More than a dozen South Carolina legislators have taken trips to Turkey in the past 10 years that were paid for by groups associated with an exiled Muslim cleric who was accused of being behind a failed coup attempt in Turkey last summer, according to an analysis of legislative disclosure forms by The Center for Public Integrity.
Among those legislators are two from the Upstate. Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, made a trip to the country in 2015, and longtime Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, who lost his re-election bid in the primary last year, took a trip in 2011.
They were among more than 150 state lawmakers who took trips to Turkey paid for by groups inspired by Fethullah Gulen, who teaches a brand of Islam that seeks to fit the religion's traditional teachings to a modern world.
The trips taken by South Carolina legislators were sponsored by the Atlantic Institute and its predecessor group, The South Carolina Dialogue Foundation, which paid tens of thousands of dollars to send legislators, educators, business leaders and others from South Carolina to visit Turkey until last year. The stated mission of the Atlantic Institute, which has a South Carolina branch based in Greenville and locations across the Southeast, is to foster dialogue and a cultural understanding of Turkey for people in the U.S., with a focus on educational initiatives.
“Founders of the Atlantic Institute are inspired by Fethullah Gulen’s philosophy of dialogue and peaceful and constructive coexistence,” the institute’s website says.
Attempts by The Greenville News to reach someone at the institute Thursday were unsuccessful. But USA Today quoted Atilla Kahveci of the California-based Pacifica Institute, a Gulen-movement group that organized lawmaker trips elsewhere in the country, as saying the intention was "to act as a kind of a bridge" between Americans and Turks.
“We didn't have any kind of, from our point of view, ulterior agenda, no matter how it seems from outside,” Kahveci said.
Gulen left Turkey and has been living in self-imposed exile in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania for years. But after a poorly organized and failed coup attempt by some members of the Turkish military last year, the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed Gulen and his followers were behind the overthrow attempt. Erdogan began to clamp down on Gulen followers in the country, closing schools, jailing soldiers and taking over and shuttering newspapers critical of his regime.
One of those closed newspapers, Today’s Zaman, had been a frequent stop on cultural trips to the country led by the Atlantic Institute, and the institute at the time wasn’t shy about describing the differences between Erdogan and Gulen, lawmakers said.
Collins said the purpose of the trip he took was to expose members of the South Carolina delegation to the history, economy, trade, education and business of Turkey.
Collins said he paid his own airfare and the institute told him business leaders had paid for the rest of the trip expenses while in Turkey. He reported the trip’s cost as a gift of $3,500 on his 2016 statement of economic interests to the State Ethics Commission.
Fair reported the cost of his trip as $7,047 in his ethics form. He said he chose to go because it was at no cost to state taxpayers and because he was asked to go by a friend from Greenville, Akif Aydin, who is the president of Atlantic Institute.
Aydin was also a member of the planning committee for GREEN Charter School in Greenville, according to the school’s charter. The school opened in the fall of 2013 with grades K-6 and is expanding each year to add a high school in Greenville. A similar school is planned in Columbia.
The school is one of dozens across the country founded by backers of the Gulen movement. Critics have accused the networks of charter schools of surreptitiously spreading Islam. School officials, including at GREEN Charter School, have denied teaching Islam in their schools.
Both Collins and Fair said they visited schools in Turkey as part of their trips.
“The schools that we visited were very impressive and the students that we were exposed to were impressive,” Collins said.
Though both served on education committees in the legislature, they said they were never lobbied about schools or anything else on the trips.
“The trip was just really fun,” Fair said.
Collins said since it was a political trip, they discussed the differences between Erdogan’s regime and the Gulen movement, but religion and Islam weren’t a major part of activities other than sightseeing at the famous Blue Mosque.
Overall, he said, the turmoil in Turkey made him appreciate America even more, Collins said.
“I became even more grateful to be an American with what we have,” he said.
He arrived home from the trip the same day two bombs exploded at a train station in Ankara, killing at least 95 and injuring hundreds.
The Institute for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization, found disclosure filings indicating that 152 legislators from 29 states made trips to Turkey sponsored by groups associated with Gulen.
It listed five from South Carolina who went on the 2015 trip: John King, D-York; Cezar McKnight, D-Williamsburg; Todd Rutherford, D-Richland; Mary Tinkler, D-Charleston; and David Weeks, D-Sumter. Collins wasn't included on the list but told constituents about his trip on his Facebook page.
Eight South Carolina legislators went on trips to Turkey in 2012, according to the institute: Fair; Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield; Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; John Land, D-Clarendon; Phil Leventis, D-Sumter; John Matthews, D-Orangeburg; Mike Rose, R-Dorchester; and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw.