Friday, August 26, 2011
Turkmenistan: Turkish Schools Closed Amid Concerns of Spread of Nurchilar Movement
Like their counterparts in Uzbekistan and other Eurasian countries, Turkmen authorities have evidently become concerned about the influence of Nurchilar, a Turkish Islamic movement that has supported Turkmen-Turkish schools in Turkmenistan for more than a decade. In April, the Turkish schools stopped taking new pupils. Then on August 1, Turkish-supported schools in Turkmenbashi, Nebitdag, Turkmenabad and other cities were closed; only one school remains in Ashgabat, the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk School No. 57, reports Chronicles of Turkmenistan (chrono-tm.org), an independent émigré news site.
Initially, the Turkmen government, which has generally enjoyed a close political and economic relationship with Turkey, seemed to appreciate the Turkish schools, which were believed to provide a better education than native Turkmen schools. The Turkish schools are noted for their strict discipline and offer the advantage of classes in Turkish and English as well as the hard sciences and computer literacy. Back in in the 1990s, Turkish schools were opened in every province in Turkmenistan and thousands of young people, particularly boys, studied in them. It was known that teachers at the schools quietly promoted pan-Turkism, or unification of Turkic peoples under the leadership of Turkey, and the ideas of Said Nursi, a 19th century Turkish philosopher who is defined as "extremist" in Russia and Uzbekistan, where the Turkish schools have been closed.
Supporters of the schools say that Nursi was a moderate Islamic thinker who stressed the importance of scientific as well as religious education. Graduates of the schools in Turkmenistan adopted a moderate form of Islam and often went on to study at universities in Turkey with the support of the Turkish government. Yet some students told chrono-tm.org when they returned to Turkmenistan, their peers tended to form close-knit communities together where they spoke Turkish, disdained people who drank alcohol or were secular, and developed a disparaging attitude toward women, insisting that their wives, daughters and sisters don the hijab.
Some students who managed to get into Turkish universities remained in Turkey and have formed diasporas; some refuse to go home, or even flee to other countries, including the US.
One such student who spoke with chrono-tm.org on condition of anonymity said that the most loyal adherents to the Nurchilar movement would help other members of the movement, sometimes by accepting bribes, to be placed in key positions in various ministries such as migration, narcotics control, defense, security and interior. He claimed that some power ministry officials in Turkmenistan have graduated from the Military Academy of Ankara.
"The policy of infiltrating their people into the power ministries of Turkmenistan has already born fruit -- given the lack of qualified local personnel, the majority of officials from the Migration Service and Narcotics Control Service have been educated in Turkish institutions at various levels," said the source. There was no independent confirmation of the claim. If anything, Ashgabat's relations with Ankara have suffered strains recently with disputes about $1 billion in payments for Turkish construction projects, and lawsuits mounted by 20 companies, and these events may have triggered the closure of the schools.
A recent graduate of a Turkish school in Turkmenbashi told chrono-tm.org that there are noticeably fewer Turkish teachers left in Turkmenistan and the climate of official tolerance has ended. "We and our teachers are openly called ‘Wahhabists,’ and we are called this in fact by the local law-enforcers," he said, "Wahhabism" is a catch-all label used by regional officials about any form of Islam not sanctioned by the state.
A member of the social media site Teswirler.com, which has reportedly drawn graduates of Turkmen-Turkish schools, commented on the recent closures: "Nurchilar has its goals, and we [young people of Turkmenistan] have ours, and it is quite reasonable to cooperate while these paths coincide. You have to have your head on your shoulders and no one can impose his way on you."
The International Turkmen-Turkish University, opened in 1994 in Ashgabat, remains in operation, but there are rumors that it may face closure soon.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Monday, August 15, 2011
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
|Gulen Movement needs to stop calling Azerbaijan "Little Turkey"|
Devout Muslims have become increasingly assertive in Azerbaijan over the past year, as protests about an informal ban on hijabs in schools attest. But this growing assertiveness does not mean that Islamists are coalescing into an influential political force in Baku.
A couple of powerful factors are working against Islamists in Azerbaijan. For one, secular traditions are firmly entrenched. Perhaps more importantly, Islamists in Azerbaijan are deeply divided.
