Like their counterparts in Uzbekistan and other Eurasian countries, Turkmen authorities have evidently become concerned about the influence of Nurchilar, a Turkish Islamic movement that has supported Turkmen-Turkish schools in Turkmenistan for more than a decade. In April, the Turkish schools stopped taking new pupils. Then on August 1, Turkish-supported schools in Turkmenbashi, Nebitdag, Turkmenabad and other cities were closed; only one school remains in Ashgabat, the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk School No. 57, reports Chronicles of Turkmenistan (chrono-tm.org), an independent émigré news site.
Initially, the Turkmen government, which has generally enjoyed a close political and economic relationship with Turkey, seemed to appreciate the Turkish schools, which were believed to provide a better education than native Turkmen schools. The Turkish schools are noted for their strict discipline and offer the advantage of classes in Turkish and English as well as the hard sciences and computer literacy. Back in in the 1990s, Turkish schools were opened in every province in Turkmenistan and thousands of young people, particularly boys, studied in them. It was known that teachers at the schools quietly promoted pan-Turkism, or unification of Turkic peoples under the leadership of Turkey, and the ideas of Said Nursi, a 19th century Turkish philosopher who is defined as "extremist" in Russia and Uzbekistan, where the Turkish schools have been closed.
Supporters of the schools say that Nursi was a moderate Islamic thinker who stressed the importance of scientific as well as religious education. Graduates of the schools in Turkmenistan adopted a moderate form of Islam and often went on to study at universities in Turkey with the support of the Turkish government. Yet some students told chrono-tm.org when they returned to Turkmenistan, their peers tended to form close-knit communities together where they spoke Turkish, disdained people who drank alcohol or were secular, and developed a disparaging attitude toward women, insisting that their wives, daughters and sisters don the hijab.
Some students who managed to get into Turkish universities remained in Turkey and have formed diasporas; some refuse to go home, or even flee to other countries, including the US.
One such student who spoke with chrono-tm.org on condition of anonymity said that the most loyal adherents to the Nurchilar movement would help other members of the movement, sometimes by accepting bribes, to be placed in key positions in various ministries such as migration, narcotics control, defense, security and interior. He claimed that some power ministry officials in Turkmenistan have graduated from the Military Academy of Ankara.
"The policy of infiltrating their people into the power ministries of Turkmenistan has already born fruit -- given the lack of qualified local personnel, the majority of officials from the Migration Service and Narcotics Control Service have been educated in Turkish institutions at various levels," said the source. There was no independent confirmation of the claim. If anything, Ashgabat's relations with Ankara have suffered strains recently with disputes about $1 billion in payments for Turkish construction projects, and lawsuits mounted by 20 companies, and these events may have triggered the closure of the schools.
A recent graduate of a Turkish school in Turkmenbashi told chrono-tm.org that there are noticeably fewer Turkish teachers left in Turkmenistan and the climate of official tolerance has ended. "We and our teachers are openly called ‘Wahhabists,’ and we are called this in fact by the local law-enforcers," he said, "Wahhabism" is a catch-all label used by regional officials about any form of Islam not sanctioned by the state.
A member of the social media site Teswirler.com, which has reportedly drawn graduates of Turkmen-Turkish schools, commented on the recent closures: "Nurchilar has its goals, and we [young people of Turkmenistan] have ours, and it is quite reasonable to cooperate while these paths coincide. You have to have your head on your shoulders and no one can impose his way on you."
The International Turkmen-Turkish University, opened in 1994 in Ashgabat, remains in operation, but there are rumors that it may face closure soon.