In an effort to keep Turkish ideals strong in migrants, President Erdoğan has instituted weekend schools. But all is not what it seems.
One of the questions migrants ask themselves on a regular basis is where they belong. Mostly, the answer is “a little bit in the old country, and a little bit in the new.” As I’ve discussed here before, it is a delicate balancing act, where sometimes you are a person with two souls, sometimes with only one splintered one. This is complicating enough for individuals, but now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it much worse for the diaspora of 5 million Turks who live outside of Turkey. While we speak, his bureaucrats are setting up weekend schools in the 15 countries where most Turkish migrants live. The idea is to teach as many children and grandchildren of people who have left Turkey, sometimes decades ago, the Turkish language and culture.
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On the face of it, this sounds innocent enough. The problem though, is that Erdogan is not particularly a man to be trusted with children’s impressionable minds. Under his reign, Turkey has become increasingly undemocratic, even anti-democratic. Thousands of people are in gaol, hundreds of thousands have been sacked from their jobs, and in last year’s elections, Erdoğan managed to convince his compatriots to make him more important than Parliament. In fact, Turkey has traded in its status as a parliamentary republic in favour of a presidential one, and Erdoğan himself is now in charge of appointing ministers and even judges without anybody else’s input. He can design the state’s budget and dissolve parliament altogether if he wants, as well.
Erdoğan has also taken Turkey from a secular state to a religious one. But even more dangerously, he is driven by nationalism. Like Putin, like Trump, he wants to make his country great again. His aim is to go back to the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey ruled the world for 600 years. But in order to do that, you need people, in as many other countries as possible, who can help your cause, who can spread the word, influence the political systems in those countries, maybe even change them to assist you in your quest. Of course, the best place to start to assemble this little army is by engaging people you know. People, too, who are vulnerable to your rhetoric. For this, migrants and their families are perfect. Even if they have left “home” soil 30, 40, 50 years ago.
Erdoğan has made it clear that all Turks, wherever they live, are owned by Turkey. Even those who weren’t born there – children – are property of his state. And that is why influencing them is money well spent.
Most Turkish migrants, in Europe especially, moved abroad in the 1960s and 1970s. Europe was going through an economic boom and needed workers. After a number of labor agreements with European countries, starting with Germany in 1961, the phenomenon of the “Gastarbeiter” was born, guest workers who were expected to go home after a year. This didn’t happen. Employers liked to keep people they had trained and there was a lot of badly paid work that the original populations didn’t want to do. Time passed, there was family reunification, new generations were born, then the generations after them. Most Turkish people assimilated with the countries where they lived. They learnt the language, engaged in the culture, became part of the system. But that didn’t mean that this acceptance was reciprocal. To a lot of white Europeans, the Turks were still different, other, lesser. As German football player Mesut Özil said a few months ago: “If I win, I’m German. Otherwise I’m a migrant.” Özil is one of the best football players in the world. He is the star of Arsenal, on a salary of 15.6 million GBP. But when he had his picture taken with Erdoğan recently, the whole of Germany cried foul and called him a traitor.
It is this attitude of temporary acceptance that Erdoğan is now tapping into with his plan for the weekend schools. He knows that people are desperate to feel a sense of belonging, and that those who experience being treated like second-rate citizens are even more susceptible to anyone who reaches out. So despite the fact that Turkey is in serious financial trouble, Ankara is spending many, many millions paying to educate children in 15 different countries. Parents have to enrol their young ones into a curriculum that takes up five hours every weekend and encompasses language, history, religion and culture. It lasts for at least a year, but might be permanent.
Erdoğan asked a 6-year old girl: “Would you like to become a martyr?” When she started to cry, he told her to stop it because “soldiers don’t cry.” And besides, “If you die in combat, we will cover you with a flag.”
European countries are worried. Dutch politicians, for instance, have vowed to keep a close eye on the content of what is taught. They don’t want their citizens poisoned by undemocratic ideology or nationalist venom. Because in the end, that is what this whole thing is about. Turks living in Holland, and most other European nations, are Dutch, or German or French. Even if they still hold Turkish passports, they are part of and function in the nation they live in. Erdoğan has made it clear that he thinks that all Turks, wherever they live, are his. Not individuals making up their own minds, not citizens of their host countries, but people owned by Turkey. Even those who weren’t born there, the children, are the property of his state. “Our children”, he has called them. And that is why influencing them is money well spent.
A few months ago, Erdoğan asked a 6-year old girl to join him on stage while he was addressing a meeting of his Justice and Development Party. Then he asked her a curious question: “Would you like to become a martyr?” When she started to cry, he told her to stop it, because “soldiers don’t cry.” And besides, “If you die in combat, we will cover you with a flag,” so she should rejoice instead. This is not, I would say, a man who should start educating hundreds of thousands of children. During weekends or otherwise.