The role of Turkish schools in the educational system and social transformation of Central Asian countries

The common characteristics of Turkish school students, as frequently stated by all the participants, are being well-bred, hard working, honest, goal oriented, self-disciplined and rational individuals who appreciate the modern way of living. As is mentioned by Weber, these characteristics seem to reflect the values of Puritanism which played an important role in the development of capitalism in the USA, because these moral values and belonging to such a group were assets in the market economy.

The role of Turkish schools in the educational system and social transformation of Central Asian countries

Cennet Engin Demir, Ayse Balci and Fusun Akkok

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian countries have pursued nation-building; that is, the work of establishing political economic and social institutions, developing new national identities, and elaborating alternatives to communism as the ideological underpinnings of their new societies and policies.

Turkey is considered to be an important stabilizing actor in this emerging new world order because of its strong historical, cultural, ethnic and linguistic bonds with the newly independent Central Asian countries. The role of Turkey was discussed not only within Turkey but also in the West. Western countries were concerned that radical Islam might fill up the power vacuum created by the collapse of the USSR, and they therefore strongly encouraged these states to adapt a ‘Turkish model’ of secular democracy combined with liberal economy. (1)

All throughout history the educational process has been perceived as a very influential agent of the socialization process with the power to shape, reshape, refresh or build the social and psychological environment. It has been perceived to have the same functions in the social transformation of the Central Asian Countries in the transition period. In this context the role of Turkish schools in the educational system and in the social transformation of Central Asian countries in the transition period is open to exploration. The purpose of this study was to investigate the role of Turkish schools in the educational system and social transformation of Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in the transition period.


Subjects and general structure of Turkish schools

There are 20 Turkish schools in Turkmenistan and 13 in Kyrgyzstan. Inter- national Turkmen-Turkish University and Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University were also founded in those countries. Four of the schools were opened by the Ministry of Education of Turkey. The rest of the schools were founded by the [Gulen inspired] Baskent Education Company in Turkmenistan and the Sebat Education Company in Kyrgyzstan. Those companies are sponsored by Turkish businessmen in Turkey and in Turkmenistan/Kyrgyzstan. There are general high schools, vocational schools, and elementary schools, and computer and language courses that provide education and training in two countries. The Baskent and Sebat Education Companies’ schools were integrated in the Turkmen/Kyrgyz Education System.

Four of Baskent Education Company’s schools and the Turkish Ministry of Education’s Anatolian High School were included in the study in Turkmenistan. Two Sebat Education Company’s schools and two schools opened by Turkey’s Ministry of Education were selected in Kyrgyzstan for this study.


The first theme: Differences between the Turkish and Turkmen/Kyrgyz schools

The first question was about the reasons for their preference of those schools.

Similar reasons were stated by both the Turkmen and Kyrgyz parents about their preferences for the Turkish schools, such as the opportunity to learn four languages (English, Turkish, Russian and Turkmen/Kyrgyz languages); more discipline, the training of students as well-behaved and hardworking individuals); the high quality of instruction (e.g. education at world standards); and the opportunity to develop computer skills.

One Turkmen parent said: ‘Students who finished those schools will have important positions in Turkmenistan in order to take the country to world standards because they can attend universities in any Western country with the qualifications gained at this school.’

One Kyrgyz student seemed to have another reason: ‘I preferred this school to develop my morality. I am one of the first students of this school. I really think that I will become a fully functioning man after graduation. I came here by chance, but now, I think it is a God-sent blessing. I heard about this school through the newspapers. I also heard that there are positive attitudes towards religion in Turkey, that is why my mother sent me here to learn a foreign language and develop my morality.’

One of the [Turkish] administrators in Turkmenistan said: ‘I think we have a historical mission. Helping people who gained their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union is a pleasure, since we have the same language and religion. Everybody is satisfied with this help. The Turkmen government supports us and values our schools.’ An administrator from Kyrgyzstan seemed to share the same desire and feelings with his colleague in Turkmenistan.

Turkmen/Kyrgyz teachers and administrators have different reasons for working at the Turkish schools. They mentioned that working conditions were very satisfactory, because of the sufficient salary, qualified students selected by an examination, and good relationships among colleagues and administrators. Turkmen and Russian teachers mentioned that Turkish colleagues were very helpful and students were more disciplined and gave better performances.

The second theme: Parent–school relations

All of the Turkmen/Kyrgyz parents were very satisfied with their relationships with the school and the teachers. The majority of them visit the schools quite often in order to get information about their children. The Turkmen/Kyrgyz parents stated that the teachers of the Turkish schools were very kind and willing to help parents and their children. The teachers and the administrators in the Turkish schools make a special effort to develop an effective relationship with the parents. They visit all the parents and they recognize the parents of their students by name. Both parents and teachers are very pleased with this and they believe that this contributes to the effective- ness level of the Turkish schools.

