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Hizmet in Africa

Dimensions of a Transnational Movement: Fethullah Gülen and Hizmet

International Conference at Sao Paulo University

Sao Paulo, Brazil

19 May 2016

Hizmet in Africa

David H. Shinn

George Washington University


There has been very little research that documents what Hizmet is doing in Africa and the significance it is having there.  Hizmet activity in the 54 counties of Africa only began in the mid-1990s and most of it has occurred in the past ten years.  It is not surprising, therefore, that so little is known about Hizmet in Africa.

At the suggestion of the Rumi Forum in Washington, I agreed to research Hizmet’s programs in Africa, drawing on journalistic accounts, a few academic works, and mainly by meeting with Hizmet representatives in Turkey and visits to seven countries in Africa in 2012 and 2013 where Hizmet has extensive activities.  The result of this effort was publication in 2015 of the first book on Hizmet’s engagement in Africa under the title Hizmet in Africa: The Activities and Significance of the Gülen Movement.

The presentation today is a summary of my findings with updates since publication of the book last year.  The campaign by the government of Turkey against Hizmet was well underway before publication of my book, but has subsequently taken on even greater intensity.  Because this audience is familiar with the teachings and writings of Fethullah Gülen, let me turn directly to the activities of Hizmet in Africa.

TUSKON and the Business Connection

I will begin with Hizmet’s business connection and especially the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey, better known as TUSKON, which has a close relationship with Hizmet.  A non-governmental and non-profit umbrella organization with headquarters in Istanbul, TUSKON represents Turkish business federations, business associations, Turkish entrepreneurs, and companies.  TUSKON was the most important Turkish organization engaged in trade and investment promotion with Africa.  It organized numerous trade bridges and business exchanges between companies in Turkey and those in individual African countries.

After the falling out in 2013 between the government of Turkey and Hizmet, pressure by the government on TUSKON forced it to cut back dramatically on its efforts to promote business relations in Africa and elsewhere.  Turkish police raided the offices of TUSKON in November 2015 as part of a wide-scale investigation into the Gülen Movement.  This campaign has effectively shut down TUSKON’s trade and business promotion efforts in Africa. 

Hizmet-supporting business persons also operate a number of independent and informal business associations in separate African countries.  Examples include the South African Turkish Business Association, the Association of Businessmen and Investors of Nigeria and Turkey, and the Ethio-Turkish Entrepreneur Association.  Their primary task is to organize African business delegations to visit Turkey and to host visiting Turkish business delegations. 

These organizations continue to exist in the aftermath of the government’s campaign against Hizmet.  In some cases, their activities have been curtailed and their web sites are no longer functioning.  In other cases, however, they are gaining members as Hizmet supporters in Turkey are fleeing and some of them are going to Africa.  The efforts by the government to disrupt TUSKON and end financial contributions by individual business persons in Turkey who supported Hizmet have had a negative impact on the Hizmet-affiliated business organizations in Africa.

The Hizmet-affiliated Bank Asya in Turkey purchased in 2009 a stake in an Islamic banking group in West Africa.  This investment was starting to thrive until the government effectively took control of Bank Asya, forcing the sale of the West African Islamic banking investment in 2015. 

Hizmet’s business model in Africa relies primarily on financial backing from supporters in the Turkish business community.  As the government put increasing pressure on these supporters and Turkish-based Hizmet-affiliated organizations, it has also become increasingly difficult to function outside Turkey, including in Africa.

Hizmet-affiliated Schools in Africa

Hizmet’s most significant engagement in Africa has been the establishment of primary, middle, and secondary schools.  The first school in Africa opened in Tangier in 1994.  The first one in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Senegal in 1997 followed by schools a year later in Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria.  Today, there are more than 110 Hizmet-affiliated schools in 35 African countries and one university in Nigeria.

About half of these schools opened in the past 10 years although the pressure brought by the government of Turkey against financial supporters of Hizmet has reduced significantly the opening of new schools.  Most of the schools are found in African countries that are predominantly Muslim or have a Muslim minority of at least 10 percent.  Exceptions to this are South Africa and Angola, which have very small Muslim minorities but still have Hizmet schools.

Except for Morocco, Arab North Africa has not been especially receptive to Hizmet schools.  There are no schools in Algeria and Tunisia and the first Hizmet school in Libya opened in 2012.  Usually known by Africans as Turkish schools, they are seldom linked to Hizmet or the Gülen Movement by Africans.

