What an interesting congregation of people and topics!
They all came to a head on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at the Loudoun County Public School (LCPS) Board meeting in Virginia. It was the last in a series of meetings where the LCPS Board was to issue their final decision whether to approve or deny a charter school application. The charter application was for Loudoun Math & IT Academy (LMITA), and had been a source of controversy since the application was filed over 6-months ago.
Loudoun County is the wealthiest county in America, and part of a region considered to be the most highly educated. This doesn’t mean that they’re better than other communities. It just means that they have more “stuff” than others, in this case, it’s money and degree certificates. The political savviness and highly professional standards that are displayed in its county school board, is a reflection of the caliber of people involved in the overall politics of Loudoun County and of the Washington DC region. The implication is, that any charter school application will be scrutinized and examined to a degree that you won’t find in most school boards around the country.
LMITA was a proposed charter school that would serve grades 6 through 12 and have a curriculum focused on subjects that fall within the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). When the charter was first submitted to LCPS in August 2012, the LMITA governing board was made up of 7 people – 5 of whom are Turkish-American professionals and educators. They are also Muslim.
Does this qualify LMITA as having a “Turkish-Muslim agenda”? Probably as much as it qualifies the LCPS Board as being a “white-Christian agenda”. After all, the Loudoun school board is made up of all white members who are predominantly Christian.
LMITA was conceived by the Turkish-American board members. Their lives are dedicated to the research and development of science and technology. Three of them hold PhD’s in engineering (Ali Gokce, Ali Bicack, and Mustafa Sahin), one has a masters degree in engineering and is an entrepreneur (Sinan Yildirim), and one has a distinguished career teaching and managing at STEM schools (Fatih Kandil). Mr. Kandil is also currently the principal at Baltimore IT Academy in Maryland. This team banded together to establish a secular school that would teach STEM subjects, subjects which American students desperately need, and where American students are regarded as mediocre on a global scale. As a state-sanctioned charter school, their curriculum and hiring/firing practices would have to comply with all federal/state laws and codes. Religion would not be part of the curriculum, no one would be preferred or discriminated against based on their race, religion, etc. , and all other government regulations would need to be followed. If they don’t comply with the rules, then they can be penalized or lose their charter status.
Since the beginning of the application process, those against LMITA have opposed it on the grounds that the applicants are using “stealth jihad” and applying “creeping Sharia” tactics to get their charter school approved.
Does this qualify LMITA as having a “Turkish-Muslim agenda”? Probably as much as it qualifies the LCPS Board as being a “white-Christian agenda”. After all, the Loudoun school board is made up of all white members who are predominantly Christian. But these labels don’t give or take away anything in regards to the intellectual abilities or professional skills of members of either board. It’s possible that religion plays a factor in some of their motivations, and encourages them to do good for others and to take part in community building. If this qualifies the board members of LMITA and of LCPS as having a religious agenda, then I would concede that they do have a religious agenda. But I would call it a “positive-based agenda”.
Enter the bigotry. Since the beginning of the application process, those against LMITA have opposed it on the grounds that the applicants are using “stealth jihad” and applying “creeping Sharia” tactics to get their charter school approved. They allege that the charter schools are used to spread Islam. These religious attacks were mostly based on their ignorance of the Islamic religion, their misunderstanding of certain Muslim scholars, and their delusions about a grand jihadi-sharia-salamualaikum conspiracy that is supposedly taking over America. They were the most vocal voice coming from the public, and their bigotry intimidated many people out of publicly supporting LMITA.
The main accusation of the fear mongers was that the applicants are part of a Turkish-Muslim movement that is led by Imam Fethullah Gulen. They say that this movement is responsible for creating or managing more than 100 STEM charter schools in America, and over 1000 STEM-like schools around the world. They accuse these schools of having a hidden agenda of indoctrinating students with Turkish and Islamic supremacist ideas. LMITA clearly refuted all of the accusations by publishing a ‘Myth vs Reality’ fact-sheet.
People warned that the applicants are using deception, are incompatible with the American way of life, are guilty by association, are a threat to national security, and a slew of other accusation that gave the impression of this being part of “the war on terror”. Businessmen, military, and media personalities, attorneys and even clergy all made statements in the hearings warning of the dangers of the global Gulen movement and the dangers of Islamic indoctrination.
But none of the opponents presented any proof or evidence that demonstrated wrong doing, illegal activity or even deceptive practices of any of the LMITA board members. The best they did was to give general accusations about people who were barely associated with one of the applicants, Mr. Kandil. They never accused Mr. Kandil himself of doing anything wrong. And they never accused him of teaching Islam or promoting Muslim propaganda in any of the schools he worked in.
The real Muslim agenda can be found only when you investigate Imam Gulen himself, not any of the applicants or any of the charter schools. An important contribution of Imam Gulen is that he laid a theological foundation for equating the study of subjects like physics, mathematics and chemistry to a form of reflection on God’s creation. He says that, with the right intention, their study can be considered as worship. People who admire and respect Imam Gulen as a scholarly authority, will tend to get involved in studying and developing the STEM subjects.
