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Since 1999, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen has lived in relative obscurity at a compound in rural Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, where this photo was taken on March 3, 2004. For use with RNS-GULEN-TURKEY, transmitted on January 16, 2014, Photo by Selahattin Sevi.

Turkish faith movement secretly funded 200 trips for lawmakers and staff

Since 1999, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen has lived in relative obscurity at a compound in rural Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, where this photo was taken on March 3, 2004. For use with RNS-GULEN-TURKEY, transmitted on January 16, 2014, Photo by Selahattin Sevi.

Since 1999, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen has lived in relative obscurity at a compound in rural Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, where this photo was taken on March 3, 2004. Photo by Selahattin Sevi.

Paul Singer and Paulina Firozi 

USA Today 

WASHINGTON — A Turkish religious movement has secretly funded as many as 200 trips to Turkey for members of Congress and staff since 2008, apparently repeatedly violating House rules and possibly federal law, a USA TODAY investigation has found.

The group — a worldwide moderate Islamic movement led by a religious scholar named Fethullah Gülen — has been accused by the Turkish government of attempting a coup in that country. Turkish leaders have asked the United States to extradite Gülen from the remote compound in rural Pennsylvania where he has lived for 20 years.

The movement has founded hundreds of charter schools across the United States and around the world, has its own media organizations, and was deeply entrenched with the Turkish regime until a falling out two years ago. That led President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare Gülen was running “a parallel state” inside the country with the intent of undermining the government. In advance of Turkish elections this weekend, police raided the offices of Gülen affiliated-media organizations..

A dozen different Gülen groups have sponsored congressional travel since 2008 and have filed forms with the House certifying that they were paying for the trips. The House Ethics Committee approved all the trips in advance based on the forms the Gülen groups submitted.

But an investigation found many of those disclosures were apparently false. Some of the Gülenist groups claimed to be certified nonprofits, but they do not appear in state or IRS databases of approved charities. Groups that did register with the IRS filed tax forms indicating that they did not pay for congressional travel. And five of the groups admitted to congressional investigators earlier this year that a Gülenist group in Turkey was secretly covering the costs of travel inside Turkey for lawmakers and staff.

Congressional disclosures show the Gülen-backed trips totaled more than $800,000 in free travel for lawmakers and staff. That number likely underestimates the costs since many of the in-country expenses were not reported. And it is not at all clear where the $800,000 came from, since many of the groups involved do not appear to have the resources to pay for large delegation trips.

One Gülen group, the Texas-based Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, sponsored trips for three lawmakers and seven staff members in 2011, filing disclosures claiming it was the sole sponsor of the trips at a total cost of about $54,000. But the same organization filed an IRS tax form that year claiming it spent only $33,000 on travel with no expenditures for the travel of public officials.

The network of Gülen organizations is hard to untangle. The BBC reported in 2013 “the movement’s influence extends far beyond Turkey, funding hundreds of Islamic schools, and think tanks and media outlets, from Kenya to Kazakhstan. It has attracted millions of followers and billions of dollars.”

In August 2013, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., took an eight-day trip to Turkey sponsored by the Pacifica Institute, which claimed on congressional disclosure forms to be an IRS-recognized non-profit covering the $5,700 cost of the trip. But the IRS has no record of Pacifica being a recognized non-profit.

“Congressman Honda quite simply took a trip that was entirely approved by the House,” said spokeswoman Lauren Smith.

In April 2011, the same group filed forms with the House Ethics Committee to sponsor two separate trips. In one form, for a trip by then-congressman Bob Filner, D-Calif., Pacifica Institute claimed to be a subsidiary of a group called Global Cultural Connections. In another batch of forms filed for a trip by a handful of congressional staff, Pacifica declared itself to be a part of the West America Turkic Council. Both of those groups are registered with the IRS as non-profits, but neither reported any expenses for lawmaker travel on their 2011 and 2013 tax returns.

A 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Turkey released by Wikileaks describes Pacifica Institute as the “sister organization” of a Turkish-based group called the Bosphorus-Atlantic Association of Cultural Cooperation and Friendship, known by its Turkish initials BAKIAD.

The House Office of Congressional Ethics issued a report earlier this month finding that BAKIAD had secretly funded the Turkish leg of a trip to Azerbaijan taken by 10 members of Congress and 32 staff. Four of the Gülen groups sponsoring that trip “used BAKIAD to arrange and finance all in-country expenses for congressional travel in Turkey,” OCE found. “Importantly, however, BAKIAD’s role does not appear to have been disclosed to the Committee on Ethics in 2013 or in other years. BAKIAD was established in 2006 to oversee and coordinate trips and events related to North America,” and it has sponsored thousands of U.S. travelers ranging from state, local and federal officials to priests, teachers and other community leaders.

