April 17, 2017

A fate undecided

Waqar Gillani

Last July, Turkey witnessed an attempted coup followed by a strong and persistent campaign by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to crush its opponents — Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and his movement — allegedly involved in this coup-attempt inside and outside Turkey.

The PakTurk school system is also one of Erdogan’s targets, despite the fact that its management has repeatedly denied links to the movement or the coup-attempt.

Since the attempted coup, the Turkish staff members of the schools have either not been able to have their Pakistani visas renewed or have found them to be cancelled. It appears that the Pakistani government is on a covert mission to oust these teachers, even though they have been serving in Pakistan for years. The plan is, reportedly, to handover these schools to a Turkish government-backed non-government organisation by the name of Turkiye Maarif Foundation (TMF).

Pakistan is not the only country where the Turkish government has demanded the closure or transfer of PakTurk schools. The same demand has been extended to several other countries. Reportedly, these countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, some European countries and the US, have rejected the proposals of the Turkish government to let TMF take over the educational institutions.

In Pakistan, the PakTurk schools’ management is resisting all tactics of the Pakistani government. When the Punjab government pressured the management to resign and handover seven schools in Punjab to TMF, the school management moved the Islamabad High Court (IHC).

Separately, some Turkish staff has left Pakistan, while more than 100 teachers and their families have sought refugee status from the United Nations, since their visas have been cancelled and they fear to be deported to Turkey where they could be jailed.

In one case, the IHC has issued notices to the Punjab Inspector General of Police and senior officials of the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) on a petition filed by the chairman of the PakTurk Educational Foundation (PTEF) Alamgir Khan. The petition states that government officials were harassing Khan in direct violation of court orders. The allegation is that CTD officials have threatened Khan with dire consequences if he does not resign and that they have initiated an inquiry into PTEF’s affairs to coerce him.

“We cannot comprehend why PakTurk educational institutions — which do not have any financial or administrative contribution from the governments of Pakistan and Turkey — are being threatened with closure or transfer to an entity backed by the Turkish government and facilitated by the Pakistan government,” said a PTEF official.

The IHC has declared that Khan should not be summoned to the CTD office in Rawalpindi or Lahore, he should not be harassed and he cannot be arrested without permission from the court.

On March 15, in another court case on this issue, one in which TMF wanted to become a party in the petition to hand over the schools, the IHC ordered that no private enterprise could be confiscated by the state. The high court rejected the petition filed by TMF and directed that the schools would be administered by the existing board of governors.

According to a PTEF official, the Interior Ministry has informed TMF through a letter in November 2016 that its application for being registered as an International NGO (INGO) has been approved. The ministry directed the INGO to further submit all required documents within two days. The letter was dispatched during Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan on November 16-17, 2016. At the same time, Islamabad also ordered 108 Turkish teachers and management staff to leave Pakistan within 72 hours.

The PTEF management has demanded the Pakistani government allow TMF to establish its own schools if it desires to contribute to education in Pakistan. “However, using coercive strategies and the government’s influence to ask for the forced transfer of PakTurk educational institutions is not only devoid of goodwill but also a blatant violation of laws,” the PTEF official observed.

In Turkey, reportedly, TMF is not considered as an INGO, with no experience in running schools and imparting education. There is also criticism in Turkey that why did Turkey accept to finance TMF with Saudi-money through the Islamic Development Bank?

AH Nayyer, academic, researcher and former professor of Quaid e Azam University, Islamabad, believes that Pakistan could have conducted its own independent enquiry to evaluate the Turkish government’s allegations against the PakTurk schools. He says these schools have been serving here for many years and no one has had any complaint against them. “Damaging reputed educational institutions in our own country just to please the Turkish regime is not an intelligent move,” he said.

Recently, Sartaj Aziz, advisor to Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, said the government was following the PakTurk schools issue and trying to meet Turkish demands.

Pakistani parents and students of the PakTurk schools have repeatedly protested against the measures of the Pakistani government and called for non-intervention in the educational institutions and restoration of the Turkish teachers’ visas.

PakTurk International Schools and Colleges began its services in Pakistan in 1995, with its first branch in Islamabad. The schools were initially meant to educate Afghan refugees. With the passage of time, they became a successful venture. Currently, the PTEF has 26 schools across Pakistan. They teach nearly 11,000 students, employ 1,500 teachers and have more than 100 Turkish staff. The foundation has been delivering education from preschool to grade 12 according to Pakistani law and curriculum for the last 21 years.

In the last two decades, PakTurk Schools in Pakistan have brought pride and distinction to Pakistan by winning over 260 medals. Its students participated in education and science competitions in 97 countries, and topped the federal and provincial boards as well as Cambridge International Boards of Examinations.

Only four out of 176 countries where international Turkish schools are located gave a positive response to Turkey’s demand.

Published on The News on Sunday, 16 April 2017, Sunday