[OPINION] Erdoğan’s phantom Islamist menace in the US

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during TURKEN Foundation's dinner in New York, United States on September 23, 2016. AFP

Abdullah Bozkurt

Two Turkish foundations managed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family members and associates have actively been working to lure US Muslim students on trips to Turkey as part of the proselytizing activities of Turkey’s Islamist government, which is bent on penetrating the American Muslim community with a view to creating its very own fifth column.

The ideological underpinnings of these two foundations, the Ensar Foundation and the Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), are rooted in political Islamist activism with alarming jihadist leanings. There are certainly enough reasons to be concerned about their real intentions in the US. The two organizations jointly created the Turken Foundation in the US in June 2014, registered as a 501(C)3 not-for-profit educational organization by the US Internal Revenue Service. The leaked emails of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak reveal that all of Erdoğan’s family members have been involved in getting the project off the ground.

When examined as to who drives the ideological basis for these foundations, two controversial names come to light that give some indication of where this project may be heading. One is Hayrettin Karaman, also known as the chief fatwa (religious edict) giver for Erdoğan, who he effectively declared caliph. Karaman, who openly advocated the view that all Muslims are obligated under Islam to support Erdoğan, is in fact a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yosuf Qaradawi, who endorsed suicide bombings and armed rebellion in Syria.

Karaman used distorted Islamic jurisprudence to justify the massive persecution of Erdoğan’s critics, especially the Gülen movement, that resulted in the jailing of over 50,000 people in the last year alone including thousands of women and hundreds of children. He approved the murder of a few for the larger good, paving the way to legitimizing the extrajudicial killings perpetrated by Erdoğan’s regime. He strongly rejected interfaith dialogue among religions, exonerated major corruption in the Erdoğan government and asked for non-Muslim treatment for the opponents of the president in Turkey.

If it was necessary to use an instrument to make a journey toward Islam step by step under the conditions in which we found ourselves, we used that instrument. This could have been a concept, an institution or political party,” he wrote on May 25, 2014 in an op-ed titled “Democracy, Majority, Secularism and Islam.” In other words, he was saying that the democratic processes that helped Erdoğan come to power in Turkey are nothing but tools to be exploited to achieve the ultimate goal of creating an Islamist dictatorship.

This cleric is a revered figure among the leadership of the Ensar Foundation and was featured as a keynote speaker at many panel discussions organized by the foundation. İsmail Cenk Dilberoğlu, president of the Ensar Foundation, has been posting messages of support for him on his Twitter account. In one tweet he was pictured meeting with him at his home. The foundation’s publishing arm prints Karaman’s books and distributes them to readers. Dilberoğlu and Erdoğan’s son Bilal are buddies from when the two attended an imam-hatip religious school. Bilal is a frequent visitor and keynote speaker at many Ensar events, showing up for the inauguration of Ensar branches in Turkish cities and towns. In fact, when he inaugurated the opening of the Bahçelieveler branch of Ensar in Istanbul on Jan. 9, 2015, Bilal Erdoğan said the person he talks to the most after his wife is Dilberoğlu. It is clear that the Turkish government’s resources are at the disposal of Ensar, whose president Dilberoğlu also has a chair on the board of directors of Turkey’s national flag carrier, Turkish Airlines (THY).

Another ideologue who has been active in programs run by Ensar and other pro-government NGOs is Nureddin Yıldız, a radical cleric who has endorsed jihadist wars from Syria to China. He had close ties to the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Hassan Abboud, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, who was killed in September 2014. Yıldız had pictures with Abboud during a visit to İdlib. Abdallah Muhammad Bin Sulayman Al-Muhaysini, an Al-Qaeda cleric of Saudi origin who is among the leaders of al-Qaeda group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, urged Turks to read the books of Yıldız, in a special video message addressed to Turkey.

Yıldız has been a lecturer at Ensar programs and has given his blessing to marrying girls as young as six, which sparked outrage in Turkey. But the criminal probe was dropped when Erdoğan intervened in the judicial process to save him from legal problems. In March 2016 Ensar was hit by a rape scandal affecting as many as 45 boys who were molested by a teacher working at an unofficial, Ensar-run dormitory in the city of Karaman between 2012 and 2015. As a result of the public outrage, the teacher was indicted and later convicted on 10 confirmed cases involving boys, but the foundation was spared a criminal probe, and the investigation into other cases was prevented from moving forward.