“There is a substantial reason to believe that BAKIAD, because of its role as an undisclosed sponsor of congressional travel, provided gifts in the form of impermissible travel expenses to congressional travelers in violation of House rules and regulations,” the OCE report concluded.

In June 2012, a Gülen organization called the Istanbul Center sponsored a nine-day, four-city Turkish visit for Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., his wife, Martha, and four staff members for a total of about $23,000. The disclosure forms submitted to the Ethics Committee said the Istanbul Center is “a unit of the Global Spectrum Foundation.”

The forms explained that BAKIAD “funds trip and finds sponsors/donors for meals, lodging, domestic travel.” But there is no indication who those donors or sponsors were. Istanbul Center is not on file with the IRS as a recognized nonprofit; the tax form filed by Global Spectrum Foundation for 2012 shows no expenses for travel.?

“The Committee on Ethics takes responsibility for trip approvals and we trust it will appropriately handle any issues they find with information reported to them by the trip sponsor,” said Brooks spokeswoman Lauren Vandiver. “Congressman Brooks and his staff have no personal knowledge of anything of substance about how the trip was paid for inasmuch as they deferred that issue to the Committee on Ethics for review, research and ‘getting it right’.”

Repeated efforts to reach the Gülen organizations mentioned in this article, including dropping by the Washington headquarters shared by several of them were unsuccessful.

Only the Istanbul Center responded. Academic Affairs Director Mustafa Sahin said, “I did not organize any trips with members of Congress and staff, and do not really know how financial aspects of such trips were handled.” Other staff from that time period are no longer with the organization, he said.

USA TODAY identified 214 congressional trips sponsored by Gülen organizations that appear to be improperly disclosed. The trips generally have similar itineraries, with visits to the same historical sites, and visits primarily with Gülenist journalists, lawmakers and business associations.

And the movement has clearly benefited from making friends in Congress.

In February 2015, Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., organized colleagues to send a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry seeking his help in defending Gülenist journalists who had been arrested by the Turkish government as part of the battle between Gülen and Erdogan.

“We strongly urge you to reach out to President Erdogan and his administration to encourage a peaceful and appropriate resolution to these cases,” the lawmakers wrote. Salmon had taken a Gülen-funded trip to Turkey in 2014; Honda, Brooks and five other lawmakers who had taken Gülen-funded trips also signed the letter, as did 23 members who had approved Gülen-backed trips for their staff.

“Our trip was both fully disclosed and fully vetted by the House Committee on Ethics before the Congressman took it,” said Salmon spokesman Tristan Daedalus. “There was widespread coverage in the American press about the Turkish government’s unacceptable actions to silence opposition media,” Daedalus said, “and before he went on the trip you mentioned, he had already met with the Turkish embassy to discuss the imprisonment of numerous individuals trying to exercise their right to free speech.”

Nobody in Congress is likely to face penalties for accepting improper travel. The Ethics Committee concluded in July after reviewing the 2013 Azerbaijan trip that “all of the Members and staff who went on the trips did so only after getting Committee approval to accept the trips. Neither the Committee nor OCE found any evidence of any knowing violation by any Member or House staffer.”

However, “both the Committee and OCE found evidence suggesting that a number of parties outside the House may have affirmatively lied to and/or withheld information from both the Committee and the House Members and staff who were invited.” The committee therefore announced it was “referring the matter of third parties apparently engaging in a criminal conspiracy to lie to Congress to the Department of Justice for such further action as it deems appropriate.”

“It strains credulity to believe members of Congress and their staff would accept lavish junkets having no idea who actually sponsored the trips,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, an ethics watchdog group “Even worse, the Ethics Committee is allowing members to hide behind its so-called approval process so they can take exotic vacations paid for by special interests.”

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Turkish Schools Offer Pakistan a Gentler Islam

Courtesy Sabrina Tavernise

Turkish educators are offering an alternative approach to religious schools that could reduce extremists’ influence.

KARACHI, Pakistan: Praying in Pakistan has not been easy for Mesut Kacmaz, a Muslim teacher from Turkey.

He tried the mosque near his house, but it had Israeli and Danish flags painted on the floor for people to step on. The mosque near where he works warned him never to return wearing a tie. Pakistanis everywhere assume he is not Muslim because he has no beard.

“Kill, fight, shoot,” Kacmaz said. “This is a misinterpretation of Islam.”

