Secret Diyanet report gauges threat posed by Turkey’s Islamists

In a report leaked last month, Turkey’s top religious authority evaluated potential security threats posed by the country’s dozens of Islamic sects, in what appears to be the latest state response to the failed coup of July 2016.  

Religious orders and brotherhoods have played a key role in Turkish politics and society since the Ottoman period, with most originating as offshoots of the Sufi tradition, which is based on spiritual guidance from a master or teacher. But in the mid-20th century, Turks began studying abroad, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and brought back the political Islam and Sunni traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. 

These ideas blended with Turkish traditions, leading to the rapid expansion of orders, movements, lodges and brotherhoods that dominate Turkish political power today, according to Svante E. Cornell, director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. 

The powerful Naqshbandi order, for instance, was founded on Sufi ideas more than a century ago and later imported Sunni concepts. Today at least 15 different Islamic groups in Turkey follow the Naqshbandi order, including the Khalidi branch, which is behind much of the leading Islamist thinking in Turkey today. 

“With only slight exaggeration, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as the government it has led could be termed a coalition of religious orders,” Cornell wrote in 2015. 

The secret report from the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, profiles each Islamist group and warns that some might seek to infiltrate state institutions, as the Gülen movement did starting in the late 20th century. 

Once allied with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gülen movement now stands accused by the government of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt, in which more than 300 people were killed, and has been designated a terrorist organisation. The group denies these accusations.

The Diyanet report categorises the groups according to their Islamic traditions, starting with those who follow what the Diyanet calls the Islam of the Quran. Sects in this category, including one led by theologian Abdülaziz Bayındır and others gathered around the journals İktibas and Haksöz, view the Sunnah, or oral teachings of Mohammed, as a burden. “Experience has proven that those who follow such traditions will always be marginalised,” the report said. 

Among the sect leaders the Diyanet places in the second category, which follows Salafi traditions, are Alparslan Kuytul, who has been in prison since 2017 for terror propaganda, and Halis Bayuncuk, who has pledged his allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS). 

The third category focuses on groups that use Messianic rhetoric and includes Adnan Oktar. The television evangelist cult leader famous for his plastic surgery-enhanced assistants and Creationist books was charged last year with child abuse, tax fraud and espionage and has since been in prison. The report argued that it is vital for Turkish authorities to take measures against such groups.

The fourth category covers groups broadly defined as traditionalist. İhsan Şenocak, a well-known imam who resigned from the Diyanet last year after saying that women who wear trousers are destined for hell, and Nurettin Yıldız, a preacher known for his radical thoughts and support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, fall into this category. The report warned state institutions to be vigilant against such groups.

The next category focuses on established Islamist groups and includes the Call and Brotherhood Foundation, which follows the thinking of Muslim Brotherhood-founder Hasan al-Banna and Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Also in this group is outlawed Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the reestablishment of the Caliphate and is aided by global powers, according to the report.  

Turkish Hizbullah, which is dominated by conservative Kurds, is known for extrajudicial killings in Turkey’s southeast in the conflict between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The group, whose founder Hüseyin Velioğlu was killed by police in 2000, has been organised under the Islamist political party Hüda Par, or the Free Cause Party, since 2013 and is active in predominantly Kurdish provinces. “Due to its history, the movement has the potential to resort once again to violent means,” said the report. 

The next category is groups linked to the Nur movement, which was inspired by the late Kurdish theologian Said Nursi. The Gülen movement is an offshoot of the Nur movement, but the report focuses on the New Asia group, arguing that it supports the Gülen movement because both oppose Erdoğan.

Finally, the report addresses the Naqshbandi order, highlighting the Menzil Naqshbandis, who have filled the void left by the Gülen movement’s divorce from the AKP. Mahmut Tanal of the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said in parliament in 2017 that the group dominated the health, interior, and justice ministries. 

Also in 2017, Sözcü newspaper reported that the Ministry of Health had dismissed employees affiliated with the Menzil group. “If it is true that the Menzil group has been establishing itself inside the bureaucracy and increasing its influence in the public sector, then this can create problems for our country in the medium and long-term,” said the report.  

The Diyanet saved its gravest warnings for the Süleymancılar group, which has been visible in Turkish politics for decades and is said to be one of the main benefactors of the ousting of the Gülen movement. The group runs more than 1,000 dormitories in Turkey, where it also provides religious education. In 2017, Süleymancılar signed a deal with Turkey’s government to provide “values education” in public schools. Citing former leader Mustafa Akyıldız, the Diyanet said the Süleymancılar had organised in seven corps command groups across Turkey.

“About Süleymancılar, it is important to take seriously the claims that they have ties to some foreign intelligence organisations and to conduct required investigations in order to avoid the emergence of a new FETÖ,” said the Diyanet, using the government acronym for the Gülen movement.