Senegalese students worried over transfer of Gülen-affiliated schools to Turkey’s Islamist Maarif Foundation

In January, students, parents, and teachers gathered in Collège Bosphore’s schoolyard for a concert to ask President Macky Sall not to change the management of Yavuz Selim. The slogan: “Don’t touch my school.” (Photo: Quartz Africa - Stéphanie Fillion)

Parents of Senegalese children attending schools run by followers of  the Gülen (Hizmet) movement, which was inspired by moderate views of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, are worried by reports that these schools could be handed over to Islamist Turkish government control, Quartz Africa reported.

“I don’t even know who Gülen or (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan are,” mother Oury Mbaye told the website following reports her child’s school could be handed over to the Turkish government-controlled Maarif Foundation.

“If they are imposing managers on me that have no experience in education, I will transfer my children to a French school. I did not choose Maarif, and they won’t impose anything on me.”

Erdoğan’s Islamist government used to see the overseas educational activities affiliated with the Gülen movement’s as a way to project Turkish soft power. But the group fell out dramatically with the government in 2013, when prosecutors said to be linked to the movement began investigating ministers and Erdoğan families on corruption charges.

Le Monde newspaper said Ankara had offered the Senegalese government $7,5 million to transfer the Yavuz Selim educational group to Maarif Foundation. But Education Minister Serigne Mbaye Thiam denied the report, saying that Senegal had only licensed Maarif Foundation to be able to set up its own schools, Quartz said.

However, according to a report by state-run Anadolu news agency (AA), which has turned to be despotic Erdoğan regime’s propaganda machine, Turkish Transport, Maritime and Communications Minister Ahmet Arslan has said on Monday that all the schools in Senegal linked to the Gülen movement have been closed, with three placed under Maarif Foundation, thanks to good relations with Senegalese government.

Speaking to reporters in Senegal’s capital Dakar, Arslan said economic and political ties between Turkey and Senegal were improving. “The recent good relations between Turkey and Senegal dealt a big blow to FETO-linked schools in the West African country. All schools in Senegal have been closed,” he said. “FETÖ” a derogatory term coined by ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the rule of autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to refer to the Gülen movement,

Arslan said that out of 12 schools with 2,500 students, Maarif (Education) Foundation (TMV) took over three of the shuttered schools, with nine others to follow once legal procedures were completed. “Those three schools will start accepting students. However, as it is mid-term now, they expect fewer students. They will have more students by January, that is, in the second term,” Arslan said.

The Maarif Foundation was established by Erdoğan’s political Islamist government after the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey to take over the administration of overseas schools allegedly linked to the Gülen movement. To date, it has taken over dozens of schools which were established by the volunteers of the Gülen movement in the African countries of Somalia, Guinea, Niger, Sudan, and the People’s Republic of Congo.

According to the report by Quartz Africa, one Saturday evening last January, hundreds of children and parents gathered in the schoolyard of Collège Bosphore in Senegal’s capital, bouncing to the sounds of a hip-hop concert being broadcast on national TV. Despite the festive mood of the crowd, they weren’t celebrating. They were protesting the influence of a political leader thousands of miles away—Turkish President Erdoğan. ‘“We are independent, we will not accept to be under a foreign dictatorship,” the concert’s host, Senegalese singer Fou Malade, told the crowd.

“For months, Erdoğan had been pressuring Dakar to close schools like Collège Bosphore, which are linked to Hizmet, a moderate Islamist religious movement that has grown since the 1960s out of the teachings of Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. Also known as the Gülen movement, Hizmet has established branches and schools all around the world, including Senegal. Fou Malade’s concert protested Dakar’s recent decision to hand over the management of the schools to the Maarif Foundation…” wrote Quartz Africa.

“Nine months after the concert, Dakar appears to have caved. Senegal’s Hizmet-affiliated schools were shut down in October, leaving 500 staff and 3,000 students in the dust. “Turkey has asked for more than three years to close the schools for reasons of instability and the alleged activities of the movement,” Senegal’s President Macky Sall told a local newspaper in October. “Senegal initially refused, and we asked our Turkish partner to do their part. But then, there was a coup.”

According to the report, the first Hizmet-affiliated school opened in Senegal in 1998 with only eight students. Eight others followed, forming the private school network Yavuz Selim…  Nineteen-year-old Betty Kane graduated last year from Collège Sultan, an all-girls school that is part of Senegal’s Yavuz Selim network. “My mother wanted me to come here because it has good results and is one of the best schools in Senegal,” Kane said.

