U.S. charter schools tied to powerful Turkish imam
(CBS News) Fethullah Gulen is the Turkish Islamic cleric at the center of a popular and growing movement, with millions of disciples who follow his teachings of tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and education. Some have even started a chain of successful charter schools here in the U.S., with an emphasis on math and science. Yet Gulen himself remains shrouded in mystery. Lesley Stahl travels from Turkey to Texas to report on how the movement is spreading, and on the man behind it all.
The following script is from "The Gulen Movement" which aired on May 13, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shachar Bar-On, producer.
Over the past decade scores of charter schools have popped up all over the U.S., all sharing some common features. Most of them are high-achieving academically, they stress math and science, and one more thing: they're founded and largely run by immigrants from Turkey who are carrying out the teachings of a Turkish Islamic cleric: Fethullah Gulen.
He's the spiritual leader of a growing and increasingly influential force in the Muslim world -- known as "The Gulen Movement" -- with millions upon millions of disciples who compare him to Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Gulen promotes tolerance, interfaith dialog, and above-all: he promotes education. And yet he's a mystery man -- he's never seen or heard in public -- and the more power he gains, the more questions are raised about his motives and the schools.
[Lesley Stahl: Hi everyone.
This is the Harmony School in Houston, part of a rapidly expanding chain of 36 charter schools in Texas. They serve mostly underprivileged students and they all emphasize math and science.
[Student: Inside there is an elastic collision between the gas particles.
Student: What this is is a static electricity generator?]
Class work stresses hands-on experiments and competitiveness. Students made this hovercraft out of leaf-blowers for a science contest.
[Lesley Stahl: It's great!]
Being a charter chain means these are public schools, costing tax payers nearly $150 million a year.
[Lesley Stahl: So you don't even have a drivers' license yet?
Student: But I have a robotics license!]
Julie Norton is an administrator with the Harmony chain of schools.
Julie Norton: So we have about 20,000 students.
Lesley Stahl: Is there a waiting list?
Julie Norton: Yes, we have a waiting list. We have approximately 30,000 students on our waiting list. We have more students on the waiting list than we have enrolled in the schools.
The education here gets high marks, as students get state-of-the-art technology and extensive one-on-one tutoring.
[Lesley Stahl: Do you get excited to come to school?
Student: Yea I wake up like whooo.]
The enthusiasm is hard to miss, as is the fact that many of the teachers are Turkish, some just recently arrived and hard to understand.
[Lesley Stahl: When did you get here, to the United States?
There are a total of about 130 charter schools like Harmony in 26 states. Together they form the largest collection of charter schools in the country. Here's what's curious: they're founded and run by immigrant businessmen and academics from Turkey. Why are they building public schools here?
Well, the answer seems to lie with this mystery man: the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen who tells his followers that to be devout Muslims they shouldn't build mosques - they should build schools; and not to teach religion, but science. In sermons on the web, he actually says: "Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God." So Gulen's followers have gone out and built over 1,000 schools around the globe - from Turkey to Togo; from Taiwan to Texas.
Alp Aslandogan: His message is that if you want to solve any social problem for the longer term, the solution has to go through education.
Businessman Alp Aslandogan chairs a foundation in Houston that advances Gulen's teachings.
Lesley Stahl: It's so counterintuitive that people from Turkey would come here to get involved here in education.
Alp Aslandogan: People do go to other countries, including Africa. The United States, especially in math and science, is not really good. And many parents complain about that. So there is a need for skilled teachers in the United States in that fields.
We went to Turkey to learn more and found Gulen's schools are everywhere and considered the best. They're often multi-million dollar hi-tech facilities where girls are equal to boys and English is taught starting in first grade.
Gulen didn't only influence education. Starting in the late 60s, as a young imam, he urged crowds of middle class Turks to learn from the West and embrace its values - including an unexpected one: making money. In this Internet sermon, he even told followers: "If you don't seek ways to be wealthy...that is a sin in the eyes of God." So his disciples in Turkey became successful businessmen and built a multi-billion dollar Gulen empire that beyond the schools, includes TV stations, a major bank, Turkey's largest trade association, and biggest newspaper.
Andrew Finkel: They love capitalism. It really is very much a business network as much as a religion in many ways.
Andrew Finkel, who's been a freelance reporter in Turkey for 25 years, says Gulen tells his followers to reach out to people of other faiths.
Andrew Finkel: Tolerance is a very key, key part of their message. And you know, it's not about, the use of force.
Lesley Stahl: It's as far away from Osama bin Laden, as you can get within the religion?
Andrew Finkel: Very, very different. Yes.
Lesley Stahl: So I guess one of the big questions is what kind of an Islamic leader is Gulen?
Andrew Finkel: He leads by his own charismatic personality.
Lesley Stahl: Would you call it a personality cult?
Andrew Finkel: Yes.
To his followers, Gulen's like a living prophet, and he used his influence to change the course of Turkey's politics; helping to make it a functioning moderate Islamic democracy.
One thing we couldn't find in Turkey was Gulen. Actually, very few people ever see him in person. He preaches via webcasts from a prayer room in an isolated and unlikely location. For over a decade, Gulen has been living in self-imposed exile and seclusion in, of all places, the Poconos - in this gated Pennsylvania retreat.
Lesley Stahl: So does Mr. Gulen live in this building?
Bekir Aksoy: Yes, in this building.
To our surprise Bekir Aksoy, who heads the retreat, invited us in even though Gulen had turned us down for an interview.
