Islamist Groups

In an effort to ensure that Islam in Turkey remains moderate and compatible with secular democracy, the government micromanages religious expression. Ankara’s Religious Affairs Directorate hires and fires all imams, pays their pensions, and outlines the Friday sermon delivered by each of them throughout the country. On the other hand, Islamist expression in Turkey is not restricted to government-controlled preachers and mosques. There are a range of private Islamist organizations in Turkey that do not fall under government control. Some of these groups are peaceful. Others, such as Kaplancilar and Islami Buyuk Akincilar Cephesi (IBDAC), based in Germany, are more militant and operate covertly. Al Qaeda cells have been reported in some areas.

Network 20/20 spoke extensively with representatives of the Gulen movement, which prides themselves on being moderate, tolerant, and ecumenical. Gulen has under its umbrella a powerful conglomerate of media, businesses, schools, universities, and educational publications. In addition to founding 200 schools in Turkey, Gulen has built more than 300 schools and universities in Central Asia and the Balkans. The Gulen community is also present in many Western countries where Turkish immigrants live, including Germany, France, the United States, Canada and Australia. The schools and universities have high standards, stress the importance of science and are open to students of all faiths. High admission fees make them mainly elite institutions.

Gulen schools are popular because of the poor state of education in much of Turkey, Central Asia and the Balkans. Because of their close ties with the middle class, especially merchants and business groups, Gulen networks facilitate extensive trade between Turkey and Central Asia. Many AKP party members are Gulen school graduates. But Gulen’s critics charge that the group’s real aim is to create a conservative Islamist government in Turkey. They question why the U.S. provides tacit support for Gulen, whose leader, Fethullah Gulen, left Turkey in 1999 after he faced charges of seeking an Islamist-style regime in Ankara. The Turkish military maintains that the schools, financed through charitable trusts, are being used to “brainwash” young people. One former general asserted that the Gulen movement was “a radical militant group using sugar-sweet tactics.” He worried that Gulen’s ultimate goal to Islamize society from the bottom-up might grow into a massive movement to overthrow secular governments throughout the region. For those who follow Gulen and for those impressed by their achievements these charges ring hollow.

Some members of Turkish society also fear that in time the moderate AKP will become more conservative, in part to maintain its power base in eastern Anatolia, which is more traditional than the rest of the country. In the fall of 2004 this fear was heightened by the government’s proposal to criminalize adultery, a proposal that it was hastily dropped after an outcry from Europe.

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