U.S. charter schools tied to powerful Turkish imam

Over the past decade, followers of the mysterious Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen have opened scores of charter schools in the U.S., inspired by a man who is as powerful as he is reclusive.

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

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.