“The closure of Yavuz Selim schools isn’t just a blow for its students, but also for the state of education in Senegal, a country where about one-third of children remain out of school, and the literacy rate hovers at 57,7 percent. The schools had a reputation for excellence, ranking for years among Senegal’s best. Students got top scores in national exams, and went on to study at international universities, often in Turkey, until the failed coup,” wrote Quartz Africa.

The report has continued as follow: “Most students at Yavuz Selim are from wealthy Senegalese families and have been transferred to other private schools in the wake of the closure. Others are scrambling to find places to attend. Out of 3,000 students in the Yavuz Selim network, about 300 were on scholarships—at 80,000 CFA ($130) a month for elementary school, and 125,000 CFA ($204) a month for high school, the schools were among the most expensive in the country. “We’re still trying to find a solution for them,” said Naffissatou Cissé, a school administrator at Collège Bosphore.

“Yavuz Selim’s schools were known to be quite moderate, and Gülen’s teachings were not part of the curriculum (Senegal’s population is predominantly Muslim, but religious classes are not required by the national curriculum.) Female students were not required to cover themselves and many did not wear headscarves. The Hizmet schools provided bilingual education in French and English, with mandatory Turkish classes.

“… Following the 2016 coup, diplomatic pressure to close Hizmet schools or to transfer them under the control of the Maarif Foundation escalated. A little more than a month after the failed putsch, a Turkish delegation arrived in Senegal to formally ask the government to shut down schools related to the movement. By last December, Dakar had announced it would hand over Yavuz Selim schools to Maarif. The schools tried to push back, holding press conferences and issuing pamphlets advertising the negative press Maarif had gotten in Turkey. The school network kept operating for as long as it could, until it was officially closed by the government in October.

“School administrator Naffissatou Cissé says most have given up hope the schools will be reopened. ‘All parents care about is getting their money back,’ she says. According to an article by Le Monde published in October, Ankara has given the Senegalese government $2,5 million and promised $5 million more ‘for Maarif to take over Yavuz Selim.’ However, Senegal’s minister of education recently disputed this charge on a local radio show, saying that Marrif ‘has come to an agreement with Senegal to carry on educational activities in the country. The State did not transfer Yavuz Selim to the Maarif Foundation.’

“It’s unclear whether this means Maarif will take over the existing schools or open their own. As of writing, all of Yavuz Selim’s schools remain closed, except for one, which was reopened by a woman who decided to buy the school, according to a former school administrator at Yavuz Selim. Maarif and representatives of the Senegalese government did not respond to requests for interviews.

“Senegal is not the only country that has resisted Ankara’s request. Tanzania’s Feza school chain denied links to Hizmet and said it will stay open. Kenya has kept its Gulen-affiliated Light Academy school network, which includes one of the country’s best private schools, running.

“But several African countries have capitulated. Mali transferred management of its schools, attended by 3,000 students, to Maarif at the beginning of this school year. Morocco decided to shut down its seven Gülen-affiliated schools last January. Somalia, which relies on Turkish aid, closed its Hizmet schools a few hours after the coup. Maarif has since opened its own schools there.

“Oury Mbaye used to live in France and fought to enroll her children at Yavuz Selim when she returned to Senegal, hoping to take advantage of the excellent education provided by École Élémentaire Cascade for her three children. What she didn’t expect was to be caught in a war between two men on different continents. “If they are imposing managers on me that have no experience in education, I will transfer my children to a French school. I did not choose Maarif, and they won’t impose anything on me,” Mbaye said. “I don’t even know who Gülen or Erdoğan are.”

Turkey’s autocratic President Erdoğan has aimed at to replace the positive contributions of the schools opened by the Gülen (a.k.a. Hizmet) movement in Africa to preventing clashes in countries, where there is Christian-Muslim tension, with radical Islamist rhetoric and thus will create conflict rather than dialogue in African countries, stated a report recently released by London-based Center for Hizmet Studies.

A report titled “The Turbulence between AKP and Hizmet: The African Case“, penned by academic Erkan Toğuşlu, a director in Gülen Chair for Intercultural Studies at KU Leuven University, has analyzed the possible results of probable transfers of the schools opened by Gülen movement to the Maarif Foundation which was established by Erdoğan regime to take over the schools abroad opened and operated by the movement.

The report also draw attention to the potential vacuum after closure or transfer of the schools opened and operated in African countries and stated that the countries that close the schools down will confront a set of problems in the immediate future.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempton July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15, 2016. Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced on July 13 that 50,510 people have been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

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