The OC Halal Food Festival is meant to bring diverse people together all in the name of yum. But this year's event at the Islamic Society of Orange County mosque in Garden Grove proved to be a brief battleground over Turkish politics, one not seen in OC since last year when the Anaheim Union High School District held a screening of Killing Ed, an Islamophobic documentary critical of charter schools affiliated with exiled Turkish imam Fetullah Gulen. Erol Kozoglu, owner of the newly opened Marash Ice Cream parlor in Santa Ana, worked his booth alone during the November festival when a local group supportive of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gulen's onetime ally-turned-rival, accused him of serving up two scoops of terror.
"Hi, how are you?," Vakkas Dogantekin said in Turkish. "I was going to buy ice cream from you but I learned that you are a member of FETO." Dogantekin is president of Turca, the self-described Westminster-based nonprofit with a humble office along Beach Boulevard where the Turkish flag can be seen visibly draped inside. Gulenists call their movement "Hizmet" or "service," but "FETO" is the favored acronym of the Turkish government, which translates to "Fetullahist Terrorist Organization." In 2016, the Erdogan government officially designated the controversial religious movement as a terrorist group (The U.S. government doesn't and Gulen lives in a Pennsylvania compound in the Poconos Mountains, though Erdogan is trying to secure the cleric's extradition).
A man with the group filmed the provocation on his phone that only escalated in rhetoric. "I didn't know who these guys were," Kozoglu tells the Weekly. "I thought that they were just joking. Later, I learned that those guys were board members of Turca." He identified the person filming as Kahyan Susuz, a Turca board member from Huntington Beach. The Ice Cream parlor owner remained calm, largely ignoring the verbal accosting. "You are fighting against Muslim people, scumbag!" Dogantekin ranted. "Jewish dogs! Jewish dogs!" The local Erdogan backer also called Kozoglu a "terrorist," a charge he didn't ignore. "How do you know I am a terrorist?" he asked. "You are a FETO member!" Dogantekin yelled.
The man filming cautioned bystanders waiting in line for ice cream. "By shopping here, you are supporting a terrorist organization," he said in English on camera. "They tried a coup attempt in Turkey. We love Turkey! We love Erdogan!" The Turkish president blamed the failed military coup on July 15, 2016 that claimed hundreds of lives on Gulen and his followers. Erdogan has only tightened his authoritarian grip on power since then, declaring a state of emergency, shutting down opposition media and purging suspected Gulenists from civil institutions. But foodies at the festival ignored the political banter and ordered ice cream after the confrontation anyway.
When Kozoglu returned home from the festival, he was flooded with text messages and calls from friends. They let him know the video started circulating on social media after Dogantekin posted it on Twitter. "You're famous!" a friend said. "What happened?" Kozoglu wondered the same thing, too. When it came to his attention that members of the group that harassed him belonged to Turca, he recognized Savas Yilmaz, the nonprofit's Vice President and President of OC-based Falcon Aerospace Inc., pictured shaking Erdogan's hand on their website. Kozoglu surmises that his harassers snapped a photo of him at the booth and sent it to Yilmaz, who wasn't at the festival, to confirm his identity as a Gulenist.
"I had a personal, non-physical, non-violent and spontaneous verbal exchange with a member of the Gulen movement, a designated terrorist organization that is deplored by 99 percent of the Turkish nation in and out of Turkey," Dogantekin wrote the Weekly in an email. "That person never denied my accusation during or after the incident." He ignored questions about his "Jewish dogs" comment. Michael Sercan Daventry, a journalist with The Jewish Chronicle, confronted Dogantekin on Twitter about the remark. "Mr. Daventry, 'yahud kopekleri' means 'dogs of Jews,' not 'Jews are dogs,'" Dogantekin tweeted. "I have never been antisemitic."
Dogantekin deleted the video tweet after facing backlash for his comments and told the Weekly he received death threats that have been reported to the FBI and Seal Beach police. By that time, it had been downloaded by someone else and fitted with English subtitles. "I deleted the video from my social media because I received thousands of threats from Gulen cult members in the US," he tweeted on Nov. 6. "They attack like hyenas." Dogantekin provided numerous screenshots of tweets and Facebook messages directed at him in English and Turkish. Many claim to have reported the video to local and federal law enforcement agencies. He got a heaping of over-the-top scorn with people calling him everything from an ISIS supporter, to an Erdogan spy and even a "Muslim piece of shit." Dogantekin claims to have blocked 1,200 or so accounts and deleted numerous messages before a lawyer advised him to catalog them for law enforcement agencies.
