Saturday, December 28, 2013

UPDATED: Obama's ties to the Gulen movement and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations

Yesterday, I noted the links between a charter school system connected to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and a U.S.-based religious figure credited for Turkey's recent political scandal, Fethullah Gulen.

As it turns out, there's a vast array of blogs and websites dedicated to tracking the Gulen movement's educational activities.

One, Charter School Scandals, has an incredibly exhaustive compilation. Another one, C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S, compiled trips made by U.S. Congress members between 2007 and 2011. Max Rust from the Sun-Times even made an infographic tracking state legislator trips overseas, and it turns out most of them went to Turkey.

In my piece, I also noted the awkward position that the Erdogan-Gulen fallout puts the Obama administration right now:
But there is one person definitely standing in between Madigan and Erdogan: President Barack Obama. In fact, both of these parallel Gulen dramas in Chicago and Istanbul may put the Obama Administration in a tight spot.

Part of the corruption probe revealed that between March 2012 and July 2013, the state bank Halkbank had subverted Iranian sanctions by allowing the country to buy gold with Turkish currency in return for natural gas and oil. Against US diplomats' wishes, pro-government newspapers put Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. on their front pages while the Turkish foreign minister called for Secretary of State John Kerry to banish him from the country.

This is all while the previously cooperative Obama and Erdogan administrations continue to clash over Syria, Kurdish Iraq and Egypt.

Meanwhile, turning the federal Gulen lens towards Chicago may potentially embarrass Madigan, "the King of Illinois" and one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Party, along with any other major Illinois Democrat with connections to both charter school support and Gulen. It could also draw further scrutiny to the president's own support for charter schools at a time when the party is debating the future of its economic platform.
Obama himself visited with students from the Gulen-linked K-8 Pinnacle Academy during the White House Science Fair on October 18, 2010. Additionally, White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships member Dalia Mogahed has praised the Gulen movement.

Interestingly, a leaked 2009 cable from then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffery, summarized Gulen's influence across the country and perceived role in crackdowns against pro-secular, anti-Islamist forces within the country. He concluded the cable with a recommendation for U.S. policy:
Given the current AKP-secularist schism in Turkey today, it should not be surprising that any Islamist movement in Turkey would choose to be circumspect about its intentions. Unfortunately, this simply feeds the reflexive tendency in Turkish society for conspiracy theories, and magnifies suspicions about the Gulen movement itself. While the purported Gulen goals of interfaith dialogue and tolerance are beyond reproach, we see aspects of concern in the allegations that the USG is somehow behind the Gulen movement. Accordingly, we would recommend the following standard press guidance: Q: Why is the U.S. sheltering Fethullah Gulen and doesn't this mean that the US is promoting a non-secular Turkey? A: -- The U.S. is not "sheltering" Mr. Gulen and his presence in the U.S. is not based on any political decision. -- Mr. Gulen applied for, and received, permanent residence in the U.S. after a lengthy process which ended in 2008 when a Federal Court ruled that he deserved to be viewed as an "alien of extraordinary ability" based on his extensive writings and his leadership of a worldwide religious organization. -- As a Green Card holder, Mr. Gulen is entitled to all the privileges which that status entails. His presence in the U.S. should not be viewed as a reflection of US policy toward Turkey.
On Christmas, Al-Monitor published an interview with Nedim Sener, a Turkish journalist jailed during his investigations of Gulen:
In that light, Sener draws attention to the very fact that the prime minister’s camp knows very well in which occupations and state institutions these Gulen movement members are. “They’re not searching for them with a torch in the darkness and trying to figure out who is from the Cemaat or not. They know very well who is who. They brought them into power in these occupations. And it is easy for the government now to dismiss them. That is why Fethullah Gulen lost control in his latest address to his followers and literally cursed on the Erdogan government,” he told Al-Monitor.

“I certainly don’t believe in the Cemaat’s sincerity in the fight against corruption. Since the day the Erdogan government came into power, there has been corruption. I personally reported them. ... There was, for example, the Deniz Feneri charity [where part of 41 million euros ($56 million) collected for charity from Turks living abroad was used outside its purpose]. The government dismissed those judges who tried to unearth this corruption, and the Cemaat did not express a thing about it then. Why have they become sensitive on corruption today but they were not yesterday! Turkey is not facing corruption charges for the first time. Therefore, we also need to question the Cemaat’s motivation in this setting, as well.”
Juan Cole's analysis of the ongoing Turkish scandal and underlying schism has a great analogy for the Gulen-Erdogan relationship:
More recently, Erdogan moved against his Muslim ally, Fethullah Gulen, deciding to close the private Muslim prep schools run by the Gulen movement. The Gulen movement has a strong corporate identity and had been an important constituency for the Justice and Development Party. (You could make a loose analogy to the role of the evangelicals in the American Republican Party. Many in the GOP are not evangelicals, but the latter have become important and are responsible for some of they party’s electoral successes.
Erdogan's political future remains to be seen. But as most of the Gulen movement's U.S. expansion occurred during its allegiance with the AKP, and given the movement's numerous bipartsian ties at all levels of American government, the future of U.S.-Turkish relations remain to be seen as well.

Update: Sharon Higgins, a founding member of Parents Across America who has written extensively about the Gulen movement's charter schools, pointed me to another C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S compilation of Gulenist-tied organizations and individuals who have donated to Obama.
Giving these massive Gulen Movement-associated campaign donations, will Obama or his staff be able to objectively consider the many concerns about abuses in the nationwide chain of Gulen charter schools? Charter schools are now receiving substantial grants from the federal government; for example, on Dec 28, 2012, an award letter was sent to Harmony Public Schools, a large chain of Gulen charter schools in Texas, informing them that they were to receive a Race to the Top grant in the amount of $29,866,398.00. This award is surprising in view of a front-page over-the-fold story in the New York Times in 2011 detailing related-party deals (some in the millions) in the Harmony school network, and also given the general controversy over Harmony's affiliation - and continued public denial of its affiliation - with the Gulen Movement. 
We sincerely hope that President Obama and his staff will see past campaign contributions, and make decisions based on the overall good of our nation.
Here's a fact sheet she also wrote about Gulen-linked Concept Schools Inc. that is operating in Chicago, that spells out further connections with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.


Update #2: Here are videos of U.S. Secretary of Education (and former Chicago Public Schools CEO) Arne Duncan accepting a 2007 Niagara Peace and Dialogue Award and 2010 RUMI Peace and Dialogue Award.

Interestingly, the 2007 award was also given to former Chicago Police Department Superintendent Philip J. Cline, DePaul University President Dennis H. Holtschneider, former Chicago State University President Elnora D. Daniel (who resigned in 2008 after using school money to publish a book about herself), and former NBC5 Chicago President and General Manager Larry Wert - now the President of Broadcast Media at the Tribune Company.

The Niagara Foundation video concludes with words for Gulen himself:
Such people who use their skills in speech, writing, art, poetry, music...towards extending a hand of dialogue to everyone are worth praise and award.
Something tells me he won't be recognizing Nedim Sener anytime soon.

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