Cultural Caviar

The Shadowy Imam of the Poconos

January 01, 2014

Multiple Pages
The Shadowy Imam of the Poconos

As 2014 dawns, the world continues to keep me furnished with material. For example, the current political shakeup in Turkey turns out to be a mashup of various obsessions and hobbyhorses of mine, such as byzantine conspiracy theories, test prep, the naiveté of American education reform, immigration fraud, the deep state, and even the Chechen Bomb Brothers’ Uncle Ruslan.

This lattice of coincidence begins with Turkey’s prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, who is presently besieged by graft scandals following police raids on his inner circle.

With Turkey’s traditional ruling class—the secularist Kemalist generals—finally neutralized by the Ergenekon show trial, the Muslim civilian factions now appear to be plotting against each other. It is widely assumed among Turkish conspiracy theorists (i.e., roughly 98% of all Turks) that the prosecutorial assault on the prime minister was at the behest of Erdoğan’s former political ally, Fethullah Gülen, a powerful and mysterious Muslim cult leader holed up since 1999 in, of all places, the Poconos, where he has become America’s largest operator of charter schools.

“He who controls test preparation controls the future.”

The imam has been preparing for the struggle in Turkey for decades, launching his adherents on a long march through the institutions. The holy man’s Turkish enemies leaked a video in 1999 just before he defected to the US and took up exile in his fortified compound in Saylorsburg, PA. Gülen was shown advising his believers:

You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers.…You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power….

Gülenists have since become common within Turkey’s police and judiciary, playing a lead role in last year’s conviction of 254 secularists for allegedly conspiring against the Islamic government. According to Wikileaks, the American ambassador to Ankara, James Jeffreys, cabled Foggy Bottom:

Gülenists also reportedly dominate the Turkish National Police, where they serve as the vanguard for the Ergenekon investigation—an extensive probe into an alleged vast underground network that is accused of attempting to encourage a military coup in 2004. The investigation has swept up many secular opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including Turkish military figures, which has prompted accusations that the Gülenists have as their ultimate goal the undermining of all institutions which disapprove of Turkey becoming more visibly Islamist. (COMMENT: The assertion that the TNP [Turkish National Police] is controlled by Gülenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it.…)

Amusingly, the Gülenists’ December attack on Erdoğan’s ethics seems to be retaliation for the government’s November attack on Gülen’s college admission test preparation centers. The New York Times reported:

…relations soured in recent weeks after the government tried to shut down private test preparation centers in Turkey, many of which are run by followers of Mr. Gülen and are important for the movement’s recruitment and finances.…“Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down the private schools was the last straw for Gülen and the Gülenists,” said Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He who controls test preparation controls the future.

Seriously, if you can get your followers to score higher on the gatekeeper tests, they may become the ruling class of the future—a lesson that American conservatives might ponder. In general, American conservatives have felt that it wouldn’t be sporting for them to think in any organized fashioned about how to game tests such as the SAT. But the older civilizations have little patience for such boyish innocence.

I don’t know anything about about test prep in Turkey, but I know a lady who was a high-school physics teacher in Iran, where she made herself unpopular by refusing to teach “summer school.” In Iran, it’s traditional for public school teachers to provide the highest paying upcoming students a private summer preview course in which they are given all the questions and answers for next year’s tests. (This Iranian attitude toward physics education may help explain why Iran’s nuclear program has been the world’s slowest moving crisis.)

Ambassador Jeffreys commented in his secret cable:

…we have heard accounts that TNP [Turkish National Police] applicants who stay at Gülenist pensions are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam.

The Gülen movement receives hundreds of millions of dollars from American taxpayers to operate approximately 130 charter schools in America. Not surprisingly, they claim excellent test scores.

In defense of Gülen, it might be argued that he’s providing the Anatolian heartland with something that was extremely valuable to northern Europe: a business-oriented religious network in the Weberian mode. One reason Mexico is Mexico is because the Counter-Reformation kept Puritanism out of Latin America, and along with it the Protestant work ethic. Turkey, which has long been a sort of Mexico of Europe, could use an Anatolian business class.

On the other hand, the more I look into Gülen, the more he seems characteristically Ottoman. The adjective “byzantine” stems from the labyrinthine and devious politics of the imperial court of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire. Not everything has changed since 1453.

Of course, the Gülen movement’s test prep schools in Turkey aren’t just about test prep. In an aggressively laicized state, after-school school is the best chance for indoctrinating youths in Islam and/or Gülen’s cult of personality.

“It’s organised like a cult,” a French researcher told FRANCE 24, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In certain places where they meet in Istanbul, it really feels like you’re in a Scientology centre. Leaders make speeches about universal love, and distribute pamphlets with photos of celebrities on them. Private classes are given, but we don’t know if the teachings are religious or not.” Most members are not even allowed to talk about the movement,” the French researcher explained. “The way it functions is totally opaque, which is reminiscent of Freemasons.”

It wouldn’t be a coincidence that Gülen’s Anatolian Muslims model their secret society upon the Freemasons. The secularist Europeanizers they hate used the security of Masonic lodges to launch their Young Turks revolution a century ago.

To Americans, the notion that the Ottoman Empire’s revolution of 1908-1913 was hatched in part in Masonic lodges sounds like Dan Brown crackpottery. But Freemasonry, with its long initiations and complicated handshakes, was useful in impeding the Sultan’s secret policemen at infiltrating cells of reformist conspirators.

