Informal Education and Youth Culturing in Post-Gülenist Turkey

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Aydin Ozipek, Northwestern University

While Turkey has a long history of being notoriously polarized and of different groups fighting, occasionally through violent means, for control over state resources, the last decade saw an unlikely conflict between two conservative Sunni-Muslim groups: the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen Community[1], which used to be close allies throughout the 2000s. The AKP government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan designated the Gülen Community as a terrorist organization following the failed coup attempt in July, 2016.[2] Thousands were put in jail and tens of thousands were dismissed from their government jobs due to alleged Gülenist connections. Among the institutions that were shut down and/or confiscated by the government are banks, TV stations and newspapers, labor unions as well as employers’ organizations, and thousands of private schools. 

Emerging from the peripheral movement of political Islam, the AKP came to power in 2002 promising to put an end to a period of political instability and economic crises.[3] After rising to power, its leadership faced the challenge of ruling a country whose extensive state bureaucracy and influential media were at best suspicious of its intentions due to its Islamist past.[4] The Gülen Community, a religio-social movement that adopted a gradualist approach to social and political change through its emphasis on education, had a sizable yet precarious presence within the state bureaucracy, and enthusiastically offered its help. Through this symbiotic relationship, Erdoğan’s AKP gradually consolidated its power, whereas the Gülen Community quickly became a multibillion-dollar global network within a decade with unprecedented influence and control over Turkish politics, economy, education, and media.[5]

When the two allies turned into enemies in the early 2010s, the primary front that the AKP opened against the Gülenists was in the field of education as the government passed a measure to abolish the dersane (private prep schools for entrance tests) system altogether, which had historically formed the backbone of the Gülenist recruitment machine. Since its inception in the early 1970s, the Gülen Movement exploited the highly competitive and unequal organization of the formal education system by recruiting kids mainly from rural and lower-class families and providing them with good education as well as financial assistance in exchange for their loyalty. The Gülenists hoped that this “golden generation” would gradually play a politically and socially transformative role through their influence within the state bureaucracy as well as across the civil society and media. 

While the Gülenist education network has now been completely dismantled, in what ways and by whom is the vacuum left by the Gülenists being filled? Part of a larger ethnographic project on the youth culturing campaign of the AKP government, this paper relies on data from fieldwork conducted at a youth culture center run by the AKP-led municipality of Esenler, a lower-class district on the European part of Istanbul. Providing a brief overview of the history of conservative investment into informal education in Turkey, it argues that while the AKP largely retains the pedagogical approaches and practices of earlier Islamist and conservative groups, it increasingly faces the challenge of bringing them under state control. Thus, the main axis of tension that characterizes the ongoing formation of the AKP’s agenda for youth governance is between centralization, which is driven by the pervasive anxiety over security, and decentralization, which is driven by the dominant principles of privatization and social segmentation. 

From Peripheral Critique to State Project: The Conservative Challenge to Secular Pedagogy 

Turkey has a long history of controversies over the form and content of national education. The modern Turkish state abolished the dual educational structure that consisted of religious and modern educational institutions during the late Ottoman period, seeing the latter as a crucial tool for the construction of the nation and the nation state. As part of the educational reforms during the early Republic period, the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic alphabet, an ideology of Turkish nationalism replaced the religious discourse, a literacy campaign was launched, coeducation replaced single-sex education, and curricula and textbooks were introduced in line with the ideals of the Republic.[6]

These reforms, however, did not go unchallenged: Feeling estranged in the spaces of the secular nationalist education system, different religious groups in Turkey searched for ways of implementing their alternative pedagogical practices. After the 1980s, they became increasingly able to do so in informal educational settings such as houses, culture centers, private prep schools, camps, and dormitories. Social inequalities, along with the structural problems of the formal education system, contributed to the creation of this dual infrastructure of education in its contemporary form. 

