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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a Koran at the opening ceremony of the Selehaddin Eyyubi airport on May 26, 2015, in eastern city of Hakkari. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Naqshbandi-Khalidi Order and Political Islam in Turkey

Svante E. Cornell & M. K. Kaya

In the past two decades, Turkey has emerged on the global scene. It has enjoyed dramatic economic growth that has catapulted it into the exclusive G20 club of major economies; and under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has enjoyed unprecedented political stability. For the past fifteen years, the AKP has formed a single-party government, a remarkable feat given Turkey’s tumultuous politics.

The AKP’s tenure was at first lauded in the West as the triumph of democratic forces over semi-authoritarianism. The AKP inherited a system in which Turkey’s General Staff and high judiciary often dictated terms to officials. But over time, the AKP moved to change Turkey: it steadily turned away from Europe, focusing on Turkey as a Middle Eastern power with a growing Islamist and Sunni sectarian ideological character. Over the past five years, the AKP has also moved on the domestic front, infusing the education system with Islamic themes. In scenes that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, President Erdoğan brandished his Quran at public rallies during the June 2015 electoral campaign, often beginning his remarks with Quranic citations.

This article is not a study of the policies of the Turkish government; it is an inquiry into the religious and ideological environment informing Turkish political Islam. Turkish political Islam, and with it Turkish politics, is increasingly based on powerful religious orders and brotherhoods, collectively termed tarikat and cemaat, respectively. These communities constitute the deep structure of Turkish power, and share a common ideological source: they belong to, or stem from, the Khalidi branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. While they differ from one another in interpretation and tone, the Naqshbandi-Khalidi groups have formed Turkish political Islam, and through the AKP, the Khalidi worldview has become the dominant political force in Turkey today. With only slight exaggeration, the ruling Justice and Development Party as well as the government it has led could be termed a coalition of religious orders—a fact generally ignored by analysts of Turkish politics. This article discusses the background of the religious orders in Turkey, focusing on the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order, before studying the various offshoots that have assumed important roles in Turkish politics today.

Religious Orders in the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Republic

Religious orders and communities have played an important role in Turkish politics and society since the Ottoman period. These are part of, or offshoots from, the mystical Sufi tradition in Islam, called Tasavuf in Turkish. This tradition is based on receiving spiritual guidance from masters forming part of a chain of teachers going all the way back to the Prophet Muhammed. As a result, various masters formed congregations, some of which evolved into large orders (Tariqat) that span countries and continents. In turn, these orders are subdivided into sub-orders or branches (kol) and further into various lodges (dergah). The Naqshbandi order is among the largest such orders in the world, and throughout history has played a critical role in the spread of Islam. In the modern period, there have been offshoots of these orders, which are not strictly Sufi congregations, but religious communities of a more modern rather than mystical nature. The Nur movement and its offshoots, the Fethullah Gülen movement, is a case in point.

The role of these orders has undergone several phases. Prior to the nineteenth century Western-style reforms, they were tied closely to the Ottoman bureaucracy; importantly, however, they never played a direct political role. In the late Ottoman period, they gradually weakened as Western educational and secular principles gained ground. In the early years of the Turkish Republic, they were systematically suppressed. From 1950 to 2002, they gradually re-emerged on the political scene, effectively usurping power from 2002 onward.

The ebb and flow of the influence of religious orders dates back to the Ottoman defeat at Vienna, and the ensuing military losses to Western powers. This set in motion a process of renewal and reform, which gradually led to the decline of the influence of the Ulema, the clerical establishment. Paradoxically, the Orthodox Naqshbandi order initially benefited because the destruction of the Janissary corps in 1826 also led to the closure of the heterodox and moderate Bektashi order, which had enjoyed considerable influence in the bureaucracy. The Naqshbandi-Khalidi order filled the void left by the Bektashis in the bureaucracy and Ottoman intellectual life.

At the same time, the growth of schools providing Western-style secular education negatively affected the Islamic madrassah system. This secularization threatened the influence of the Ulema over the Ottoman Empire, motivating the religious orders in their ideological opposition to Westernizing reforms.

The purge of the Bektashis led the Khalidi sub-order of the Naqshbandi order, named after Khalid al-Baghdadi, to briefly gain in importance. Baghdadi reformed this order in the early nineteenth century, dispatching a large number of disciples—116 in all—to spread his teachings across the Ottoman Empire and beyond, including destinations as far away as Indonesia and Afghanistan. The impact of the order on Turkish society and politics far surpasses what is usually assumed; its ideas have exerted strong influence on numerous spinoff movements, including practically all of the politically relevant Islamic social movements in the country today. Almost all religious orders and communities in Turkey hail from the Khalidi order. The most well-known of them is the Iskenderpaşa lodge in Istanbul, which produced the Milli Görüş movement—the “National Outlook” movement created in the mid-1960s which produced Turkey’s Islamist political parties and was led by Necmettin Erbakan. But the Menzil, Nurcu (including the Fethullah Gülen community), the Süleymancı, and Işıkçı groupings, among others, also all trace their lineage to the order.

While the religious orders and schools saw their influence over politics and administration decline in the last century of the Ottoman Empire, they mostly maintained their influence on social life. Moreover, the duality between modern schools and madrassahs gave them a role in education. But with the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the sultanate and the caliphate were abolished. In 1924, the Law on Unification of Education (Tevhid-i tedrisat kanunu) similarly abolished all schools providing religious education. Following the 1925 Sheikh Said rebellion in the east, led by a Naqshbandi sheikh, a November 1925 law closed all religious orders, lodges, and monasteries. This ended legal recognition of all religious orders. Furthermore, the transition to the Latin alphabet in 1927 curtailed the influence of religious figures on the state, and especially on the education system. This was not a coincidence: Atatürk and his followers explicitly sought to neutralize religious orders and brotherhoods, as well as the influence of their members.

