Last year, Zeinab Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian-American teacher visited Egypt with her family to attend the weddings of her two brothers. Eventually, she decided to temporarily settle here to escape deteriorating economic conditions in the US. But the 31-year-old mother had to first find a decent school for her five-year old son.
“I was looking for an Islamic school; that was the most important thing for me," recalled Abdel Aziz. "At the same time, I wanted an American school because we can go back at any time.”
But as soon as she got wind of the nascent Salahaldin International School (SIS), a Turkish enterprise, Abdel Aziz felt compelled to investigate.
“When they told me about their vision and how they are implementing the American curriculum and applying the values of religion at the same time, I loved the school right away and told my husband 'this is the school',” said Abdel Aziz.
The confluent American curriculum and religious instruction did not only convince Abdel Aziz as a parent; it also encouraged her to apply for a teaching position at SIS. Eventually, her son was enrolled and in the fall of 2009 she was hired as a first-grade teacher.
Salahaldin has, since its establishment less than two years ago, conquered the booming market of international education in Egypt. The institution, located in the heart of Cairo's posh eastern suburbs, has succeeded in attracting 650 students whose parents, like Abdel Aziz, seek both a first-class education and religious upbringing.
“Parents do not want their kids to be totally in a Westernized environment,” said Salahaldin director Shawkat Shimshek. “They want good education with their social values. We said 'this is the environment you are looking for'.”
The school is affiliated with the international movement of widely known, liberal Islamic thinker Fethullah Gulen. Followers of the Sufi intellectual constitute the largest and most influential Islamic group in Turkey. The group, which aims to revitalize the Islamic faith, is known for its moderate views and promotion of universal values. Gulen currently lives in self-exile in the US and preaches tolerance, interfaith dialogue and co-existence between Muslims and the West.
Since the 1990s, the movement has sought to spread Islamic principles through educational outlets in Turkey and abroad. Schools started to crop up in Central Asia and eventually moved across the globe.
“We have a character education program," said Shimshek. "We focus on responsibility, respect, caring, citizenship and giving back to society.”
Islam stands out as the cornerstone of the school’s curriculum. Besides government-dictated religious books, the school offers a “character building” class that is inspired by Islam but taught in English.
“If we speak of honesty, we look for the Hadith [Prophet Mohamed’s sayings and deeds] or the Quranic verses that talk about honesty,” said Shimshek.
Quran sessions are a pillar of the school’s vision. All grade levels including kindergarten are expected to learn how to memorize and recite Quranic verses at least twice a week, according to Shimshek.
Kamal Mogheeth, an expert with the state-run National Center for Educational Resource Development, says schools that combine Western curricula and religious education meet the needs of a rising Islamized elite that seeks integration into an ever-globalizing world.
“These schools have seized the opportunity and want to cater to the need for Western education, foreign languages and the engagement in a global world on one hand and the urge to protect local identities whether religious or ethnic,” said Mogeeth.
But the religious focus at SIS has risked deterring some potential clients like psychiatrist Mona Yosri who was nearly dissuaded from enrolling her two sons last year.
“I did not send them to that school until I felt sure they were moderate," said Yosri. "I fear religious fanaticism especially that there are other Islamic schools that are very violent with kids and make them hate religion.”
Like most international schools in Egypt, the tuition fees at SIS are expensive. Depending on the grade level, the fees range between LE22,000 and LE35,000.
“Egypt is a very good market for international schools,” said Shimshek. “Maybe people want something different, possibly the facilities, the quality of education, and the English language which is very important in this county and the Gulf area. A lot of parents want their kids to be able to speak and communicate in English. They see this as the future for them.”
In small-sized classrooms, students from grade one through twelve are taught by Egyptian, Turkish, British, Canadian and American staff. As English is the first language, the school is keen to hire native speakers as instructors, according to Shimshek.
“They have everything, they make your life easier," said Abdel Aziz. "They pay for everything you want to use in the classroom."
Besides Islam, the school also strives to promote Turkish culture through optional language classes that are offered not only to students but also parents. Every Saturday, Yosri goes to Salahaldin to attend Turkish classes. In addition to language training, teachers and students are sent on exploratory journeys to Turkey during breaks in the school year.
“Turkish people serve as a good example for us,” said Yosri. “One of the reasons why I chose the school is because Turkey has progressed at an amazing pace in the last 20 years. I hope we can benefit from them and their expertise.”
In recent years, Turkey has risen as a formidable regional force, challenging traditional Middle Eastern power-wielders.
In May, the Turkish administration, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, impressed Arab observers by embarrassing Israel on the international stage after Israeli forces attacked the Turkish flotilla seeking to break the Gaza blockade. That incident added to Erdogan's established credibility in the region after he had clashed with Israeli President Shimon Peres over the humanitarian situation in Gaza at The World Economic Forum a couple of years ago.
Turkey is also regarded by laymen and intellectuals alike in the Arab World as a success story for its continuous progress and European Union admission prospects. The fascination with the Turkish model had prompted the Egyptian regime to routinely launch smear campaigns against Turkey in the state-owned press.
Turkish investment in education in the Arab region should be read in this context, according to Mogeeth.
“Turkey wants to play a regional role and it is logical for it to do that in parts of its former empire that fell almost a hundred years ago,” Mogeeth says. “It does not have to resurrect an empire along Ottoman lines but it can do it by spreading its Turkish culture.”