Americans may not realize it yet, but Turkey’s regression from a secular democracy into an Islamic state may be based on an educational movement that has also taken root in America. Imam Fethullah Gülen and his Gülen Movement (GM) have had enormous influence in setting the increasingly Islamist agenda of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Much of this is due to GM’s vast empire of media entities, financial institutions, banks and business organizations. But the most critical component of this empire is educational institutions. In Turkey, 75 percent of the nation’s two million preparatory school students are enrolled in Gülen institutions. In America, GM runs the largest charter school network in the nation. Such an empire is slowly receiving the kind of scrutiny–and pushback from concerned Americans–that it deserves.
The principals and school board members of GM charter schools are primarily Turkish men. Hundreds of Turkish teachers have been admitted to the United States using H-1B visas, because the schools claim qualified Americans cannot be found. Moreover, an examination of federal tax forms and school documents reveals that GM charter schools tend to purchase a substantial portion of their goods and services from Gülenist businesses.
This symbiotic relationship is occurring in many areas around the nation. For example, a trio of GM schools in Georgia are currently in the spotlight because they defaulted on a $19 million bond issue. An audit revealed the schools improperly granted hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts for purchases like T-shirts, teacher training, and video production services from organizations with connections to school officials, or Gülen followers, or to businesses and groups with ties to the Gülen Movement. In some cases, bidding requirements were ignored. “I would just question how those vendors were selected when price in many instances wasn’t part of the decision making,” said Fulton County superintendent Robert Avossa.
In Texas, similar allegations have been aimed at the Cosmos Foundation, a charter school operator founded a decade ago by a group of professors and businessmen from Turkey. The group, currently using the name Harmony Schools, has become the biggest charter operation in the state, and while its primary mission is educating schoolchildren, it has forged ongoing relationships with a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants. Some of those founders, as well as school operators, and many of their business suppliers, are followers of Fethullah Gülen.
Harmony receives more than $100 million a year in taxpayer funds. When questioned how that money was spent with regards to awarding contracts, Harmony produced a list showing that local American companies had been awarded only 13 construction and renovation jobs over several years. On the other hand, a New York Times review of contracts since January 2009, totaling 35 contracts and $82 million worth of work, revealed that all but 3 jobs worth about $1.5 million went to Turkish-owned businesses. Such contracts included an $8.2 million deal awarded to TDM Contracting to build the Harmony School of Innovation during the company’s very first month in business. Such “good fortune” is in direct contrast to established local companies that claimed they weren’t awarded contracts, despite bidding several hundred thousand dollars lower.
One of those companies is Atlas Texas Construction and Trading, a Houston-based contractor with offices in Texas and Turkey. Atlas was awarded two contracts by Cosmos in Texas, the fairness of which was questioned by local contractors, who wondered why the company got both jobs when it was underbid by one company on one job, and four on the other. Atlas showed up on a list of Gülen-affiliated companies in a 2006 cable from the American Consul General in Istanbul, released by WikiLeaks. In Louisiana, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Abramson Science & Technology Charter School in eastern New Orleans is linked to a bribe offer allegedly made by Inci Akpinar — the vice president of Atlas.
Other possible sources of income for the GM movement were revealed in a 2011 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer. They revealed that the FBI is investigating a GM charter school employee kickback scheme, aimed at funding the larger GM movement.
Operators of Gülen-based charter schools stress over and over that their charters hew to state-mandated curriculums. Yet in Inver Grove Heights, MN, a substitute teacher named Amanda Getz claims the Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) maintained no separation between academics studied during school and Islamic studies afterward. She also claims she was instructed to take students in fours to the bathroom for “ritual washing” before lunch on Fridays (the Muslim holy day), after which, “teachers led the kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap” led the students in Muslim prayers. She further revealed that while religious instruction is not part of the “school day,” most students stay after — perhaps because school buses don’t leave until the Islamic studies are over.
Concerned Americans have begun to push back. In Austin, Texas, a protest rally was organized in August 2011 against the Harmony School of Political Science in that city. Rally organizer Donna Garner cited Fethullah Gülen’s influence in changing Turkey from pro- to anti-American, the link between Cosmos/Harmony/Atlas Construction in Texas and Louisiana’s Pelican schools, as well as concerns regarding how “teachers who can hardly speak English and are fresh from Turkey will present such historically significant elements as the Holocaust, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.”