Naturally, this radical revolutionary secular movement generated a backlash. The religious groups were forced underground and adapted their strategies to a long-term struggle. Especially in the eastern parts of the country, where government writ was weak, the Naqshbandi brotherhoods continued their activities surreptitiously. As religious education was outlawed, many students went abroad for religious education, primarily to Islamic centers in places such as Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus or Medina. A significant portion of these students reimported Salafi Islamist thinking and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood upon their return to Turkey. While not as strong as in the Arab world, hardcore conservative views soon developed in Turkey, and found expression in the political scene. Importantly, these ideas cross-fertilized with the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order’s views, in spite of the order’s Sufi status. In practice, the order’s orthodoxy and politicized nature made it an ally rather than an enemy of the Salafi-influenced ideas, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The hardcore secularist policies of Atatürk’s time, often termed Jacobin in nature, did not outlive him: even in the period between his death in 1938 and the introduction of democracy in 1950, pressure on religious groups eased somewhat. With the advent of multi-party democracy, secularism surrendered its monopoly on power. The Turkish state rapidly adjusted to both the demands of society and those of international politics. Across society, voluntary secular associations were weak and Islamic groups constituted the leading organized political forces, rivaled only at times by leftist outfits and trade unions. Moreover, given Turkey’s fear of Soviet encroachment, the state from the 1950s onward leaned increasingly on Islam as a bulwark against communism. This trend was true before the 1980 military coup, but it was greatly enhanced during military rule in the early 1980s, when Sunni Islam and Turkish nationalism fused together to form a new state ideology. The governing elites always intended to retain control over religion; gradually, however, they lost control to the religious brotherhoods and communities.

From the 1950s onward, Islamic organizations re-emerged. To reduce the growing shortage of clergy, the state created faculties of theology and Islamic institutes. In parallel to these state-controlled organizations, the religious brotherhoods gradually started emerging from underground. This period saw the organization of religious communities such as the Nurcu, Süleymancı, and Işıkçı.

The Naqshbandi-Khalidi order and the Iskenderpaşa Lodge

Sufi orders are known for their esoteric nature, in contrast to orthodox Islam. This has often implied an emphasis on mysticism over literalism and strict interpretation of Sharia law. It would be a mistake, however, to view the Naqshbandi order through this lens. It stands out among Sufi orders for its compatibility with orthodox, official Islam. Indeed, the Naqshbandi differs from most Sufi orders, almost all of whom trace their __silsila__—their chain of spiritual transmission—back to Muhammad via his son-in-law Ali, who is the first imam in the Shia branch of Islam. By contrast, the Naqshbandi is the only order to trace its chain of transmission through the first Sunni Caliph, Abu Bakr. This explains the order’s firm allegiance to the orthodox Sunni tradition, and its strict adherence to Sharia, with mysticism only a second story subservient to the fulfillment of formal Islamic duties.1

A central figure in the order’s development is the seventeenth century Sheikh Ahmad al-Sirhindi, who reinforced the orthodoxy of the order and its opposition to Shiism while strictly regulating ijtihad (independent reasoning) “within the bounds of the Quran and Sunna.”2 Sirhindi advocated an “activist Sufi practice that encouraged political and social life at the expense of older Sufi practices of withdrawal from public affairs.”3 In the nineteenth century, this thinking would be picked up by Khalid-i-Baghdadi, a sheikh of Kurdish descent from present-day northern Iraq who was initiated into the Naqshbandi in India in 1809. He developed a new branch of the order known as the Khalidi branch, or Khalidiyya, which reinforced Sirhindi’s ideas with a powerful rejection of foreign rule, or non-Islamic ideas. From the North Caucasus to Indonesia, this struck a powerful chord among Muslims subject to European colonization. In the Ottoman lands, it resonated with a population chafing under European-imposed “capitulations,” or preferential treaties. Soon, the Khalidi order began to eclipse others in prominence in the Ottoman Empire. It became a public force in the 1820s, urging “the reinstatement of Islam as a guideline for reform” and the “promotion of a stricter use of the Sharia.”4 As the Westernizing reforms of the Tanzimat period won the day, the Khalidi order positioned itself firmly in the political opposition.5

This opposition continued into the Republican era. One of Baghdadi’s disciples, Ahmad Süleyman al-Arwadi (d 1858), was dispatched to Istanbul, where he initiated the prominent Naqshbandi Ahmad Ziyauddin Gümüşhanevi (1813-93), who started what later became known as the Iskenderpaşa lodge. One of Gümüşhanevi’s successors was perhaps the most important Islamist of Turkey: Mehmet Zahid Kotku (1897-1980), a son of migrants from Dagestan. Initiated into the Khalidi order in 1918, Kotku was given ijazah (grant of authority) to become a sheikh in 1952 and took up preaching in Istanbul. He took over the Iskenderpaşa mosque in 1958, where he remained until his death.

In the three decades that followed, Kotku became the informal leader of Turkish political Islam, promoting the Khalidi doctrines in the new environment of multi-party democracy. Kotku was influenced by anti-colonialist thinking, urging his disciples to unshackle Turkey from foreign “economic slavery” by developing indigenous industry. He understood the importance of modern science and technology as much as he opposed the cultural values of the West, arguing that by imitating the West, the Turks had “lost the core of [their] identity.” He believed Muslims “should try to capture the higher summits of social and political institutions and establish control over society.”6 In the bureaucracy, Kotku’s followers successfully ensconced themselves in the State Planning Organization, allowing them to influence economic and social policies and municipal personnel appointments.7

It is difficult to overstate the role of Kotku and the Iskenderpaşa lodge. He parted with his immediate predecessor, Abdulaziz Bekkine (1895-1952), who had prohibited the mixing of Islam and electoral politics. He encouraged a generation of pious Muslims to take positions in the state bureaucracy, and started the process of infiltration and takeover of state institutions that would help political Islam dominate Turkey. As the Turkish scholar Birol Yeşilada has observed, “The Nakşibendis always emphasized the need to conquer the state from within by aligning themselves with powerful sources of capital and political actors.”8 More directly, Kotku eventually formally sanctioned the split of the Islamist wing from Turkey’s center-right, giving his blessing to Necmettin Erbakan to form the National Order Party in 1969. A leading Islamist of the time relates that Kotku told Erbakan that “the country has fallen into the hands of freemasons imitating the West … for the government to fall into the hands of its true representatives within the boundaries of laws, forming a political party is an inevitable historical duty for us. Be part of this enterprise and lead it.”9

The roster of Kotku disciples and Iskenderpaşa members who attained prominent political positions include not just Erbakan, but subsequent President Turgut Özal, his more conservative brother Korkut Özal, subsequent Prime Minister and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his Interior Ministers Abdülkadir Aksu and Beşir Atalay, and close to a dozen other ministers during Erdogan’s tenure.

