The president, the preacher and a private education

The president, the preacher and a private education
Feature: Turkish officials are lobbying against schools affiliated to Fethullah Gulen, as the rift deepens between President Erdogan and the exiled religious leader.
7 min read
12 February, 2015
The Erdogan-Gulen fallout has had widespread consequences [AFP]

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia last month was hailed in some quarters in Africa as another important milestone in Turkey’s 17-year-old Africa outreach policy.

But there was more to it than that. A partnership-turned-bitter-rivalry with a preacher, Fethullah Gulen, played a big role in the visit. The Erdogan-Gulen feud means the Turkish government is now seeking to expand its global soft power reach at the expense of the self-exiled US-based preacher.

     Why target Africa? Simply put, because the West won't buy that crap.

- Vincent Kanayo, columnist

Since 1998, the Turkish government has been extending its hand to aid sub-Saharan African countries through bilateral trade relations, development initiatives and humanitarian aid. Turkey chooses the countries it feels are most in need of help, but the mission to Africa also enables Ankara to exert considerable influence in the region and reap gains from its soft power initiatives.

Host countries targeted by Ankara have sizeable Muslim populations, and recipients have generally reacted warmly to Turkey's efforts.

"There is a tremendous difference between the Somalia of three years ago and the Somalia of today," said Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud during a press conference with Erdogan. "Turkey's contribution is indispensable to Somalia's reconstruction."

African mission

However, there were ulterior motives to Erdogan's visit to the Horn of Africa last week, motives to do with the Turkish-president’s long-running feud with erstwhile supporter-turned-rival, the self-exiled influential US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen.

Erdogan's visit to Ethiopia coincided with a new initiative from Turkey’s national education ministry to provide teaching projects to developing countries in a direct challenge to widely respected private schools in 120 countries run by Gulen’s religious mass movement.

"We are telling the leaders of the countries we are visiting that our ministry could take part in education in return for the closure of those schools," Erdogan told the press in Addis Ababa.

"Our ministry has almost completed the preparations for that."

The Erdogan-Gulen feud dates back to 2013 and one of the most sensational corruption probes in recent Turkish history which targeted senior officials, including Erdogan himself, from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan blamed Gulen for starting the allegations and has accused the cleric’s movement of acting as a "parallel structure" to the state.

Turkish authorities have since jailed journalists linked to Gulen, and are looking at other ways to limit the influence of the movement.

The feud keeps resurfacing. Last Monday, for instance, Gulen, who leads a Turkish religious movement popularly referred to as Hizmet (the service), accused Turkey's leaders of taking the country down a path towards totalitarianism.

A reaction, if such it was, was swift. On the following day, 3 February, Turkish banking authorities seized control of Bank Asya, an Islamic lender allied to Gulen, citing a lack of transparency.

The Gulen movement boasts millions of followers in Turkey, and the organisation has established a network of schools across the world. Education is one of the cornerstones of the religious movement's philosophy. The movement is considered a conservative force inside Turkey but a moderate religious movement elsewhere that emphasises a focus on maths and science in its schools.

Education, education, education

These private schools reach 120 countries, including developing nations where the establishments are considered quality institutions by parents and teachers alike. And the moves to undermine these schools stand in sharp contrast to how relations between the AKP and the Gulen movement used to be.

At one time, Gulen was an integral partner in the rise to power of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. The relationship between the two lasted for more than a decade. The preacher had kept a low profile during the nationalist, military-aligned governments of 1990s, and the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002 seemingly provided Gulenists with a bounty of opportunities.

Gulen himself has been self-exiled to the US since 1999. The charismatic leader is known for his moderate approach to Islam and its practice. He is sometimes is described as a Muslim reformist. Promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue and “acceptance of the other” – as per the movement’s website – Gulenists and their army of teachers have spread the cleric's message across the Third World, since the demise of the Soviet Union.

After AKP secured power, and benefitting from AKP's Islam-scented conservatism, Gulen schools mushroomed in many parts of Africa and other parts of the world, thanks in large part to the Turkish government's efforts to build bridges with nations across the world.

However, this cooperation came to a screeching halt during the corruption probe.