In Tennessee last May, Gov. Bill Haslam allowed a bill that limits the number of foreign workers at charter schools to become law without his signature. According to the bill, if a school wants 3.5 percent or more of its staff to be hired from among the foreign workers in the H1B or J-1 visa programs (with an exception for language teachers), it can now be refused a charter to operate by chartering authorities. American Muslim Advisory Council board member Sabina Mohyuddin from Tullahoma, labeled it “an anti-Muslim bill shrouded in anti-immigrant language.”
Last month in Loudoun, VA, applicants behind the proposed Loudoun Math and IT Academy in that city were peppered with questions from residents who were concerned that the proposed charter has ties to the Gülen Movement. Access Point Public Affairs’ Mindy Williams, who serves as the spokeswoman for the charter school applicants, along with School Board Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon and Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Janet Clarke, were met with a great amount of skepticism when they said they believed the school was not tied to Gülen or his movement. “I do think it’s very important that we’re absolutely sure there is no connection,” Clarke said, “but in all fairness, we can’t draw that connection when we don’t know quite yet.”
Perhaps they’re not looking hard enough. At an earlier meeting, it was pointed out that Ali Bicak is one of the founding members of Chesapeake Science Point in Maryland, which has alleged ties to the Gülen Movement and is ostensibly the school after which the Loudoun Math and IT Academy is modeled. Fatih Kandil, listed as an applicant for the Loudoun charter school, is a former principal of Chesapeake Science Point and was the director of the Horizon Science Academy in Ohio, which has also been accused of ties with Gülen. “There’s a trend here I’m hoping you see,” said meeting attendee Rachel Sargent.
There is also a trend of top charter school officials denying ties to GM or Fethullah Gülen, who has himself denied any association with these schools. A 2010 column by USA Today’s Greg Toppo debunks that claim. After noting the rise of charter schools “established over the past decade by a loosely affiliated group of Turkish-American educators,” and further noting that the school’s top administrators “say they have no official ties to Gülen,” and that “Gülen himself denies any connection to the schools,” he reveals that “documents available at various foundation websites and in federal forms required of non-profit groups show that virtually all of the schools have opened or operate with the aid of Gülen-inspired ‘dialogue’ groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture.”
As previously reported, the most high profile news story about Gülen and the GM charter school operation was conducted by CBS’s “60 Minutes” last May. Despite their glowing story about a man “with millions upon millions of disciples who compare him to Ghandi and Martin Luther King,” and one who promotes “tolerance, interfaith dialog and above-all…education,” the network was forced to admit Gülen’s movement “does lack transparency: its funding, hierarchy, and ambitions remain hidden–leading our State Department to wonder in cables between Ankara and Washington if Gülen has an ‘insidious political agenda.’”
America’s track record in determining whether certain well-connected Muslims have an “insidious political agenda” is not encouraging. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, the former imam for the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, VA was invited to the Pentagon as part of the military’s Muslim outreach efforts following the attacks. Ten years later, that man — Anwar al-Awlaki, leader of “Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate,” in the words of President Obama — was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. In 1999, Turkish television aired footage of Gülen delivering sermons to a crowd of followers:
“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, they [the followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere, like in the tragedies in Algeria, like in 1982 [in] Syria … like in the yearly disasters and tragedies in Egypt. The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it”
Thirteen years later, it remains a real possibility that Fethullah Gülen and the GM believe conditions are “ripening” for their stealth jihad in America, using charter schools as their vehicle. Yet slowly but surely, more parents are becoming concerned about the kind of education their children are really getting, even as more journalists are beginning to look into the unsavory relationships — funded by taxpayer dollars — between these schools, and a network of Turkish-based businesses tied to the GM. More questions are also being asked about the possible exploitation of the H-1B visa system used to give Turkish nationals teaching jobs that might otherwise go to Americans. The time is right for a comprehensive investigation of the GM charter school system, and Imam Fethullah Gülen.
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