Last month, parents of the Yavuz Selim school in Kanifing, Gambia,
received a letter announcing its immediate closure. A source at the
school, run by the Hizmet organization of Turkish cleric Fethullah
Gulen, said the decision had been conveyed to the principal in a one
Gulen's Hizmet movement cites this as an example of Turkish pressure
on governments to shut down Gulen schools, a key source of its
influence and revenue at home and abroad, and discourage
Hizmet-linked commerce from banking to construction.
Turkish Islamic lender Bank Asya, which has extensive dealings with
Hizmet companies in Africa, reported it had suffered mass deposit
withdrawals, weeks after a power struggle between Erdogan and Gulen
erupted in December.
Media said institutional depositors loyal to Erdogan had withdrawn
20 percent of the bank's deposits. Ahmet Beyaz, Chief executive of
the bank, which has among its shareholders Kaynak Holding, which is
close to Hizmet, told Reuters the bank was not in any danger. The
government would not comment.
Erdogan has declared Hizmet, long a mainstay of Turkish foreign
policy, a terrorist movement using dirty tricks, including
corruption allegations, blackmail and espionage to undermine him.
His move to shut its schools in Turkey ignited the current
"One of the greatest difficulties posed by the struggle against
Hizmet is in diplomacy," said a government official who declined to
be named. "Right now Hizmet and its representatives are fully
engaged in anti-government activities."
"As it has been made public that the Hizmet schools will no longer
be supported (by the Turkish government), a number of those
countries do not want them to continue."
The battle against Hizmet, long an instrument of Turkish soft power
claiming millions of followers worldwide, has diverted effort from a
foreign policy already in some disarray.
Very recently, Erdogan was received as a hero in Egypt and his
government cited in the West as a model for Islamic democracy. Now
his ties with Arab capitals are icy, largely due to his siding with
Islamist parties such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and relations
with the West tested by a graft scandal and what some see as growing
SEEKING BREAD ABROAD
Hizmet denies using followers in the police and judiciary to launch
a graft inquiry targeting Erdogan family members, ministers and
businessmen and make illicit recordings of top officials. Ankara
fears further leaks ahead of presidential polls in August could
undermine the government.
The movement, also known as Cemaat (JEH-maat), The Community, has
for decades been a spearhead of Turkish cultural influence and
commerce overseas, especially so in the assertive opening to Africa,
the Middle East and Asia in the years after AKP took power in 2002.
"In Turkey, we were at pains not to get involved in an economic
relationship with the government," Tercan Basturk, Secretary General
of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which speaks for Hizmet,
said at its Istanbul headquarters.
"Instead, we directed all Hizmet supporters to go abroad and told
them to seek their bread outside the country."
It was long said there were three arms to Turkish diplomacy — the
Foreign Ministry, Turkish Airlines and Hizmet.
Turkey currently has some 35 embassies in Africa, second only to
France. About 15 opened in the last two years. The red Turkish flag
flies, for instance, across Mogadishu, Turkish firms playing the
lead role in post-war construction.
"A lot of this is due to the support of Gulen because in many places
in sub-Saharan Africa the only real Turkish communities are
Gulen-linked communities, whether schools or business, and the
embassies were opened to support this drive," said Sinan Ulgen, head
of the Edam think tank in Istanbul.
Where Erdogan has conducted a purge of alleged Gulen supporters in
the police and the judiciary since December's anti-corruption raids,
Turkey's embassies are now expected to a purge their relations with
the cleric overseas to strangle income from enterprise, schools and
[to top of second column]
"Almost overnight they (the Embassies) shift position where they are
being asked to persuade those governments to close down those
schools," Ulgen said. "Of course, some governments may want to
accept this demand from the Turkish side."
Most likely to respond to Turkish displeasure would be states such
as Gambia benefiting from direct aid from Ankara.
Parents of children at Gambia's Yavuz Selim school were less pleased
at the abrupt closure.
"The closure of Selim school was a big
surprise a big blow for not only the parents but our children," said
Amadou Jah, whose son was at the school. "The authorities should
have allowed the students to finish their academic year."
Another parent, Fatou Jobe, added: "It is very frustrating for
parents because by this time of the year it's always difficult to
find a school for our kids."
AFGHANISTAN TO PENNSYLVANIA
The Foreign Ministry itself is in some turmoil since it emerged that
minister Ahmet Davutoglu's office was bugged and talks with the
security chief and army commanders on possible armed intervention in
Syria was posted anonymously on Youtube.
Overseas schools, Turkish cultural institutes and business, like
Hizmet's presence in the Turkish state, have been built up over four
decades. For much of that Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in
the United States, something that has for Erdogan supported the
thesis that Hizmet is part of a broad foreign-backed anti-Turkish
When Erdogan was first elected in 2002, he lacked educated
specialists to press social and economic reforms he envisaged to
ease curbs on religion, improving welfare and, foremost, rein in a
military that had toppled four governments in as many decades.
He invited Hizmet to help and Hizmet obliged. The falling out has
pushed Erdogan into his biggest crisis in 12 years.
Hizmet runs 2,000 educational establishments in 160 countries, from
Afghanistan to the United States. The schools, such as the Yavuz
Selim in Gambia, are well equipped, teach a secular curriculum in
English, and are popular, especially in poorer countries, with the
political and business elite.
"Until six months ago, government officials, the President, the
Prime Minister were going to these schools and praising them and
saying they were important for peace in the world," Basturk said.
"The government is pressing the Hizmet movement from outside to put
it in difficulty inside (Turkey)."
Erdogan has sought help from U.S. President Barack Obama in curbing
"the man from Pennsylvania". On a lower level he has spoken to the
head of Pakistan's Punjab about the schools.
The government accuses Hizmet overseas of running a propaganda
campaign against the Turkish government through publications.
Officials say the organisation is also carrying out other actions,
unspecified, that can alarm host governments.
Hizmet says the Turkish government approaches different governments
in different ways, according to local sensitivities.
"They say to the Russians 'kick them out', they are making
pan-Turkish propaganda in their schools," said Basturk, referring to
Russian sensitivities about Turkish-related populations in Russia,
the Caucasus area and Central Asia. "We hear all this because we
have friends there.
(Additional reporting by Seda Sezer, and Pap Saine in Banjul;
editing by Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood)
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