With the movement seen as having a strong presence among Ankara's intelligentsia, especially Turkey’s judiciary, when prosecutors launched a corruption probe at the end of 2013, the investigation was quickly perceived as a declaration of war against the AKP government.

The subsequent fall-out has been dramatic and has affected all levels of government, from the judiciary to intelligence and military as well as political issues such as the so-called “resolution process” on the decades-old Kurdish issue.

Since the first cracks began to show, Erdogan has rallied his supporters in an effort to cut the sizeable financial support to the Gulen movement, much of which originates in Turkey. And one of the first targets were the private preparatory schools, or "dershanes" as they are referred to, that were supported by wealthy Gulenist benefactors.

That battle also had international repercussions as Ankara started to put pressure on countries to close any Hizmet-affiliated schools within their borders. This has culminated now in the new measure by the education ministry to provide alternatives to Gulen schools. And in addition to the Turkish president's remarks in Addis Ababa regarding Gulen schools in January, the government has been working on finding ways to either close down or take over those schools.

On 26 January, Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, announced [Tu] that the national education ministry is seeking ways to take over the schools.

A lingering spat

Speaking to al-Araby al-Jadeed, Abdulkadir Ozkan, the press advisor to the national education ministry confirmed the department's plans to expand the network of Turkish state schools abroad.

With 60 schools abroad under the administration of the ministry, more are in the pipeline, according to Ozkan, though exactly what kind is still being decided.

"Our education minister [Nabi Avci] made a presentation at the council of ministers meeting and various options, ranging from foundation schools to institutions directly linked to the ministry, are now being evaluated."

Gulen movement-linked schools have plenty of financial support. But they still work under the conventions and regulations of their host countries. Thus Erdogan's efforts have borne fruit in some countries with amicable relations with Turkey. Russia has banned Gulen schools in the past, and Azerbaijan followed suit in June 2014.

According to Erkam Tufan Aytav who works at the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation, Erdogan's Africa visit is a continuation of his policy in Russia and Azerbaijan to snuff out the Gulen movement.

"The main mantra behind seeking their closure is the threat that the schools are allegedly posing. However, if there is any, the threat is not directed at the hosting countries, they are directed at Turkey."

These schools, he says, are also active in developed countries like Germany and France.

"You cannot go to France and tell them their intelligence is flawed and that these schools are posing a serious threat. I think the African countries will tell the Turkish government the same."

A similar reaction has been seen in some African quarters. In a column for Nigeria's influential newspaper The Leadership, Vincent Kanayo argued that the Turkish president's pressure to close down schools "serves the purpose of Erdogan, not that of Africa".

Ottoman on the school curriculum? Only if it is not political. Read more

"But why can't he go to the United States, the United Kingdom and other western countries where the schools blossom? Why target Africa? Simply put, because the West won't buy that crap," Kanayo wrote.

According to Fehim Tastekin, a columnist with al-Monitor, Erdogan's geographical choice is directly linked to Turkey's dwindling influence in international arena.

"I do not believe that you can convince anybody by saying that these schools could be harmful," Tastekin told al-Araby. "This condescending attitude is like saying 'we know what could be harmful for you better than you do'."

Not all agree. Osman Can, a law professor at Marmara University, said the structure and modus operandi of Gulen movement institutions should give pause for thought.

“The Gulen movement is a political tool, just like Kemalism, just not secular” Can said, referring to the movement founded around the ideals of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish republic and a fierce secularist.

Speaking at a forum arranged by the Ankara-based think-tank SEA, Can said the Gulen movement showed similar characteristics to a cult.

"In terms of political philosophy, it has a totalitarian structure. In terms of theological philosophy, it is a superstitious/Messianic organisation."

The spat will rumble on, as the ministry finds ways to convince foreign governments to subsittute private Gulen schools for Turkish-government run institutions. It’s not an easy task.

"The Turkish government is attempting to open schools in foreign countries in return for the closure of Gulen schools," Tastekin said.

"This is 2015. Schools under the direct influence of a foreign government would be considered as spying institutions. In this era, this is not a realistic method in investing in education. We are not living in the 19th century."

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