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June 11. 2014 8:37PM

NH delegation heads to Turkey in midst of 'evolving political situation'

As Gov. Maggie Hassan prepares to depart for a controversial trade mission to Turkey with business representatives and six state employees next Friday, she and her entourage are traveling under the auspices of a group now at odds with the Turkish government.

The $15,000 the state is paying for its portion of the travel and the $2,500 paid by each business participant will not cover all of the costs. The trip is being heavily subsidized by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) in partnership with the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester.

According to experts in Turkish internal politics, both groups are linked to the Iman Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, now living in exile in Pennsylvania. He was described by the Wall Street Journal in January as, “the reclusive imam whose crumbling political marriage of convenience with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the stability of the West’s biggest ally in a turbulent region.”

Erdogan and Gulen were partners for years in what the WSJ called a broad, Islamist-rooted coalition that has governed Turkey since 2002.

Last year, the relationship turned sour. Critics of Gulen say he and his millions of followers are using their network of influence built up in the U.S. and around the world over the past decade to foster their Islamist political agenda, and to promote dissent within Turkey. Gulen has accused Erdogan of abandoning Islamist reforms after more than a decade in power.

A Turkish diplomat arrived in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for meetings with State Department officials on a number of bilateral issues, including the extradition of Gulen to Turkey on accusations of “infiltrating state institutions,” according to the Turkish press.

Tension in Turkey

The tension between Erdogan and Gulen turned ugly just as the trade mission was in development. In April, the Turkish press reported that Erdogan pledged to purge members of the Gulen movement in the judiciary and police. “In order to sterilize this dirty water that contaminated the milk, we will either boil or molecularize it,” Erdogan said.

Also in May, Turkey’s foreign minister annulled a decree that ordered Turkish embassies to support Gulenists, a holdover from years of cooperation gone awry.

A large body of academic and journalistic work connects TUSKON and Turkish Cultural Centers around the country to Gulen, but the connection is rarely if ever openly acknowledged.

“TUSKON is not affiliated with the Gulen movement,” wrote Hakan Tasci, U.S. representative for the organization in an email to the Union Leader. “But many of the followers of the Gulen movement are members and we work with many of the Gulen movement institutions in 100 different countries. Many members sponsors movement schools or activities and we are proud of them and we don’t discriminate against any religious groups, or ethnic groups or political groups in the membership.”

In a 2008 report, titled “The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey,” the Rand Institute described TUSKON as the fourth leg of the Gulen movement, writing, “TUSKON does not have an overt political agenda, but its founders and members are close to the Gulen movement. TUSKON is considered to be the “fourth leg” of the movement, the other three being its education, media, and interfaith dialogue activities.”

Eyup Sener, president of the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, gave a similar reply via email:

“While there is no formal relationship with Fethullah Gulen, a large number of our members are indeed supportive of Fethullah Gulen’s democratic principles of secularism, equal opportunity and free enterprise.”

A moderate Islamist

Gulen is considered a moderate Islamist. He was one of the first Islamic clerics to denounce the bombing of the World Trade Center. His efforts to establish relationships with lawmakers and business leaders across the country have been ongoing for years with three basic components — subsidized trips, lavish award ceremonies for local VIPs and elected officials, and the opening of charter schools to promote the Gulen philosophy.

The Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester has been going by the playbook, hosting multiple award ceremonies in the past year along with trips to Turkey. Joe McQuaid, president of the Union Leader Corp., received the organization’s media award in 2013 at an event that drew political, religious and business leaders from throughout the state, all praising Gulen and his movement.

Ten members of the New Hampshire Legislature visited Turkey in 2013 with help from the TCC. The center so far has not announced plans for a charter school.Reporters looking into Gulen connections in Iowa discovered that more than a tenth of the state Legislature had traveled to Turkey in 2011 with help from the Turkish Cultural Center in that state.

‘Evolving situation’

“The Gulan movement is interested in collecting power and influence,” said Sharon Higgins, a California-based investigative blogger who has spent four years researching Gulan and his followers after the organization opened a charter school in Oakland.

“You can expect that the business people in Turkey who will be introduced to your legislators are friendly to or members of the Gulan movement,” she said. “The more secular businessmen will not be included in this.”

Hassan spokesperson William Hinkle did not sound like someone concerned about any risk associated with the trip, given the hostility between the Turkish government and the trip’s hosts.

“We are aware that there is an evolving political situation in Turkey since planning for the mission began,” he said, “and we have worked closely with the State Department and the U.S. Department of Commerce to carefully develop an itinerary that keeps trade, job creation and the economy the focus.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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