Erdogan seizes the school initiative
On a visit to Germany ten years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan actively lobbied for the opening of "Turkish schools" to promote the education of his compatriots – much to the annoyance of many. Today, the Turkish President wants to see these very same schools closed, because they belong to the brotherhood of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he holds responsible for the failed military coup of July 2016.
In Germany and other western nations, Erdoganʹs efforts have met with resistance, but many countries have since yielded to the pressure and handed the schools over to Turkey. This is now presenting the Gulen movement with some serious challenges.
Even before the attempted coup, Ankara created the Maarif Foundation to take control of the Gulen movementʹs schools, halls of residence and universities. Since its creation in June 2016, the foundation has taken over more than 100 schools with more than 10,000 students in 28 countries. Takeover talks are currently underway with a further 80 countries. Just recently, on 12 November, a Gulen school in the Afghan city of Herat was occupied by security forces and handed over to the Maarif Foundation, despite protests from parents and students.
"Perpetuating the Ottoman tradition of peaceful coexistence"
The Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for information, but in an interview with the pro-government "Daily Sabah" newspaper, Chairman Birol Akgun described its goal as the representation of "Turkish values". In doing this, the organisation aims to help ease tensions between the West and the Islamic world and promote understanding between civilisations, said Akgun. It aims to perpetuate the tradition of "peaceful coexistence" in place "since the Ottomans". In the long-term, it is hoped the Maarif schools will become a "trustworthy international brand".
With its focus on education and dialogue, the Maarif Foundation bears strong similarities to the Gulen movement, but the social and cultural anthropologist Kristina Mashimi believes the Maarif schools have a more pronounced Islamic character. For example, they offer Islamic studies as a subject, whereas in the Gulen schools, teaching of the Koran is an extra-curricular activity, says the Free University of Berlin scholar who is currently researching Gulen schools in Tanzania. Also, they orientate themselves more clearly towards Muslims, while the Gulen schools are outwardly more secular.
Having entered government in Turkey, Erdoganʹs Islamic Conservative Party for Justice and Development (AKP) co-operated for years with the Gulen movement in a bid to consolidate its sovereignty and appoint allies to posts within the judiciary, police and administration. Abroad, the AKP government used Gulenʹs extensive networks to expand its political and economic influence, while Turkish diplomacy supported the brotherhood, also known as the "cemaat", in the foundation of new schools.
From informal coalition to bitter hostility
For a long time things progressed in this fashion, with the leaders hand in hand, until Erdogan and Gulen fell out in 2013 in a conflict over power and appointments. The informal coalition became bitter hostility, which in turn led to a life-or-death battle between the former allies. Even before the attempted coup, Erdogan pressured foreign nations to close the Gulen schools – with some success, for example in Gambia. After the attempted coup, Ankara then shut down all of the brotherhoodʹs remaining offices and institutions in Turkey and stepped up persecution abroad.