BAGHDAD — A private company has reportedly taken over Gulenist schools in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the Dwarozh news website, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Education Minister Bishwan Sadeq said a private Kurdish company, the Khoshnaw Group, bought the secondary schools and colleges Sept. 19. There has thus far been no official or legal objection or protest registered against the move.
Fethullah Gulen — a Turkish cleric and former ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is now living in the United States — has been accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating the July 15 failed coup. Last month, as per an agreement with Turkey, the KRG began seizing control of educational institutions run by Gulen and has gradually expanded its reach to economic and medical institutions as well. Most recently, Dowran, a Gulen-owned radio station, was taken over. Some institutions, like the schools, are being sold to the private sector, while others remain under government control. Arrests of administrative workers in Gulenist institutions have also been reported and the movement has been banned.
The Gulenist movement manages a wide network of social, economic and cultural organizations in the Kurdistan region, where it has enjoyed influence for more than 22 years. There are some 12,000 students currently enrolled in Gulenist schools in Iraqi Kurdistan. Graduates of these facilities often go on to work in Gulen-owned media organizations and other businesses.
The decision to take control of the schools and to fire administrators came as no surprise to many, given the relationship between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by KRG President Massoud Barzani. The parties hold compatible views on the political map of the region. Also, in May 2014, Ankara agreed to provide transport facilities for oil exports from the Kurdistan region via the port at Ceyhan. The deal raised the ire of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which considers the Kurdish-Turkish agreement illegal because it lacks federal government approval.
Ali Naji, a researcher in Turkish affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Despite the economic importance of the Gulen institutions to Kurdistan, the KRG's relationship with Ankara is more important on both the political and economic levels.” He said that the KRG believes the coordination of its positions with Ankara is vital and that the relationship will benefit the KDP by providing Erbil leverage against Baghdad.
Opposition parties, however, believe the move against the Gulenist schools does not serve the interests of the Kurdish people. Serwa Abdul Wahid, a member of parliament with the Movement for Change, told Al-Monitor that she is concerned about KDP policy and its effect on students in Gulenist schools and colleges, whose fate went into limbo immediately after their seizure.
Even now it remains unclear whether the change in administration will extend to the curriculum as well, potentially affecting some students' plans for their studies and future. “The KRG did not take clear action regarding the fate of students,” said Abdul Wahid. “It did not even think about them.”
Abdul Wahid accused the Barzani government of compromising the sovereignty of the region by making concessions to the Erdogan government. Abdul Wahid expects the KRG to defer to Turkish pressure and eventually sever its relations with all Gulenist-run health, media, banking and economic institutions, not just schools.
Gulenist influence has over the years been spread through the students, graduates and employees affiliated with its various organizations. Students enrolled in Gulenist schools, which have a strong Islamic character, learn Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic and English. Male and female students are segregated, and students are taught a religious curriculum within the adopted scientific disciplines. In Erbil, the Gulenists established the Nilufer high school for girls and Ishik high school for boys, and in Sulaimaniya, they founded the Saladin high school for boys and Sulaimaniya high school for girls.
A focus on the Turkish language gives the movement’s institutions a national character. Hiwa Zanyar, 17, a student at the Sulaimaniya girls’ school, told Al-Monitor, “Students learn the Turkish language beginning in primary school. These schools play a big role in Kurdish students’ attachment and attraction to Turkey.” This is probably one reason Turkey did not previously agitate against them, despite the sharp differences between Erdogan and Gulen. The coup attempt, however, apparently led Erdogan to change his stance.
Zanyar said that the sons of Muslim leaders in the Kurdistan region have often studied in Gulenist schools. She said many of them also joined the movement, supporting the Gulenist interpretation of Islam and seeking work in Gulenist organizations after graduation. According to Zanyar, school administrations were diligent about maintaining contact with students after graduation.
It would appear that despite the KRG's recent moves, overcoming Gulenist influence will likely require a lot of time and effort.