‘No hidden agenda in Turkish schools abroad’
FETÖ schools abroad used to be promoted as one of the key civilian institutions to project Turkey’s soft power. Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments encouraged their foreign interlocutors to facilitate the activities of these schools until 2013, when it realized that FETÖ members were not their friends, but their foes.
The Turkish Maarif Foundation was set up a few weeks before the July 15, 2016 coup attempt to counter FETÖ’s educational activities, with the coup attempt facilitating its mission to replace the schools’ management.
FETÖ used these schools to generate financial resources as well as to recruit the elites of those countries that could be of service later in the future.
Interviewing Professor Birol Akgün, the president of Maarif Foundation, I tried to question the vision and the strategy of the foundation that currently operates more than 250 schools abroad.
The first part of the interview was published on Feb. 4. Below is the second part of the interview.
Q: What will you say if Turkish taxpayers tell you they already have difficulty giving a proper education to their children in Turkey and that they would prefer the budget allocated to Maarif to be redirected to education in Turkey?
A: It is not only economic prosperity or military power, you have to resort to cultural diplomacy and promote your country to the world. And, of course, that requires a certain cost. If you look at Maarif’s budget, it is way below the budget allocated to humanitarian assistance given by Turkey for instance.
Q: Let’s elaborate on the concept of soft power. You said 80 percent of the curriculum is national and there is a 10 to 20 percent flexibility where Turkey can provide cultural courses like Turkish-language courses. What do you want to achieve through that 20 percent flexibility?
A: This is an investment toward strengthening the human resources of Turkey’s friends.
It should be perceived as part of a humanitarian assistance. I think it would be very wrong to look at it from an ideological perspective. This is a public responsibility and we do not do it for ideological purposes. Whichever school you choose, you can go and visit it. We have no hidden agenda; we cannot have a hidden agenda. We represent whatever Turkey represents.
Turkey has investments in nearly all the countries in the world. In that sense, Turkey needs locals to work in these countries. We teach Turkish, in other words, that creates a bond with Turkey. I will not name from which country, but we sent seven students to a city in the Black Sea region. Their families have bought houses in that region.
In a globalized world these educational institutions increase mutual interaction.
We have 27,000 students.
Q: As you have registered an important progress in Africa, what will be the priority areas?
A: It will be Central Asia and southeast Asia. We have just finished the transition in Pakistan, and the handover of schools in Afghanistan has just started.
In the Balkans we have opened our own schools. We even have a university in Albania. We have opened schools in northern Iraq and Georgia.
Q: Education remains one of the most problematic areas in Turkey. When so many people complain about the quality of education in Turkey, how foreigners can trust Turkish schools abroad could provide an education compatible with the 21st century.
A: I think we should not be unfair on ourselves. There are debates on education in all parts of the world. After all, we live in a fast-changing world. There is an increasing interest towards Turkey. We have 140,000 foreign students studying in Turkey and we want to increase this number to 250,000 in 2023. Currently, we have representations in 45 countries which also work as advising bodies for educational opportunities in Turkey. We are aiming for the internationalization of education in Turkey.