Erdogan’s Maarif Foundation To Contribute Radicalism, Exacerbate Muslim-Christian Tension In African Countries

Screenshot from Maarif Foundation website: Foundation's Board of Trustees visit President Erdogan.
Screenshot from Maarif Foundation website: Foundation's Board of Trustees visit President Erdogan.

Date posted: June 5, 2017

Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has aimed at replacing the positive contributions of the schools opened by the Gülen (a.k.a. Hizmet) movement in Africa to preventing clashes in countries, where there is Christian-Muslim tension, with radical Islamist rhetoric and thus will create conflict rather than dialogue in African countries, stated a report recently released by London-based Center for Hizmet Studies.

A report titled “The Turbulence between AKP and Hizmet: The African Case“, penned by academic Erkan Toğuşlu, a director in Gülen Chair for Intercultural Studies at KU Leuven University, has analyzed the possible results of probable transfers of the schools opened by Gülen movement to the Maarif Foundation which was established by Erdoğan regime to take over the schools abroad opened and operated by the movement.

Stating that the Hizmet movement with its education network and media was seen by Erdoğan as a hindrance on his way to the executive presidency, the report stated Erdoğan began to take aim at the schools abroad as part of the witch hunt targeting the movement. “He began to make calls to presidents and heads of state heads to demand closing down the schools. Erdoğan has pursued this struggle abroad by founding the Maarif Foundation and is now working on having the movement’s schools abroad handed to the Maarif Foundation. It should be noted that according to this plan the schools are to be supported and run through pro-AKP Islamist associations,” said the report.

The report also stated that one of the aims of the Maarif Foundation, that was established on June 17, 2016 by the decision of the cabinet and confirmation by the President, is to work upon the directives of the Turkish National Education Ministry. “The foundation appears at first sight to be a normal educational institution; however, the proposed range of operations of the foundation is so comprehensive that it seems to have been founded to become a parallel education ministry. The biggest difference it has with other foundations in Turkey is that it will also work abroad and will take over educational activities abroad in the name of the Turkish state… The foundation will take over all the schools abroad when it becomes active. Its budget comes from the state,” reminded the report.

The report continued to say that “Maarif Foundation was not set up for its stated aims of increasing education quality and particularly not providing education abroad. The obvious aim is to replace Maarif Foundation was not set up for its stated aims of increasing education quality and particularly not providing education abroad. The obvious aim is to replace and become an alternative to the schools of the Gülen Movement, which Erdoğan declared a traitor after the Gezi Protests in 2013.”

“Erdoğan is giving direct directives to the Maarif Foundation to close down the schools. In his directives he says, ‘You will be in 193 countries. You are going to prioritize countries where FETO is more effective and known. Do not let the FETO schools be called “Turkish schools.”” stated the report an went on “In the countries that are persuaded, the schools’ licenses are going to be cancelled and they are going to be illegally handed over to the Maarif Foundation working under the supervision of the Turkish Republic. Erdoğan has managed to persuade Pakistan and Somalia, and more recently Senegal declared that they are going to transfer the schools to the Maarif Foundation.”

The report also draw attention to the potential vacuum after closure or transfer of the schools opened and operated in African countries and stated that the countries that close the schools down will confront a set of problems in the immediate future.

The report has listed the possible problems to be caused by the Maarif Foundation in African countries as follow:

TO BE AN ESPIONAGE TOOL: The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the host countries will cease to some extent since the schools were one of the reasons for these diplomatic crises. For now, very few countries have accepted the Turkish government’s demands to close down the schools, and some countries like Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia have rejected the Turkish government’s proposals.

Countries that may open the door for Turkey to take over the schools have the very real concern of allowing another country to meddle in their educational policies and their domestic politics. Thus far, as private entities, the schools have been working hand in hand with the host country’s education policies. If taken over, the schools will be used as extensions of the political and ideological positions of the Turkish government.

When the Yavuz Selim schools in Senegal are handed over to the Turkish government, the teachers will completely follow the Turkish state’s directives. Turkey will want to use these schools to become a traditional power in Africa. The schools with their ties to Senegal’s political and economic elite will create a Turkish ‘diaspora’. In the next phase the Turkish government will transfer the domestic politics of Turkey abroad. Countries wishing to end the current political quagmire by handing over the schools will actually open the door to a new problem. Turkey has long been sending teachers and imams abroad to Europe to meet the demands of Turkish communities abroad. These imams work as the political long arm of the AKP today, and the media has recently exposed their activities as information-gathering agents in the countries they work in.

QUALITY OF EDUCATION: Second, the schools are currently known for their contributions to the education systems of the host country. Research shows that the education provided is in general above the country’s regular educational level. The high level of education provided, the academic success, the satisfaction of parents, the English-language education are not likely to be sustained if the schools are handed over to the Maarif Foundation, since the Turkish state will send its own teachers from Turkey and will export Turkey’s own chronic education problems to the receiving countries.

