August 16, 2016

Erdogan’s purge goes global

Farhad Mirza

On 1 August 2016, a high-ranking Turkish delegation arrived in Pakistan to press for greater cooperation in Ankara’s international crackdown against organisations affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, a US-based cleric that the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the failed coup last month.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his foreign minister, calling on ‘friendly nations’ to help Ankara expand its operations against Gülen’s networks. Turkey has detained thousands of alleged coup plotters amidst outcry from human rights organisations contending it’s a pretext to purge politicians, journalists and academics critical of the government.

Pakistan, a country still enchanted by the wilting success of the ‘Turkish Model’, is under immense pressure from Turkish authorities to shut down 28 schools run by the PakTurk Foundation. The private educational organisation is alleged to have links to the Hizmet group, the movement ascribed to Gülen. A shutdown would jeopardise the future of 10,000 students and 1,500 staff members.

With almost 25 million children already deprived of their constitutional right to education, Pakistan risks compromising its domestic responsibilities by shutting schools at the behest of another government.

“These schools may work under Gülen’s umbrella organisation, but the point is they are doing an excellent job,” says Shehroz Khan Rind, the parent of a PakTurk school, in a letter to Pakistan’s English-language daily newspaper Dawn.

“These schools are providing quality and research-oriented education from primary level. Recently they achieved many laurels for Pakistan at international competitions. These schools have a 30 per cent quota for students who can’t pay their fee from whom they don’t charge a single paisa [lowest denomination of the local currency],” Khan Rind writes.

PakTurk officially denies the alleged links to Hizmet. In a public notice on the organisation’s website, PakTurk says its schools and colleges in Pakistan “have no affiliation or connection with any political individual or any movement or organisation, whether political, religious or denominational, nor do we have a financial relationship with any movement.”

Political backroom dealing

To some observers, the demand by Ankara to shut down Gülen-affiliated organisations is bound to strain bilateral ties and set a dangerous precedent for both countries – especially if its acceptance comes as a result of some extra-judicial manoeuvring.

“Turkey, a country prone to high levels of mistrust, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories, could be adversely affected from indiscriminate global purges,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament, and senior fellow at the Washington DC-based think-thank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Ankara should uphold the highest standards of the rule of law and due process in going after alleged coup plotters at home and abroad. Turkey’s diplomatic relations should not be a victim of the AKP’s [the ruling Justice and Development Party] settling of scores with a religious network which was until recently its closest ally,” Erdemir says.

Though PakTurk has moved to the courts to contest the allegations, Pakistan Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s close relations with President Erdogan, as well as Pakistan’s economic and strategic dependency on Turkey, have led to serious doubts about the possibility of non-compliance by Islamabad.

This especially when, in return, Turkey has offered to back Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, the disputed region between Pakistan and India, and the cause of much hostility between the neighbouring countries.

India accuses Pakistan of interfering in the recent uprising in the Indian-held Muslim majority region. Turkey’s support is bound to bolster Pakistan’s regional aspirations, that have previously resulted in three wars with India.

Pakistan has a fragile democracy, a weak human rights record and is almost always abuzz with rumours of military coups. It has already paid a heavy price, both economically and culturally, for what some observers consider to be its obsessively jingoistic anti-India stance and friendship with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

From that region, Pakistan has imported austere interpretations of Islam which turned it into both an exporter and target of terrorism. Pakistan’s continued dependence on an increasingly autocratic Turkey might bring forth new problems, without any substantial benefit to either country, analysts say.

“Pakistan’s rulers are prone to undertaking autocratic measures,” says Raza Rumi, a renowned journalist and analyst. “It is a long-time friend of Turkey and its current prime minister, who views himself as an ally of Erdogan, is likely to meet the request of closing down the Hizmet schools.”

Though the evidence of the connections between PakTurk and Gülen supporters is yet to be made public, there is little indication of any anti-democratic agenda in the school’s curriculum. After hearing media reports, Shehroz Khan Rind, the parent of a PakTurk student, decided to investigate the claims.

“I asked my children, one of whom is a student at a PakTurk school, about Gülen. None of them has heard about him,” Khan Rind says. “I checked the textbooks to find something about Gülen but I failed. Then, I inquired about the school teachers. I came to know that 90 per cent of the teachers are Pakistani.”

Pakistani officials say they are examining laws for regulating non-profit groups.

According to government sources speaking on condition of anonymity, PakTurk is a legally sound organisation, and Islamabad will be compelled to find an excuse to remove the current management, while keeping the institutions open.

However, a sentiment expressed by Alamgir Khan, a Pakistani businessman who is one of the five directors of the PakTurk schools, is echoed by concerned observers when he says that “it should be the laws of Pakistan, not the laws of Turkey, that prevail here.”

Published on Equal Times, 16 August 2016, Tuesday

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