By Mustafa Akyol
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan was on an “Africa tour” recently, a trip that included official visits to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. There is much to support about Turkey's presence in these countries, especially Somalia, where Erdoğan really extended a charitable hand to an impoverished nation. However his trip has a less inspiring motive as well: To convince African leaders to close down the “Turkish schools” in their countries.
That sounds a bit odd, right? You would not expect to see the French president, for example, come to Ankara to convince Turkish leaders to close the Saint Benoit or the Notre Dame De Sion colleges, which were both opened by French Catholic missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries. The “Turkish schools” in question are quite similar to these institutions, opened over the past two decades by people who one could call “Muslim missionaries,” inspired (and instructed) by U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
The problem is that Erdoğan now sees the Gülen movement, which once was his best ally, as his worst enemy, and he tries to undermine it by all means necessary. That includes even attacking the very Gülen-inspired schools that Erdoğan himself used to praise only a few years ago.
The sad thing for Turkey is that these Gülen-led schools - which number almost 1,000 in some 130 countries, ranging from Mongolia to South Africa - amount to the most notable Turkish civil society project ever. They are also a great part of Turkey's “soft power” in the world, raising generations that receive a good, modern education, speak English well, but also receive a taste of Turkish-Muslim culture.
How these schools became Erdoğan’s target is, of course, closely related to the political war in Turkey. The Gülen movement has a large presence within the bureaucracy, especially in the police and judiciary. Ironically, Erdoğan helped this effort wholeheartedly when the common enemy was the secularists. Once that enemy was defeated through vicious witch-hunts the alliance also ended. Erdoğan believed that he no longer needed the “parallel state” he had helped create. The parallel state believed that now Erdoğan was yet another suspect who needs to be investigated – this time not for a “coup,” but rather for corruption.
Since the beginning of this war, I have emphasized certain principles: The legitimate place for the Gülen movement, or any other religious order, is civil society. Their members can exist in the bureaucracy as individuals, but not as a concerted, sectarian force. Therefore, the “parallel state” needs to be disestablished, and its alleged wrongdoings – from illegal wiretappings to manufactured evidence – should be brought to justice. But this must not allow the government to cover up its corruption. It also must not allow attacks on the legitimate, civil society aspect of the Gülen movement.
However, no actor in the game is interested in such principles, including - especially - Erdoğan himself. The lesson he has taken from all of this is that the Gülen movement is a threat to his rule, and so it should be wiped out – not just from the bureaucracy, but from the face of the earth. Hence comes his current effort to finish off these schools in Africa and elsewhere.
In fact, government spokesmen are happily telling us that these schools will not be closed, but rather “taken over by the Education Ministry.” This practically means that civil society will be crushed and its assets will be confiscated by the state. It also means that while escaping from the “parallel state,” we are gradually heading toward a totalitarian state.