Why do parents choose a Gulen school for their children: a case study in Belgium

In public schools, no attention is paid to the individuality and differences of students. The education is structured, strict and competitive. Here at L’Ecole des Etoiles, it is more individual oriented. They adapt it according to the personal differences. I see that children are confident both intellectually and morally, in every way.

Why do parents choose a Gulen school for their children: a case study in Belgium

F. Zehra Colak 

This paper explores a Gulen-inspired school in Brussels, L’Ecole des Etoiles, as a choice that provides parents with opportunities to realize their dreams regarding the education of their children. Conducting semi-structured interviews and participant observation, I carried out fieldwork among Turkish-Belgian mothers and investigated their motivations for choosing to send their children to L’Ecole des Etoiles.

Why L’Ecole des Etoiles?

Parents develop strategies with regards to what kinds of schools they prefer. They compare the opportunities provided by different schools while evaluating their expectations about the future of their children. The choices they make about schooling can impact the decisions of others who share similar social environments. The motivations of Turkish-Belgian parents for choosing to send their children to L’Ecole des Etoiles are various. It is important to underline that their choice for this particular school space does not only guarantee an education for their children but also satisfies their aspirations to a certain extent by recognizing their position as parents and hearing their voices. What they want for their children in a sense becomes what they want for themselves. They do not only ask recognition of their children’s culture, language and religion, they also ask for their background to be recognized and respected.

Many parents at L’Ecole des Etoiles dreamt of a more mixed school environment for their children. Yet, they were also aware this was hard to achieve soon considering the current structural challenges in their communities in Belgium. The fundamental motive for most of informants was the attitude of the teachers towards their children and to them as parents. Parents were in general relieved to see that teachers and directors genuinely cared about the future of their children and tried to improve student outcomes. They also desired a moral education rather than a directly religious one. Some parents chose L’Ecole des Etoiles on the grounds that it was founded by Gulen-inspired people and Gulen’s ideals were expected to be visible in the school space. Yet, it is rarely given as the sole reason for their choice.

L’Ecole des Etoiles can be considered as a space of occasion with a social centrality for most parents who share the dream of a positive, less discriminatory and less segregated future for their children, whilst supporting the ideals championed by the school and encouraging their children to develop an identity around these values.

The school management wants to address the wider Belgian community, however, the school has rather become a place for discriminated people with mainly Turkish and Moroccan ethnic origins. Despite the welcoming philosophy of the school, it is a matter of debate whether or to what extent the school can be successful in creating a multicultural school environment. During the interview, school principal Mr. Demir referred to the structure of society in Europe and how this was linked to why they could not attract native Belgian students:

Society is arranged in a compartmentalized way here. There are borders be- tween the neighborhoods and schools. The lines are drawn between spaces. We have not planned it this way. This is how the system works in an elitist and discriminatory way. We invite everyone to our school but what we are doing is like a little drop in the ocean. Plus, there is no alternative. If these students go to another school, it will most probably be a ghetto and there is always the possibility that they will be discriminated against. The conjuncture of the educational system does not provide equal chances for everyone. There are elitist schools, which are usually the church schools and ghetto schools mainly for those who have different ethnic origins than Belgium.

The school management encourages parents to send their children to clubs opened by municipalities so that their children will have an opportunity to make friends with children of different ethnic origins. It seems to be of the utmost significance to many parents to mix with others and not to live within ethnic boundaries.

The Teacher Question

The experiences of parents with previous schools are highly influential on how they define their relationship with L’Ecole des Etoiles and accordingly their comments incorporated many comparisons between different schools and teachers. It was emphasized by parents that a trusting relationship with teachers was vital for a positive interaction. They were particularly dissatisfied with teachers who were uncaring, not sacrificing, and not idealistic in other schools. «The teacher simply did not care about my child’s future» was a common phrase during most interviews. Almost all parents believed that the teachers in L’Ecole des Etoiles were more willing to sacrifice their time for the students and they paid more attention to thoughts of parents. Parents were particularly content with the fact that their ideas about their children’s education mattered to the teachers.

Selin’s present choices about her children’s education were primarily influenced by what her daughter had experienced in another school:

She was constantly failing maths, and thus she lost her self-confidence. I went to see her teacher, because just a few students passed the course. I thought the problem was the teacher. I was not taken seriously. I found private math teachers when we went to Turkey on holidays. Plus, my daughter was cringing with embarrassment. She had no friends but one. Now she regained her confidence here.

Besides the failure of her daughter, Selin was worried that she was ignored as a parent. When she decided to send her daughter to L’Ecole des Etoiles with the advice of her friends, she especially liked seeing strong links between teachers and parents. Her position as a parent was reaffirmed and recognized by teachers and this served to increase her motivation in choosing L’Ecole des Etoiles.

