The American Islamic College is expected to gain operating authority from a state education body early next month, a move likely to ignite controversy because of the college's ties to a murky and far-reaching international movement led by Turkish religious leader Fetullah Gulen.
Supporters see the opening of the college as an important step for Islamic instruction in the United States, where scores of Gulen-backed charter schools have gained a reputation for academic achievement and a commitment to spreading Turkish language and culture.
Yet the Gulen schools have sparked widespread concern about possible manipulation of immigration laws and misuse of taxpayer dollars. Gulen himself is shrouded in mystery, too. An extremely wealthy and well-connected Turkish spiritual and political leader, he lives in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania while his followers in Turkey have ignited controversy with their efforts to increase the role of Islam in public life.
The Chicago college, founded in 1981 in the Lakeview neighborhood but dormant since 2004, would become the second Islamic educational institution in the country to offer college-level credit. For area Muslims, it would be a rejoinder to those who depict followers of Islam as uncivilized and prone to extremism.
"It looks like a resurrection of the college, which is great," said Zaher Sahloul, head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. "It's very important to have an institution of higher learning run by the Muslim community. It fills a need in the Chicago area and the Midwest."
But top officials at American Islamic College have been linked to Mr. Gulen's movement, which has been accused of fundamentalist teachings in some countries and of covertly building a more Islamic society in Turkey. In a cable obtained by Wikileaks, America's former ambassador to Turkey characterized the Gulen movement as a potentially destabilizing influence in Turkey that some more secular Turks see as trying an effort to bring about a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Called Hizmet, a Turkish word meaning "service," the Gulen movement promotes public service and education and runs think tanks, universities, media outlets and one of Turkey's largest banks. The organization seeks to spread Gulen's influence internationally through a network of 1,000 schools in 130 countries.
Hizmet operates more than 120 publicly funded charter schools in the U.S.
Yet administrators of these schools often deny any official connection to the movement, which has no formal organization or official membership.
"It's safe to assume that A.I.C. will be influenced by the Gulen movement," mainly through the selection of AIC's instructors and administrative staff, said Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah and co-editor of a 2003 book on the organization.
"It makes sense for them to hire people from the Gulen community, as they have much more knowledge and experience in the American education system," he said.
According to recent news reports, as many as 100 of the American schools are under investigation by the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education allegations that the schools use taxpayer funds to pay for the immigration of teachers' families from Turkey and provide other financial support for the Gulen movement.
Federal officials declined to comment on the inquiry.
"A.I.C. is directly related to the Gulen movement, which is being investigated by the FBI," said Constance Gavras, head of a Chicago area chapter of Act! For America, a grassroots anti-Islamist/jihadist group. "We're vehemently opposed."
Ali Yurtsever, head of the executive committee setting up the college, denied any connection with Gulen. The school will have to generate its own income, unlike Gulen schools in the U.S. that are supported by the movement, he said.
"The A.I.C. has no affiliation with the Gulen movement," Yurtsever said.
Yet Mr. Yurtsever has been a long-time follower of Mr. Gulen. He serves as administrator of Niagara Educational Services, a firm controlled by the Gulen movement. He previously served as president of the Gulen-backed Rumi Forum, a Washington, DC, think tank.
A.I.C.'s board of directors is led by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a Saudi Arabia-based association of more than 50 predominantly Muslim countries. Mr. Ihsanoglu has spoken in support of Mr. Gulen's ideas and has been linked as a political ally of prominent Gulen followers, such as Turkey's President, Abdullah Gul.
School officials say American Islamic College will seek to present a a more moderate form of Islam than the extremist version that has often dominated public debate in the U.S. since 9/11. The school plans to offer more than a dozen courses in the fall and hopes to attract up to 400 local and international students in the next few years.
"From the same texts–-the Quran and the sayings of Prophet Mohammed– people pick out words and statements to justify their terrorist activities," said Mr. Yurtsever. "It's very important to have an academic institution that is moderate and with prominent scholars to explain Islam in a moderate and a true way, so that the people and the American administration will be informed."
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference established A.I.C. thirty years ago. In 2004, the Illinois Board of Higher Education revoked the college's operating authority, citing a failure to comply with state regulations.
Now, after spending $500,000 from the Islamic Conference. to renovate its library, dorms, mosque, and 1,000-capacity auditorium, the college is reopening under new management.
It is led by Mr. Yurtsever, a mathematician with a Ph. D. from Turkey's Ege University, who taught at Georgetown University from 2003 to 2009.
