Date posted: May 22, 2015
ŞULE KULU / ISTANBUL
Turkish schools established by educational volunteers affiliated with a movement inspired by teachings of Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen receive widespread praise due to the quality of education they provide internationally, but for months they have been targeted by the Turkish president.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged a war against the Gülen movement since a major corruption investigation that implicated him and many in his government became public in December of 2013, and has pressed for the closure of the Turkish schools in countries he visits. Most recently, he campaigned for the closure of these schools in Albania, a request respectfully dismissed by top Albanian leaders.
In Tirana last week, Erdoğan described the Gülen movement, which has established a global network of primary and secondary schools, universities and associations that strive to promote education and interfaith dialogue, as a terrorist organization. “We consider this structure, which has become a threat to our nation and state, to be a terrorist organization,” Erdoğan said in his call for Albanian authorities to shut down schools associated with the Gülen movement.
Erdoğan’s remarks have sparked a barrage of criticism from Albanian politicians, with Albanian President Bujar Nishani strongly rejecting Erdoğan’s characterization of the Gülen movement and dismissing the Turkish president’s demand for the closure of the schools. “There is no such terrorist organization in Albania. In my view, the Gülen schools pose no threat either to Albania or Turkey,” he said in a televised interview aired on the Ora News station earlier this week.
Erdoğan, who praised these schools for contributing to the use of Turkish as a global language on a number of occasions, all before the corruption investigations became public, including during personal visits to the schools abroad and when attending the ceremonies of the Turkish Olympiads, now claims that the movement and its sympathizers in state bureaucracy were behind the investigations, but fails to provide any evidence.
However, the president’s campaign has failed to eclipse the long-standing record of the schools’ achievements in more than 160 countries around the world, and, with no indications that the schools are at odds with local authorities, none have been closed. Academic research, observation by journalists, and reports by authorities all support the reputation of the schools as institutions that promote peace on a global scale.
“The Turkish school has so far obeyed the law. As long as you conduct your educational activities within the legal framework, you will not have the slightest trouble in my country,” Central African Republic (CAR) Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza said recently, after praising the school’s contributions. “Above all, the Turkish school has proven that it is our real friend by not leaving the country during its internal turmoil. …We will never forget this,” she added.
Samba-Panza hosted the general manager of the International Central African Turkish School, Yaşar Sağınç, at her office last month. During the meeting, she expressed appreciation for the school remaining open during the ongoing civil war, saying: “A friend in need is a friend indeed. You are our true friends.” The CAR is one of the poorest countries on the African continent. A civil war erupted in March 2013 between Christian and Muslim militia groups. Samba-Panza also said she has been monitoring the Turkish school closely and has been pleased with both its educational activities and the social welfare projects it conducts.
The Turkish school is the country’s most prestigious secondary school, and is attended by the children of the foreign minister, the interior minister, the gendarmerie general commander, as well as by those of many police chiefs, diplomats, UN representatives and foreign ambassadors. However, Sağınç also ensures that the children of impoverished families receive education without discrimination at the school, and has stated that 10 percent of the school’s students are orphans who are granted scholarships. Turkish, English and French are languages taught at the school.
According to the general manager of the school, it is the only one that has not been forced to close down amid the conflict, explaining: “No building was left un-looted in Bangui. The only buildings they did not touch were ours. No rebels or looters attacked any building where a Turkish flag was flying. Even if they had attempted to do so, people in the nearby neighborhoods would never have allowed them. Our neighbors told us: ‘This is our school. We would never allow anyone to enter it.’ They even patrolled in front of the school.”
Struggling to provide education under such hard circumstances, Sağınç complained about Erdoğan’s war against the Turkish schools, saying: “I cried when I heard Erdoğan had called [educators working at the Turkish schools] ‘terrorists’ and ‘agents.’ Being referred to as a ‘terrorist’ while we are trying to fly our nation’s flag amid very difficult circumstances has left us deeply saddened.”
Earlier this year, on a tour of several African countries, Erdoğan persisted in his efforts to have schools affiliated with the Gülen movement shut down. During his visit to Ethiopia, he said: “In the countries we visit, we have been talking about the status of these schools and saying they should be closed,” adding that he had told African authorities that the Turkish Ministry of Education is ready to offer their students the same service provided by these schools. “The ministry is close to finishing its preparations to that effect,” he stated. Erdoğan’s call was widely perceived as being reminiscent of past moves of colonial countries that wanted an educationally backward Africa they could easily exploit.
Jean Paul Kouo, the deputy education minister of the Ivory Coast, said in a recent interview that it is interesting to see Erdoğan pushing for the closure of Turkish schools that are affiliated with the Gülen movement in African nations but remaining silent about similar schools in Asia, Europe and the US.
Pointing out the demand for more schools in his country, Kouo said: “If the Turkish authorities have good intentions, we invite them to open more schools. But we will not allow them to touch the [Hizmet-affiliated] schools, because they are ours.” Kouo added that Turkish officials should not use African countries as part of domestic Turkish politics.