The AKP’s success in the majoritarian electoral system came from its ability not only to mobilize these diverse Islamist and/or conservative groups under a single political agenda, but also to transform them in the process.[7] The most prominent example of such groups was the Gülen Movement, which until recently dominated the field of informal education in Turkey by recruiting youth mainly from lower class backgrounds. Offering them a chance of upward mobility through education in exchange for their loyalty, the movement created a massive army of devoted followers who provided the crucial human resource to its political ambitions.[8]

After 2011, however, growing disagreements between these two allies began to surface, followed by several alleged Gülenist attempts to overthrow Erdoğan, all of which eventually failed. An important front in this fight was the field of education: The first measure taken by the government against the Gülenists was to abolish the dersane (private prep schools for entrance tests) system altogether, which had until then formed the backbone of the Gülenist recruitment machine. Following the coup attempt of 2016, the Gülen network was designated as a terrorist organization, and its schools in Turkey and abroad have been taken over by pro-government organizations. Since then, the AKP has been investing heavily on informal education through foundations such as Turkey Youth Foundation (Turkiye Gençlik Vakfı/TUGVA)[9] as well as its municipal governments, which have their own youth branches and organize various youth-oriented activities, including preparation courses for the highly competitive entrance exams. This paper asks why the AKP, despite now having full political control of the national education system,[10] still retains this dual educational structure. 

The Esenler Youth Culture Center as an Alternative Pedagogical Space

The Esenler youth culture center is located at the center of the district, in a building that used to be a Gülenist prep school but had recently been confiscated by the government and allocated for the use of the youth center which is sponsored by the municipality. I chose Esenler as one of my sites for my fieldwork on the AKP’s youth culturing campaign because it is one of Istanbul’s largest lower-class districts where the AKP has consistently gained the electoral majority.[11] I learned that several teachers and administrative staff members had recently been fired due to Gülenist affiliations. While things were never settled at the center, reflecting the dizzying turbulence of Turkish politics in recent years, one of the constants at the culture center was Cemil Hoca, the director of the center who had formerly lived in Germany and had long-term experience in youth training. The most frequent of the extracurricular activities was the seminars, or sohbets, led most of the time by Cemil Hoca and occasionally by speakers coming from outside the center on religious or social issues, mostly consisting of inspirational advice, historical anecdotes, and sometimes political commentary catered for the young audience. Cemil Hoca was an inspirational speaker who most of the students thought understood the concerns of youth and occasionally gave them life advice that they appreciated. Several female students told me that even though they initially came to the youth center to get training for entrance exams, which are highly competitive and – as mentioned earlier – formed the niche that the Gülen Community built its extensive prep school network on, they learned about religious issues and started to veil thanks to his sohbets. For the students, it was a sign of his sincerity and his care for students, which they often complained about not seeing enough from their parents and public-school teachers.  

A certain form of piety and religious discourse was taken for granted at the youth center and promoted by the administration as the proper form of training youth. Daily prayers are performed collectively, led by teachers or occasionally students; girls and boys, aged between 12 and 18, have separate days for coming to the center; religious music – most often rap songs by a handful of pious rappers – are played during breaks; and unlike other public spaces in Turkey the everyday discourse is heavily infused with words and expressions that index pious sociality. 

The widespread sentiment at the center was that conservative Sunnis are still the disadvantaged group in Turkey, even though the AKP has been in power for almost the past two decades.[12] Several students told me in a group conversation that others, that is, seculars and Alevis, would not miss anything except for the religious sohbets by not being included in the spaces of the youth center, because they thought they were already better off financially and therefore would be able to afford training elsewhere. 

Unlike in almost all other public educational spaces in Turkey, symbols and discourses of the Kemalist republic and its founder Ataturk were conspicuously absent. The collective national past was imagined with reference to pre-Republic times as, for example,  the walls and desks were decorated with images of Ottoman sultans or inspirational quotes from major Sufi figures such as Rumi. 

