An unprecedented fight has been underway in Turkey over the past year, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pitted against the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers. As the war intensifies by the day, tensions in Turkey are mounting, and virtually everyone is being forced to take sides. Remarks made by Erdogan in a mid-December speech said it all: “Those who don’t take sides will be sidelined.” No one has the luxury of simply watching the fight from the stands.
Erdogan has managed to secure the support of his party and electorate in this war, which he made the backbone of his campaign strategy in the March municipal elections and the presidential elections held in August. Gulen, once respected by Erdogan, is now vilified and branded an “assassin” — a reference to Hassan Sabbah’s violent medieval cult. Thousands of public servants allegedly close to the Gulen community have been removed from their jobs. Some have been arrested.
Most of the legislation passed in the parliament over the past year is widely seen as a tool for targeting the Gulen community. On Dec. 19, a Turkish court issued an arrest warrant for Gulen. Turkey is now expected to ask the United States to extradite the cleric, based in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s. In sum, Erdogan got what he wanted: The AKP triumphed in the municipal polls, and he won the presidential elections, while individuals and entities close to the Gulen movement got trouble.
Turkey’s religious groups
The Gulen movement is not the only Islamic community in Turkey. It is only one of dozens of religious communities, also known as “orders.” After the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, four sects emerged in Islam, followed later by Sufi movements and orders. The latter's roots date back to the 11th century. The Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders, the most widespread in modern Turkey, flourished during Seljuk and Ottoman times.
Following the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, the “revolution laws” imposed a ban on the activities of religious orders but failed to stamp them out. Moreover, new communities emerged. Some of the most popular religious groups today — for instance the Nurcular and Suleymancilar — were established under republican rule, while other, more deep-rooted communities, including the Menzilciler, Iskenderpasa, Erenkoy and Ismailaga, retained their influence despite various bans and obstructions.
Those orders and communities adopted varying attitudes toward politics and governments over the years. In general, however, they backed right-wing parties, attracted by their conservative rhetoric and hoping that they would expand religious freedoms. They kept their distance from leftist and social democratic movements.
After Turkey’s transition to a multiparty system in the 1940s, the orders and communities backed the Democrat Party and then its successor, the Justice Party. In the 1970s, political Islam made its debut in Turkey with parties led by Necmettin Erbakan, who himself belonged to a religious order. Yet, Erbakan managed to garner support from only certain religious groups. The period following the 1980 military coup, especially the years under Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, marked a “golden era” for Islamic orders and communities. Ozal, a sympathizer of the Naqshbandi order, launched a liberal drive under the motto “Freedom for religion, conscience and entrepreneurship,” which created space for religious groups.
Erdogan’s favored communities
Erdogan and other AKP founders belonged to Erbakan’s flock before they parted ways with their mentor. Naturally, they are linked to certain religious groups or at least sympathize with them. Erdogan, although bashing Gulen today, has deep respect for other Islamic opinion leaders, such as Emin Sarac, Hayrettin Karaman and Osman Nuri Topbas. Some AKP lawmakers and even ministers are known to be associated with religious communities and orders.
During their 12-year rule, Erdogan and the AKP have achieved much more than Erbakan and Ozal did. Most religious communities and orders in Turkey stand behind Erdogan and under the AKP banner. Only a few days ago, 150 “non-governmental organizations,” the majority of them affiliated with Islamic communities or orders, took out a newspaper ad to declare their support for Erdogan amid the ongoing tensions over the corruption probes that emerged in December 2013. The same organizations had similarly declared support for the AKP and Erdogan ahead of the municipal and presidential elections earlier in the year.
Only a handful of religious groups appear to be withholding support from the AKP, including the Gulen community, the New Asia group (a branch of the Nurcular), the Suleymancilar and the Furkan Foundation. Haydar Bas, leader of a religious order, has his own political party, while the Islamist Kurdish followers of Turkey’s Hezbollah (no relation to its Lebanese namesake) are organized under the roof of the Free Cause Party.
The explicit support of religious groups for the AKP is not for religious reasons only, although the government’s democratic openings have emancipated pious segments of society. The lifting of restrictions on imam-hatip schools, the abolition of the ban on headscarves in public offices and the removal of prohibitions on religious propaganda and activities have meant real progress for them. Yet, there is another key reason for communities' support of the AKP.
The Gulen community and the AKP cooperated closely from 2002 to 2011. The government made use of the Gulenists' well-educated human capital in the bureaucracy and backed its activities in civic society. The “others” were not really happy with this cooperation. Now the AKP-Gulen war has opened up abundant new space for them. As the government purges Gulenists from public offices, the members of other religious groups are emerging as most-favored replacements.
Religious communities and orders are important actors in business life. Their holdings, companies and foundations operate enterprises across a wide range of sectors, from banking and student dorms to publishing houses and supermarkets. The annual turnover of those enterprises is measured in the several billions of dollars. The government has closed its doors to the Gulen community at both the local and central administration levels. At the same time, it is encouraging other religious communities and orders to invest in areas where the Gulen movement has dominated or been influential, especially the education sector.
The opening of hundreds of new private schools and dorms over the past year is the product of this war. Hence, a win-win calculation is at work here for the AKP and religious communities. The Gulen-AKP war has meant votes for the AKP, and public jobs and economic opportunities for the religious communities and orders.
Turkey is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in June 2015. Barring a drastic shift in the current situation, all the major religious groups except the Gulen community and a few others will again back the AKP.
How strong is the electoral impact of religious communities and orders? When asked by Al-Monitor, the pollster Ibrahim Uslu said his ANAR polling company had measured their share of the vote as some 7%, perhaps 10% at most. According to Ozer Sencer, head of MetroPoll, the electoral clout of religious groups is exaggerated. Sencer maintains that Islamic communities and orders represent no more than 6% of the total vote, with the Gulen movement holding 1.5-2% on its own.
Both pollsters believe religious groups alone are incapable of swaying the outcome of the upcoming elections. In Uslu’s words, “They may try combinations with small parties, but the outcome will not change. Barring an economic crisis, the AKP’s existing electorate will sustain its support.”