Erbakan’s political ambition gradually strained the relationship to the Iskenderpaşa community, causing the latter to recede from politics.10 As long as Kotku was alive, this public rift was contained. But in 1978, two years before Kotku’s death, Korkut Özal, then a senior figure within the National Salvation Party, led a quiet rebellion against Erbakan’s style of management, claiming to have received Kotku’s blessing for his revolt.11 Following Kotku’s death, leadership of the community passed to his son-in-law, Professor Esad Coşan. Coşan further distanced the order from Erbakan, and for all practical purposes severed the link between his lodge and Erbakan’s politics. The lodge itself subsequently declined in influence; Coşan left Turkey for Australia following the 1997 military intervention, where he died in a car accident in 2001. He was succeeded as sheikh by his son, Nurettin Coşan, who remains in Australia. While the religious leadership of the lodge is a thing of the past, its lay followers constitute the core of the AKP’s leadership, underscoring its outsized influence on Turkish politics.

The Offshoots of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi Order

While the Iskenderpaşa order broke ground by taking political Islam into politics as a separate force, its potential remained unfulfilled largely because many other religious communities declined to join forces with it. Prior to studying the evolution of political Islam in Turkey, it is therefore relevant to briefly review the offshoots of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order, whose total membership far exceeds that of Iskenderpaşa.

The Nurcu Movement

The Nurcu community views itself not as a religious order but as a school of exegesis. It was founded in the early twentieth century by Said-i Nursi, a preacher born in the Kurdish-dominated areas of eastern Turkey. While Nursi would very much develop his own ideas, his early studies were influenced greatly by Naqshbandi-Khalidi sheikhs, in whose madrassahs he studied. He was formally initiated into the Naqshbandi order, eventually receiving his own ijazah from a Khalidi sheikh in Doğubeyazıt. Nursi aimed to open a madrassahs in Van, in eastern Turkey, in which he would combine the teaching of religious subjects with mathematics and science. To receive support for his plan, he went to Istanbul and then on to Salonica, today’s Thessaloniki, Greece, to join the Committee for Union and Progress. All Nurcu (literally followers of light, since Nur means light in Turkish) communities that followed, including Fethullah Gülen’s global movement, have pursued this ambition: to raise new generations trained in both religious education and modern science, thereby closing the gap between the Muslim world and the materially more advanced Western world.

While Nursi was persecuted in the early days of the Republic and sent into exile, he redoubled his efforts in the 1960s, during the reign of the Democrat Party. Nursi’s students subsequently spread all over Turkey, and began setting up circles to study his Risale-i Nur, a multi-volume exegesis in which Nursi expounded on the meaning of the Quran. Nursi’s writing stood out for its organization; rather than following the Quranic organization of longest to shortest verses, he organized his writing logically. After Nursi’s death, however, his movement split into the Okuyucular (readers) and Yazıcılar (writers) factions, which divided over the methods for teaching the Risale. For a variety of reasons, further splits occurred. Today, there are approximately forty different Nurcu groups in Turkey and abroad, a dozen of which remain influential, the largest and most important of which is the Gülen group. 12

The Nurcu emerged as a civil society initiative, which was even illegal from 1965 until 1985. Under the government of Turgut Özal, himself a Naqshbandi-Khalidi follower, the criminalization of the propagation of Sharia was abolished with changes to Article 163 of the Turkish penal code. This legal mechanism had been used to block most religious activities in Turkey. Its removal allowed Nurcu groups to spread beyond informal study circles in members’ homes, or sohbet, to begin organizing foundations and associations as well as student dormitories, known as yurt. These provided an ideal environment for informal religious education, and made the Nurcu perhaps the best-organized and most widespread religious movement. With some exceptions, the Nurcus have tended to abstain from direct party politics; until the creation of the AKP, they supported secular center-right parties rather than the Islamists of Necmettin Erbakan.

The Fethullah Gülen Movement

While the Gülen movement is a Nurcu group, its sheer size and influence alone means it deserves separate treatment. Fethullah Gülen is the most prominent religious figure to emerge from the Nurcu movement. He began his activities in Izmir in the 1960s; at the time, a religious vacuum obtained, owing to decades of state policy. A generally more permissive environment had crept into Turkey as well. Gülen took advantage of this setting. His movement refers to itself as the Hizmet movement, literally meaning “service,” a term taken from Said Nursi’s concept of Hizmet-i imaniye ve Kur’aniye, or service to the faith and Quran. Its aims include the creation of a “golden generation” through education. Already in the movement’s first publication, Sızıntı magazine, Gülen urged his followers to focus on the education sector. The Işık evleri, or private student residences, were the first education institutions of the movement. This is where the Risale was taught in a programmatic and systematic manner. In 1982, as Özal facilitated the establishment of private educational institutions, Gülen moved to turn a student dormitory into his first school, the Yamanlar koleji in Izmir.

