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A misguided crusade against pious Turks in the US

Today's Zaman. Ali H. Aslan, May 11, 2010

Some Americans are obsessed with “radical Islam” in the United States. One such character is Stephen Suleyman Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz is a convert to Islam who is engaged in a vociferous intellectual war against radical Muslims.

The problem is, he claims even some of the most peaceful and constructive Muslim groups in US, such as pious Turks associated with the Gülen movement, are “radicals.” His rhetoric is tantamount to hate speech, which raises a big red flag about Mr. Schwartz's crusade.

In a recent piece for American Thinker, a conservative news website, Mr. Schwartz went about the task of alarming his fellow Americans about the Gülen movement. Not surprisingly, his piece was sponsored by the “Islamist Watch” project of the Middle East Forum, an Islamophobic, pro-Israel think-tank based in Philadelphia. Mr. Schwartz argues that Turkish Muslim sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen are part of a “secretive foreign network of Islamic radicals,” calls their actions in opening charter schools in the US “conspiratorial” and exhorts Americans to “unite to oppose it.”

First of all, what makes Mr. Schwartz believe that Gülen sympathizers are “radicals”? Is there a single shred of evidence that the Gülen movement has disrupted social peace or advocated radicalism in the US or elsewhere? On the contrary, there's overwhelming information proving just the opposite. This is a transnational peace-building movement with strong emphasis on universal values and science. The Gülen group has been a frequent target of radical Muslims in Turkey and abroad, mainly due to their non-confrontational attitude vis-a-vis the West. Immediately after Sept. 11, Gülen ran an ad in The Washington Post condemning terrorism and offering condolences to the victims. He later called Osama bin Laden a “beast.” In the eyes of many radical Muslims and Turkish ultranationalists, Gülen, who met Pope John Paul II in 1998, secretly became a cardinal to evangelize Turkey. They allege that Gülen and the movement are a proxy of the CIA. So if Mr. Schwartz is really worried about “radical” Muslims, he should look somewhere else.

Since Gülen sympathizers are not radicals, why is there no place for them in Mr. Schwartz's concept of “Islamic pluralism,” which he supposedly advocates as executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism? Probably he does not know enough about the Gülen movement. Or he might have fallen into a trap, stereotyping under the influence of secularist Turkish friends. Turkey's secularist fundamentalists can easily label you as an “Islamist” or a “radical,” even if you are merely a practicing Muslim. In their eyes, pious Muslims are OK as long as they remain practical slaves for them. But when they violate (!) the elite zone by investing in key areas such as education, media, finance, bureaucracy, etc., the Turkish oligarchs get mad. That's the Gülen movement's big sin!

An apartheid-type attitude towards the majority religious conservatives may have been the norm in Turkey's monopoly-obsessed secularist establishment. But what should we make of Americans who act similarly? Is it the Sept. 11 effect? Or is it because they are simply bigots? In Mr. Schwartz's case, his close association with right-wing Jewish groups and some neocons should not be discounted as well. Jewish trauma from the Holocaust was only exacerbated after Israel's wars with the Arabs. Many Jews see Israel as insecure in a predominantly Muslim Middle East. Islam is often used as a vehicle of resistance, which at times takes the form of radicalism and terrorism against expansionist Israeli policies. As a result, many moderate pious Muslims find it difficult to prove they are not a threat. Such suspicion of religious Muslims is especially more common among pro-Israel Jewish and American rightists. So, if some Muslim Turks in the US are keeping a low profile about their association with faith-based movements, it must be because of fear from bigotry as a minority rather than a secret agenda. And articles like Mr. Schwartz's prove they may have a point.

Since the US is a free country, why should it be a problem if pious Turks operate public charter schools, as long as they meet the legal and academic criteria? That's the case with the schools inspired by Gulen's pacifist ideas. Authorities constantly monitor these schools. Had there been any credible evidence of illegal or inappropriate activity, they would have taken the necessary punitive actions (as they should). You may find a few parents or teachers angry with the administration for various reasons at any school. Given the stereotypes about Islam, they may also try to use the “foreign” and “religious” element to bolster their arguments. However, a majority of the students, parents and local authorities believe these schools are making an immense contribution to social peace and justice in the US via education. In a country where there is a serious public education crisis, the last thing one should do is discourage successful entrepreneurs at charter schools.

Mr. Schwartz’s unwise attitude not only has the potential to hurt US education, it is also very un-American. He is promoting a witch-hunt and discrimination towards a group of innocent, law-abiding and tax-paying Turkish Muslims. And believe me, he is not alone. Unchecked, such discourse might pave the way for hate crimes towards minority Turkish-Muslim Americans, disrupting social peace and further deteriorating America’s relations with Turkey and the rest of the Islamic world. The US government and sensible Americans must unite to oppose it, just as they tackle anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

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