A DECISION by Turkey's university authority to withdraw recognition of degrees awarded by the world-famous Al Hazar University in Egypt has provoked a diplomatic storm with allegations of an anti-Islamic backlash.
Some schoolteachers with Al Hazar degrees have been sacked.
Ahmad Omar Kharshim, rector of Al Hazar, attacked the decision at a Cairo press conference and appealled directly to Turkish president Suleymain Demeriel to reverse it, claiming that it was damaging to his university's reputation and unfairly discriminated against students and ex-students.
The dispute is now shrouded in uncertainty. Al Hazar official Ibrahim Mohammed Ali said the university had received guarantees from the Turkish ambassador in Egypt and the Turkish president that recognition would be restored and that the matter had been a simple misunderstanding.
But, told that the Turkish university authority (YOK) is maintaining the ban, he expressed surprise. "We had been assured at the highest level this wasn't the case," he said.
He added: "I don't understand why they are doing this - Turkey is a Muslim country and Al Hazar is one of the biggest and most important Islamic universities in the Muslim world."
Kemal Gurus, head of YOK, said: "The decision has been made and will not be reversed."
Asked to explain why recognition had been withdrawn, he said: "The decision was taken following an investigation by a board of leading Turkish professors into Al Hazar. The findings indicated that compatibility problems exist between the Turkish universities and Al Hazar, both practically and theologically."
He refused to comment further on the nature of the differences and declined even to reveal the names of the academics who carried out the investigation.
Ibrahim Mohammed Ali disputed this charge, claiming "there is little difference between the structure and curriculum of Al Hazar and Turkish universities. The only difference is that we have some compulsory Islamic courses including Qu'ran reading."
He added: "Our university degrees are recognised throughout the world. thousands of Al Hazar graduates are now studying in Europe and the United Sates and there is no problem."
The reluctance to explain fully the reasons behind this change in policy has lead to suspicions that it was politically motivated. In the past few months wide-ranging reforms to reduce the influence of Islamic groups have been introduced into all fields of Turkish life, particularly in education. The reforms follow the collapse of Turkey's first Islamic-led government, which was forced out of office under intense pressure from the pro-secular army.
The new administration has been anxious to weaken Islamic groups, which they believe pose a threat to the 73-year-old secular state. With Egypt seen as breeding ground for radical Islamic groups by many in Turkey, YOK's decision is a means of closing another door to Islamic radicals.
Such suspicions have been strengthened by the decision to withdraw recognition from all universities in Islamic countries.
The decision is already having wide-ranging consequences. The ministry of education announced that it will no longer recognise Al Hazar degrees, leading to the dismissal of some schoolteachers with Al Hazar degrees.
Omar Duran, a student representative, claimed that 135 teachers with degrees from Al Hazar were discharged by the ministry.
Graduates of Al Hazar, backed by a Turkish human rights organisation, are planning to challenge the decision in the courts on the grounds that laws cannot be changed retrospectively.
World view, page 22