Schools and private courses in Turkey were one of the most prominent sources of income and human resources for the Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ). Now maintaining its financial operations through schools mostly abroad, FETÖ has approximately 700 schools with varying scales and levels worldwide.
Founded as Turkey's international education agency in June 2016, the Maarif Foundation is working diligently on the transfer of FETÖ-affiliated schools to the foundation. The Maarif Foundation, the youngest institution of Turkey to be active abroad, accomplished its organization within a short period of time. With its 40 directorates worldwide, the Maarif Foundation manages both the international investments in education and the seizure of FETÖ-affiliated schools in 108 countries.
Maarif Foundation President Birol Akgün stated that 97 FETÖ-affiliated schools were ceded to the foundation to this day.
"Some 250 FETÖ-affiliated schools are located in European countries along with the U.S. and Australia. Most of these countries don't lean toward ceding the control of these schools to us; however, we have liberated 60 percent of the remaining 450 schools located elsewhere through assuming control, nationalization by the country they're located in or transferring control to a third party," Akgün said.
Highlighting the threat FETÖ poses to countries its affiliates are present as a terrorist organization which legitimizes violence and has attempted a coup in Turkey, Akgün asserted that the truth has come out and there is significant public pressure on FETÖ-affiliated schools around the world.
The Maarif Foundation continues to manage Turkey's international education by opening 140 schools in 25 countries; moreover, the foundation is preparing to open the Maarif Cultural Center in the U.S. where FETÖ-affiliated schools are rather widespread.
Meanwhile, the foundation has signed protocols with 28 countries that will allow the Maarif Foundation to take control of FETÖ-affiliated schools and to open new schools.
Daily Sabah held an exclusive interview with Akgün in regards to the foundation's objectives. TheMaarif Foundation president underlined that the educational mechanisms which stand for the Turkish style of education are aimed to be put into practice at education centers in different corners of the world. Akgün also elaborated on the farsighted purpose of the institute, not only to eliminate the terror threats posed by FETÖ affiliated schools abroad, but also to take place in the international community as well as to represent Turkey's values and improve its presence in the global arena.
Akgün was asked about the foundation's educational activities, the transfer process of the FETÖ-affiliated schools, what policies the foundation adopted to fight FETÖ, current projects and future plans.
Maarif Foundation is a component in the fight against FETÖ
Expressing that the Maarif Foundation is part of the fight against FETÖ, Akgün talked about their policies to transfer control or to close down these FETÖ-affiliated schools abroad.
Akgün asserted that certain Western countries use these schools for negotiations, especially when their relations with Turkey are problematic.
"Even though the foundation was founded prior to the July 15 coup attempt perpetrated by FETÖ, one of its aim was to fight against FETÖ's educational institutions; thus, it's a prominent component of the Turkish state's fight against the terrorist organization," he stated.
Akgün affirmed that the foundation has grown exponentially within the two years since its conception while adding that it will continue to grow as a result of the June 24 elections. Meanwhile, he stated that eliminating FETÖ will take time as it has been active in Turkey and abroad for over 40 years.
Akgün also said that African and Balkan countries that were refraining from negotiating before are now in talks with Turkey to resolve the issue. He gave the protocol signed with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which will transfer the FETÖ-affiliated schools to the foundation, as an example.
Stressing that the Maarif Foundation works diligently and extensively both during and after the seizure of the FETÖ-affiliated schools, Akgün deemed this a necessary mission of Turkey's international education agency.
"When Maarif was founded in 2016, we had dozens of folders sent by the Foreign Ministry awaiting to be processed. We were trying to establish our physical infrastructures along with human resources; on top of that we had to visit the field constantly. Two years has passed and we have established relations with 88 countries; we had more progress with some countries than others," he said.
"We see the Maarif Foundation as Turkey's trustworthy international education institution which provides formal and informal education. We prioritized countries where the schools of this heinous group which has abused Turkey's reputation for its own ends," he added.
"This was a political necessity. As foreseen by the Foreign Ministry, we initiate negotiations in these countries. We gather information about the FETÖ-affiliated schools in these countries and negotiate their seizure simultaneously. We're having positive reception from countries especially in Africa, we have made some progress and transferred the control of a prominent number of schools to our administration," Akgün elaborated.
Currently, the Maarif Foundation is running operations to take over FETÖ-linked schools in the world in coordination with the Education Ministry and Foreign Affairs Ministry. Since its establishment, the foundation has made official contact with 90 countries, appointed directors to 40 countries so far and currently runs 101 schools.
