TIRANA | It’s the first week of the new school year and teenage boys race down corridors, shouting and laughing, on their way to the next class. In the tented gymnasium in back of the school, girls are taking phys ed.
Tirana’s madrasa – coeducational, with a curriculum heavy on English, science, and computer skills, and a few Christian students among the Muslim majority – does not fit the standard image of a Muslim school. But then Islam in Albania, like the country itself, stands apart in many ways.
The Muslim community invited the Sema Foundation, an Albanian education organization backed by Turkish investors, to operate the madrasa in 2005, school co-director Hiqmet Patozi says. The external influence is underlined by the large Turkish flag that flanks his desk, opposite Albania’s standard.
The growing Turkish presence in Albanian schooling takes some explanation, considering Turkey’s limited economic presence here and the chilly relations between the two countries since Albania shook off Ottoman rule in 1912. Turkish business interests began investing in Albanian education nearly 20 years ago, when the country was painfully emerging from 45 years of isolation. The money has kept flowing ever since, as have questions about its sources.
Epoka University is a Turkish-backed institution that recently moved into a new campus near Tirana’s airport. It graduated its second class this year, with 112 students earning diplomas. Provost Hamza Aksoy, a native Turk, said the school’s initial backers sought to strengthen bonds between his compatriots and Albanians.
“We share the same mentality,” said Aksoy, who came to Albania 12 years ago to work at a Turkish high school and now holds Albanian citizenship.
Five of the country’s seven madrasas, a half-dozen secular private schools, and two universities in Albania are affiliated with a loose network of Turkish schools and businesses known as the Gulen movement, after its spiritual fountainhead, Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish Sufi scholar. Schools aligned with the movement, generally with Turkish upper management and a core group of Turkish teachers, operate in some 140 countries, including some with only tiny Turkish or Muslim communities. Uniquely in Albania, movement followers run Islamic as well as secular schools.
“Gulen interprets Islam in a positive manner, not a radical one. Gulen encourages his followers to devote themselves to education and to establish educational institutions at every level, based on certain moral values,” Aksoy said, but he would not be drawn out on whether the university’s financial backers or Turkish staff actively participate in the movement.
“Gulen institutions do not publicize their Gulen affiliation anywhere they operate,” said Bill Park, a British expert on Turkish politics.
MODERNITY AND MONEY
Gulen, born near Erzurum in 1941, studied with Sufi teachers and at religious schools and began preaching while still in his teens. He also drew inspiration from the writings of Said Nursi, a Turkish theologian who called for the reintegration of science into Islamic religious study. His followers established their first schools in Turkey in 1982. Ill health forced him to give up active preaching in the late 1980s, by which time he was one of Turkey’s most influential Islamic figures.
A website run by his followers says the movement “focuses on the betterment of the individual toward a positive change in society. The movement is distinguished for its support of democracy, its openness to globalization, its progressiveness in integrating tradition with modernity, and its humanistic outlook.”
The estimated 1,000 Gulen schools are concentrated in Turkey; Turkic-speaking Central Asia; parts of the Balkans; Germany, with its large Turkish population; and the United States.
Another feature of the movement is its attractiveness to the entrepreneurial Turkish middle classes who provide its major funding source. Gulen followers own or have sway over many businesses in Turkey, from the largest daily newspaper, Zaman, to banks, hospitals, and radio stations.
The movement has no official structure or membership, but certain features mark its followers, according to Kerem Oktem, an expert in Turkish politics and European Islam at Oxford University.
Oktem calls Gulen “a modern missionary movement,” yet the mission has business and educational goals as well as a religious side. “They seek to change the image of Turkey in the world,” he said, largely through the network of secular schools. “Their aims are not necessarily to convert everyone to Islam.”
The activities of movement followers, however, sometimes attract negative attention. In the United States, authorities have investigated several of the estimated 120 publicly funded Gulenist schools for alleged violations of immigration rules in importing Turkish staff. Newspapers including Der Spiegel and The New York Times have reported on suspected Gulenist links to the nationalist wing of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In Albania, a country where countless private schools jostle for the small middle class’ education lek, the Turkish schools’ appeal appears to lie in their reputation for high academic standards. They demand academic and personal discipline, offering a curriculum heavy on English, science, and math and an excellent chance of being accepted at a university, foreign as well as domestic. For Albania’s secular elites, these advantages far outweigh the schools’ Islamic tinge.
Another attraction of the madrasas is economic. Students pay no fees, thanks to the support of the Sema Foundation. In contrast, tuition at secular Gulen schools is out of reach for most Albanian families. At the most elite school in the network, the English-language Memorial International School of Tirana, tuition starts start at 3,000 euros for preschool and kindergarten and rises to 5,750 euros for grades 10 to 12.