Despite the scandal, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) stood by Ensar, with then-Minister for Family and Social Policies Sema Ramazanoğlu downplaying the incident and calling it a “one-time event.” The AKP even rejected a motion in Parliament to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident, only to reverse its position after a public backlash. The Turkish president has since continued to appear at Ensar Foundation’s events to deliver speeches in Turkey and abroad. Ensar’s Ankara office is a popular place for Turkish ministers and senior bureaucrats.

Now these foundations are bringing Muslim students from the US through their non-profit front NGO the Turken Foundation under cultural and educational schemes and subjecting them to the mindset of this dangerous religious zealotry. They cultivate candidates from venues such as annual conventions held by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Muslim American Society (MAS). Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye as well as Turkey’s Ambassador to the US Serdar Kılıç appeared at an ICNA-MAS event in December 2016 while Turken’s booth in the exhibition hall was signing up Muslim youths for their programs.

This is like a homecoming for Erdoğan’s henchmen since MAS was set up by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose exiled leaders enjoy strong backing and generous funding from the AKP government. ICNA is believed to be associated with Jamaat-e-Islami, a South Asian Islamist group that also has links to the Erdoğan government. In fact, relations between Turkey and the Bangladeshi government soured in recent years when Erdoğan started bashing and bullying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over her crackdown on the Jamaat-e-Islami network, a group that the Bangladeshi government claimed was linked to terror. Turken is working with these Muslim groups in the US on behalf of the Turkish president.

Erdoğan tapped his cousin Halil Mutlu to lead Turken in the US when it was set up in 2014. In February 2016 Mutlu was replaced by Behram Turan, a founding member and former president of the Noor-Ul-Iman School in New Jersey, affiliated with the Islamic Society of Central Jersey (ISCJ). When Erdoğan goes to the US, he delivers speeches at Turken events. For example, he addressed some 150 Muslim students when on April 2, 2016 he inaugurated the Diyanet Center of America, a 20,236-square-foot mosque complex that was built in Lanham, Maryland, with $110 million provided by Turkey. He spoke at another event organized by Turken at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Sept. 22, 2016. Turken is setting up student houses and a dormitory in New York, with more planned in other countries. It organized a trip of 30 students to Turkey in 2016 and another one in the summer of 2017.

It has become rather routine now to see non-Turkish Muslim groups being invited to private events with senior Turkish officials who come to the US on official or personal business. When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Erdoğan’s lackey, visited the US on March 22, 2017, Egyptian Muslims linked to the Muslim Brotherhood attended a political campaign event for Erdoğan’s ruling party. For example, Mahmoud El Sharkawy, spokesman for the MB-linked group Egyptian Americans for Freedom and Justice (EAFJ), was among those who attended Çavuşoğlu’s event. It was no coincidence that El Sharkawy was the point man in linking up with MB members sheltered and funded by the Erdoğan government in Turkey. When Çavuşoğlu bashed the West for being anti-Islam and fearful of Turkey at an event in New York, El Sharkawy and company cheered him.

Erdoğan and his family members are keen to conflate politics and religion in their phantom maneuvers to penetrate the US Muslim community, hoping to incite them to action on their behalf when they feel it necessary and useful to advance their political goals. The leaked emails of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak revealed how Erdoğan’s operatives funded and organized anti-Egypt rallies in New York in November 2013. The operative, named Halil Danışmaz, who then led another front NGO called the Turkish Heritage Organization, reported to Albayrak and Erdoğan’s son Bilal that an Egyptian group was meeting every week under their care and that even the slogans on placards that were displayed at protests were prepared by Turkey.

Turning conventions organized by US Muslim groups such as MAS-ISNA into platforms where the Turkish Islamist rulers attack their critics is another worrying development. Muslim diaspora groups from Central Asia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Balkans as well as from North and sub-Saharan Africa are targeted by Erdoğan’s operatives as recruitment grounds to enlist supporters in US Muslim communities. The threat the phantom menace Erdoğan and his Islamist thugs pose to US national security with overt and covert attempts as they try to influence American Muslim society with ideologues like Karaman, Yıldız and other radical clerics must be tackled head-on before morphing into something more challenging.

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