Sr. Reporter: Sociologist calls on Gülenist charter schools to come clean

2010-12-22T13:00:00Z 2010-12-22T13:11:20Z Sr. Reporter: Sociologist calls on Gülenist charter schools to come cleanTim Steller, Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 22, 2010 1:00 pm  • 

In a public presentation this month, one of the USA's foremost researchers of Turkey's Gulen Movement called on its representatives in the United States to acknowledge their affiliation with the movement.

(A video of the approximately 90-minute discussion is here.)

In a public discussion at Rice University in Houston, sociologist Joshua Hendrick said the movement's tendency toward ambiguity and opacity is causing a backlash in the United States. He also said the movement operates what amounts to the largest chain of charter schools in the United States, with 150 schools, compared to 99 for the second-largest chain.

"What is mindboggling to some and infuriating to others is, why do leaders deny affiliation when affiliation is clear?," Hendrick said in the Dec. 9 presentation. "It seems to me that we have a communication breakdown. There is cross-cultural miscommunication that is happening that is leading to increasingly divisive conversation in the United States."

In response, one of the Gülen Movement's leading intellectuals said the movement's tendency toward ambiguity stems from its roots in Turkey. Y. Alp Aslandogan, director of the Institute for Interfaith Dialog in Houston, said that repeatedly in Turkey's history, people affiliated with movements such as the one led by Fethullah Gülen have been blacklisted, jailed or killed for their affiliations.

"They cannot be as transparent as a citizen of the United States," he said.

The discussion was momentous for people like me who have been following the spread of Turkish-run charter schools in the United States. I first wrote about Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy, its high use of H-1B visas and its connections to the Gülen Movement in an April package of stories and later on this blog.

Hendrick, now at the University of Oregon, has become a highly sought source because he is one of the few independent scholars who has researched the movement in depth, spending months with Gulenists in Turkey. His tone was surprisingly blunt when discussing their activities in the United States.

Hendrick laid out what he called a public relations effort to market Gülen around the United States. The schools and connected "dialog" institutes hold interfaith dinners, make visits to elected officials, hand out awards, hold conferences on the Gulen movement and take influential people on trips to Turkey, he said.

"It’s a very conscious brand that is passed on to very consciously selected people," Hendrick said.

Aslandogan objected to Hendrick's interpretation of the movement as making a public relations effort, calling the categorization cynical. He also explained why Turks have found the movement so appealing.

"Turkish people saw in them something that they lacked for decades. That is trust. They saw people who they could trust with their money, trust with their children. I call it the limitless, interest-free credit card of the Gülen Movement," he said.

He also explained the cautiousness of many Gülen followers to acknowledge their affiliation as a reaction to wild critiques of the movement as an Islamist threat or akin to the Ayatollah Khomeini's followers in the 1970s.

That kind of attack, Aslandogan said, leads to the cautious, ambiguous resposes.

This to me was one of the weaker points made by Aslandogan, in that I think it gets the chronology wrong. The obscuring of the schools' connections to the Gulen movement came well before the spread of wild, anti-Islamic critiques in the United States.

But they are out there, and Hendrick contends they'll keep spreading as long as the movement keeps cloaking itself in deniability. The "employment of ambiguity" and "lack of transparency" invites critics, he said.

Of course, my mind then drifts to the alternative. What if  superintendents overseeing 150 charter schools in the United States suddenly started acknowledging their affiliation to a prominent Muslim leader? Might that not cause an even bigger wave of critiques?

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About this blog

When you're a reporter digging deep, you turn up a lot of dirt. But that doesn't mean you can put all the good dirt in the story.

I've found myself with a lot of extra, good dirt in my new role as senior reporter (hence, Señor Reporter), writing primarily for the Arizona Daily Star's Sunday paper.

Check in often, and let's see what we can turn up.

Contact Tim Steller at (520) 807-8427 or tsteller@tucson.com

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