Here’s proof that the world is shrinking.

Followers of Fethullah Gulen, the reculsive imam who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of masterminding this month’s failed coup attempt, are being rounded up by the tens of thousands across Turkey. Erdogan, an increasingly autocratic figure, has likened the Gulenists to “a tumor” within the state and military, adding “now this tumor is being removed.”

For years, Gulen’s followers also have been engaged in sustained cultural diplomacy here in Maine, sponsoring tours of Turkey’s Gulen-affiliated institutions for state lawmakers, an awards banquet honoring Gov. Paul LePage and two applications to start taxpayer-financed charter schools here.

In the process, Gulen’s followers have built a bipartisan network of allies, with lawmakers serving on the advisory board of their local outreach organization and writing letters on behalf of their unsuccessful efforts to open charter schools in Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn. They’ve convened an annual Turkish Cultural Day at the State House’s Hall of Flags featuring Turkish delicacies, artists and keynote addresses by the governor, Senate President Justin Alfond and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris.

Why they’ve invested so much time and energy in public diplomacy directed at an obscure, sparsely populated state with a Turkish population of less than 300 has always been something of a mystery, particularly as their leaders have been evasive about their relationship to Gulen and one another. What is known is that the movement is doing many of the same things in states across the country, including New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, sometimes generating controversy not for their outreach – which focuses on fostering friendly ties with Turkey – but for their charter schools’ questionable use of visa and grant programs.

Now, with the Turkish president declaring Gulen public enemy No. 1, the imam’s relationship with the United States threatens to destroy one of our country’s most important strategic alliances. Turkey, a fellow NATO member, has long served as a bridge between the West and the Middle East, a forward base for U.S. military assets and the gate that denies Russia ice-free, year-around access to the open ocean. A cleric whose followers have invested in building ties between Maine and Turkey has, rightly or wrongly, occasioned a deep rift between Washington and Ankara.

THE GULEN MOVEMENT

Gulen has lived in exile in a secluded compound in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains since 1999, when he was facing charges of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government. A voice for moderate Islam and an opponent of terrorism, Gulen has continued to exert considerable influence in Turkey, where his followers ironically helped Erdogan take and consolidate power, in part by infiltrating the military, police and judicial systems. “Our contacts all agree they are ‘everywhere’ in Turkish society including … the military,” U.S. diplomats in Istanbul wrote in a confidential 2009 cable published by the Wikileaks site. “Many (secular officials) and academics assume the Gulen movement has already ‘captured’ the police in Turkey.”

Other leaked State Department cables show that for more than a decade, U.S. diplomats have been concerned about the movement’s activities in the U.S. consular officers in Ankara and Istanbul and in May 2006 reported that large numbers of visa applicants were “seeking to visit a number of charter schools in the U.S. with which consular officials were unfamiliar.” Further investigation revealed what diplomats said were more than 30 U.S.-based charter schools and 22 educational consultancies and foundations that were “in some way affiliated with Gulen.” Applicants seeking to visit these institutions were “generally evasive about the purpose of their travel to the United States and usually denying knowing or wanting to visit Gulen” unless exposed to “very direct questioning,” the diplomats wrote.

Indeed, Gulen’s followers have started 130 charter schools in 26 states – said to be the largest charter school network in the country – and a number have been investigated by either news organizations or law enforcement for allegedly using their taxpayer funds to contract services and equipment from other Gulen-linked entities.

According to Joshua Hendrick, assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University in Maryland and a leading scholar on Gulen’s U.S. activities, the movement’s real motivation – charter schools and all – was to accumulate political and financial resources to further the transformation of Turkey itself, even cultivating relationships in places far from the Bosporus – like Augusta.

ACTIVE IN MAINE

The Gulen movement became active in Maine in 2012 via its New York-based Council of Turkic American Associations, which operates in Maine as the Turkish Cultural Center of Maine. That summer, the council organized a subsidized nine-day trip to Turkey for six Mainers: Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, and his wife; Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, and his wife; Rep. Jane Knapp, R-Gorham; and then-NAACP Portland chapter leader Rachel Talbot Ross.

The participants visited numerous Gulen-affiliated institutions in Turkey, including the Zaman newspaper, Fetih University, the Kimse Yok Mu anti-poverty organization and several Turkish charter schools run by his followers.

