By Arnold Ahlert
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 enormousinfluence 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.