COMMENTARY — Turkey’s Maarif exports Erdoğan’s ideology to Balkans

By Abdullah Bozkurt

The Maarif Foundation, the long arm of the autocratic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has positioned itself to raise a new generation of political Islamists in the heart of Europe using Turkey’s leverage and influence in the Balkan states of southeastern Europe.

On Oct. 18, 2018, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was a keynote speaker in Tirana to celebrate the inauguration of a Maarif-run university called New York Tirana University, which the Turkish government bought in March of this year from its private owners. The acquisition represented the latest attempt by the Erdoğan regime to gain a larger foothold in several Balkan countries in order to promote its brand of religious ideology under the guise of education. The profile of a man who was also present at the ceremony and delivered a speech on behalf of Maarif may provide better insight into what the Erdoğan regime-funded foundation is up to on European soil.

His name is Osman Nuri Kabaktepe, vice president of the Maarif Foundation, a long-time Islamist politician who helped groom the younger generation in Turkey in political Islamist ideology. He is effectively running the organization although he is the number two at Maarif on paper. He was the head of youth branches in the religious Felicity (Saadet) Party, the Turkish equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood that was established by the late Necmettin Erbakan, the founding father of political Islam in Turkey. Kabaktepe graduated from a faculty of theology after completing religious high school in his hometown of Fatsa in northern Ordu province along the Black Sea coastline.

He is also vice president of an Islamist outfit called the Cihannüma Dayanışma ve İşbirliği Platformu Derneği (Cihannüma Association for Solidarity and Cooperation Platform), which is headquartered in Istanbul. Cihannüma is led by Mustafa Şen, who works closely with the Erdoğan government in filling government jobs with partisans and Islamists. Cihannüma acts as a revolving door for young ideologues who were selected for government positions based on ideological zealotry rather than merit. The organization has close links to Hamas in Gaza, hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Istanbul and worked with Jihad Ya’amur, the Hamas representative in Turkey who was considered by Israel to be a terrorist for his role in the abduction of an IDF soldier who was later killed during a rescue attempt.

Kabaktepe is a frequent lecturer on political Islam at events and training camps organized by a youth foundation run by Erdoğan’s family. He was last seen giving lessons to a group of university students on the history of political Islam on Oct. 20, 2018, at an event organized by the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA), an Islamist group that is managed by Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan. He took part in the lecture series of another NGO called the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı), which is run by jihadist cleric Nureddin (or Nurettin) Yıldız, a radical imam who is closely aligned with the Turkish president. Nureddin openly advocates jihad, describes democracy as a system for infidels and says it can only be used as a means of deception to rise to power. Yıldız is the man who radicalized the young, al-Nusra-affiliated police officer who assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey in December 2016.

Another organization that Kabaktepe works closely with is Turkey’s highly controversial charity group the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH), a pro-government Islamist organization that was accused of smuggling arms to al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria and Libya and acts as a revolving door for transferring religious fanatics and zealots to government jobs with the help of the Turkish president’s family enterprise. The IHH works with the Turkish intelligence agency and acts as a tool in the hands of the Erdoğan government.

Trade registry data show Kabaktepe has business interests and shares in a number of companies in Istanbul, one of which has links to businesspeople from Saudi Arabia and Sudan. For example, he is chairman of the board of directors at Jist Madencilik A.Ş., a mining company based in Istanbul. When it was originally established on March 12, 2013, under the name of Jist Uluslararasi İnşaat Ve Enerji Sanayi Diş Ticaret A.Ş. (an international construction and energy firm), the financiers were listed as Prince Khalid Bin Saud Bin Khaled bin Turki al-Saud, a Jeddah-based Saudi national, and Naqi Nasr Khalil Abbas, a Sudanese national also based in Jeddah. Kabaktepe was named general manager of the company before taking it over and changing the name to Jist Madencilik on Sept. 21, 2017.

Some of the companies appear to be working as fronts for him to tap into government contracts and tenders as well as to provide services that government agencies like Maarif outsource. Exposure Factor Siber Savunma Sanayi A.Ş., a cyber defense firm, was established by him in Istanbul on July 2, 2018, to promote his business interests in the cyber field using his own network in the government. Perhaps he plans to expand Erdoğan’s troll army on Twitter and other social media platforms using Maarif schools as platforms in foreign countries. He is the founding partner and chairman of the board of Exposure Factor, while Irfan Berkay Güler was listed as his deputy.

Kabaktepe has also shares in Ahsen Gayrimenkul İnşaat İç Ve Diş Ticaret Ltd. Şt., a real estate, construction and foreign trade company, as well as Bilge İleti̇şi̇m Organizasyon Rehberlik İnşaat Taahhüt Ti̇caret Ve Sanayi Ltd. Şt., a communications and contracting firm. He is deputy chairman of the board of a company called Cebeci Teknoloji Sanayi Ve Ticaret A.Ş., which is led by Turkish national Ugur Berber. Outside of Istanbul, he is chairman of the İzmir-based health, sport, and tourism company Vizyon Sports Sağlık Eğitim Turizm İnşaat Organizasyon A.Ş.