Kouo, who is responsible for private schools in the African country, described the Hizmet-affiliated Şafak educational institutions in the country as national schools, saying that they do not impose any other system on local students and just work toward providing a quality education. According to Kouo, the schools in his country and the Nigerian Turkish Nile University (NTNU) in Nigeria — the only Turkish university in Africa — are aimed at the development of African nations.
Africa is not the only region where Turkish schools are successful. The schools operate on all continents except Antarctica, but the feedback they receive is almost the same. The schools enjoy significant prestige in many countries around the world and have garnered international prestige for Turkey, too.
In Laos recently — which in 2010 honored a Turkish school with its highest state medal for the school’s excellent performance in an international olympiad — Turkish schools in the country were granted another state medal for their contribution to the country in sports.
Back in 2010, the Eastern Star Bilingual School in Laos was presented with the country’s highest state medal after its students won an honorable mention in the Senior Energy category in the 2009 International Sustainable World (Energy, Engineering & Environment) Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP), which is a science fair open to high school students.
The medal was bestowed upon the school by the Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone and was presented at a ceremony hosted by the Ministry of Education. The president also sent a letter of thanks to the school administration. Laos Deputy Education Minister Sengdeuane Lacthathaboun spoke at the recent award ceremony, presenting the medal to the school on behalf of the Laotian president. “The school’s success in the olympiad is a first in the history of Laos. The school has proven that our students are able to succeed in the international arena,” he noted.
The minister also presented the school administration with thank-you letters written by the prime minister and the minister of education.
A major sign that Turkish schools abroad enjoy prestige and outstanding success is that the children of countries’ politicians and senior bureaucrats are among the students of these schools, further weakening Erdoğan’s chances in his war against Turkish schools across the world. “I feel lucky my son studies in the Turkish school,” Laotian Information, Culture and Tourism Minister Bosengkham Vongdara said during a science festival organized recently by the Turkish Eastern Star Bilingual School.
Two of the grandchildren of President Sayasone, the son of Culture Minister Vongdara and the daughter of Trade Minister Nam Viyaketh are among the students at Turkish schools in Laos.
A senior education official in the Philippines has advised parents to send their children to Turkish schools opened by volunteers from the Gülen movement in Philippines.
Manila Provincial Education Director Luz S. Almeda received a group of Gülen-inspired volunteers at his office earlier this year. Receiving information about the activities of the schools in Manila and the schools’ preparations for this year’s Turkish Olympiads, Almeda said parents in the Philippines can send their children to these schools without hesitation.
Her statements reflect earlier remarks by Philippine Education Minister Armin Altamirano Luistro, who has invited more Turks to open new schools in his country. “Please open Turkish schools in every region of the country. I am ready to do anything necessary for this,” the minister has said.
The education minister of Mali has said his country hopes Gülen-inspired volunteers who operate Turkish schools in the African country will establish a university soon in order to be a role model for Malian universities.
Kenekou dit Barthelemy Togo, who was appointed the minister of secondary and superior education and scientific research by the government of Malian Prime Minister Modibo Keita in January, recently hosted managers of the Horizon Turkish Schools, which operate in the Malian capital of Bamako, and those of the Galaxy Cultural and Dialogue Center, which was opened by 2010, at his office.
Expressing his gratitude for the visit of the Turkish volunteers, the minister said he had been following the activities of Turkish schools since his university years when he met with friends attending these schools.
Togo said he thinks Horizon Turkish Schools, which provide high-quality education from kindergarten to high school, should open a university in Mali in order to be a role model for Malian higher education institutions. “I hope a Turkish university opens soon in Mali,” he said.
The minister stressed that apart from the high-quality education offered, Turkish schools are of great value for Malian people due to a math competition they pioneer, representing the country with medals at international competitions, as well as their humanitarian and social contributions to the country.
First opened in 2002 in Bamako, Horizon Turkish Schools are ranked the most successful high schools on university exams, according to official figures.
The Turkish schools the government aims to shut down have a crucial role in many countries, in addition to their influence in establishing bridges between cultures.
Security problems, a lack of educational opportunities and teachers, and traditional beliefs that imprison women in their homes are all reasons why girls cannot go to school in Afghanistan. Despite the difficulties, Turkish volunteers went to civil-war-torn Afghanistan to set up schools there. In a short time, they established good relations with Afghani locals. During the Taliban era (1996-2001) in Afghanistan, the Taliban closed down Turkish schools in the country, but students and parents supported those schools and even patrolled them to prevent equipment in the school buildings from being stolen. After the Taliban period, new Turkish schools were established in various parts of the country.
Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak recently said he wishes there were at least one Turkish school in each city of Afghanistan, adding: “If Turkish schools become widespread in the country, the other local schools will start to adopt the education system of those Turkish schools…I want to point out that those Turkish schools not only give a good education but also help students develop good character. When you educate a girl, this means you also educate a family, enriching society and then the economy.”
*Emre Demir and Atıf Ala from Bangui, Selman Tezgel from Bamako, and Metin Çelikel from Abidjan contributed to this report.
Source: Today's Zaman , May 21, 2015