Because the controversial movement was pushed into illegality and its networks broken up in Turkey, much of its revenues dried up. Whereas previously, many graduates of Gulen schools went on to study at the movementʹs universities in Turkey, this was no longer possible. Many parents took their children out of the schools and distanced themselves from the organisation for fear of repression. A number of schools were forced to close, including in Germany, where the "cemaat" had built up a large network of schools, halls of residence and institutions providing extra tuition.
On his foreign trips, Erdogan continues to push for the closure of the Gulen schools – often with success: for example in South Africa, where he agreed the takeover of the countryʹs 11 Gulen schools in July. But in many countries his requests are met with opposition from local elites who, regardless of their confession, value the schools because of their high standards. To many it makes no sense to now close the very same schools promoted so emphatically by Erdogan just a few years ago. They also donʹt understand what the schools have to do with the attempted coup in Turkey.
Stay or flee to Europe?
As the researcher Mashimi explains, while the Tanzanian government approved the foundation of a Maarif school on Zanzibar, it is resisting pressure from Erdogan to close the Gulen schools. In a bid to put themselves of Turkeyʹs reach, these schools replaced their Turkish leadership teams with Tanzanian Gulen supporters. The sacked Turkish teachers are now facing the question of whether to stay or flee to Europe, says Mashimi. They are not able to return to Turkey and at some point their Turkish passports will expire, she says.
Gulen supporters are nervous about the fact that in recent years, the Turkish intelligence agency has repeatedly kidnapped Gulen teachers from foreign countries – sometimes with, and sometimes without the permission of host countries. In July, Mongolia acted just in time to prevent the abduction of a teacher; a plane already dispatched from Turkey had to return without its intended cargo. In March in Kosovo, six Turks were taken out of the country with the help of the local secret service, which triggered a major governmental crisis as the prime minister had not been informed.
Many of the persecuted supporters are gathering in Germany, from whence they are trying to support their co-believers abroad. In March 2017 for example, a German educational association bought "cemaat" schools in Ethiopia to safeguard them against closure.
In this way, "Turkish" schools became "German" schools, which Berlin then brought under its patronage. Any criticism from Ankara that this was a "questionable deal" remained futile, and the Maarif Foundation finally reached agreement with Addis Ababa on the founding of its own schools.
All of this is triggering heated debate within the "cemaat". "The Gulen movement is facing a crucial test," says Mashimi. It is in the process of re-grouping and disengaging itself from Turkey. But in Germany and other nations, it is barely facing any pressure at all – on the contrary it has won many supporters in these countries, presenting itself as the persecuted defender of democracy and freedom of speech, despite its questionable role in Turkish politics. For this reason, Mashimi does not believe that the current situation poses a threat to the existence of Gulen.
Ulrich von Schwerin
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Nina Coon