Education in the Balkans – filling the Gulen vacuum?

By on September 28, 2016

The trend

Educational institutions connected to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Muslim cleric, have aroused considerable attention since the attempted July 15 military coup, which Gulen and his followers are accused of orchestrating. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyp Erdogan, subsequently denounced Gulen as operating “a terrorist network”, and has launched a wide-scale crackdown on those deemed to be linked to – or harbour sympathies for – Gulen. Mass arrests and sackings have affected the military, police, judges, businessmen and journalists. Educational staff in state- and private-schools and universities have also been targeted.

This attempted crackdown has extended beyond Turkey into the south eastern Europe. Towards the end of July, the Turkish Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, requested that action be taken against, Berat Buzhala, a leading journalist and founder of Gazeta Express, for comments made following the coup-attempt. The Kosovo government refused the request, despite Turkey being a major investor in its infrastructure and a leading advocate of its independence. Turkey, however, is only likely to further leverage the economic and diplomatic support on which many countries in south east Europe depend.

Turkey’s attention is increasingly shifting to those educational institutions throughout the region linked to Gulen. The country’s Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cihad Erginay, recently called on local authorities and parents to take steps to close the private schools, which he described as “terrorist organizations”. During a 2015 visit to Sarajevo, Erdogan is understood to have requested that Gulen schools be closed down. Similar demands were presented to Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, during Erdogan’s last visit in 2015. If countries refuse to heed to such requests, they are likely to see themselves cast as supporters of a “terrorist organisation”.


State of play

Gulen’s network of educational institutions, NGOs and religious centers has spread throughout the Balkans. Their presence was first established by exploiting the collapse of Communism in Albania in the early nineties, and the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Since then, the networks have served to fill the vacuum created by weak post-war institutions, especially in the spheres of education and social services. They have also benefitted from the resurgence of the region’s religious identification and practice.

Today, a diverse array of Gulen-support educational institutions and programmes can be found in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Romania and Serbia. They have broadened their appeal by providing high-class teaching, including of the English language, for an affordable tuition fee. As such, they’ve increasingly stood in strong contrast to the region’s declining standards of state-provided education. Their alumni hold important positions across public institutions and civil society.


Where do we go from here?

Host governments are likely to come under considerable pressure from the respective Turkish Embassies to close down such schools. Diplomatic pressure is already being exerted through Turkey’s Embassies and visiting delegations. Pro-Erdoğan and anti-coup rallies in Sarajevo, Pristina, Skopje, Prizren and Novi Pazar have heaped further pressure on incumbent governments. Politicians will find it ever harder to oppose Turkish interests. Whilst they may not take over steps, such as forcibly closing down schools, they may well ramp-up pressure on the institutions through various forms of inspection and regulation.

In August it was reported that the Bosna Sema Educational Institutions, which have operated in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the late nineties, are to donate €120m of property to the Islamic Community. This includes kindergartens, primary/secondary schools in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Bihac, plus International Burch University. According to the agreement, Bosna Sema would become a special endowment under the auspices of the Waqf (Endowment) Directorate of the Islamic Community. Whilst they are expected to continue with their current curricula, there are concerns about future influences on teaching.

To help counter Turkish pressure, countries in south east Europe need to be able to provide more tangible guarantees about the sources of influence and content of teaching in private educational institutions. This requires substantial improvements in the regulation of both the funding, curricula and teaching of private education institutions.

More fundamentally, each country in south east Europe needs to engage in deep-seated education reform to reduce the attractiveness of such private options. Modernizing curricula and teaching methodologies is a key element of this strategy, ensuring that secondary and higher education meets European standards in terms of choice and diversity. Such traits should be advocated not only for reasons of economic competitiveness, but to help build cohesive and tolerant communities across the region.

Should pressure from Turkey bear fruit, then there are profound concerns about which influences, often foreign-funded, will seek to fill the subsequent vacuum in private educational provision. The region has seen countless examples of, in particular, Middle Eastern countries (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Islam, amongst others) pouring money into the construction of new mosques and madrassas, which have often disseminated more rigid forms of Islam. A tightening of regulations to limit the role of religious communities in education would be required but contentious.

The dilemma for various countries in south east Europe, therefore, is how to maintain ties with Turkey whilst resisting pressure to close down Gulen-supported schools. These dilemmas are particularly pronounced in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which are deemed closer allies of Ankara. The best way of reducing the incentives for schools such as those supported by Gulen is to improve the quality of state-funded education, such that students enjoy the quality and diversity of education which they are too often deprived. Confronting the issue of religious education in schools more broadly, however, remains a much more daunting challenge.

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