What you need to know about Gülen schools and their connection to American politics
A year ago the Daily Caller reported on the number of Turkish business and political organizations which had contributed to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Many of these groups are tied to Fethullah Gülen, a former Islamic imam and employee of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. Gülen’s followers are part of Hizmet which means “service.” A recent Wikileaks email from 2015 showed that political factions in Turkey loyal to President Erdogan are now contributing to Democrats (most notably Hillary Clinton) to try to counter the influence of these other Gülenist aligned organizations. Let’s talk about why Gülenists seeking to influence American elections should concern Americans.
A confidential U.S. government report written in 2009, also found on Wikileaks, gives the pertinent background on Gülen. Below are some key excerpts.
“Fethullah Gülen remains a political phenomenon in Turkey. Although “exiled” in Pennsylvania for the past decade, Gülen’s impact continues to expand, aided by legions of loyalist supporters and a network of elite schools. The Gülen Movement’s purported goals focus on interfaith dialogue and tolerance, but in the current AKP-secularists schism, many Turks believe Gülen has a deeper and possibly insidious political agenda, and even some Islamist groups criticize Gülen’s lack of transparency, which they say creates doubts about his motives.
In the past two decades, Gülen has focused primarily on education, not only in Turkey but around the world. His schools have earned a reputation particularly in Central and South Asia for academic excellence and the advocacy of moderate Islamic views.
Gulen had applied for Permanent Residence status in the U.S. Immigration officials initially rejected Gulen’s application to be classified as “an alien of extraordinary ability,” but a Federal Court ruled in late 2008 that this rejection had been improper. Gülen now holds a Green Card, and lives in a secluded compound in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
The Gülenist doctrine, with its conservative and religiously observant undercurrent, has met fierce hostility in regimes such as Russia, which expelled the Gülenists en masse in the 1990s.
Gülenists also reportedly dominate the Turkish National Police, where they serve as the vanguard for the Ergenekon investigation — an extensive probe into an alleged vast underground network that is accused of attempting to encourage a military coup in 2004. The investigation has swept up many secular opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including Turkish military figures, which has prompted accusations that the Gülenists have as their ultimate goal the undermining of all institutions which disapprove of Turkey becoming more visibly Islamist.
Not surprisingly, contacts close to the the Turkish General Staff openly loathe Gülen, and contend that he and his legions of supporters are embarked on a ruthless quest not only to undermine the Turkish military but to transform Turkey into an Islamic republic similar to Iran.
Gülen schools’ reputation for academic excellence and focus on raising the performance of the poor and minorities makes them very attractive to those wishing to open charter schools in the U.S. There are already 150 such charters here now and, if ballot measures across the country pass on Tuesday, there will be applications for more in the coming years.
Financial backing of Democrats, who might have traditionally opposed charter schools because the teachers unions, who fund their campaigns, oppose them might be more open to charters if there are sources like Gülen to fill in missing campaign contributions.
In addition, the Gülen aligned Pacifica Institute and Bosphorus Atlantic Cultural Association of Friendship and Cooperation (“BAKIAD”) have arranged for dozens of trips by American politicians, including Republican Congress men and women, to Turkey, and were the subject of a the House Office of Congressional Ethics report.
The Atlantic writer Scott Beauchamp claimed the Gülen schools should not be of concern because they are run primarily by Muslims, but should be a concern because they bring in a lot of foreign (mostly Turkish) workers and suffer from terrible financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency.
“Even more unnervingly, the school’s money—public funds from the local community—was being donated to Gülen-affiliated organizations and used to pay the cost of bringing teachers to Utah from Turkey. To illustrate the level of fiscal mismanagement, the school spent about 50 cents to pay the immigration costs of foreign teachers for every dollar that it spent on textbooks…
Meanwhile, the Ohio State Board of Education has launched its own probe of the nearly 20 Gülen-associated charter schools in its state. As part of the investigation, four former teachers from Horizon Academy (the particular name of the Gülen charter school chain in Ohio) gave testimony. The teachers mentioned issues as disturbing as cheating on state tests, unsafe building conditions, overcrowding, and even sexual misconduct.”
Cases have been investigated in Texas, Georgia and across the midwest where the schools were found to funnel significant amounts of money to Turkish owned companies through no bid contracts. The FBI raided 19 of these schools in the U.S. in2 2014 as part of an investigation of financial discrepancies. A New York Times investigation claimed that teachers brought in from Turkey were forced to give nearly all of their salaries back to the Gülen movement.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet cites an unnamed U.S. State Department official as saying that Gülen’s Hizmet Islamic organization operates “a lot like the ways in which organized crime sets itself up by folks who are trying to hide money for money laundering,” rather than what it presents itself as: “a benign religious movement.” Turkish officials also don’t believe Gülen schools are benign, but the Turkish government has been trying since July to have Gülen extradited back to Turkey to face charges stemming from his involvement with the July 15th coup attempt, so their skepticism is understandable. They claim his cult-like followers want to see Gülen as the next President of Turkey.
“Hizmet (Gülen) supporters describe the movement as a ‘faith-inspired collectivity’ with millions of followers and sympathizers who draw on Islamic spirituality and teaching, constituting one of the largest civil movements. The movement operates more than 1,000 schools worldwide, including 150 in the United States, which operate on taxpayer subsidies. Gülen himself argues that Hizmet (“service”) is a moderate Islamic alternative that has a role to play in the eradication of radical Islam.”
The ties between Clinton and Gülen associates are thick. Gokhan Ozkok is a founding board member of the Turkish Cultural Center and national finance co-chair of the pro-Clinton Ready PAC. He is also is listed on that organization’s website as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and has donated between $25,001 and $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation. A number of officials from other charities in the Gülen network such as the Turkic American Business Network, Istanbul Center, Rumi Forum, the Turkish American Business Council, the Peace Islands Institue, and the Turkic American Alliance have also donated to Clinton’s campaigns and PACs.
The Daily Caller received this reply from a Gülen spokesperson about the purpose of all these political contributions. Were they part of an effort to support their charter schools, to open up business opportunities for Turks, or to protect Fethullah Gülen? “All of the above.” Given the oppositional nature of the relationship between Gülen and Erdogan there are those who claim that if Hillary Clinton wins the White House, her ties with Hizmet and Fethullah Gülen will end the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, a key NATO ally.
Certainly any tempering of Islamic fundamentalism would have to come from within Islam itself. Gülen’s claim that his movement could successfully rid the world of radical Islam would have some appeal, if you believed him. That is no little question. U.S. intel seems clear that he does not want a secular government operating in Turkey and would prefer some form of Islamic rule. Does he think that calling what his schools teach “moderate Islam” will placate those in the West?
When even those who are supposedly on his side have some reservations about his true motives, this line from the leaked U.S. report takes on an even more ominous meaning.
“[T]he Gülen Movement has a broader scope and is more comfortable with the concept of justifying the means for the end, such as discarding the headscarf when necessary.”
Can we really believe that Gülen’s goal is the spreading of a moderate version of Islam? A laid back Muslim appearance may just be his means to the end. Like Van Jones is he “willing to forego the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends?”
Will those politicians who have accepted Gülenists campaign money be willing to look a little less hard at what is being taught in the Gülen schools in America, look a little less deep at their financials, keep the door open for more H1B visas for our “struggling” districts to import foreign teachers? Yes Americans should be concerned when the Gülenists are investing in America.