Tajikistan has become the latest Central Asian country to close schools linked to the Gülen movement, a global religious and social movement founded in 1992 by the controversial U.S.-based Turkish Imam Fethullah Gülen. The charter schools, which have operated with the support of the Tajikistan-based Salale Education Institution, have faced considerable resistance over the last two years, and have been under investigation since January 2015. The decision to close the schools was announced by President Emomali Rahmon in May. It is a decision that signals further religious oppression and reflects the emerging partnership between Tajikistan and Turkey.
The Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet Service, opened its first school in 1982. Today, it is believed to operate more than 1,000 schools worldwide. That number is set to decrease because of school closures in Turkey and other countries. Fethullah Gülen was influenced by the teachings of Kurdish theologian Said Nursi and focuses on compatibility and cohesiveness between modernity, education, and Islam in Turkey and abroad. The movement is a form of cultural Islam. Gülen emphasizes math and science, and promotes entrepreneurism and capitalism. The schools are funded by Turkish businessmen and foundations (vakif).
Long on friendly terms with Turkish authorities, the Gülen movement found itself in the crosshairs of then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who became Turkey’s president in 2014) following a December 2013 corruption investigation into members of Erdoğan’s government, which prompted widespread protests. The prime minister believed the investigation was being driven by the Gülen movement, whose members have held prominent positions in Turkey’s law enforcement bodies, the judiciary and the government. Erdoğan accused the movement of creating a “parallel state” within the Turkish government. The outcome was a silent war between Erdoğan, his AK Party, and Gülen.
In Tajikstan, Gülen schools, called dershanes, provided an educational alternative to the country’s poor and underfunded public schools. First opened in Tajikistan in 1992, the schools served as institutions to prepare students for competitive university entrance exams. Following Rahmon’s announcement, the seven schools will close in September and transferred to the government. They will be rebranded as schools for gifted children. The agreement between Tajikistan and the Salale Education Institution, which operates the schools (and denies an affiliation with Gülen), was to expire in 2015. The presidential decree “[overruled] a cabinet decision from 1994 allowing the schools to operate.”
The schools in Tajikistan, founded by Gülen ally Kemal Emirez, always operated under Tajik legislation, not Turkish legislation, to avoid fears of indoctrination. The schools have been successful, but are viewed by Tajik authorities as a mechanism to indoctrinate students with the Turkish language and pan-Turkism ideals, while promoting radical ideals. The wider Gülen movement in Tajikistan does not exist, as it is not a typical political or opposition force. The movement is characterized by the ideas represented by the schools and the loyalty of Gülen’s followers.
Closure of the schools could be a response to the increase in Turkish influence in Tajik politics and signal a greater alignment with Ankara’s policies. There is extensive evidence to support this. For instance, in July 2015 Turkey arrested Tajik nationals attempting to cross into Syria through Turkey to join jihadists in Iraq and in Syria. Islamist extremism is a concern for Tajikistan, which fears instability after its five-year civil war. The rising number of Salafi Muslims in Tajikistan poses a security concern for the state, along with the return of Islamic State fighters from Central Asia. In December 2014, Turkey also detained Tajik opposition figure Umarali Quvvatov (who led the anti-Rahmon organization Gruppa 24) for a visa violation; he was released in February 2015. Quvvatov was fatally shot in Istanbul’s Fatih District on March 5, 2015. The detaining of Quvvatov by Turkey prior to his death was viewed as politically motivated, and a possible exchange for shutting down the Gülen schools.
Economically, Turkey has remained one of Tajikistan’s (and Central Asia’s) primary trading partners. Tajikistan has been encouraging Turkey to take advantage of its mining resources. The two countries share membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.
The closure of the schools further restricts religious freedom in Tajikistan, as the schools are inspired by an imam and allegedly teach Islam as part of the curriculum. The government of Tajikistan realizes it cannot eliminate religion, but it wants to control it. Authorities have already closed unregistered mosques and madrassahs, banned children from attending mosques, harassed bearded men, and is now banning names that sound “too Arabic.” The repression is driven by fear of extreme Islam, although the crackdown itself could drive social unrest.
Another explanation for the closure of the schools is the fear that Gülen supporters (or any opposition group in Tajikistan) will attempt to create a parallel state and subvert the government. Paranoia, suspicion, and an obsession with regime security remain pervasive in Central Asia. Tajikistan is no exception – the preservation of power is a top priority for Rahmon. Any opposing force is a concern and the actions of the opposition are often exaggerated. Tajikistan’s budding partnership with Turkey is also a priority and to benefit, Dushanbe has to make concessions even if it comes at the expense of its people, development of civic society and education, and prospects for its next generation.
In fact, Tajikistan’s decision to close the schools reflects a wider trend in the region. The Daily Sabah reported in mid-May 2015 that Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kazakhstan, Somalia, and Japan have all begun procedures to close Gülen-linked schools. In July 2014, Azerbaijan closed Gülen schools on fears of a parallel government. Erdoğan provided Azerbaijan’s government provided a list of Gülen members. In March 2014, SOCAR, the state-run energy company, “[took] over 11 Turkish-language high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and the private, Baku-based Caucasus University, all run by a Turkish educational company called Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education).” The political in Azerbaijan is febrile, with the government facing numerous protests. A predominantly Muslim country with cultural, ethnic, and historical links to Turkey, Azerbaijan backs Erdoğan’s efforts. Indeed, it is one of Turkey’s strongest allies in the region.
Uzbekistan shut down its Gülen schools in 1999, after relations with Ankara soured. (This was well before the falling out between the Gülen movement and the Turkish government.) The Uzbek government feared Islamic fundamentalism and worried that graduates would attempt to weaken the Uzbek state. At the height of the Gülen movement in Uzbekistan, more than 65 schools were in operation. In Turkmenistan, the majority of the Turkish-Turkmen schools, which are supported by the Turkish Islamic movement, Nurchilar, closed in 2011. The Gülen schools are viewed as suspicious because of Turkish dominance and it was observed that “the independent states of Central Asia have struggled to create their own identities, often finding themselves embroiled in patterns of identities and ideologies transcending national borders.” In Tajikistan, too, an unstable national identity could spawn conflict, which would explain why Tajikistan, a non-Turkic republic, would be wary of a Turkish presence in schools.
The schools, once seen as an instrument of soft power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are now being closed to advance Erdoğan’s influence and Ankara’s policies in Central Asia. Erdoğan is exploiting the fear of instability, religious extremism, and violence to achieve his policy objectives. The existence of Gülen schools threaten the Turkish president’s power and ability to sustain influence. A prominent alternative to Erdogan’s policies would inhibit his ability to pursue his policies. Erdoğan considers the Gülen Movement – seen as extreme, secretive, and proselytizing – radical and a threat to Turkey’s reputation and global image. As the Turkish president tries to shore up his own increasingly fragile domestic political position and build influence in Tajikistan and Central Asia, that is a threat that he cannot tolerate.
Samantha Brletich is a contributor and Advisory Board Member at Modern Diplomacy. Her writing and research focuses on Russia and Central Asia, particularly economics, defense, regional relations, extremism and terrorism and social issues. Ms. Brletich possesses a Master’s Degree in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University and is an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. Opinions here are her own.