In all these respects, the Esenler youth culture center occupied a peculiar place in the segmented structure of education in Turkey. It was not part of the national education system; therefore, its curriculum or its material organization were not dictated by the Ministry of National Education. On the other hand, it was not run by a religious community or NGO; therefore, it was not totally independent from the government’s educational and youth culturing agenda. It was formally defined as a public space since it was run by the local government, yet it was highly exclusive in terms of its overtly pro-AKP discourse and pious makeup. The youth culture center, thus, embodied the contradictions and tensions inherent to the rule of the AKP; it was simultaneously a space of critical alternative pedagogy and a space that reproduced and was directly controlled by the political power.

Bringing Informal Education under State Control 

On an afternoon towards the end of my fieldwork, Eren, one of the teachers at the center with minor administrative duties, took me out to a kebab place nearby, along with several other teachers. They were all in their late-twenties and mostly hung out together. Eren saw me as a reliable person who is also an outsider, so he always felt comfortable when he was with me complaining about the issues in his life including the youth center. I had sensed their discomfort earlier that day but did not find the opportunity to ask what was going on. 

Shortly after, they opened up: There were rumors over the past couple of days that Turkey Youth Foundation (Turkiye Gençlik Vakfı/TUGVA) was seeking to incorporate the youth center into its centralized structure. TUGVA had been founded three years before with the explicit aim of offering an alternative to the Gülen network and bringing the field of informal education under government control. It was unofficially overseen by the President’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, and had numerous AKP figures in its management including the mayor of Esenler as a higher advisory board member. Eren and his colleagues were not happy with the ambiguity, and concerned that even if they kept their jobs, they would now be part of a much deeper hierarchical structure which they thought would undermine their relative independence. Even though they acknowledged the fact that being part of TUGVA would enable them to have better access to some public schools as it was officially endorsed by the President’s Office, they also expressed concern that Esenler had a particular makeup and local dynamics, which might get lost within the top-down structure of TUGVA. 

This particular tension between keeping it local and making it part of a centralized structure was reflective of the AKP’s predicament at the time. An important factor behind the AKP’s continuing popularity among large segments of the population has been its emphasis on local governments, which facilitated the production of alternative publics at the local level, especially for the conservative Sunni population which constitutes the bulk of the AKP’s electoral base. This has been in line with neoliberal political logics which encourage privatization, spatial segregation, and cultural segmentation. In the domain of education, the AKP has continuously incentivized private schools and encouraged pedagogical diversification at the local level. This is one of the primary reasons the youth culture center in Esenler was attractive to young people from traditionally conservative families. 

There were also “pull factors” towards centralization, driven primarily by the logic of security. The Gülenist experience has produced a massive shock and distrust among the conservatives in Turkey. This was much more pronounced than that of the dissenting youth at Gezi Park, as the former is considered a blow from within. This resulted in a pervasive feeling of paranoia over the activities of religious groups, which serves as a pretext for furthering the state control over the spaces of informal education. TUGVA is one of the major pro-government youth organizations that were founded as part of the AKP’s efforts to bring this domain under its political control. 

Eren and his colleagues stressed the importance of grassroots mobilization and local-level policy-making, although at the same time they acknowledged the potential benefits of being part of a larger centralized structure. They hoped that the uncertainty would be resolved without losing their “local touch.” As mentioned before, the mayor of Esenler was sitting in the high advisory board of TUGVA, and thanks to his political influence, this tension was resolved by keeping them separate but increasing the level of coordination and collaboration between them. In the new arrangement, TUGVA would allow the youth center to occasionally use its resources as well as its brand, whereas the youth center would be able to keep its relative independence although it would be required from time to time to share its staff and facilities with TUGVA. 

This new arrangement was incipient but working by the time I finished my fieldwork in Esenler. Regardless of its future success or failure, it pointed to the main axis of tension that largely shaped the ongoing formation of the AKP’s agenda for youth governance. In other words, the effectiveness of the AKP’s youth politics will ultimately lie in its capacity to manage the tension between the forces of centralization, which is driven by the pervasive anxiety over security, and of decentralization, which is driven by the neoliberal principles of privatization and social segmentation. Yet, it is still possible to draw conclusions from the particular dynamic that I described above: There exists a drive towards centralization in the field of informal education; however, this does not threaten the distinction between formal and informal education. In other words, whether controlled by TUGVA or the Esenler local government, informal educational spaces are central to the AKP’s youth policy. 


