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Turkey: Religious Orders Still Key Element In Secular Life

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

More than 60 years after the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, religious orders still play a prominent role in the country's social and political life. The recent controversy over the burial of a Sufi leader in Istanbul underlines the close ties that link conservative politicians to underground religious brotherhoods. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer last week annulled a government decree that would have allowed the leader of an Islamic religious order to be buried in one of Istanbul's historic mosques. The action has prompted a wave of passionate debate throughout the country.

Earlier this month (4 February), Mahmud Esad Cosan, a retired theology professor and a leading figure in the Naqshbandiya -- a branch of mystical Sunni Islam -- died in a car crash in Australia, where he had lived for four years.

The 62-year-old Cosan had been the leader of the Iskanderpasha Sufi "tekke" -- or lodge -- which has thousands of followers in Turkey and around the Muslim world.

The government's decree would have allowed Cosan's burial in the cemetery of the 16th-century Suleymaniye Mosque, where Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Great is buried. It is also the place where Cosan's predecessor, Mehmet Zahid Kotku, was buried in 1980.

In voiding the decision, Sezer argued that, first, the government's decree would have violated laws on the preservation of monuments and, second, Cosan should not be treated differently from any other citizen of secular Turkey. Therefore, Sezer said, Cosan should be interred in a cemetery chosen by local authorities.

Over the past weekend, Cosan was buried in the garden of Istanbul's Eyup Mosque. Former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the banned Islamic Welfare Party attended the funeral along with hundreds of Cosan's followers.

Sufism's content and rituals are based on Islam, but it has also picked up elements from older religious practices. The number of Sufis around the world is generally estimated at around five million.

Like other "tariqats," or Sufi brotherhoods, the Naqshbandi religious order has officially been banned in Turkey since the secular reforms carried out in the 1920s by the modern country's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Yet these brotherhoods continue to operate more or less legally in Turkey, where they are believed to have hundreds of thousands of followers. Although they very seldom make headlines, their influence in the country's political life remains strong and they are regarded as powerful covert allies by politicians in search of voting support.

Ilnur Cevik is the editor-in-chief of the English-language "Turkish Daily News." He tells RFE/RL that Sufi brotherhoods are not only a religious order, but also serve a social function:

"Everybody in Turkey is aware that 70 percent of the population is made up of conservative people who have religious inclinations. I'm not saying that they are fundamentalists. I'm just saying that they have religious inclinations. They respect Islamic faith and try to practice it. So everybody wants these 70 percent of the votes."

Turkish newspapers recently published lists of current or former politicians who are believed to have close ties with the Naqshbandiya. One of them is Turkey's late President Turgut Ozal, who died in 1993 of a heart attack while in office. His mother was a Naqshbandi. Ozal's brother, Yusuf Bozkurt, a former economics minister who died last month, also belonged to the Naqshbandiya.

Despite the ban ordered by Ataturk, Turkey's Sufi brotherhoods today own large corporations, printing houses, schools, magazines, radio stations and television channels. Last week, Turkey's "Milliyet" daily wrote that Cosan's son, Nureddin, holds seats on the boards of several big companies.

Another powerful brotherhood that takes its origin from Sufism, the Nurcu group, owns the "Zaman" mass-circulation newspaper. It also owns the "Akra" radio station and the STV television channel. And still another Sufi-related group owns the Ihlas banking group, which runs the TGRT television channel.

Semih Vaner is an analyst at the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research, or CERI. He says all Sufi brotherhoods are not equally active in Turkey's domestic affairs. "Some Sufis hold very moderate views regarding politics. They try to stay far away from politics. Others are very politicized and the orthodox Kemalists (adherents of Ataturk) have a tendency to demonize all these mystic movements. Some of [these movements] favor a rather radical, rather 'pure' political regime. Others, to some degree, compromise with the political system, are forced to compromise. And they do compromise. There are different views, different attitudes."

Named after its founder, Mohammad Bahauddin Naqshband, a 14th-century mystic born in the Bukhara region, the Naqshbandi brotherhood expanded rapidly throughout Central Asia before it reached the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

Four hundred years later, the Naqshbandis and other Sufi orders had established a closely knit network of lodges that cut through all layers of Ottoman society. At that time, there were an estimated 300 lodges and more than 30 active Sufi brotherhoods in Constantinople alone.

Unlike other Sufi groups, the Naqshbandis always tried to play a political role in the empire, sometimes fomenting unrest against the regime.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Naqshbandis led the holy war against Russian troops in the Caucasus. After 1917 Najmuddin Gotsinski, a Naqshbandi leader from Dagestan, led the resistance against the Bolsheviks in Russia's southern borderland.

Today, the Naqshbandiya is the largest Sufi brotherhood in the world, with followers in almost every Muslim country, from Central Asia and Afghanistan to Indonesia, North Africa, and the Balkans. In the Caucasus, Naqshbandi lodges can be found in Dagestan, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan.

Neither Soviet communism nor successive Turkish secular governments have managed to eradicate Sufism. Analyst Vaner says:

"It's not enough to say that the brotherhoods are prohibited to make them disappear from one day to the next. These brotherhoods have existed for centuries in the Ottoman Empire and the empire itself somehow relied on them. Even if Mustafa Kemal succeeded in imposing his own vision of laicism (the exclusion of ecclesiastical control), he has been unable -- and this was predictable -- to eradicate these brotherhoods. With today's social changes, demographic pressure and limited liberalization of political life, these brotherhoods are coming to the surface again, and this is not abnormal. One could interpret this as Mustafa Kemal's relative failure."

In today's Turkey, secularists see Naqshbandi and other Sufi leaders as shadowy men working behind the scenes to establish an Islamic regime.

Two years ago, the Turkish military, a staunch defender of the country's secularism, demanded and won a constitutional crackdown on all forms of political Islam.

Nurcu leader Fethullah Gulen is now facing trial in absentia in Ankara on charges of seeking to substitute Islamic Sharia law for the existing secular constitution. Gulen, who has followers in Bosnia, Albania, Azerbaijan, and even in Christian Georgia, left Turkey for the United States after the so-called 1997 "soft" military coup that ousted Erbakan, Turkey's first-ever Islamist prime minister.

In 1997, Erbakan openly hosted an official dinner party for brotherhood leaders. The sight of bearded men entering the prime minister's office prompted protests in the Turkish armed forces and contributed to Erbakan's downfall. Later, Erbakan and other leaders of his Welfare Party were banned from political life for five years.

Soon after Erbakan's fall, Cosan left Turkey and settled in Australia with many of his followers.

Turkish journalist Cevik told our correspondent he believes Cosan chose to exile himself because he didn't want his brotherhood to become a political tool in the hands of secular authorities or radical Islamic leaders.

Today, Turkish prosecutors are seeking to ban the Islam-based Virtue Party for anti-secular activity. They allege that the party is a center of activity aimed at undermining Turkey's secularism and that it is the continuation of the banned Welfare Party.

But last week, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit expressed concern that a ban of the Virtue Party would destabilize the country. His reasoning was simple: Such a ban would lead to the removal of the party's 102 representatives in the Turkish parliament and could force the authorities to call for early elections.

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