Maarif: Turkey tooling schools for political purposes in Albania and elsewhere

In early July, hundreds of excited students and parents gathered for the annual graduation ceremony of the ‘New York University in Tirana’, a highly-regarded private university in the Albanian capital.

In honour of the bachelor, master and PhD graduates of NYUT, a lavish ceremony was organized in a Tirana theatre complete with a special message read out from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“I support the work of our foundation in fulfilling the educational needs of our brothers and Albanian friends,” Erdogan’s message read.

The foundation is known as Maarif, created on June 2016 by the Turkish Parliament as the sole official provider of Turkish-backed education abroad.

Today, the Maarif Foundation boasts a presence in 35 countries with a total of 294 educational institutions, the majority in South Asia, Africa and Southeast Europe.

A major tool in Turkish soft-power diplomacy, the Foundation is also a weapon in Erdogan’s battle to dismantle the worldwide network of educational institutions of his arch-enemy and the man Ankara says was behind a failed 2016 coup, US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Maarif bought NYUT in August 2018, while alongside acquiring the NY Basic Education School and NY High School in Tirana.

To celebrate the acquisition, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu delivered a speech at the opening of the NYUT academic year.

But the Foundation did not stop there.

Political tool

In June, Maarif announced the creation of ‘Farm Kindergarten Albania’, a kindergarten on 2000 square metres of farmland in a Tirana suburb offering “real outdoor learning”.

Then in July, it announced the creation of a high school in the central Albanian city of Elbasan that is due to open in September.

Critics, however, say the expansion is less about education than politics, about reining in Gulen and burnishing the image of Erdogan abroad.

“More than educational intervention, Maarif is political,” said Ermir Hoxha, an Albanian journalist who closely follows developments in Turkey and is the publisher behind the Te Sheshi news portal.