The ministry of education in Iraqi Kurdistan has ended weeks of uncertainty by deciding to take the reins at schools run by the controversial Gulen Movement.
The schools will now be jointly managed by the government and the private sector, Pshtiwan Sadiq, the region’s education minister, announced on September 1.
The decision by the Kurdistan Regional Government reassured parents who were uncertain about their children's education after the Turkish government recently asked Erbil to close the Gulen Movement's schools.
Led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, the movement is areligious and social organisation that promotes a moderate form of Islam through an international network of educational and social facilities. It has had a strong presence in Iraqi Kurdistan since coming there in 1994. Education ministry figures there show that most recently more than 12,000 Kurdish students were attending 20 private schools in Erbil, al-Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, in addition to the scores of students who have already completed their studies at these institutions. The schools, along with media, health and commercial undertakings, have been administered by the movement’s regional representative, Taleb Buke.
Gulen, who lives in exile in the United States, used to be an ally of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But relations began to sour over the last year. When the Turkish military made a failed coup attempt in mid-July, Erdogan blamed the Gulen movement, declaring it a terrorist organisation. Gulen denied the charge, but in a subsequent crackdown, Erdogan culled educational and social institutions of his supporters.
Ankara also officially asked the neighboring Kurdistan Region to ban the activities of Gulen's followers in its territory as well.
All of the Gulen schools in the Kurdistan Region are owned by the Fadila Company and according to spokesman Ikram Okshar, it is doing purely educational work.
”We do not have any political aims and we do not have hostilities with any party inside or outside Turkey,” he told NIQASH. “Now, some people have been arrested who aren’t even members, but simply admirers of the group’s work. But these people are not tolerated by the Turkish government."
The AKP’s fears about the Gulen Movement could be valid though, says Hayman Othman. A graduate of Salahaddin College in Sulaymaniyah, he was sent to Ankara by the group to work at Turkey’s Kurdish-language broadcaster TRT6, though he is no longer employed there.
Othman told NIQASH that while, "the Gulen group has defined itself as one that works in the educational field, it also trains its students in dormitories and in their places of residence to adhere to Fethullah Gulen’s ideas, and then obliges them to obey its orders. When these students work for the government or other institutions, the group will be in contact with them and it will try to use them."
He added: ”The aim of the Gulen movement is to create a select group to take power and the best way to do that is through education, because it is less suspicious."
Still, Othman ruled out the possibility that the group would make the Kurdistan Region a base for hostilities against the Turkish government, due to close economic ties between the two.
Mohammad Baziani,director of the Al-Huda Centre for Strategic Studies, also says that the group doesn’t pose a threat to security in the Kurdistan region. "It cannot carry out any political activities in the Region even if it wants to, especially as areas controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, have deeper relations with Turkey.”
The group is actually providing valuable education to students in the region, he said. The result, however, may be the establishment of significant political influence, Baziani added. “A large number of officials' sons in the Region study in the group's schools and if they gain positions of power in the future, the group may make use of them. But now it is not able to carry out any political activity because of its weak position."
That’s largely because the Kurdistan Region appears to be moving toward banning all educational, cultural and commercial activities by the group there.
“We have friendly relations with Turkey based on mutual interests, and for this reason we are interested in preserving our relations with Turkey,” Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH.