Every time there is a Turkish election, journalists who work on Islamic groups and movements like me are asked the question “which Islamic community supports which party?” This is a difficult question to answer since Islamic communities were banned shortly after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. They remained underground until the start of the multi-party system in 1946 when they gained more political legitimacy despite being still considered illegal. And, over the years, their illegal status became a convenient tool to deflect calls for “transparency” regarding these groups’ activities in the areas of education, healthcare, media, tourism, and many other fields.
Most of these Islamic groups followed politics very closely and kept in close contact with political parties. This allowed not only their survival as a religious community but also enabled them to benefit from government patronage and services. Yet, a certain level of duplicity was still ingrained in the leadership and public face of these Islamic communities. They tried to outbid each other with claims of being above politics despite their willingness to cut political deals behind closed doors.
But today we observe an entirely different situation before the double (parliamentary and presidential) elections of June 24, 2018. For example, Turkey's most powerful Sufi movement, Naksibendis, openly declared its unconditional support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the presidential and parliamentary elections. This also included Naksibendis' the three branches based in the Erenkoy, Menzil and Ismail Agha communities. Furthermore, smaller religious communities followed suit in with one exception—the Yeni Asya community. The Yeni Asya is one of the prominent branches of the Nurcu Movement, which has instead declared support for the opposition.
These declarations illustrate that the nature of the relationship between Islamic communities and Erdoğan's AKP is change. The AKP has been in power for the past sixteen years and there is no longer a pretense of distance or impartiality. Instead, there is a pronouncement of organic association and loyalty between the Islamic communities and the AKP. This is a risky move for civil society movements which normally should maintain some level of independence from the government.
It is also quite telling that Erdoğan no longer has a clear monopoly over the religious vote. In an unusual move, the party that represents Turkey’s Milli Gorus movement—the first to come to mind when talking about Islamic politics in Turkey—has joined an electoral alliance with the center-left, secularist Cumhuriyet Halk Party (CHP). This may partly explain the religious communities' unusually open and vocal commitment to Erdoğan. In their eyes, the CHP is "the center of all evil against religion." At the end of the day, the election on June 24 will determine not only the fate of Erdoğan but also the future of religious communities who are betting their survival on one single politician.
The special case of the Gülen movement
To understand the overt loyalty of Islamic communities to Erdoğan, one has to analyze the road traveled by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen in his cooperation with the AKP.
After breaking with the Nurcu movement in the beginning of the 1970's, Gülen laid the foundations of his own religious community in Izmir. Education was his top priority, and over the years he managed to create a global network of schools and businesses. Like other religious community leaders, he was keen on staying above politics, while bargaining and negotiating with political parties behind the closed doors.
What differed his movement from others was his vision to infiltrate the state apparatus, particularly the security establishment and the judiciary to form a secret, hierarchical and parallel structure within the governmental bureaucracy. In this effort, Gülen actively sought political support.
The first public appearance of Fethullah Gülen was on June 29, 1994, at the opening ceremony for his Journalists and Writers’ Foundation in Istanbul’s Dedeman Hotel. Starting from that day, Gülen has presented himself as the “mild” antidote to “radical Islam.” He did this by making statements to the media, meeting with political leaders, and by visiting the Pope in the Vatican. Furthermore, Gülen also worked on bringing together people from every walk of life into well-publicized and pompous meetings.
For Gülen, “radical Islam” was the political moment where Erdoğan began his political career as a young Islamist. For instance, the Refah Party (RP) formed a coalition government in 1995 that was toppled by the military by the soft-coup of 1997.
But in the eyes of the generals, Gülen was far more dangerous than the RP. He was the real threat to secularism, not the “mild antidote” to radical Islam. Therefore, on March 21, 1999, Fethullah Gülen left Turkey for the United States and gave “treatment purposes” as an explanation. He has been directing his movement from a ranch in Pennsylvania since then.
It was the army that would pay the way for Erdoğan and Gülen to come together. Under normal circumstances, Erdoğan and Gülen would not have forged a strong alliance. The two did not trust each other. In the year 2007, when the Generals tried to stop AKP's co-founder Abdullah Gul from becoming the President by using his wife's headscarf as alleged proof of Islamic radicalism, Turkey found itself in a full-scale political war. On one side, there was AKP which consolidated its power by an early election; and on the other side, there was the army and the people supporting it in the name of protecting the secular nature of the state.