Some of Kabaktepe’s own companies, as well as others identified by the Erdoğan regime, are being used to finance off-the-books operations by the Maarif Foundation. This was specially designed by Erdoğan when his associates on June 17, 2016, drafted Law No. 6721, which regulated Maarif and allowed it to accept donations, grants and other forms of assistance from both national and international donors. This is the murky part that stands in contrast to the funding that comes from the budget of the Ministry of Education. Although we know that Maarif received TL 90 million in June 2016, TL 241 million in August 2017 and TL 351 million in August 2018 from the central budget, we do not know how much funding, donations, grants, and in-kind contributions came from private donors both national and international.

The scheme works like this: The businesspeople and companies that provide services to Maarif that are not fully accounted for in any government document often receive overpriced contracts and tenders with a promise of the funneling of a certain portion of taxpayers’ money in order to finance the activities of Maarif. This is the classic kickback and corruption scheme we have often seen in the Erdoğan government. In fact, that is how Erdoğan managed to take over some of the media companies in Turkey, by offering multibillion-dollar contracts to his business associates who in turn bought the Sabah daily, for example, and handed the management over to Erdoğan family members. Sabah has sort of been Erdoğan’s official mouthpiece since 2008.

The only figure that is available for private donations to Maarif came after pressure from opposition lawmakers. According to papers filed in parliament by then-Education Minister İsmet Yilmaz on Feb. 26, 2018 in response to eight parliamentary questions concerning Maarif, the government had to reveal that the foundation had received TL 6.8 million in cash from private donors, while one company donated 500 computer tablets. It did not specify who the donors were and what other contributions were made to the foundation or in what form. Yilmaz also said the foundation was active in 18 countries as of December 2017 and had a staff of 1,532 in total.

According to the minister’s speech in parliament on June 16, 2017, the foundation was part of an initiative to project the Turkish state’s ambition to become a greater power in the world. He maintained that the foundation would operate in places from “the Balkans to Eastern Turkistan [China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] and from Somalia to Canada.” The main motivation that lay behind the establishment of Maarif was to project Erdoğan’s brand of political Islam abroad and groom young generations according to the ideals set by the Turkish president and his Islamist brethren.

For example, during a consultation meeting held in Abant on July 12-15, 2017 by Maarif, the foundation’s head, Birol Akgün, revealed that they aim to raise a generation with “maturity in the Islamic sense.” The meeting was also attended by representatives of the Diyanet, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which controls a multibillion-dollar budget and oversees some 90,000 mosques in Turkey and abroad with over 140,000 imams. In another meeting on May 2-5, 2017, Maarif gathered the administrators of religious imam-hatip or similar schools operating in the Balkans and other European countries. Participants from Germany, Belgium, Austria, Bosnia, Denmark, Kosovo, Macedonia. Albania, Cyprus, and Serbia expressed their wish to see a leader like Erdoğan who was raised in an imam-hatip school in their own countries, according to a news release on Maarif’s official website.

Concerned about political motivations, many countries either refuse to allow Maarif to operate on their soil or restrict its activities while carefully watching the moves of its Turkey-appointed administrators. The Erdoğan government has been successful in some Balkan countries and has managed to persuade some African states to allow Maarif to open schools or take over Gülen-linked schools in exchange for trade favors, cash assistance and bribery. As of today, Maarif has representative offices in 34 countries and controls some 100 schools in 20 countries. In the Balkans, it is active in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It also runs schools in the north of Syria occupied by Turkish troops. Close to 10,000 students are enrolled in Maarif schools, and the number is expected to rise to 20,000 when it fully takes over schools in Afghanistan that have been run by Gülen-linked groups.

Erdoğan’s attempt to export his own ideology abroad did not go unnoticed. In a strongly worded resolution recently adopted by the Council of Europe (CoE), the large intergovernmental organization that champions democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights in 47 European countries, the Erdoğan government’s attempt to export political Islam to Europe was condemned. On Oct. 10, 2018, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urged member states to “put an end to any foreign funding of Islam which is used for the purpose of national political expansion into other States under the guise of Islam.” The resolution, which was adopted by a vote of 115 to 10 with four abstentions, said foreign funding of political Islam as Erdoğan and others have been advocating “should not be allowed in Council of Europe member states.”

Maarif is nothing but a Trojan horse that is part of well-funded, long-term tactical asset at the disposal of Erdoğan, who no longer seems to hide his grand ambitions of becoming a caliph who commands the entire Muslim community, or Ummah. (

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