Just why exactly would 151 state legislators from places like Idaho and Texas accept subsidized junkets from a Turkish opposition group [“Gülen Movement”] now blamed by that country’s government for an attempted coup last summer?
It’s puzzling that state legislators who rarely get involved in foreign policy matters have been courted with international trips.
It’s especially surprising for the invitations to come from a powerful religious movement that until recently ran media outlets and a bank before falling out with the government in Turkey, a pivotal U.S. ally that serves as the gateway to the Middle East. Though followers of the movement deny having supported the failed coup, Turkey has asked the United States to extradite its leader, Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Islamic cleric who lives in a compound not in Ankara or Istanbul but in the woods of Pennsylvania.
The Center for Public Integrity documented the extent of the trips and found that some state lawmakers who attended them later introduced resolutions supporting Gulen’s controversial Hizmet movement. And some have even supported charter schools that are part of a network from Washington, D.C., to California of roughly 160 taxpayer-funded schools run by friends of the movement.
While some familiar with the lawmakers’ trips frame them as innocuous learning experiences, the trips are meant to transform American community leaders into Gulen sympathizers, according to Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Loyola University and a leading expert on the movement.
“It most certainly has the impact of cultivating influence,” Hendrick said. “It is a political effort but it is framed as a grassroots mobilization of dialogue.”
‘Sympathetic to the cause’
The long parade of state legislators who have accepted the heavily subsidized trips from the Gulen movement includes some influential figures. The man known as Illinois’ most powerful state politician, Democratic Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, traveled four times to Turkey on trips sponsored by nonprofit groups associated with Gulen’s Hizmet — or “service” — movement.
In 2011, at least a tenth of Idaho’s state legislators toured the land of the Ottomans on the movement’s dime.
At least four Texas lawmakers who have served on legislative education committees went on the sponsored trips. The Lone Star state is home to the most Gulen-linked charter schools.
California has about a dozen of the schools, as do Florida and Ohio. Arizona, Illinois and Missouri are among the states that have them, as well.
The Center for Public Integrity used lawmakers’ annual disclosures and news reports to identify 151 state legislators from 29 states who toured Turkey between 2006 and 2015 thanks to more than two dozen nonprofits associated with the Gulen movement.
Among those who went on the trips were lawmakers who had rarely traveled overseas. Many had little knowledge of Gulen or Turkish politics. Few of their states have trade connections to Turkey.
But state legislators represent the political farm team of leaders who may someday play in the big leagues of Congress or beyond. Thom Tillis, for one, was first elected to the North Carolina statehouse in 2006 and went on a trip to Turkey with a Gulen movement group in 2011. Fast forward: The Republican is now a U.S. senator serving on the powerful Armed Services Committee, which oversees members of the U.S. military stationed in Turkey.
State lawmakers also shape education policy and hold the purse strings on state budgets, which fund charter schools.
“It’s effective public relations,” said William Martin, a Rice University sociologist who went on two sponsored trips. “That can affect their schools, it can affect the things they would like to do.”
The schools have denied connections to Gulen, but experts and even some friends of the movement call the links obvious. The charter schools are often founded and run by individuals with long ties to the Gulen movement, and they frequently hire Turkish teachers, sponsor their visas and move them between schools. Many were set up with the help of nonprofits tied to the movement.
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