Islamic cleric linked to U.S. charter schools involved in Turkey’s political drama

Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen (REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency/Handout via Reuters/Files)
Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen(REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency/Handout via Reuters/Files)

A Muslim cleric who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and has been linked to a network of more than 135 public charter schools in the United States is believed to be deeply involved in the political drama that is unfolding in his home country of Turkey.

The reclusive cleric is Fethullah Gulen, who has been linked to charter schools in some 25 states and to other schools in dozens of countries around the world. Gulen, who has denounced terrorism and is said to believe in a moderate form of Islam, has lived in Pennsylvania for years. Gulen was until recently a close ally of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has been deeply shaken by a corruption investigation.  The prime minister just replaced three of his key ministers after they were forced to resign in the scandal.

According to the Associated Press:

The corruption probe is one of the biggest political challenges Erdogan has faced since his Islamic-based party narrowly escaped being disbanded in 2008 for allegedly undermining Turkey’s secular Constitution…. Erdogan has denounced the investigation as a plot by foreign and domestic forces to thwart his country’s prosperity and discredit his government ahead of local elections in March. His government has won three elections since 2002 on the strength of the economy and a promise to fight corruption.

Turkish commentators believe the probe is fallout from an increasingly public feud and power struggle between Erdogan’s government and an influential U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whose followers are believed to have a strong foothold within Turkey’s police and judiciary. The two men, without naming each other, have been engaged in a war of words since the corruption probe was launched on Dec. 17.

The New York Times reported in this story that the corruption and bribery probe is widely believed to be under the control of Gulen followers, and it described the “powerful Muslim preacher” as being in command of “a network of businessmen, media outlets and schools as well as officials within Turkey’s police and judiciary. Gulen has denied involvement in the probe in Turkey, in which 24 have been formally charged, including the sons of two ministers in Erdogan’s government as well as the manager of the state-owned Halkbank.

Gulen has lived in the United States for many years. According to this Philadelphia Inquirer story, Gulen filed a lawsuit in 2007 in U.S. District Court seeking permission to live in the country legally after being denied a special visa by U.S. officials. In the suit his lawyers identified him as “head of the Gulen Movement” and an important education leader who had “overseen” the creation of a network of schools in the United States and around the world. He got a green card in 2008 and lives on a secluded compound called the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center in rural Pennsylvania.

The public charter schools in what is unofficially known as the Gulen network are believed to be operated by people — usually Turks — in or associated with the Gulen movement.  The schools, many of them with strong academic records, have different names and many of them are geared toward science, math and technology education. In Texas, for example, Harmony charter schools are believed to be linked to the network.

Some of the problems commonly cited with Gulen-inspired schools have affected the Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School in Anne Arundel County, which is has a strong academic record but has run into troubles cited last year by then district superintendent Kevin Maxwell. Though Maxwell supported a continuance of the school’s charter, he  said in June 2012 that the school had to hire qualified and fully certified teachers, reform the board of directors “to reflect the community it serves,” use appropriate procurement and bidding processes for outside contracts, follow board policy for the hiring of foreign nationals, and agree not to allow any of its contractors or subcontractors to “knowingly employ” anybody who has been investigated for criminal activity.

The  operators of schools believed to be in the Gulen network always deny being connected to the preacher’s movement  but state and federal officials have conducted various investigations over the years into such links.

A Harmony charter school was just given approval by the D.C. Public Charter School Board to open in Washington D.C.  Theola Labbé-DeBose, a spokeswoman for the charter school board, said in an e-mail that  “there was very little discussion” about any possible connections to Gulen during the board meeting when the school’s application was approved.

Early this year, the Loudoun County School Board denied an application by a group of Turkish men seeking to open a charter school there because of questions involving curriculum and other operational issues. The applicants said they were using the Anne Arundel school as a model but had trouble answering basic questions to the board members’ satisfaction. The school would have been the first charter school in Northern Virginia if it had been approved.

During the application process, the board held hearings at which one speaker, Mary Addi, testified that that she and her husband, Mustafa Emanet, had worked at a Gulen charter school in Ohio, which was opened in Dayton with the help of one of the Loudoun charter applicants, Fatih Kandil. She said her husband, a Turk, had been been involved in the Gulen movement and that Turkish teachers at the Ohio school had to turn over 40 percent of their salaries to a secret fund used by the movement. Last January, during the hearings,  I asked Sinan Yildirim, listed as one of the members of the proposed school’s initial governing board, whether he and his fellow applicants are connected to Gulen and he answered: “We said no. They said yes. If they claim something they have to prove. And they can’t prove it.”

The FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education have  investigated whether some employees at some of these schools are “kicking back part of their salaries” to the Gulen Movement, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in this story. The New York Times and CBS News as well as PBS have reported on the Gulen charter network, citing problems such as whether these schools give special preference to Turkish companies when handing out contracts.

Earlier this month, the FBI sent agents into the Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge, which is believed to have Gulen ties, according to this story on Nola.com, which reported that the agents left with boxes of unidentified material. According to the Web site, the school’s officials have denied any Gulen connection, but it said that “in 2011, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reported that Pelican Educational Foundation, the nonprofit group that runs Kenilworth, does have various connections to the movement.”

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | December 26, 2013