The number of schools grew rapidly over time, attracting particularly the children of conservative and center-right elites who sought a better education than the state could offer in a culturally conservative setting. In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity to export this model to the predominantly Turkic-speaking states that had just gained their independence. Azerbaijan was the first among them, followed by Kazakhstan, where the movement rapidly built 29 schools. Today, the Hizmet movement runs an astounding 1,200 schools in 140 countries. Aside from schools, the movement has operated hundreds of preparatory courses for Turkey’s university entrance exam, as well as several universities, including the flagship Fatih University in Istanbul. The movement controls financial institutions such as Bank Asya and Asya Finans; a large business association, TUSKON; and a number of charitable organizations operating both in Turkey and abroad. It also controls a considerable media empire including Turkey’s largest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, as well as other newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations. Many pious followers of Fethullah Gülen, who explicitly reject the notion of political Islam, embody the compatibility and overlap of Islam and liberal democracy. In fact, for many of them, the former nourishes the latter.

The Hizmet movement stands out compared to most religious communities in Turkey for other reasons too. Generally, they take a pro-Western worldview. Gülen himself and his entourage reside in self-imposed exile in the United States, and their policy stances on international affairs differ greatly from the other orders. Indeed, if the private and social lives of Gülen followers differ little from other religious communities, their attitude toward the West does. They are generally pro-American and support Turkey’s European Union integration; even more uniquely, they appear largely devoid of the anti-Semitism that is entrenched in the other orders and movements. In this sense, they diverge considerably from the Naqshbandi-Khalidi movement’s roots.

As noted, the Gülen movement stayed away from electoral politics, focusing instead on increasing its presence in the state bureaucracy. The Hizmet movement’s considerable success in this regard would initially make it Erdoğan’s main partner, but also his eventual nemesis.

The Süleymancı

After the banning of religious education in 1925 a group under the leadership of Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan vowed to continue teaching the Quran to individuals and small groups. Tunahan received his own religious education in the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order. This movement came to be known as the Süleymancı, which aimed primarily at providing Quranic education and keeping the mosques open. In a number of places where there were too few officially sanctioned imams, the movement dispatched its own to keep mosques functioning. After Quranic courses were permitted in 1947, students from the movement spread across Turkey. Today, the movement stands as one of the most broadly organized in Turkey and Europe—in Germany alone, the movement controls several hundred mosques and Quranic schools.

Upon his death in 1959, Tunahan was succeeded by his son-in-law, Kemal Kaçar, who accelerated the process of expanding Quranic courses and student dormitories. This was facilitated by the movement’s support for Süleyman Demirel’s Justice Party, through which Kaçar served as a member of parliament for three terms. Upon Kaçar’s death in 2000, a struggle for leadership broke out between the brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Denizolgun, Tunahan’s grandsons from his other daughter. This led to a split in the movement, but not to its withdrawal from politics: the brothers simply supported different parties. Mehmet became a founding member of the AKP, while Ahmet—who controlled most of the movement’s support—shifted political affiliations. He was elected to parliament in 1995 on the Welfare Party ticket, but quit the party following the 1997 coup. He kept his seat in parliament, and was briefly appointed Minister of Communications for the Motherland Party (ANAP) under Mesut Yılmaz’s government in 1998. The movement supported the shrinking ANAP in 1999 and 2002; in 2007, Ahmet Denizolgun ran on the ill-fated Democrat Party ticket; in 2011 and 2015, his block supported the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with the movement’s vote purportedly a crucial factor in helping the MHP overcome the 10 percent threshold in 2011.13 Thus, the group stands out in that a large portion of it never supported the AKP.

The Menzil Order

The Menzil are a Naqshbandi-Khalidi community based in Adıyaman that quickly branched out into Ankara and Istanbul. It began to spread rapidly after the 1980 military coup, partly because of its reputation as a religious order supportive of the state. As a result, it spread across western Turkey as one of the fastest-growing religious orders in the country. Like many religious communities, it tended to support center-right parties until the creation of the AKP. In fact, many former right-wing activists whose death sentences were commuted after the coup joined the Menzil order. Moreover, the late founder of the National Unity Party, Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu, was close to the order. In the AKP government, two ministers have been known to represent Menzil: Energy Minister Taner Yıldız and Health Minister Recep Akdağ. In 2005, the movement created a business association, TÜMSIAD. In a testament to the order’s clout, TÜMSIAD boasts 15,000 members, and in June 2015, TÜMSIAD leader Hasan Sert was elected to parliament as an AKP member.

Religious Orders and Turkish Politics from Erbakan to Erdoğan

Turkish political Islam has evolved based on the interrelationship of these religious orders. While their total membership is unknown, they number in the millions; and since members tend to take guidance from their leaders and vote as reliable blocs, they have often played a decisive role in Turkish politics. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Islamist parties led by Necmettin Erbakan struggled to unite Turkey’s religious orders and communities, many of which continued to support parties of the center-right. These parties were secular and pro-Western in orientation, but respectful of religion and eager to court pious voters.

The Narrow Base: Necmettin Erbakan and Milli Görüş

Necmettin Erbakan was the person who would realize Sheikh Kotku’s ideas. Born into a religious family in Sinop in 1926, Erbakan went on to earn a Ph.D. in engineering in Germany. Seeking a political career, Erbakan tried to win a slot on the center-right Justice Party’s list in the 1969 parliamentary elections, but Justice Party leader Süleyman Demirel, his former university classmate, vetoed the move. This personal rift mirrored a growing fissure between the Islamist wing of the Justice Party and its leadership, which had so far maintained an uneasy “big tent” of liberals, Islamists, and Turkish nationalists. Increasingly, Islamists and nationalists betrayed deep frustrations with the party’s pro-Western tendencies and ties to big business. This played a role in the break between the Islamists and the Justice Party following a failed attempt by Islamists to take over the party in 1968. Simultaneously, the nationalists formed their own party, the MHP.

Erbakan ran as an independent candidate in the 1969 elections and won a seat in parliament. With Kotku’s blessing he then founded the National Order Party. Upon its closure, he founded the National Salvation Party, which played a significant role in Turkish politics throughout the 1970s. The party received nearly 12 percent of the vote in 1973, and subsequently was a junior partner in various coalition governments from 1973 through 1979. In the aftermath of the 1980 coup Erbakan was banned from politics, but in 1987, he began rebuilding political Islam through the Welfare Party, which became the largest party by a razor-thin margin in 1995 thanks to the fragmentation of the center-right. Erbakan served as prime minister in a coalition government from 1996 to 1997, but was removed from power after the February 28, 1997 military intervention, which subsequently led to the party’s closure and earned Erbakan a lifetime ban from politics.

