Turkey plays politics in Canada, warns outlaw group behind failed coup is operating here

News on Gulen Movement

Five Turkish parliamentarians will bring a dire warning to their Canadian counterparts on Parliament Hill on Tuesday — that the same gang of outlaw terrorists who waged a bloody failed coup against the Turkish state is also deeply established in Canada.

And just as Turkish civil society is being purged of followers of the Hizmet movement, described by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “cancer” justifying the return of the death penalty, so too should Canada move to suppress this threat — from closing Hizmet schools and restricting finances to extraditing leaders, the Turkish delegation will argue.

The wider world “didn’t really grasp the seriousness” of the July 15 coup, Selcuk Unal, Turkey’s Ambassador to Canada, said in an interview.

It revealed a covert “parallel state,” under the control of exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, willing to murder and blackmail its way to power, Unal said. “It is not a small, disorganized thing. It was an organized and serious thing.”

But there is another side to this global diplomatic blitz, in which the fears of a Gulenist conspiracy are being raised from New Delhi to Moscow.

It is evident within the cinder block walls of the Nile Academy, a Hizmet school in northwest Toronto, where children follow the Ontario curriculum, inspired, partly funded and led by followers of Gulen.

As a small Turkish community that retains strong ties to its homeland, it is familiar with persecution. Before Erdogan came to power, followers of Hizmet were denounced as Islamists, out of step with the founding vision of a secular nation laid out by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey.

Girls, for example, were once shunned from schools for wearing headscarves, which inspired the movement to set up schools of its own.

Now, under the Islamist Erdogan, they are persecuted as apostates, liberals, not religious enough. And so Hizmet families in Turkey often send their children overseas, to schools like the Nile Academy. Last year, it had 44 students from Turkey. This year less than half are expected as parents grow more afraid of being openly Hizmet, a Turkish word meaning “service.”

Nile Academy has two campuses, one for girls and elementary pupils, the second for high school boys. Both board students.

“They call us disbelievers,” said Saadettin Ozcan, the boys’ school principal who once ran a large Hizmet school in Istanbul before moving his family to Canada to pursue better education.

When it was founded in 2005, it was called Nil, meaning abundance in Turkish, but changed its name to shed the negative connotation in English — a bit of marketing that now seems quaint, given the accusations of terror and treason.

It is roughly 50 per cent Turkish, and 99 per cent Muslim, having attracted students from other immigrant communities, and its administrators are keenly aware of radicalization, but also of the unifying potential of education.

In one of the classrooms, for example, there is a Helen Keller inspirational poster. “The highest result of education is tolerance,” it reads, an idea that is prominent in Gulen’s philosophy. In the art room are elaborate aboriginal designs and paintings of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, even Jesus.

Even in Canada, Turkey’s propaganda hits Hizmet families hard. Other Turkish Canadians see them as “traitors,” and refuse to acknowledge them, said Anar Mehraliyev, the girls’ school principal, who joined Hizmet at university in Azerbaijan, and said it helped him get over the angry judgmentalism of his youth.

“This is so offensive and disappointing,” he said. “They see us as enemies.”

Fethullah Gulen, 75, the most wanted man in Turkey, is often described as some kind of Khomeini figure who aims to return from exile and wrest power from the corrupt. He disavows all such ambition and denies any part in the July 15 coup.

He founded Hizmet in the 1960s in the far east of Turkey as an educational movement. It began with “lighthouses,” dormitories where students could stay while studying far from home. The first actual Hizmet schools were established in the 1980s, and forays into media followed soon after, with a magazine and an influential newspaper.

The fall of the Soviet Union was a key factor in its expansion beyond Turkey, especially across Africa and Asia, and led to the current focus on interfaith dialogue and humanitarian work. The prominent U.S. scholar of religion, Martin E. Marty, has studied Hizmet as “a model or exemplar of a promising way of being religious in Islamic contexts.”

Gulen himself has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, when he was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, based on recordings he claims were doctored. He has many followers in Turkey: thousands suspected of allegiance to him have been removed from jobs in an ongoing purge of academia, the judiciary, police and military.

Two Turkish Canadians have also been detained, including Ilhan Erdem, named by Turkey as head of Hizmet in Canada, and Davud Hanci of Calgary, alleged to be a coup leader. Even Turkey’s former ambassador to Canada, Tuncay Babali, was among hundreds of diplomats fired amid fears of top-level Gulenist infiltration.

Hizmet’s presence in Canada is strong, in activities like education, intercultural dialogue, and charitable works, said Faruk Arslan, a writer and social worker in Kitchener, Ont., who has studied it.

Arslan believes Hizmet is being used in Turkey as a “scapegoat” to deflect criticism away from Erdogan’s own corruption and links to extremist groups.

Brian Desbiens, former president of Sir Sandford Fleming College and former chair of Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office, visited Gulen two years ago at his converted former summer camp in Pennsylvania, and found the frail, philosophical old man failed to match the “mythology” of the wealthy exiled terrorist leader. He even compared him, in a way, to Jesus, who preached peace and tolerance but was demonized by the Romans for his influence among a persecuted people.

In the late 1990s, ads in Turkish media about Canada led many Hizmet followers to seek refugee status in Canada. Virtually all were rejected.

“That might change,” Desbiens said, now that Erdogan is targeting Gulenists in a sort of national purification.

“I think about this a lot. It’s very disappointing, sad, even frustrating,” Mehraliyev said. “As a believer myself, it’s important that I don’t lose my motivation. This is temporary.”