A wealthy US-based Turkish foundation with ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offers young American Muslims all-expense-paid trips to Turkey that allow them “to breathe the same air of unity and ummah while exploring Turkey.”
Turken Youth Bridges 2019 Group 1 is in Istanbul and ready for an amazing 8-day experience! Muslim students and young professionals from all walks of life come together to breathe the same air of unity and ummah while exploring Turkey. pic.twitter.com/2sib1MyZeP
— TURKEN Foundation (@turkenorg) June 15, 2019
Turken, an Islamist foundation run by people close to Erdoğan, including his daughter Esra Albayrak, has been organizing free trips to Turkey since 2016 under the Turken Youth Bridges program. Launched with only 30 students participating, the program will send some 200 young Muslims living in the US and Canada to Turkey in 2019.
In April 2019 Turken published a video on its official website announcing that open season for applications for this year’s trips had been launched with an audio of the Turkish president reading lines of poetry. The audio was originally recorded at the Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth branch convention in 2018.
The trip, which includes sightseeing and visits to historic places, also includes private audiences with members of the Erdoğan family, government officials and Islamist ruling party politicians who are eager to push the idea of Erdoğan as the leader of all Muslims and show how Turkey under his leadership has been fighting off Islamic foes.
The American Muslims attend a series of lectures at Ibn Haldun University, which is also owned and run by the Erdoğan family, with topics ranging from Turkey’s domestic policies to US-Turkish bilateral relations. The Center for Strategic Research (SAM), a think tank operating under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the architect of Turkey’s growing isolation from the Western alliance, is also among the institutions that give lectures to the US youth group. A part of the trip also includes visiting TRT World, a state-owned TV station broadcasting in English that is the mouthpiece of the regime for spreading Erdoğan’s anti-Western narrative.
A more troubling part of the visits in 2017 and 2018 included trips to political rallies organized by Erdoğan’s government such as gatherings that marked the anniversary the 2016 failed coup, which many believe was a false flag orchestrated by Turkish intelligence. Turkish officials have accused the US of complicity in the abortive putsch, although no evidence has been presented to support the claim. The goal is to sell the official narrative to the young Americans, although the coup pretext has in fact been used to launch criminal proceedings against more than half a million people including journalists, academics, human rights defenders and many others on dubious charges.
The propaganda appears to have had an effect on the minds of the visiting Americans. Nabila Prasetiawan, secretary of the Maryland Youth Advisory Council who travelled to Turkey with Turken in 2018, wrote “… the first full day of the program landed on 15 Temmuz or July 15th. Drawing parallels to Independence Day in the states, July 15th in Turkey is the two year anniversary of a failed coup by the military in 2016. On this day, crowds of Turkish citizens rushed to the streets to protest against the tanks and armed soldiers attacking their democracy. It was evident the day was filled with emotion and pride for the citizens of Turkey. It was fascinating to hear directly from students, reporters, and protestors who experienced the coup first hand,” on the website of the Maryland Governor’s Office for Children.
Likewise, on June 19, 2019, a Turken group visited the presidential palace in Ankara and was received by chief of staff and Erdoğan’s right-hand man, Hasan Doğan, who has recently authored a book titled “İslam Hukukunda Savaş ve Meşruiyeti” (The War in Islamic Law and its Legitimacy).
Selection for travel to Turkey free of charge during the high season is based on school performance, volunteer work and the strength of recommendations, according to the Turken website. One might think that the application process is open to any American between the ages of 18 and 30, but that is not the case. When a Twitter user asked in 2017 if she had to be Muslim or of Turkish descent to apply, the official Twitter account of the foundation replied, “The Turken Youth Bridges [are] open to all Muslim Youths who study or work in the United States or Canada.”
The expenses of the trips are covered by state-owned companies, ministries and organizations financed by public funds. Turkey’s flagship carrier, the state-run Turkish Airlines, is one of the sponsors of the Youth Bridge program, gifting tickets to some 200 participants this year alone, not including organizers and foundation representatives.
