Syrian refuge crisis has shown that acts of Islamic humanitarianism in Turkey are not limited to distributing aid. Education provision has become an essential element of faith-based humanitarianism in Turkey. The response to the education dimension of the Syrian refugee crisis has shown that the impetus for education as humanitarian aid is beyond the internationally recognized goals of emergency education. It is also beyond a simple Islamic obligation to help the needy but an extension of religious nationalism.
Faith-based humanitarian NGOs tend to base their motives in education provision for Syrians on (1) “Islamic brother/sisterhood” and (2) the danger of assimilation by secular Western ideas. The representatives of faith-based NGOs interviewed explained their involvement in educational facilities as an “Islamic obligation” to help other Muslim people. Thus, emergency education as a useful mechanism to reduce the traumas of war and prevent exploitation of the vulnerable children gains a new dimension as a way of validating Islamic faith. The chairperson of a local humanitarian NGO, AY-DER explained their aim in involvement in education provision for Syrian refugees as:
Our aim is to supply Syrian brothers/sisters with true knowledge and help them gain good manners, raise their degrees and qualities to become individuals useful for society, and to build bridges between two societies through joint activities with Turkish students. (Interview with AY-DER chairperson, 10.11.2015, Adana).
One of the greatest problems faced by the Syrians immigrating to Turkey or to Europe via Turkey is seen as their inability to retain their cultural identities, languages, and beliefs. In that context, education is affiliated with a fight against exploitation and assimilation by the Western values. There is an increasing concern among the Turkish faith-based NGOs that Christian missionary institutions would utilize the education gap to estrange Syrian children and youth from their moral values and force them to move away from their identities for better life and career opportunities in the West. For the IHH-Humanitarian Relief Foundation education sector manager “unless the Syrian schools in Turkey and Syria are supported, brain drain to Europe will continue by means of missionary organizations and Syrian youth will be assimilated” (from interview dated 11.11.2015, Hatay). There is no evidence for the presence of missionary organizations providing education for Syrian refugees in Turkey, yet considering the argument of Horstmann (2011) on the link between humanitarian aid and proselytizing, the fears of Islamic NGOS in Turkey might have grounding. To what extent the Islamic NGOs provide assistance to Syrian refugees regardless of faith, on the other hand, is questionable, especially when the ethnic and religious differences among Syrian refugees are considered.
The stance of the faith-based NGOs resembles religious nationalism promoted by AKP associating social justice with Islamic identity. In that context, in providing education as a humanitarian response, faith-based NGOs have an Islamist-humanist mission, a civil version of the AKP’s religious nationalism. The education needs of Syrian refugees as the “brothers in faith” are met through zakat funds (Islamic donations). Agreeing with the fact that it also is an effective way to increase schooling among the refugees, I shall also relay that education for Syrian refugees has become an extension of a “religious welfare project” likely to create dependency among the recipients and this dependency might potentially be exploited by different Islamic movements (Zencirci 2015, 548).
In many TECs operated by faith-based NGOs, majority of the classes are held in Arabic language with religious courses included. While the secular NGOs operating schools for Syrians encourage girls and boys to coexist in the same classrooms regardless of their ages, for some faith-based NGOs, education for Syrian refugees should be based on Islamic values segregating girls and boys in secondary schools just like the Imam-Hatip schools in Turkey. Despite arguing for equal educational opportunities for women, the AY-DER (Adana Humanitarian Aid Foundation) chairperson stated that education for Syrian refugees should be gender segregated above primary school unless there are special conditions. That is because “men and women are now allowed to be present together according to Islam and Syrian people are Muslims” (Interview with AY-DER chairperson, 10.11.2015, Adana). AY-DER chairperson believes that gender-segregated education would increase the schooling rates of Syrian girls and increase the socio-economic advantages for Syrian women. Indeed, in certain cases, compromises can be made in universal values of gender equity in the education programs to increase attendance. However, it should be born in mind that such compromises constitute a slippery ground in a secular state where education has been systematically Islamised in the past two decades.
Efforts of many humanitarian NGOs in education provision may be futile and palliative rather than being a durable solution for the education problem of the refugees, considering that the education given in TECs greatly prepares the children for repatriation rather than integration. When asked about the reasons of adopting such an approach, similar answers were given by all the faith-based humanitarian organizations. First of all, they do not want to encourage the refugees to stay. The argument is that Syrian refugees are provided education in Turkish curriculum and language, they would have a perception that Turkish state wishes them to settle in Turkey. TECs give education to Syrian children in Arabic to prevent them from forgetting their mother tongue, besides this approach is argued to be preferred by the Syrian parents themselves (Interview with Diyanet Foundation Expert, 28.09.2015, Ankara).
Rather than being shut down as illegal schools, TECs were placed under state supervision. After MoNE established a legislative base for the education of Syrian refugees in 2014, it also formed a framework for cooperation with non-state bodies operating TECs (Interview with MoNE Expert, 08.03.2016, Ankara). Under the new regulations, coordinator principals were appointed to TECs by MoNE to take the education facilities provided by non-state agents under control. With such regulations, the state also hijacked the system originally established by non-state initiatives like faith-based NGOs. My interview with the AY-DER chairperson revealed that MoNE does not want the NGOs to take initiative at policy level or take managerial roles at TECs. MoNE prefers NGOs to be material suppliers regardless of the field experience they possess. In that respect, it can be argued that despite the substitution of state institutions by humanitarian NGOs, the state has not relinquished its supervisory position in education. Rather it maintains a patrimonial attitude and continues the centrist mentality by controlling NGOs.
Despite the superior position of the state, faith-based NGOs tend to be seen as the reliable partners while those with clear secular agendas tend to be left out (Interview with Yuva Association, 02.02.2016). Among the most reliable partners for MoNE are GONGOs, government organized non-governmental organizations created for promoting issues that the government wants to bring attention to or advance its interests. Diyanet Foundation (a non-governmental extension of the Presidency of the Religious Affairs working for the promotion of Islamic values) is highly favored by MoNE for cooperation. This in fact reflects AKP’s religious sentiment in education of the Syrian refugees. Although the Diyanet Foundation had not been involved in formal education within Turkey prior to the crisis, it is now seen as an alternative to other non-state organizations who allegedly have the potential to “exploit and abuse the situation” in education for Syrian refugees (from the interview with a MoNE expert). In that respect, the state makes uses of faith-based humanitarianism as a way of extending its political agenda in education. Until the state reconceptualizes its legislative framework to allow for education in Arabic language, faith-based NGOs who have similar ideological agendas enact the government’s Islamic brotherhood discourse for Syrian refugees.