Yesterday I heard a news blurb on the radio… Michael Flynn has retroactively registered as a foreign agent, admitting that he had been paid by the Turkish government to lobby for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen.
What fresh hell is this, one wonders. Please indulge me for a few minutes and walk with me through how I became interested in this topic.
One summer, a craigslist advert caught my eye- a small business was looking for college students to tutor high schoolers on SAT vocabulary. The interview was held at an address in Dallas in a strip of light industrial buildings. Weird, but whatever. Onto the interview I go. After a few minutes of chatting, the interviewer asked him how I was with SAT math. I told him that I hadn’t looked at the math since I was prepping for the exam myself. He asked me to do a problem on the chalkboard.
Pause the scene for a moment. I’m at a mostly deserted building near Forest and Plano, responding to a craigslist job listing, and the interviewer is now asking me to demonstrate competency in something that was not part of the job posting. What do you do?
So I grabbed the chalk and talked through the problem, explaining my best guess at what to do at each step. He seemed suitably impressed. Then came switcheroo #2: turns out the teenager who needed a SAT tutor also had a brother in 3rd grade, and the parents wanted him tutored as well. You cool with that?
And that’s how I ended up spending the first half of a summer tutoring a pair of Turkish brothers.
The job was over at a Harmony school in Carrollton. When I arrived, I had a major sense of deja vu. I peeked into some of the classrooms as I searched for the room I was assigned.
It was at this point that I became intensely curious. The dude who interviewed me was Turkish. The students were Turkish. The receptionist who unlocked the building every day was white, and last I checked so I am. But the classrooms! Half the classrooms had Turkish books, Turkish flags, and the Turkish alphabet:
I do appreciate languages which have letters to designate different sounds, rather than the English philosophy of “make your best guess and enjoy being wrong.” The older kid was constantly frustrated by the chaos of the English language, and I don’t blame him. I don’t have any particularly good stories about my time working there. But then the kids went off on an extended vacation and that was the end of that craigslist job.
Oh, and I HAD been at that building before. It had formerly been a grocery store; after its grocery days, it was converted into a church. I’d visited the church with a friend a couple years earlier. I didn’t realize their church had moved. But what sort of school sets up camp in a converted grocery store-turned-church?
That’s when I began reading about the Harmony Schools. The more I read, the less I know. I keep hoping to find some thread of information that ties everything together, or some lens of understanding that brings everything into focus. But these figures of speech are failing me.
The schools operate as charters in Texas. At the time, the State Board of Education issued charters; now it’s the Texas Education Commissioner. (1)
By being a proper charter school, they have access to state funding, making the schools more affordable than a purely private school.
Clearly, schools can’t discriminate regarding who they admit, but thanks to the power of social networks, you’ll see a disproportionate population served by different schools. This isn’t necessarily a problem.
All kinds of reports on charter schools are available online, if you have the time to dig through it. (2) However, these reports often lack context.
For example, one of the major charter chains in the region boasts about a 100% college acceptance rates. I worked for a non-profit after-school program, holding one of our programs at this particular charter school. The students there told me about how high school graduation was tied to college acceptance, and that they’d seen many people be strongly encouraged to transfer back to DISD when it became clear that they weren’t college-bound. Similarly, the students who became pregnant left the school. I heard consistent stories from other students in other schools in the same chain. However, I haven’t been able to find verification of that elsewhere, and it certainly isn’t written out in their official documentation. I’m not sure how much weight to give this.
Back to Harmony. Again, there seems to be a disproportionate number of Turkish students and teachers in the chain – and that’s where things get interesting.
Harmony has raised many eyebrows because of a tendency of the schools to work with Turkish contractors, which are not necessarily the lowest bidders. And again, it’s good to take advantage of your social networks and work with people you trust – but that gets tricky when you’re dealing with taxpayer money.
The New York Times reported on this back in 2011 (3), including an important note: the growth of these schools “has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia.”
And that’s part of the difficulty here. Notable conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney had a conversation with notable Joker-wannabe Steve Bannon about it – check out the Breitbart article describing it. (4) Legitimate concerns such as the potential H-1B visa fraud are clouded by jingo language like “civilization jihad.”
Oh yeah, the visa fraud.
Before I go on, I have to address one of the more annoyingly complex aspects of this thing – there are dozens of different loosely affiliated charter schools across the country. It’s not simply that they’re Turkish – they also seem to have a connection with a particular religious leader named Fethullah Gülen. And you can’t talk about Gülen without talking about Turkey.
Turkey has a fascinating history, being founded as an explicitly secular nation and banning quite a few religious symbols from the government buildings. Women in government buildings such as courtrooms were not allowed to wear the hijab. Further, the Turkish military was given basically an authorization to overthrow the government if the civilian government got too Islamicist. Several coups occurred in the 20th century, though it’s possible one of them was supported by the CIA. Last year, an attempted coup failed. Turkey has claimed that it was masterminded by Gülen (5); others say it was indeed the military attempting to do their duty because Erdoğan has made the government increasingly religious in recent years(6); yet others have suggested it was a false flag, basically crafted by Erdoğan to solidify his power (7) (8).
I’ve read several different articles discussing Gülen’s history , trying for a range of sources to understand the complexity of perceptions. I’m still lost. If you’re still reading this, your google skills are probably as good as mine; for my own sake here are some of the articles I’m chewing on:
The New Republic – The Global Imam (9)
Gülen may or may not have been involved in, or just blamed for, the 1980 coup, which is the one that has the strongest CIA connections or maybe the military just let the country get in a pickle so they could take power. Gülen came to the United States for medical treatment and has stayed since; it seems like a former CIA agent (the author of the HuffPo article) helped get him legal immigration status. His view of Islam seems to be kinda Unitarian, or maybe anti-Arab.
As to the chains of charter schools, they’re basically ‘inspired’ by the Gülen movement. Think about how many Christian private schools are inspired by Jerry Falwell & the Moral Majority- they’re not all directly affiliated with Liberty University, but you know there’s a connection.
But in America there’s a stigma with being associated with an imam, which is leading to a certain squirreliness , or lack of transparency. And somehow, many of these Turkish schools have trouble finding enough American teachers, and keep sponsoring foreign workers. This raised quite a few eyebrows, especially during the recession. (15) (16) (17)
Where does any of that stand today? I don’t know. Harmony schools seem to be thriving across Texas, at least the Texas Senate still loves charter schools, and Gülen is still living in Pennsylvania. A documentary, Killing Ed, was made about the charter schools, but its following is limited. (18)
And then… Michael Flynn.
I don’t know why I’m suprised. Bro wrote an opinion piece for The Hill last year talking about how great Erdoğan is and how awful Gülen is. (19) NYTimes article about it pointed out the lobbying connections, though the consultant the interviewed claimed “This is not a guy who would be influenced by a contract. He wrote what he believes.” (20)
This topic is an example of much of our world: it’s messy and complex. There’s not a clear good guy / bad guy narrative. The InfoWars article almost makes sense, and The Hill posted something that turned out to be highly questionable. I don’t mean to devolve into some post-modern intellectual anarchy or false equivalencies – rather, it’s about a willingness to maintain an open mind as new information is revealed.