Turkish asylum seekers are coming here after the failed coup in their home country prompted mass arrests. Many are affiliated with an elusive movement that promotes good works, yet is reviled by the Turkish government.

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In their spotless Bellevue apartment, the couple welcomed a visitor with a just-baked lemon cake while their adolescent daughter studied at a library down the street. She was a teacher. He was a principal. They chose to live here because it was close to a good school.

They seemed an utterly normal family and yet were scared to publicly reveal their names. They came from Turkey, where a coup attempt in July led to a government sweep of mass arrests and firings. Targeted with particular suspicion: anyone affiliated with a popular movement known for its schools, good works, pro-Western brand of Islam and perceived elusiveness.

The couple belongs to this movement, inspired by reclusive Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the mountains of Pennsylvania. And so, says the wife, “Turkey has become dangerous for us.” They fear not only going home, but harm to loved ones should they talk openly.

Around 20 recent arrivals to the Seattle area from Turkey face the same situation, according to Tezcan Inanlar, Northwest director of the Pacifica Institute, a group also affiliated with the Gülen or “Hizmet” movement. Many, like the Bellevue couple, came on tourist visas and are applying for asylum, selling off assets at home to support themselves while they wait for a decision.

Their cases, like others around the country, could prove politically sensitive.

“I think it will be very difficult for American judges to send them back,” said Henri Barkey, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program. In today’s Turkey, he said, “everyone is guilty until proven guilty.”

And yet, he added, granting them asylum could antagonize Turkey, a NATO ally, already enraged over the U.S. failure to extradite Gülen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blaming the cleric and his followers for the coup attempt that killed roughly 240 people, calls Gülen and his followers terrorists.

That’s not a term Americans would use, said James Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010, and now a fellow at The Washington Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Nobody is accusing Gülenists of plotting to kill innocent civilians. And, Jeffrey said, they aren’t perceived as a threat to Americans.

But it’s an open question as to whether the movement was involved in the attempt to overthrow Erdogan, a onetime ally of Gülenists who brought Islamic values to the government after decades of secular rule. Speculation also abounds about what, exactly, the Gülenist movement is.

Worries about home

Flush with millions of dollars and followers, the Gülenist movement operates myriad organizations not only in Turkey but around the world, including the U.S., where it runs more than 100 charter schools. None are in Washington, but the movement’s presence here is maintained by Pacifica Institute’s Bellevue office, which holds interfaith forums and dinners, and Acacia Foundation, started with a similar mission but focusing lately on providing cultural classes to Russian refugees of Turkish heritage settled in South King County.

Because of accusations hurled at the movement since the coup attempt, those refugees have stopped coming to foundation classes, according to Acacia’s director, who asked not to be identified out of concern about family in Turkey. Unlike California-based Pacifica, Acacia relies on local members and donations, and a sudden drop in both means it may soon close its Kent office, according to the director.

Some have seen worse happen in recent months back home. One man who came here after being dismissed from his job at a Turkish airline said his wife had been detained for the last 10 days without charges. “Someone came to the house and took her,” the man said. Their child is staying with grandparents.

His roommate in Renton, who worked for a Hizmet university closed by the government, said his father has been in prison since July. The former university employee’s grandfather, in his 70s, spent a week in prison before being released for health reasons. His mother, headed out of the country, was stopped at the airport and her passport was seized, the man said.

“There’s a witch hunt,” said a Turkish scientist, also now living in Renton. The scientist said he is not affiliated with the Gülenist movement but has friends who are, and that, he believes, would be enough to land him in prison should he return home.

The Bellevue couple fear the same, saying that even before the current purge the government had been harassing employees of Hizmet schools like theirs.

Not only do many Gülen followers like the couple categorically deny participating in the attempted coup, but they call it a “fake,” designed as a pretext for getting rid of them.

“Ridiculous,” said Jeffrey, the former ambassador. Instead, he described a prolonged, “life and death” power struggle between the Erdogan government and a movement of growing influence. Until the government crackdown, it ran a major newspaper, bank and nonprofits, as well as schools.

Oft-heard analogies include the Catholic group Opus Dei, the Masons and the Mormons.

Jeffrey said the movement does a lot of good work but is controlled by a “clandestine” inner circle that he believes is bent on overthrowing the Turkish government.

“It is secretive,” agreed the Wilson Center’s Barkey, who said little is known about the movement’s hierarchy or financing. But he articulates a somewhat different agenda: “to create a much more educated, pious generation” that embraces Turkish nationalism and a moderate form of Islam while using its extensive network to advance worldwide business interests. (Barkey himself has been the subject of rumors linking him to the coup, something he attributes to conspiracy theories emanating from the Turkish government and others.)

The Bellevue couple dismiss the notion of a hidden agenda. As teachers at Hizmet schools, they were at the heart of the movement, said the wife, adding that if they don’t know of such an agenda, nobody does.

 

Education, career success promoted

As recounted largely through the wife, who speaks better English, they told a typical story of getting involved with the movement. She first encountered members in college. “They were good people,” she said. “They weren’t telling lies. They stuck to their religion.”

He was in middle school, living in poverty after his father died, when a Hizmet volunteer at a learning center took an interest in him. “Hizmet” is the Turkish word for service, and those involved in the movement frequently donate time and money to causes at home and abroad.

The volunteer helped him with food, clothes and an introduction to the movement, which would later find a job for him at a Hizmet university that allowed him to work his way to school.

“When you are in this movement, everyone helps you,” said the wife. “You can work here. You can work there.”

The career networking is aided by Gülen’s promotion of education, focusing on math and science, and professional success. The cleric also preaches the value of learning English.

That’s why the scientist now living in Renton said he learned the language. He got inspired by Gülen’s message in college, like many smart students, he said.

“Our friends in the USA, we like them so much,” he said. Yet, he said, “everyone thinks that Muslims are bad people. It is very hurtful for us.” Learning English would allow him and others to clear up misunderstandings, he said.

Inanlar, of the Pacifica Institute, was studying engineering in Atlanta when he fell in with a Hizmet group. He said he found the openness to other faiths particularly appealing at a time that he was making his first non-Muslim friends. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he said.

He recalled conversations with a devout Christian. “Oh my God, there are huge similarities,” he said he thought.

It was right after 9/11 and he wanted to do more to build bridges. He left engineering and enrolled in Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school in California that champions religious pluralism.

He joined Pacifica in 2011 as its Southern California director and opened the Northwest office in 2015. Since then, the local Pacifica has held community forums on subjects including religious extremism, community policing and climate change. Pacifica is one of many sponsors, including the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Temple B’nai Torah and the Archdiocese of Seattle, of an Oct. 29 talk on American Muslims at Town Hall in Seattle.

This month, Inanlar traveled with a group to the Balkans, where they visited Hizmet projects. Among the participants was Phil Gerson, a Jewish, retired Boeing employee active in interfaith work. He also went on a 2008 trip to Turkey sponsored by Acacia.

Jawad Khaki, co-founder of the IMAN Center of Kirkland, was on the Turkey trip, too. He came back impressed by the generosity of his Hizmet hosts and the values of service and education they espoused.

“All I saw was goodness from these guys,” he said.

As to whether Gülenists have a hidden agenda, Khaki said, “only God knows … All I can say is what I see.”