By David Lepeska
The American Islamic College, closed since 2004 when the state revoked its operating authority, is expected early next month to win approval to reopen.
Supporters see the opening of the Chicago college, founded in 1981 in the Lakeview neighborhood, as an important step for Islamic instruction in the United States. But its detractors point to the college’s ties to a secretive and far-reaching international movement that has been accused of Islamism in some countries and of an overuse of non-immigrant work visas to hire foreign teachers in its schools in the United States.
The movement, led by Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania, supports scores of charter schools that have gained a reputation for academic achievement and a commitment to spreading Turkish language and culture.
Yet the Gulen schools have caused widespread concern about possible manipulation of immigration laws and misallocation of taxpayer dollars. Mr. Gulen, an extremely wealthy and well-connected Turkish spiritual and political leader, fled Turkey amid charges of plotting to overthrow the secular government. He was acquitted of all charges in 2006.
The college would become the second Islamic educational institution in the country to offer college-level credit. For Muslims in the area, it would be a rejoinder to those who depict followers of Islam as prone to extremism.
“It looks like a resurrection of the college, which is great,” said Zaher Sahloul, head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “It’s very important to have an institution of higher learning run by the Muslim community.”
Top officials at American Islamic College have been linked to Mr. Gulen’s movement. In a cable obtained by Wikileaks, the United States’ former ambassador to Turkey characterized the Gulen movement as a potentially destabilizing influence in Turkey that more secular Turks see as an effort to bring about an Islamic state.
The Gulen movement, called Hizmet (a Turkish word meaning “service”), promotes public service and education and oversees research institutes, universities, media outlets and one of Turkey’s largest banks. The movement seeks to spread Gulen’s influence internationally through an informal network of 1,000 schools in 130 countries.
Hizmet operates more than 120 publicly financed charter schools in 25 states, in addition to a handful of private schools, like the Science Academy of Chicago, run by Niagara Educational Services, a Mount Prospect firm associated with the Gulen movement. Like many of the movement’s American schools, the Science Academy focuses on math and science.
Administrators of the schools often deny any official connection to the movement, which has no formal organization or official membership but operates through a network of followers, according to Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah and co-editor of a 2003 book on the organization.
“It’s safe to assume that A.I.C. will be influenced by the Gulen movement,” mainly through the selection of the college’s instructors and administrative staff, Mr. Yavuz said.
“It makes sense for them to hire people from the Gulen community,” he said, “as they have much more knowledge and experience in the American education system.”
According to recent news reports, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Departments of Labor and Education are investigating accusations that as many as 100 of the movement’s American schools have used taxpayer money to pay for the immigration of teachers’ families from Turkey and provide other financial support for the Gulen movement.
Federal officials declined to comment.
Ali Yurtsever, head of the executive committee setting up the American Islamic College, denied any connection with Gulen. The school will have to generate its own income, unlike Gulen schools in the United States that are supported by the movement, he said.
Mr. Yurtsever has long been a follower of Mr. Gulen and serves as administrator of Niagara Educational Services. He previously was president of the Gulen-backed Rumi Forum, a Washington research institute whose honorary president is Mr. Gulen.
Attempts to contact Mr. Gulen through his Web site and through Mr. Yurtsever were unsuccessful.
School officials say the college will present what Mr. Gulen has long stood for: a more moderate form of Islam than the extremist version that has often dominated public debate in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. The school plans to offer more than a dozen courses in the fall and hopes to attract up to 400 local and international students in the next few years.
The college was established 30 years ago by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a Saudi Arabia-based association of more than 50 predominantly Muslim countries. In 2004, the Illinois Board of Higher Education revoked its operating authority, citing a failure to comply with state regulations.
Now, after spending $500,000 from the Islamic Conference to renovate its library, dorms, mosque, and 1,000-seat auditorium, the college is reopening under new management. It is led by Mr. Yurtsever, a mathematician with a Ph.D. from Ege University in Turkey who taught at Georgetown University.
College officials expect to receive authority to offer for-credit courses from the Illinois Board of Higher Education on June 7. The college has applied for full accreditation, which would allow it to confer four-year degrees.
Mr. Gulen, 70, has lived in the United States since 1999, when he left Turkey. In a widely circulated video from that time, he advised his followers to “move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers.”
In the United States, Gulen schools often import Turkish teachers using H-1B visas, which allow American employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty jobs.
The federal government places a strict limit on the number of H1-B visas it issues, and corporations often complain the cap restrains their ability to transfer highly qualified workers from foreign countries. Yet Gulen-backed schools received 839 H-1B visas in 2010, a 65 percent increase from 2007, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Teachers unions and education reform groups in several states have spoken out against the spike in foreign-born teachers at Gulen schools. “There is no reason to bring teachers in from other countries under the guise of lack of staffing,” said Jenni White, president of Restore Oklahoma Public Education.
Mr. Yavuz, the political scientist, said he did not see the movement as a danger, “but I don’t see it as productive. “
“I think their main goal is to improve the image of Islam in the U.S.,” he said, “but even there, I don’t know if they can be successful.”
originally ran in May 29, 2011 NY Times, with Chicago News Coop