Analysis. Apparently, the winter of the Gulenists in Turkey turned out to be the spring of other religious communities. The loyalty of these Islamic groups to president Erdogan and the AKP government was rewarded with unprecedented access to public resources and posts. After the July 15 coup attempt, the religious communities close to AKP rushed to fill the vacancies resulting from the purge of Gulenists in state bureaucracy, concludes Hakkı Taş, postdoctoral scholar at the Swedish Defence University.
Back in November 30, 2016 Turkey was shaken by the news of a dormitory fire in the South Anatolian district of Aladağ, a small district of Adana, killing eleven children between the ages of 11 and 14. The public debate on the lack of proper fire exit doors shifted drastically once it was exposed that the dormitory was allegedly run by the Suleymancilar, a vast religious community in Turkey. It was further revealed that the Suleymancilar were running eight additional private dormitories in this tiny district of about 17,000 inhabitants. Though all brotherhoods and dervish lodges were outlawed in 1925, most have retained their influence despite various bans and obstructions. Today, the Suleymancilar are believed to run more than a thousand student dormitories across Turkey.
While the ruling AKP accused another Islamic community – the Gulen Movement – for sponsoring the attempted coup on July 15, 2016 and launched an unprecedented purge against alleged Gulenists, the status of other Islamist communities remains an intriguing question. The purge extended beyond Gulenists and targeted all non-loyalists, including Kurds and liberal figures, resulting in over 40,000 arrests and the dismissal of 130,000 public employees. The question now remaining is who might occupy these now vacant posts?
When AKP and Gulen movement drifted apart during the corruption probes of December 17-25, 2013, Erdogan unflinchingly declared: “Those who do not take sides will be sidelined.” With most Islamic communities aligning themselves with Erdogan, a union of some 150 non-governmental organizations–mostly affiliated with Islamic communities and brotherhoods – published a newspaper ad to publicly declare their support for Erdogan. The same union declared its support for Erdogan during the subsequent municipal and presidential elections, as well. Apart from the Gulenists, few groups publicly resisted the AKP. These include Yeni Asya community, a Nurcu branch, and the Furkan Foundation.
Apparently, the winter of the Gulenists turned out to be the spring of other religious communities. The loyalty of these Islamic groups was rewarded with unprecedented access to public resources and posts. After the July 15 coup attempt, the religious communities close to AKP were euphoric and rushed to fill the void resulting from the purge of Gulenists in state bureaucracy. They also competed with each other to take control of the schools and dormitories seized by the government
Contrasting sharply with the fate of the Gulenists, other religious groups are gaining strength. The Menzil Community, for instance, is a branch of the Naqshibandi brotherhood centered in Adiyaman and has benefited greatly from the purge. It has been an open secret that Menzil devotees filled the Ministry of Health and the Social Security Institution.
In mid-August, Murat Emir, MP from the main opposition CHP, even filed a question to the Parliament and asked about AKP’s relationship to the Menzil community, especially with regard to the status of the Ministry of Health. More recently, Mustafa Karadag, the Head of the Trade Union of Judges, argued that those affiliated with some religious orders (i.e. Suleymancilar, Menzil, and Hakyol) have been privileged in appointments and promotions in the judiciary. Likewise, the leaked e-mail of Berat Albayrak, Minister of Energy and President Erdogan’s son-in-law, stoked further controversy on the alleged favorable treatment to some religious groups like the Naqshibandi Ismailaga Community.
Erdogan’s regime employs multiple strategies to dominate and strategically deploy Islamic groups in Turkey. Firstly, a reward & punishment system is used to ensure absolute loyalty. The pro-government Islamic foundations are protected at all costs. For instance, when it was revealed that some 45 boys were allegedly abused by a teacher in teenager homes operated by the pro-government Ensar Foundation in Karaman province, government officials publicly defended the Foundation. Dormitories of the Gulenists were later seized by the government and transferred to the Ensar Foundation.
Secondly, attempts were made to put all Islamic brotherhoods and communities under state control. In an effort to promote transparency, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, planned to create a formal membership system for the Islamic communities, which were also expected to gain some legal institutional structure. However, increasing state penetration over the Islamic groups has made them more vulnerable to both Erdogan and a probable secularist political wave in the future. Though it is unclear what outcomes this process may bring, Diyanet has already begun its preparations. Last week, in the hopes of promoting formal interaction between the state and religious communities, Diyanet announced the first “Meeting of Religious Communities and Brotherhoods” (Cemaatler ve Tarikatlar Buluşması), which is expected to bring some thirty religious group leaders together.
Thirdly, Erdogan seems to be building his own community (or “devout youth”) through The Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey (TURGEV). Erdogan’s two children, Bilal Erdogan and Esra Albayrak, are members of the executive board. TURGEV also made news when it was alleged that Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, now on trial in New York, made donations to this foundation. Between 2008 and 2012, TURGEV received $100 million in donations. These donations originated mostly from the Gulf countries allegedly in exchange for political and economic benefits, especially in government bids.
While Erdogan hopes for loyal Islamic youth, if not across Turkish society, his Islamic aspirations are quite pragmatic as evident in the Mavi Marmara incident, i.e. the 2010 flotilla attempt that aimed to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and ended with the killing of ten Turkish activists. At that time, Erdogan called the Israeli state “terrorist”and recited Quranic verses for the flotilla victims.
After a six-year-long stalemate in relations between the two countries, Erdogan’s shift in his dealings with Israel disappointed Turkish Islamists. Erdogan went so far as to ridicule the flotilla organizers, asking them whom they spoke with before their Gaza trip. Eventually, Turkey agreed to a settlement and dropped all charges against the Israeli military in return for $20 million in restitution for the victims’ families. On December 9, the legal case was also dropped.
Needless to say, despite their disappointment in Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel, support for Erdogan remains strong among the Islamic groups.