Turkey coup attempt exposes Gülen-Erdoğan lobbying battle in the US

Prominent US lawyers and lobbyists working for the Turkish government have inveighed against Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers are beginning to respond.

Muslim spirtual leader Fethullah Gülen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in September 2013. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has hired lobbyists and lawyers to inveigh against the cleric, a onetime ally of Mr. Erdoğan, whose teachings has inspired a large network of charter schools.

As a coup attempt flared in Turkey and was quickly repressed by supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the weekend, a second, quieter lobbying battle raged in the United States.

It pitted a slew of lawyers and prominent lobbyists working on behalf of the Turkish government against a more muted effort launched by supporters of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

“The organization has engaged in a massive and systemic attempt to influence the politics of the United States through carefully curated donation patterns,” Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer working on behalf of the Turkish government said of US-based followers of Mr. Gülen, in a video posted in early June.

In the video, he urges the Obama administration to crack down on followers of Gülen, a onetime Erdoğan ally, describing them as seeking to obtain power in the US while “masquerading as a do-gooder operator of charter schools,” as Politico reports.

But Gülen, who has lived in the US since 1999, has denounced the coup, strongly denied any role and suggested it may have been staged by President Erdoğan.

On Tuesday, Turkey officially requested extradition of the cleric, which Gülen has argued the US should reject even as he told The Wall Street Journal that if he had to return and “face the gallows, I will not blink an eye.”

“I don’t believe the US will honor a request that is based on the enmity of a regime, which is recognized as dictatorial and has lost all of its credibility in the eyes of the world," Gülen told the Journal in an email.

The Turkish government’s lobbying efforts follow previous campaigns against Gülen that stem from a falling out between the two men in 2013, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. Turkey has had long-running relationships in Washington, particularly because of its status as a NATO member and its role in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State militant group, Politico reports.

A lobbying firm run by former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, for example, received $1.7 million this year to lobby on the government’s behalf. Last year, the government hired Mr. Amsterdam’s law firm at a rate of $50,000 a month specifically to inveigh against Gülen’s followers, according to Politico.

Much of the attention has been on a network of Gülen-inspired charter schools in Texas and California that focus on teaching STEM subjects. Lobbyists for the Turkish government have brought a number of allegations against the schools, including that the process of importing teachers at the schools represents a violation of the H-1B skilled worker visa program.

Critics describe Gülen’s followers as secretive and compare them with other religious movements such as Opus Dei. Officials at one charter school network, the Harmony Schools in Texas, deny any official connection to the Gülen movement and say they avoid teaching about religion, The New York Times reported in 2011.

Gülen and his followers particularly preach a moderate form of Islam and focus on social welfare causes, calling their movement Hizmet or "the service." 

The movement has retained some lobbying influence of its own. The Alliance for Shared Values, a nonprofit group that encompasses several Gülen-inspired US organizations, has hired The Podesta Group, a lobbying and PR firm founded by former Clinton and Obama administration official John Podesta and his brother, to reshape the group's image in the wake of legal attacks, Politico reports.

Some US lawmakers have also condemned Erdoğan’s focus on Gülen.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of Calif., who chairs a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that held a hearing on "Turkey’s Democratic Decline" two days before the coup attempt, called Erdoğan’s attacks on Gülen "counterproductive," in a statement.

The purging of many of Gülen’s followers in Turkey, some observers say, could make it unlikely that the Muslim leader engineered the coup attempt.

Particularly, Gülen’s religious background is a contrast with Turkey’s military, which has a long history of secularism and has sometimes clashed with the Islamism of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AKP) Party, Politico reports.

"The Gülen movement has been significantly weakened by Erdoğan over the past three years," David Tittensor of Deakin University in Australia told Politico. "My view is they need a scapegoat, and the Gülen movement provides that."

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