By Colin Woodard
A proposed charter school to be based in Bangor is tied into an informal worldwide network of religious, cultural and education institutions operated by followers of a controversial and reclusive Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen.
The Queen City Academy Charter School was one of four proposed taxpayer-financed charter schools whose applications were denied last month by the state charter school commission, but the school intends to reapply at a future date.
Followers of Gulen, who lives in exile on a secluded compound in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, have been involved in starting at least 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to investigations by The New York Times, "60 Minutes," USA Today and other news organizations. Their schools are often top performers and have an entirely secular curriculum, but they have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, their hiring and financial practices, and concerns about their ultimate motivation, which experts say has as much to do with shaping the evolution of Turkey as it does with educating young Americans.
Gulen is an intriguing figure, a voice for moderate Islam, an opponent of terrorism and a champion of the impressive cultural, educational and scientific legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed in the aftermath of World War I and spawned the modern states of Turkey, the Balkans and much of Central Asia and the Middle East.
But his sprawling worldwide network of followers is also the subject of concern within the U.S. diplomatic community; a feared and powerful force in Turkey; and the target of investigations into the possible abuse of U.S. visa programs and the taxpayer money that flows into the charter schools they have founded. The movement's charter schools have been criticized in other states for their founders' evasiveness about the philosophical and institutional links they have to what is known in Turkey as Gulenism.
"They claim that these charter schools are independent and have no connection to the Gulen movement, and I said to them: 'That's baloney,' " said William Martin, senior fellow in religion and public policy at Baker Institute of Rice University in Texas, where Gulen followers have set up dozens of charter schools.
Martin has followed the movement for years, traveled to Turkey at their expense, and counts its leaders there as friends. "I say to them: 'Look, there's nothing wrong with your saying that you are admirers and followers of Mr. Gulen, and to say this is what he stands for and this is what you stand for,' but they say that their lawyers have said they shouldn't be open about it."
LINKED INTO THE MOVEMENT
The central figure behind the proposed Bangor charter school, construction company owner Murat Kilic of Revere, Mass., deflects questions about ties to Gulen as unimportant.
"Individuals might be inspired by him, but what their background is and what they are inspired by, I think that's a little bit irrelevant," said Kilic, who helped found several Gulen-linked organizations in the Bay State. "Yes, I have read a few books of Mr. Gulen and met with him two times, but I have also met (former President) Clinton. At the end of the day, it's how the board carries forth the mission of the charter school that's important."
Over the past year, Gulen's followers have been active in Maine on several fronts. A key organization in the Gulen network -- the New York-based Council of Turkic American Associations -- organized a subsidized nine-day trip to Turkey for three state legislators last summer and persuaded Gov. Paul LePage to issue an executive order declaring April 3, 2012, to be the first annual Turkish Cultural Day in Maine.
State Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, state Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, and their spouses took the subsidized trip, along with state Rep. Jane Knapp, R-Gorham, and Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP's Portland branch, according to Keschl, who said CTAA officials were up front about their ties to Gulen when he questioned them directly.
CTAA -- which is active in Maine as the Turkish Cultural Center of Maine -- is the regional affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based Turkic American Alliance, the umbrella organization for the Gulen movement in the United States.
Kilic, the lead author of the Bangor school's application, helped found Pioneer Academy Charter School in Everett, Mass. -- on which the proposed Queen City Academy in Bangor is explicitly modeled -- and two other Gulen organizations, the Boston Dialogue Foundation and Ace It, which operates as the Turkish Cultural Center in Boston, according to federal tax filings.
Another Queen City board member, Patricia Perane of Hanover, Mass., serves on the Pioneer school's board.
The real motivation of the Gulen movement -- charter schools and all -- is to accumulate political and financial resources to further the transformation of Turkey itself, according to Joshua Hendrick, assistant professor of sociology and global studies at Loyola University in Maryland and perhaps the leading U.S. scholar of Gulen. He noted the ongoing ascent of a center-right in that country, which is "pro-capitalist, democratic, socially conservative and believes a revival of faith is good for national development."
"It's unfortunate that we have this rise of Islamophobia because it takes people's eyes off the ball for a legitimate critique that has to do with teachers' concerns about suspect hiring practices or school boards' concerns about suspect financial dealings and governance issues," Hendrick said. "The real questions are: 'Where do you buy your desks and chairs? Who supplies your books? How are people hired and promoted?' ... It has nothing to do with stealth jihad."
'A CULTURE OF STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY'
One of the main criticisms of the Gulen movement is its lack of transparency, but outside of the public spotlight, followers can be quite open about their inspiration and philosophical mission.
Take Keschl's experience. The Maine legislator said all of his colleagues received an invitation from CTAA's New England regional coordinator, Eyup Sener, to take part in the subsidized trip, with participants responsible for less than half the $3,300 estimated per-person cost. The invitation made no mention of Gulen, but participants were to visit 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.
While considering the invitation, Keschl, who has a military intelligence background and was posted in southern Turkey in the late 1990s, did some research himself on receiving the invitation and quizzed his would-be hosts on what seemed to be an obvious connection to the Gulen movement.
"When we began exchanging emails about the issue, that all came out," Keschl said. "Gulen is the initiator of this and his belief in education and cultural exchange stems way back. They were very up front about that. They didn't say (in their invitation), 'Oh, and Gulen is the reason we're doing it,' but when we started looking into the possibility, they didn't try to hide it."
Keschl, like Martin in Texas, said he went to Turkey with open eyes, and was impressed with what the movement had accomplished in Turkey. He later submitted a letter of support for the Queen City Academy Charter School and said it would likely do a good job educating children.
But followers are not always as up front.
