A multilingual and systematic propaganda campaign promoting Turkey’s stance on its recent incursion into Syria was as expected launched by government agencies on social media the same day as the October 9 start of the military operation across its border. Supported by large segments of the Turkish public, including secularists and opposition figures, the propaganda campaign gave rise to the early stages of the militarization of children at home and abroad, thanks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fundamentalist followers.
Singing the Turkish commando anthem, executing the military salute, wearing military uniforms, hailing Erdoğan, reading verses of the Quran for the victory of the army and recording messages of support for the military, thousands of Turkish children, even including kindergarteners, were the main actors in numerous social media video uploads.
It seems that Turkish schools are competing against each other to put on the best performance and produce the most striking video. Principals and teachers feel obliged to urge students to appear in such propaganda clips, possibly in order to remain in their bosses’ good graces or, at least, to avoid being profiled as anti-government. Needless to say, the Ministry of Education cares nothing about the psychological effects of inserting children into the bloody conflicts in which people kill and die.
Similar competitions can easily be spotted among overseas schools and educational institutions founded by Islamist organizations that are funded and supported by the Turkish government with the aim of indoctrinating a generation of political Islamist activists to mobilize around Erdoğan, who is openly promoted as the only hope of the Muslim world, in other words, although not openly said, the caliph.
“Sudanese orphans prayed for Operation Peace Spring [the official name of Turkey’s military operation in Syria] and Turkish soldiers,” read a story that was published by all pro-government media outlets on October 9. Their orphanage is run by the Islamist Ribat Foundation, which publicly endorsed Erdoğan before the presidential election last year. In another orphanage in Khartoum, children are seen in a propaganda video holding a piece of paper on which “Operation Peace Spring” is written.
Children at an orphanage in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena run by the International Association for Humanitarian Aid and Education (İDEA) prayed for Turkey and the success of the Turkish army, apparently without even knowing whom it was fighting.
The Federation of Associations That Value Humanity (IDDEF), an umbrella organization for more than 40 pro-government Islamic NGOs, has probably been the most active group in the propaganda campaign since October 9. Organizing religious ceremonies in Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Pakistan and Somalia in which students read Quran verses and pray for the Turkish army, the federation shared a strange promotion video titled “IDDEF students on the side of Mehmetçik [a term commonly used to refer to Turkish/Ottoman soldiers]” that mixed children at its madrasas (theological schools) with military jets, tanks, artillery and soldiers. The foundation has also issued a press release that is literally a government document, saying, “As it has always been, we continue to stand behind the state, the nation and the army.”
Foreign students in Turkey are not exempt from this propaganda campaign. Youngsters who attend an international religious high school (imam-hatip) in the central Turkish province of Sivas start the day by singing the Turkish commando anthem, which boasts about breaking the enemy into pieces, and praying for the victory of the Turkish military. Gathering in the school garden in the shape of a crescent, students carry the flags of their homelands, most of which are African.
It would be a mistake to say that this Islamist and nationalist wave has hit only Turkey and poor countries where pro-government foundations operate. Members of Belgian youth football club Beringe gave a military salute on the pitch and in the locker room, imitating Turkish national team players into whom UEFA, soccer’s governing body in Europe, launched an investigation because of a military salute they gave in a match against Albania and repeated in a game with France.
What’s more scandalous is that Birol Akgün, the chairman of Turkey’s semi-official Maarif Foundation, which operates educational institutions overseas from pre- to secondary school and above in accordance with the Erdoğan government’s Islamist agenda, participated in a communications strategy workshop on Operation Peace Spring organized by the presidency on October 14 along with officials from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior. This is an indication that Maarif is a tool for political propaganda rather than an educational organization.
These events are not surprising to those who closely follow Turkish political life. Last February Erdoğan sparked a debate after telling a tearful little girl in military uniform that Turkey would honor her if she became a martyr. Pointing to the flag in her pocket, he added that “this flag will be put on her, God willing.”