Missouri lawmakers took trips to Turkey that were subsidized by a group tied to the Turkish Muslim scholar and thinker, Fethullah Gulen, who is now a controversial opposition leader. Such trips are common—and legal, under Missouri ethics laws—but they’ve drawn the ire of the Turkish government.
When Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Representative TJ Berry were approached with an offer to tour Turkey back in 2012, both saw the trip as an opportunity to seek trade and cultural relations, they say.
“The state of Missouri has several offices throughout the world. We have an office in Taipei. We have an office in China. So this is an extension of doing the work of the people,” Chapelle-Nadal said.
“We have an organization located out of Kansas City that was set up by President Eisenhower called People to People. And I sort of viewed it as the same thing: creating cultural ties between different countries,” Berry said.
Berry said he even made a contact in Istanbul who ended up buying a large dairy herd in northern Missouri and southern Iowa.
Chappelle-Nadal and Berry each paid their own airfare, but the lodging, meals and sightseeing were covered by the Niagra Foundation, a non-profit group that lists Fethullah Gulen as its honorary president on its website.
Berry says he looked into the group before traveling.
“At that point, 60 Minutes had done a piece on Gulen. I watched that, because there were some questions as far as, ‘Is this up-and-up? What do they want? What are they getting out of it?’ And I didn’t’ really have a solid answer to that when I went,” Berry said.
He consulted other lawmakers who had gone on similar trips, he said.
At the time, Gulen and his Hizmet movement were in line with the Turkish government. But a power struggle led to their falling out.
Now, Turkey blames the recent failed coup attempt on Gulen—and the Turkish government is cracking down on groups affiliated with him, claiming they influence policymakers and charter schools.
The Turkish government has retained an international law firm to look into Gulen’s influence around the world.
Dr. David Romano is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and a world renowned expert on Turkey.
“It’s not the Gulen movement style to ask for any quid-pro-quo for these lawmakers. There’s nothing demanded of them for going on the trip,” said Romano.
Romano says he was in a restaurant in Turkey when he met a group of Missouri educators hosted by a Gulen-affiliated group. Those educators, he said, didn’t even know about their host’s affiliation with Gulen until he explained it to them.
“There’s not even a wink of, you know, ‘Scratch our back after we’re done scratching yours here in Turkey.' It’s nothing overt like that. It’s just the Gulen movement hoping that they’ll have some goodwill and maybe be able to talk to these lawmakers in the future about issues that they’re concerned about,” he said.
It’s hard for even experts to know what the Gulen movement’s agenda ultimately is. That makes it a “gray area,” Romano said, for elected officials considering these trips.
“It’s exactly their strategy. These are farmers, not hunters. They farm their political movement through painstaking, patient labor. Even the graduates of their schools, or the students who receive bursaries to study at other schools and have free lodging in Turkey from the Gulen movement—there’s nothing explicitly demanded of them,” Romano said.
The lawmakers’ trips have also put the US federal government in an awkward position as it tries to work with Turkey, Romano said.
Gulen is living in rural Pennsylvania; Turkey is asking for his extradition. The Turkish government has purged the Mediterranean country of Gulen’s newspapers, schools and charities.
“They’ve also been going to other countries—to European counties, to Iraqi Kurdistan, to the United States and asking these countries to close Gulen-affiliated schools and charities and organizations and non-profits,” Romano said.
The Washington, D.C. based Center for Public Integrity complied a database of over 150 state lawmakers who took trips to Turkey subsidized by Gulen-affiliated groups. Five lawmakers were from Missouri.
Liz Essley Whyte is one of the reporters at CPI who collected the public records on these overseas trips.
She helped research how several state legislatures have passed resolutions sympathetic to Gulen’s goups and causes.
“Now, their leader is under threat of extradition, but they have a network of lawmakers and important people in academic circles to speak up for them now. And that’s just something I think the public should be aware of—where that kind of influence was cultivated, how it was cultivated,” Essley Whyte said.
Both Chappelle-Nadal and Berry filled out the required ethics paperwork for trips like this one. Each confirmed that the group never asked for anything in exchange for the tour.
Berry said the trip had “no effect whatsoever” on his sympathy to Gulen.
And Chappelle-Nadal, who sits on an education committee, said she wasn’t even aware that Gulen’s groups have ties to charter schools in the United States before our interview for this story.
Jennifer Moore is Missouri State University’s Journalist-in-Residence and a KSMU contributor focusing on public affairs journalism.