Finding an Islamic Movement on Santa Monica Beach

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from Turkey. For more, click here.


Istanbul – In 2002, on the sand of muscle men and taut bikinis, Leo T. unfolded his sajjada on Santa Monica Beach and prayed to Mecca. A drunken homeless man rasped, “‘There is no God, man!’” and waddled away.

Leo, as his American friends call him, just laughed: “At least he knew I was praying and not throwing up . . . America is tolerant of showing your religion in public; in Turkey people would say I was trying to spread Shari'ah if I prayed outside.”

Leo, who grew up here in Istanbul, went to America in early 2001 to figure out his future; he found religion.

Its messengers were followers of the controversial Gulen Movement in Turkey, which claims to “blend Islam with modernity” while resisting secular states’ restrictions on religious expression. Opponents, especially secular Turks within the military, have accused the Gulen Movement of being a cult-like organization secretly plotting to establish an Islamic state by placing its followers within the civil service, police and educational system of Turkey.

A local teacher, Siman, says of the Movement, "The U.S. thinks it's supporting moderate Islam with Gulen, but the Movement is really a Trojan horse that will make Turkey theocratic. America is repeating her mistake...financing short-term friends who will hit them in the end." The Movement's leader, Fethullah Gulen, currently lives in Pennsylvania, fueling rumors here that he's America-backed. He moved there in 1999 for health reasons and to avoid recently-dropped charges of conspiring to undermine the Turkish state; he has 400,000 to 4 million followers worldwide.

Before Leo went to Los Angeles, he was a drummer in a rock band, “prayed without really meaning it,” sampled alcohol, and slept with a girl before marriage. Back then he says he didn't think particularly well of followers of Gulen. But his mind started to change in Los Angeles’ Wilshire-Center or Koreatown.

The year was 2001. He was twenty-five-years-old, fresh out of mandatory Turkish military service, and living in the Chancellor Hotel, "famous for prostitution,” paying $300 per month to live there, and another $300 to attend Language Systems International to learn English and figure out his future.

Getting used to America was tough. “America looked like a dream from the movies, but downtown LA was a nightmare,” Leo says. “Drugs, violence, no police.” He dated a Peruvian gogo-dancer and then a Russian saleswoman, “who was using me for a green card,” in his first year. “But I felt very alone.”

His safest, most fulfilling social interactions occurred Friday afternoons at King Fahd Mosque, where he’d mingle with other Turks. One afternoon after about six months in the U.S., a 40-plus married Turkish man struck up conversation with Leo and invited him over for dinner.

"There is no God, man."

“In Turkey I would have been suspicious, but in the U.S. you feel alone for a while, and if you see one of the Turkish guys you just trust them right away.” So Leo went, found the man "righteous," and a friendship began. Over the coming year, it expanded, and Leo was soon attending weekend picnics and group lectures organized by the Gulen Movement.

It happened slowly. First he quit school to change his visa status and drove a taxicab for a while. He’d spend his weekends with Gulen followers rather. One of them eventually offered him a job at his used-car dealership. The employees were all Gulen. Leo ended up renting an apartment with them.

“My environment changed - my lifestyle, friends, my job, my vision changed. I didn’t have many things to share with the secular people anymore, even if they were Turks...I needed to talk about reality [with other Gulen followers].”

Leo says, “It was my destiny to come to the United States. If I didn’t go, I would not have been involved in the Gulen Movement. Now it is my future.” He explains it like this:

“The United States is a big opportunity for everyone to improve their religion and their business. It is a free zone for everyone…to realize their capacities. I felt more free in that Christian country than my Turkish Islamic country. Unfortunately Turkish secularism is like French secularism, it is an enemy of the religion. But in America no one said anything bad about Islam. They asked you about it and tried to learn. I could learn there.”

After five years in the U.S., Leo went back to Turkey and fell in with the Movement there, running part of their travel division through Alternative Travel, owned by a Gulen follower. Leo now organizes tours for foreigners to come see Gulen foundations, schools, and media outlets like Zaman.

As we drive across the city, he’s constantly pointing out establishments owned by Gulen followers like Gulluoglu, where he tells me to get baklava, and Pirpiram, where we get dinner. I couldn't verify that their owners were Gulen.

When we part ways, I ask my least favorite question: “Can I use your full name in my article?” to which he replies, “No, please, I do not want my family to know I follow Gulen. They will think differently of me. They are not ready yet.”

TurkeyAmar Bakshi