As a military coup fizzled in Turkey, that country’s president blamed the uprising on a reclusive, elderly Muslim cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whose followers have a strong presence in Chicago.
Fethullah Gulen —honorary president of the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation, one of several Gulen-affiliated groups across the United States— denied any knowledge of the failed plot against his ally-turned-enemy, the democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Gulen told reporters Saturday at his mountain compound in the Poconos he knows only a “minute fraction” of his legion of sympathizers in Turkey and couldn’t speak to their “potential involvement.”
“You can think about many motivations of people who staged this coup,” Gulen, who was born in Turkey but has lived in the United States for more than 15 years, said through an interpreter. “They could be sympathizers of the opposition party. They could be sympathizers of the nationalist party.”
The reclusive cleric made his comments shortly after Erdogan demanded the United States extradite him. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration would entertain an extradition request but that Turkey would have to prove wrongdoing by Gulen.
Gulen, who is in his mid-70s, said he wouldn’t have returned to Turkey even if the coup succeeded, fearing he’d be “persecuted and harassed.”
“Longing for my homeland burns in my heart, but freedom is also equally important,” said Gulen, who lives on the grounds of the Golden Generation Worship & Retreat Center, an Islamic retreat founded by Turkish-Americans.
The Des Plaines-based Concept Schools network — which includes 30 publicly funded charter schools in the Midwest, four of them in Chicago — was started by people with ties to the Gulen movement.
No one associated with the schools has been charged with wrongdoing, but the Chicago Sun-Times reported a week ago that a federal investigation involving Concept continues two years after its headquarters and its Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park were among 19 locations federal agents raided.
Investigators suspect the schools defrauded a government grant program, according to court records that show they obtained search warrants for the 2014 raids because they believed Concept officials were rigging grant-funded contracts to steer more than $5 million in federal funding to insiders. Some of the proceeds were wired to Turkey’s Bank of Asya, authorities said. News accounts in Turkey have reported the bank was founded by Gulen’s movement, which controlled it until he fell out with Erdogan.
“Chicago is a very important center for the Gulen movement,” said Robert Amsterdam, the Washington, D.C., lawyer hired by the Turkish government to investigate Gulen and his followers. “This is one of the most sophisticated influence-peddling movements in the world. But now there’s no excuse for people not waking up and opening their eyes to the danger this guy represents.”
Mevlut Hilmi Cinar, the Niagara Foundation’s president, didn’t respond to requests for comment Saturday.
The Niagara Foundation hosted dozens of trips to Turkey for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, his wife and other Springfield lawmakers in recent years, the Sun-Times has reported. Madigan also did a video testimonial for a Concept school.
Andrew Madigan, the speaker’s son, made another video praising a Concept school. The company he works for, Mesirow Insurance Services, does business with the chain’s schools in Chicago.
Mike Madigan’s trips to Turkey were among 32 “educational missions” House Democrats reported taking there as guests of the Niagara Foundation between 2008 and 2012.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, who accompanied Madigan to Istanbul, Ankara and Ephesus in 2012, has said the speaker paid for “all known expenses” but listed four trips to Turkey on gift-disclosure statements because “there might be expenses that Niagara had that he was not aware of.”
Other Illinois politicians who toured Turkey on Niagara-hosted trips included Ald. Joe Moore, whose 49th Ward includes a Concept school at 7212 N. Clark. Moore said he went two times, including one trip at the suggestion of Salim Ucan, Concept’s vice president.
Gulen and Erdogan once were allies. Both are said to be pious Muslims in a country ruled as a secular republic for nearly a century. They have feuded since 2013. Even before Friday’s coup, the Turkish government accused Gulen of plotting to overthrow the government.
He has criticized Erdogan over the Turkish leader’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The Erdogan regime has launched a campaign against Gulen’s movement in Turkey and abroad, purging civil servants suspected of ties to the movement, seizing businesses and closing some news organizations.
On Saturday, Gulen denounced Erdogan for “repression and persecution” of his followers in Turkey and said his government has “no tolerance for any movement, any group, any organization that is not under their total control.”
Erdogan has accused Gulen’s followers of “being treasonous, of trying to overthrow the Turkish government and trying to put themselves in power somehow,” said Scott Alexander, an Islamic studies professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who is a Niagara Foundation trustee. “These are baseless and preposterous allegations.”
Although Concept and other charter operators linked with Gulen have sought to downplay their connections to him, Gulen’s lawyers boasted of his school network in court papers in 2008.
“As founder and head of the Gulen movement, Mr. Gulen has overseen the establishment of a conglomeration of schools throughout the world, in Europe, central Asia and the United States,” according to the filing by attorneys for Gulen, who successfully sued to overturn the U.S. government’s initial rejection of his permanent residency.
The statement in the immigration case was the result of a “misunderstanding between Mr. Gulen and his lawyers,” Alp Aslandogan, executive director of Gulen’s New York-based Alliance for Shared Values, told the Sun-Times in 2015. Aslandogan’s group is the umbrella body for U.S. organizations affiliated with Gulen, including the Niagara Foundation.
Contributing: AP, Maudlyne Ihejirika