Features

Turkey’s inside man

"Turkey’s inside man" Continued...

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

Cross over the Atlantic Ocean to American soil and you’ll find an entirely different portrayal of Fethullah Gulen. His network of charter schools has joined battles against behemoth teachers’ unions, bringing more than 135 schools in 26 states to underprivileged areas. It’s difficult to deny the benefits of Gulen’s vast educational empire. 

The names of the Gulen-inspired schools sound like any other charter schools—Harmony, Magnolia, and the Daisy Education Corporation, to name a few—and their emphasis on science and technology generally produces decent to excellent test scores. Turkish language classes are often added to the curriculum. 

Gulen, affectionately called hocaefendi, or “master teacher,” by his followers, launched his movement 40 years ago when he was an imam in Izmir, Turkey, preaching the ideas of the mystical Nur sect. He immigrated to the United States in 1999, allegedly for medical treatment, but the timing suggests another possible explanation: Shortly after his trek abroad, a sermon aired in Turkey suggesting his support for an Islamic state: “You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers … until the conditions are ripe,” Gulen said in a video (loyalists argue it was altered). The video exhorts followers to bring to their sides “all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”

At the time, Turkish courts charged Gulen with corruption and anti-secular political activity. He was acquitted but critics still wonder about the true intentions behind his growing empire. Since his exile, Gulen resides on a 45-acre estate in the Poconos of Pennsylvania with an estimated 100 followers who guard the premises and tend to his needs.

In addition to the charter school network, Gulen has holdings in 140 countries in media, think tanks, universities, banks, and charities.

Charter schools in the United States are publicly funded, so legally they cannot offer religious classes, and Gulen discourages his followers from proselytizing. But his charter school network is under fire for hiring primarily Turkish teachers and staff who arrive in the United States on H1B work visas (see “Soft sell,” Aug. 27, 2011) and for discriminating against women.

Yilmaz, an education consultant, has observed the movement’s segregation of women in Turkey. Teachers from the Turkish Gulen schools are required to meet every Saturday morning for training on a variety of educational topics. Yilmaz says the most interesting aspect of these meetings is that “ladies sit at the back rows, almost all of them with scarves, and men in the front. Ladies hardly ask questions and never shake hands with men.” 

The school sometimes requires him to give two separate seminars for men and women on the same topic. That wouldn’t be unusual in most Muslim countries, but Turkey has operated on strict secular principles. For example, the government traditionally bans headscarves in the public sector.

“The Gulen Movement controls a vast area in Turkey, and one thing that I will never understand is why the U.S. is covering this guy’s back,” said Yilmaz. Gulen’s network of charter schools in the United States is currently under federal investigation for an alleged kickback scheme involving Hizmet, another organization founded by Gulen, but Gulen continues to work from and reside freely in Pennsylvania. 

That’s in spite of what U.S. officials in Turkey have been saying. A 2009 cable from former U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (released by WikiLeaks) described President Abdullah Gul as a Gulen loyalist and said that the Gulen movement controls Turkey’s government and dictates Turkish policy. “It is not possible to confirm that the Turkish police are under the control of the Gulen community members, but we have not met anybody who denies it,” a cable read.

Americans would do well to take note of Gulen-related activities in Turkey as well as in the United States, along with the praise and criticism heaped upon its influential leader. If he’s truly a model for moderate Muslims to follow, his schools, newspapers, businesses, and the majority of his followers should reflect his democratic ideals. But if his movement is—as Gulen’s critics allege—the Big Brother behind media muzzling and trumped-up charges in Turkey, a closer examination of his stateside activities is warranted.

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