The Maarif Foundation, a Turkish government-funded entity run by jihadists to export political Islam abroad, has been injected with over 5 billion lira in the last six years, an increase of nearly 2,000 percent from 2016, when it first launched operations.
Maarif is branded as a pet project of Turkey's Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and serves as his regime's long arm abroad in providing educational services as part of a proselyting campaign. Established by law in 2014 as an official government entity, its management was filled with known Islamists who harbor jihadist views.
It also aims to raise a new generation of Islamist political activists to mobilize around Erdoğan. Video footage has emerged from Africa and other parts of the world that showed students at Maarif schools chanting and praying for Erdoğan during election campaigns in Turkey.
It started receiving budget allocations in the year 2016 after a million lira was set up from the Ministry of Education for its establishment. The first budgetary earmark was 90 million lira, which has increased every year. According to a Maarif document obtained by Nordic Monitor, the foundation received 241 million lira in 2017, 351 million in 2018, 541 million in 2019, 684 million in 2020, 1.2 billion in 2021 and 1.9 billion this year. This year's funding corresponds to a 58 percent increase compared to last year.
The document, signed on June 14, 2022 by Maarif President Birol Akgün, reveals that the foundation runs 406 schools in 49 countries in addition to 21 tutoring centers, 44 student dorms and one institution of higher learning. It has some 50,000 students enrolled in Maarif schools and employs some 7,000 staff. The foundation plans to be operating in nearly 100 countries by the end of next year.
According to Akgün, 234 schools in 20 countries were taken over from the Gülen movement, a group that is critical of Erdoğan on a range of issues from corruption to Turkey's aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups around the world. The Erdoğan government has been trying to pressure foreign governments to hand over schools affiliated with the movement inspired by Erdogan's arch-foe, Fethullah Gülen, to the Maarif Foundation.
Gülen has revealed that he rejected Erdoğan's demand to tap schools operated by business people aligned with his movement for use in promoting the Turkish president's political goals, which prompted the Turkish government to establish Maarif in order to compete with and take over Gülen schools.
So far, the Erdoğan government has managed to succeed in some countries where the rule of law and democratic principles are problematic such as Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Chad, Gabon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ethiopia. It often uses bribes, political pressure, blackmail and promises of investment and trade deals to convince foreign governments to hand over these schools.
Maarif is run by Islamist figures who have been specially selected by Erdoğan. Many have served in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is rooted in political Islam.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.