You may be wondering who Gülen is. The grade-school dropout’s website explains:

Gülen is an authoritative mainstream Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader and educational activist who supports interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and opposes violence and turning religion into a political ideology.

Gülen’s English language PR guys have mastered TED Talk, those bits of jargon that reassure human resources departments and excite CEOs. (For example, charter schools are catnip to US-based Davos Men.)

Still, Gülen’s L. Ron Hubbard-level megalomania is reminiscent of Philip Seymour Hoffman introducing himself in The Master (a fictionalization of Scientology’s roots) as, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.”

Cult leaders can’t just be one thing, can they?

Recall Werner Erhard, the former car salesman Jack Rosenberg who renamed himself after physicist Werner Heisenberg and West German finance minister Ludwig Erhard. He founded est, the existentialist cult that swept white-collar America in the 1970s. Est was like a new, improved version of Scientology shorn of space aliens. Est was Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous October 1945 lecture to the young intellectuals of Paris telling them that life was meaningless so they had to take responsibility for choosing their own meanings, just remodeled for American regional sales managers.

Here’s how Erhard describes himself today:

Werner Erhard is considered a leading thinker in academic and corporate communities and is currently engaged in rigorous examination and presentation of his ideas. As a creator of models he provides new paradigms to thinkers and practitioners in fields as diverse as philosophy, business, education, psychotherapy, third world development, medicine, conflict resolution, and community building.

In 2005 the British magazine Prospect and the American magazine Foreign Policy held an online poll to name the world’s top public intellectuals. Noam Chomsky came in first and Umberto Eco second. In 2006, however, Muslims swarmed the poll, demoting Chomsky to eleventh place as Muslims took the top ten spots. Number one was Gülen (which may have amused Eco, author of byzantine conspiracy novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum). I suspect Gülenists saw this poll as their opportunity for vengeance for TIME’s late 1990s Person of the Century poll, which was hijacked by Kemalists voting en masse for Ataturk.

The Gülen cult, which calls itself Hizmet for “The Service,” owns the largest newspaper in Turkey, Zaman. A Zaman columnist recently elucidated:

Hizmet does not—and more correctly, by its very nature, cannot—take on an all-comprehensive physical form or name, other than the very abstract nominalization of “Hizmet,” which, for the lack of a better word, is used to refer to the diverse civic service initiatives its followers are involved in. It is thanks to this very porous, fluid and ether-like electromagnetic nature of Hizmet that it can manifest itself in 150 different nations, cultures and regimes, and welcome devotees and sympathizers from all walks of life.

Well, that clears that up.

Hizmet runs something like 130 charter schools in the US. Why? Because that’s the kind of thing you do in 21st-century America when you have tons of money and a potential image problem: teach math to black children. Remember when Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was concerned about the upcoming Social Network biopic, so he suddenly gave $100 million to Newark public schools? Think of the children!

In contrast to the Zuck’s donation, however, the Gülenist charters are paid for by you and me to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars annually in American taxpayer money. Charter schools represent a giant opportunity for anybody skilled at bureaucratic maneuvering. It’s common for schools costing $50 to $100 million to be turned over to charter operators claiming to be in it for the children.

It is rumored that Gülen’s charters are intimately wrapped up with immigration fraud. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2011:

Fethullah Gülen is a major Islamic political figure in Turkey, but he lives in self-imposed exile in a Poconos enclave and gained his green card by convincing a federal judge in Philadelphia that he was an influential educational figure in the United States. As evidence, his lawyer pointed to the charter schools, now more than 120 in 25 states, that his followers - Turkish scientists, engineers, and businessmen - have opened.…

And because there is apparently a shortage of English-speakers in America, Gülen’s charters get H-1B visas (684 in 2009 alone) from the federal government to bring in Turkish men to teach American kids.

Ruth Hocker, former president of the parents’ group at the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College, began asking questions when popular, certified American teachers were replaced by uncertified Turkish men who often spoke limited English and were paid higher salaries. Most were placed in math and science classes. “They would tell us they couldn’t find qualified American teachers,” Hocker said.

The Turkish teachers are said to have to kick back 40% of their salaries to Gülen’s movement. Last month, a few days before Gülen’s prosecutors raided Erdoğan’s cronies, the FBI raided a Gülen school in Baton Rouge and hauled off documents. (The FBI has yet to announce what they found.)

Why is Gülen in Pennsylvania, rather than his own country? When immigration bureaucrats asked that question in 2006, 29 influential Americans wrote in to vindicate Gülen. One of the most outspoken was Graham E. Fuller, the former CIA station chief in Afghanistan.

This intervention on Gülen’s behalf by America’s own deep state merely encouraged Turkish conspiracy enthusiasts who think the Gülen movement is a front for the CIA, as the former head of Turkish intelligence Osman Nuri Gundes claimed in a 2010 book.
Fuller came to my attention last spring when I wondered how the Tsarnaevs who blew up the Boston Marathon had gotten refugee status in America despite being Trouble with a Capital T. As I surmised, the Bomb Brothers’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni, a murky player in Beltway circles, pulled some strings. Why did some Chechens have strings to pull in America? Beyond all the geopolitical raison d’État, Fuller’s daughter Samantha Ankara Fuller used to be married to Uncle Ruslan.

A major problem with America being the imperial capital of the world is that, with some obvious exceptions, Americans aren’t all that adept at imperial court maneuverings. We were raised being told that we have a republic, if we can keep it. And that means we aren’t prepared to compete with those who represent thousands of years of training in the art and craft of empire.


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