Even before it became clear that the attempted coup in Turkey on Friday night would not succeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed convinced of who was responsible for the ill-fated insurrection, and he took to the airwaves to make a public accusation.
“Turkey will not be run from a house in Pennsylvania,” Erdogan told Turkish news outlet TRT via FaceTime on Friday night in the midst of the coup. The next day, while speaking to supporters gathered in Istanbul, Erdogan was far less coy: “I call on the United States and President Barack Obama: Dear Mr. President… either arrest Fethullah Gülen or return him to Turkey.”
Fethullah Gülen was once one of Erdogan’s strongest political allies in Turkey, where Gülen had amassed a large following as a moderate Islamist leader in what had long been a secular country. Gülen generally preached peace and tolerance while also advocating a more modern, scientific approach than other more traditional Muslim sects might promote. In a 2010 profile of Gülen, Suzy Hansen wrote in the New Republic that he led “arguably the world’s most successful Islamic movement,” with more than five million followers worldwide. “The Gülen movement reminds people of everything from Opus Dei to Scientology to the Masons, Mormons, and Moonies,” Hansen wrote. “I’ve seen Gülen referred to as the Turkish Billy Graham.”
But shortly after Erdogan’s conservative Islamist party came into power, his relationship with Gülen soured for reasons that mostly remain unclear. By that point, Gülen had already fled to the U.S. after he was accused in the 1990s by Turkey’s then-secularist government of attempting to stage an Islamist coup (he was later acquitted). In America, he has lived as somewhat of a recluse for more than a decade, rarely emerging from his sprawling, gated compound in the Pennsylvania Poconos. Although there’s no hard evidence that Gülen actually had any role in last weekend’s failed coup, it’s unsurprising Erdogan was so quick to point his finger toward his 75-year-old rival. More surprising, at least to those unfamiliar with modern Turkish politics (we won’t blame you if you’re not up to speed), is that the man facing brazen threats from one of the world’s most influential political leaders also has deep ties to Texas.
Despite Gülen’s self-imposed exile, he hasn’t managed to escape controversy in the U.S., mostly stemming from his suspected relationship with one of the largest charter school systems in Texas, the Houston-based Harmony Public Schools. In 2011, the New York Times raised questions about whether Harmony serves as a vehicle for expanding the Gülen Movement, reporting that the schools were mostly staffed and founded by followers of Gülen, appeared to unfairly favor Turkish vendors when doling out contracts, and had business dealings with Gülenist cultural centers in Houston—which is home to several Gülen-related organizations, including the Gülen Institute at the University of Houston. (According to the New Republic, Houston is “one of the country’s major Gülen hubs.”)
According to the Dallas Morning News, Harmony Public Schools was the subject of two investigations in 2014. One was a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging Harmony paid male colleagues from Turkey more money than an American woman who had more teaching experience (Harmony settled the suit). The other was a federal investigation in which the Department of Education found that students with disabilities were “significantly underrepresented” at Harmony and weren’t getting appropriate help (Harmony and the feds eventually “reached an agreement” to settle the investigation).
For what it’s worth, Harmony has continually denied any relationship to Gülen. But that certainly hasn’t removed it from Erdogan’s crosshairs. In May, Harmony became the target of Erdogan and the Turkish government, which hired an American law firm to investigate the schools, later filing a complaint with the Texas Education Agency that included allegations similar to previous investigations, according to the Texas Tribune.
Harmony’s CEO, Soner Tarim, dismissed the complaint as “a witch hunt,” claiming the action was a politically motivated attack by Erdogan. There’s likely some truth in that, considering Erdogan is notorious for silencing rivals and critics, including Turkish journalists. Still, Erdogan’s actions appeared to have gotten the attention of state legislators. Just days before the attempted coup, Representative Dan Flynn, a Republican from Canton who chairs the House Pensions Committee, asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office to investigate the allegations.
“If the facts are correct, Texas taxpayers are in fact in danger and our education system, not to mention the safety of our citizens, seems to be in peril,” Flynn said, according to the Texas Tribune. Despite the sketchiness of Harmony schools, Texas isn’t likely facing any serious safety threat. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about the Gülen Movement—again, it’s basically all about peace, tolerance, and science, and it openly condemns terrorism and rejects the founding of an Islamic state. Harmony has also said that it does not teach Islam in the classroom. But the school’s refusal to acknowledge the seemingly clear connections to Gülen demonstrates a lack of transparency, which has invited skeptics—and Islamophobes—to question the movement’s presence in Texas, as well as the motivations of it’s reclusive leader.
Since the attempted coup, Erdogan, referring to Gülen’s influence as a “tumor” and a “virus,” has rounded up and arrested an astounding 60,000 police officers, military officials, and other government employees in an attempt to purge the Turkish ranks of Gülen’s supporters and others suspected of being sympathetic to the coup. It’s unlikely the U.S. will extradite Gülen, and he doesn’t appear to be worried. In a rare public appearance, he invited reporters into his home on Sunday to respond to Erdogan’s accusations. He adamantly denied having any role in the attempted coup, and said he does not support any undemocratic transfer of power in Turkey. He also suggested that Erdogan may have staged the coup himself in an attempt to pin it on Gülen and his followers, according to The Guardian.
Gülen took one question from each of the reporters gathered in his home before retreating back into his tiny, sparsely decorated bedroom, consisting of “little more than a bed and bookshelves,” according to CNN. Gülen will likely be able to stay out of Erdogan’s physical reach, but it’s certainly possible that Gülen’s connections to Texas will fall under even more scrutiny than ever.