Thursday, September 01, 2011

Tax-funded charter schools founded by Turkish Muslims are trying to practice but not preach

A sign outside the Albuquerque School of Excellence in New Mexico proclaims, "College ready, Career ready, Life ready." The ASE building is a former Safeway, freshly painted neon orange and yellow. Inside, Chinese dragons, colorful butterflies, and self-portraits adorn the bright blue, yellow, and red halls, remnants of a recent art show.

Many of the charter school's 214 K-8 students are members of minorities from the neighborhood, drawn by its academic rigor and focus on science and math. One of its eighth-graders won first place in the 2011 New Mexico Science and Engineering Fair. Last school year, ASE's first, included celebrations for Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo. It plans to add a high school and uses a science-oriented curriculum popular in Texas public schools.

ASE parents seem pleased. Lewanna Ramsey, the mom of an eighth-grader and a special-needs sixth-grader at ASE, says she appreciates principal Ahmet Cetinkaya's open-door policy. "At a public school," she says, "you hardly ever see the principal or other staff. Here, I'm always in Mr. Cetinkaya's office."

But there's a bit more to the story. ASE is tied to sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish Muslim cleric now living in rural Pennsylvania. "Gulen," according to Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, "is probably the most subtle and capable Islamist now active." His millions of followers around the world promote his moderate brand of Islam partly through their businesses, cultural foundations, and media but primarily through schools and colleges—several hundred on five continents. Ask Cetinkaya about ASE's relationship to Gulen and he shifts in his chair and looks away. He and three of his teachers are from Turkey.

The schools have generated critical examination. A New York Times article in June detailed how the Harmony charters seem to favor local Turkish businessmen in awarding building contracts. While a large majority of Gulen charter staff and teachers are usually American, the administrators are usually Turkish. Every year the schools import several hundred male teachers from Turkey on H1-B temporary worker visas (684 in 2009, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report), making them one of the largest users of such visas in the country.

Gulen administrators claim that quality science and math teachers are hard to find, but teachers unions and some parent groups find that hard to believe. The Oklahoman quoted Jenni White, president of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, asking in May, "If Oklahoma teachers are being laid off, why are we as Oklahoma taxpayers paying people from not even inside our country to come and teach our children?"

In the United States, Gulen-inspired charters are unlikely to promote Islam directly, according to an American businessman who lived in Turkey for 12 years. (WORLD agreed not to name him because he still owns a business and travels there.) Instead, he said, Gulenists try to make appreciative parents and students more accepting of Islam. The long-term approach, he said, is to "just practice Islam—we don't even have to preach—and people will realize the justice of our system and convert."

Many American evangelicals have become adept in criticizing and opposing militant Islam. The Gulen schools offer a new challenge: When Christians shirk from developing schools for low-income students, Gulen moves in.

No comments: