Mar 07 2019

First Lady chose Oklahoma school for its academic record

U.S. First lady Melania Trump’s selection of an Oklahoma school for a visit this week was about the school’s academic excellence and commitment to developing character, her spokeswoman told U.S. news outlet The Intercept on Wednesday.

Mrs. Trump’s Tuesday visit to Dove School of Discovery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, triggered an international incident after reporters in Turkey found the school was linked to U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, the man Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup.

Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for 20 years, denies any role in the failed coup. Gülen’s U.S. followers founded 136 charter schools in 28 states between 2010 and 2017, according to CBS News.

As allies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government, members of the Gülen movement opened scores of schools and universities across Turkey and around the world. In Turkey, the movement encouraged graduates and other followers to take up influential positions within the state bureaucracy, police, armed forces, judiciary and media.

But the two wings of Turkish Islamism split in late 2013 when prosecutors said to be linked to Gülen brought corruption charges against cabinet ministers and their relatives. The charges were later dropped and the police and prosecutors involved in the case were arrested.

Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for the first lady, said Dove School of Discovery “was recognised with the 2018 National School of Character award and was chosen because of its excellent academics and commitment to character education. The school was recommended and vetted before the visit,” she wrote in an email to The Intercept.

Grisham declined to answer a direct question about whether the White House was aware of the Oklahoma school’s links to Gülen before the visit.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu told state-run Anadolu news agency on Wednesday that the Gülen movement, now referred to by Ankara as the Fethullahist Terror Organisation, or FETÖ, takes in $800 million a year from charter schools financed by U.S. taxpayers.

Turkish authorities have repeatedly demanded Washington extradite Gülen, but U.S. officials say Ankara have yet to provide sufficient evidence to justify sending him to Turkey to face trial.

TRT World, the English-language arm of Turkey’s state broadcaster, asked whether the first lady’s visit was “an intentional move or just a faux pas on the part of the administration”.

In dealing with a state audit, Dove School hired Oklahoma’s former attorney general, Drew Edmondson, as its lawyer. Edmondson said the association between the Gülen movement and the schools was not necessarily a bad thing.

“As long as they’re not proselytising, and they’re not, and as long as they’re open to all religions, and they are, sponsorship really doesn’t bother me a whole lot,” he told the Oklahoman newspaper.