Group blamed for Turkish coup courted S.C. leaders Recipients say free travel to Turkey educational

Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks to members of the media at his compound on Sunday in Saylorsburg, Pa. Turkish officials have blamed a failed coup attempt on Gulen, who denies the accusation.

An organization tied to the Muslim cleric blamed by Turkish leaders for last week’s failed but bloody coup in that strategic Middle Eastern country spent thousands of dollars in recent years wooing influential South Carolinians, including taking legislators on all-expense-paid trips.

The group, Atlantic Institute of South Carolina, has offices in Columbia and Greenville, where it runs a school. The group says it promotes education, understanding, dialogue and interfaith tolerance. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contends the group is subversive, has infiltrated Turkey’s government, military, social and educational institutions and organized the failed coup.

After the coup was put down last week, Erdogan’s government launched a sweeping purge of those seen as linked to the cleric or his philosophy, removing tens of thousands of educators, military officers, justice officials and other governmental officers.

Cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, has denied any involvement. Erdogan now wants the U.S. to extradite Gulen back to Turkey. But many of Gulen’s followers contend that Erdogan used the failed coup as an excuse to remove those who oppose the president’s increasingly autocratic moves.

Akif Aydin, president and director of the Atlantic Institute of South Carolina, told The Post and Courier Thursday he “strongly condemns” the military’s attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government. In his more than two decades following Gulen’s teachings, he said, he has never heard anything undemocratic.

Aydin said Gulen’s teachings are about progress through education, tolerance, spirituality, moral values, peace and democracy.

He said he would not let the accusations or purges interfere with the Atlantic Institute’s efforts in South Carolina. “We are continuing our good work in our community,” he said.

Former Republican state Sen. Mike Rose, now a lawyer in Summerville, is one of several state lawmakers provided a trip to Turkey by the institute. The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity highlighted the trips in their 2015 series, “Capitol Gains,” which explored South Carolina’s loophole-ridden campaign finance system.

In an interview last year about the trip, Rose described the visit as an “educational tour ... to learn about Turkey, and I did.”

On Thursday, Rose said, “I don’t know of any evidence that this group or Gulen has anything to do with this coup.”

Rose said he’ll wait to see the facts. For all he knows, he said, the coup could have been staged to justify the purges, or for many other reasons.

Among the other state legislators who took the Atlantic Institute’s $7,047 trips to Turkey were Orangeburg Democratic Sen. John Matthews, Republican Sen. Michael Fair of Greenville and Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, who ran twice for governor against Nikki Haley and lost both times,

Asked last year about the trip, Sheheen said he avoids taking trips at state expense but saw nothing wrong with the visit to Turkey. He took the trip to learn and build understanding, he said.

Sheheen and his colleagues were hardly alone in receiving such trips. Gulen’s movement secretly funded as many as 200 trips to Turkey for members of Congress and staff since 2008, apparently violating House rules and possibly federal law, a USA Today investigation found last year.

At the time of the visits by state lawmakers, the Atlantic Institute of South Carolina was called the “South Carolina Dialogue Foundation.” Its stated purpose was to promote dialogue, education, community outreach and understanding between Turkey and the U.S.

Critics have long accused it of concealing a darker purpose: Like Erdogan, they accuse Gulen and his followers of operating as a sort of fifth column, subversively setting the stage to spread Islamic belief in the U.S. and to foment a takeover in Turkey.

The Atlantic Institute has branches in several states, including Georgia and Florida, where it runs educational and outreach programs similar to those offered in South Carolina. Those include lectures, panel discussions, dinners, future-leaders programs and a Peace and Dialogue Awards.

During the group’s 2016 awards ceremony in Charleston, College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell gave the keynote address and Jennifer Pinckney, the wife of slain Emanuel AME minister Clementa Pinckney, was honored. The group also presented awards to Republican State Rep. Jenny Horne for her efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds and to The Post and Courier for its Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till Death Do us Part” about domestic violence.

Organizers of the Atlantic Institute freely acknowledge and post on their website that they are inspired by Gulen in what is called the Hizmet movement.

Hizmet describes itself as one of the largest, faith-based social movements in the world with millions of adherents.

It has established hundreds of schools, interfaith, intercultural dialogue institutions and relief organizations throughout the world. It espouses a democratic and pro-business approach and promotes science, math and technology education.

In this country, the movement backs dozens of schools, including many public charter schools, across the U.S. Among them is the Greenville Renewable Energy Education (GREEN) Charter School. It opened three years ago with a goal to provide traditional education with enhanced math and science studies and a focus on environmental sustainability, renewable energy and technology.

Reach Doug Pardue at (843) 937-5558