* Turkish PM targets Hizmet schools abroad
* Hizmet says businesses also put under pressure
* Dispute complicates foreign policy effort
By Ralph Boulton and Orhan Coskun
ISTANBUL/ANKARA, April 3 Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan's battle to root out the "terrorists" he says are
embedded in the Turkish state is extending beyond its frontiers
to Africa and Asia, further complicating foreign policy already
hit by tensions with the Arab world and Western allies.
Last month, parents of the Yavuz Selim school in Kanifing,
Gambia, received a letter announcing its immediate closure. A
source at the school, run by the Hizmet organisation of Turkish
cleric Fethullah Gulen, said the decision had been conveyed to
the principal in a one sentence missive.
Gulen's Hizmet movement cites this as an example of Turkish
pressure on governments to shut down Gulen schools, a key source
of its influence and revenue at home and abroad, and discourage
Hizmet-linked commerce from banking to construction.
Turkish Islamic lender Bank Asya, which has extensive
dealings with Hizmet companies in Africa, reported it had
suffered mass deposit withdrawals, weeks after a power struggle
between Erdogan and Gulen erupted in December.
Media said institutional depositors loyal to Erdogan had
withdrawn 20 percent of the bank's deposits. Ahmet Beyaz, Chief
executive of the bank, which has among its shareholders Kaynak
Holding, which is close to Hizmet, told Reuters the bank was not
in any danger. The government would not comment.
Erdogan has declared Hizmet, long a mainstay of Turkish
foreign policy, a terrorist movement using dirty tricks,
including corruption allegations, blackmail and espionage to
undermine him. His move to shut its schools in Turkey ignited
the current confrontation.
"One of the greatest difficulties posed by the struggle
against Hizmet is in diplomacy," said a government official who
declined to be named. "Right now Hizmet and its representatives
are fully engaged in anti-government activities."
"As it has been made public that the Hizmet schools will no
longer be supported (by the Turkish government), a number of
those countries do not want them to continue."
The battle against Hizmet, long an instrument of Turkish
soft power claiming millions of followers worldwide, has
diverted effort from a foreign policy already in some disarray.
Very recently, Erdogan was received as a hero in Egypt and
his government cited in the West as a model for Islamic
democracy. Now his ties with Arab capitals are icy, largely due
to his siding with Islamist parties such as Egypt's Muslim
Brotherhood, and relations with the West tested by a graft
scandal and what some see as growing authoritarian tendencies.
SEEKING BREAD ABROAD
Hizmet denies using followers in the police and judiciary to
launch a graft inquiry targeting Erdogan family members,
ministers and businessmen and make illicit recordings of top
officials. Ankara fears further leaks ahead of presidential
polls in August could undermine the government.
The movement, also known as Cemaat (JEH-maat), The
Community, has for decades been a spearhead of Turkish cultural
influence and commerce overseas, especially so in the assertive
opening to Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the years after
AKP took power in 2002.
"In Turkey, we were at pains not to get involved in an
economic relationship with the government," Tercan Basturk,
Secretary General of the Journalists and Writers Foundation,
which speaks for Hizmet, said at its Istanbul headquarters.
"Instead, we directed all Hizmet supporters to go abroad and
told them to seek their bread outside the country."
It was long said there were three arms to Turkish diplomacy
- the Foreign Ministry, Turkish Airlines and Hizmet.
Turkey currently has some 35 embassies in Africa, second
only to France. About 15 opened in the last two years. The red
Turkish flag flies, for instance, across Mogadishu, Turkish
firms playing the lead role in post-war construction.
"A lot of this is due to the support of Gulen because in
many places in sub-Saharan Africa the only real Turkish
communities are Gulen-linked communities, whether schools or
business, and the embassies were opened to support this drive,"
said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Edam think tank in Istanbul.
Where Erdogan has conducted a purge of alleged Gulen
supporters in the police and the judiciary since December's
anti-corruption raids, Turkey's embassies are now expected to a
purge their relations with the cleric overseas to strangle
income from enterprise, schools and donations.
"Almost overnight they (the Embassies) shift position where
they are being asked to persuade those governments to close down
those schools," Ulgen said. "Of course, some governments may
want to accept this demand from the Turkish side."
Most likely to respond to Turkish displeasure would be
states such as Gambia benefiting from direct aid from Ankara.
AFGHANISTAN TO PENNSYLVANIA
The Foreign Ministry itself is in some turmoil since it
emerged that minister Ahmet Davutoglu's office was bugged and
talks with the security chief and army commanders on possible
armed intervention in Syria was posted anonymously on Youtube.
Overseas schools, Turkish cultural institutes and business,
like Hizmet's presence in the Turkish state, have been built up
over four decades. For much of that Gulen has lived in
self-imposed exile in the United States, something that has for
Erdogan supported the thesis that Hizmet is part of a broad
foreign-backed anti-Turkish plot.
When Erdogan was first elected in 2002, he lacked educated
specialists to press social and economic reforms he envisaged to
ease curbs on religion, improving welfare and, foremost, rein in
a military that had toppled four governments in as many decades.
He invited Hizmet to help and Hizmet obliged. The falling
out has pushed Erdogan into his biggest crisis in 12 years.
Hizmet runs 2,000 educational establishments in 160
countries, from Afghanistan to the United States. The schools,
such as the Yavuz Selim in Gambia, are well equipped, teach a
secular curriculum in English, and are popular, especially in
poorer countries, with the political and business elite.
"Until six months ago, government officials, the President,
the Prime Minister were going to these schools and praising them
and saying they were important for peace in the world," Basturk
said. "The government is pressing the Hizmet movement from
outside to put it in difficulty inside (Turkey)."
Erdogan has sought help from U.S. President Barack Obama in
curbing "the man from Pennsylvania". On a lower level he has
spoken to the head of Pakistan's Punjab about the schools.
The government accuses Hizmet overseas of running a
propaganda campaign against the Turkish government through
publications. Officials say the organisation is also carrying
out other actions, unspecified, that can alarm host governments.
Hizmet says the Turkish government approaches different
governments in different ways, according to local sensitivities.
"They say to the Russians 'kick them out', they are making
pan-Turkish propaganda in their schools," said Basturk,
referring to Russian sensitivities about Turkish-related
populations in Russia, the Caucasus area and Central Asia. "We
hear all this because we have friends there.
Assessing the full scale of Hizmet influence and its
economic power is difficult because of the essentially secretive
nature of some aspects; but Ankara clearly sees it as a threat.
Business sources say Turkish firms play a dominant role in
construction in Kabul, where Hizmet opened a school weeks after
the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Are those firms all Hizmet?
"Hizmet is not a movement with a membership," Basturk said.
"Hizmet movement business people are a very heterogeneous
structure. In Kabul, all businessmen are from the Hizmet
movement on the one hand, and on the other, they are not."
(Additional reporting by Seda Sezer; editing by Nick Tattersall
and Giles Elgood)