In a written statement, Sener, CTAA's regional coordinator, said his organization has "no relationship" with the Queen City Academy, the Pioneer school or "any other charter school."
No schools are currently listed as CTAA members on the organization's website, but an examination of older images of the Turkic American Alliance website captured by the Internet Archive in 2011 lists three Northeastern private schools as CTAA members: Connecticut's Putnam Science Academy, the Pioneer Academy of Science in New Jersey and the Amity school in Brooklyn. It also included an organization of which Queen City's Kilic was founding president: the Turkish Cultural Center in Boston.
Asked about the nature of the council's relationship to Gulen, Sener wrote: "Some of the board members and founders may or may not be inspired by his teachings. I can't measure all the people's inspirations."
Hendrick said Gulen's network has developed "a culture of strategic ambiguity" wherein it avoids answering direct questions about how its component parts relate to one another.
"If they can maintain ambiguity and leave people never really able to pinpoint who is what, it allows them flexibility to adapt and adjust to local conditions," Hendrick said. 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. "The organizational strategies of the movement are the product of an environment where secrecy and non-transparency are not only perfectly rational and understandable but a neccessity."
Nonetheless, Jana LaPoint, chairwoman of the charter commission, said her group quickly became aware of the applicants' connections to Gulen and that it did some research into the imam and his network. Ultimately, however, the decision to reject the school's application last month had nothing to do with the ties to Gulen, because "the effect on education would have been speculative," she said. "For us it was the financials that were really very, very off," she said, noting that the school assumed it would receive a federal grant it had yet to apply for.
"We were absolutely aware of the ties," she said, "and we looked into Gulen as best we could."
Kilic said they planned to resubmit their application.
A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE
Born in Turkey sometime between 1938 and 1942, Gulen has been living in the United States since 1999, when he faced charges that he was plotting to overthrow the Turkish state. Although he was acquitted of all charges in 2006, he has continued to live in Pennsylvania, and has permanent resident status here.
He continues to exercise considerable influence in Turkey. Last April, The New York Times reported from Istanbul that his followers had "provided indispensable support to the conservative, Islam-inspired government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan" and were thought to be proliferating within the country's police and judiciary. "A culture of fear surrounding the so-called Gulenists, however exaggerated, is so pronounced that few here will talk openly about them on the telephone fearing that their conversations are being recorded and that there will be reprisals."
In recent years, Gulen's activities in the United States prompted concern among consular officers at U.S. diplomatic posts in Ankara and Istanbul, as large numbers of visa applicants appeared "seeking to visit a number of charter schools in the U.S. with which consular officials were unfamiliar," according to a leaked May 2006 cable sent by the Istanbul consulate and published by Wikileaks.
After further investigation and thousands of interviews, the confidential cable stated, consular officials "complied a substantial list of organizations that seem in some way affiliated with Gulen" including "over thirty science academies (set up as charter schools) in the U.S." and 22 educational consultancies and foundations in the U.S..
Visa applicants the consular staff believed to be affiliated with Gulen's movement were "generally evasive about the purpose of their travel to the United States and usually denying knowing or wanting to visit Gulen when questioned directly" though many later reversed themselves on the latter point after "very direct questioning."
Most were unable to provide a straightforward answer as to the source of their travel funds. "While on the surface a benign humanitarian movement," the cable said, "the ubiquitous evasiveness of Gulen-ist applicants -- coupled with what appears to be a deliberate management of applicant profiles over several years -- leaves Consular officers uneasy, an uneasiness echoed within Turkey by those familiar with the Gulen-ists."
More recently, Gulen-linked charter schools in other states have been the subject of media attention.
A New York Times investigation in June 2011 estimated Gulen followers had helped start 120 charter schools in 25 states, and raised "questions about whether, ultimately (its Texas charter schools) are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement -- by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture."
In 2012, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the FBI and the U.S. departments of Labor and Education were investigating Philadelphia's Truebright Science Academy over "whether some Turkish charter school employees are required to kick back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by Gulen" and possible abuse of the H1-B visa program, "which has allowed hundreds of Turkish teachers, administrators and other staffers to work in charter schools."
Hendrick said the movement first got involved in education by opening private schools abroad and has gotten into trouble by applying the same hiring and contracting policies it used in its private operations to charter schools, where taxpayer funding brings increased public scrutiny. For instance, the practice of recruiting teachers from Turkey has drawn fire because the average H1-B visa costs between $600 and $1,500 to sponsor, a difficult expense to justify to taxpayers.
"Over the past several years, if you look at a list of the top 10 school systems in the country in terms of applying for foreign worker visas, the majority are Gulen schools," he said. "If you do the math, this is a significant portion of their operating budget."
A 'HOPEFUL ASPECT OF ISLAM'
Martin of Rice University said the Gulen movement is a constructive force, and not just for Texas education.
"I'm in dialogue with them because I think there's a really good chance that they represent the most hopeful aspect of Islam in the world, and on the chance that that's the case, I want to encourage that," he said.
Keschl said his experiences with the Gulen-sponsored cultural trip to Turkey also boosted his confidence in the good intentions of the cleric's followers in Maine.
"You can come up with all sorts of conspiracies all over the place if you want to, but in my view there is certainly all sorts of political things bouncing back and forth between those who oppose Gulen and those who don't," Keschl said. "I appreciated the ideals that were expressed to me in setting up the charter schools and I agree that education is very important for both industrial development and good government. ... I felt them to be very open and honest and wanting to strengthen ties, both cultural and economic, to the U.S.
"Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think I can easily have the wool pulled over my eyes," he said.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:
This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. Feb. 19 to correctly identify the Gulen-linked schools listed on an archived website.Tweet