Last month, parents of the Yavuz Selim school in Kanifing, Gambia, received a letter announcing its immediate closure. A source at the school, run by the Hizmet organisation of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, said the decision had been conveyed to the principal in a one sentence missive.
Gülen’s Hizmet movement cites this as an example of Turkish pressure on governments to shut down Gülen schools, a key source of its influence and revenue at home and abroad, and discourage Hizmet-linked commerce from banking to construction.
Turkish Islamic lender Bank Asya, which has extensive dealings with Hizmet companies in Africa, reported it had suffered mass deposit withdrawals, weeks after a power struggle between Erdoğan and Gülen erupted in December.
Media said institutional depositors loyal to Erdoğan had withdrawn 20 percent of the bank’s deposits. Ahmet Beyaz, Chief executive of the bank, which has among its shareholders Kaynak Holding, which is close to Hizmet, told Reuters the bank was not in any danger. The government would not comment.
Erdoğan has declared Hizmet, long a mainstay of Turkish foreign policy, a terrorist movement using dirty tricks, including corruption allegations, blackmail and espionage to undermine him. His move to shut its schools in Turkey ignited the current confrontation.
“One of the greatest difficulties posed by the struggle against Hizmet is in diplomacy,” said a government official who declined to be named. “Right now Hizmet and its representatives are fully engaged in anti-government activities.”
“As it has been made public that the Hizmet schools will no longer be supported (by the Turkish government), a number of those countries do not want them to continue.”
The battle against Hizmet, long an instrument of Turkish soft power claiming millions of followers worldwide, has diverted effort from a foreign policy already in some disarray.
Very recently, Erdoğan was received as a hero in Egypt and his government cited in the West as a model for Islamic democracy. Now his ties with Arab capitals are icy, largely due to his siding with Islamist parties such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and relations with the West tested by a graft scandal and what some see as growing authoritarian tendencies.
Seeking bread abroad
Hizmet denies using followers in the police and judiciary to launch a graft inquiry targeting Erdoğan family members, ministers and businessmen and make illicit recordings of top officials. Ankara fears further leaks ahead of presidential polls in August could undermine the government.
The movement, also known as Cemaat (JEH-maat), The Community, has for decades been a spearhead of Turkish cultural influence and commerce overseas, especially so in the assertive opening to Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the years after AKP took power in 2002.
“In Turkey, we were at pains not to get involved in an economic relationship with the government,” Tercan Baştürk, Secretary General of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which speaks for Hizmet, said at its Istanbul headquarters.
“Instead, we directed all Hizmet supporters to go abroad and told them to seek their bread outside the country.”
It was long said there were three arms to Turkish diplomacy – the Foreign Ministry, Turkish Airlines and Hizmet.
Turkey currently has some 35 embassies in Africa, second only to France. About 15 opened in the last two years. The red Turkish flag flies, for instance, across Mogadishu, Turkish firms playing the lead role in post-war construction.
“A lot of this is due to the support of Gülen because in many places in sub-Saharan Africa the only real Turkish communities are Gülen-linked communities, whether schools or business, and the embassies were opened to support this drive,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Edam think tank in Istanbul.
Where Erdoğan has conducted a purge of alleged Gülen supporters in the police and the judiciary since December’s anti-corruption raids, Turkey’s embassies are now expected to a purge their relations with the cleric overseas to strangle income from enterprise, schools and donations.
“Almost overnight they (the Embassies) shift position where they are being asked to persuade those governments to close down those schools,” Ulgen said. “Of course, some governments may want to accept this demand from the Turkish side.”
Most likely to respond to Turkish displeasure would be states such as Gambia benefiting from direct aid from Ankara.
Afghanistan to Pensylvania
The Foreign Ministry itself is in some turmoil since it emerged that minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s office was bugged and talks with the security chief and army commanders on possible armed intervention in Syria was posted anonymously on Youtube.
Overseas schools, Turkish cultural institutes and business, like Hizmet’s presence in the Turkish state, have been built up over four decades. For much of that Gülen has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, something that has for Erdoğan supported the thesis that Hizmet is part of a broad foreign-backed anti-Turkish plot.
When Erdoğan was first elected in 2002, he lacked educated specialists to press social and economic reforms he envisaged to ease curbs on religion, improving welfare and, foremost, rein in a military that had toppled four governments in as many decades.
He invited Hizmet to help and Hizmet obliged. The falling out has pushed Erdoğan into his biggest crisis in 12 years.
Hizmet runs 2,000 educational establishments in 160 countries, from Afghanistan to the United States. The schools, such as the Yavuz Selim in Gambia, are well equipped, teach a secular curriculum in English, and are popular, especially in poorer countries, with the political and business elite.
“Until six months ago, government officials, the President, the Prime Minister were going to these schools and praising them and saying they were important for peace in the world,” Baştürk said. “The government is pressing the Hizmet movement from outside to put it in difficulty inside (Turkey).”
Erdoğan has sought help from U.S. President Barack Obama in curbing “the man from Pennsylvania”. On a lower level he has spoken to the head of Pakistan’s Punjab about the schools.
The government accuses Hizmet overseas of running a propaganda campaign against the Turkish government through publications. Officials say the organisation is also carrying out other actions, unspecified, that can alarm host governments.
Hizmet says the Turkish government approaches different governments in different ways, according to local sensitivities.
“They say to the Russians ‘kick them out’, they are making pan-Turkish propaganda in their schools,” said Baştürk, referring to Russian sensitivities about Turkish-related populations in Russia, the Caucasus area and Central Asia. “We hear all this because we have friends there.
Assessing the full scale of Hizmet influence and its economic power is difficult because of the essentially secretive nature of some aspects; but Ankara clearly sees it as a threat.
Business sources say Turkish firms play a dominant role in construction in Kabul, where Hizmet opened a school weeks after the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Are those firms all Hizmet?
“Hizmet is not a movement with a membership,” Baştürk said. “Hizmet movement business people are a very heterogeneous structure. In Kabul, all businessmen are from the Hizmet movement on the one hand, and on the other, they are not.”