From Ankara, Without Love: The Battle for Turkey Reaches Texas Charter Schools
Along a half-mile stretch of cleared trees between a veterinary hospital and a mortuary in Sugar Land, Texas, a Houston suburb, a new middle school is being built. When Harmony School of Excellence-Sugar Land opens this August, it will be funded by the state but, as a charter school, privately operated by a nonprofit. And it will be caught in a power struggle between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his nemesis, Pennsylvania preacher Fethullah Gülen.
To some, Gülen is an inspiration; to others, he is a terrorist.
The middle school will be the newest addition to Harmony Public Schools, which, with 54 campuses, 3,800 staff, 33,500 students, and more than 258 million dollars in annual revenue from state and local funding, is Texas’s largest charter network. It is also part of a group of about 170 American charter schools, spread across 26 states and the District of Columbia, founded and still operated by Turkish immigrants who rank among Gülen’s millions of followers.
Robert Amsterdam is a high-flying London-based Canadian lawyer who thinks Gülen-linked charters in the U.S. exist first and foremost to funnel tax dollars to the cleric’s global movement, Hizmet (“Service”).
Last year, Amsterdam’s firm published a 647-page book, Empire of Deceit, that lays out allegations of grievous wrongdoings by the schools. “Misuse of taxpayer funds totaling at least 243 million dollars,” read emails the firm sent various state attorneys general this January. “More than 6,504 H-1B visas to import unqualified Turkish teachers. Widespread manipulation of state-mandated testing, grades, and attendance figures.” (Harmony and its counterparts in other states have denied all of these claims.)
Amsterdam, whose firm has been hired by Erdoğan’s government, has set out to convince states to take action against the schools and Hizmet. “It is a cult that have [sic] made a massive investment in U.S. politicians,” Amsterdam told The Politic in an email.
Formally, Hizmet operates in the U.S. through various nonprofits, most of which are organized under the umbrella of the New York-based Alliance for Shared Values. Yuksel Alp Aslandoğan, the Alliance’s executive director, is also Gülen’s aide and translator.
“Our local affiliates—we have six of them—they focus on intercultural, interfaith, interideological dialogue [and] cultural activities,” Aslandoğan told The Politic. For some affiliates, such as Houston’s Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, that mission has included paying for politicians to visit Turkey on educational trips.
Schools like Harmony are not part of the Alliance. “[These schools] were established by Hizmet sympathizers,” Aslandoğan acknowledged, although they regularly deny institutional links to Gülen’s movement.
Harmony’s Board of Directors maintains that the charters were established to help American kids learn science and math. Comparable to statistics for Texas’s traditional public school system, half of Harmony’s students are Hispanic, another fifth are black, and 61 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to Texas Education Agency (TEA) data.
Year after year, the network reports a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
“They push the kids to succeed and provide them with the kind of support that they need,” William Martin, a professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Houston’s Rice University, told The Politic in an interview.
Martin’s opinion is fairly common, particularly among Texas politicians. In 2017, the state’s charter school association named Soner Tarim, Harmony’s then CEO, its Leader of the Year. Harmony was also one of three finalists nationwide for last year’s Broad Prize, which annually “honors the public charter management organization that has demonstrated the best academic outcomes, particularly for low-income students and students of color.”
After 18 years of rapid growth, the network’s campuses now appear from El Paso to Beaumont, though most are located in the Houston, Austin, or Dallas-Fort Worth areas. Some are K-12 academies; others resemble traditional elementary, middle, or high schools. Some occupy drab buildings in industrial parks; others are giant multi-story structures that Harmony admits were built at costs approaching ten million dollars apiece. All fill their seats by lottery, and collectively, they report a waitlist 30,000 names long. None charge tuition.
Gülen, who began preaching in Turkey in the late 1960s, is revered by his followers as one of the Muslim world’s foremost intellectuals and a tireless proponent of dialogue, tolerance, and selflessness.
“That people are talking with each other, guns are not talking. That is one idea—one core idea,” Aslandoğan told The Politic as he described Gülen’s philosophy.
