October, 1992. the Soviet Union has disbanded and chaos reigns in its former territories. Three times a week, a rattly Russian charter plane filled with young Muslim devotees flies east from Istanbul across barren, low-lying steppes to the capitals of Central Asia. The men are clean-cut, sharply dressed in dark suits and ties, trim of mustache and purposeful. It is the first foray out of their hometown for most, let alone on a plane, but such is their faith in Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Muslim imam they revere. "Fly like swallows," Gulen exhorted, "to these countries that are newly free, as an expression of our brotherhood."
Fly they did. Hundreds of volunteer teachers fanned out across five Central Asian republics. It was the start of a global movement that is now one of the largest and most powerful competing for the future of Islam around the world. There are an estimated 1,000 Gulen-affiliated schools in 100 countries from Malawi to the U.S. offering a blend of religious faith and largely Western curriculum. All are inspired by Gulen, an enigmatic retired preacher who oversees the schools and a multibillion-dollar business empire from the unlikeliest of locales: rural Pennsylvania.
Tall, lanky and possessing a smooth American accent, chemistry teacher Abdurrahman Sel was introduced to the Gulen movement while a high school student in Istanbul. His dad thought his garrulous nature would make him a good lawyer, but Sel was inspired to become a teacher because Gulen considers it the highest form of service. The only way for Islam to survive godless modernity and regain a place in public life, Gulen believes, is through a new "golden generation" who can combine Western scientific thinking with religious belief. Hence the schools.
Sel signed on for Central Asia in 1993 and drew Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan. "It wasn't even on a map or in the encyclopedia," he recalls. "There was no Internet then. But I was just out of university, I was single, and it was all a big adventure. Besides, we owed the people of Central Asia a moral debt. They are our brothers." Many Turks see Central Asia as their ancestral homeland and share an ethnic and linguistic bond with its people.
From Kazakhstan's then capital Almaty, Sel traveled by bus and shared car to the grim mining city and a shell of a school building donated by Kazakh authorities. "There was no heating. I taught in fur hat and gloves for months. We spent our weekends mixing cement and laying bricks." At first locals were wary of these strangers who couldn't speak their language, wore a tie even on weekends and refused vodka, as ubiquitous as water. "Everyone expected us to leave after a few months," Sel says. "But when we stayed, they embraced us."
Sel is now director of 28 high schools in Kazakhstan, from three when he first arrived. Entrance is by competitive exam. This year, 30,000 students applied for 1,400 spots and everyone I spoke to in Almaty, from a fashion editor to a construction magnate, wanted their child enrolled. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's nephews are among Sel's students.
Gulen, the 68-year-old retired imam behind this colossal enterprise has never visited Central Asia. He leads an ascetic life on an estate in Pennsylvania, where he has lived since 1999 for medical reasons, and to avoid facing (recently dropped) charges of seeking to overthrow the secular regime in Turkey. Gulen declined TIME's request for an interview, citing poor health.
His life mission has been to create a new Turkish-affiliated Muslim elite, well versed in science and technology, successful in a global free-market economy, yet extremely devout. The schools they are autonomous, so not technically "his" teach an English-language Western curriculum emphasizing science and math in the classroom (though creationism is offered as fact alongside evolution) and Muslim family-values-style conservatism outside it. In an era when most denominational schools are struggling, the Turkish schools, as they are known, are thriving.
"Gulen propagates a kind of 'educational Islamism' as opposed to a 'political Islamism,' " says Bill Park, a defense studies lecturer at King's College, London, who covers Turkey. Through the schools, Park says, Gulen hoped to effect "an 'Islamization' of modernity."