This paper explored why the AKP government in Turkey continues to invest heavily in informal education despite now having full political control over the Ministry of National Education. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork conducted at a youth culture center in one of Istanbul’s lower-class districts, it argued that while the AKP largely retains the pedagogical approaches and practices of earlier Islamist and conservative groups, it increasingly faces the challenge of bringing them under state control. This creates a significant dilemma: while the AKP’s success in the electoral system has largely rested in its willingness and capacity to encourage alternative publics at the local level, especially for the conservative Sunni communities which constitute the bulk of its electoral base; the recent challenge posed by the Gülenist community that nearly toppled its rule heightened state security concerns and led to efforts to extend governmental control to the spaces of informal education. The case of the Esenler youth culture center was illustrative of this dilemma. While the informal organization of the center as well as its ability to incorporate Sunni Muslim symbols and practices into its makeup were what made it distinctive from the centrally-run formal education system – and thus a more effective space to recruit youth into the AKP’s collective – the drive to bring such spaces under state control made its relative autonomy highly precarious after a giant pro-government organization wanted to incorporate it.

[1] For a couple of studies that addressed the community from a critical distance, see Hendrick, J.D., (2013). Gülen: the ambiguous politics of market Islam in Turkey and the world. NyU Press & Turam, B. (2007). Between Islam and the state: the politics of engagement. Stanford University Press.

[2] For the coup attempt and its aftermath, see Yavuz, M. H., & Balci, B. (2018). Turkey’s July 15th Coup: What Happened and Why. University of Utah Press. For a detailed analysis of the coup attempt, as well as the new security paradigm that emerged in the post-coup era, see Şen, S. (forthcoming). Civil-Military Relations and the National Security State After the Failed July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey

[3] The five-year period prior to the AKP’s rise to power saw multiple corruption scandals, a military intervention in 1997, two major financial crises in 1999 and 2001, and a massive earthquake in 1999.  

[4] For the widespread perception of threat posed by the rise of political Islam among secular Turks, see Özyürek, Esra. Nostalgia for the modern: State secularism and everyday politics in Turkey. Duke University Press, 2006. 

[5] For a careful look at the depth of Gülenist presence across government sectors as well as geographical regions, see Foreign Policy, The Geography of Gülenism in Turkey, March 18, 2019.

[6] See Sam Kaplan, The pedagogical state: education and the politics of national culture in post-1980 Turkey. Stanford University Press (2006) & Ayça Erinç Yıldırım, History and Education: Perceptions, Changes and Continuities During Early Turkish Republic. Libra Press (2017).          

[7] Cihan Tuğal, Passive revolution: Absorbing the Islamic challenge to capitalism. Stanford University Press (2009).

[8] Aydın Özipek, Cultivating” A Generation Through Education: The Case of The Gülen Movement. Unpublished MA Thesis. Central European University (2009).

[9] See Ayça Alemdaroğlu, The AKP’s Problem with Youth. Middle East Report 288 (Fall 2018). 

[10] For the AKP-led changes in the formal education system, see Demet Lüküslü, “Creating a pious generation: youth and education policies of the AKP in Turkey,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16:4 (2016).  

[11] For the relationship between the AKP’s grassroots mobilization and urban poverty, see Kayhan Delibaş. The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey: Urban Poverty, Grass Roots Activism and Islamic Fundamentalism, London, Tauris (2016).

[12] For the affective politics of the AKP and how it actively cultivates a sense of collective victimhood among its supporters, see Nagehan Tokdoğan, Yeni Osmanlıcılık: Hınç, Nostalji, Narsisizm, İletişim (2018) (in Turkish).