The views underlying Erbakan’s long political career have been remarkably consistent and deeply influenced by the Khalidi order’s teachings, as well as global political Islamic movements of the Muslim Brotherhood tradition. The movement rests on an urge to build a powerful, industrialized Turkey that serves as the natural leader of the Muslim world. While accepting the contributions of modern science, and even arguing that modern Western science was based on Islamic knowledge, Erbakan vigorously opposed Western culture. Erbakan also viewed international politics from an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist perspective: Turkey and the Islamic world were being exploited by the West, which in turn was controlled by a global Zionist world conspiracy. In Erbakan’s posthumously published memoirs, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories occupy a central place, just as they play a crucial role in the movement’s ideology. Erbakan believed that Turkey needed to build its own heavy industrial base, yet the Western powers had prevented this at every step. Instead of seeking an alliance with the West, therefore, Turkey should form and lead an Islamic union of states.14

Erbakan was a divisive figure. When he set out, he sought to build a coalition with the Nurcu and Qadiri brotherhoods, but this fell apart in the mid-1970s owing to his domineering personality. Eventually, significant figures from the Iskenderpaşa community itself left the movement. They looked elsewhere, and eventually lent their support to Turkey’s center-right parties. In the 1990s, the ANAP, led by Turgut Özal and later Mesut Yılmaz, but also the True Path Party (DYP), led by Süleyman Demirel and later Tansu Çiller, profited most from these defections. The aversion toward Erbakan and Milli Görüş was so pronounced that when the two center-right parties gradually collapsed under mismanagement and corruption in the late 1990s, many religious communities in the 1999 elections instead preferred to lend support to either center-left leader Bülent Ecevit and his Democratic Left Party, or the MHP.

A Coalition of Religious Orders: Erdoğan’s AKP

The fragmentation of the religious orders ended with the formation of the AKP. Even though the leaders of the newly formed party—Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül—were Iskenderpaşa members, they broke with Erbakan over his leadership style and his unwillingness to compromise. Most importantly, they realized that in order to achieve power and defeat Turkey’s secular establishment, they needed to broaden the movement’s base. The nascent AKP also benefited from a series of developments. First, Turkey’s center-right had fragmented into two parties, the DYP and ANAP, whose programs were practically identical, but whose leaders were prone to infighting. Since their leadership was also susceptible to corruption, the two parties gradually destroyed one another, leaving an enormous void in the traditional center of Turkish politics. Second, the 2000-01 financial crisis, which included a currency devaluation of nearly 40 percent, led to a “throw them all out” sentiment among the Turkish people. And finally, in the environment following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Western leaders, and in particular the United States, eagerly sought to cultivate “moderate Islam.” The AKP became the main beneficiary of this realignment, which favored the party over the increasingly stagnant and unelected secular establishment.

The AKP actively and purposefully sought to build a big-tent party that could capture the different constituencies that had supported the center-right. This included outreach to non-religious voters, especially in the initial phases. But more than anything else, Erdoğan’s power rested on a coalition of religious orders and communities. Erdoğan’s tactics did not differ from those earlier center-right parties who had eagerly courted religious communities. The difference was that now a core elite from the Milli Görüş tradition did the courting, urging all religious communities to unite under one roof. By skillfully handing out favors including political appointments and a share of the economic pie (in particular, government contracts in construction), Erdoğan built a model of political leadership that was strongly dependent on the support of religious orders and communities.

The Milli Görüş, the Naqshbandi and the Muslim Brotherhood

The emergence of political Islam on the Turkish scene derives from the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order; but it is also closely connected to the emergence of political Islam elsewhere in the Muslim world, particularly the rise of the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, the Muslim Brotherhood. Numerous scholars have noted the influence of Brotherhood thinkers Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, as well as Abu Ala al-Mawdudi, founder of the South Asian Jamaat-e Islami, on Erbakan and the Milli Görüş movement.15

This connection may seem contradictory, since the Ikhwan—which in many ways leans toward the purist Salafi Islam—is in principle opposed to Sufi orders and their esoteric nature. However, this mutual hostility between Sufism and the Brotherhood does not appear to apply to the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order. Indeed, the Khalidi order’s deep Sunni roots, its strong attachment to Orthodoxy and the Sharia, and the movement’s heavy politicization make it highly compatible with the views of the Brotherhood. In many parts of the Middle East there is cross-fertilization between the two organizations.

This connection is visible especially in Germany, where both the Brotherhood and the __Milli Görüş__—forced into exile by their respective governments—developed intricate links, including intermarriage between the Erbakan family and Brotherhood leader Ibrahim al-Zayat. Through close practical cooperation, these organizations took on a dominant role in German Islamic organizations.16 In this sense, Erbakan became what one scholar called “a crucial conduit of the Muslim Brotherhood into Turkey.”17 The effect of this was to make “Turkish Islamic thought more universally oriented despite its inward-oriented nationalist-local leanings … thus the understanding that Islam is not something limited to personal life but also has public claims, took root in the Turkish form of Islamism.”18

Erbakan developed connections with Brotherhood organizations all over the Middle East and North Africa, and Erdoğan continued to develop these linkages.19 Thus, leading Brotherhood figures began appearing at the Welfare Party’s conventions in the 1990s.20 Attendees at Erbakan’s 2011 funeral reads like a “who’s who” of the global Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the Brotherhood’s former spiritual guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef.21 The ideological continuity between the Brotherhood and the AKP is demonstrated by the fact that leading representatives of the various branches of the Brotherhood, including Hamas, have been honored guests at AKP conventions.

