July 23, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 375

The Upcoming Elections in Turkey (2): The AKP's Political Power Base

July 23, 2007 | By R. Krespin*
Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 375


Turkey has a large network of Islamist sects, orders, associations, and sheikhs that has a strong impact on politics. In the 1980s, the network's sect sheikhs and religious community leaders directed their followers to vote for the political party of their choice – which traditionally meant center-right parties. However, since that time, the situation has changed, and leaders and followers of religious sects have become active participants in Turkey's political life. Turkish politics today cannot be understood without considering the political role of these religious forces.

Politicians, Islamist Sects, Orders, and Associations In Support of the AKP

In a recent five-part series titled "Sects, Religious Communities, and the July 22 [Elections]" in the secular, mainstream Turkish daily Milliyet, journalist Omer Erbil listed some of the Islamist sects and associations that are playing a role in the upcoming elections. Following are the main points of this review.[1]

1. The Fethullah Gulen community: This is the largest and strongest Islamist community in Turkey, as well as the most prominent representative of the Nur ("Light") movement of Said-i Nursi.[2] It is led by Fethullah Gulen, or, as he is referred to by his community, Fethullah Gulen Hocaefendi, and according to media assessments, about 30 of the AKP candidates who have a good chance of being elected are Fethullah Gulen followers (Fethullahcilar).

2. The Nakshibendi sect: A large Islamist order, which began in the 14th century in Turkistan, Central Asia, and spread to Anatolia and the Balkans, gaining much power in the 19th century. The Halidiye branch lives today in the influential Iskenderpasa, Ismailaga, Erenkoy, and Kashgari communities. Many political figures in Turkey either come from or are influenced by the Nakshibendi tradition. Among these are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, and Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin. Iskenderpasa Nakshibendi sect leader Mehmed Zahit Kotku is known to have trained former prime minister and president Turgut Ozal, former Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, and his successor, Islamist Felicity Party (SP) leader Recai Kutan.

The Iskenderpasa sect, which is currently led by Sheikh Nurettin Cosan, openly supported the AKP during the 2002 elections. Sheikh Cosan also issued an order to AKP MPs to vote "no" in the March 1, 2003 parliamentary vote on allowing the U.S. military passage through Turkish soil to open a northern front in the war in Iraq, and it is known that some 100 AKP MPs obeyed the order.

Erbakan's Islamist Milli Gorus movement, and its offspring, the AKP, have very close ties with the Nakshibendi Islamist sect. It is believed that about 80 of the sect's faithful were among the founders of the AKP.

3. The Kadiri: One of the oldest Islamist sects, and also part of the Nur movement. The larger branch, Yeni Asyacilar ("Neo-Asians") – which also owns the Islamist Turkish daily Yeni Asya, will, as always, vote for the center-right DP party. However, the Ankara-based Kuscuoglu branch will vote for the AKP.

A sub-division of the Kadiri includes followers of Sheikh Haydar Bas, who is also the chairman of the small Independent Turkish Party (BTP). Sheikh Bas preaches on his own Islamist Mesaj TV channel.

4. Suleymanists (Suleymancilar): Followers of the late Suleyman Tunahan, a preacher in two important Istanbul mosques, who expanded his community through his then-illegal Koran-study courses. The Suleymanists are now divided under the leadership of two brothers, both Suleyman's grandsons: Ahmet Arif Denizolgun, a former minister from the Homeland Party (ANAP) government, who is currently running in the Democrat Party (DP) list; and Mehmet Beyazit Denizolgun, who is a founder and MP of the AKP and is now running again as an AKP candidate.

5. The Menzil sect: An Adiyaman-based Nakshibendi sub-sect. First led by Muhammed Rasid Erol, the sect emerged in the village of Menzil, and is now found in almost every Turkish city, and is known to be strong in Ankara and Istanbul. The current leader, Feyzettin Erol, took over from his father after the latter's death. The organization now has close ties with the AKP. According to the media, Health Minister Recep Akdag is affiliated with the Menzil sect, and he has staffed his ministry with members of this sect. An AKP MP from Adiyaman, Husrev Kutlu, is also known to be close to the Menzil sect, and has drawn complaints from the Turkish military for his hostile remarks against Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the military. Kutlu is again running as an AKP candidate.

The Fethullah Gulen: Powerful Islamist Network with International Reach; Fethullah: From Islamist Anti-Soviet Activity to Residence and Activity in U.S.

The Fethullah movement is regarded as the most powerful and influential Islamist organization in Turkey, and has international outreach. Regarded as a semi-state within a state, this community has established hundreds of schools, in Turkey and in over 100 countries on five continents.

Fethullah Gulen heads this vast organization, holding absolute authority, although the organization operates seemingly as independent cells. It is based on a hierarchy of activists on different levels – municipalities, business, families, and individuals. Another group of activists, the abi, or "elder brothers," deals with recruitment, mostly from among poor youth, by providing them with housing and education in the isikevi, or "houses of light." There, the youths receive intensive Islamist training in line with the teachings of Said-i Nursi and the Nur movement.

Education, and professional and vocational training are important components of the Fethullah movement, and its main recruiting efforts are directed at youths in eighth through twelfth grades. Followers mentor young people in the isikevi, educate them in the Fethullah schools, and prepare them for future careers in legal, political, and educational professions, in order to create the future Islamist Turkish state. Fethullah schools abroad are geared towards educating a foreign leadership that will be sympathetic to an Islamist Turkey.

While young people provide the manpower for growth, followers with small businesses provide the finances, donating generously to Fethullah projects. No public accounts of the community's finances are made available, and most of their resources are not disclosed to the public. Fethullah members occupy positions in all Turkish state institutions, political parties, organizations, universities, and even sports clubs, and are also present in the security forces (except for the upper echelons of the military) and police.