At present, three major Islamist groups can be observed: politically active Shi’as, who are inspired by the example of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Saudi-inspired Salafis, essentially modern-day Islamic puritans; and Turkish missionary groups, most notably the Fethullah Gülen movement. Seemingly unbridgeable political and theological differences separate these groups, and none of them is powerful enough to challenge the secular nature of Azerbaijani state and society on their own.
Azerbaijan is a nation where 65 percent of the population adheres to the Shi’a branch of Islam. Even so, a majority of the Azerbaijani population views politically active Shi’as with suspicion due to their close association with Iran. The overtly pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan operates on the margins of the country’s political spectrum, and public indifference to the arrest of its leader, Movsum Samedov, testified to the party’s negligible public appeal.
A different brand of Shi’a-inspired politics is represented by Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a charismatic former imam of the Juma mosque in Baku. Ibrahimoglu speaks the language of human rights, as well as religious duties. This has occasionally landed him in trouble with the authorities, but also has earned him the respect of many well-educated and upwardly mobile young Shi’as. Still, his appeal remains limited because of his ambiguity on women’s rights and his failure to condemn the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Iran. In addition, the website of his non-governmental organization, the Centre for Religious Freedom (DEVAMM), is filled with anti-Semitic propaganda. Given this background, political Shi’aism in its current forms is likely to have only limited appeal in the country.
Salafis are the most controversial of religious groups vying for influence in Azerbaijan today. With no historical roots in the country, funded mainly by Saudi money and favoring a literal interpretation of Islam, they have succeeded in converting a considerable number of people disillusioned with the traditional Shi’a clergy. Yet, their adherence to a puritanical brand of Islam puts them at odds with most of Azerbaijani society. In addition, their implacable doctrinal hostility towards Shi’as, whom they regard as heretics, prevents any cooperation with them.
Highlighting the mutual distrust between Salafis and Shi’as, the two groups hold diametrically opposed positions on some key domestic and international political issues. For example, political Shi’as are implacable critics of the President Ilham Aliyev’s administration, while Salafi leaders espouse loyalty to the established political order. An intensifying rivalry in the Persian Gulf between the Shi’as’ and Salafis’ main patrons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will likely increase tension between the two groups in Azerbaijan.
In contrast to Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey over the past two decades has been seen in Azerbaijan as an acceptable face of Islam because of its secular system and its moderate Sunni Hanafi brand of Islam. However, with the rise in Turkey of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the concomitant weakening of the secular Kemalists, many in Baku have grown wary of the Turkish brand of Islam.
A network of schools operated by the Gülen movement helped promote Turkish-style Islam in Azerbaijan. But the Gülen movement’s image has taken a hit of late among Azerbaijan’s more educated, politically active citizens. That’s because Gülen-controlled media outlets remained silent about the recent clampdown on the freedom of expression in Baku, even though the movement professes to support democratization in Turkey. Some analysts also contend that the influence of a Sunni-based Turkish religious-nationalist movement inevitably has limited reach in a predominantly Shi’a, multi-ethnic country.
For the foreseeable future, the government’s most powerful opponent, in terms of maintaining the country’s present secular course, could be the government itself. Aliyev’s administration must take care not to become too overbearing in its policy choices.
The hijab issue offers a case in point. The government has the right idea of wanting to build a high wall separating religion and education. But it is going about it the wrong way. Instead of launching an informed public debate on the issue, as well as seeking a legal ban on religious symbols in schools, officials have opted for a heavy-handed approach, issuing oral instructions that barred headscarved girls from schools. And when some believers protested, they were beaten up and arrested by the police. This enabled the Islamists to claim a moral high ground by portraying themselves as fighters against religious persecution. The government’s emphasis on the use of forceful methods risks mobilizing Islamists, and exacerbating secular-religious tensions in Azerbaijan. Subtler policies could have prevented the hijab issue from gaining traction.
Even if the hijab issue keeps on stoking passions among believers, Azerbaijan does not face an imminent Islamist challenge. However, the government´s authoritarian, inept policies may end up inadvertently bolstering the Islamists and creating a problem over the medium- or long-term.
Eldar Mamedov graduated with a law degree from Latvia University. He worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia for about 10 years, including as a diplomat in the Latvian embassies in Washington and Madrid. Since 2007, he has worked as a foreign policy adviser for the Social Democrat group in the European Parliament. The view expressed in this commentary are Mamedov’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Parliament.