KARACHI: The future of private schools set up by the PakTurk International Schools and Colleges network plunged into uncertainty a day after Turkey’s ambassador called on the Pakistan government to close down all the institutions backed by the Fethullah Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s closeness with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s brotherly relations with Turkey put pressure on the federal government to make a decision that does not upset its strong ally. The Foreign Office is taking the ambassador’s request very seriously, and the foreign secretary has chaired a meeting to explore ideas on how to proceed.
The network of 28 schools and colleges in Islamabad, Lahore, Quetta, Karachi, Hyderabad, Khairpur and Jamshoro has a staff strength of 1,500 who teach around 10,000 students from pre-school to A level. “Since 1995, our schools have been giving quality education to Pakistani students with no political motivation or illegal activity,” says Ali Yilmaz, the Sindh education director for the association, adding that Turkish staff works in Pakistan legally through an NGO visa.
Although the PakTurk network officially denies being linked to “any political or religious movement”, it is widely believed by the Turkish government that the schools are being run by the supporters of Gulen in several countries, including Pakistan, for decades.
Turkey’s request to close Gulen-inspired schools in Pakistan puts govt in a tight spot
“Does reading Iqbal mean that you are part of an ‘Iqbal movement’?” asks a senior PakTurk school official while requesting anonymity. “We do agree with Gulen’s philosophy when it comes to quality education, but he is not our leader — we do not have any one founder or leader.”
Officials of the network say the ambassador’s statement on the closure of schools is an extension of Erdogan’s aggressive ongoing purge of opposition voices in Turkey. They admit the growing estrangement between the association and the Turkish government representatives in Islamabad.
“Three years ago, Turkish ambassadors were very supportive of our schools. They attended school events and are in our photo albums. Now the ambassador is obeying government orders and saying this. We [the school network] are not doing anything different from what we have been doing for 20 years. The change has come in their stance,” says a member of their public relations office.
“Yes, we cannot deny the initial contributions of our government, but now Erdogan has become power poisoned. We are not able to sleep when we think of what is happening back home. Five years ago, Turkey was a symbol of pride for the Muslim world, but not anymore.”
He also rejected Erdogan’s claim that Gulen was behind the botched coup that attempted to overthrow his government. “Why would a man of 87 be interested in coming into power? He believes in democracy human rights and freedom.”
The association’s education director in Sindh highlights schools’ valuable contribution to the Pakistani education sector and human development. “Our schools give scholarship to 30 per cent of the student body,” he says, adding that most of the scholarship students are from rural areas. “Our students represent Pakistan in Olympiads and competitions in the US, England and seven other countries.
“Anyone who understands what we are doing is happy with us.”
Difficult decision for govt
Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid says a tactful decision will be made. “We will definitely listen to them [the Turkish government] and their concerns,” he says, adding that no sudden move will be made and that the Foreign Office will write to the provinces as education is a provincial matter.
“We will also have to take into account that there are thousands of children studying at these schools. The government will take a decision that does not cause damage to the students yet also acknowledges the request of the Turkish government.”
A government official familiar with the matter says the schools are linked with Gulen and have long been a source of agitation for Erdogan. “The Turkish government has been asking Pakistan to close these schools for a while but we resisted. In Punjab, the PakTurk network had asked for a piece of land for school but they were not given the lease. The participation of the Punjab government in their activities has dwindled for this reason,” he says, requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to speak on the matter.
“Gulen has a trait: they are very legally sound so the government did not have any reason to take action against them.”
“But now, I don’t think the government can sustain these schools. There will be lot of pressure from Erdogan and Islamabad will be compelled to come up with an excuse to close them.”
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2016