North Dakota Legislative Trip Paid For By Controversial Islamic Group

I recently wrote a post about a trip to Turkey taken by a number of North Dakota legislators paid for by a group called the Turkish American Federation of the Midwest. In speaking with some legislators who didn’t take they trip, they told me that it was organized through what some described as an odd email that many thought was a scam. I decided to dig into the matter a little further, and I found some disturbing facts.

The TAFM, it turns out, is a front group for the Gülen movement, a “transnational religious and social movement led by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.” It’s an Islamic network and has gained some praise as being a more moderate alternative to other global Muslim groups, but has also been criticized for encouraging members to turn away from society to practice a fundamentalist sort of Islam.

In fact, the group has been described as a cult in leaked US diplomatic cables: “When we asked Valeria Heuberger, an Austrian expert on Islam, if the Gulenists have a hidden agenda, she replied, ‘Yes, they do have a hidden agenda, but I don’t think it is a radical agenda. Their agenda is simply to further the ego of their leader, the same as any cult.'”

It has also been criticized for its attitudes toward women, enforcing gender segregation within the group and with many of its members wearing clothing that doesn’t not expose any part of a woman’s arms or legs.

The group is “feared” in Turkey, according to some. “You know we have confronted real fear about this movement, particularly when we’ve tried to get critics to give us an interview,” CBS News’ Leslie Stahl asked America reporter Andrew Finkel, who has been working in Turkey for 25 years, in a 2012 interview about the movement’s charter schools in the US. “What are they afraid of?”

“There’s a fear of reprisal,” he answered. “I mean, it is the case that two or three people who’ve written books highly critical of the Gulen movement are now in jail.”

Finkel also described the Gülen movement as a “cult of personality.”

The group’s founder, Fethullah Gülen, currently lives in the United States rather than Turkey because “if he were to come back, then there would be such a brouhaha,” according to Finkel, “because it seems his followers have taken over key positions in the Turkish government and the police.”

Here in the United States, Gülen has been very active in setting up networks of groups to support his movement:

The 2008 RAND report explained that a “web of organizations propagates Gulen’s vision of Islam.” This web is an enormous and expanding global network which includes over 300 organizations in the United States. It takes an informed eye to detect their connection to the Gulen movement. Gulen’s followers began to establish their organizations in the US around the time Fethullah Gulen arrived in Pennsylvania. Now fourteen years later, approximately 180 Gulenist Turkish cultural, interfaith dialogue, and business organizations are operating in nearly every state and 135 charter schools are operating in 26 states

One of the groups established was the TAFM, which paid the way for the North Dakota legislators who visited Turkey. Which has me wondering, how many of those legislators knew who was really backing their trip? Were they aware of their sponsor;s connections to the controversial Gülen movement? To be fair, the Gülenists are also praised by many for being a relatively moderate Islamic group which does a lot to promote education.

But the group also faces serious accusations about attempts to undermine secular government in Turkey, and using some very thuggish tactics to do it.

Did these legislators even care about who was paying their way to Turkey, or did they just jump at the opportunity for a free trip regardless of who paid for it? And what is the Gülen movement’s interest in flying a bunch of North Dakota legislators to Turkey, anyway?

I don’t think we can accuse any of these legislators of being a part of some plot by a shadowy Islamic group. A simpler explanation is that they were merely dupes. At best, these legislators who accepted the invitation for this trip exercised some poor judgment. At worst, they were used by a not-so-democratic, cult-like group to help bolster their image and reputation as they seek to cement political control in Turkey.

The legislators who went on the trip were Rep. Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks), Rep. Ben Hanson (D-West Fargo), Rep. Lawrence Klemin (R-Bismarck), Rep. Lois Delmore (D-Grand Forks), Sen. Phil Murphy (D-Portland), Sen. Ray Holmberg (R-Grand Forks), and Sen. David O’Connell (D-Lansford).

Perhaps they owe North Dakota voters an explanation for just what they were doing in Turkey.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from 1-2pm weekdays.

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