The Milli Görüş was never an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood certainly considered it something akin to the Turkish version of the Brotherhood, much as it viewed the Jamaat-e Islami of Pakistan. Thus, despite its nominally Sufi origins, the Naqshbandi-Khalidi character of the AKP’s leadership in no way insulates it from the radicalization of political Islam in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, the Khalidi order’s Arab and Kurdish roots explain the AKP’s more radical currents, including its foreign policy toward Hamas, Syria and Egypt.

The Rise and Fall of the AKP-Gülen Alliance

Among the various religious groups that underpin Erdoğan’s rule, the Gülen movement has played a unique role. It stayed out of politics and at a distance from Erbakan. But from the 1970s onward, the movement built a significant following in the bureaucracy, not least because its members had received a high-quality secular education, unlike many in the other orders. The movement was especially well represented in the judiciary and police. In the 2002 elections, the Gülen movement lent its support to the AKP, but continued to maintain its distance. The movement’s politicization began in earnest after 2007, when a confrontation occurred between the AKP and the Turkish military. This solidified the informal alliance between the AKP and the followers of Fethullah Gülen, who harbored strong resentments against the military and judiciary for persecutions launched in the aftermath of the 1997 military intervention. The Gülen movement made common cause with the AKP’s leadership, and deployed its assets in the bureaucracy, particularly in the judicial system and police, to stage a counter-attack on the secularist elites that sought to bring down the AKP government, including through an effort to have the courts close the party down.

As a result, the AKP and the Gülen movement jointly developed the massive Ergenekon and Balyoz court cases, which landed hundreds of military officers, bureaucrats, journalists and academics in jail on charges of seeking to overthrow the government.22 It now appears that the Gülen movement, which was able to mobilize hundreds, if not thousands, of followers in the government bureaucracy, used this opportunity to seek an ever-growing level of influence over state institutions. After the 2010 constitutional referendum, the movement was able to capitalize on the changes in the judicial sector to effectively take control of both the police and the judiciary. This conflicted with Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly bold efforts to centralize power: he had decided that Turkey needed a super-presidential system of government in order to turn himself into an elected sultan. Clearly, in such a scheme, he saw the Gülen movement as just another religious community he could subordinate to his interests. The Gülen movement, it seems, had other ideas. Its representatives say they objected to Erdoğan’s undemocratic aspirations on principle; critics would retort, with considerable evidence, that they wanted to be co-owners of the state, effectively exercising a veto power on government policy. The former explanation is undoubtedly true for many of the movement’s more democratic followers. But judging by the abuses committed in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, it is clear that the movement’s representatives in the bureaucracy were more interested in power than democracy.

This tension ultimately led to a prolonged power struggle. It began when prosecutors affiliated with the Hizmet movement attempted to detain the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, one of Erdoğan’s closest confidantes. In response to this challenge, Erdoğan methodically worked to break down the movement’s influence by transferring, demoting, and firing many officials. At the same time, Erdoğan took on the movement’s educational institutions. This confrontation turned ugly in December 2013, after the Hizmet-affiliated prosecutors accused four government ministers of large-scale corruption and arrested many of their associates and family members, and prepared to strike against Erdoğan’s family, a move that the latter narrowly prevented. This led the government to seek a tactical alliance with secular and nationalist forces in the judiciary.

Erdogan had not expected this Hizmet attack, but moved on the offensive at home and abroad. Abroad, he tried to convince foreign leaders from Central Asia to Africa to close the same Hizmet schools he had only recently urged them to open. At home, he forged an unlikely and unholy alliance with the same army he had only recently undermined with the help of the Hizmet. In the process, hundreds of civilians and officers that had been sentenced to long jail terms in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases were freed. Erdoğan went as far as openly admitting his mistake and implicitly apologizing to the military in a speech at the Turkish Military Academy. However, Erdoğan’s claim to have been misled by the Hizmet is disingenuous given the determination with which he supported the purges of the military establishment. At the time of writing, dozens of alleged followers of Fethullah Gülen had been thrown in jail by special courts set up for that purpose.

This internecine struggle in the Islamic conservative milieu is important because it is unique: it is by far the biggest fight ever to occur between Islamic groups in Turkey. Never before had competition between religious groups led to a total breakdown in relations; but then again, never before had religious groups enjoyed practically unchecked power in the country. The impact of this struggle will be felt for decades to come. And while the byzantine shifts of political alliances are bewildering to the outside observer, one thing seems certain: Turkish politics is now defined by the relationships among and between religious orders and communities.

Controlling Official Islam and Islamizing Education

In this context, an important and often underrated element is the Erdoğan government’s attempt to take control of the institutions of official Islam in Turkey, and to ensure religious dominance of Turkey’s education system. Given the dominance of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi movements over Turkey’s ruling party, this has major implications.

Whether in Ottoman times or during the Republic, the Turkish state has made control of religious affairs a priority. In Ottoman times, this function was fulfilled by the Ulema under the leadership of the Sheikh ul-Islam; following the creation of the Republic, the Diyanet Işleri Başkanlığı, or Directorate for Religious Affairs, fulfilled this role. While the Diyanet only recently became a powerful institution in Turkey, it has long kept control over the religious sphere. All imams in every mosque across Turkey were appointed by the Diyanet, which sanctioned their Friday sermons. This provided an important counter-balance to the lack of hierarchy within Sunni Islam, which has led to the often chaotic proliferation of more or less radical religious groups across the Muslim world. Whereas Muslim youths in Europe are often subject to radicalization in mosques run by radical imams, the role of the Diyanet in Turkey considerably reduced this risk. But as noted, the cadres of the Diyanet were often insufficient to man all the mosques in the country, and the Diyanet itself was the subject of infiltration by various religious communities. On the whole, however, the hierarchical nature of the organization fulfilled an important function of moderating and controlling religion in Turkey, and state authorities always ensured that religious communities did not achieve total control over the Diyanet.