Fethullah Gulen Indicted, Escapes To U.S.

In 1999, footage was aired on Turkish television of sermons delivered by Fethullah Gulen to a crowd of followers, in which he revealed his aspirations for an Islamist Turkey ruled by shari'a as well as the methods that should be used to attain that goal. In the sermons, he said:

"You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers… until the conditions are ripe, they [the followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere, like in the tragedies in Algeria, like in 1982 [in] Syria… like in the yearly disasters and tragedies in Egypt. The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete, and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it… You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey… Until that time, any step taken would be too early – like breaking an egg without waiting the full 40 days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside. The work to be done is [in] confronting the world. Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all – in confidence… trusting your loyalty and sensitivity to secrecy. I know that when you leave here – [just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you must discard the thoughts and feelings expressed here."

The sermon continues: "When everything was closed and all doors were locked, our houses of isik [light] assumed a mission greater than that of older times. In the past, some of the duties of these houses were carried out by madrassas, some by schools, some by tekkes [Islamist lodges]… These homes had to be schools, had to be madrassas, [had to be] tekkes all at the same time. The permission did not come from the state, or the state's laws, or the people who govern us. The permission was given by Allah… who wanted His name learned and talked about, studied, and discussed in those houses, as it used to be in the mosques."[3]

In another sermon, he said: "Now it is a painful spring that we live in. A nation is being born again. A nation of millions [is] being born – one that will live for long centuries, Allah willing… It is being born with its own culture, its own civilization. If giving birth to one person is so painful, the birth of millions cannot be pain-free. Naturally we will suffer pain. It won't be easy for a nation that has accepted atheism, has accepted materialism, a nation accustomed to running away from itself, to come back riding on its horse. It will not be easy, but it is worth all our suffering and the sacrifices."[4]

In yet another sermon, he said, "The philosophy of our service is that we open a house somewhere and, with the patience of a spider, we lay our web, to wait for people to get caught in the web; and we teach those who do. We don't lay the web to eat or consume them, but to show them the way to their resurrection, to blow life into their dead bodies and souls, to give them a life."[5]

By the time this was aired, Gulen had already left the country for the U.S., supposedly for health reasons. A year later, in 2000, he was indicted in absentia for attempting to change Turkey's system of government and for "forming an illegal organization with the purpose of establishing an Islamist state." It was from there that he built his international Islamist community.[6]

At a 2003 judicial hearing, it was decided to postpone Gulen's trial, subject to reprocessing if he was indicted again for a similar crime in the next five years. In May 2006, the AKP government modified the criminal code regarding acts of terror, and Gulen was acquitted.[7]

Financial, Cultural, and Media Institutions Affiliated with Fethullah

Fethullah Gulen is thought to be one of the richest Turks in the world. He lives on a large estate in Pennsylvania, and it is from there that he runs his million-member community. The prevailing perception in political circles in Turkey is that Fethullah Gulen is the power behind many Islamist politicians, especially in the AKP.

The following are some of the establishments in Turkey owned by or affiliated with the Fethullah community. The list is from the indictment of Fethullah Gulen.[8]

Zaman daily newspaper

Samanyolu TV

CHA – Cihan News Agency

Sizinti magazine

Aksiyon magazine

Business Life Cooperation Association (ISHAD)

Asia Finance (which became AsiaBank)

Isik ("Light") Insurance

Samanyolu Publishers

Feza Journalism

Cag Education Foundation

Fatih Education Foundation

Ufuk Education

Firat Education Center

Istanbul FEM Study centers

Akyazili Middle and Higher Education Foundation

Turkish Teachers Foundation (TOV)

Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation

Maltepe Private Study Centers

Fatih University

*R. Krespin is the director of MEMRI's Turkish Media Project.

[1] Milliyet (Turkey), July 10-14, 2007.

[2] Sheikh Said-i Kurdi, later called Said-i Nursi (1878-1960), was the founder of the Islamist Nur ("Light") movement. During WWI, he fought with the Ottomans against the Russians. After Turkey's war of independence, he demanded, in an address to the new parliament, that the new republic be based on Islamic principles. He turned against Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his reforms, and against the new modern, secular, Western republic. During Sheikh Said's Islamist revolt against the republic, he was arrested and then released. He died in Sanliurfa in March 1960, and his body was later moved to an unknown location in Isparta.

[6] According to Turkish analysts, during the Cold War, the U.S. benefited from the Islamist activity of Fethullah Gulen's organization against the U.S.S.R. among the Crimean Muslims as well as among Muslims in adjacent regions of the U.S.S.R. Therefore, after the fall of the U.S.S.R., and following pressure from the Turkish authorities, who wanted to act against him, the U.S. enabled Fethullah Gulen to escape from Turkey to the U.S. prior to his trial, and also enabled him to develop his Islamist community from his estate in Virginia. Fethullah Gulen himself also worked to moderate his extremist Islamist image, advocating for inter-religious dialogue and holding various meetings with Pope John Paul II, Turkey's Chief Rabbi, and the Armenian Patriarch. Some anti-Islamist circles in Turkey believe that Fethullah Gulen helped Recep Tayyip Erdogan obtain invitations to the White House, despite his Islamist background as a student of Erbakan and even though he was not yet a head of state or even an MP.

[7] According to an investigative series by columnist Hikmet Cetinkaya in Cumhuriyet (June 22-July 4, 1999), in the 1970s, Fethullah Gulen was convicted for his Islamist activities in Turkey. During this decade, he organized and ran secret summer camps in the mountains of western Turkey where children as young as elementary school age were taught Islam, and taught to hate nonbelievers and to become jihad fighters. These camps were guarded by armed "brothers." Some were run in cooperation with the Suleymancilar sect.

[8] The list is available upon request from MEMRI.

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