The schools go by a variety of names such as Star International in South Africa, Light Academy in Kenya, Groupe Scolaire Safak in Côte d’Ivoire, Nejashi Ethio-Turkish International Schools in Ethiopia, and Galaxy International School in Ghana.  The name Gülen and word Hizmet never appear in the name of the school.

In a number of African countries, the Hizmet schools preceded the establishment of a Turkish embassy.  In fact, the schools sometimes helped the government to open a new embassy.  Even today after Turkey has established 39 embassies in Africa, there are a few countries that have a Hizmet-affiliated school but not a Turkish embassy.

The Turkish business community sympathetic to Hizmet has traditionally provided the seed money for establishing the schools.  The schools then operate on a fee paying basis and are expected to cover operational costs.  Some schools turn a profit, which is used to expand the number of schools, upgrade existing facilities, and provide scholarships to qualified students who cannot afford to pay the fees.

The schools follow the national curriculum in each country and do not offer Islamic education except for one separate system in South Africa and as an extracurricular subject in a few schools.  South Africa has both a secular system and Islamic system; the later resulted after a non-Hizmet Islamic system failed financially and supporters of Hizmet in South Africa agreed to keep it operating as an Islamic system.

The main language of instruction is the principal official language of the African country such as English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic.  Turkish is offered as one of the foreign language options.  The schools are highly praised by a wide range of African officials and African business persons, whose sons and daughters tend to provide most of the students.  The Turkish business persons who support the schools benefit from the contacts they are able to establish with the parents of the students in the schools.  The schools make a special effort to engage parents in the activities of the schools.  It is a symbiotic relationship between the businessmen and the parents of children who attend the schools. 

The principal criticism I encountered of the schools is that some of the Turkish teachers do not have a sufficient command of the language used in the school such as English or French.  A few of the schools operate in or near African conflict zones.  For the most part, the schools have not been impacted by nearby conflict or terrorism.  An exception to this occurred in March 2016 in Mogadishu, Somalia, when gunmen, presumably from the al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization, opened fire on a van transporting employees and students of a Hizmet-affiliated school.  The attack resulted in the death of three Somali staff, a Turkish teacher, another from Azerbaijan, and injuries to several students.  

The increasingly hostile relationship between the government of Turkey and Hizmet has had an impact on the schools.  From the president on down, Turkey has pressed African governments to shut the Hizmet schools.  So far, this effort has had little success.  Turkey did convince the government of Gambia in West Africa to close the Hizmet-affiliated school, but it appears to have reopened under another name.

The Hizmet schools have been able to survive efforts by the government of Turkey to close them down because, once they are operational, they provide high quality education and are funded by the payment of fees that cannot be stopped by the government of Turkey.  Funding for opening new schools, however, is problematic. 

Dialogue Centers

Hizmet operates a number of small dialogue centers in key African cities.  These organizations overtly propagate the ideas of Fethullah Gülen but again his name never appears in the title of the organizations.  They go by different names such as Turquoise Harmony Institute in South Africa, Kilimanjaro Dialogue Center in Tanzania, Respect Foundation in Kenya, Ufuk Dialogue Foundation in Nigeria, Atlantique Turquie-Senegal Association pour le Dialogue Culturel entre les Civilisations in Senegal, Nilufer in Morocco, and the Egyptian-Turkish Friendship and Culture Association.

They have been active in interfaith dialogue and have especially close relations with Catholic and Anglican churches in Africa.  They worked closely with the Gülen-affiliated and Istanbul-based Journalists and Writers Foundation, an organization whose website shows no activities since mid-2015.  Most African countries never had a Hizmet dialogue center and centers in countries that did have one are almost certainly experiencing severe funding issues today because of the pressure being put by the government on financial supporters.

Hizmet Humanitarian Activities

Hizmet has its own global humanitarian arm known as Kimse Yok Mu, which was especially active in Africa because the need is so great.  In 2013, Kimse Yok Mu distributed about $17.5 million of assistance to 43 countries in Africa.  Its largest programs were in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya.  Most of the aid went to small development projects in the fields of health, education, water wells, and support for orphans.  The programs are concentrated in Muslim areas of Africa but some non-Muslims are also recipients of the assistance.  Based in Istanbul, Kimse Yok Mu has been under pressure from the government and is experiencing fewer donations.  As a result, its programs in Africa have declined significantly.

