David Lepeska
Nov 29 2018

Turkey's global grab for Gülen schools

Afghan police and security agents arrested a number of teachers and students protesting the handover of their school to security forces in the west of the country this month, the private Afghan channel Tolo said, citing officials. Security forces took control of the school, following a court order that said it had ties to the Fethullah Gülen movement.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames Gülen, a Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States, for the July 2016 coup attempt, and has since been seeking to shutter or takeover hundreds of Gülen-linked schools around the world.

In countries like Afghanistan, where the Ministry of Education agreed in February 2018 to hand the country's Gülen schools to Turkey, Ankara has found a willing partner. Since Turkey created the Maarif Foundation, its international education agency, in June 2016, it has taken over more than 100 Gülen schools in 28 countries, and shuttered a great deal more, reported Qantara.de, a joint project of Deutsche Welle and the German Foreign Office.  

Maarif aims to eliminate the terror threats posed by Gülen schools abroad and to represent Turkey's values and improve its presence in the global arena, according to its chairman, Birol Akgün, who hopes Maarif will emerge as a "trustworthy international brand". 

In many Western countries, however, Turkey's efforts have faced stiff resistance. "Some 250 FETÖ-affiliated schools are located in European countries along with the U.S. and Australia. Most of these countries don't lean toward ceding the control of these schools to us," Akgün told pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, using the acronym for what the Turkish government calls the Fethullahist Terror Organisation." He added that the foundation plans to open the Maarif Cultural Centre in the United States, which is home to some 200 Gülen schools.

Berlin-based anthropologist Kristina Mashimi told Qantara that Maarif schools had a strong Islamic character, offering Islamic studies as a subject rather than an extra-curricular activity, and are oriented more toward Muslims, while Gülen schools are more secular. 

Nearly half of Germany's 170 Gülen schools were shuttered in the wake of the coup attempt, according to DW, but that number is gradually creeping back up, and new childcare centres are in great demand. The 14,000 Gülen sympathisers that Germany has welcomed in the last two-and-a-half years want schools and childcare centres run by fellow believers. 

Gülen school administrators have developed methods to fend off Ankara's efforts to take control. One tactic is to sell a school or schools to a third party. In March 2017, a German educational association bought Gülen schools in Ethiopia to keep them from closing. Suddenly the "Turkish schools" had become "German schools". Another tactic is to replace the schools' Turkish teachers and administrators with locals, as several Gülen schools in Tanzania did recently, according to Mashimi. 

Because the Gülen movement was pushed into illegality in Turkey and its networks there destroyed, much of its revenues dried up. Previously, graduates of Gülen schools went on to study at Gülen universities in Turkey, helping fund the movement. But after the coup attempt, parents were forced to place their children in new schools and distance themselves from the movement, fearing persecution. Turkey has detained more than 100,000 alleged Gülenists in the wide-ranging post-coup crackdown.

Many fled to welcoming countries like Germany, where a Berlin-based association of Gülen sympathisers assists new arrivals in legal matters and in finding language courses, jobs and places to live.

Despite the involvement of Gülenist police and prosecutors in the mass trial and imprisonment of secularist opponents – cases that have since been shown to have been based on falsified evidence - Gülenists in Germany and other Western countries have presented themselves as persecuted defenders of democracy, and won some support.

But they remain on guard. In recent years, the Turkish intelligence agency has kidnapped a number of Gülen teachers from foreign countries, with or without the permission of host countries. In July, Mongolia acted just in time to prevent the abduction of a teacher. In March, six Turks were taken out of Kosovo with the help of the local secret service. On foreign trips, Erdoğan pushes for the closure of Gülen schools, and often succeeds. In July, for instance, South Africa agreed to handover 11 schools.

Still, in many countries his requests are met with opposition from local elites who value the schools because of their high standards. To many it makes little sense to close the schools promoted so emphatically by Erdoğan just a handful of years ago, when the two were allies.

With Gülenists gaining strength in countries like Germany, the battle is likely to continue for some time.