Shortly thereafter, a group of mostly Turkey-born academics and educators submitted an application to open the Queen City Academy Charter School in Bangor. The group was headed by Alper Kiziltas, the outreach coordinator for the council’s Turkish Cultural Center of Maine, and Murat Kilic, chairman of the board of a Gulen-inspired charter school in Massachusetts upon which the proposed Maine school was explicitly modeled and the founder of two other Gulen organizations in Boston. Brannigan and Keschl – impressed with what they had seen in Turkey – provided letters of support for the project, but it was ultimately rejected by the state charter school commission because of uncertainties about its financing.

In the summer of 2013, the council sent out invitations for another subsidized trip to Turkey. This time they were joined by Keschl, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, who subsequently became the advisory board of the council’s Turkish Cultural Center of Maine. Katz and Keschl submitted letters of support for the proposed Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, also modeled on the Gulen school in Massachusetts.

Throughout the application process for both Maine charter schools, applicants argued they had no formal ties to Gulen or his institutions, although when pressed they would admit to having individuals “inspired” by the cleric.

Hendrick, who wrote his dissertation on Gulen’s network of institutions, told the Press Herald in 2013 that followers had developed “a culture of strategic ambiguity” wherein they avoided answering direct questions about how its component parts relate to one another, allowing them “flexibility to adapt and adjust to local conditions.” This evasiveness served Gulenists well during the 1970s and 1980s in Turkey, he said, where they were among the many targets of the country’s surveillance apparatus.

In November 2013, the Council of Turkic American Associations held a friendship dinner at South Portland’s Marriott at Sable Oaks hotel, where they presented LePage and Augusta Mayor William Stokes with leadership awards and screened a short film about Gulen and his ideas. “It’s time that we here in Maine appreciate and work with other countries to improve our economy,” LePage told the audience, echoing the night’s theme of fostering cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIP

By then, however, Gulen’s own relationship with Turkey’s ruler, Erdogan, had come apart. Once allies against Turkey’s previous (and autocratic) secular regime, their relationship had grown strained over Erdogan’s increasingly activist foreign policy in the Middle East. Gulen and his followers, the New York Times reported a few weeks after the Sable Oaks dinner, opposed Erdogan’s support of Syrian rebels and, especially, his attempts to send aid to Palestinians in Gaza, which caused a rift in Turkey’s relations with Israel after Israeli troops boarded a Gaza-bound Turkish relief vessel and killed nine people on board. Gulen preferred the country to stay focused on the West and obtaining European Union membership.

Erdogan accused Gulen’s followers – which he called a “criminal gang” – of being behind an embarrassing corruption probe of his government and responded by purging Istanbul’s police chief and others involved in the investigation. In the years since, the increasingly autocratic president has tried to change the constitution to give himself more powers, jailed the editor and forcibly seized control of Gulen-linked Zaman, the country’s largest newspaper, and built himself a $600 million palace.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

This month’s coup attempt – which Gulen denies involvement in – has prompted Erdogan to purge tens of thousands of teachers, school headmasters, military officers, judges, police leaders and other officials he believes to be members of Gulen’s network. The president has demanded that the U.S. extradite Gulen himself, and some officials in his administration have accused the U.S. of secretly supporting the coup attempt. Gulen and the U.S. government have denied involvement and condemned the coup.

As its relationship with Turkey soured, the movement continued to host an annual Turkish Cultural Day at Maine’s State House. This year’s event – with 200 guests and a keynote from Alfond, D-Portland – was held April 6. The host committee had expanded to eight sitting legislators: Sens. Katz, Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, and Anne Haskell, D-Portland, and Reps. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, Matt Pouilot, R-Augusta, Denise Tepler, D-Topsham, and Joan Welsh, D-Rockport.

But the future of Maine-Turkey public diplomacy looks dim. Erdogan is rounding up suspected Gulensits by the thousands and wants to reinstate the death penalty to punish some of them. This week his government banned all foreign travel by academics to prevent coup plotters from escaping and urged academics abroad to return home “within the shortest period of time.” Gulen-affiliated tours of the country look to be a thing of the past.

Colin Woodard, a frequent visitor to Turkey in the 1990s, is the Telegram’s State and National Affairs Writer.