Erdogan’s Purges Have Replaced One Islamic Sect With Another

Turkey expelled alleged sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen from government jobs after the 2016 coup attempt. Other Islamic sects, and one in particular—the Menzil—are now filling the vacuum.

Pro-nationalist university students shout during a protest against the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers during a demonstration in Ankara on July 21, 2016.
Pro-nationalist university students shout during a protest against the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers during a demonstration in Ankara on July 21, 2016. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Image

More than three years after Turkey’s traumatic 2016 coup attempt—which the government pinned on the Gulenist sect though Turkey’s allies remain unconvinced—a controversy over religious orders is flaring anew. After sweeping purges, Ankara claimed it had expunged the malignant Gulenists. Yet since then, investigative journalists have pointed to the rise of other sects in their place.

In a country consumed by conspiracy theories and behind-the-scenes intrigue, the revelations have set off quite a stir. Suspicions that sects have again crept into the state machinery have sparked raucous TV debates and several parliamentary questions. It has especially worried Turkey’s secular press outlets, long obsessed with religious orders and the specter of Islamization.

In particular, Turkish journalists say a shadowy group called “Menzil” has been infiltrating the police forces. Two months ago, Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, denied the allegations. “Show me one [member of the Menzil sect inside the police forces] and I will resign from the ministry,” he said daringly.

The involvement of Islamic sects in Turkish politics is anything but new. While Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of secular Turkey, outlawed religious orders in 1925, some began to make a comeback in the 1950s. The most significant one was the Naqshbandi-Khalidi, a conservative brotherhood that is subdivided into several branches. Today, the majority of Turkey’s Islamic sects spring from it, as does the much-feared Menzil.

One of those branches, the Iskenderpasa, was behind the creation of the country’s first Islamist party, the National Order Party in 1970. Erdogan himself was a member of the Iskenderpasa, like many other figures of the current governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). In fact, since its ascent to power in 2002, the religiously conservative, free-market party has built its rule on the co-opting of religious communities, including the now infamous Gulenists, distributing favors to them. Their influence has grown alongside that of the AKP.

But none ever wielded the might of the Gulenists. Unlike the Naqshbandi-Khalidi, the Gulenist movement is not based on a Sufi order but on a school of thought called Nur—which advocates a strand of Islam reconciled with technological progress and scientific enquiry. Naqshbandi-Khalidi sects, on the other hand, tend to be hostile to modernity and the West.

Led by the preacher Fethullah Gulen, the group gained ground in the 1970s through a string of private schools it created to train a pious elite. By the 1990s, it had started to export its schools abroad. Domestically, Gulen’s followers moved to capture state institutions, seeking to supplant long-established secular elites. By the early 2000s, they controlled the judiciary and much of the police.

When Erdogan’s AKP came to power in 2002, it joined forces with the Gulenists to crush the Turkish military—a self-professed bulwark against Islamism. Together, the Gulenists and the AKP carried out the so-called “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” trials that landed hundreds of military officers in prison. But soon after the military was tamed, a vicious power struggle ensued.

In 2012, the Gulenists, buoyed by a feeling of omnipotence, assailed Erdogan’s entourage, attempting to jail some of his confidants. A year later, they brought up corruption allegations to sabotage the AKP leadership. To thwart the movement, Erdogan demoted thousands of suspected Gulenists in the police and judiciary. He then shut down Gulenist media outlets, including the daily Zaman and businesses such as the Koza Ipek conglomerate.

In July 2016, a coup attempt unfolded that claimed more than 250 lives. Erdogan was quick to point to Gulen’s long arm. In its wake, Ankara sacked some 150,000 public employees and arrested more than 34,000 people over alleged Gulenist ties. Though the defeat of the coup was vaunted as a democratic triumph, critics blame the purges for swallowing up an array of subversive figures, well beyond Gulenist circles.

The Gulenist movement, now referred to exclusively by its sobriquet FETO—an acronym for Fethullahist Terrorist Organization—became a national scourge. “We have drawn a lesson from [the Gulenist threat] and will not allow it to happen again!” Erdogan proclaimed in a 2017 speech.

Yet for all the castigations and witch-hunting, there is concern that the president might not have learned from his mistakes. In Metastaz, or “Metastasis,” a book published last year, the investigative journalists Baris Terkoglu and Baris Pehlivan say the government has been filling the void left by the anti-Gulenist purges with substitute religious orders.

