urfa in 1988. Hizmet’s educational initiatives were financed by local businessmen, who developed friendship ties through weekly tea conversations (sohbet). In his research on the Gülen movement in the city of Mardin, Mehmet Kalyoncu explains how these sohbet meetings were crucial in raising consciousness among the Kurdish population:
Between 1988 and 1991, periodic sohbet meetings served as an agent of outreach. These meetings took place in the participants’ houses on a rotating basis, and through them more people were brought to understand the necessity of doing something to combat deprivations in the city, especially in the field of education. Most of them agreed that the state was unable to provide the necessary education services not only in Mardin but in all of southeastern Turkey. In fact, some of them even thought that the ultra-secular state deliberately deprived the region of schools and other basic services to punish the region’s Kurdish population. Either way, the unchanging realities were that the number of unemployed and uneducated youth in Mardin steadily increasing and these people constituted the main recruitment source for both PKK and Hizbullah. Eventually, they all agreed that the local people would have to bear the responsibility of tackling the education problem in Mardin. (1)
In addition to prep centers, Hizmet volunteers established private high-schools in the early 1990s. The main curriculum and philosophy of these schools followed the path of earlier Gülen movement schools in Western Turkey such as Yamanlar and Fatih. (2) These expansive projects were often followed by successful establishment of local sohbet networks, which reached out to wealthy Kurdish businessmen in Istanbul for funds.
Atak high-school in Mardin, for example, was the product of a few visits by a Mardinian local businessman to Dr. Vahid Atak, owner of a private hospital and several shoe factories in Istanbul. (3) In the early years, most teachers in Hizmet educational facilities were ethnically Turkish; but as Kurdish volunteers in the Hizmet movement increased in number, Kurdish teachers replaced them. Kalyoncu notes that, in fact, teachers’ western origins proved to be an advantage rather than an issue for concern. In the words of Hayri Bey, “Most of us were quite impressed to see teachers, who were originally ethnic Turks from modern western cities like Istanbul and Izmir, coming to the underdeveloped Southeast and preparing ethnic Kurdish and Arab students for the university admissions test.” (4)
The 1990s witnessed rapid proliferation of sohbet groups in every Kurdish city and town, (5) but only after the European Union reform initiatives (2002-2004) did Hizmet activists become more visible in Kurdish civil society. A decrease in PKK violence enabled Hizmet volunteers to engage in large public projects such as charity organizations, village development associations, reading halls for poor students, and women’s fraternity clubs. The opening of democratic channels helped not only civic association development but also strengthened Hizmet’s reach to ordinary Kurds. In Nusaybin, for example, Hizmet’s prep school
(Sur Dershanesi) had only 15 students in 1996. The number of students increased exponentially in 2000s, reaching 280 in 2004, 480 in 2005, and 900 in 2006. (6) Given that Nusaybin was under strict control by the PKK in the early 1990s, and was later dominated by Hizbullah, Hizmet volunteers had severe difficulties in their activism.
Among the most powerful civic initiatives, reading halls are worth mentioning. In the past decade, Hizmet participants have established 25 reading salons in Diyarbakır alone, serving more than 3,000 students annually. One of the directors of these salons indicated that maintenance of a single reading salon requires almost YTL 100,000 (about USD 55,000 at the time) annually. (7) In addition to full-time teachers, some volunteer teachers in public schools work on weekends. The reading salons are active not only in the eastern and southeastern provinces, but also in Kurdish-populated suburbs in western cities such as Izmir and Mersin. According to one estimate, the Hizmet movement has reached over 140,000 students across the country by establishing free reading halls in shantytowns. (8)
The number of private schools and prep centers also increased rapidly. Offering high- quality education from kindergarten through grade 12, private schools charge tuition and are not as numerous as prep centers. Yet, 20% – 25% of students in these schools receive full scholarships; the schools operate in every city, including Dersim (Tunceli). (9) By the year 2009, the overall number of Hizmet educational institutions in Kurdish-populated provinces was 289, with 84,282 registered students. (10) As Figure 2 indicates, enrollment numbers skyrocketed after 2004, increasing at an average rate of 8,544 students per year. (11)
Moreover, Hizmet’s charity activism in the past decade has supported its educational ventures. The movement’s nationwide charity organization Kimse Yok Mu began opening branches in the region in 2004. Kimse Yok Mu has its origins in a show of the same name on Samanyolu TV, a channel established by Hizmet volunteers in 2002. Kimse Yok Mu literally means “Isn’t anyone out there (to help)?” Although the organization’s primary focus is relief rather than poverty alleviation, it has paid attention to victims of endemic poverty in the Southeast. Kimse Yok Mu branches had rapidly mushroomed all over Turkey by 2007.