Under the AKP, however, the Diyanet has undergone a process of rapid change. The most obvious is the exponential growth of the institution. In less than a decade, its budget has quadrupled, amounting to slightly more than $2 billion while employing over 120,000 people. That makes it one of Turkey’s largest state institutions, bigger even than the Ministry of Interior.23

As the Diyanet has grown, the proportion of its personnel that were regular government bureaucrats has decreased, and it is increasingly staffed by graduates of Imam-Hatip schools (imam and preacher schools originally created to provide manpower to Turkey’s mosques) and the theological faculties. Unsurprisingly, these have come under the influence of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order and its offshoots.

The Diyanet has also come to be used as a political instrument. Until late 2010, led by a secularist-appointed chairman, the Diyanet largely stayed out of politics. But this chairman responded to Erdoğan’s efforts to involve the organization in the legislative process by saying that “consulting the Diyanet on legislation is counter to the principle of secularism.”24 As a result, Erdoğan appointed his own handpicked candidate, Mehmet Görmez, who has been considerably more pliant toward the AKP leadership’s wishes.

As the size of Diyanet grew, so did its social role. In 2011, the Diyanet began issuing halal certificates for food products; the next year, it opened a television station. The Diyanet now produces fatwas, including on demand: it established a free telephone hotline that provides Islamic guidance on everyday matters.25 Unsurprisingly, the number of fatwas being issued is rising rapidly. Legally speaking, the Diyanet’s rulings carry no weight. Following them is entirely voluntary. However, it certainly has an effect on the conservative masses.

Imam-Hatip schools have in recent years even come under the direct influence of President Erdoğan through the Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey, which is run by his son, Bilal. This foundation accepts donations (including a $99 million donation from a likely Saudi source) and has been remarkably successful at obtaining, often through cut-rate leases, land owned by government institutions for educational purposes.26

In 2002, 65,000 students were enrolled in Imam-Hatip schools; today, the figure is over one million, a dramatic increase that occurred especially after legislative amendments in 2010 and 2012 made it possible to transform secular high schools and middle schools into Imam-Hatip schools. Meanwhile, reforms introduced in 2012 have increased the required amount of religious content taught in secular schools. Courses on Islamic history and the life of the Prophet have been added to the curriculum.

While some of these religious courses remain elective rather than compulsory, it is easy to imagine—especially outside the secular enclaves of western Turkey—how pressure from peers and school officials is likely to ensure that few students abstain from them. These religious reforms have been both offensive and defensive in nature: offensive, since they aim to shape and mold the views of the population in the AKP’s favor; but also defensive, because they coincide with efforts to curtail the Gülen movement’s schools. Indeed, these reforms were prompted by the realization that the Gülen movement’s schools were producing individuals with superior education and capability, but who lacked loyalty to Erdoğan and the AKP.

Under the AKP, official Islam and the education system as a whole has undergone monumental changes with far-reaching consequences. These changes, from the mosque to the classroom, are intended to enable Erdoğan and his entourage to shape and mold the worldview of generations of Turks. And that worldview, with some idiosyncratic twists, is based on the heavily anti-Western Naqshbandi-Khalidi tradition. In other words, Turkish official Islam and its education system are gradually being taken over by the Khalidi worldview, both in terms of political control and through newly indoctrinated cadres. Moreover, under the AKP, the Diyanet has become increasingly politicized. In numerous mosques, reports surface of sermons given by imams that support and glorify AKP and President Erdoğan.

In sum, recent education reforms have increased the religious content of the education system, leading many schools to be transformed into Imam-Hatip schools, to the point that 10-15 percent of Turkey’s middle and high school students now study in such schools. Their education, as well as the sermons of the mosque imams, have come to be increasingly marked by the beliefs of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order, and politically aligned with the AKP. It is obvious that this will have profound consequences of a political as well as socio-cultural nature for decades to come.


Following the creation of the AKP, practically all Islamic orders and communities for the first time lent their support to a single party. This party’s core leadership has its roots in the Milli Görüş movement, itself a creation of the Iskenderpaşa branch of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order. But whereas the parties of the Milli Görüş tradition remained centered on the order, the AKP evolved into what is now essentially a coalition of religious orders and communities. Secular and liberal elements in the party—many of which were opportunistic fellow travelers to begin with, or made common cause with the AKP because of their common enemy in the military establishment—have been purged as they grow obsolete. The danger of politics constructed on religious orders was illustrated by the intra-Islamic conflict between the AKP leadership and the Fethullah Gülen movement. While there are clear ideological differences between the AKP and the Gülen movement, the struggle between them should not be mistaken for an ideological one. The competition is primarily over power.

The rise of the AKP has been paralleled by the rise of religious communities as political forces. These groups have played the role of voluntary associations in a Tocquevillean sense, filling the vacuum arising from the weakness of secular voluntary associations in Turkey. But unlike most voluntary associations in the West, these groups are motivated by a strong political agenda, which includes reshaping society in their own image.

In this regard, an important paradox should be noted. Traditionally, Turks have tended toward relatively liberal schools of thought in Islam, such as the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which grants considerable space to the interpretation of religious law. By contrast, Arab and Kurdish Islam has tended toward the more Orthodox schools of thought—the Hanbali and Shafi’i schools of thought, based on the Ashari tradition, which are much stricter and allow considerably less room for interpretation.

Secularization efforts since the mid-nineteenth century have had an effect on Turkish Islam exactly contrary to their intent. They occurred in parallel with the rapid spread of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order and its offshoots across Turkey, which brought an understanding of religion deeply colored by Arab and Kurdish traditions to the country. The creation of the Republic of Turkey and the radical policies of secularization in the field of education led to a breach with the more liberal religious approach that had formed the core of official Ottoman Islam. With the introduction of electoral democracy in the 1950s, the religious vacuum came to be filled by social movements that were almost without exception products of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi tradition, and thus brought Turkey more in line with Middle Eastern interpretations of Islam. Indeed, to a considerable degree, this explains the foreign policies of the AKP government, whose ideological character is radically different from the Ottomans. The Ottomans were seldom if ever motivated by religious zeal. What this suggests is that if Turkey’s religious, educational and political space comes to be controlled entirely by Naqshbandi-Khalidi ideology, Turkey will irrevocably become a Middle Eastern country.