Recently in the Pisa research prepared by the OECD the problems of Turkey in the area of education have been discussed. According to this research the country has several problems in its education system, and it is questionable how Turkey can contribute to education in Africa in this situation. As such, it is clear that it cannot replace the successful education model of the Movement. The schools with their successes in maths and physics and their openness to cultural exchange will be staffed with and managed by opportunist people. Thus, when these schools are shut down or taken over there will be a lacuna in the quality of education.

VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Another problem in education in Turkey is violence and sexual harassment against children. The AKP has failed to prevent sexual harassment against children; such sexual crimes have particularly begun to surface in the Ensar Foundation, which is known to be close to Erdoğan’s AKP. It is seriously questionable how the schools that will be handed over to Maarif Foundation will deal with the issue of children’s health, safety, and character education.

ERDOĞAN’S RADICAL INTERPRETATION OF ISLAM: Third, a number of Muslim families send their children to Hizmet schools in Senegal, Chad, Mali and Nigeria. The main factors in their choice of these schools are the successful education and the teachers, whose motivation comes from their interpretation of Islam. The way the movement represents Islam and presents an understanding far from radicalism and terrorism fills an important lacuna in the Muslim world.

It is questionable how effective the Turkish government can be in the education they are going to provide with these schools given the fact they have regularly turned a blind eye to the actions of ISIS. Especially in Africa, the schools run by the AKP will have an unsettling effect in breaking the balances and the ethnic-religious-cultural sensitivities in Muslim-majority countries.

Voice recordings leaked in 2014 when Erdoğan was the Prime Minister exposed Mustafa Varank (Erdoğan’s principal consultant) talking with a Turkish Airlines executive assistant about weapons shipping to Nigeria on Turkish Airlines. It is possible that the Turkish government may use the schools for its own political aims and in ethnic and religious clashes, just as it used Turkish Airlines to ship weapons to an African state.

EXPORTING RADICAL ISLAM TO AFRICA: Fourth, alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia, another country is being added to the list of those exporting their own understanding of religion. It is certain that they will emphasize the tolerance of Turkish Islam, and will argue that this version of Islam is the most appropriate for Africa, but it is doubtful how this version will be suitable for the local religious and cultural fabric. The official Turkish interpretation is one which sanctifies the state and is replete with nationalism.

While the Gülen Movement demands a separation between politics and religion, the AKP government has been moving towards an Islamism that emphasizes politics. It is not clear what the AKP government’s Islamic model will bring to African Islam. Turkey ranks as one of the countries with the highest number of ISIS recruits. Turkey is also criticized for lacking in preventive measures against the activities of groups like ISIS. Turkey, with such a political attitude, may follow a political route in which it fuels tensions between tribes and religions in Africa.

SCHOOLS TO BE ABUSED AS TOOL FOR POLITICAL AMBITIONS: Fifth, Turkey has long been projecting its desire to be the leader of the Islamic world. Religious councils and the work of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are steps towards this end. Many religious leaders are hosted in Turkey. The path being followed is that of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, including attaining the loyalty of Islamic movements through offering them funds. This method is used in Africa through the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) and the Maarif Foundation. Erdoğan will use the means he attains by taking over the Gülen schools to attempt to gain leadership of the Islamic world. He will also want to improve his image as the ‘Caliph of Islam’ through the children of the political elites attending the schools. This will have an effect on the masses that believe in the image of Erdoğan as the leader of all Muslims.

TO BE USED AS BASE FOR FIGHT AGAINST INTER-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: Sixth, the movement does a great deal of work on inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. As a result of the dialogue philosophy of the movement and its openness to cultural interaction, the schools also embrace this approach. There are lessons on coexistence in the schools’ curricula. Especially in countries where there is conflict between Muslims and Christians the schools contribute positively to the prevention of such clashes. The schools develop a pedagogy and method in accordance with coexistence.

TO CONTRIBUTE MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN TENSION: The Turkish government as it plans to take over the schools does not have intercultural and inter-religious dialogue on its agenda. While there is no improvement in Turkey in terms of the rights of non-Muslim minorities, Erdoğan also openly declared on his last visit to Pakistan that there can be no dialogue between Muslims and Christians. It is therefore possible to guess what kind of pedagogy and understanding the Turkish government will develop according to Erdoğan’s anti-dialogue rhetoric, when the schools are handed over to them.

The AKP will replace with Islamist rhetoric the positive contributions of the movement to preventing clashes in countries where there is Christian-Muslim tension, and will create conflict rather than dialogue. Lastly, civil society movements will have to review their financial investments in countries where the schools are handed over. If, in countries like Senegal, where there is a functional democracy compared to other African countries, the licences of Gülen schools are cancelled without any legal decision, and if the schools are handed over to a foundation of the Turkish government, this will deter any firm or civil society group considering working in Senegal. In an environment where Erdoğan’s authoritarian attitude and his actions amounting to despotism are noted by human rights.

Source: Stockholm Center for Freedom , June 4, 2017

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