In a total of 12 countries, including Niger, Chad, Somalia and Sudan, 94 FETÖ schools with more than 10,000 students have been transferred to the Maarif Foundation with the help of the governments of those countries.
The inauguration of the first directorship of the Maarif Foundation in South Africa, where there are 11 FETÖ schools with a total of 2,800 students, was held with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in attendance last week. He was in the country as part of his four-day visit to the continent.
The aim of the foundation is to eventually take over these schools from the terrorist organization, just as it did in 28 other countries.
Seeking to address the necessities of the Turkish diaspora, the Maarif Foundation has opened schools in many locations such as Gambia, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Sao Tome, the U.S., Kosovo, Afghanistan, Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tanzania, Macedonia and northern Iraq. These schools currently offer education to 1,800 students.
FETÖ developing different methods to maintain its power
Akgün said that FETÖ has started to follow different strategies especially after the terrorist organization's schools started being closed down. However, he also added that FETÖ is trying to keep these schools under its control through other means.
"Showing its affiliate schools as bought by a third party is a frequent tactic used by FETÖ. For example, FETÖ supposedly sold its universities and schools in Bosnia to a U.S. company, then to a British one. They removed the Turkish flag and replaced it with the U.S. flag first and then with the British flag. This is a typical method they resort to," Akgün said.
Akgün asserted that FETÖ seemingly disowns these educational institutions but continues to use and abuse them. He also added that despite Turkey's warning about this matter, countries are hesitant to act allowing the terrorist organization to maintain its influence over these institutions through multinational corporations or third-party initiatives.
How schools are ceded to the foundation
On the other hand, Akgün expressed that they open schools in countries where the FETÖ schools are yet to be transferred to the foundation.
"When the country where the FETÖ-affiliated schools are located isn't very keen on negotiating with us, we prefer to open an alternative school there. This is a strategical preference; people who send their children to FETÖ-affiliated schools do it because of their trust in Turkey's image. Thus, we should provide an alternative. They submit requests to our embassies in their countries, asking us to provide an alternative to the schools of FETÖ, which are mired in terrorism. For this reason, we have opened educational facilities in many countries in accordance with our embassies' guidance. Currently, we have around 140 schools in 25 countries," Akgün said.
South Africa and Zambia are expected to be the next countries that collaborate with Turkey and the Maarif Foundation in the fight against FETÖ and their activities in the continent. In total, 80 percent of Maarif's 12,000 students are from Africa. The latest transfer of schools was made in Congo through the cooperation between the two countries' governments. Estimated at its peak to be worth $25 billion in 2012, FETÖ was considered an economic powerhouse enjoying support from its transnational network of trading companies and businesses.
A key element of this vast economic network is the school system operated by the group in the U.S., Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia – virtually everywhere on Earth. The commercial and financial structuring of FETÖ has focused on building schools in African countries.
By promising free education for the children of political elites, high-ranking military officials and bureaucrats, FETÖ tried to gain access to significant and high-level positions in the countries. Thereby, they hoped to establish a network of high-profile individuals.
The number of FETÖ-affiliated schools in 35 African countries is estimated to have exceeded 100 prior to the takeover of some of them by the Maarif Foundation. The first school in Africa opened in Tangier in 1994.
The first one in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Senegal in 1997, followed by schools a year later in Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria.
Stressing that FETÖ is a terrorist organization which feeds from issues between Turkey and other countries, Akgün said, "FETÖ abuses its influence in these countries to slander Turkey and uses its schools as a trump card against Turkey."
Akgün expressed that the Maarif Foundation's efficiency relies on the normalization process with the U.S. and Europe while adding that there are certain indicators of success.
"Looking at the picture after the June 24 elections, I believe our area of influence is expanding and we will be able to resolve issues comparatively easily now. There are certain indicators; for instance, Democratic Republic of Congo's Minister of Education visited Turkey last week and we signed an agreement that cedes FETÖ-affiliated schools to the foundation. We see that other African and Balkan countries that previously avoided negotiating this matter are now looking to resolve the issue," he said.
"In this respect, I believe Turkey's five-year long employment mobility will facilitate the resolution of the said matters. The legitimate government of Turkey renewed its legitimacy with the popular voting and is rearranging its foreign relations; inevitably, all countries are now seeing FETÖ as a disposable entity. Meanwhile, it's not realistic to expect an organization which has been active abroad for 30 years to be completely eliminated within a year or two," Akgün added.
