by Abdullah Bozkurt
The scary spectacle of how African exchange students who receive their education in Turkey on government scholarships are being indoctrinated in jihadist ideology by the Islamist regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should send shivers down the spine of many observers of Turkish politics.
Video footage released on Feb. 27, 2018 by the IHA news agency, a mouthpiece for the Erdoğan government, lays bare the real intention of the current Islamist rulers of Turkey when it comes to engagement with the African continent. Behind the façade of trade, investment and aid initiatives lies a sinister campaign of turning Africa into a hotbed of Turkish Islamists who want to create proxies as leverage like they have done in Syria, Libya and other Arab and African countries.
About a dozen high schoolers from 16 African nations who were taught to recite the Turkish military march performed the song in front of a news crew with Turkish flags displayed in support of Turkey’s military offensive in neighboring Syria launched under the pretext of battling terrorism in the northern enclave of Afrin. When they were later individually interviewed, the students said how the Turkish military is fighting for all Muslims in the world as part of a jihadist campaign and that they were ready to join the fight in Syria if needed. They described the Turkish military as the Ummah’s last army that is fighting for the Islamic cause and vowed that they were determined to show their capabilities and prove how Muslims are in fact powerful.
The mentor of the African students at the school, Saadettin Otabaş, a literature teacher who taught them the military march, appears later in the footage and tells the reporter that the African students are praying for and supporting what he described as the jihad-waging Turkish army in Syria. The school, located in the central province Sivas and identified as the Uluslararası Şehit Münir Murat Ertekin Anadolu İmam Hatip Lisesi, is one of eight international religious schools in Turkey that are run jointly by the Ministry of Education and the Religious Affairs Directorate Foundation (Diyanet Vakfi). The school building originally belonged to one of the best performing science schools in the province affiliated with the Gülen movement. The government shut down the school in 2016 along with well over a thousand others across Turkey and converted most, if not all, into religious schools.
The Erdoğan government has intensified its project of expanding religious schools in Turkey in the last couple of years, with many public schools abruptly converted into religious IHL schools that are considered to bastions for recruiting young Islamists for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many private schools, especially those run by the Gülen movement, were shuttered by the Turkish government, which also seized all of their assets and turned the buildings into religious study schools.
Moreover, tens of thousands of teachers were dismissed from government jobs to open the way for new recruits who were hired based on political party affiliation and Islamist ideology rather than merit and qualifications. Over 20,000 teachers who worked in the private educational sector were stripped of their licenses by the Ministry of Education, depriving them the opportunity to work as teachers. The curriculum and textbooks were also overhauled to reflect the prevailing ideology of the Erdoğan government, while the burning or trashing of millions of published textbooks can be compared to the Mongols’ burning of libraries in the 13th century.
Now Erdoğan is trying to do the same on the African continent by making frequent trips there to make sales pitches for his giant educational foundation, called Maarif, that was created by a special law he pushed through Parliament in June 2016. Maarif is funded by the government and attached to the Ministry of Education. Wherever he goes, Erdoğan badmouths the Gülen schools that operated in African countries for decades and asks his counterparts to seize these schools and turn them over to Maarif. Behind this drive apparently lies Erdoğan’s long-held secret ambition to sell himself as a sort of caliph and promote his brand of political Islamist ideology, which is extremist, rigid, bigoted, divisive and hostile.
The Turkish president plans to raise a generation of Islamist zealots and loyalists on foreign soil in his endeavor to enlist new recruits to his own jihadist campaign. It’s no surprise that Maarif is effectively run by Islamist figures including those affiliated with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a pro-government charity organization that was accused of smuggling arms to jihadist groups in Syria according to United Nations Security Council documents. The IHH was also involved in moving supplies to al-Qaeda groups in Syria according to a two-year-long confidential investigation file that was made public in January 2014.
As I was writing this article, Erdoğan was about to wrap up his official five-day tour of four African countries — Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali — that he had embarked on on Feb. 25, 2018. His visit came on the heels of yet another visit to Africa that covered the three African countries of Sudan, Chad and Tunisia in December 2017. Erdoğan has used economic incentives, bribes, political pressure or even outright threats at times in arm-twisting efforts to convince African nations to hand over the Gülen schools. He has been successful in some, while others simply balked at the suggestion of the Turkish president. Maarif Foundation officials claim they have signed memorandums of understanding with 26 countries in Africa to take control of schools belonging to Gülen movement followers and that 16 of them have thus far transferred the schools. As of today, 8,900 students are being educated at Maarif-run schools.
That means thousands of African students are ready to march on Erdoğan’s orders when the time comes. In fact, we have already seen a limited mobilization in some African nations in support of Erdoğan’s policies. Whenever Erdoğan feels he needs to project the image of an Islamist leader to the world Muslim community or portray how much popularity he enjoys in Africa for domestic political consumption, his people mobilize these African students in a show of support. For example, he has done this for the Turkish military offensive in Syria. The footage we see from the religious school in the Turkish province of Sivas where African exchange students recite the Turkish military march and express support for jihad is complemented by many other similar videos that were brought from Maarif-run schools in Africa.
This is a dangerous trajectory of sowing discord within African nations. If not stopped, it will escalate further and will be very difficult to contain. Erdoğan is not only openly interfering into the affairs of African countries with this type of stealthy Islamist project that serves his own petty interests but also building a dangerous global network of overzealous Islamist militants.