November 24, 2014

Turkish schools

Mümtazer Türköne

About 15 years ago, I attended an international academic conference in a state located within the former Soviet geography. These conferences give us the chance to make on-the-spot observations about changes around the world. There were two Turkish high schools in the city: a state school, run by the Turkish Republic under bilateral agreements, and a private school run by Turkish entrepreneurs inspired by the ideas of well-respected Turkish-Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. I visited both and talked to students and teachers.

The state school was like one of the public schools in Turkey. The building was unclean and neglected, although it was a freshly established school. Teachers were wearing ragged clothes; male teachers were unshaved and sullen. Students were exhibiting disciplined behavior that was clearly for show. The atmosphere was gloomy and repressive.

But in comparison, the private school was a lively place. Teachers were dealing with students in an affectionate manner and we could see how this close care was reflected in students' faces. The building was sparkling and clean. Everyone was happy.

To understand the causes for this profound difference, I asked our guide several questions. The teachers at the state-run school were paid ten times higher salaries. But the quality of education was higher at the private school and its students were more successful. Its graduates could attend distinguished universities. The school had emerged as the center of civil society activities. An inter-faith dialogue meeting had been organized with the participation of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish clerics.

The Gülen-inspired Hizmet movement is Turkey's most powerful global civil society. This organization has exported Turkey's potential for solidarity and humanitarian cooperation, creating a multicultural, civic tradition. The Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), the honorary president of which is Mr. Gülen, obtained consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2012 and has been at the forefront of peaceful efforts, which should certainly tell us the progress this movement has made.

Turkish schools operate in about 170 countries. These schools champion the concepts of peace and tolerance, and so far, not a single complaint has been made about them. For this reason, African leaders must have been surprised to hear the accusations President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made about these schools when he was visiting Equatorial Guinea for the recent Turkey-Africa summit. Civic humanitarian efforts are particularly appreciated in Africa, and the Hizmet movement has been conducting large-scale training, health, water supply and relief projects in this geography. Erdoğan labels these schools "agents" or "secret organizations," but fails to provide the slightest hint about what secret purpose is behind all those good services and sacrificial work. On the return flight, Erdoğan told journalists that he got "feedback" from African leaders, but this remark per se indicates that he was not taken seriously by African leaders. None of them said, "We believe you and we will shut down these schools." Most probably, they were amazed by the contradiction between the phenomenal success of the Turkish schools and Erdoğan's remarks about them.

Erdoğan is waging a "black propaganda campaign" against the graft and bribery investigations he failed to cover up in Turkey. His target audience is not African leaders, but the Turkish public. He believes that the messages he gives abroad will be more influential. During the last National Security Council (MGK) meeting, Erdoğan tried to pass a decision against the Hizmet movement, but failed. We learned this from Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, the government spokesperson, who said, "We didn't discuss such a matter." Despite this fact, Erdoğan claimed that the MGK passed a recommendation and that the Cabinet made a decision in the same line. This is a typical example of black propaganda. It shows that this is still a serious matter to Erdoğan. The Turkish schools, however, are continuing on their way, with outstanding achievements.

Published on Today's Zaman, 24 November 2014, Monday