Faced with a deepening political crisis, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies have been squaring off with courts, police and prosecutors. But behind it all, Erdogan’s government largely sees the hand of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic religious leader and former ally of the prime minister who lives in self-imposed exile in the Poconos.
From his Pennsylvania compound, the 72-year-old Gulen is the spiritual force behind a global movement that has drawn millions of passionate adherents to his teachings of tolerance and peace.
In the United States, he has been the inspiration behind a rapidly growing network of public charter schools, including a school scheduled to open in the District in August. His movement has also built ties to local and national political leaders, lauding them with awards and sending them on trips to Turkey.
Gulen’s split with Erdogan erupted after the government announced a plan to shutter private schools — many owned by the Gulen movement — that help Turkish students prepare for college entrance exams. In a sprawling corruption investigation that has touched businessmen with close ties to Erdogan, many of the prime minister’s backers see a conspiracy led by Gulen’s allies, who are said to hold important positions in the police force and the courts.
Gulen’s critics, wary of his deep reach into Turkish society, have been careful not to mention him by name but frequently suggest the investigation is being carried out by his supporters. In a recent statement, Gulen has denied any link to the investigation. Gulen’s office did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
The religious leader’s reclusive life makes it easy for critics to blame him for their troubles, said Joshua Hendrick, a sociology professor at Loyola University Maryland and author of a book about the Gulen movement. At the same time, by mostly staying out of sight and communicating through a Web site, Gulen “becomes something far more than what he is. He becomes the superhuman that his followers believe him to be,” Hendrick said.
Emre Celik, president of the Rumi Forum, a Gulen-inspired center in Washington, said that as a young man in Australia, he was attracted to the way Gulen spoke about fighting “poverty, disunity, and ignorance.”
“These are social ills for the whole world, and it’s incumbent on Muslims to help alleviate these ills, no matter who is suffering,” said Celik, who volunteered in the movement until becoming a computer science teacher at a Sydney high school.
The Rumi Forum organized four trips to Turkey in May and June 2013 for think tank and university scholars, nonprofit group representatives, and government employees, Celik said. The group also hosts dinners during Ramadan and this year invited officials from the departments of State, Justice and Education, as well as Washington embassy and religious groups.
In 2011, Joshua DuBois, then the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was a recipient of one of the annual Rumi Peace and Dialogue awards. Former secretaries of state Madeleine K. Albright and James Baker have given speeches at the Gulen Institute, a similar group based in Houston.
Since the start of 2011, another Houston-based group, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, has paid for 10 trips for members of Congress to Turkey and Azerbaijan. The group’s president, Kemal Oksuz, is the former executive director of the Niagara Foundation in Chicago, whose honorary president is Gulen. In the same period, at least four other members of Congress made trips to Turkey sponsored by Gulen-associated groups.
“It’s important to introduce people to our Muslim society and to introduce them to their counterparts in Turkey,” Celik said.
Gulen’s movement has schools in some 150 countries. The U.S. schools, operated under different “brand” names such as Harmony and Concept, total more than 120 in two dozen states, with an academic emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM” skills. Islam is not taught in the schools.
By and large, the schools are regarded as academically successful. While leaders of some of the schools say they have been influenced by Gulen, others, including Harmony Public Schools, say they have no formal connection.
The schools have sparked some controversy.
In 2012, the Texas state education agency found Harmony, the largest charter operator in the state, failed to properly document its use of $186,000 in federal funds, or about one-third of the dollars auditors examined for the fiscal year ending August 2010. Harmony repaid the money, according to the state, but school officials maintained they did nothing wrong. Harmony schools have also drawn scrutiny for their reliance on visas to bring Turkish staff to the United States. A spokeswoman said fewer than 10 percent of Harmony’s 2,617 employees hold H-1B visas.
In Philadelphia, an English teacher at a Gulen-linked Truebright Science Academy Charter School sued the school this year, claiming that it had hired and promoted less-qualified Turkish nationals and paid them more than U.S.-born educators who were certified and more experienced. The civil rights complaint was settled for an undisclosed amount.
In Chicago, a Gulen-connected school, Concept Schools Inc., lost a bid last year to open two new schools. Concept Schools appealed to the state charter school commission, which was created in 2011 by lawmakers including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan had visited Turkey four times in the past four years at the expense of the Niagara Foundation and the Chicago Turkish American Chamber of Commerce, according to disclosure reports. The state commission reversed the earlier decision and gave the green light to Concept Schools to open two new schools.
Gulen arrived in the United States in the late 1990s seeking treatment for diabetes and stayed after he was charged with trying to overthrow the secular government. He was acquitted of that charge and is free to return to Turkey.
Both Gulen and Erdogan are religious conservatives, and the two men joined forces for years to bring Turkey’s powerful military under civilian control.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Gulen’s movement draws inspiration from a Sufi Islamic tradition that seeks to combine modernity and Islam, instead of advocating an Islamization of society as some Muslim Brotherhood groups do. For that reason, he said, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party “was never completely comfortable with the Gulen movement.”
Joby Warrick and Alice Crites contributed to this report.