Gülen also has a long history with education. “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God,” he likes to say, according to The Washington Post. His followers were known for decades in Turkey for running highly successful cram schools that prepared students for university entrance examinations.
But Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Loyola University Maryland who has spent over a decade studying Hizmet, told The Politic that the tutoring centers served a strategic purpose.
“The objective of the organization in the ’70s was to cultivate an elite cadre—what was referred to by Gülen himself as a ‘golden generation’—that could, in a vanguard sort of way, lead the masses out of the darkness into the light,” Hendrick said.
University degrees in hand, Gülen’s supporters could ascend to the highest levels of influence in Turkish society over time. By the late 2000s, they had built a media empire that included the country’s most widely read newspaper, Zaman, and multiple television stations. Hizmet sympathizers also held key positions in the military, police, and judiciary; ran Bank Asya and Istanbul’s Fatih University; and operated at least a half dozen hospitals and hundreds of fully-fledged private schools, most of which were in Turkey.
Rice professor William Martin visited some of them on a Hizmet-sponsored trip in 2006. He makes no secret of his “warm feelings” toward the movement.
“We met some students who were very impressive kids,” he told The Politic.
But over the past three decades, wealthy Gülen-supporting businessmen also founded Hizmet schools abroad, winning the movement admirers from Argentina to the Philippines.
Today, according to lists compiled by Gülen’s opponents, schools established by Hizmet sympathizers can be found in at least 100 countries. But only in the U.S. are they funded with public money.
In Turkey, the cleric Gülen and the Islamic conservative politician Erdoğan were once allies. For a decade, they used Hizmet sympathizers in Turkey’s courts to target their common secularist enemies, often in trials with doctored evidence.
But around 2013, their relationship soured.
“The authoritarian tendencies were probably in [Erdoğan] all along…but he found the opportunity,” the pro-Gülen Aslandoğan told The Politic.
Erdoğan accused Gülen of directing an extralegal parallel state, closed Hizmet cram schools, and converted the Turkish newspaper, Zaman, into a pro-government mouthpiece.
On the night of July 15, 2016, while Erdoğan was on vacation, a faction of the Turkish military tried to take government buildings and key infrastructure by force. When, within hours, the president regained control, he knew exactly who he wanted to blame.
“They were receiving their instructions from Pennsylvania,” Erdoğan said of the coup plotters, claiming one of them had called the U.S.-based Gülen their leader. Gülen himself condemned the attempted coup and even suggested it may have been staged.
Hendrick, a fairly impartial observer, told The Politic, “There’s some truth to both scenarios, of some culpability with the Gülen movement…and some efforts to take advantage of these events by Erdoğan and his regime to stamp out all forms of dissent.”
Within weeks, more than 80,000 soldiers, judges, doctors, teachers, and other civil servants lost their jobs for links to Gülen—some for connections as minor as holding accounts at Hizmet-associated banks. The purges are ongoing, now primarily targeting other Erdoğan opponents like leftists and Kurds. By presidential decree, every Hizmet school and pro-Gülen media outlet in Turkey has been shuttered.
“About 50,000 Hizmet sympathizers are in jail, including around 4,000 women and 600 or so children together with their mothers,” Aslandoğan told The Politic.
“Without an exception, all of the Hizmet-associated institutions have been shut down by Erdoğan, including 35 hospitals, 15 universities, and 500 K-12 schools,” he said.
Erdoğan is also targeting schools linked to Hizmet—he calls it the Gülenist Terror Organization—in other countries. Morocco has closed its Hizmet schools, while Afghanistan and Ethiopia have turned theirs over to a foundation run by the Turkish government. Last month, Turkish intelligence services apprehended five Hizmet teachers and a doctor in Kosovo.
In the U.S., after over a year of ineffectual lobbying, Gülen’s extradition remains the Turkish government’s ultimate prize. But neither the Obama nor Trump administrations believed that Gülen directed the failed coup or that he would get a fair trial in Turkey. So Erdoğan might have to settle for a different target—the charter schools.
He might find some local support. Austin attorney and independent filmmaker Mark Hall, for example, produced the 2016 documentary, Killing Ed, which claims corruption, discrimination, and academic fraud are commonplace at Harmony and other Gülen-linked charters.
