We’ve posted quite a bit recently about Islam in Tennessee, with a special focus on the Nashville area. Those posts have generally dealt with the actions of various organizations and individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The following reports also come out of Nashville, but they lead back to a different source: the Turkish Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen.
Both investigative reports in the following video uncovered Azerbaijani influence-peddling in the Tennessee legislature and state government.
Azerbaijan boasts a rather unsavory form of “democracy”, in which the results of elections are sometimes announced before the votes are even cast. The current president of Azerbaijan is Ilham Aliyev, the son of Geydar Aliyev. I remember Aliyev père from the later years of the Cold War; he was boss of the Azerbaijani SSR until Yuri Andropov elevated him to the Politburo in the early 1980s.
Azerbaijan is a Turkic-speaking country. It is Islamic, and very much in Turkey’s orbit. Just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, after Moscow lost control of parts of the imperial periphery, a war broke out between the Armenian SSR and its Azerbaijani neighbor over an Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. The Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh had endured centuries of oppression under various Islamic states before being incorporated into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. After the Soviet Union fell apart, they were determined not to remain under Islamic control, and fought Azerbaijan until a negotiated cease-fire was reached in 1994. Although technically still part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh now functions effectively as an independent state.
The above thumbnail account provides some background for the animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has surfaced twenty years later in Nashville. Agents of Azerbaijan seem to have adopted the time-honored American tradition of buying up selected state politicians. In return, the bespoke pols help whiten the Azerbaijani political sepulcher by lauding its president and telling the world what a wonderful and important place Azerbaijan is.
The shenanigans in Tennessee were enough to make Armenian-Americans sit up and take notice, and they did some of their own lobbying. You can hear one of them interviewed in the following video.
Many thanks to Vlad Tepes for processing and editing these two clips:
One thing that bothers me about the second report is the characterization of Fethullah Gülen as a “moderate Muslim”. He is at least as dangerous as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; he is just more subtle and patient in his dealings with infidels. He has spent decades burnishing his suave persona and building his lucrative empire of charter schools in the United States.
Below are excerpts from the two articles accompanying the TV reports. From the News Channel 5 website:
Lawmaker Says $10K Contribution, Resolution Just ‘Coincidence’
by Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A lawmaker’s $10,000 campaign contribution and a resolution he introduced this year in the legislature are reviving questions about foreign influences on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill.
Last year, NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed how advocates for foreign countries were taking your lawmakers on expensive junkets.
Now, we’ve discovered a case of mysterious donors handing out money for a legislative campaign.
During a hurried legislative session dominated by all sorts of contentious issues, state Rep. Joe Towns found time to introduce a House resolution — HR 145 [pdf] — calling for national support for the country of Azerbaijan.
“Let me tell you where it came from — it actually came from friends that I know that are from Azerbaijan,” the Memphis Democrat told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
An oil-rich, predominantly Muslim country — where Eastern Europe meets western Asia — Azerbaijan has been involved in a decades-old dispute with the predominantly Christian country of Armenia over territory that both countries claim.
Towns said he agreed to introduce the resolution because Azerbaijan is a U.S. ally.
“You did not just come up with this one your own?” we asked.
“No, no, no,” Towns answered.
“And you knew nothing about the conflict between these two countries?”
“No, I did not.”
But Armenian immigrant Barry Barsoumian said, “Those brutal people, they are trying to change history by going around different states in the United States passing resolutions.”
Barsoumian discovered Towns’ resolution and could not believe anyone would ask a Tennessee lawmaker to help a country known for its human rights abuses and whose leader is seen as one of the world’s most corrupt.
“I asked him if it was Azerbaijani Embassy. He denied it,” Barsoumian recalled. “But he wouldn’t name or tell me what organization was behind it.”
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates looked at Towns’ campaign reports and discovered he introduced the resolution just two weeks after he got a total of $10,000 in campaign contributions from people out of Texas with ties to the Azerbaijani community.
“This one was probably in Texas, Houston,” Towns said, looking at his campaign disclosure.
“You had a fundraiser in Houston?” we asked.
“Uh-huh. I’ve had fundraisers in other places before. That’s true.”
“Who hosted that fundraiser?”
“Well, my friends. Friends of mine.”
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, “Who in particular?”
“Well, I don’t want to get involved in their names because this is about me,” Towns answered. “I don’t want to talk about their names and who they were.”
Still, our investigation discovered that a Turkish-Azerbaijani cultural center in Houston appears to be the common connection for all seven of the contributors, who reportedly gave either $1,000 or $1,500 each to Towns’ campaign.
“Did the people who gave you the $10,000 ask you to introduce this resolution?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Towns.
“No, they didn’t. Did not,” he responded.
“It’s purely coincidental?”
“Oh, of course.”
But Barsoumian called it “suspicious [that] somebody in Tennessee would introduce a bill for Azerbaijan and then those organizations funnel money to his campaign.”
One of the contributors listed on Towns’ campaign report as having given a thousand dollars first told us, “That’s wrong information. I don’t know anyone from Tennessee.”
Later he changed his story, saying “I remember something like that. I never met him. I did it through my friends, my community.”
Adding to the mystery: almost a third of the money supposedly came from two people who live in an apartment in one of Houston’s roughest neighborhoods.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Towns, “You attend a fundraiser and then suddenly you are introducing this resolution. Do you understand why someone might be suspicious?”
“I can’t deal with people’s suspicion,” he said. “I don’t address their suspicion. The fact is that it happens all the time.”
So why would Azerbaijan care about what the Tennessee House thinks about world affairs?
It appears to be part of an orchestrated PR campaign to show that world opinion is on their side.
Towns said that he hopes it leads to better understanding of all the countries in that region.
And again, from News Channel 5:
TN Commissioner Offers Congrats For ‘Rigged’ Re-election
by Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Congratulations on your rigged election!
That’s the message that critics say a member of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet sent with his letter to a foreign president.
Few people took last fall’s Azerbaijani presidential elections seriously.
The re-election of Ilham Aliyev — who took over from his own father a decade ago — was widely seen by the international community as rigged.
Still, that did not stop Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security Bill Gibbons from sending a letter on official stationery [pdf] to Aliyev, offering a hardy “congratulations on your re-election!”
“That was a fake election, that wasn’t real election,” said Armenian activist Barry Barsoumian.
Barsoumian noted that a cursory search of the Internet would have revealed news reports about how Aliyev was suppressing his opposition.
And last year watchdog groups called Aliyev the corruption “person of the year.”
“That should be a shame that a high official in Tennessee with that kind of position he cannot find out on Internet how brutal he is, how many people they’ve got in jail. That is unbelievable,” Barsoumian added.
Asked if he had any regrets about writing the letter, Commissioner Gibbons said: “No, no regrets.”
The commissioner explained that he wrote the letter of congratulations at the request of a Memphis city official who’s interested in a role for Azerbaijan at the annual Memphis in May festival, which honors a different country each year.
“I did it as a result of that request,” he said.
“Did you consider that a real election?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“Oh, I can’t really comment on the politics of Azerbaijan,” he replied.
But Gibbons and an assistant commissioner had joined a group of lawmakers last year in accepting a junket to Turkey and Azerbaijan, claiming they needed to learn more about the two countries to do their jobs.
That trip was financed by groups with ties to the moderate Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen.
“Just from a strategic and national security standpoint, it’s an important country to us,” Gibbons said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, “So you would write the letter tomorrow if asked to do that?”
“Sure,” he answered. “If Memphis in May wanted me to write a letter to honor any number of countries that may not have perfect democracies, I would do that.”
Barsoumian asked, “Next, if al Qaeda come up here and take them on trip, are they going to do same thing?”
He added that the commissioner’s trip and his letter of congratulations is more proof about how foreign interests are trying to buy respectability from Tennessee officials.
“They’re trying to buy respect with money and hide their uncivilized way of government,” he concluded.