Schools opened by the movement are often criticized on the grounds that they do not “promote free will and individualism, but rather promote a collective consciousness and the schools are less likely to encourage self-reflection and self- realization of individual potential” (Yavuz 1999:598). Roya, a Moroccan mother in her early thirties working as an Islam teacher, argued the opposite, like some other parents:

In public schools, no attention is paid to the individuality and differences of students. The education is structured, strict and competitive. Here, it is more individual oriented. They adapt it according to the personal differences. I see that children are confident both intellectually and morally, in every way. Their self-confidence is increasing because they are at ease with school. In the previous school, he constantly had remarks as the toleration level was low. The quality of education is high here. You can always talk to teachers, principals. You can easily have access to them, they are very open.

Parents thought that in L’Ecole des Etoiles, the linguistic and cultural background of children was valued and considered an invaluable asset. Mrs. Temizer, the director of the primary school, explained how they guide teachers on how to approach students when they speak their ethnic language:

If students speak their own language, never ever give the impression that their languages do not matter. You have to get them to agree that they are advantaged in that they have access to several languages and they experience several cultures. They have got very high potentials and they can achieve a very good status in the future. They have to develop their ethnic language too, but not in the school. You have to learn French in the school, because you cannot learn it anywhere else. So, we need to show the advantages of their languages and make it meaningful for them.

Seda, who worked as an Islam teacher in several schools, remarked that she felt different in L’Ecole des Etoiles:

I am not speaking out of imagination, I know by experience. I go to six different schools to teach then go to L’Ecole des Etoiles to pick up my children. In L’Ecole des Etoiles, I feel the relations are more humane, softer. I feel relaxed as a person, not like an object or someone being talked to for the sake of formality. I can exibly wander around the school corridors, ask any question I like.

Seda developed an identification with the school due to the warm welcome and positive environment, where she enjoyed the flexibility and received respect as an equal individual. For most informants, their feelings about the school were shaped by how they were approached by the teachers and school staff, since this defined to a certain degree whether they could develop a positive spatial identification with the school.

Promoting Ethos in School Space

A particular school ethos is prevalent in L’Ecole des Etoiles similar to the republican ethos of schools in France (Hemming 2011; Cole 2001). This ethos entails a particular set of values, such as respect, kindness, sacrifice and caring, which are both being taught via an elective class and being actively promoted in the school environment by directors, teachers and staff who consider themselves as role models for their students. More than half of the parents showed concern regarding the moral cultivation of their children. These parents had expectations from the school in that sense, since they imagined the school as a space “providing a moral compass, and instilling a new sense of morality” (Parker & Jenkins 2002:277) into their children. I asked Mr. Demir if they had a special strategy for the transmission of moral values:

Human beings are composed of three dimensions. These are intellectual, instinctive and spiritual dimensions. The West has broken its bonds with the dimension of moral conscience. The mechanism is built upon the instinctive and intellectual dimension. If you ask people from the West about how they like children to be, they will tell you that they want their children to be knowing, intellectual, standing on their own feet, taking trips around the world, learning new languages and so on. Knowledge and individuality are the first concerns they have. Parents with Turkish origins will base their priorities on the moral dimension. They will prioritize being a good person, doing no harm to other people, contributing to one’s country and to humanity over individual development.

While describing the ethos of the school, Mr. Demir underlined that the intellectual dimension needs to be fed with knowledge and that the moral dimension should be fed with humanitarian values so that a moral conscience can be built. This, he said, is what they aim to give to pupils in the school, spreading a particular form of relationship between teachers, parents and students based on caring, sacrifice, respect, tolerance and understanding. For him, the source of inspiration is Gulen’s ideas, yet he carefully added that this should not mean that Gulen himself has any impact on how schools are run. In Demir’s opinion, Gulen brings a different interpretation to Islam; this allows them to live together and get on well with everyone. This, he stated, can be only possible through tolerance and compassion towards other people:

Gulen talks about non-reciprocal love and affection towards other people. He talks about the significance of altruism. We are motivated by the desire to gain the consent of God. We may be motivated by a religious desire, but the purpose is not the transmission of religion. We focus on loving people, and providing peaceful spaces for them, in a way addressing the needs of their conscience, too. This gives peace to people.

There is no explicit Islamic-oriented training in the school, however, parents have confidence in the school to raise their children in a morally sensitive manner. Some of them emphasized that they allowed their children to go on school trips because they were sure that the teachers would be sensitive about their values. Among those who cared about the moral content of education, some were inspired by the ideas of Gulen and felt that they needed to send their children to this school even though there were things they were not pleased about.

L’Ecole des Etoiles, as a symbolic space represents the system of ideals, values and principles supported by parents like Deniz. They believe that it is not right to choose another school when there is one where they could feel at home.

L’Ecole des Etoiles functions as an official educational space as well as a civil space founded by the support of grassroots organizations and commoners who were motivated to educate particularly immigrant-origin younger generations. Parents often attributed a symbolic and transcendental meaning to the way the school is organized and manifested as a space by directors, teachers, students and themselves. Obviously, L’Ecole des Etoiles “has a social centrality for those who share a structure of feeling and seek to establish an identity around it”


Excerpted from the article:

Colak. F. Zehra. “School as a Space for Recognition: Reading the Motivations of Turkish-Belgian Parents through Spatial Identification.” Hizmet Studies Review
Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring 2015, 31-54

Refer to the original article for references used in the article.

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