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International Chicago Fri Dec 27 2013

Are Madigan-Linked Charter Schools Fueling Turkey's Corruption Scandal?

Right now, Turkey is in the midst of a widespread political scandal worthy of Cook County.

After conducting a two-year corruption probe, Turkish police detained dozens of individuals last Tuesday morning. Several of the suspects -- including the head of a state-owned bank, the sons of three government ministers, and others linked to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- will be charged on counts of gold smuggling, money laundering and bribery.

The scandal has sparked mass anti-government protests, rocked the financial markets, and forced the resignation of several cabinet members, including one who has openly called for Erdogan to step down.

In response, the prime minister has declared the "dirty, dirty operation" the result of a foreign conspiracy, fired senior police chiefs and the senior prosecutor behind the raid, and replaced ten government ministers. He also blamed a movement he refused to directly name for trying to create "a state within a state." This remark is believed to be an attack on the followers of a powerful Islamist cleric (and former Erdogan political ally) named Fethullah Gulen.

Curiously, Gulen has also been linked to a different controversy this week -- this one involving Chicago charter schools and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But are they related? Perhaps.

michael madigan and fethullah gulen
Left: Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan
Right: Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen

Born in Turkey, Gulen is seen as a moderate Sunni Muslim who publicly supports scientific education, interfaith dialogue, market capitalism and democracy, while condemning terrorism and political violence.

As a prolific writer and preacher, Gulen has amassed millions of followers over the past several decades. The Gulen movement, or Hizmet ("service"), has no formal structure, but its participants around the world control media outlets, think tanks, charities and other organizations operating in line with his teachings.

Most notably, Gulen followers have built secular schools around the world that emphasize math and scientific learning, including over 150 charter schools and several chains across the United States.

One chain linked to Gulen, Concept Schools Inc., operates 30 charter schools across six Midwestern states. In 2004, Concept opened the Chicago Math and Science Academy. A recent article in the Sun-Times by Dan Mihalopoulos detailed how Concept opened two new charter schools rejected by the CPS by appealing to Illinois State Charter School Commission -- an agency created with the help of Gulen-connected Madigan. Between 2008 and 2012, Madigan, Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) and several other Illinois politicians took trips to Turkey paid for by Gulen's Chicago-based Niagara Foundation and unspecified Turkish non-governmental organizations.

In light of the recent scandals that ended state funding to the well-connected UNO charter school organization, the circumstances surrounding Concept deserve further investigation.

As it turns out, Gulen schools have already been under federal investigation for some time now.

Try Following the Money

Two weeks ago, the FBI seized several boxes without explanation from a Gulen-linked charter school in Baton Rouge. In her follow-up Times-Picayune story, Diana Samuels linked to a June 2011 story in the New York Times that documented allegations of Gulen charter schools in Texas kicking back taxpayer funds to Gulen-related enterprises, funding overseas trips to Turkey for state legislators and giving construction business to Gulen-friendly contractors.

As a possible explanation for the box seizures, she also referenced a March 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer story noting the FBI and Department of Labor's investigations into whether Gulen charter schools were applying for H1B worker visas to replace qualified teachers already living in the country with under-qualified Turkish men with poor English skills and higher salaries. Even back in November 2010, Columbus' NBC4 investigated viewer allegations that Concept was specifically hiring teachers from Turkey for its Ohio schools.

Of course, this raises questions about what the purpose of this seemingly closed-loop of Gulen schools is and why it needs perpetual expansion and fundraising. Supporters might argue it's simply a reflection of the religious leader's genuine desire to expand educational opportunities across the world.

On the other hand, some believe Gulen and his movement have ulterior motives. After emigrating to the United States in 1999 to treat a medical condition, a video surfaced in Turkey in which Gulen purportedly called for his followers to secretly infiltrate mainstream power structures. Turkey's then-secular government tried him in absentia for attempting to overthrow the government (he was later acquitted). Gulen has remained in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania ever since.

Gulen himself maintains that his movement is not political, but a civic organization. However, his followers are credited with supporting the political rise of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and are commonly believed to have infiltrated the ranks of the Turkish police and judiciary, among other institutions.

The New Republic's website recently reposted a 2010 article by Suzy Hansen detailing the fullest known extent of the Gulen empire. Beyond the charter schools, charities and adherence to a peace-loving version of Islam compatible with a science-driven world, Gulen followers have so fully permeated society that many are afraid to openly criticize them. As Hansen noted, Gulen advocates an almost Calvinistic work ethic, yet, "The Gülen movement reminds people of everything from Opus Dei to Scientology to the Masons, Mormons, and Moonies."

The current scandal has been viewed as a power struggle between Erdogan and Gulen's factions, and rooted in AKP plans to shut down private prep courses -- a major source of Gulen income and influence. In reaction to the purging of the police chiefs, Gulen released a recording cursing the prime minister's government with the words, "Those who don't see the thief but go after those trying to catch the thief, who don't see the murder but try to defame others by accusing innocent people -- let God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities." However, Gulen has officially denied any knowledge of or involvement in the probe.

So does this mean there's a direct line between Speaker Madigan and Prime Minister Erdogan? It's not entirely clear, but the evidence of coordinated trips to Turkey by Illinois and Texas legislators funded by organizations bidding for taxpayer dollars at least suggests some higher-level orchestration. Given the Gulen movement's vague structure, it would be impossible to say where cash hypothetically diverted from the Chicago Math and Science Academy would end up. Regardless, it begs the question of what Madigan or any Illinois politician knows about the movement's financial operations and to what degree it's actually being used to effectively educate students.

The Obama Connection

But there is one person definitely standing in between Madigan and Erdogan: President Barack Obama. In fact, both of these parallel Gulen dramas in Chicago and Istanbul may put the Obama Administration in a tight spot.

Part of the corruption probe revealed that between March 2012 and July 2013, the state bank Halkbank had subverted Iranian sanctions by allowing the country to buy gold with Turkish currency in return for natural gas and oil. Against US diplomats' wishes, pro-government newspapers put Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. on their front pages while the Turkish foreign minister called for Secretary of State John Kerry to banish him from the country.

This is all while the previously cooperative Obama and Erdogan administrations continue to clash over Syria, Kurdish Iraq and Egypt.

Meanwhile, turning the federal Gulen lens towards Chicago may potentially embarrass Madigan, "the King of Illinois" and one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Party, along with any other major Illinois Democrat with connections to both charter school support and Gulen. It could also draw further scrutiny to the president's own support for charter schools at a time when the party is debating the future of its economic platform.

The question now isn't just whether Illinois' charter school system needs greater scrutiny, it's also whether Illinois taxpayer money is being (or could even potentially be) funneled into a battle between Turkey's most powerful political factions under the guise of education reform. Regardless of any influence that a single US charter school may have on the Turkish political landscape, Gulen-linked schools have aroused enough suspicion nationwide to merit further investigation in Illinois.

Still, it would be ironic if Chicago-style politics played a role in reforming someone else's government.

 
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