Turken’s two founding partners, the Türgev and Ensar foundations, which are funded by the government and AKP-run municipalities, provide lodging in their dormitories or at student hostels. Other sponsors of the 2019 trips are the Turkish Presidency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Ibn Haldun University, the governor’s office of Nevşehir (the province where the Cappadocia region is located), Zade Vital (a nutrition company), the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) and the Center for Values Education (DEM).
Turken, which is registered as a 501(C)3 not-for-profit educational organization by the US Internal Revenue Service, was established in 2014 by the Ensar Foundation, notorious for numerous sexual abuse cases, and the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), which has been accused of money laundering and profiting from public resources. Turken overtly operates as part of the deep network of President Erdoğan in the US. In an e-mail exchange that appeared in Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak’s inbox and was leaked by Wikileaks, President Erdoğan’s son Bilal openly wrote to family operative Halil Danışmaz that he would devote his time to the Turken foundation as part of his work related to the US.
Halil Mutlu, the former chairman of Turken who is also a cousin of President Erdoğan, was revealed to have met with Michael Flynn, the onetime national security adviser of US President Trump who was subsequently accused of illegal lobbying for Turkey, on October 10, 2016, a month before Flynn penned an op-ed for The Hill urging US authorities to cooperate with Turkey in the requested extradition of Erdoğan’s foe, Fethullah Gülen, a cleric living in the US state of Pennsylvania.
Mutlu was one of the key figures in a 2017 incident in which Erdoğan’s security guards attacked a group of people who had gathered outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., to protest his policies back home. Mutlu insisted that the police remove the protesters, and according to eyewitnesses, was seen leading pro-Erdogan chants.
Turken was recently on the agenda again after opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu became mayor of Istanbul in April after the first of two mayoral elections. His office revealed that foundations and associations close to Erdoğan and his family received some 847 million lira ($145 million) in 2018 and late 2017. TÜRGEV, one of the founders of which was Bilal Erdogan, received 51.6 million lira ($8.9 million), and the Ensar Foundation, which provides religious education and dormitories for students, received 29.8 million lira ($5.1 million) from municipal funds. It is rumored that these two foundations sent huge amounts of money to their US affiliate, Turken, despite the fact that US law does not permit foundations to receive money from abroad.
It is still not entirely clear how Turken is funded. According to US Internal Revenue Service tax records, Turken received donations amounting $24,460,759 in 2015. By June 2017 foundation assets totaled $43,680,873.
Turken is building a mixed-use, 21-story residential tower designed as a culture center and housing for Turkish students studying in New York. According to the state-run Anadolu news agency, the building in Manhattan will have a prayer room, recreation area, offices and student accommodation and will be able to host 220 students. On December 21, 2018 the groundbreaking ceremony was held with the participation of foundation representatives, Turkey’s Ambassador to the UN Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Turkish Consul General in New York Alper Aktaş and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. According to official records Turken bought the building in March 2015 for $15.5 million before spending another $2 million for 302 E. 41st St. that same day.
Turken House groundbreaking ceremony was held yesterday with the attendance of prominent figures. The Manhattan dorm will serve 220 male and female students and provide culturally appropriate housing. pic.twitter.com/lKaYXZ49fU
— TURKEN Foundation (@turkenorg) November 26, 2018
The foundation also purchased the 81-acre estate of deceased boxer Muhammad Ali in Berrien Springs, Michigan, on December 21, 2018 for $2.5 million. The estate will reportedly be turned into an educational camp and summer school.
Turken not only serves young Turkish Muslims studying or working in the US; it also attempts to exert influence over other Muslim minorities. For instance Turken itself donated $312,000 to the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Staten Island in 2015. Interestingly enough, Zulkarneyn Vardar, a Turken board member, is the co-founder and chair of the center and the private Miraj Islamic School, also in Staten Island.
David L. Philips, a professor at Columbia University who describes Turken as a “Wolf in the Neighborhood,” says Turken should address questions about the source of its funding as well the involvement of its board members in money laundering, corruption, sexual misconduct and Islamist education.