Pakistanis have loved Turkey for years for two obvious reasons: Turkish television serials translated in Urdu and aired on local networks and a chain of 28 excellent Pak-Turk schools and colleges across the country that educates future leaders. Contrary to the popular public perception, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during his two-day visit to Pakistan earlier this week, stunned most Pakistanis as he informed the government in Islamabad that the chain of schools was actually run by an ‘evil network’ tied to his opponent Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan urged the Pakistani government to help in dismantling this network because “the terrorist organisation is a threat to the security and public order of Pakistan.” Thus, he has asked the Pakistani government to shut down the network of schools and send all teacher and their families back to Turkey.
Most Pakistanis, who are highly appreciative of the contributions the Turkish schools have made in terms of educating Pakistani children, suspect Erdogan’s truthfulness and oppose the closure of the network of schools or the departure of more than 100 school teachers and 450 family members. In spite of tremendous public opposition, the Pakistani government, in an unpopular move, has succumbed to Erdogan’s demands and ordered the Turkish teachers to leave Pakistan by the end of this week.
According to a poll by the Express Tribune newspaper, at least 97% of Pakistanis, when asked if they supported their government’s decision to deport staff of Pak-Turk schools, opposed such a move. Families of students who attend the Pak-Turk schools have also vehemently resisted this politically motivated move that will directly affect children’s education. On November 17th, around 20 teachers and parents addressed a press conference in the city of Peshawar and castigated the government’s decision.
“These are teachers, not terrorists,” said one parent at the Peshawar press conference, “why are they being deported like this?” Parents urged the Pakistani government to review this decision. They also opposed Erdogan’s assurance that the outgoing teachers would be replaced with new ones. “Children are not machines that can wait to be repaired,” the B.B.C. Urdu quoted one parent, “changing teachers in the middle of the academic year will disrupt their education.”
The Amnesty International has described Pakistan’s decision to expel Turkish teachers as “politically motivated” and rightfully reminded Islamabad that with 24 million children out of school, this decision will only hurt Pakistan’s children.
Erdogan is harming Turkey’s international brand by launching a campaign against a network of schools that has earned much respect and praise in Pakistan for the good work it has done. The people of Pakistan do not know much about the internal politics of Turkey nor do they care which political party runs the Pak-Turk schools. It is absurd to believe Erdogan’s warning that this network is a “threat to the security and public order of Pakistan.” Schools do not threaten the security of any nation. Schools are in fact an antidote to terrorism.
Erdogan is engaging in bad politics by playing with the educational life of thousands of Pakistani children. There is no justification for the government of Pakistan to shut down the network of Pak-Turk schools since Islamabad has no evidence to substantiate any wrongdoing by these schools.
The Pakistani government’s surrender before Erdogan is an unfortunate deviation from the longstanding tradition of respecting schools run by foreign countries and religious minorities. For instance, whether Pakistan remained under a tight military rule or experienced troubling waves of radical Islam, Christian schools survived all turbulences and continued to educate Pakistan’s children. Successive governments in Islamabad have even defended the right of tens of thousands of religious schools, known as madrassas, in spite of accusations about their alleged involvement in churning out Islamic extremists.
Pakistani rulers, such as former dictator General Pervez Musharraf, insisted that these schools had more advantages than disadvantages as they provided free education, shelter, and food to their students. If the Pakistani government believes there is room for improving the quality of education and internal atmosphere of the religious schools instead of completely shutting them down then there is no reason why the Pak-Turk schools should not be revamped if there actually is a need to do so. Pakistan and Turkey both should keep politics and ideological differences between individual leaders away from classrooms.
For many decades, Pakistanis have admired Turkey for its strong secular and democratic traditions. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey seems to be renegotiating and redesigning its domestic and international image. If Erdogan intends to replace the current batch of Turkish teachers in Pakistan with a bunch of conservative and pan-Islamist instructors, it will not help Pakistan or its future generations. Liberals in Pakistan wish to see their country become as modern and secular as Turkey while Erdogan seems to be looking toward the opposite direction. Does he plan to make Turkey like Pakistan where religion will be used for political gains? Based on our experiences in Pakistan, one must say this is not only a dangerous game but an irreversible one too. The Pak-Turk schools must continue to operate independently and impart modern education instead of becoming a tool for ideological propaganda. Governments in Islamabad and Ankara have an important obligation to Pakistan’s children. They must not gamble on these children’s future.
This article originally appeared in Huffington Post