The third theme: Contributions of the Turkish schools to Turkmen/Kyrgyz relations

All of the subjects agreed that they had gained information about Turkey and the Turkish culture. Parents got information about Turkish culture through their children; also, the teachers and the administrators of those schools invite the Turkmen parents to their home for dinner and introduce Turkish meals, family patterns and culture. One parent said: ‘We felt more close to Turkey after my son started attending this school.’ While explaining the role of the Turkish schools in the publicity of Turkey, another parent said: ‘There are 20 schools in Turkmenistan. Students of those schools learn about Turkey as if they have visited or lived in Turkey since they eat Turkish bread’. Some successful students had opportunities to visit Turkey and their expenses were met by the school and the sponsors. One of the assistant principals said: ‘None of the students of the Turkmen-Turkish schools can have a negative attitude toward Turkey after graduation since they are educated by Turkish teachers.’

The fourth theme: Impact of the Turkish schools on the Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan educational system and process of social change

Students of the Turkish schools participated in International Competitions (Olympiads) in math, physics, chemistry and biology and they were awarded first positions. The Turkmen/ Kyrgyz government and communities believed that their countries were represented at an international level through the students of the Turkish schools. Another point mentioned by Turkish teachers and administrators was the impact of those schools on the behaviour of their students, since they were recognized as very well-behaved individuals who respect their elders and work very hard.

One of the Turkmen assistant principals said: ‘We need “know how” for the development of our country. Those schools provide hope for us in achieving our purposes, because they train qualified people who are familiar with universal standards. This is very important for us, especially in the transition period.’ Turkmen teachers and principals also believed that these schools were models for Turkmen schools because Turkmenistan is trying to reform its educational system.

The teachers and the administrators in Kyrgyzstan believed that the Turkish schools train the future bureaucrats, leaders and technocrats who are equipped with various skills such as language, computer and leadership skills that might help them to be qualified individuals at universal standards.

Students were asked to indicate the possible impacts of their schools on their future life. The most frequently stated impact mentioned by all students were the opportunities to attend to a prestigious university in Turkey or in other countries and to find a good job in Turkish companies since they would be able to speak Turkish and English.

One of the Turkish students said: ‘I can live in any part of the world after I get graduated from this school since I know English and I am equipped with various academic skills.’ One of the Turkmen students said: ‘In Turkmen schools they are really worried about their future, but I am not.’ While explaining the impact of Turkish schools on their life Kyrgyz students mentioned that they would be pioneers in the development of their country.


In the period of social transition, Central Asian countries are in a process of reproducing their culture and their political system. Although education plays a crucial role in this process, these countries have education systems that need to be updated. This need is continuously emphasized by their leaders, and foreign entrepreneurs are encouraged to establish schools at international standards. The Ministry of Turkish Education and private companies opened approximately 100 Turkish schools in seven Central Asian countries. (2) In the Turkish public, there has been a great controversy about the purpose of the Turkish schools in Central Asian countries, especially the schools opened by the [Gulen-inspired] Baskent and Sebat Education companies. It was claimed by some people that the Baskent and Sebat education companies are sub-groups of a large organization directed and controlled by a creed known as ‘Nurculuk’. (3) The leader of this creed is Fethullah Gulen, and these schools are known as ‘Gulen’s schools’ in the Turkish community. However, the specific question asked by the community was: ‘Was teaching Islam the main focus of those schools?’

There might be different ways of looking at this question. The observations of researchers revealed no explicit signs of Islamic education, whereas the hidden curriculum such as the behavioural patterns of teachers, administrators and students, their preferred clothing style, and the magazines, books and TV channels preferred revealed implicit cues about their Islamic orientation. (4) Moreover, installing boarding schools and not having co-education could also be perceived as tools to internalize certain values and life styles.

The common characteristics of Turkish school students, as frequently stated by all the participants, are being well-bred, hard working, honest, goal oriented, self-disciplined and rational individuals who appreciate the modern way of living. As is mentioned by Weber, these characteristics seem to reflect the values of Puritanism which played an important role in the development of capitalism in the USA, because these moral values and belonging to such a group were assets in the market economy. (5) On the other hand, Fethullah Gulen is known as the representative of moderate Islam among other creed leaders in Turkey. Therefore, Gulen’s supporters were allowed to establish their schools in the Central Asian countries. This attempt seems to support the interpretations of several authors about the role of Turkey in Central Asia. (6) They mentioned that Western countries have often pointed to Turkey as the strongest state in the region, which may have an important role in promoting political and economic liberalization in presenting a more moderate form of Islam and in preventing the incursion of fundamentalist Islam. Gulen schools train human resources needed to implement this policy in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan as in other Central Asian countries.

In any case, several writers in Turkey claim that Gulen is supported and encouraged by Western countries, especially by the USA, to disseminate the moderate Islam in Central Asian countries. (7) Besides, teaching English is one of the strengths of these schools most frequently mentioned by parents and students. Learning the language of a nation leads to the learning of its culture. Western culture, together with a conservative and secular version of Islam, are exported to the Central Asian countries through education, which is a very effective agent for social change. (8) This process reinforces the idea that Turkey has been perceived as a political and diplomatic channel between the Central Asian countries and the Western world.