In 2006, after severe flooding struck Kurdish-populated Eastern Turkey, Kimse Yok Mu distributed the equivalent of almost EUR 2 million in supplies. Hizmet volunteers regard Islamic holidays as special occasions for charity distribution. Kimse Yok Mu annually sets up Ramadan tents and distributes meat during the Feast of Sacrifice, an Islamic ritual known as Eid Al Adha. Launching a major campaign, the organization aided about 17,000 families in 2006 and 60,000 families in 2007 in celebration of the Feast of Sacrifice. (12)
One particular feature of the Feast aid is striking: local Kurdish Hizmet activists invite Turkish Hizmet activists from the western regions of Turkey to attend the Feast observation and make donations to families directly. Each year, thousands of Turkish activists distribute meat to the needy during the Feast of Sacrifice, visiting the region for the first time in their lives. (13)
Alpay, a local representative of Kimse Yok Mu, told me that this is a helpful way to create bridges between Kurds and Turks. He told the story of a businessman from Istanbul who was so prejudiced about Kurds that he wouldn’t employ them in his factory. As a donor to Hizmet initiatives in Istanbul, he was invited to participate in one of the Feast of Sacrifice campaigns by Kimse Yok Mu. After visiting the region for the first time and distributing meat to the needy, the businessman regretted his bigotry.
Thus, Hizmet’s charity activism is aimed at removing prejudices in both Turkish and Kurdish constituencies, and accordingly, building social trust in the long run.
(1) Mehmet Kalyoncu, A Civilian Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey (Somerset, NJ: Light, 2008), p. 45.
(2) For pedagogical aspects of Hizmet schools, see Bekim Agai, “Fethullah Gülen and his Movement’s Islamic Ethic of Education” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies vol. 11, no: 1 (Spring 2002) pp. 27- 47.
(3) Dogan Koç, “The Hizmet Movement and the Kurdish Question,” in Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Question, edited by Fevzi Bilgin and Ali Sarihan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013) p. 61.
(4) Quoted in Kalyoncu, p. 48.
(5) In this rapid development, the influential Kurdish thinker Said Nursi’s symbolic linkage with the Hizmet movement played a remarkable role. See Mustafa Gurbuz, “Revitalization of the Kurdish Islamic Sphere and Revival of Hizbullah in Turkey,” in Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Question, edited by Fevzi Bilgin and Ali Sarihan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013) pp. 173-75.
(6) Kalyoncu, p. 70.
(7) Author interview. Diyarbakır, July 22, 2009.
(8) “Gülen Hareketi PKK’ya Karşı.” Yeni Aktüel November 22, 2007
(9) Koç, pp. 184-85.
(10) The data covers 16 provinces, namely Adiyaman, Agri, Batman, Bingol, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Elazig, Hakkari, Gaziantep, Mardin, Mus, Sanliurfa, Siirt, Sirnak, Tunceli, and Van. See, Koç, p. 187.
(11) Koç, pp. 186-87.
(12) Hizmet participants organize similar campaigns worldwide. In the initial phase of the campaign, over 1.5 million people in more than 50 countries were recipients of food. See Thomas Michel, “Fighting Poverty with Kimse Yok Mu?” Paper presented at international conference, Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen movement, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. November 14-15, 2008.
(13) In the initial phase of the campaign in December 2006, for example, 18,073 people from Western Turkey visited the region as Kimse Yok Mu volunteers. See Koç, “The Hizmet Movement and the Kurdish Question,” p. 191.
Turkey’s Kurdish Question and the Hizmet Movement. Rethink Paper 22, March 2015. Rethink Institute, Washington DC. Click here to download the full paper.
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