A group of Turks gathered outside the New York City office of The Wall Street Journal last month to protest the publication of an op-ed by NBA star Enes Kanter, an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The group was led by Halil Mutlu, a Massachusetts-based physician and cousin of Erdoğan who is a key figure leading open and covert political activities on behalf of Erdoğan in the United States.
Mutlu made a speech at the protest attended by some 10 Turkish-Americans condemning The Wall Street Journal for providing a platform for Kanter, whom he defined as “the tin soldier of Fethullah Gülen,” a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US who inspired the faith-based group known as the Gülen or Hizmet (service) movement.
President Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.
Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding.
In his op-ed “Turkish Democracy Isn’t a Lost Cause,” Kanter argued that the restoration of Turkish democracy would advance American interests abroad. “Turkey is no lost cause. … its undemocratic trajectory can’t last long. With support from allies, the U.S. can expedite what is already looming. Mr. Erdogan must understand that burying freedoms has consequences,” Kanter said.
Mutlu is the co-chair of pro-Erdogan lobbying group the Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC) and the former president of the Turken Foundation, a New York-based Islamist foundation serving as a conduit for Erdoğan’s influence on the American Muslim community.
Turken was established in 2014 by the Ensar Foundation, notorious for numerous sexual abuse cases, and the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), a foundation with direct ties to the Erdoğan family.
President Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan was one of two co-signers for the establishment of the Turken Foundation.
The foundation provides housing to Turkish and Muslim-American students, organizes social programs such as summer trips called “youth bridges” to Turkey that include meetings with Turkish government officials. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) records Turken received a total of $54 million as gifts from undisclosed donors from 2014 to 2017. Its most important project is the construction of 21-story building in Manhattan that will serve as a student dormitory.
Pro-Erdoğan lobbying group TASC, currently led by Mutlu, describes itself as a Turkish-American advocacy and educational organization that only looks to promote the community’s voice in the US. The group, however, is known to have direct links to the Turkish government and has disseminated pro-government messages in its work.
TASC is based in Washington, D.C., and uses the Washington Turkish House, which is owned by the Turkish government, as its headquarters. The organization is known for the pro-Erdoğan rallies it organizes in Washington and New York. In fact, Mutlu was present at a rally of Erdoğan supporters in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington in May 2017 that turned violent after Erdoğan’s bodyguards and some of his supporters attacked anti-Erdoğan protestors.
The organization also runs an Internet-based TV channel, TASC TV, which produces a news bulletin and covers a variety of topics including Turkish-American relations, foreign policy and sports. According to YouTube data, the channel’s shows for the most part have less than 100 views. Yet, important personages such as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Erdoğan spokesperson İbrahim Kalın are among the famous guests on TASC TV.
In December TASC’s Twitter account was suspended for allegedly coordinating a campaign of harassment against Kanter. While Kanter is regularly targeted on Twitter by pro-Erdoğan users for his opposition to the Turkish government, the suspension followed a series of seemingly coordinated tweets by pro-TASC accounts on the platform. Several of them repeated hashtags and language used in a recent video posted by TASC TV that called Kanter a terrorist and tied him to a July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
Similar to Turken, TASC also has a “Youth Bridges” program, which involves hosting Turkish and Muslim-American students in Turkey.
Mutlu is also a frequent donor to US election campaigns. According to US Federal Election Commission records, Mutlu and his wife donated a total of $10,800 to Team Graham Inc., US Senator Lindsay Graham’s re-election campaign for the Senate in 2020, on Aug. 8, 2016. Their individual contributions of $5,400 each are the maximum an individual can give to a political campaign in the US per election cycle.
According to Ian Lynch of the Ahval news website, Mutlu’s employer, Baystate Medical Center in Massachusetts, is one of Team Graham’s biggest sources of donations. The hospital’s employees contributed $21,600 to the senator’s 2020 campaign.
Graham was known to have cordial ties with Erdoğan and blocked a vote on the Armenian genocide resolution in the Senate in 2019.
The second co-chair of TASC is Günay Evinch, a Washington-based attorney who provides legal services to the Turkish Embassy with his partner David Saltzman. His firm Saltzman & Evinch was accused in the past of spying on Turkish government foes in the US and was compelled to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department over the summer.