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 Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
‘“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, Erdogan 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 Gulen. Also known as the Gulen 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, an umbrella organization created by the Turkish government in June 2016 ostensibly to oversee Turkish Islamic education abroad. Since Erdogan’s political split with Gulen a few years ago, Maarif has taken over several Hizmet-affiliated schools across the world, while others were simply closed.
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 [Gulen] 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.”
Caught in the middle
The first Hizmet-affiliated school opened in Senegal in 1998 with only eight students. Eight others followed, forming the private school network Yavuz Selim (link in French.) The battle over the control of the schools is a part of a much larger struggle between Erdogan, president of Turkey since 2014 and Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999.
Erdogan accuses Gulen’s followers of being behind an attempted coup d’état in July 2016—a charge which Gulen has denied—and calls Gulen’s movement FETÖ, for “Gulenist Terror Group.” After the coup, Erdogan enacted a large purge against the movement, dismissing or suspending over 100,000 public officials and civil servants. He labelled 28,000 teachers alleged Gulen supporters and terrorists, according to Human Rights Watch, and accused affiliated schools of radicalizing students.
The preacher and politician were one-time allies. Over time, the Gulen movement has come to represent a major counter-power to Erdogan’s control of Turkey. With about 1,500 schools affiliated with the movement in 170 countries, this struggle over the future of power and religion in Turkey has repercussions across the world. And it threatens the education of an estimated 15, 000 students in at least 30 countries in Africa.
Nineteen-year-old Betty Kane graduated last year from Collège Sultan, an all-girls school that is part of Senegal’s Yavuz Selim network. She is from Kaolack, 125 miles from Dakar, and attended the boarding school on a scholarship given to her for her good grades. “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%. 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.
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 Gulen’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.
For years, Hizmet schools were simply known as the “Turkish schools” and seen as a beneficial extension of Turkish diplomacy, says Graham Fuller, the former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council and a former agent who was based in Turkey. ”In terms of Gulen’s operations overseas, it was a win-win for Turkey: Turkey was helping education, it was a form of public relations for the country,” explains Fuller. “It transmitted a moderate interpretation of Islam, helped in building intellectual and trade ties between Turkey and these countries, and brought military aid as well as medical assistance. It was an integral part of Turkish foreign policy.’’ (Turkey has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Fuller, accusing him of having links to the coup; Mr. Fuller has denied any involvement.)
According to Forbes, Gulen-affiliated businesses, including schools, philanthropic associations, and media organizations, were valued between $20 to $50 billion worldwide in 2015. Gulen’s real assets are hard to determine, however, as the movement is quite opaque (pdf) regarding its financing and many Gulen-related associations claim they are only inspired by the preacher, not directly associated with him.
Erdogan and Gulen shared a common desire to bring religion back to the public sphere in Turkey, where the military has safe-guarded secularism since the founding of the Republic in 1923. “They were working together because they both support the insertion of Islam in the public sphere,” explains Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. ‘’Both of them also saw themselves as being victimized by the military.’’
When Erdogan came to power as prime minister in 2003, followers of Gulen within the military and the judiciary became natural allies. But the relationship has since descended into a bitter power struggle. By 2012, a series of trials —later overturned—hit key people believed to be hardline secularists in the military. Many of the magistrates were alleged followers of Gulen. While their conviction suited Erdogan and badly weakened his main political rival, the military, it also served to show how powerful Gulen and his followers had become. A corruption inquiry against Erdogan led the president to accuse the cleric of leading a powerful “parallel state” within Turkey. Gulen then began openly criticizing Erdogan, most notably for his crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in Istanbul in 2013. Erdogan responded by closing Hizmet prep schools in Turkey, and calling for their closure abroad.
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 Gulen-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 Gulen or Erdogan are.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article named Graham Fuller as vice chair of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. He is former vice chairman. In addition, the article named Lisel Hintz as visiting assistant professor at Columbia University. She is now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.