Mostly Western countries refuse to cede FETÖ-affiliated schools
Akgün stated that mostly Western countries refuse to give up FETÖ-affiliated schools to the Maarif Foundation adding that 97 out of approximately 700 FETÖ schools in 108 countries were taken over.
"Some 250 FETÖ-affiliated schools are located in European countries along with the U.S. and Australia. Most of these countries don't lean towards ceding the control of these schools to us; however, we have liberated 60 percent of the remaining 450 schools located elsewhere through assuming control, nationalization by the country they're located in or transferring control to a third party," said Akgün.
Maarif Foundation acts as Turkey's international education agency
Expressing that the foundation's sole objective is not simply the seizure of FETÖ-affiliated schools, Akgün asserted that the Maarif Foundation also serves to introduce Turkey and Turkish universities to the international community. "As one of Turkey's ports to the world, the Maarif Foundation also serves as an international education agency. While there were 20,000 international students in Turkey five years ago, today there are 120,000 international students studying here. We believe the number of international students will continue to rise," Akgün evaluated.
Maarif Cultural Center to be opened in the U.S.
Akgün reminded that the foundation currently has schools in 25 countries while adding that this number will rise to 40 by the end of this year with the recently signed agreements. Aiming to have schools in 60 countries, Akgün said "Beside opening schools in Western countries where Turkish immigrants live, we're developing new methods to address the Turkish diaspora's necessities pertaining to culture, identity and belonging. We will be opening a Maarif Cultural Center in the U.S.; it will be named as Maarif House."
Foundation offers mutual educational exchange
Asserting FETÖ uses bureaucratic mechanisms abroad to complicate Maarif Foundation's activities, Akgün affirmed that both the FETÖ threat and the terrorist organization's educational grievances will be resolved in the case these institutions are given to Turkey through the foundation. Akgün stated the following:
"We reiterate our offer to the corresponding countries. A state institution with significant financial and technological resources comes to your country and aims to provide quality education to your children. Your education expenses will decrease, you will continue to work with the same teacher, your working conditions will be improved and the capacity of the school will be increased," he said.
"This will also improve your relations with Turkey. This is what we say to them. We are promising a mutually beneficial process; we want these schools to serve as a means to improve the relations between the countries, not deteriorate them. This is our ultimate goal. For this reason, we stress that ceding these schools to our foundation will improve their technology, capacity and relations along with protecting the interests of students and consolidating their politics," he added.
FETÖ faces public pressure in countries where it is unmasked
Highlighting the threat FETÖ poses to countries as a terrorist organization which legitimizes violence and has attempted a coup in Turkey, Akgün said, "When we warn other countries about the threat FETÖ poses, all of them start to observe, control and pursue FETÖ institutions within their territories; they also start to follow those working in FETÖ-affiliated schools."
Akgün asserted that FETÖ's situation is deteriorating by the day while its name is affiliated with the July 15 coup attempt by the world media.
Reminding people of the saying "the truth cannot be hidden," Akgün added, "When politicians of other countries read such news about FETÖ, they become aware of the fact that this has an impact beyond politics. For instance, people who send their children to FETÖ-affiliated schools with the hopes of a quality education become irritated and start to question their respective education or foreign ministries about why they allow terrorists in their country. They demand their state to take precautions. In some cases, these people create exemplary public pressure by stating that they don't want the relations with Turkey to deteriorate and that FETÖ shouldn't be present in their country," he said.
"We observe this public pressure in the U.S., Albania, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Kyrgyzstan as well as in South America, Africa and Asia. They are sympathizing with Turkey. In this sense, they don't want a terrorist organization which has heinously attempted a coup on Turkey's government and its people to be present there. They don't want to send their children to FETÖ-affiliated schools; for this reason, they are putting pressure on their own governments through local media," he continued.
"In my opinion, this is only the beginning; in accordance with the result of June 24 elections, I believe this process will become more powerful. Graduates of these schools aren't accepted by Turkey; not for education, not for employment, not for settlement. So, people have no reason to send their children to such schools. This creates issues. Thus; I believe they will either close down FETÖ-affiliated schools, sell the schools to a third party who really wants to manage them or they will cede them to the Maarif Foundation," he concluded.