Turkey's Islamist government is set to complete a pair of construction projects in New York City that, among other uses, will house Turkish-American students and expose Muslim youth to Turkish propaganda and extremism.
However, Turkey's indoctrination of Muslim youths isn't the only reason why New Yorkers should oppose the Islamist government's real estate plans. A notorious Turkish foundation accused of numerous cases of child abuse and rape will fund and administer one of these dormitories.
The U.S.-based Türken Foundation, an organization set up jointly by two other religious foundations, Ensar and Türgev, is building a massive 21-story dormitory to "shelter" Turkish-American youths from the enemies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The building, called the Türken House, is being erected on a $15.5-million plot on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 41st Street.
"Our foundation ... works with all its power to prevent FETÖ elements from bothering the children of this nation both in the country and abroad," said Ensar Foundation General Manager Hüseyin Kader.
FETÖ is the acronym for the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, the AKP's hostile name for the Gülen Movement, a worldwide network of businesses, schools, and nonprofits. Erdoğan has claimed that Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher in self-exile in the United States, was the mastermind behind a failed putsch against his government in July of 2016. Consequently, he has recognized the Gülen Movement as a terrorist organization. However, Western intelligence agencies have not been convinced by Turkey's claims.
Kader's assertion that the Ensar Foundation intends to keep youths safe is ironic, considering the violations members of the foundation have committed against women and children. The most recent atrocity occurred in June, when two Ensar religious instructors (identified only as O.S. and M.O. in court documents) were detained for allegedly blackmailing and raping nine women residing at Ensar's safe houses — sanctuaries established for women threatened by domestic violence.
The foundation's record of child abuse goes back for more than a decade. In 2008, Ensar's provincial chairman in the Turkish city of Çorum, Zekai Isler, was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl and for abusing her sister. A criminal court found him guilty.
In 2016, Mehmet Nuri Gezmiş, a former Ensar provincial director, was arrested for sexually abusing two boys, aged 13 and 14.
Between 2012 and 2015, Turkish law enforcement systematically refused to investigate Ensar despite numerous allegations of abuse. But by 2016, pedophilia among Ensar's Islamist teachers appeared too commonplace to hide. Forty-five children, ages 9 and 10, who stayed at Ensar dormitories in the central Anatolian city of Karaman complained to prosecutors that local Ensar director Muharrem Büyüktürk raped and sexually abused them.
The 54-year-old Büyüktürk confessed to the crimes in his statement at the police station, but in court, he claimed that officers had misled him by claiming they were trying to help him. "If you confess and say you are mentally ill you will walk free from the courthouse, police officers told me," Büyüktürk said during a hearing.
Medical reports confirmed that ten children were raped. A criminal court sentenced Büyüktürk to 508 years in prison but refused to investigate Ensar further. During the entire trial, the court banned media reporting on the case.
Shortly after the verdict, the former opposition (and now Erdoğan's staunch ally) of the Nationalist Movement Party submitted to Parliament a motion to look into the rape case against Ensar after the court refused to investigate the foundation further. That request was voted down by the AKP benches.
As Ensar came under fire from secular and liberal Turks, Erdoğan's government moved in quickly to defend the Islamist foundation. After the trial, Nihat Öztürk, a member of Parliament from Erdoğan's AKP, said, "No matter what you [opponents] do, we will always support Ensar."
At the center of the seculars' ire was a female cabinet member. Minister for Family Sema Ramazanoğlu said, "Just because this [the serial rapes] happened once it is not right to defame a foundation."
The controversy facing Ensar even provoked violence among the Turkish diaspora in America. In 2017, the AKP's North American branch organized a Women's Day event in Paterson, New Jersey, featuring Minister Ramazanoğlu. AKP supporters brutally assaulted two Turkish women and a man who protested Ramazanoğlu for her statement on the Ensar serial rape case.
Moreover, the rape investigation revealed another criminal offense. Ensar's dormitories in Turkey, built for primary school children, were illegal. Under Turkish law, foundations, organizations, and institutes are not authorized to operate dormitories for primary school students. Meanwhile, Erdoğan's government transferred at least seven privately-owned student dormitories to Ensar's administration after the coup attempt in 2016. Those dormitories had previously been operated by organizations believed to be linked with Gülenists.
Higher-ups at the Ensar Foundation enjoy privileged access to the Erdoğan family. Until recently, Ismail Cenk Dilberoğlu was chairman of the foundation, serving in this capacity for the past nine years. He and Erdoğan's son, Bilal, were graduates of Kartal Anadolu Imam School, where they first became friends. In a 2016 speech, the younger Erdoğan said Dilberoğlu was "the person with whom he spent most of his time apart from his wife."
The Türken Foundation, which ran student dormitories in Boston, Virginia, Chicago, Queens, and D.C. between 2014 and 2017, collected over $54 million in donations, while it earned nearly $23 million over the following two years, according to IRS reports. The large bulk of Türken's 2018–2019 donations came from a single unidentified source.
The Türken Foundation's other partner in the dormitory project, Türgev, is one of the AKP's primary instruments in executing Erdoğan's top political goal of "raising devout generations." Its chairperson is Fatmanur Altun, wife of Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan's communications director. This web of relationships illustrates how Turkish foundations operating on U.S. soil are connected to Turkey's top leadership, which wants to build a bridge between Turkish Islamism and Muslim Americans.
The Türken House is not the Islamist government's only construction project on U.S. soil. In a high-profile ceremony on September 20, Erdoğan inaugurated Türkevi (Turkish House), another significant structure in New York, at a cost of $291 million and a height of 560 feet.
According to Turkish government officials, the 36-story skyscraper is housing the Turkish Consulate General but will mostly serve Turkish students living in the New York area. Türkevi was constructed by a partnership between Turkish company IC Içtaş Inşaat and U.S. company AECOM Tishman.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of the Al-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn, New York, addressed Erdoğan: "You are the leader of the world's Muslims. ... I love you." This sentiment is increasingly shared by Muslim Americans.
Wahhaj has made statements in support of Islamic laws over liberal democracy, arguing that "Islam is better than democracy." He also supports corporal punishment, such as stoning for adultery and severing hands for thievery.
Since the rise of the AKP, Turkey has exported its Islamist brand around the world, including in the West. In New York, the regime is embracing the lucrative field of real estate — not only for the commercial and diplomatic benefits that property ownership entails, but also to groom Turkish college students to do its political bidding.
With the troubled Ensar Foundation at the helm of at least one of these initiatives, Turkey is set to export its adversarial domestic politics to Midtown Manhattan, and New Yorkers of all stripes are bound to pay the price.
Burak Bekdil is an Islamist Watch writer and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.