The Maarif Foundation, one of the organizations that act as the long arm of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan abroad, is continuing its activities in Afghanistan in cooperation with the new Taliban regime.
Maarif Foundation Chairman Birol Akgün visited Afghanistan last week and met with several ministers of the interim Taliban government. Stating that he shared their experiences in the field of education with Afghan authorities in a news story on the official website of the foundation, Akgün said Maarif would continue to help Afghan education to the extent possible.
Accompanied by Turkish Ambassador Cihad Erginay during all his visits, Akgün first met with acting minister of education Noorullah Munir. Akgün, who thanked Munir for the assistance provided to Maarif schools, asked the minister for help with problems in some schools in several cities. Maarif is unable to bring in as many teachers as it would like from Turkey due to security problems.
On the occasion of Akgün’s visit, the ministers of education, culture and economy in the temporary cabinet of the Taliban attended an iftar dinner at a boys’ school in Kabul on April 17.
According to statistics on the Maarif website, the foundation runs 53 schools and 12 dormitories in Afghanistan, serving a total of 6,500 students.
The Maarif Foundation is a semi-official foundation established to assume the management of overseas schools run by the Gülen movement, a fierce critic of the Erdoğan government. A number of Gülen schools were taken over thanks to the Erdoğan government’s efforts, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Erdoğan lobbied extensively for the transfer of Gülen schools to Maarif during his visits to African countries. The opposition claims that Turkish government officials persuaded bureaucrats to transfer the schools to Maarif by bribing them.
In 2019 the Maarif Foundation made an agreement with the then-Afghan government and took over the Gülen schools in the country. Maarif, who left Afghanistan for a while after the Taliban took control in 2021, later returned to the country. Maarif, which employs almost all of its staff from local teachers, has one representative in Afghanistan. In addition, Turkey’s education attaché also works as a Maarif employee in Kabul.
When the Gülen movement was running the schools, 40 percent of the students were female. It is not known how many female students remained after the Gülen movement, which opened girls’ high schools in Afghanistan, was forced to relinquish the schools. While the Taliban currently allows girls to attend kindergarten and primary school, girls are not yet able to go to middle and high school.
President Erdoğan’s statement, “Turkey has no problem with the Taliban’s beliefs. I think we can get along better,” made just after the Taliban seized power, was seen as a warm message to the new regime. Turkey, together with Qatar, is taking initiatives to open the airport in Kabul to international traffic.
Meanwhile, a controversial figure accompanied Akgün during his visit. İhsan Aktaş, the owner of GENAR, known as the research and survey company of the ruling party, also attended the official meetings. GENAR is frequently accused by the opposition of misleading public opinion in favor of the government.
In a column in Daily Sabah, owned by the Erdoğan family, Aktaş wrote: “Regarding public security, I observed that the Taliban have largely succeeded in maintaining national security.” According to Aktaş, “Represented by an experienced and visionary ambassador, Turkey has adopted a critical role in the country’s recovery.”
Aktaş was frequently on the agenda when he received lucrative tenders from municipalities administered by the ruling party. Most recently, it was revealed that Küre Construction, whose owners were previously unknown and which was awarded a tender valued at 15 million Turkish lira by the Ministry of Transportation last March, belonged to AKP Istanbul provincial president Osman Nuri Kabaktepe and Aktaş.
Maarif is branded as a pet project of Turkey’s Islamist president Erdoğan, providing educational services as part of a proselyting campaign. It aims to raise a new generation of political Islamist 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.
Nordic Monitor previously reported that while many in Turkey tend to see the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a US defeat and are concerned about an influx of refugees rather than what’s going on in the distant country, clerics supported by the Islamist government who are influential over the ruling party’s grass roots do not hesitate to express their support for the brutal Taliban, another example of Turkey’s increasing radicalization.
Although the Maarif officials expressed their desire for female students to return to schools in Afghanistan, the Turkish government wants to avoid conflict with the Taliban on these issues. Last September the Turkish government opposed a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution that sought the engagement of member states in Afghanistan conditional on the Taliban’s respect for the human rights of minorities, women and LGBTI people.
On September 30, 2021 PACE discussed the situation in Afghanistan and adopted a resolution that called on member states including Turkey to comply with recommendations on how to handle the Taliban and Afghan refugees who have fled the country.
The resolution was amended to include a provision on vulnerable groups such as minorities, women and LGBTI people and asked members to “make any upgrading of their operational engagement with the Taliban conditional upon the respect of human rights, in particular those of vulnerable groups such as minorities, women and LGBTI people, and humanitarian law.”
Under instructions from his government, Ahmet Yıldız, head of the Turkish delegation to PACE and a member of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced his opposition to the PACE amendment.