The above characteristics and some cognitive and technical skills that students developed in Turkish schools are perceived as necessary qualifications needed by their society in the process of transition from a centrally planned to a market economy.

In general, Turkish schools in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan are perceived as very effective schools. The most frequently stated strengths of these schools are the following:

  • the teachers and administrators show special effort to conduct a close parent–school relationships and parents are satisfied with this relations; since the entrance examinations of those schools are highly competitive, very successful and intelligent students are selected and that contributes to the quality of instruction;
  • teachers are highly motivated because of their working conditions and their personal goals such as serving people who have same religious, linguistic and historical origins as themselves;
  • compared to Turkmen and Krygyz schools the Turkish schools have more updated physical facilities such as language and computer labs, textbooks, buildings, satellite etc. Similar strengths were acquired by other missionary schools such as American Schools in Turkey in and after the period of the Ottoman Empire.

One of the important problems of Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in the transition period is the dramatic decrease in the quality of education. There are several reasons for this low quality of education: teachers are not paid regularly, salaries are very low so that teachers need to have additional jobs; there is a lack of sufficient learning materials and textbooks and bribery at every level of formal education, especially in the enrolments and examinations. The government started to allocate less money for education compared to the socialist period and people cannot meet the cost of education for their children. (9) Turkish schools are perceived by some parents as an opportunity for their children to have a quality education since Turkish schools support successful but poor students. Curricula implemented at those schools are more up to date than the curricula implemented in Turkmen and Kyrgyz schools. In this context, Turkish schools are perceived as a model to raise the quality of education in order to have citizens who are able to cope with the requirements of market economy and the modern world. Since the graduates of Turkish schools can speak English and Turkish effectively, they are perceived by the Turkmen and Kyrgyz communities as future pioneers to establish and maintain the relationships with Western countries.

The responses of participants revealed that Turkish schools contribute to the development of economic and cultural relations between Turkey and Turkmenistan/Kyrgyzstan, since they all have information about Turkey and the Turkish culture and they seemed to be impressed by the social and economic power of Turkey in the Middle East and Asia. Therefore those schools serve the political and economic goals of Turkey in relation to the Central Asian countries.

As a final word, when we consider the characteristics and needs of Turkmen and Kyrgyz societies in their transition period, it is possible to conclude that Turkish schools contribute to the development of Turkmen and Kyrgyz societies as well as increase the quality of education. The most important impacts of these schools on Turkmen and Kyrgyz communities are the training of future leaders and bureaucrats, helping the students in developing a notion of being a nation and serving the unity of their countries. Therefore, Turkish schools provide a base for cultural and social restructuring, which may create opportunities for their countries to integrate with the capitalist world.

Notes and references

  1. M. Aydin, ‘Turkey and Central Asia: challenges of change’, Central Asian Survey, Vol 15, No 2, 1996, pp 157–177. Oral Sander, ‘Turkey and Turkic world’, Central Asian Survey, Vol 13, No 1, 1993, pp 37–44.
  2. F. Bulut, Kim Bu Fethullah Gulen: Dunu ̈, Bugunu ̈, Hedefi , Istanbul: Ozan Yayincilik, 1998), p 210.
  3. Nurculuk is an order founded by Said Nursi (1873–1960). Basic principles of the order were determined in the Risale-i Nur (book) which was written by Said Nursi. The followers accept the Risale-i Nur as an interpretation of Quran. According to Nurculuk, the most important duty of modern Muslims is to maintain and rescue the faith against the modern science and philosophy. See Ana Britannica, Vol 16, 1989, p 620. However, S;duerif Maardin claimed that Nurculuk was an Islamic movement rather than an order (tarikat). See, Serif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman, Said Nursi, New York: State University of New York Press, 1989, p 40. One of the followers of Nurculuk is Fethullan Gulen in Turkey, because, Nurculuk did not have a single leader after Said Nursi. Students (talebe) of Said Nursi started to lead the movement collectively. See Rusen Cakir, Ayet ve Slogan: Turkiye’de Islami Olusumlar, Istanbul: Metis Yayinlari, 1990, p 88–91.
  4. McNeill, Curriculum: A comprehensive Introduction, 5th edn (Los Angeles: HarperCollins System, 1996), 
p 339.
  5. H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, (London: Routledge, 1991), p 312.
  6. M. Ahrari, ‘The dynamics of the new great game in Muslim Central Asia, Central Asian Survey, Vol 13, No 4, 1994, pp 528–539; Hunter op cit, p 139.
  7. Bulut, op cit, p 211.
  8. M. Haghayeghi, Islam and Politics in Central Asia (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), p 183; Ahrari, 
op cit, ref 13, p 529.
  9. UNDP, Turkmenistan: Education Sector Review (Ashgabat, 1997), p 47.


Summarized from the article “The role of Turkish schools in the educational system and social transformation of Central Asian countries: the case of Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan” in the [journal of] Central Asian Survey (2000), 19 (1), 141–155


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