“I’ve seen no evidence that the schools are teaching Islam,” Hall acknowledged when he spoke with The Politic, countering a claim commonly made by more conspiracy-prone Harmony opponents.
But the schools do place a strong emphasis on Turkish language and culture, Hall said. Some offer Turkish as their only foreign language, and many used to take students on trips to Turkey to participate in the Hizmet-sponsored International Turkish Language Olympiads.
“There’s no document with Fethullah Gülen’s signature on it that establishes a charter school in California or Texas or Ohio or wherever,” Hall noted. “So a lot of people in the Gülen movement itself have said, ‘We have no formal, legalistic connection between Harmony and Fethullah Gülen.’ And that probably is not true.”
Aslandoğan, the Alliance for Shared Values director, previously worked in Houston. When he spoke with The Politic, he described his involvement with Hizmet in Texas.
“Together with a group of friends we formed the Texas Gulf education center, which later grew to become North American University,” he said. “So I was its first president.”
As noted in a 2010 TEA report, Texas Gulf helped Harmony certify its teachers. And according to two separate interviews in Killing Ed, North American University plays a key role in maintaining Harmony’s public image.
“They force the kids to apply to college, and then the North American [University] accepts them all,” says “Linda,” a former teacher at Harmony School of Innovation-Houston who appears anonymously in the film. “So they create their own 100 percent acceptance rate.”
The Politic asked Aslandoğan what he made of allegations of wrongdoing against schools like Harmony with links to Gülen.
“It is of course possible that—being run by human beings—some teachers or administrators might have done some things that are unethical or inappropriate,” Aslandoğan said. “And it is possible it might have reached a certain level. But so far, despite the decades of operation and multiple inquiries, not a single individual was charged with any crime.”
Harmony and its counterparts across the country have, however, faced civil rights lawsuits from former employees alleging a particular pattern of discrimination.
In a case in 2008, a female Hispanic teacher at Harmony Science Academy-El Paso claimed that her male coworkers of Turkish origin, despite being uncertified and struggling with English, were being paid over 50 percent more than she was, and that she lost her job for complaining. The principal she unsuccessfully sued, Fatih Ay, is now Harmony’s CEO. (Ay and other members of Harmony’s board corresponded with The Politic but did not agree to interviews.)
“There’s been a lot of cases that have been settled,” Hall said. “The Gülen movement does not like to have cases go beyond the early stages because, I think, they’re fearful of discovery—at the ability to go and use the court system to look further into their operations.”
Still, Hall and Amsterdam are convinced there is widespread preferential treatment for the schools’ Turkish male employees.
“One of the Turkish male teachers who had worked there for only two years in the same pay grade as I was—he had left his paycheck on the copier machine, and it said that he had brought home that month 4,300 dollars,” “Linda” recalls in Killing Ed.
“Meanwhile, I’m making about 1,000 dollars a paycheck. He was under the section that said you would be paid that much if you had been working there for 22 years,” she says.
“It is sad and frustrating that there are only two qualifications to meet in order to advance as faculty,” wrote a self-identified former employee. “One is to be male, the second is to be Turkish. Unfortunately, I did not meet the second qualification, so I spent all of my years working under Turkish first year teachers who were somehow made department chair.”
Harmony responded to the complaint saying that only seven percent of its employees—mostly men from Turkey—were in the U.S. on H-1B visas to fill STEM teaching jobs for which qualified Americans could not be found. This is a common refrain among Gülen-linked schools in multiple states.
Texas State Representative Dan Flynn (R-Canton) is skeptical. “I heard that there was a carpenter that came here to teach American history. That bothered me a little bit,” he told journalist and anti-Gülen activist Sibel Edmonds in an interview last December.
Hizmet-linked schools’ strongest critics, including Amsterdam, believe the schools have little interest in finding qualified teachers and instead provide a convenient vehicle for mass immigration fraud.
Even the pro-Harmony Martin told The Politic, “They certainly have used the visas in a much more aggressive way than, I think it’s fair to say, pretty much any other organization.”