Since a preliminary opening last fall, A.I.C. has offered Arabic and calligraphy courses and a lecture series to boost community interest. A.I.C. officials expect to receive authority to offer for-credit courses from the Illinois Board of Higher Education on June 7.
O.I.C.'s leadership intends the college to become self-sustaining. Currently it rents building space to a Montessori school and a French high school.Mr. Yurtsever said the college would likely apply for federal grants money and plans to organize a fundraiser and host a conference on Islam and Democracy later this year.
Like Zaytuna College in California, a Muslim school that began offering college-level courses last September, A.I.C. has applied for full accreditation. That process takes several years. If successful, the colleges could confer four-year degrees.
On AIC's website, prominent scholars such as Robert Pape, a leading author on terrorism and a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights expert at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs, are listed as "summer faculty." Neither responded to calls seeking confirmation. Other faculty would teach East-West relations, Muslim politics, and Islamic law, finance and theology, Mr. Yurtsever said.
The theories of Mr. Gulen – who is said to follow a tolerant, Sufi Islam and aims to lift Muslims into modernity and promote Turkish culture and power – will not be on the curriculum, school officials said.
Mr. Gulen, 70, has lived in the U.S. since 1999, when he left Turkey amid charges of plotting to overthrow the state. In a widely circulated video from that time, he advised his followers to "move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers." He was acquitted of the charges in 2006.
Many Turkish secularists fear the Gulen movement and Turkey's current leadership want to roll out a more Islamic set of laws. In 2008, the AK Party helped pushed through parliament a controversial amendment to lift a ban on Islamic-style headscarves in universities–a clear break with Turkey's secular traditions. Turkey's highest court annulled the amendment a few months later.
In a December 2009 cable from Ankara, James Jeffrey, then-ambassador to Turkey, wrote that Gulen schools have a reputation for "academic excellence and the advocacy of moderate Islamic views." He added that a "conservative and religiously observant undercurrent" has met resistance in countries with concerns about the spreading influence of Islam.
Jeffrey raised questions about the Gulen movement's true objectives.
"The Gulen Movement's purported goals focus on interfaith dialogue and tolerance," Mr. Jeffrey wrote in the confidential document, released by Wikileaks in March. But "many Turks believe Gulen has a deeper and possibly insidious political agenda," he said.
Several Turkish journalists and authors who have investigated the movement in recent months have been detained and charged with involvement in an underground group conspiring to overthrow the state. In a speech posted online in early May, Mr. Gulen highlighted "ruthless smear campaigns" against his movement.
Gulen schools have not been welcome in countries concerned about rising Islamic influence. Russia tried to outlaw Gulen schools because they diverted from the national curriculum. In Uzbekistan, a Gulen school was shuttered amid accusations that it supported Islamists. Georgian politicians protested the opening of Gulen schools, saying they promoted Turkish culture and fundamentalist Islam.
Mr. Yavuz, the political scientist, studied Gulen schools in the US and abroad and found the schools as a rule met reasonable educational standards and pushed no overtly religious agenda.
Many of the movement's US schools focus on math and science, including the Science Academy of Chicago, a private high school run by Niagara.
Mr. Yavuz also noted the schools reveal little about the sources and use of money. The schools often import Turkish teachers using H-1B visas. Such visas allow US employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty jobs, usually for three years.
The federal government places a strict limit on the number of H1-B visas it issues, and corporations often complain the cap restrains their ability to transfer highly qualified workers from foreign countries. Yet Gulen-backed schools received 839 H-1B visas in 2010, a 65 percent increase from 2007, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Teachers unions and education reform groups in several states have spoken out against the spike in foreign-born teachers at Gulen schools. "There is no reason to bring teachers in from other countries under the guise of lack of staffing," said Jenni White, president of Restore Oklahoma Public Education. "We are un-employing or under-employing Oklahoma teachers and paying people from other countries' salaries on the backs of hardworking taxpayers."
The Chicago college, A.I.C., is likely to benefit from a loophole that excludes universities from the federal H-1B quota.
"The sky's the limit," David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and a former assistant to the US Secretary of Labor who has studied the use of H-1B visas, said in an email.
Mr. Yavuz sees the movement as more confident and assertive in the U.S. in recent years, citing increased lobbying efforts and the 2007 opening of the Gulen Institute at the University of Houston.
"I don't see it as a danger, but I don't see it as productive," Yavuz said. He compared the movement to the secretive Catholic organization Opus Dei. "I think their main goal is to improve the image of Islam in the U.S., but even there I don't know if they can be successful."