Religious orders and democracy in Turkey

When Turkish military units across the country launched a bloody and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to topple the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government on July 15 2016, it did not take long before fingers were pointed at the prime suspects behind the attempted coup - followers of the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who were said to have covertly gained unprecedented control over state institutions.

The coup attempt brought the realisation, with a sense of horror, of the extent to which religious orders had infiltrated state mechanisms at the highest level, and the Turkish public came to discuss the alarming level that these orders posed to democracy and the regime’s lasting survival.

Yet these religious communities and orders are not a new phenomenon in Turkey. In fact, the origins of some stretch back to centuries before the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and they have come to have a renewed and profound importance on social and political life in Turkey since the introduction of free elections in 1950 brought the multi-party system into effect.

An important point worth noting - laws were passed in 1924 and 1925 that banned certain Islamic institutions and religious orders, notably religious convents and Sufi lodges, places of enormous cultural significance. The proscriptions aimed to secularise Turkey’s social structure and ensure that the state could realise “laïcité”, a conception of secularism based on the French system that was enshrined in the constitution of the young Republic of Turkey. Yet since these laws were passed, the country has made insufficient progress towards these goals.

The religious orders and lodges were seen as the remnants of the old Ottoman regime, and the goal was to proscribe them with the proclamation of the republic, but they survived by going underground.

Besides this, when the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s abolished the caliphate in 1924, he also replaced the old religious “Shar’iyya wa Awqaf Ministry” with a republican institution, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Yet the very existence of Diyanet, the stated duty of which is “to manage places of worship and enlighten society on religion, conducting itself on the basis of Islamic beliefs, worship and morals,” is in and of itself contrary to secular principles.

In a truly secular country, such an institution would have to accommodate all of that country’s religious denominations equally.

Yet the Diyanet in Turkey caters only for Muslims, and specifically for the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, the country’s most widely followed of the four main orthodox school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Yet even among Sunni Turks, there is a great degree of variation in religious denominations, and not all prescribe to the Hanafi school.

Article 136 of the Turkish constitution requires that the Diyanet “shall exercise its duties prescribed in its particular law, in accordance with the principles of secularism, removed from all political views and ideas, and aiming at national solidarity and integrity”.

However, looking at the situation in Turkey today, the Diyanet has clearly violated this constitutional requirement by developing a discourse that exactly supports the ruling party’s policies.

The issue goes far beyond that. It was impossible to instantaneously create a modern, secular society from the uneducated, feudal and highly religious one that existed at the time. In this respect the failure of the patronising, top-down and Jacobinist republican project is clear.

Just as the secular project failed to take root in Turkish society as planned, the failure to implement in a principled manner a state system of laïcité in the Western manner meant that religious groups could not remain autonomous, and for long years continued their activities in secret, outside the control of state mechanisms.

After the country moved to a multi-party system, some religious groups sought to secure their continued existence by pursuing votes, and by doing so came to possess political clout.

This was the first step in a long and dangerous path that strengthened clientelism and nepotism in the Turkish bureaucracy, and led to the groups obtaining positions for their members in high bureaucratic positions. This in turn led to the gradual seizure of the state’s most vital institutions by these groups, which in time became caught up in corrupt activities for their own benefit, and eventually in a coup plot aimed at regime change.

Particularly after 2013, the public sector was brought to a standstill by a series of increasingly dramatic failures due to a dearth of competence brought on by clientelism. Besides this, the country witnessed a series of scandals as it emerged that members of religious orders, in suspicious circumstances, had achieved the highest grades in Turkey’s Public Personnel Selection Exams, and even the questions for the university exams had been repeatedly stolen.

The infiltration of state institutions by religious groups robbed the country of far more qualified and deserving civil servants and resulted in corrupted state mechanisms from the armed forces to the minitries of health, education and foreign affairs.

Followers of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen were among the most prominent of these groups, and as well as infiltrating and co-opting some of the highest positions in Turkey’s judicial and security institutions, are accused of plotting the failed 15 July 2016 coup attempt.

The coup attempt raises a series of striking questions. How could the Gülenists infiltrate the armed forces to such an extent, and who allowed this to happen? Are any other religious groups similarly ensconced within the military, and if so how can these be identified and removed?

Mehmet Y. Yılmaz, a writer for the Turkish daily Hürriyet brought to our attention to one such group in a column written in 2016 after the coup attempt, the Kurdoğlu community, strict followers of the teachings of Said Nursi, the same 20th century Kurdish Sunni theologian who inspired Gülen.

“It seems there is another religious order present in the Turkish Armed Forces: the Kurdoğlu group … The former commander in chief, İlker Başbuğ, said that intelligence reports indicated that the forces had been cleared of soldiers affiliated with this group, but it seems that some have remained … If we do not want to see a repeat of commanders taking their orders from a religious leader, we must seriously investigate these claims.”

A further warning that the vacuum left in the civil service by purged Gülenists is being filled by other religious groups came from Dr. Mustafa Öztürk, a high official in the Diyanet, speaking at the commission set up to investigate the coup attempt.

“Different organisations are now eager to gradually fill the space (left by Gülenists),” said Öztürk, before drawing attention to orders that had made an immediate show of support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling party in the aftermath of the coup. “I know that the Menzil (Naqshbandi) order is trying to cultivate good terms with the state, and is an enthusiastic and demanding presence. I know of different groups following Said Nursi that carry the same desire.”

The Gülen religious community is without a doubt the best-known in Turkey, yet there are a multitude of such communities and orders active across the country. The purpose of the following articles in this series will be to investigate these orders and their influence on Turkey’s government and democracy.