HOUSTON — The secretive religious and political movement inspired by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen has become a potent, and surprising, force in a set of obscure races for the House of Representatives, as Gülen sympathizers around the country donate tens of thousands of dollars to an overlapping set of candidates.
The movement, whose leader draws intense interest from Washington to Ankara from his compound in rural Pennsylvania, has long involved itself in American life, organizing in particular around a group of charter schools and Turkish community institutions. Started in Turkey as a moderate Islamic movement in the secular 1960s and 1970s, the movement — also known as Hizmet, roughly meaning “service” in Turkish — runs schools, businesses, and media outlets around the world. There is no formal membership: Affiliates say they are “inspired” by Gülen and many groups aligned with him deny any official affiliation.
But the movement’s agenda, in Turkey, has clarified in recent months. Gülen — who left Turkey for the Poconos in 1999 following charges that he was attempting to undermine the Turkish state — broke bitterly with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year over a corruption investigation that has rocked Erdogan’s party and that the prime minister has blamed on Gülen and his followers.
Here in the United States, meanwhile, Gülen’s allies have been stepping up their involvement in U.S. politics, emerging as a force in districts from South Texas to South Brooklyn. Liberal Democrats like Yvette Clarke, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Al Green, and conservative Republicans like Ted Poe and Pete Olson have all benefitted from donors affiliated with Gülen in one way or another.
Leaders in the movement deny that there is any top-down organization of the donations (or, indeed, that the Gülen movement has any organization at all), but the patterns of giving suggest some level of coordination in a community beginning to flex its political muscle. Gülen himself reportedly told followers in 2010 that they could only visit him in the Poconos if they donated to their local congressman, according to the Wall Street Journal, though Gülen has denied the comment.
The donations, taken together, comprise significant totals for some U.S. House members in relatively safe seats. For instance, people connected to the Gülen-inspired charter schools donated $23,000 to Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in October 2013 — a large sum considering Jackson Lee has raised just more than $130,000 this cycle in individual contributions, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The state of Texas is home to Harmony Public Schools, the Gülen-inspired network of charter schools that have inspired some controversy; the Harmony schools, and other Gülen-related educational institutions around the country, have been accused of abusing foreign worker visas and of using taxpayer money to favor Turkish businesses over others. And Houston and its southwest suburbs are a hub for the movement in the U.S. Many Turkish immigrants who live there work for Harmony or for other organizations with ties to the Gülen movement, such as the Texas Gulf Foundation, the Raindrop Foundation, or North American University, a relatively new STEM-focused school that sits on the side of a desolate highway in north Houston. Other Houstonites affiliated with Gülen groups gave to Rep. Henry Cuellar, Rep. Pete Olson, Rep. Ted Poe, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, and others.
Though bundling political donations is common, Gülen-affiliated Houstonites said there was no top-down coordination of the donations.
For instance, Metin Ekren, a Harmony educator who gave $2,000 to Sheila Jackson Lee in 2012 and $1,500 to her in 2013, said that Harmony did not tell its employees to donate. Ekren said he and “friends in the office” discuss such things, but that “usually Sheila Jackson Lee has a kind of donation meeting” and that’s how he had donated. He said he gives to other Democrats as well, though records show he has mostly given to Republicans, including Poe, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.
Erdal Caglar, Harmony’s chief financial officer, gave $1,500 to Jackson Lee in October 2013 at a fundraiser, he said.
“She has been always a supporter of our schools,” Caglar said. “She has attended all major events that Harmony organized. And she expressed — you know, Harmony’s STEM, and she’s supporting STEM education.”
Caglar said that Jackson Lee was helping Harmony’s effort to open a charter school in Washington, D.C. “As an educator, we support whoever supports our mission and vision and supports our activities,” Caglar said.
Jackson Lee has taken an interest in charter schools recently, appearing at a school choice rally with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in January. Her campaign manager did not return requests for comment.
Gülen sympathizers in Brooklyn, N.Y., have also begun to involve themselves in American political life, according to publicly available campaign finance documents from the last two election cycles.
Many of New York’s Gülenist donors are based in Sheepshead Bay, a working-class neighborhood on the southern edge of Brooklyn that is home to a tight-knit Turkish community. Several members of the community said the Gülen movement operates out of the local branch of the Turkish Cultural Center, and that it counts many prosperous business owners as sympathizers. (An official from the center told BuzzFeed that many of the center’s organizers are “inspired” by Gülen, but that the organization itself is independent from him).
Several local Gülen sympathizers told BuzzFeed that they feel attracted to the movement because of its tolerant religious ideas and its center-right, pro-business politics. Many of them have donated sums to the same U.S. politicians — including Rep. Yvette Clarke and Rep. Ed Towns, both New York Democrats, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas.
Nonetheless, several Gülen supporters said that the movement played little role in their decision to give money to candidates.
“We want to show the American people that Turkish-Americans care,” said Gokhan Karakollukcu, the owner of the Rocca Café on Emmons Avenue and a frequent donor to Clarke.
When asked whether people affiliated with the movement had ever tried to influence his giving, Karakollukcu insisted that he had made his own choices and donated his own money. He likes Clarke, Karakollukcu said, because his wife is Jamaican and the congresswoman “does a lot for Caribbean issues.”