Mustafa Emanet, a former H-1B holder who worked as an IT administrator at the Hizmet-associated Horizon Science Academy Denison Middle School in Cleveland, Ohio between 2006 and 2009, would go a step further.
“Ninety-nine percent of [Turkish employees at Hizmet-associated schools in the U.S.] are in this movement,” Emanet, who received his job at Horizon through a friend in Hizmet, told The Politic in an interview.
And when Emanet worked at Horizon, he said, he and other Turkish employees did not take home their full publicly-funded salaries. Instead, the school’s business manager used Hizmet bylaws to determine their actual pay.
“He makes the calculation and tells you, ‘You owe the organization [the difference],’” Emanet said, explaining that managers would collect tithes at regular meetings. “They are stealing U.S. taxpayers’ money, I can say that.”
Over his bosses’ objections, Emanet married one of his American coworkers, Mary Addi, who convinced him to come forward about the alleged forced tithing—amounting to about 40 percent of his official salary, according to an interview he gave to CBS This Morning last March. He left the school and provided a copy of the bylaws to the FBI, which has since raided Gülen-linked charters in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
The raids did not result in any arrests. “What was it, 2012, or ’11, they did the FBI raids?” Addi said, exasperated. “I mean, I went on 60 Minutes in 2012. Nothing has changed. Instead, their schools continue to grow.”
But when Emanet visited Turkey in 2009, he was arrested (and eventually acquitted) on heroin trafficking charges. He is convinced he was framed by Gülen supporters in the Turkish police.
“Either you are with them or you are against them,” Emanet told The Politic. “If you are against them, they will do anything to destroy you.”
Turkey is against them. Texas might not be.
“The charter school lobby, which is very defensive of Harmony, is very strong in Texas,” explained Liz Whyte, a journalist who has covered Robert Amsterdam’s efforts for the Center for Public Integrity, in an interview with The Politic.
Amsterdam’s firm’s TEA complaint against Harmony from two years ago alleged not only discrimination and visa fraud but also misuse of taxpayer funds, including through favoritism for Gülen-linked companies when awarding tens of millions of dollars’ worth of publicly-funded construction contracts.
In 2011, according to a change order document shown in Killing Ed, Harmony paid a contractor owned by a former employee 37,500 dollars for a “Dome change to resemble Texas Capitol” on its School of Political Science and Communication in Austin—but the finished building had no dome.
The TEA ruled that most of the violations listed in Amsterdam’s complaint were outside of its jurisdiction and dismissed the favoritism claims, noting that the majority of Harmony’s contracts between 2014 and 2016 were with non-Turkish-owned companies.
“Essentially, the TEA is a charter school lobbying arm,” Amsterdam told The Politic. “They’re not a regulator.”
Flynn, one of Harmony’s most vocal critics in the Texas Legislature, called on state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to investigate the schools instead.
“Texans deserve better and they deserve to be protected from organizations that may be funneling funds to illegal foreign activity and terror,” reads a constituent newsletter sent on July 25, 2016, ten days after the attempted coup in Turkey, that also claims Harmony overpaid a front group at least 18 million dollars in taxpayer money for leases on its buildings.
“You know, we’re so worried about keeping people out of our country and building walls and everything,” Addi remarked to The Politic. “Let’s look internally at what’s going on with publicly-funded schools run by an alleged terrorist organization.”
Paxton did not open an investigation. (Both his office and the TEA declined to comment for this story.) This January, Amsterdam’s firm requested to meet with him; so far, he has not responded.
“If the attorney general’s not looking at it, he’s either got a good legal reason not to look at it or he’s got a good political reason not to look at it,” said Scott Milder, who unsuccessfully challenged Texas’s incumbent and strongly pro-charter Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in March’s Republican primary, in an interview with The Politic.
Milder acknowledged he was not familiar with all of the allegations against Harmony and Hizmet, but he centered his campaign on attacking Patrick’s support for redirecting public school funds toward charters and voucher programs. While Milder does not oppose charters, he believes they need more oversight. “Public schools are an open book,” he said. “Who are the donors [affiliated with] the charter schools? Who is Gülen donating to in our Texas Legislature?”