This process began as early as 2014, they claim. As suspected Gulenists were demoted within the police forces, new recruits were largely drawn from Naqshbandi-Khalidi and other non-Gulenist Nur sects. Citing a source who witnessed job interviews at the time, Terkoglu and Pehlivan say most candidates were granted positions after displaying loyalty to a certain group. At times, the candidates even provided the name of the specific sheikh they followed. One group dominated the recruits: the Menzil.

More recently, the independent outlet T24 revealed that this process was still ongoing. Again, citing a source from the police, T24 disclosed that scores of appointments and promotions inside the department were made through “direct or indirect references” to Menzil membership over the past six months. It confirmed that the sect has been snatching posts formerly held by the Gulenists.

Little more than a week later, the police filed a complaint against the author of the piece. Soon thereafter, a court decision ordered it be taken down from the website.

A Naqshbandi-Khalidi offshoot, the Menzil take their name from the eponymous village they hail from, nestled in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Like the Gulenists and other religious communities—known as cemaat in Turkish—the Menzil are not a spiritual congregation concerned solely with divine matters. Rather, they are a self-interested organization. While they share the overarching intent of promoting Islam and conservative mores in Turkish society and abroad, their immediate goal is that of influence and power for the group itself.

The Menzil’s forays into Turkey’s cultural, business, and political arenas serve as a testament to this enterprise. Since the 1980s, when then-President Turgut Ozal lifted restrictions on religious activities that benefited all sects, the group has grown steadily.

As the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 1990s, the Menzil were among a handful of Turkish sects that flocked to the newly independent republics of Central Asia to set up private schools. That is something the Gulenists have been well known for. In 2005, the Menzil founded their own business association, Tumsiad, which now boasts more than 15,000 members. Later, they launched a TV channel, Semerkand TV, and expanded a publishing house, Semerkand Yayinlari. In 2018, the government allowed them to establish a university, the Semerkand Science and Civilization University.

The network built by the Menzil bears an uncanny resemblance to the one the Gulenists once commanded. Until the authorities launched a crusade against it, the Gulenist movement ran a vast empire of media outlets, universities, and business and civic organizations.

As was once the case with the Gulenists, the AKP’s alleged association with the Menzil is likely due to the party’s lack of a sufficient number of elites from its own ranks to control the state. Following the Gulenist purges, sects like the Menzil provided the AKP with readily available and ostensibly loyal cohorts to replenish a gutted state apparatus. In that sense, Erdogan and his party are merely perpetuating their customary policy of resorting to religious orders to buttress their sway.

Although the scandal brought them to light, the Menzil have maintained a discreet presence in the bureaucracy for quite some time. In fact, their infiltration long predates the purges. As Fevzeddin Erol, one of the Menzil’s chiefs, recently told a reporter from the daily Sozcu, two former AKP ministers stemmed from the Menzil: Recep Akdag, the health minister between 2002 and 2013 (as well as a brief stint in 2016-2017), and Taner Yildiz, the energy minister between 2009 and 2015.

Yet the sheikh also confided that he had “men everywhere in the state.” And as their numbers grow, the Menzil could impose their agenda.

Over the past few months, the acronym METO—a play on FETO—has widely circulated in Turkish media. Still, however catchy that is, it would be precipitous to treat the Menzil as the “new Gulenists.”

Rusen Cakir, a veteran journalist who wrote a book about Turkey’s Islamic communities, has warned against such comparisons. On his upstart channel Medyascope, he stressed that the membership of any Naqshbandi-Khalidi group was a lot looser than that of the Gulenists, which hampered their organizational capacity.

Besides, if the Gulenist movement was united, then the T24 revelations suggested that the Menzil were undermined by internal rivalry. A feud inside the group arose after one of its wings, Semerkand, based out of the city of Adiyaman, got more positions in the police than another wing, Buhara, based out of the city of Eskisehir. That will doubtless hurt the sect’s prospective clout.

Even so, groups such as the Menzil pursue their own interests above all—just like the Gulenists did. While they may currently side with Erdogan and his clique, their loyalty is prone to shifts. And as the conflict between the AKP and Gulen demonstrated, the party’s strategy of relying on religious sects is a perilous one. A sect-dominated state apparatus could pose risks that will long outlive Erdogan and his government.

Killian Cogan is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He has written for a series of publications including Al MonitorMiddle East Eye, and EurasiaNet. Twitter: @KillianCogan

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