Turkey puts pressure on foreign countries to close Gulen-linked schools

Ankara holds such sway in Somalia that within hours of the failed coup its cabinet had met to consider a request to shut down two schools and a hospital linked to the US-based cleric. A week later, the request had been met.

Somalis carry Turkish and Somali flags as they gather in support of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government in Mogadishu on July 16, 2016. Feisal Omar/Reuters
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MOGADISHU // Barely 12 hours after a failed coup in Turkey, Somalia’s cabinet met in Mogadishu to consider a request from Ankara to shut down two schools and a hospital linked to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric who Turkey blames for the attempted putsch.

Such is Turkey’s sway in Somalia, where it has spearheaded international reconstruction efforts after decades of war and instability, that closing the institutions was not a difficult decision.

Teachers and pupils at the two huge boarding schools run by Mr Gulen’s Nile Academy educational foundation were given seven days to pack their bags and, if they were foreign, leave the country. Almost all of them were Somali, however.

“Considering the request of our brother country Turkey, the cabinet ministers have agreed upon the following points – to stop the services provided by Nile Academy including schools, hospitals, etc,” the government said on July 16.

A week later, the order had been carried out to the letter.

Turkey’s ties with Somalia are well established. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first non-African leader to visit Somalia in nearly 20 years when he travelled there in 2011 as Turkey’s prime minister. And Ankara was a major contributor to the humanitarian aid effort during the 2011 famine and continues to build hospitals and dispatch aid across Somalia.

The closures in Somalia are part of a far wider effort by Ankara to erode Mr Gulen’s influence. Mr Erdogan has vowed to “cleanse” Turkey of what he describes as the Gulenist “cancer”, not only carrying out a purge of the army, police and judiciary at home, but also going after Mr Gulen’s network of schools and other interests around the world.

Mr Gulen’s schools have been a key source of influence and revenue for his Hizmet movement. It runs about 2,000 educational establishments in 160 countries, from Afghanistan to the United States. The schools are generally well equipped, teach a secular curriculum in English, and are popular with the political and business elite, especially in poorer countries.

Turkey has also applied pressure to other countries that are home to Gulen-backed institutions. But many of these do not seem willing to follow Somalia’s lead.

In Kenya, where Mr Gulen’s Omeriye Foundation has grown from its first school in 1998 in the vast Nairobi slum of Kibera to a nationwide network of academies, the government has resisted pressure to close them down.

“Turkish officials have requested Kenya to shut down the Gulenist schools on a number of occasions before the attempted coup but the Kenyan government has not acted on them,” a foreign ministry source said.

Since July 15, the Turkish ambassador had requested another meeting, but “it has not been scheduled”, the source said.

Authorities in Germany, which has an estimated 14 high schools with links to Mr Gulen, have also been contacted.

Winfried Kretschmann, premier of the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, said he had received a letter from the Turkish consul general asking him to examine a list of institutions such as private schools.

“I think it is not on at all for a foreign state to interfere in our internal affairs,” said Mr Kretschmann. “We are responsible for these institutions and no one else. We will judge these institutions with our own discretion and we are aware of nothing negative about these institutions.”

Indonesia, another country where Mr Gulen’s foundations have put down roots, was equally unimpressed.

“Indonesia is a democratic country and will always prioritise free and active politics. Indonesia’s internal affairs remain Indonesia’s responsibility,” cabinet secretary Pramono Anung said.

“That includes anyone who has officially received the recognition of the Indonesian government. They will be governed by Indonesian law.”

On Saturday Turkey continued with its post-coup crackdown, holding 17 journalists on charges of belonging to a terror group.

Twenty-one journalists had appeared before a judge in an Istanbul court on Friday in hearings that lasted until midnight. Four were then freed but 17 were placed under pretrial arrest, charged with “membership of a terror group”, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu defended the detention of reporters, saying it was necessary to distinguish between coup plotters and those “who are engaged in real journalism”.

But in a goodwill gesture, Mr Erdogan also announced that he was withdrawing thousands of lawsuits against individuals accused of insulting him.

Officials said earlier this year that more than 2,000 people were being prosecuted on charges of insulting the president.

Meanwhile, an Istanbul court released 758 soldiers late on Friday, adding to another 3,500 former suspects already set free.

Also on Saturday, the Turkish army raised the toll of soldiers killed in clashes with Kurdish militants in the country’s restive south-east to eight, in what the deadliest such attack on the military since the failed coup.

The soldiers were performing a security check late on Friday when they were attacked by militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Hakkari province.

Earlier reports had said that five soldiers were killed.

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse