Leaving Stony Brook to Follow a Sheik

The New York Times/April 9, 2006

By Julia C. Mead

Sidney Center, New York -- ONE by one, their sons walked out -- out of Stony Brook University, out of their families' lives -- and moved to this hamlet in the Catskill Mountains over the last two years. The young men told their parents they were following an Islamic spiritual path that led to a charismatic teacher called Shaykh Abdul Kerim al-Kibrisi.

The parents of the three men -- Kevin Malley, Erdem Kahyaoglu and Abir Rahman -- say that the shaykh, a Turkish Cypriot whose legal name is Aydogan Fuat, is not a legitimate Islamic cleric at all, but a cult leader who led their sons astray. And they say their sons were recruited on the Stony Brook campus.

A handful of current Stony Brook students are also among Mr. Fuat's followers, and sometimes spend weekends at his 50-acre farm near Sidney Center, in northwestern Delaware County.

"Other parents should know that one day, their kid could be a student at Stony Brook, and the next day he's changed his name to Salih Haqqani and is no longer their son," said Jeanne Marie Malley. Her son moved to Sidney Center in January 2005.

Patrick Calabria, a spokesman for Stony Brook, said Mr. Fuat and his organization, the Osmanli Naks-i'bendi Hakkani Dergahi, had no connection to the university. He said a group called the Ottoman Students Association, which first invited Mr. Fuat to preach on campus in 2004, appeared to be inactive now.

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Mr. Calabria said that, based on what the university now knows about Mr. Fuat, "if he were present today, we would investigate the situation to ensure that no laws were being broken and take whatever action, as appropriate, to protect our students."

The group professes Sufism, regarded as a moderate and mystical strain of Islam. It operates a dergah -- a meeting place for Sufi Muslims -- in midtown Manhattan, as well as the farm in Sidney Center, where about two dozen followers tend sheep, grow vegetables, worship and study religious teachings.

On its Web site, Mr. Fuat's group says that he is a deputy of Grandshaykh Muhammad Nazim, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order. But Abdul Haqq, a spokesman for that order in North America, said he is not.

"He has made his own group," Mr. Haqq said.

Mr. Haqq added that while "shaykh" -- the Turkish equivalent of the Arab word sheik -- is a formal clerical title among Sufis that can be bestowed only by the grandshaykh, the word is also a common informal term of respect.

Stony Brook University has many Muslim students, and the university recognizes the Muslim Students Association, a chapter of a national collegiate group, as an important focus of spiritual life on campus, and provides it with some student-activity money. The group tries to minimize frictions by discouraging its members from identifying themselves by sect, according to the president, Ayman Sawas.

By contrast, the Ottoman Students Association was a small group that received no official recognition or support from the university, other than being allowed to hold meetings in a student activity center, according to Mr. Calabria.

The group organized an occasional "Sufi Night," a social gathering for students interested in Sufism and the Ottoman Empire. At those meetings, Mr. Fuat's followers invited classmates to hear him at the Manhattan dergah and to visit the farm.

When the group invited Mr. Fuat to speak on campus, "I thought it was controversial, and other students were against him coming," said Sanaa Nadim, the university's Muslim chaplain. "I try my level best to not let outside influences come to the university. But, at times, I don't have any control over it."

In an interview at the dergah, Mr. Fuat said the farm was both his home and a spiritual retreat for anyone interested in Sufism. And he said he is not a preacher.

"I talk," he said. "People who want to listen can listen. People who want to leave can leave."

The parents of the three former Stony Brook students said they were angry that their sons had given up their studies or professional aspirations or family ties under Mr. Fuat's influence. Other than Ms. Malley, who is an American-born Roman Catholic, the parents are Muslim immigrants from Turkey and Bangladesh. They accused Mr. Fuat of misinterpreting the Koran.

"Islam is not about leaving your family," said Ahmet Kahyaoglu, whose son Erdem moved to the farm eight months ago. "It's about making a strong family."

Mr. Fuat said in an interview that, far from telling the three men to isolate themselves, he had encouraged them to finish school and to remain close to their families. But he acknowledged that many of his followers' families object strongly to their involvement in his group.

During a recent visit to his farm, surrounded by nine men and two women, he pointed to one after another of them and described the conflicts they had had with relatives.

"His brother, a policeman, threatened to remove him physically," Mr. Fuat said, pointing to one man.

Mr. Fuat, 49, is a naturalized United States citizen who once owned a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan. While visiting Turkey in 2001, he was arrested and charged with illegally preaching Sufism in the country, which has elaborate laws regulating religious activity. Human-rights groups protested the arrest. After six months in jail, he was acquitted, and he returned to New York.

But that may not be the end of the matter. Mr. Fuat showed a reporter a letter he received from Glenn T. Suddaby, the United States attorney for the Northern District of New York, ordering him to report to Mr. Suddaby's office in Syracuse on April 5, a date that was later postponed to April 19. Mr. Fuat said he got the letter because the Turkish authorities had reopened the 2001 case. In a telephone interview, Mr. Suddaby declined to say what prompted the letter or to otherwise discuss any pending cases.

Mr. Fuat has also attracted some law-enforcement attention in the United States. Several police agencies in Delaware County said they had investigated him and his group at various times; other than issuing one minor summons, they found no wrongdoing and took no action. F.B.I. agents interviewed Mr. Fuat and some of his followers in 2003 but made no arrests; a spokesman for the bureau's Albany office declined to say whether an investigation was open.

Mainstream Muslims disown Mr. Fuat and his group. "They do not belong to any Naqshbandi order," said Nayyar Imam, the president of the Islamic Association of Long Island, whose Selden mosque is attended by many Stony Brook students. "They have created their own thing." Mr. Imam is also a Suffolk County human rights commissioner.

"Those kids who join him have no idea what real Islam is," Mr. Imam said. "They follow him because they have nothing to compare with, and they're searching for religion they don't get at home."

Still, William C. Chittick, a Stony Brook professor of Persian literature and an expert on Sufism who had Mr. Malley and Mr. Kahyaoglu as students in his classes, said that prejudice against Sufis was widespread among mainstream Muslims.

Noting that the parents of the three men "are very ambitious for their children," Professor Chittick speculated that Mr. Fuat's profession of Sufism may play a role in how upset they are: "One day their kid suddenly announces he's not going to become an engineer or a doctor, but is moving to some farm to pray. So they're outraged and they call it blasphemy."

Abir Rahman, a Stony Brook graduate who quit law school after two semesters to follow Mr. Fuat, moved to a home near the farm last year. He said his parents are not devout Muslims, but he is.

"They forget that Islam came to my country through Sufi ways," Mr. Rahman said, referring to Bangladesh, where he was born.

Erdem Kahyaoglu said in a telephone interview that Ms. Nadim, the Stony Brook chaplain, was "a huge factor" in his decision to follow Mr. Fuat. But Ms. Nadim said she only encouraged him to study Naqshbandi Sufism. "In my heart of hearts, I would not have told him to do what he did," she said.

Mr. Fuat said his followers try to assimilate into the rural community around Sidney Center; two, including Mr. Malley, have joined the local volunteer fire department.

"People don't want us to live here, but we have no intention of leaving," he said. "This is our home and our place of worship. We are accepting the laws and the government. We are not breaking any laws."

Former followers dispute Mr. Fuat's benign description of his group's ways, saying that his teaching conflicts with Islam, that he takes financial advantage of his followers and that he drives wedges between them and their families.

Bridget Gilmore, who now lives in Sidney, a nearby village, said she joined Mr. Fuat's group three years ago with her husband, Hans Hass. She left after a year with the couple's three children, but her husband remained in the group; they are now divorcing.

Ms. Gilmore said Mr. Fuat discourages his followers from having any relationship other than with him. "I felt I no longer had a husband, because he became obsessed with being around the shaykh," she said.

Asked about family conflicts among Mr. Fuat's followers, Mr. Hass looked first at Mr. Fuat before responding. "If our intention is good, it will work to our benefit in the end," he said.

Mr. Fuat said the women at the center are assigned traditional Muslim roles, although Mr. Fuat's wife, Meryem Brawley, is a consultant with I.B.M.

Clint Henderson, who followed Mr. Fuat for 15 years, said he and his wife broke away three years ago because Mr. Fuat's group had become "a full-blown cult."

"I gave every last dollar I could possibly give" Mr. Henderson said, adding that, like other followers, he gave $100 a week for years. "But it got so ludicrous that I could not kiss his hand without putting a $20 bill into it."

Mr. Fuat said he does not ask his followers for money. Rather, he said, they sometimes contribute voluntarily to a fund for construction of a new masjid -- a mosque and study center -- at the farm.

Mr. Henderson said he had seen many breaks between followers and their families. "He exploits that place where a young man is breaking with his father or doesn't have a father, and exploits a need during that transitional point in his life," Mr. Henderson said.

Mr. Fuat confirmed that many of his followers were young men from broken or troubled homes, but he denied trying to break up anyone's family.

Mainstream Muslim leaders like Faroque Ahmad Khan, chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, said that cutting ties to one's family is a grave sin. "This is not right," Mr. Khan said. "This is not Islam."

Hoping to pry their sons loose from Mr. Fuat's group, the parents of the three men sought help from lawyers, but were told they had no recourse because their sons were of legal age.

Among the lawyers contacted was Robert J. Gaffney, the former Suffolk County executive and a former federal agent. He said Mr. Fuat's group seemed to be a typical cult, preying on vulnerable young people yearning for spirituality, and the fact that it happened to espouse Muslim beliefs had little relevance.

"We could be talking about Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Christianity," he said. "This is far more like the Reverend Moon than Al Qaeda."

In interviews, neighbors of the farm in Sidney Center, where Mr. Fuat first arrived in 2002, expressed mixed views about him and his followers. "Some people wave to them," said Steve Monosson, who lives up the road. "Others think there's terror on their doorstep, and that's as far as they can think it through."

Noting that many of Mr. Fuat's followers are of Turkish or Middle Eastern descent and wear traditional clothing, Mr. Monosson recalled driving by the farm one day and seeing a blonde woman standing at the farm entrance. "She looked despondent," he said. "And she didn't look like she belonged there."

The woman was Ms. Malley.

"My son told me I would understand in another life," she said in a telephone interview in February. "I will never understand."

On a recent Friday night, 6 women and 22 men attended services at the group's Manhattan dergah. Many of the men wore dark green turbans over skullcaps, long maroon vests, baggy trousers and black leather slippers. Mr. Fuat spoke about self-discipline, absolute devotion and skepticism toward education.

"There is no knowledge today," he said, one hand pulling on his long gray beard. "Lots of books. Lots of educated people. But education is getting people more miserable."

When he was finished speaking, the lights were turned off and the men loudly chanted prayers for more than an hour. The smell of sweat mingled with incense as they rocked back and forth, seeking the hypnotic state that Sufism equates with spirituality purity.

Afterward, several men, including Erdem Kahyaoglu, rushed to take Mr. Fuat food and water drawn from the farm's well, helped him out of his cloak and kissed his hand.

Mr. Fuat's teaching against education strikes Ms. Nadim, the Stony Brook Muslim chaplain, as strange. She said that Islam favors education and that Naqshbandi Sufis are particularly known as intellectuals. The global leader of the order, Grandshaykh Muhammad Nazim, is a chemical engineer, she said.

"How can you turn people away from earthly knowledge that strengthens them?" Ms. Nadim said. "I think this is madness."

But Abir Rahman, one of Mr. Fuat's followers, said in an interview that he quit law school after Mr. Fuat advised him that paying interest on a loan, even a student loan, would violate Islamic teaching. He said he now works in a mall as a salesclerk.

His father, Abdur Rahman, said Mr. Fuat "brainwashed" his son.

"He said Abir would be thrown into hell in the next world if he pays interest, but that's ridiculous," the elder Mr. Rahman said. "Muslims have mortgages and car loans like everyone else. This shaykh does not want his fellows to become educated, because they will understand what he is, and maybe they will leave him."

Mr. Fuat acknowledged telling his followers that paying interest was sinful, but he denied brainwashing anyone. He said that the parents who accuse him of that simply do not understand the stability and peace that his followers find in Sufi beliefs and practices.

Several parents said they had visited the farm over the past two years, hoping to persuade their sons to leave, without success. Quite the opposite, in fact: in March, Mr. Malley obtained a court order of protection barring his mother from the farm. Asked whether he was happy in Sidney Center, Mr. Malley hesitated and looked at Mr. Fuat. "Yes, definitely," he said after a moment. "Happiness is something I never really understood until now."

Lennon Stravato, a friend and classmate of Mr. Malley and Mr. Kahyaoglu at Stony Brook, said he visited the farm at the urging of his friends' parents, but came away with no evidence that anything was seriously amiss there.

"The great conflict is, it's hard to say what's religion and what isn't, and you can't read a man's mind to say what his intentions are," Mr. Stravato said. "The shaykh doesn't seem to be well read, not grounded in the Koran, often misquotes it and shows a lack of knowledge. But living an unconventional life is not evidence of mind control."

"Anyway, they're grown-ups," he added. "What can anyone do?"

Long Island Correction: April 30, 2006, Sunday An article April 9 about a group of people, some of them former Stony Brook students, who profess Sufi Muslim beliefs and live on a farm in Delaware County, N.Y., referred imprecisely to the three children of Bridget Gilmore, a former member of the group. Her husband, Hans Hass, who is still a member, is the father of two of the children, not all three; the oldest is from an earlier relationship of Ms. Gilmore's.

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