There are several smaller Hizmet-affiliated humanitarian programs that operate with support from the Turkish diaspora in Europe.  They continue to provide assistance in Africa.  All of these humanitarian programs have relied entirely on private donations and volunteer contributions.  There has never been any support from the government of Turkey for any of the humanitarian programs.

Hizmet and Media Outreach to Africa

The Gülen Movement was, until it ran afoul of the government of Turkey, a master of the use of media in its outreach programs, including those aimed at Africa.  It had a variety of print and TV outlets based in Turkey and outside the country that conveyed its message.  In the past year, the government has taken control of Hizmet’s media assets inside Turkey, although media activities outside Turkey continue to function, albeit with reduced effectiveness.

The dialogue centers in Africa cited earlier distribute the print media and are trying to expand Hizmet’s television operation on the continent.  The English-language magazine, The Fountain, is published in New Jersey and distributed globally.  The Arabic-language Hira is published primarily in Egypt and appears in North Africa.  The French-language Ebru Magazine has content similar to The Fountain and is distributed in French-speaking African countries.  All of these publications emphasize the philosophy of Gülen. 

The Gülen-affiliated daily papers, Turkish-language Zaman and English-language Zaman Today, were once among the most influential papers in Turkey although they had little relevance for Africa.  In any event, they have been taken over by the government and lost most of their impact.  Independent, Hizmet-affiliated versions of Zaman and Zaman Today continue to be published in Europe but with limited funding and no impact in Africa.  Hizmet had its own Cihan News Agency with some staff in Africa, but it has been seized by the government. 

Hizmet has operated Ebru TV out of New Jersey since 2006 and made a serious effort to penetrate the African market beginning in 2012 when it opened a program office in Nairobi, Kenya.  Ebru Africa TV now broadcasts 24/7 from Kenya as a family network in English.  The Arabic-language Hira TV began in 2014 as an Internet only broadcast.

Nearly all Hizmet-affiliated media activity inside Turkey has been shut down or taken over by the government of Turkey.  Hizmet’s media efforts outside Turkey are not flourishing, but they are surviving. 

The Impact of Hizmet in Africa

While the impact of Hizmet in Africa has been modest, it has been disproportionately significant compared to the limited human and financial resources that its supporters have invested there.  It is impossible at this early stage to measure the degree to which Fethullah Gülen’s values are impacting African society. 

Gradates of Hizmet-affiliated schools who subsequently completed their university education are only beginning to advance in the African work force.  Because so many of them come from prominent political and business families, however, it is reasonable to expect they will one day occupy key positions in African governments, business sector, and higher education.   

Hizmet’s Future in Africa

My assessment is that African leaders want, on the one hand, to avoid offending the government of Turkey, an important country, by not cooperating too closely with Hizmet programs.  On the other hand, they do not want to be told what they can and cannot do by any foreign government, including the government of Turkey.

Turkey has important trade ties and investments in North Africa, where Hizmet is not well represented, but has limited leverage in sub-Saharan Africa, where Hizmet is strongest.  Turkey’s imports from sub-Saharan Africa, for example, account for only about 1 percent of global Turkish imports.  This does not provide any meaningful leverage.  While Turkish investment in Sub-Saharan Africa is more significant, it comes from the Turkish private sector and not the government.  The most important Turkish organization that has reached out to Africa on trade and investment is TUSKON and it is a Hizmet-affiliated organization.

So far, African governments seem to be allowing Hizmet programs to continue undisturbed.  The greatest threat to Hizmet from the Turkish government is that it is drying up much of the financial support for Hizmet activities by continuing to threaten and harass financial supporters in Turkey.

As for Hizmet after Gülen, members of the Movement stress that decision-making in Hizmet is not concentrated at the top or held by a small number of individuals.  They insist that Hizmet is not about an individual and say the Movement will continue after Gülen.  While this may be true, when Fethullah Gülen’s writings come to an end, it is fair to ask if enthusiasm for the Movement will continue.  There is no obvious successor.  Nevertheless, Hizmet has surprised many already and may well prove to be a unique social Movement that continues to surprise.