Turkey Taking Over African Schools Linked To US Cleric Who Is Blamed For Coup Attempt

Written by Dana Sanchez

At least six African countries have agreed to let Turkey take over schools linked to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile in the U.S. who is blamed for a failed coup in Turkey in July that claimed 270 lives.

Schools in Benin, Senegal, Guinea, Chad, Somalia and Sudan have agreed to be taken over by Maarif, a Turkish education foundation, an official told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday, World Bulletin reported.

Somalia was the first African country to suspend the schools on July 16, a day after an attempted coup in Turkey blamed on a terrorist group with ties to U.S. cleric Fethullah Gulen.

“We are working to eradicate this organization everywhere,” said Hasan Yavuz, vice president of Turkey’s Maarif Foundation.

So far, over 80 organizations including schools and training centers have been shut down or transferred to the Turkish government.

Turkey has demanded unsuccessfully that Gulen be extradited from the U.S. to Turkey, BBC reported.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused a group linked to Gulen of pursuing a long-running campaign to overthrow the Turkish government by infiltrating vital institutions including the military, police and judiciary, Andalou Agency reported. Turkey has asked numerous countries around the world to close schools, colleges and businesses.

Erdogan blames the coup attempt on an organization he calls the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).

The schools describe themselves as secular, promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue, BBC reported. There’s a strong focus on teaching science.

There is no common brand name for the schools, BBC reported. Followers of Gulen often refer to their movement by the name Hizmet (service), and the schools share the same ethics. Local and Turkish partners say they’re admirers of Gulen, but not formally connected to him.

“A Gulen school, business or newspaper is generally unofficially labelled as such, because the owner or manager considers Fethullah Gulen as a spiritual leader or source of inspiration,” said Turkish academic Bayram Balci, according to BBC.

Gulen-affiliated schools have existed in Turkey since the 1970s, but only became a global phenomenon in the past 20 years as Gulen grew closer to Erdogan, whose Islamist-rooted AK Party won in 2002.

The Turkish government once supported Gulen schools. Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended the opening of the Gulen-inspired Light Academy in Nairobi in 2008.

By teaching Turkish and promoting Turkish culture the schools helped reinforce Turkey’s influence in Africa. Turkey invested $6.2 billion in Africa in 2015.

The private schools attracted children of wealthy residents, and offered scholarships to poorer families.

All three schools in Somalia have now reopened under new management, with Somali teachers and Turkish embassy funding.

Erdogan created the Maarif Foundation to take over the schools owned by members of the Hizmet movement in an attempt to extend his influence outside Turkey, BBC reported

The Maarif Foundation is reaching out to almost all African countries for the schools to be transferred to them. Authorities in Kenya and Nigeria resisted Turkish pressure.

The Hizmet movement is a faith-inspired, nonpolitical, cultural and educational movement whose basic principles stem universal Islamic values such as love, sympathy for the fellow humans, compassion, and altruism. according to Joshua Ocheja, an expert on conflict and security studies and an alumnus of the Nigerian Defence Academy.

Gulen describes the movement as one of “people united around high human values,” according to a column in Cable.ng. Its members build schools and hospitals and engage in interfaith works and charity, Ocheja said.

Since 2013, Erdogan has demonized Gulen and wants the schools and hospitals belonging to members of the movement confiscated or closed. This was done in Turkey after the coup attempt. Ocheja said Erdogan has no tangible evidence that Gulen masterminded it.

The U.S. turned down the extradition request for lack of evidence. Gulen, 75, has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for the past 17 years, The Guardian reported. He is reclusive and his is health failing.

International organizations like Amnesty International and others have cautioned the Turkish authorities and questioned the motives behind clamping down on private investments, The Cable reported.

Erdogan visited African countries including Nigeria in the months preceding the coup attempt. He wanted the countries where Hizmet movement participants have investments to be closed. Most of the countries did not comply, Ocheja said.

The failed coup is letting Erdogan advance his agenda. He reached out to almost all the African countries again. In Nigeria, it sparked outrage from intellectual, religious and civil society organizations. He wanted schools and hospitals closed. The Nigerian government asked for evidence to back Erdogan’s claims:

Obviously disappointed, President Erdogan went for low-hanging fruits in Sudan, Somalia, and Guinea Conakry (that) depend on financial aid from Turkey. In the case of Somalia, where (Turkey) has spearheaded international reconstruction efforts after decades of war and instability, closing the institutions was not a difficult decision.

In Kenya, Turkish authorities have pressurized the country to close down academic institutions even before the coup, but this request was turned down.

The politics of Turkey should be left in Turkey, Ocheja said.

The Turkish government wants the U.S. to shut down Gulen-inspired schools there, The Guardian reported. It has hired an international law firm to investigate a large chain of charter schools in Texas and around the U.S. which it alleges is connected Gulen.

Lawyers for the Turkish government say the charter schools are using U.S. taxpayer dollars and acting as a front for Gulen. The schools deny the claims.

Gulen is being tried in his absence in Turkey. He and 72 others are accused of trying to overthrow the government.