Lesley Stahl: So this is the prayer room. Oh, is that Mr. Gulen's seat? His chair?
Bekir Aksoy: Right. Whenever he comes out of his room he sits there and he speaks from there.
Lesley Stahl: And that's where he lives? Behind the door?
Bekir Aksoy: That is the door behind which Mr. Gulen lives. That is his private room.
Gulen lives there alone -- he's never married. The pile of medicine bottles are a reminder that at 70 plus, he's diabetic with heart and kidney problems.
Lesley Stahl: Will he come out? Will we get to see him?
Bekir Aksoy: Ah... for the last five, six months he's very, very ill really. When he is ill, he does not accept visitors.
When Gulen came to the U.S. in 1999, it was for medical treatment. But then this video surfaced in which he seems to order his flock to surreptitiously take over key government positions in Turkey in a stealth Islamic coup. Accused of treason by the government at the time, Gulen decided to stay in the Poconos -- even after he was cleared in 2008 in Abstenia.
Lesley Stahl: Why is he still in America?
Andrew Finkel: Well, I think if he were to come back, then there would be such a brouhaha and it would-- I think-- he would be afraid of being seen as being too powerful.
Too powerful because it seems his followers have taken over key positions in the Turkish government and the police.
Andrew Finkel: You know, if he says "jump," people jump. There's no doubt about that.
Lesley Stahl: You know we have confronted real fear about this movement, particularly when we've tried to get critics to give us an interview. What are they afraid of?
Andrew Finkel: There's a fear of reprisal. I mean, it is the case that two or three people who've written books highly critical of the Gulen movement are now in jail.
Seeming to have such power, this "Wizard of Oz" recluse invites conspiracy theories that he's running Turkey from the Poconos and is bent on global Muslim domination. His movement does lack transparency: its funding, hierarchy, and ambitions remain hidden -- leading our State Department to wonder in cables between Ankara and Washington if Gulen has an "insidious political agenda."
And now some of the suspicion revolves around the U.S. schools. Do they serve a function other than educating our kids? One accusation involves immigration fraud: that the schools are providing work visas for hundreds of Gulen followers from Turkey.
Lesley Stahl: And that the whole idea is just to get Turks to come into the United States and this is an easy avenue for them.
David Dunn: Which is just categorically not true.
David Dunn of the Texas Charter Schools Association says that because of a deficit of qualified Americans, the schools bring in math and science teachers from Turkey, as this list of visa applications indicates. Problem is -
Lesley Stahl: We've seen that some of these visas for Turkish teachers to come here are for English - for them to teach English. How does that make any sense?
David Dunn: I'm not aware of that. I don't-- I can't, I can't comment on that. I don't know. I have not looked intimately into the visas they bring in.
Lesley Stahl: We have English teachers in this country.
David Dunn: English teachers are typically not part of the critical -- or the deficit.
Mary Addi: Our tax dollars are paying for them to come over here and take our jobs.
Mary Addi was fired as a teacher from a school in Cleveland, Ohio -- part of a Gulen-inspired chain of 27 charter schools in the Midwest.
Mary Addi: They want to give you the impression that they're just hard-workin' guys over here to try to educate our kids because American teachers are just too stupid.
Lesley Stahl: As far as you know, why is an Islamic imam, which Gulen is, interested in setting up schools in the United States?
Mary Addi: Because it's a great money-making operation.
Gulen's followers can make money thru contracts to build and maintain the schools, but Addi has gone to law enforcement with charges that the schools also make money by bringing in foreign teachers in order to take a cut of their salaries. She says she learned this after marrying a Turkish teacher.
Mary Addi: And that's when he told me that every pay period, he would have to cash his check and give-- he had to give 40 percent of his check back because--
Lesley Stahl: Forty percent of his salary--
Mary Addi: --40 percent in cash. Yes.
Lesley Stahl: And you've turned documents over to various federal agencies that you say proves this on paper?
Mary Addi: Yes.
The schools dismiss Addi's claims, calling her a disgruntled employee. But federal authorities told us they take her seriously and are looking into allegations of immigration fraud and misuse of taxpayer money in various states, and whether it's somehow being funneled to the Gulen movement.
Then - there's the Internet, where there are incendiary blogs accusing the schools of secretly promoting "an Islamic agenda."
Lesley Stahl: You know there are various blogs that have accused these schools of being backdoor Madrassas.
David Dunn: Yes.
Lesley Stahl: So do you think there's a little bit Islamophobia involved?
David Dunn: I think there's clearly some anti-Islam bias involved in these blogs.
Actually, we looked into this and Islam is not taught at all. That would be illegal since these are public schools that go out of their way to distance themselves from any religious affiliation - even denying a connection to the Gulen movement.
David Dunn: I think what matters is the results in the classrooms. Are kids learning math, science, reading, writing at a superior level? And clearly in these schools that's happening.
It is happening: Newsweek voted two Harmony schools among America's top 10. More of these schools open every year across the country, and waiting lists just keep getting longer. Gulenists tell us the schools are about reading, writing, and arithmetic, not religion.
And Bekir Aksoy in the Poconos says the man behind the door has no hidden agenda: Fethullah Gulen hasn't even visited any of the schools.
Bekir Aksoy: He does not want to see the fruits of his work. He just speaks and encourages people to be good human beings.
Lesley Stahl: That's interesting because there are schools in Pennsylvania. I mean, not that far.
Bekir Aksoy: He has not seen any of them, believe me. He does not leave that room.
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