The social media trolling may have come as an unexpected consequence of the self-promoting spectacle at the Halal Food Festival that reads like a move taken from Dogantekin's own playbook. In addition to being president of Turca, he also writes for Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan outlet. Dongantekin laid out a six-point plan in his Jul. 23 op-ed "How to battle FETO in the U.S." that included identifying the Gulenist presence here alongside perceived partnering organizations. It also included an emphasis on targeting the GOP's base with messaging associating the Gulen movement with terrorism. Since many politicians have been successfully lobbied by Gulenist organizations, the thinking goes, the strategy must work from the bottom up.
How that plays out is easily seen by the promotion of Dogantekin's latest Nov. 23 Daily Sabah op-ed, "Should California taxpayers worry about Gulenist schools?" He tweeted the link out to several Gulen critics, including Killing Ed filmmaker Mark Hall, the wildly Islamophobic InfoWars and notorious Muslim-hater Clare Lopez of the Center for Security Policy. These fellow travelers have crossed paths before. Hall has appeared on InfoWars multiple times to promote his documentary, including a recent appearance with anti-Muslim host David Knight last month. Lopez co-authored The Gulen Movement: Turkey's Islamic Supremacist Cult and its Contributions to the Civilization Jihad which wound up in possession of AUHSD, though they failed to turn the monograph over to the Weekly after a public records request asked for it by title. Dogantekin also tweeted that he received a copy of the book.
Hall is also no stranger to Robert Amsterdam, an attorney hired by the Turkish government who filed a complaint last year on behalf of current Anaheim councilman Jose F. Moreno and Santa Ana Unified School District teacher Tina Andres asking the California Department of Education to investigate Gulen-affiliated Magnolia charter schools. Amsterdam's anti-Gulen "Empire of Deceit" website features director's cuts of Killing Ed. And both liked what Dogantekin had to say. Hall quoted his article sharing tweet in sounding the social media echo chamber. And for all the "Jewish Dogs" talk, Amsterdam, a Jewish attorney, quoted Hall's tweet while parroting Dogantekin's talking points in the op-ed. "The Gulenists have paid off politicians at every level for impunity, so pressure will have to come from bottom up," Amsterdam wrote.
While Dogantekin sought the attention of Islamophobes, he also tweeted a photo of himself elbow-rubbing with Council on American-Islamic Relations-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush at the organization's recent annual banquet (which I also attended). He also lauded Turkish Airlines, the state-run enterprise that purged hundreds of suspected Gulenist employees after the coup attempt, for helping sponsor the banquet. Ayloush previously appeared at Turca's office in March alongside Syrian imam Mahmoud Marmoush. Dogantekin tweeted a number of photos out calling the guests, "wonderful brothers." More recently, Dogantekin checked-in with Ayloush on Facebook at Knafeh Cafe in Anaheim two weeks ago, this time writing "Great time with my dear brother."
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"Through my CAIR work, I have met Mr. Dogantekin and have seen him [at] various community events," Ayloush writes by email. "I am not familiar with the work and activities of his organization. CAIR-LA focuses on civil rights and Islamophobia. We avoid being pulled into internal political conflicts in foreign countries since we have little control over such situations which tend to be divisive and often irrelevant to American Muslims." Ayloush also noted the Turkish Airlines sponsorship came in the form of donated travel vouchers used for raffle gifts. "Insinuating anything more out of this small sponsorship item is ridiculous and seems politically driven," Ayloush adds. "Community outreach is at the core of our work and we will continue to do so without prejudice towards any group's political or religious affiliation."
If an opening salvo, the Halal Food Festival incident pales in comparison to Germany, where the divide has turned violent among Turkish immigrants. After the confrontation, Kozoglu isn't hiding anything and is upfront about his religious affiliation. "I have been reading Gulen's books and speeches for almost 30 years," he says. "I believe that if there were 10 more guys like Gulen, peace would come more quickly all over the world." Kozoglu volunteers his time with the Gulenist Pacifica Institute in Irvine and serves as treasurer for the Anatolia Turkish-American Cultural Centers Inc. In Taiwan, Kozoglu helped the effort to establish private schools while opening a chain of Turkish ice cream shops before immigrating to the U.S. He reported the recorded incident to Garden Grove police three days later, but Dogantekin's verbal lashing didn't stoop to the level of a credible threat.
"He's is saying whatever someone is telling him to say," Kozoglu says of Dogantekin. "Whether it's 'Jewish dogs' or 'terrorists,' these are not his words."
Note: This story was updated with comments from CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush.