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Turkey’s Maarif Foundation: Institutionalizing Theft in Mob Style

We have not been surprised but dispirited with the news of another seizure of a chain of private schools in Ethiopia last week. While Turkey struggles with consecutive disasters from wildfires to flash floods and landslides besides endemic ethnic racism, refugee crisis and economic upsets, the devils of the Erdogan regime and its apparatuses never take a vacation. And if they ever do, they spend it travelling to extend the long arms of Erdogan worldwide and seeking opportunities to harm the Hizmet Movement. Abductions of Hizmet-inspired teachers, seizure of Hizmet-affiliated schools, and depriving Turkish citizens abroad of their basic constitutional and citizenship rights are just a couple of malicious acts of the Erdogan’s regime. No charm offensive explains how Erdogan reaches to every country to inflict harm on the participants and institutions of the Hizmet Movement. While the Turkish embassies have always been diplomatic iron fists in velvet gloves in this endeavor for more than half a decade, I would like to allocate the major portion of this article to the state-led and state-fed Turkiye Maarif Foundation (TMF) of which Erdogan-centered agenda are followed by all Turkish foreign missions and overseas state offices.

Parading as an INGO in some countries and acting as the shadow Ministry of National Education, Turkiye Maarif Foundation (TMF) was established by a law passed from the Turkish Grand National Assembly on June 17, 2016 to expand the Erdogan’s Islamic ideology and cult following beyond the Turkish borders and disseminate his political agendas everywhere. As if they knew a coup would take a place after a month, TMF was placed under the Ministry of National Education with an earmarked seed money amounting 300,000 USD at the time “to operate formal and informal educational activities abroad on behalf of the Republic of Turkey”. In tune with the proverbial saying, “The student becomes the master,” TMF surpassed the Ministry of National Education’s jurisdiction as set to forcefully and illegally take over the schools and universities founded by the Gulen/Hizmet Movement abroad especially after the coup attempt that was long-awaited, planned and staged as “a gift of God”, as Erdogan himself christened it.  

As the Erdogan regime gradually paved the bricks of the path leading to a staged coup attempt to grip more power and control everything in Turkey, it also did several things to add bloodshed element to the coup night. Naming here just a few, the consecutive closures and seizures of the opposition media outlets were the most critical move of the regime to silence the opposition who could probably dig the facts behind the staged coup attempt to seek the truth and spoil the regime’s fake coup attempt. The establishment and empowerment of the Turkiye Maarif Foundation served as another step for the Erdogan regime to plow the field for seizing the schools founded and operated by the Hizmet Movement after the faux coup attempt.  

A month before it was set to motion, the regime and its top officials had been informed that a controlled coup attempt would take place. All was set to blame Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement with baseless claims and allegations as of being mastermind of the coup attempt to unleash unwarranted prosecution on the Movement in Turkey and abroad. While the regime had no issues of crushing the participants and the institutions of the Movement in Turkey where every public and private department was subsumed to their partisan control and fear-mongering, they needed to prepare to launch persecution on the Movement abroad. This initially explains the motif essentiel behind the operations of the Turkiye Maarif Foundation. The incumbent regime established the Turkiye Maarif Foundation to act as a façade worldwide for the Erdogan regime asking or coercing respective countries after the imminent coup attempt to seize the schools founded and operated by the participants of the Hizmet Movement.

Erdogan thus believed his fiction could be sold everywhere in the world. The story in short was organizing a controlled coup attempt and holding the participants of the Hizmet Movement responsible to annihilate the Movement at home and abroad, and having leaders worldwide believe the fabricated evidence against the Movement after the staged coup attempt and gain their assistance to extradite Hizmet participants, transfer the Hizmet-affiliated schools to the Turkiye Maarif Foundation. Voila! A happy ending for him and his regime.  

Did the story unravel as the Erdogan regime expected? Never. No one bought Erdogan’s story out of Turkey and found his allegations baseless and worthless. What happened? The German, British, EU, and American intelligence organizations, and the NATO reported that the Movement was not found to be behind the coup attempt and they openly refuted the allegations of the Erdogan regime. Prominent countries worldwide took stance against Erdogan’s allegations, given the intelligence reports establishing that the Movement had nothing to do with the faux coup attempt. This was not something that the Erdogan regime expected. They thought victimization strategy would take them to the home base smoothly as after the failed coup attempt, they would ask and get respectively governments seize schools abroad and transfer them to the Turkiye Maarif Foundation.