But that view is common in Pakistan, a frontier land for the future of Islam, where schools, nourished by Saudi and American money dating back to the 1980s, have spread Islamic radicalism through the poorest parts of society. With a literacy rate of just 50 percent and a public school system near collapse, the country is particularly vulnerable.

Kacmaz (pronounced KATCH-maz) is part of a group of Turkish educators who have come to this battleground with an entirely different vision of Islam. Theirs is moderate and flexible, comfortably coexisting with the West while remaining distinct from it. Like Muslim Peace Corps volunteers, they promote this approach in schools, which are now established in more than 80 countries, Muslim and Christian.

Their efforts are important in Pakistan, a nuclear power whose stability and whose vulnerability to fundamentalism have become main preoccupations of American foreign policy. Its tribal areas have become a refuge to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the battle against fundamentalism rests squarely on young people and the education they get.

At present, that education is extremely weak. The poorest Pakistanis cannot afford to send their children to public schools, which are free but require fees for books and uniforms. Some choose to send their children to madrasas, or religious schools, which, like aid organizations, offer free food and clothing. Many simply teach, but some have radical agendas. At the same time, a growing middle class is rejecting public schools, which are chaotic and poorly financed, and choosing from a new array of private schools.

The Turkish schools, which have expanded to seven cities in Pakistan since the first one opened a decade ago, cannot transform the country on their own. But they offer an alternative approach that could help reduce the influence of Islamic extremists.

They prescribe a strong Western curriculum, with courses, taught in English, from math and science to English literature and Shakespeare. They do not teach religion beyond the one class in Islamic studies that is required by the state. Unlike British-style private schools, however, they encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set examples in lifestyle and prayer.

“Whatever the West has of science, let our kids have it,” said Erkam Aytav, a Turk who works in the new schools. “But let our kids have their religion as well.”

That approach appeals to parents in Pakistan, who want their children to be capable of competing with the West without losing their identities to it. Allahdad Niazi, a retired Urdu professor in Quetta, a frontier town near the Afghan border, took his son out of an elite military school, because it was too authoritarian and did not sufficiently encourage Islam, and put him in the Turkish school, called PakTurk.

“Private schools can’t make our sons good Muslims,” Niazi said, sitting on the floor in a Quetta house. “Religious schools can’t give them modern education. PakTurk does both.”

The model is the brainchild of a Turkish Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. A preacher with millions of followers in Turkey, Gulen, 69, comes from a tradition of Sufism, an introspective, mystical strain of Islam. He has lived in exile in the United States since 2000, after getting in trouble with secular Turkish officials.

Gulen’s idea, Aytav said, is that “without science, religion turns to radicalism, and without religion, science is blind and brings the world to danger.”

The schools are putting into practice a Turkish Sufi philosophy that took its most modern form during the last century, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, crushed the Islamic caliphate in the 1920s. Islamic thinkers responded by trying to bring Western science into the faith they were trying to defend. In the 1950s, while Arab Islamic intellectuals like Sayyid Qutub were firmly rejecting the West, Turkish ones like Said Nursi were seeking ways to coexist with it.

In Karachi, a sprawling city that has had its own struggles with radicalism — the American reporter Daniel Pearl was killed here, and the famed Binori madrasa here is said to have sheltered Osama bin Laden — the two approaches compete daily.

The Turkish school is in a poor neighborhood in the south of the city where residents are mostly Pashtun, a strongly tribal ethnic group whose poorer fringes have been among the most susceptible to radicalism. Kacmaz, who became principal 10 months ago, ran into trouble almost as soon as he began. The locals were suspicious of the Turks, who, with their ties and clean-shaven faces, looked like math teachers from Middle America.

“They asked me several times, ‘Are they Muslim? Do they pray? Are they drinking at night?’ “ said Ali Showkat, a vice principal of the school, who is Pakistani.

Goats nap by piles of rubbish near the school’s entrance, and Kacmaz asked a local religious leader to help get people to stop throwing their trash near the school, to no avail. Exasperated, he hung an Islamic saying on the outer wall of the school: “Cleanliness is half of faith.” When he prayed at a mosque, two young men followed him out and told him not to return wearing a tie because it was un-Islamic.

“I said, ‘Show me a verse in the Koran where it was forbidden,’ “ Kacmaz said, steering his car through tangled rush-hour traffic. The two men were wearing glasses, and he told them that scripturally, there was no difference between a tie and glasses.

“Behind their words there was no Hadith,” he said, referring to a set of Islamic texts, “only misunderstanding.”

