The Sufi tradition has shaped Islam in Turkey and is at the origin of those movements and parties that today are key players in the country’s politics

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:43

With some reservations about the near future, the Republic of Turkey has played a leading role in the geopolitics of the region up to now. Its relations with Europe and Asia are historical, although in recent months one can sense that the possibility of estrangement is real. Three are the empires that have held the power, many the cultures that have molded and shaped it, and even more the ethnic groups that have inhabited it. All this makes the land of Anatolia much more than a series of plateaus or desert landscapes. Turkey is a land of encounter and confrontation. July 15, 2016 is still fresh in the mind of the people: the date of the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, attributed (by Erdogan himself) to the charismatic Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement, which has numerous cultural, media and financial ramifications. In order to understand its reach, it is necessary to explore the complex phenomenon of the tarikats [confraternities], Sufi or non-Sufi, which make up the diverse religious landscape of historical and contemporary Turkey.

Between Cemaats and Orders: Gülen’s background
The spiritual strength of Fethullah Gülen [in exile in the United States since 1999, Ed] is based on the structure of a cemaat [religious community]. Cemaats were born in the decades following the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. It is the new way of being “Sufi” [Islamic spiritual tradition widely spread in Islam, and especially in the Ottoman Empire], after the total and radical prohibition of every order issued by the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the Grand National Assembly, in 1925. The decision to shut down all orders and shrines (tekke) in which their members would gather to perform the initiatory rites comes from Atatürk’s will to sweep away the Ottoman and Islamic historical heritage from the new Turkey. One could say that Atatürk felt the duty to suppress Sufism for the same reasons why the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared unlawful all of Gülen and the Hizmet movement’s activities, which according to him are the country’s number one enemy. Sufi orders, in fact, constituted a threat to the nascent Turkish national identityand were considered a symbol of the anti-modern Ottoman past. Thus, Sufis have suffered a real persecution. Among them, the only charismatic thinker and preacher from the republican history who peacefully opposed Atatürk’s forced secularism was Said Nursi (d. 1960), by whom Gülen was inspired. Sufi orders, by then outlawed, left room for the cemaats, that is, for communities that, compared to ancient orders, have a lighter structure, one which is invisible to society. A cemaat is founded on the relationship of obedience between the founding master and his disciple. Unlike traditional Sufism, it does not involve the traditional process of initiating disciples, but only the adherence of heart and mind. This means that the disciples do not have to necessarily live in the convent together with their master because obedience also works at a distance. Gülen, from across the ocean, can receive the obedience of so many disciples in Turkey and in the whole world.

The many faces of community Islam
Gülen’s is not the sole cemaat, nor is it the only one capable of driving a large portion of society, and perhaps carry out a coup. Necmeddin Erbakan, Prime Minister from 1996 to 1997 (d. 2011), was probably the man who introduced Islam into Turkish politics. Erbakan was affiliated with the powerful community of nakșbendî. Turkish nakșbendî have at least three different sections, each headed by a Sufi master – a heritage from the old tradition, from the most moderate to the most intransigent individuals. Some of them, like Safi Erol, do not accept any kind of compromise with modernity: Islam must not give in to society. Others, such as Es’ad Coşan (d. 2001), by whom Erbakan certainly was inspired for his religious politics, are more moderate and open to adapting to the modern world, albeit very differently from Gülen’s proposal. The nakșbendî movement, which ultimately refers to Coşan’s teaching, has played and still plays a key role in proposing a type of Islam that is more faithful to the tradition. It would be enough to take a walk in the neighborhood of Çarşamba in Fatih, in the historic center of Istanbul, to realize it: it does not even feel like secular Turkey. This branch of the cemaat nakşbendî is found in the mosque of Iskender Paşa, also in Fatih, where this trend reversal has started. The area has thus become the center of a way of being Muslim in contemporary Turkey that does not fear the veil nor traditional clothing. Just a few years ago, this neighborhood and this mentality were a minority, though they were already claiming with firmness and serenity that they wanted to be Muslims and be seen as such. Perhaps the current Turkish Islamic model can be observed precisely in this neighborhood.

Another powerful section of this movement is the one that meets in the mosque of Ismail Ağa, whose masters, Mahmud Ustaosmanoğlu and Cübbeli Ahmet, are rather hostile to modernity. Much of the neighborhood of Fatih is entrenched behind the almost monastic idea of Muslim social life.
One can sense, then, that the religious and Muslim options in Turkey are not all the same: while on one hand Gülen teaches a certain adaptation of Islam to modern society, on the other, the nakşbendî prefer to think of Islam as a key element in the political orientation. This second option has certainly inspired the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), that, on the night of the coup, used the muezzins to invite people to go out in the streets and to show support for the democratically elected government.

Let us not forget the precursors of Gülen’s movement, the nurcu, loyal disciples of Said Nursī, and other groups, sometimes more traditionalistic but less influential from a religious and political point of view. The mapping could continue because all Muslim Turkey is characterized by infinite associations, foundations, cemaats, and ancient orders that try to re-emerge in society and leave their mark. What is important to emphasize in contemporary Turkey is the dynamics and power - and perhaps abuse of power - of Sufi Muslim communities, mystical only by name, while de facto engaged in the nation’s political landscape and even more in the international geopolitical chess match.

Further readings

Alberto Fabio Ambrosio, L’Islam in Turchia [Islam in Turkey], Carocci editore, Rome 2015.
Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 2003.
Thierry Zarcone, La Turquie moderne et l’Islam, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 2004.