Some Albanian critics of the Gulen movement fear what they call its creeping encroachment into the country’s educational and Islamic spheres. Only here do Gulen-affiliated organizations run madrasas in addition to secular schools. In 2010, a small group of religious leaders trained in Arabic-speaking countries formed the League of Albanian Imams. They and others accuse Gulenists of easing their way into the main offices of the Muslim Community, which operates five of the country’s seven madrasas in partnership with the Sema Foundation and last year took over Beder University, the country’s first formal Islamic institution of higher education.
But the gradual extension of Turkish influence in Albania more likely came about through a combination of unique circumstances, Oxford’s Oktem argues.
When religion was made legal again in the early 1990s, Albania’s Muslim community, like others in the region, was happy to accept the generous funding being distributed by Islamic organizations in the Gulf states. After the 9/11 attacks, when the United States made clear to its Balkan allies that it did not welcome Arab-influenced Muslim networks in the region because of their alleged support for extremists, the Gulf money began to dry up, Oktem said. The Muslim Community then approached the Gulen movement, already active in secular schools since the early 1990s, with a request to take responsibility for the madrasas.
Those who fear a creeping Turkification of Albanian politics and business are well wide of the mark, Oktem says.
“Turkey, and the Ottomans, in general do not have good associations for many Albanians. Most Albanians were educated into a fiercely anti-Ottoman national identity,” he said.
Albania, which broke away from Ottoman rule in November 1912, was at once among the most loyal and the most prickly of the empire’s European possessions. Many Albanians rose to high positions in the sultan’s service. At the same time, the isolated tribes of the mixed Catholic and Muslim north existed in a state of near-autonomy for centuries, and even in the more loyal central and southern regions, Muslim beys carved out semi-independent fiefdoms.
“There may be a constituency in Albania that is more pro-Turkish or pro-Ottoman, but the Albanian elites are strongly secular and tend to anti-Turkish views,” Oktem said.
TROUBLE IN TURKEY
Fethullah Gulen emigrated to the United States in 1999 after Turkish media leaked tape recordings in which he supposedly called for his followers to lie low and gather strength before coming out openly for an Islamic restoration in the officially secular country. In 2000 he was convicted in absentia of attempting to establish a religion-based state. The verdict was overturned in 2008, but he has remained in seclusion at his house in Pennsylvania rather than return to Turkey.
Publicly Gulen sets a high value on interfaith and intercultural dialogue, secular education, and democracy, and has said he opposes bringing religion into politics. He has lent his name to professorial chairs at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and Australian Catholic University, and to a research institute at the University of Houston.
Typically, after getting a chain of schools up and running in one country, Gulen followers will move to a new region and start networking and building relationships, as happened in Albania shortly after the fall of communism, Oktem said. Gulen schools usually receive start-up funding from Turkish investors and charities. Eventually, the schools are expected to at least break even.
“Ideally, they can then bud off people to seek out ground for new schools elsewhere,” he said.
Epoka University provost Aksoy said primary funding for the nonprofit institution comes from a group of about 50 investors in Turkey. The university is owned by the Albanian-registered Turgut Ozal Education Co., which also operates Memorial International and several other schools. A kindred organization called Gulistan Institucionet Arsimore (Gulistan Educational Institutions) runs schools in Tirana and Shkoder and a language and college-prep center in the capital.
Like other Albanian private colleges, Epoka’s academic offerings focus on in-demand fields like public administration, economics, and engineering. All courses are taught in English. There are no plans yet to offer majors in the humanities or sciences, Aksoy said. Most of the three dozen or so private post-secondary schools in Albania resemble technical colleges rather than research-oriented institutions, but nonetheless, scions of Albania’s political and business leaders have studied at Epoka, according to Albanian media.
Aksoy said Epoka never intended to be an elite school, but he did not distance himself from the idea. “We are a very successful school and we attract successful people,” he said, while stressing that grade-point average is the primary criterion for selecting applicants.
The Tirana madrasa also boasts of its academic success. Almost all graduates go on to university, co-director Patozi said, most in secular fields. The curriculum is approved by the Education Ministry; one hour in seven is devoted to religious study, said the school’s Turkish co-director, Kasim Ilhan. There are a few Christians in the current student body of 460, and they, too, study the Koran. After all, Patozi said, smiling, “It is a madrasa.”
He acknowledged being acquainted with Gulen’s works.
“If he is in favor of peace and interfaith understanding, that is good. I have read him, but others, too,” Patozi said. “There was Islam before Gulen and there will be Islam after him.”