That misunderstanding, along with the radicalism that follows, stalks the poorest parts of Quetta. Abdul Bari, a 31-year-old teacher of Islam from a religious family, lives in a neighborhood without electricity or running water. Two brothers from his tribe were killed on a suicide mission, leaving their mother a beggar and angering Bari, who says a Muslim’s first duty is to his mother and his family.

“Our nation has no patience,” said Bari, who raised his seven younger siblings, after his father died suddenly a dozen years ago. He decided that one of his brothers should be educated, and enrolled him in the Turkish school.

The Turks put the focus on academics, which pleased Bari, who said his dream was for Saadudeen, his brother, to lift the family out of poverty and expand its horizons beyond religion. Bari’s title, hafiz, means he has memorized the entire Koran, though he has no formal education. Two other brothers have earned the same distinction. Their father was an imam.

His is a lonely mission in a neighborhood where nearly all the residents are illiterate and most disapprove of his choices, Bari said. He is constantly on guard against extremism. He once punished Saadudeen for flying kites with the wrong kind of boys. At the Turkish school, the teenager is supervised around the clock in a dormitory.

“They are totally against extremism,” Bari said of the Turks. “They are true Muslims. They will make my brother into a true Muslim. He’ll deal with people with justice and wisdom. Not with impatience.”

Illiteracy is one of the roots of problems dogging the Muslim world, said Matiullah Aail, a religious scholar in Quetta who graduated from Medina University in Saudi Arabia.

In Baluchistan, Quetta’s sparsely populated province, the literacy rate is less than 10 percent, said Tariq Baluch, a government official in the Pasheen district. He estimated that about half of the district’s children attended madrasas.

Aail said: “Doctors and lawyers have to show their degrees. But when it comes to mullahs, no one asks them for their qualifications. They don’t have knowledge, but they are influential.”

That leads to a skewed interpretation of Islam, even by those schooled in it, according to Gulen and his followers.

“They’ve memorized the entire holy book, but they don’t understand its meaning,” said Kamil Ture, a Turkish administrator.

Kacmaz chimed in: “How we interpret the Koran is totally dependent on our education.”

In an interview in 2004, published in a book of his writings, Gulen put it like this: “In the countries where Muslims live, some religious leaders and immature Muslims have no other weapon in hand than their fundamental interpretation of Islam. They use this to engage people in struggles that serve their own purposes.”

Moderate as that sounds, some Turks say Gulen uses the schools to advance his own political agenda. Murat Belge, a prominent Turkish intellectual who has experience with the movement, said that Gulen “sincerely believes that he has been chosen by God,” and described Gulen’s followers as “Muslim Jesuits” who are preparing elites to run the country.

Hakan Yavuz, a Turkish professor at the University of Utah who has had extensive experience with the Gulen movement, offered a darker assessment.

“The purpose here is very much power,” Yavuz said. “The model of power is the Ottoman Empire and the idea that Turks should shape the Muslim world.”

But while radical Islamists seek to re-establish a seventh-century Islamic caliphate, without nations or borders, and more moderate Islamists, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, use secular democracy to achieve the goal of an Islamic state, Gulen is a nationalist who says he wants no more than a secular democracy where citizens are free to worship, a claim secular Turks find highly suspect.

Still, his schools are richly supported by Turkish businessmen. M. Ihsan Kalkavan, a shipping magnate who has built hotels in Nigeria, helped finance Gulen schools there, which he said had attracted the children of the Nigerian elite.

“When we take our education experiment to other countries, we introduce ourselves. We say, ‘See, we’re not terrorists.’ When people get to know us, things change,” Kalkavan said in his office in Istanbul.

He estimated the number of Gulen’s followers in Turkey at three million to five million. The network itself does not provide estimates, and Gulen declined to be interviewed.

The schools, which also operate in Christian countries like Russia, are not for Muslims alone, and one of their stated aims is to promote interfaith understanding. Gulen met the previous pope, as well as Jewish and Orthodox Christian leaders, and teachers in the schools say they stress multiculturalism and universal values.

“We are all humans,” said Kacmaz, the principal. “In Islam, every human being is very important.”

Pakistani society is changing fast, and more Pakistanis are realizing the importance of education, in part because they have more to lose, parents said. Abrar Awan, whose son is attending the Turkish school in Quetta, said he had grown tired of the attitude of the Islamic political parties he belonged to as a student. Now a government employee with a steady job, he sees real life as more complicated than black-and-white ideology.

“America or the West was always behind every fault, every problem,” he said, at a gathering of fathers in April. “Now, in my practical life, I know the faults are within us.”

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