In June 2015, the AKP received a major blow, when it lost its majority in parliament and saw its voter base cut by one fifth, to slightly over 40 percent of the electorate. The election was more a referendum on Erdoğan’s ambitions than an ideological contest, since it served as a referendum on his design to create a presidential system. Sixty percent of Turks oppose Erdoğan and the AKP; however, the sharp divisions between the three opposition parties—particularly between the Turkish nationalist MHP and the Kurdish nationalist HDP—render the prospect of a non-AKP government unworkable. Therefore, the AKP remains the dominant political force in Turkey, and looks set to remain the senior partner in any coalition government in the near term. Turkish politics are once again raucous and unpredictable, and even if the AKP manages to form a coalition government, either with the Nationalist MHP or with the center-left CHP, the life expectancy of such a government is short. Be that as it may, the AKP’s electoral setback is unlikely to generate a process that unravels its reforms. Any coalition government in which the AKP is a senior partner will be unlikely to revise the changes the party has introduced in education and in the Directorate of Religious Affairs. In the absence of such reforms, the question is when Turkey will pass a point of no return, when the worldview and outlook of its population will be fundamentally changed.

1 Albert Hourani, The Emergence of the Modern Middle East (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1981), p. 78.
2 Ibid., p. 79.
3 Dina Rizk Houry, "Who is a True Muslim? Exclusion and Inclusion among Polemicists of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Baghdad," The Early Modern Ottomans, ed. Virginia H. Aksan and Daniel Goffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 266.
4 Şerif Mardin, "The Nakshibendi Order of Turkey," Fundamentalisms and the State, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appelby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 213.
5 Ibid., p. 214-215; Itzchak Weismann, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and Activisim in a worldwide Sufi Tradition (London: Routledge Press, 2007).
6 Şerif Mardin, "The Nakshibendi Order of Turkey", Fundamentalisms and the State, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appelby. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 222-223; Birol Yeşilada, "The Refah Party Phenomenon in Turkey," in Birol Yeşilada, ed. Comparative Political Parties and Party Elites: Essays in Honor of Samuel J. Eldersveld (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 137.
7 Esen Kirdiş, Between Movement and Party: Islamic Political Party Formation in Morocco, Turkey and Jordan (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. 129.
8 Birol Yeşilada, "The Refah Party Phenomenon in Turkey," in Birol Yeşilada, ed. Comparative Political Parties and Party Elites: Essays in Honor of Samuel J. Eldersveld (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 137.
9 Esen Kirdiş quoting Suleyman Arif Emre, p. 140. Suleyman Arif Emre, Siyasette 35 Yil. (35 Years in Politics) (Istanbul: Kesif Yayinlari Press, 2002), p. 173.
10 Fulya Atacan, "Explaining Religious Politics at the Crossroad: AKP-SP," Turkish Studies, Vol. 6, no. 2 (June 2005), p. 191.
11 Ibid., p. 190.
12 Prominent groups include: The Yazıcılar Group (led by Ahmet Hüsrev Altınbaşak); the Kurdoğlu Group (Mehmet Kurdoğlu); the Sözler Group (Mustafa Sungur); the şura Group (Mehmet Kırkıncı); the Zehra Group (İzzettin Yıldırım); the Nesil Group (Mehmet Fırıncı); the İstanbul Group (Abdullah Yeğin, Hüsnü Bayram, Ahmet Aytimur); the İhlas Nur Group (M. Said Özdemir); the Med-Zehra Group (Muhammed Sıddık Dursun); the Yeni Asya (New Asia) Group (Yeni Asya Gazetesi, Mehmet Kutlular); and the Gülen movement.
13 Yalçın Bayer, "MHP'yi Baraj altından Sÿleymancılar mı kurtardı?" Hürriyet, June 15, 2011.
14 For further detail on Erbakan's ideology, see Svante E. Cornell, Eric S. Edelman, Halil Karaveli, Aaron Lobel and Blaise Misztal's forthcoming study of Turkish politics, to be published by the Bipartisan Policy Center in September 2015.
15 Jenny White, "Turkish Coup by Court," Social Science Research Council, Rethinking Secularism Blog, July 30, 2008.
16 Lorenzo Vidino, "The Muslim Brotherhood's Conquest of Europe," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 12, no. 1 (2005); Udo Ulfkotte, Der Krieg in Unseren Städten: Wie Radikale Islamisten Deutschland Unterwandern (Frankfurt: Eichborn AG, 2003), p. 35-36, PDF available.
17 Zeyno Baran, Torn Country: Turkey Between Secularism and Islamism (Palo Alto: Hoover Institution Press, 2010).
18 Ahmet Yıldız, "Transformation of Islamic Thought in Turkey Since the 1950s,", in Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Press, 2006), p. 44-45.
19 Steven Merley, Turkey, the Global Muslim Brotherhood, and the Gaza Flotilla (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2011), p. 31, PDF available.
20 Soner Yalçın, Milli Nizam'dan Fazilet'e Hangi Erbakan (Istanbul: Şu Yayınları, 1999). An excerpt on the matter is available online.
21 "Global Muslim Brotherhood Leadership Gathers at Erbakan Funeral," The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch, March 20, 2011.
22 Gareth Jenkins, "Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey's Ergenekon Investigation," Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Silk Road Paper, August 2009. PDF available.
23 "Iste Diyanet'in Bütçesi,", February 19, 2014; "Diyanet'te kaç personel çalışıyor?" Bedir haber, November 11, 2014.
24 "Diyanet'ten laiklik uyarısı," Vatan, November 5, 2010.
25 Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, "Turkey's Diyanet: the Revival of Sheikh al-Islam," Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv Notes, Vol. 9 no. 3, February 10, 2015.
26 "Bilal Erdoğan'ın parasının izi ortaya çıktı," Sözcü, January 30, 2014.

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