Last year, an investigation by Whyte found that ten Texas state lawmakers, along with 141 of their colleagues from other states, took trips to Turkey between 2006 and 2015 that were funded in part by Hizmet nonprofits like Houston’s Raindrop Turkish House and the Dialogue Institute.
“I think the number is probably much more. Those were just the ones we could confirm,” Whyte told The Politic. Similar trips, thousands in total nationwide, were offered to members of Congress, mayors, law enforcement officials, and academics like Martin.
“Anyone that could speak well of the movement publicly was generally someone that nonprofits invited,” Whyte said.
In January 2011, the Texas Senate adopted a resolution to “commend Fethullah Gülen for his dedication to working toward a better world through education, service, tolerance, and the free exchange of ideas and extend to him best wishes for continued success.” At least three of its five cosponsors—two Democrats and a Republican—had taken Hizmet trips.
The following year, State Representative Alma Allen (D-Houston) was confronted by a right-wing activist concerned about foreigners teaching at Harmony’s schools. “I think they are fabulous,” Allen responded. “Because they are from Turkey, wonderful Turkey. I’ve been there twice. It’s beautiful. You should go. You want to go? I’ll take you.”
The sponsored trips were never illegal, but they have now stopped due to Erdoğan’s crackdown on Hizmet.
“Now that they’ve lost power in Turkey and a great amount of their revenue, they’re trying to further expand the schools in the United States,” Addi told The Politic. “Because they’ve got the perfect, perfect formula here for pillaging our tax funds.”
She continued, “And how they’ve been allowed to get away with it? I have no clue—well, actually, I do. They pay off the politicians, who readily accept their campaign contributions and look the other way.”
But in the 2017 session of the usually charter-friendly Texas Legislature, State Representative James White (R-Hillister) introduced a bill that would have effectively banned non-U.S. citizens from serving on the governing boards of most Texas charter schools.
The bill, which stalled in committee, did not mention Harmony specifically. But in an interview with The Politic, White indicated that he knew of allegations that many of the network’s schools are controlled by Turkish nationals in Hizmet. “I think if Harmony wants to get away from these allegations,” White said, “they should have supported my bill.”
Still, White was unfamiliar with Amsterdam’s lobbying campaign. “I haven’t dealt with anyone on investigating Harmony,” he said.
Amsterdam’s point person in Texas is Jim Arnold, an Austin-based former Republican operative who is now registered as a foreign agent working for Turkey’s government. In an email to The Politic, Flynn admitted meeting with Amsterdam’s firm but denied coordinating with the firm’s anti-Harmony efforts. Instead, he maintained he was focused on concerns about the schools he had heard from Texas voters.
“People want to know something is being done and Harmony is being made to be subject to the same transparency standards as public schools,” Flynn wrote.
If legislative efforts will be stymied by the charter lobby, Amsterdam’s other option is law enforcement. There, he will face a distinct challenge: proving beyond doubt that organic connections between the schools and Gülen exist.
“The organizational model allows for a mechanism of plausible deniability that is intentional,” Loyola’s Hendrick told The Politic, explaining that no one would ever find a paper trail linking Gülen to any American charter school or, for that matter, to any Hizmet-associated company.
Hendrick said the tactic was perfected in late-20th century Turkey, when that country was controlled by secularists and association with a religious figure like Gülen was a liability. Now, the same defense mechanism has proven useful against a different enemy.
“Something that bedevils the Turkish government right now [is that] when it comes to the Gülen community, all evidence that can be gathered about anything they do, whether it’s these various alleged nefarious activities or any other positive activities they do—it’s very difficult to find a direct connection,” Hendrick said.
None of that may matter to the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who enroll at Harmony School of Excellence-Sugar Land in the fall. But for a president and a preacher, a London lawyer and a Texas filmmaker, the students will become the latest characters in a battle for the future of Turkey.
“It is a conspiracy,” Mark Hall said at a lightly attended anti-Gülen protest in Austin last December. “But it’s a conspiracy of facts.”