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The Gülen movement plays big in Washington

HDN | 5/14/2010 12:00:00 AM | İLHAN TANIR

Six federations, having close proximity to Mr. Fethullah Gülen, joined to form the Assembly of Turkic American Federations, or ATAF, a non-profit organization.

It was one of the lavish lounges of the Willard Hotel in Washington where hundreds of Turkic people from all across America with plain name tags gathered to mark the creation of a new umbrella Turkic Assembly last Wednesday. Six Turkish-American federations, which have close proximity to Mr. Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric and the exiled leader of the Turkey-based religious Gülen Movement joined to form the Assembly of Turkic American Federations, or ATAF, a non-profit organization.

Half a dozen U.S. Senators and a few dozens of U.S. Representatives made a strong showing at the reception and the Gülen Movement hinted that its new assembly has some muscles to flex in Washington already.

One would think bringing that many U.S. Senators and Representatives should require loads of money for campaign donations. "No," said, Mahmut Yeter, president of one of the six federations that formed the ATAF, "this strong turnout owes its success to their members who worked voluntarily, often visited these lawmakers in their local offices and finally convinced them with their persistence that they have to be at the reception."

I had a chance to talk with some of the congressmen and senators who participated at the reception. I asked Ms. Gabrielle Giffords, representative from Arizona’s 8th. District, why she chose to come to a Turkic community gathering, considering that there is a very tiny Turkic community in her district. Gifford turned and pointed out a young Turkish man who was standing next to her. According to the congresswoman, that young Turkish man had visited Gifford's district office several times recently and finally persuaded her to show up for the reception "even though I do not like to go such events," Gifford said, before responding my question and telling me that she never heard of Fethullah Gülen.

The Gülen Movement accelerated its activities in U.S., especially since the leader of the Movement, Fethullah Gülen settled in Pennsylvania about a decade ago. During the mid ’90s, after almost three decades in the making, it was still operating very much under the radar in Turkey.

The unexpected and sudden decision to combine all of their 180 organizations under one umbrella assembly was a surprising move, at any rate, for those who follow the Gülen movement closely and are aware about its cautious strategies and steps.

Mr. Gülen first decided to go public with a wide ranging interview in early 1995, and in the following years the movement attracted ever-increasing attention. The postmodern-military coup of Feb. 28, 1997 pushed Gülen out of Turkey to find refuge in the U.S. Only more than a decade later, the Gülen Movement gathered enough manpower, recognition and credit to bring dozens of members of Congress to its half-official Washington debut night. The Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Mr. Namık Tan, came to the reception and stayed there almost the entire night, having conversations with the members of the U.S. Congress - alhough not everyone was as joyful about the new kid in town. The Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, or ATAA's, president, Günay Evinç, was pretty upset about the name of this new assembly because of its similar word selection with their own assembly. Evinç argued that this name similarity has created a big administrative disaster for their organization to explain the difference.

Evinç, who has had good relationships with the Gülen Movement's organizations so far, did not seem as thrilled with the idea of this alternative Turkish assembly. "ATAA," Evinç said while describing the difference, "promotes an inter-Turks dialogue, not interfaith." Evinç pleaded that he wanted "a dialogue and to stay on good terms with everyone, including this new organization.” However, this name confusion is such a huge issue, he said, adding that they would even consider finishing “the whole partnerships and dialogue with them.”

Another Gülen Movement member in Washington said when told about this complaint, "for 30 years, ATAA has been the leading voice to represent Turkish people in the U.S. Now rapidly increasing numbers of Gülen-tied assemblies are taking the market, and ATAA's and others' maneuvering room is shrinking."

[HH] Decision from Gülen

This decision of "combining all Gülen-related Turkic or Turkish associations and federations under one assembly,” was decided by Fethullah Gülen, another active member of the movement who came to the reception from a long distance said. "This decision was too big to let other leading members of the Gülen Movement to take on. Gülen took the initiative," said the well-connected member while listening to speakers at the reception.

It is the "Turkic American Federations," not Turkish, because this umbrella organization represents not only those Turks who are from Turkey, but those "citizens from Central Asia, Anatolia and the Balkans... as part of [America's] cultural mosaic" the website of the ATAF notes.

The Gülen Movement also sent an important signal to the political leadership in Ankara by fetching this many U.S. Congress members. The movement made a psychological statement in Washington that they should be also taken into consideration in terms of multi-leveled relations between Turkey and America by demonstrating that they have a few strings to play in Washington.

Mr. Gülen motivates his followers in the U.S. to contribute and visit their local representatives. Gülen, according to another active member of the movement at the reception, asks those who want to visit his compound in Pennsylvania "to donate to their local representatives first,” before they show up at his door.

"This is just a beginning," another participant told me during the night, while pointing out a group of senators and representatives along with the Turkish ambassador having a conversation.

The Gülen Movement last week made it official that its members are here in America to stay and expand at an even faster pace in coming years.

This looming scenario would have two possible upshots for Turkish-American relationships. One is: increasing the presence of the movement in Washington will help Turkey during some of the threatening developments for its interests, such as the Armenian genocide resolution discussions. The Gülen Movement proved with this year's “genocide” fights in Washington and other states that the movement will be another influential venue to advance Turkey's interests in Washington on many matters.

The second upshot is the strong possibility for the Gülen Movement to become a leading voice among the Turkish groups in Washington to reach the U.S. Congress and other Washington decision makers to narrate the contemporary domestic issues of Turkey and relate them to U.S. politicians. In that sense, members of the U.S. Congress, most of whom do not have much international affairs on their resume, might be just happy while swallowing concentrated education pills on Turkey through Gülen Movement recipe.

The Gülenists deserved a big round of applause with being able to pull off such an impressive gathering at the heart of Washington this week at the end of the day.

The Gülen Movement members are disciplined, loyal and they complete their assignments as they are told. The movement is able to mobilize its members to fulfill its leader's vision even in America.

It is a tough competitor for any other movement.

That is why we hear more often greetings to Pennsylvania these days from unexpected places.

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