Claire Sadar
Jul 31 2018

Gülenist lobbyists in Washington cash-strapped, but find sympathetic audience

This is the fourth article in a series on the Turkish government and Turkish-American lobbying in the United States. In the first two pieces, I discussed how both the Turkish government and its former ally turned enemy the Gülen movement are courting the Trump administration, and particularly Vice President Mike Pence, through Trump-connected lobbyists. In the third piece, I examined the impact, or lack thereof, that Turkish government lobbying has had on U.S.-Turkish relations and foreign policy.

The Gülen movement suffers the exact opposite lobbying problem from its Turkish government rivals, who are dealing with a U.S. Congress, president and vice president an increasingly frustrated and angry with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Gülen movement is “swimming with the stream of popular opinion against Turkey”, as one Washington-based Turkey expert told Ahval.

Bilal Ekşili of the Washington Diplomacy Group, a lobbying organisation affiliated with the Gülen movement, agreed. “We have found our counterparts, especially in Congress and think-tanks, to be much more open and sympathetic as awareness of Erdoğan’s human rights abuses gets more coverage.” Ekşili mentioned the alleged plot to kidnap Gülen and the assault on protestors during Erdoğan’s visit to Washington last year as boosting animosity towards Turkey among U.S. politicians.

The Gülen movement will have to get as much mileage as possible out of the current political animosity between the United States and Turkey, as it is in no position to run a lobbying campaign on par with that of the Turkish government. Last year, Turkey spent more than 10 times the amount on lobbying than the Gülenists did, and in the first two quarters of this year the Gülenist Washington Diplomacy group has spent less than $30,000 between the two groups it has employed, Fidelis Government Relations and Sexton’s Creek.

Last week, Politico’s lobbying blog confirmed that the Washington Diplomacy Group was shutting down its lobbying operations. Ekşili did not respond for comment on the report. Though no one from Washington Diplomacy group has publicly commented on the reason why it has ceased operations, all signs point to the hard financial hit it has taken since its business conglomerates and banks were seized by the Turkish government.

“The Gülenist movement is cash-strapped currently, they lost quite a lot of money, not only in Turkey but outside, so they probably don’t have the same amount of resources,” said Selim Sazak, analyst and doctoral candidate at Brown University.

Joshua Hendrick, a professor at Loyola University in Maryland and an expert on the Gülen movement said it had been dramatically affected, but since the finances of the network had never been transparent, there was no way to put a hard value on the hit it had taken.

The Gülen movement has been cutting back its operations elsewhere as well. For example, the Gülenist umbrella organization TABA moved from its offices close to Congress due to the high rental costs. Another Gülenist inter-faith dialogue organisation, the Rumi Forum, which has been in Washington for close to 15 years, recently moved its offices out of the capital for the same reason.

The Gülen movement has not only had to contend with a greatly reduced cash flow, but also changing financial priorities. “There is great anxiety and concern for the well-being of many movement activists outside of the U.S., especially in Turkey. The movement has mobilised its resources and effort in helping those movement members who face dire conditions,” said A. Kadir Yıldırım, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Many Gülen supporters have left Turkey or have become stranded abroad without financial support. The movement has had to redirect much of its current financial resources, time and energy to aiding academics, journalists, students and even sports stars who cannot return to Turkey because of their affiliation with the movement.

But the Alliance for Shared Values and other Gülenist organisations act as lobbyists for the movement in their own right, like some pro-government cultural groups like the Turkish Heritage Organization. In addition, the grassroots of the Gülen movement is still intact in the United States. Much of the outreach for the movement is done by people who have no official position in Gülenist organisations. Even critics of the movement, such as Robert Amsterdam, one of the most public lobbyists for the Turkish government, said organisations affiliated with the Gülen network are very effective. “They should be complimented. They are incredible lobbyists,” Amsterdam said.

The next part in this series will examine one of the main stages in the lobbying fight between the Turkish government and the Gülen Movement, the issue of Gülenist charter schools.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.