March 11, 2013

Proposed Bangor charter school linked to Turkish imam

But Maine's commission rejected the Bangor plan over financial issues, its chairwoman says.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A proposed charter school to be based in Bangor is tied into an informal worldwide network of religious, cultural and education institutions operated by followers of a controversial and reclusive Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen.

The Queen City Academy Charter School was one of four proposed taxpayer-financed charter schools whose applications were denied last month by the state charter school commission, but the school intends to reapply at a future date.

Followers of Gulen, who lives in exile on a secluded compound in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, have been involved in starting at least 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to investigations by The New York Times, "60 Minutes," USA Today and other news organizations. Their schools are often top performers and have an entirely secular curriculum, but they have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, their hiring and financial practices, and concerns about their ultimate motivation, which experts say has as much to do with shaping the evolution of Turkey as it does with educating young Americans.

Gulen is an intriguing figure, a voice for moderate Islam, an opponent of terrorism and a champion of the impressive cultural, educational and scientific legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed in the aftermath of World War I and spawned the modern states of Turkey, the Balkans and much of Central Asia and the Middle East.

But his sprawling worldwide network of followers is also the subject of concern within the U.S. diplomatic community; a feared and powerful force in Turkey; and the target of investigations into the possible abuse of U.S. visa programs and the taxpayer money that flows into the charter schools they have founded. The movement's charter schools have been criticized in other states for their founders' evasiveness about the philosophical and institutional links they have to what is known in Turkey as Gulenism.

"They claim that these charter schools are independent and have no connection to the Gulen movement, and I said to them: 'That's baloney,' " said William Martin, senior fellow in religion and public policy at Baker Institute of Rice University in Texas, where Gulen followers have set up dozens of charter schools.

Martin has followed the movement for years, traveled to Turkey at their expense, and counts its leaders there as friends. "I say to them: 'Look, there's nothing wrong with your saying that you are admirers and followers of Mr. Gulen, and to say this is what he stands for and this is what you stand for,' but they say that their lawyers have said they shouldn't be open about it."

LINKED INTO THE MOVEMENT

The central figure behind the proposed Bangor charter school, construction company owner Murat Kilic of Revere, Mass., deflects questions about ties to Gulen as unimportant.

"Individuals might be inspired by him, but what their background is and what they are inspired by, I think that's a little bit irrelevant," said Kilic, who helped found several Gulen-linked organizations in the Bay State. "Yes, I have read a few books of Mr. Gulen and met with him two times, but I have also met (former President) Clinton. At the end of the day, it's how the board carries forth the mission of the charter school that's important."

Over the past year, Gulen's followers have been active in Maine on several fronts. A key organization in the Gulen network -- the New York-based Council of Turkic American Associations -- organized a subsidized nine-day trip to Turkey for three state legislators last summer and persuaded Gov. Paul LePage to issue an executive order declaring April 3, 2012, to be the first annual Turkish Cultural Day in Maine.

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