Selahattin Karakus, who owns and operates Masal Café, said that he has donated to both Democratic and Republican candidates. When asked to name a Republican to whom he had donated, Karakus was unable to remember any of their names. When asked why he had decided to donate to Cuellar, a Democrat who represents a district in Texas several thousand miles away, Karakus said that he had “friends” in Texas and that he wanted to support candidates with strong pro-immigrant stances. (Cuellar introduced a bill with Republican Sen. John Cornyn that would allow the expedited deportation of the tens of thousand of undocumented minors who have recently arrived in the United States).
Karakus also said that he supports the movement and that he regularly attends holiday dinners at the Turkish Cultural Center. He said that many of his political choices had emerged from discussions at the center, but was quick to add that nobody had forced him to donate to anyone and that he had only been given “advice” and “suggestions.” The money he donated, he said, was his own.
The Gülen movement “doesn’t have any money to give anyone,” he said. “We have to give them money.”
Officials at the Turkish Cultural Center in Sheepshead Bay echoed Karakus’ statements, telling BuzzFeed that they do not endorse candidates, solicit donations, or engage in any kind of political fundraising.
“We are a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization,” said Suleyman Aydogan, the vice president of the Brooklyn branch of the center. “That would be illegal.”
But Aydogan, who said he supports the movement and has personally met Gülen, also said that he has done fundraising for New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and for Sheepshead Bay Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz. He said that his role in the Turkish Cultural Center, his sympathies for Gülen, and his work as a political fundraiser were completely separate from one another.
When asked whether the Turkish Cultural Center does any kind of political work, Aydogan said that it extends to inviting politicians to speak at dinners and other events. He suggested that donors might have met politicians at these dinners, or perhaps at the convention that the Turkic American Alliance, the center’s parent organization, holds every year in Washington, D.C.
“We invite everyone, but not everyone shows up,” Aydogan said. “That’s how we know who supports the Turkish community.”
Spokespeople for the members of Congress who have been on the receiving end of Gülenist largesse said they weren’t aware of any connection between their members and the movement. Cuellar, for example, is one of the main beneficiaries of Gülen-affiliated money, receiving donations from nearly 30 people connected to the movement in the 2014 election cycle. Cuellar has taken an interest in Turkish affairs and is a member of the Caucus on U.S.–Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans. Donations from people connected to the Gülen movement to Cuellar came not only from Texas, but also New York and Illinois.
Cuellar’s campaign manager said that the campaign wasn’t aware of any particular fundraising efforts targeting the Gülen movement.
“I’m not aware of a specific effort that we made” with the group, Cuellar’s campaign manager Colin Strothers said. “We raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and it comes from all over the place. We notice every check and every online donation that we get.”
Strothers said these kinds of donations typically come from fundraising events where “we show up and they’ve invited friends and co-workers and peers and things like that.”
A spokesman for Olson, who raised thousands from several people connected to the movement in September 2013, has appeared at events for the Turkic American Alliance and the Gülen Institute, and whose chief of staff traveled to Istanbul and Ankara on the Turkic American Alliance’s dime last year, said Olson had no particular connection to the movement.
“Congressman Olson is honored to represent one of the most ethnically diverse counties in America,” said his campaign consultant Chris Homan. “As such, he meets with people to discuss free trade, improving economic relationships between Texas and overseas markets, and strengthening U.S. partnerships with nations who share our national security concerns. His commitment to stronger economies and stronger democracies has earned him broad support from across the district. We are not aware of any connection to the groups you mentioned.”
The Turkic American Alliance, the umbrella group that encompasses a number of U.S.-based Gülenist organizations, held a plush iftar dinner attended by lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill last week. Green, Jackson Lee, and Clarke, as well as Reps. Andre Carson and Joe Garcia attended. Attendees filled about two-thirds of the Cannon Caucus Room; when a reporter arrived, staff asked her to sit near the front since it was looking a little thin. Members of Congress spoke, and then a video about Ramadan played before the breaking of the fast with soup and fried fish at sunset.
Faruk Taban, the president of the alliance, told BuzzFeed in an interview that his organization does not organize members of its groups for political donations.
“We don’t do that kind of stuff, we’re a 501©(3),” Taban said. Their focus is more on building relationships with members of Congress by, for example, taking them on paid trips to Turkey and Azerbaijan; the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Council of Turkic American Associations, both TAA member groups, have taken members including Cuellar, Clarke, Jackson Lee, Poe, and Rep. Steve Stockman on such trips in the past two years. Taban is planning another trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in September.
Taban attributed the clusters of donations to the tight-knit nature of the immigrant communities they come from.
“Like any diaspora communities they have strong ties among them,” he said. “So if anything happens, it’s word of mouth; they have friends and go to the same ethnic restaurants, they shop at the same ethnic restaurants.”
The movement’s involvement in U.S. politics, he said, began in 2007, when Turkish immigrants lobbied to squash an Armenian genocide recognition bill.
“After that it’s kind of got the momentum,” he said. The major Gülen organizations, he said, play a role in helping people from local communities get involved in DC, but that’s it. Gülen himself is “a very shy person” and is not personally involved in asking his followers to contribute, Taban said.
Asked how young teachers at the charter schools could afford to give maximum donations in congressional races, Taban said, “Turkish people are very generous” and that “a lot of business people in the community reach out to other people.”
The alliance, he said, is more focused on state legislatures. And Taban “doesn’t necessarily see the correlation” between the political strife in Turkey and the political giving in the U.S. But in “all kind of activities we are growing,” Taban said. “The scope and the size and everything else, we try to do more.”
Aylin Zafar contributed reporting.