The result of Imam Gulen’s influence is that there are hundreds of STEM-like schools established around the world that were inspired by his ideas. These “followers” or “members of the Gulan movement” have never used these schools to spread their religion or proselytize. There is simply no evidence of that. Rather, they used the schools as a way to fulfill what they perceive as a religious duty. And this religious duty is to educate others in the STEM fields… How dare they?!
What happened at the Loudoun County school board is not an isolated incident. This scene has repeated itself hundreds of times over the last decade.
It’s undeniable that many Turkish-Americans have been successful in setting up charter schools around the country. And it’s undeniable that they’ve empowered tens of thousands of American children with skills in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They’ve been so successful that they’ve attracted conspiracy theories, media scrutiny, and federal investigations. All fueled by the same type of people who popped their heads into the Loudoun Public School hearings to voice their paranoia and bigotry. These opponents have created a nation-wide alliance with other like-minded people. They appear at school board hearings around the country to influence the school boards into denying the application and to rally the local communities against the applicants themselves. They use the media, churches and government-connections to mobilize people for their cause. If it was up to them, they would love to see the “Gulenists” thrown into some secret CIA prison, or at least put on a no-fly list or a terror-watch list. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind water-boarding some of them to get the confession of “stealth-jihad” they so desperately want to hear. But this becomes more disturbing when you realize that this mentality is not limited only to citizens who make public comments about charter schools.
Their accusations of a jihadi conspiracy have no weight. Among other things, Imam Gulen also advocates non-violence, peace-building, and inter-faith & inter-cultural efforts. These are often ignored for the sake of promoting sensational and provocative conspiracy theories. But the influence of Imam Gulen is proof that you don’t need a government to pass laws and statutes that would compel others within the “system” to adopt STEM subjects into their curriculum or into their overall educational philosophy.
Imam Gulen doesn’t have a “government” of his own that he can use to compel others to implement his ideas. He doesn’t have a “system” in place that is codified where members of the “system” must be in compliance or they’ll be fined, fired or imprisoned. His methods don’t mimic how modern nation-states behave. Rather, he is a teacher and guide. Through his teachings, he was able to inspire others and influence millions of people around the world to embody noble characteristics of tolerance and community service through the pursuit of education, specifically scientific and technical education.
Imam Gulen has broken boundaries and has done an enormous service for the religious and secular communities of the world. He is a peacemaker who never used force, coercion, violence, assassinations, or bombs to prove his point or spread his teachings. If we lived in a world of logic and justice, then maybe the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to someone like Imam Gulen. But we live in a rather odd world, where Nobel Peace prizes are awarded to people who authorize drone strikes and military attacks that end up killing innocent people.
Becoming marginally familiar with the ideas of Imam Gulen, I can say that I do admire him and his work. I myself have a bachelors in Computer Engineering and masters in Telecommunications (And no, I’m not Turkish). So I have a particular appreciation for any technical school that teaches students skill-sets that are similar to mine, and appreciate people who advocate for this. I hope that others can further investigate his ideas and acknowledge him as a significant contributor to the Muslim intellectual and religious tradition. Who knows, maybe he can even be considered a Muslim in pursuit of liberty.
In the final meeting that took place on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 the LCPS Board denied the application. The vote was 8-1, where the one vote in favor was cast by board member Mr. Bill Fox. Mr. Fox even submitted a motion to grant a 6-month extension which would give the applicants more time to seek the specialists who can improve their application, and to also use that time to gather more grass-roots community support. That motion was unanimously denied.
Mr. Fox also went on the record to clearly and firmly denounce the bigotry. He was joined by board members Mr. Kevin Kuesters, Ms. Debbie Rose and Vice-Chair Ms. Jill Turgeon, in officially stating that their final decision to deny the application was not influenced by the bigotry on display inside and outside the hearings.
The only board member who attempted to give legitimacy to the bigoted accusations was Mr. Thomas Reed. He suggested that because there were a couple of Muslims who objected to the charter school based on the same anti-religious platform, then somehow they gave legitimacy to the claims.
What happened at the Loudoun County school board is not an isolated incident. This scene has repeated itself hundreds of times over the last decade. All around the country, people unite to oppose mosques, Islamic schools, secular schools, businesses, politicians and whatever else they perceive to be a “Muslim threat”. They “accuse” people of being Muslim, craft political agendas, push legislations and influence national-security and foreign policies. They do this all in the name of patriotism and a warped idea of Islam and Muslims. But they suffer from a tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing their own extremist tendencies, and from seeing the damage they’ve done to this country. It’s important that people speak out or resist these bullies when they find an opportunity to do so. That’s the only way of changing the narrative, and changing what they’ve made this country into.
Ramy Osman lives in Northern Virginia and blogs at www.Muslims4Liberty.org.