A secretive foreign network of Islamic radicals now operates dozens of charter schools — which receive government money but are not required to adopt a state-approved curriculum — on U.S. soil. The inspirer of this conspiratorial effort is Fethullah Gülen, who directs a major Islamist movement in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora, but lives in the United States. He is number 13 among the world’s “50 most influential Muslims” according to one prominent listing.
Gülen has been criticized as the puppet master for the current Turkish government headed by the “soft Islamist” Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP, in its slow-motion showdown with the secularist Turkish military. But Gülen is also known in Muslim countries for his network of 500-700 Islamic schools around the world, according to differing sources favorable to his movement. A more critical view of Gülen’s emphasis on education asserts that his international network of thousands of primary and secondary schools, universities, and student residences is a key element in solidifying an Islamist political agenda in Turkey.
But in startling news for Americans, the Gülen movement operates more than 85 primary and secondary schools on our soil. A roster of the Gülen schools and of the numerous foundations that support them has been released to the public by the patriotic group Act! for America. The Gülen schools are often designated as “science academies” and are concentrated in Texas, Ohio, and California — with others scattered across the rest of the country.
Two states that host Gülen charter schools are Arizona and Utah. In the former, the Daisy Education Corporation (the Gülen movement loves friendly sounding institutional names) operates three schools in Tucson: one serving kindergarten through the eighth grade, another designated as an elementary school, and a middle-high school, all under the rubric of the Sonoran Science Academy. In Phoenix it runs a satellite kindergarten-to-10th-grade campus with the same name.
The appearance of Gülen charter schools in Tucson has produced critical attention in local media. The Tucson Weekly published a report at the end of 2009 noting that the Sonoran Science Academy in the southern Arizona town had been named “charter school of the year” by the Arizona Charter School Association. But writer Tim Vanderpool reported that according to one dismayed parent, who declined identification while pointing out the Gülen movement’s history of intimidating critics, “the Sonoran Academy seems constantly to be bringing Turkish educators into the United States, and subjecting students to substitute teachers while the teachers await work visas. … She says several Sonoran Academy parents believe the school has a hidden agenda to promote Gülen’s brand of Turkish nationalism, advance sympathy for that country’s political goals such as winning acceptance into the European Union, and discourage official acknowledgment of Turkey’s genocide against the Armenians during World War I.” Such issues are exotic, to say the least, for Tucson parents.
Earlier in 2009, the Beehive Science and Technology Academy, a high school in Salt Lake City, came under similar critical scrutiny from the Salt Lake Tribune. That major daily’s writer, Kirsten Stewart, reported that the Utah State Charter Board had begun an investigation of the Beehive school, following complaints from a former teacher and an alarmed parent. The complainants asserted that while “Beehive advertises itself as a public charter school offering college-bound seventh through 12th graders a foundation in math and science … the school has another mission: to advance and promote certain Islamic beliefs. They point to questionable financial transactions and hiring practices as proof of the school’s covert ties to Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen.”
But while Fatih Karatas, principal of the Sonoran Science Academy middle school in Tucson, flatly denied any connection with the Gülen movement, Beehive principal Muhammet “Frank” Erdogan in Salt Lake City admitted such links in the case of his school. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted his admission that, along with him, “many of Beehive’s teachers and founders also support Gülen’s ideals.” The paper also described how “Adam Kuntz, a first-year history teacher at Beehive, was fired [in spring 2009], he alleges, for taking academic freedom concerns to the state board. Earlier in the school year, Kuntz had a run-in with Erdogan over a lesson plan on World War II and the Holocaust. Erdogan wanted Kuntz to revise the plan and during a tape-recorded meeting, questioned conventional accounts of the genocide.”
Kelly Wayment, a parent of three children in the school, was removed from his post on the Beehive administrative board after he emailed other parents about Gülen movement influence in the school. Wayment told the Salt Lake Tribune that, as in the Tucson case, teachers “tend to be from Turkey and central Asian republics living here on work visas.”
Americans should ask both why and how the Islamist Gülen movement has managed to establish such a large presence for Turkish religious political indoctrination in publicly financed education — and should unite to oppose it.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, D.C.