Students, parents and teachers nearly filled the 1,290-seat Cook Auditorium at Anaheim High School on March 8 for a sneak peek of the documentary Killing Ed: Charter Schools, Corruption and the Gülen Movement in America. The carefully orchestrated event was spearheaded by a who’s-who of Anaheim liberal leaders—Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) superintendent Mike Matsuda, trustee Al Jabbar, and Jose Moreno, a former Anaheim City School District president and current Anaheim city council candidate—who hoped the screening would catapult them as national thought leaders in the fight against charter schools.
The trio had much to be proud of. They had scored an early screening of the film, which focuses on publicly funded charter schools affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, a wealthy imam based in Pennsylvania who leads a popular, controversial Islamic movement in Turkey. Director Mark S. Hall was flown in. The crowd featured teachers, parent activists, students, and politicos. Questions were shared among panelists before the screening, along with a script for speakers, all hitting on Killing Ed’s message: that Gülen’s movement presented a danger to not just schools, but America itself.
But by doing so, Jabbar, Matsuda, and Moreno, whether wittingly or not, became puppets in a proxy war waged by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For years, the increasingly autocratic leader has accused Gülen, a 74-year-old Sufi-inspired scholar and one-time ally, of being a terrorist that wishes to overthrow his regime through his followers, who populate the ranks of Turkey’s police forces, judicial branch, and private schools. Erdogan has publicly called on the Obama administration to let him extradite Gülen, and he’s now going after Gülen’s followers in the United States by targeting charter schools associated with them. And that’s where Jabbar, Matsuda and Moreno come in, essentially doing Erdogan’s dirty work and joining forces with other fellow travelers.
The offensive dates back to December of last year, when Matsuda and the entire AUHSD board co-signed a Voice of OC op-ed piece arguing that local districts, not the Orange County Board of Education, approve charter schools. A reasonable request, but the missive couldn’t help but slam an application before them filed by the Magnolia Science Academy, a charter school chain they alleged is overseen by Gülen, a claim Magnolia vehemently deny. The board and Matsuda also charged that Magnolia took taxpayer money and “funneled [it] into the pockets of Turkish foreign nationals.”
The piece caught the attention of Sharon Higgins, a researcher featured in Killing Ed. Records obtained by the Weekly show she reached out to AUHSD spokeswoman Patricia Karlak and introduced her to director Hall in early January. Hall told Karlak that he’d be in Los Angeles that month and was game to screen his documentary for the district, but Karlak responded that AUHSD couldn’t put together an event in time. Matsuda nevertheless attended a January 14 private viewing of Killing Ed at a Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
Also present that night were members of Amsterdam & Partners LLP, a law firm retained by Turkey to investigate Gülen’s network worldwide and who had filed a civil suit against him in Pennsylvania alleging human rights abuses late last year. In February, Amsterdam & Partners announced it was filing a complaint with the California Department of Education urging the agency to investigate Magnolia, and for alleged ties to Gülen and the Gülen-inspired Pacifica Institute in Irvine.
Moreno was one of the “interested California taxpayers” named in the complaint filed against Magnolia. “When Magnolia Charter Academy filed a petition to open up two charter schools in Anaheim, I became very concerned about these corporate networked charters bullying their way into school districts,” he told the Weekly. But when pressed if he had any qualms about Erdogan’s repression of journalists, Kurds and critics, Moreno repeatedly returned to a refrain: “Whether I agree or not with that foreign government is actually not the nature of that complaint.”
But aping Erdogan’s line—that Gülen is a shadowy cleric whose followers shouldn’t be trusted—is something that Moreno and Matsuda don’t mind. And that’s where their opposition to Magnolia has gone from mere philosophical disagreements to latent Islamophobia and nativism. In late March, Amsterdam & Partners namesake Robert Amsterdam wrote in The Hill that Gülen’s “secretive Islamic movement” sought to infiltrate the U.S. military through schools on army bases. In a March 4 opinion piece for La Opinión, Moreno wrote that claims of how the Gülen movement mistreated teachers amounts to “human trafficking” if true and accused the schools of “inculcating Turkish values and Gülen principles in students.” And at that Cook Auditorium screening, Jabbar—Anaheim’s first-ever Muslim elected official—introduced the film with a prepared statement that said, “As a Muslim, I was also concerned about the connections made in the film to an Imam. So let us remind ourselves that Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and other great religions, encompasses a broad spectrum of believers.” For the panel that followed—moderated by Matsuda, filmed by Amsterdam attorneys and including Moreno, Higgins and Hall—district records revealed the superintendent’s scripted questions included, “Is that who you want teaching your children—Turkish foreign nationals?”
Killing Ed itself plays well enough as a general critique against charter schools (Hall initially declined to provide the Weekly with a review copy, opting instead to email Karlak trying to find out what our “angle might be.” He eventually mailed a copy). But it descends into trashing Gülen at any opportunity, painting him as a modern-day sultan trying to reestablish the Ottoman Empire: the documentary’s trailer shows a map of the United States slowly turning red as charter schools aligned with Gülen spread across the country (the irony, of course, is that Erdogan has cloaked himself in imperialist rhetoric throughout his term, infamously posing with soldiers dressed in various caliphate uniforms last year). Such scare tactics intensified when Hall granted a friendly, lengthy interview on the notoriously Islamophobic The Alex Jones Show, hosted by David Knight in November. Tellingly titled “Is Your Child Being Trained by an Islamic State?”, the segment didn’t disappoint.
“Some of his detractors have called his educational institutions ‘educational jihad,’” Hall told guest host David Knight after Knight had labeled Gülen affiliated schools “madrassas.” “Because what you see in the schools, here in the United States and elsewhere, is intense national Turkification of their children.”
Hall denies his film incites anti-Muslim sentiments. “The Gülen movement has been successful in using Islamophobia to stifle dissent about what they’ve been doing not only in the United States but elsewhere,” the filmmaker told the Weekly. “I don’t know if David [Knight] is Islamophobic or not. I do believe he has a certain perspective, and Alex Jones has that perspective, too.”
Yet for all the calls by Hall, Jabbar, Matsuda, and Moreno for financial transparency surrounding Gülen-affiliated charters, everyone involved in Anaheim has maintained an almost paranoid secrecy about their doings. The Cook Auditorium screening was invite-only, with security tight and Magnolia representative Alfredo Rubalcava getting ushered out by Anaheim police once recognized by event organizers. AUHSD delayed for almost a month before turning over public records to the Weekly pertaining to the screening. A district employee revealed in an email that AUHSD paid for Hall’s visit; the director denies that, but declined to identify who bankrolled his visit, only allowing that he “charged a screening fee, but that was paid for by a private party that wants to remain anonymous.”
But shortly after finishing his interview with the Weekly, Hall called again. “Hey, Mike,” he said. The filmmaker was looking for Matsuda.
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