The Turks are coming…to a charter school near you

The Turks are coming…to a charter school near you

A demonstration of Turkish Americans against Gulen schools in Pennsylvania, where Fethullah Gulen, the alleged founder of Magnolia Public Schools, lives in self-imposed exile.

Beware the “Gulenization” of public charter school.

Who is Fethullah Gulen, and why does he want to teach San Diego’s kids? That’s a question some in the wake of a recently submitted application by Gulen’s followers to open their second public charter school in San Diego.

“Think of a combination of the Scientologists, the Moonies, and the Mafia. That’s what the Gulenists are like,” says Sharon Higgins. “They’re shady, nebulous, and very secretive. Very few Americans know that they’re behind all of these taxpayer-funded charter schools.”

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Higgins, a former public school parent and self-described “parent activist” who lives in Oakland, has crafted a quasi-career tracking and chronicling the domestic activities of this Turkey-based group. She lays out the details: Over the past few years, the Gulen movement, an Islamic group that melds religion and politics, has succeeded in a stealth campaign to infiltrate the American educational system via the portal of the charter school. Among their goals, according to Higgins and other Gulen watchers, is fundraising for the Gulen movement in Turkey and the recruitment of future members.

Critics allege that Gulen public charter schools reject qualified American teachers, instead importing Turkish men via H-1B visas, which allow Americans to employ foreigners in “specialty” occupations. These non-union teachers are then paid salaries characterized as “inflated,” and are expected, in turn, to donate a substantial portion to the Gulen movement via a network of “charitable” foundations. There are also charges of sweetheart deals with local Gulen-owned businesses. Gulen U.S.A., say some, is no less than an intricately woven Turkish rug of deceit.

Operating under all-American monikers like “Magnolia Public Schools” and structured as tax-exempt not-for-profit entities, there are nearly 150 Gulen charter schools operating now in America, with around a dozen in California, including one in San Diego: Momentum Middle School in San Carlos. If the Gulenists have their way, San Diego Unified School District will host another Turk-centric schoolhouse when the Fall 2014 semester opens.

Leading the charge is Mehmet Argin, Magnolia’s chief executive. A native of Turkey, Argin holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Arizona State University and was (prior to his California campaign) instrumental in kick-starting the Sonoran Science Academy, a Gulen school in Tucson. Argin’s fellow Magnolia board members are all Turks, with the exception of one man who’s a citizen of Kazakhstan.

I asked Argin how much of the proposed school’s profits will go to pay for Gulen activities in Turkey? Is the Gulen movement a cult? And what exactly is Magnolia schools’ role within the Gulen movement? To each question, he responded with a robotic mantra: Magnolia Science Academy is a non-sectarian, secular, tuition-free, not-for-profit public school that serves underserved communities.

I also asked, “What is your role in Turkish politics?” Argin stammered, “It’s, uh…my personal life.”

The disciples of Fethullah Gulen point to standardized test scores and science-competition victories as evidence of the schools’ efficacy and legitimacy. However, Higgins and others beg to differ, saying that the ballyhooed earmarks of “success” are fraudulent, concocted by “cherry-picking” small groups of Gulen students. Higgins states that standardized test score averages are grossly inflated because they reflect only a small number remaining after attrition. As for “science fairs,” she says they’re rigged — run and judged by Gulen insiders.

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Who is Fethullah Gulen? The gospel, as set forth in his followers’ well-coiffed websites, paints the picture of a benevolent, even saintly, man. However, the movement’s critics, as well as various and sundry media sources, say that portrait is flackery, at best. As it turns out, evidence suggests that the supreme ruler of the Gulen cabal, with a rumored net worth in the billions, is a former imam with little formal education. No one disputes, however, that Gulen (who directs his charges from a compound in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains) is a recluse living in self-imposed exile.

Gulen school bigwigs go to comical lengths to deny the close ties, some even disclaiming the very existence of the Gulen movement as an organized entity. Nonetheless, praise is ubiquitous and effusive on their websites, where the phrase, “We are inspired by Fethullah Gulen,” crops up with regularity.

But just what sort of “inspiration” are we dealing with here? Gulen charter-school boosters are incessant: the 70-year-old hermit, they gush, is a renowned scholar, a prominent leader in a push for world peace, and a tireless promoter of “interfaith dialogue,” a sort of “Johnny Appleseed” for a kinder, gentler Islam.

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Many fellow Turks, however, have a different take, claiming that the real aim of the Gulenistas is to overthrow the secular government of Turkey and replace it with an Islamic kingdom redolent of the old Ottoman Empire. And how will they pay for the takeover, the writ-large repudiation of Kemal Ataturk, and the “new Turkey”? With American taxpayers’ money, of course.

Critics also say that, unless one can read Turkish, the in-group message flies under the radar, while the “made for the West” spin is lapped up by a naive public. Ideology aside, Gulen-watchers acknowledge that the Turks are media-savvy, ready at a moment’s notice (à la the Scientologists or Lyndon LaRouche’s acolytes) to pounce on opponents online.

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But if the masses have been fooled, then so have the politicians, opines Higgins. I asked Higgins if she thought that Bob Filner knew the score when the Pacifica Institute, a Gulen front group, paid his way to Turkey. Didn’t (then-congressman) Filner, while strolling through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, have even an inchoate sense about the Gulen folks? And why would a member of Congress purporting to represent San Diego take junkets to Asia Minor paid for by a Turkish politico-religious movement?

Filner, claims Higgins, failed in the due-diligence department. Flattered by an award from the affable emissaries and wowed by talks of Turkish tolerance toward all (Christians and Jews included), he succumbed, just as many other American politicians and bureaucrats have, to the machinations of the Gulen machine.

But the most oblivious aren’t politicians. The school’s customers — students and their parents — are seldom aware of the connections. Largely poor, non-white, and urban — just the sort of folks who claim to be victims of substandard public schools — they’re lured by the siren song of super-sized test scores and potential scholarships. What they find instead are schools with high attrition rates and a curriculum that includes “home visits” by teachers and trips to Turkey.

American opponents of the “Gulenization” of public charter schools hail from points all across the ideological spectrum. While Sharon Higgins’s criticism has appeared in the left-leaning Huffington Post, Ricochet, a blog that describes itself as “right of center,” voices similar concerns. Ricochet’s Claire Berlinski (who lists her hometown as Istanbul) does note, however, that part of the animus against the Gulen charter schools may emanate from organized labor (read: teachers’ unions) or secular Turks.

San Diego Unified School District’s charter schools director, Deidre Walsh, did not return calls for comment.

Moss Gropen,   Nov. 13, 2013
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