The spectre of Fethullah Gulen

Should education in Pakistan be held hostage to politics?

An often heard phrase when visiting Turkey is: ‘’Turkey, Pakistan, ‘brother brother’.’’ But Turkey, Pakistan’s brotherly neighbour is somewhat troubled these days. Following a failed coup attempt against his government, President Erdogan has clamped down on those segments of society he perceives as being involved in the coup. As a result the Turkish ambassador in Pakistan has requested that all schools set up under the aegis of the Pak Turk Education Foundation in Pakistan should be closed. The reason Erdogan’s government wants these schools closed is that they are suspected of having ties to Fethullah Gülen  the exiled Turkish cleric, and of being run by the Hizmet movement set up by Gülen .

The Pak-Turk Education Foundation, which was awarded the Sitara-e-Eisaar by the President of Pakistan in 2006, runs schools in several countries around the world. Twenty eight of these schools are in Pakistan in Islamabad, Lahore, Quetta, Karachi, Hyderabad, Khairpur and Jamshoro, and have been since 1995. The schools employ some 1,500 trained teachers with an enrolment of around 10,000 students from pre-school to A levels. They are affiliated with the Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary schools as well as with Cambridge for O and A levels.

The management of the schools disclaims any affiliation with the Hizmet movement or with any other political, religious or denominational movement stressing that the schools are ‘a philanthropic and non-political endeavor established for human development in the field of education for the benefit of all Pakistanis, especially the poor, needy and deserving sections of the society.’ They ‘provide necessary facilities in order to enable (students) to gain access to resources for productive self-employment and to encourage them to undertake activities for income generation and poverty alleviation to enhance their quality of life.’ The management further states that these schools provide ‘affordable quality education to all segments of population across the various regions of the country with significant amounts given as scholarship to the deserving students so that they may pursue their dream of getting a high-quality education.’

There has been no reason to doubt their word. No student from these schools has been involved in terrorism or any such activity in Pakistan; the Turkish government’s reservations regarding their involvement in the coup are based on suspicion, as a result of which the President has signed a decree closing down all institutions suspected of links to the Gülen. That means that 1,043 private schools, 1,229 foundations and associations, 35 medical institutions, 19 unions, and 15 universities will be shut down and their assets seized by the treasury. 

Although the schools disclaim any connection with him, here are some facts regarding Muhammed Fethullah Gülen: according to Wiki, Gülen  is a Turkish preacher, former imam, writer, political figure, founder of the Gülen movement known as ‘Hizmet’ which means ‘service’ in Turkish, and also the inspiration behind Hizmet’s largest organization, the Alliance for Shared Values. Gulen himself currently lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

Gülen teaches a moderate version of Islam, and states that he believes in science, interfaith dialogue among the People of the Book, and multi-party democracy. Gülen is actively involved in debate concerning the future of the Turkish state, and Islam in the modern world. He has been described as an imam “who promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, hard work and education” and as “one of the world’s most important Muslim figures.’’

If Pakistan does indeed give in to pressure from the Turkish government, the move will be ironic, given the number of madressahs currently operating in the country with established links to political, religious or denominational movements that have a more than suspected record of terrorism, violence and spurious religious indoctrination. Prominent among these is the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) which we can use as an example. LeT is a group banned in several countries and officially so in Pakistan, yet, the South Asia Terrorist Portal and Institute for Conflict Management report that the LeT continues to operate in Pakistan from its ‘200 acre headquarters at Muridke, 30 kms from Lahore, built with contributions and donations from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the biggest contributor.’

The headquarters at Muridke includes a madressah, hospital, market, large residential area for ‘scholars’ and faculty members, fish farm and agricultural tracts. The LeT also reportedly operates 16 Islamic institutions, 135 secondary schools, an ambulance service, mobile clinics, blood banks and several seminaries across Pakistan. It is known for its hard line views on religion.

LeT publishes its views and opinion through a website, an Urdu monthly journal Al-Dawa, and an Urdu weekly, Gazwa. It also It also publishes Voice of Islam an English monthly, and Al-Rabat a monthly in Arabic, as well as Mujala-e-Tulba an Urdu monthly for students, and Jehad Times an Urdu Weekly.’

The alleged founder of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is a man internationally wanted for terrorism connected with several terrorist attacks such as the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, who lives in a fortified house in Lahore.

While the majority of madressahs in Pakistan may be innocent most of them teach an extremist and distorted brand of religion and little or nothing else. According to a report by the Brookings institute dealing with these madressahs, ‘With no state supervision, it is up to the individual schools to decide what to teach and preach. Many provide only religious subjects to their students, focusing on rote memorization of Arabic texts to the exclusion of basic skills such as simple math, science, or geography. Students graduate unable to multiply, find their nation on a map, and are ignorant of basic events in human history such as the moon landing.’

So here’s the thing, since the government is said to be in a bit of a bind right now about how to deal with the situation in a suitably diplomatic fashion: With a population of over 199,090,000, Pakistan is the world’s seventh most populous nation with an average literacy rate of around half its population, less than half for women. Given such figures (or even otherwise) why should education in Pakistan be held hostage to politics, particularly the politics of other countries, however brotherly? That as well as a comparison of the personalities involved is a question that the Foreign Office should take into account when choosing a response to Turkey’s demands that Pakistan should shut down the Pak Turk Education Foundation schools on its territory.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at http://rabia-ahmed.blogspot.com/

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fgulen.com is the offical source on the renowned Turkish scholar and intellectual Fethullah Gülen.