Had everything gone as planned, the state-led and state-fed TMF would have categorically taken the control of all schools abroad and received a hero’s welcome in Turkey. Yet, it didn’t happen. This was an epic failure for the Erdogan’s regime; the officials would never stomach having their counterfeit narrative slapped back to their faces.  No matter how much falsity they founded their lives on, they needed to change the wind direction and have the world – at least those countries where democratic practices did not develop – believe their fabricated story. Turkiye Maarif Foundation and the vicious policies driving its existence shapeshifted into a state-led international mafia organization which bribed foreign state officials, conducted coercive diplomacy and instigated the overseas abductions of Turkish educators by the Turkish intelligence operatives.

After the failed coup attempt, the Erdogan regime purged thousands from different government offices and closed all the schools, universities, dormitories, academic centers, reading centers, associations and institutions affiliated with the Hizmet Movement. This was followed by the seizure of the wealth of the businesspeople sympathetic with the Movement and its philanthropic activities at home and abroad. The Erdogan regime wished the same persecution for the overseas institutions of the Hizmet Movement in over 140 countries. Yet, it didn’t take to long for the regime officials to understand that a crushing majority of countries did not believe their claims and baseless allegations because of the findings of the world’s top intelligence organizations.

Bribing countries and abetting the abductions from overseas

The Erdogan regime and the Maarif Foundation realized that they had failed to make countries worldwide believe in their fictive claims and taking over the Movement’s schools abroad would not be possible ‘diplomatically’. While the Turkish official claims lost footing abroad without no one crediting them, Erdogan – who, in the words of his closest associates, could set the country on fire to save his power and authority – ordered indecent backdoor diplomacy moves including bribing the top officials of respective countries for allowing the seizure of the Hizmet-affiliated schools worldwide.

Existing political and economic agreements and Turkey’s evolving financial interests over several sympathetic and underdeveloped countries have been used as carrot-and-stick measures especially in Asia and Africa. Officials are swayed by bribes and incentives to warm their minds for transferring the privately-owned overseas Turkish schools to the Maarif Foundation. While these things happened, the Maarif Foundation – with assistance of the Turkish embassies and other Turkish state representations overseas – conducted the coercive diplomacy of the Erdogan regime in Asian and African countries to force them to seize the schools and make their transfers immediately possible. Although these are mob tactics, the Turkish government under Erdogan’s leadership did not backstep or fear of applying these methods to achieve its illegitimate ambitions.

The Maarif Foundation reaped poison fruits of their coercive diplomacy with the supervision of Turkish diplomatic missions in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali, Sudan, Somali and similar other developing or underdeveloped countries. Hizmet-affiliated schools in Ethiopia were also transferred to the Maarif Foundation last week.

I know the PakTurk Schools case well and how these schools were illegitimately transferred to the Maarif Foundation by sheer force. To achieve the transference of the schools, the Maarif Foundation and Turkish Embassy in Islamabad followed consistent tactics to cajole and to bring the Government of Pakistan down to its knees for the swift transference of the PakTurk Schools. For the Erdogan regime’ brat child TMF, the Turkish regime officials placed everything on the table including bribe moneys, attractive resources to ensnare officials, agreements in military, security, economy, and education, and many other areas to convince the Pakistani authorities for transferring the schools. It may sound a little normal but not. Yes, the two governments could have such deals and agreements on any mutual interest but the Turkish side always demanded the PakTurk Schools in the bargain while Pakistan looked for opportunities to grow its economy and improve its security in collaboration.      

Since 2016, much of the Turkish foreign policy has been based on the seizure of the Hizmet-affiliated schools. This has undoubtedly opened many gaps at the diplomacy front and even turned into a national security issue. While respective countries have dealt with Turkey to gain national interests, the incumbent Turkish regime has just been focused on the transfers of the Hizmet-affiliated schools to the TMF by ignoring the fundamentals of the foreign policy so it risks many things in domestic and international quarters.

It will not be bold to say that while the AKP, Erdogan’s ruining party, is a national security problem at home, the Maarif Foundation – and its backing band of Turkish foreign missions – create a national security problem abroad. Both have no values and ethics of universal politics and diplomacy. Seizing people’s wealth, having them abducted, tortured and forcefully disappeared, using taxpayers’ money for the everlasting desires and political gains at home and abroad are only a few of many commonalities between Erdogan’s AKP and the Turkiye Maarif Foundation.

Whenever the regime-tutored media turns the limelight on him, Birol Akgun, the president of the Turkiye Maarif Foundation, talks proud of the expansion of the stolen school network of the Foundation. Earlier, he said ‘our strategic plan and target granted to us by President Erdogan is to reach 193 countries to educate people and teach them our culture and values until 2023.’ My pen shakes with shame while writing these, but the TMF officials feel no shame of boasting about the schools they have stolen. With their mob walk and talk, the Maarif Foundation would be remembered as a state-led and state-fed so-called international ‘non-governmental’ organization styled as a crime syndicate rather than an educational organization running schools in 43 countries including the ones they stole from the participants of the Hizmet Movement.

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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.

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