Media and Mysticism: Erdoğan vs. Gülen

by Jonas Atlas

These days, Tayyip Erdoğan receives much criticism from Western media because of his conservative and repressive policies. To give just a couple of examples: in 2012 there was abundant coverage on the societal discussions that arose after he had questioned the right to abortion (which had existed in Turkey for a long time), in 2013 there was strong international indignation about his harsh and authoritarian manner of dealing with the Gezi park protests during which a large part of the population voiced its dismay about the broader attitude of the government and in 2014 people were shocked when Erdoğan moved into a brand new presidential palace which cost more than six hundred million dollars and which neared the majestic grandeur of Versailles with its more than a thousand rooms. And, of course, since July 2016 there’s an abundance of reports about the way Erdoğan accuses the Gülen movement of terrorist conspiracies and uses this to fire or even arrest thousands of officers, government workers and teachers.

Tayyip Erdoğan (Picture Source: Senat RP/Polish Senate CC-by-3.0)

In short: it’s quite difficult to refer to Tayyip Erdoğan as a typical example of ‘Sufism’ or Islamic mysticism.

Nevertheless, for a long time Tayyip Erdoğan belonged to the Naqshbandi tariqa — one of the eldest and most widely spread mystical brotherhoods in contemporary Turkey. More specifically, he was a member of the Iskenderpaşa Dergah, a Naqshbandi community from Istanbul. When he himself once summed up the four greatest influences on his personality, he mentioned his father, the neighborhood where he grew up (Kasımpaşa), his teacher in primary school and the Iskenderpaşa Dergah.

Of course, we can’t reduce Erdoğan’s political vision to these influences. It would be absurd, for example, to ignore his active membership in the religious-political Milli Görüş organization, which gave rise to the first two religious oriented parties of Turkey, the forerunners of the current AK party. But at least it’s interesting that he himself referred to this specific Naqshbandi group, certainly when we know that Necmettin Erbakan and Turgut Özal, two previous prime ministers of Turkey, have also been members of the same group.

It makes one wonder then, why this Naqsbandi background of Erdoğan is seldom explicitly mentioned. On his Wikipedia page there isn’t any reference, no journalist brings it up within the political analyses and ‘experts on Turkey’ do not see the need to discuss it as an element of his ideology, even though his Naqshbandi background can most certainly throw an explanatory light on his vision and policies.

One example is Erdoğan’s coupling of religious conservatism and economic liberalism. In the discourse of the Iskenderpaşa community one can see a strong search for a possibility to reconcile religious traditions, norms and values with modern market economy and industrialization. Even though first and foremost it’s a spiritual community, its teachings emphasize a strong work ethos and active participation in the economic and societal life. Entrepreneurship is praised as long as its goal isn’t to enrich oneself but to strengthen Turkish society (and, in so doing, keep it free from suppression by foreign economic power structures).

All of this is strongly tied to the general profile of the members of the community. Like Emin Yaşar Demirci explains in his research on the community, their liberal economic vision is connected to the fact that they predominantly belong to the Turkish middle class. At least in the eighties and nineties a survey of their monthly magazine ‘Islam’ revealed that its readers belonged to “a modern, highly educated, emergent middle class. They originally came from the traditional middle strata, imbibed Islamic values in Sufi form from their social background and, through their education, they translated these ideals into a modern rhetoric.”

Another example is Erdoğan’s ‘political nostalgia’ concerning the Ottoman past. Within Naqshbandi circles ‘neo-Ottomanism’, as it is sometimes called, is strongly present. Such a neo-Ottomanism is an undeniable and prominent element in both Erdoğan’s rhetoric and policy proposals. One often gets to see some striking examples thereof. When the protests in Gezi park erupted, the immediate trigger were the plans to remove the park and build shopping malls that would look like old Ottoman army barracks that had once occupied the same spot. Around the same time, he also supported the choice to have a new bridge over the Bosphorus named after sultan Selim the 1st, despite grievances of the Turkish Alevi community which complained because this sultan in particular was known for his persecution of Alevis. At the end of 2014 there was a fervent societal discussion about his proposal to take up Ottoman Turkish in the official school curriculum. And in the beginning of 2015, when he received the Palestinian president Abbas on an official state visit, he was surrounded quite ostentatiously by sixteen ‘figurants’ dressed up in historic costumes that each represented a warrior from a Turkic empire.

All of this does not imply that Erdoğan’s approach is consistent with the teachings of the Iskenderpaşa community. On the contrary, when the most important teacher in the history of the community placed much spiritual emphasis on sobriety and thus voiced strong criticisms on, for example, expensive buildings and flamboyant interiors, few things contrast more sharply than Erdoğan’s already mentioned presidential palace. Yet the ‘purity’ of Erdoğan’s ‘Sufism’ isn’t the issue here. The issue is simply that he has undeniably been influenced by spiritual leaders and communities that are commonly placed under the umbrella of ‘Sufism’.

Interestingly enough the same is true for the Gülen movement, which, in the last few years, grew out to be one of Erdoğan’s greatest political enemies. After all, the Gülen movement is led by the spiritual leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US and explicitly places himself within Turkish Sufi traditions. Although Erdoğan’s history in the Iskenderpaşa community is seldom discussed, the ‘Sufism’ of the Gülen movement is frequently given extra attention. It is often mentioned to demonstrate the ‘moderateness’ of the movement.

Fethullah Gülen (Picture source: AlphaX News CC-by-3.0)

Because of their similar center-right and conservative religious undertone, the Gülen movement and the AKP at first found much common ground and worked closely together. But from 2011 onwards the Gülenists found themselves ever more strongly on a collision course with the ruling party. Already a year before the coup, Erdoğan accused the Gülen movement of creating a ‘parallel state’ within the police and the juridical system in order to undermine the Turkish state. Several Gülen followers in high positions were removed from their functions, transferred or put on trial. Institutions directly related to the Gülen movement were closed (such as the Asya Bank which was founded by Gülenists). Similarly, the Gülenists had used their media channels (among which a couple of prominent Turkish dailies) to criticize Erdoğan’s policies and used their own network within the juridical system to charge their opponents.

In the eyes of Erdoğan, the coup of 2016 proved once again that the Gülen movement indeed formed a grave danger. In the eyes of the Gülenists, the harsh reprisals of Erdoğan who used the event as a pretext to oust many people from their positions in the police and military proved he was an authoritarian despot who wished to crush their movement. As a consequence, the Western media showed a tendency to subscribe to the vision of the Gülenists. To add some extra force to their argument they easily linked Gülen with ‘Sufi’ ideas, while Erdoğan was increasingly painted as a ‘conservative and authoritarian Muslim’.

In the aftermath of the coup, one could for example read an elaborate article on the site of the ‘Standaard’. (The Standaard is a quality news paper from Belgium, which I often read myself. Since there is no reason to assume that this newspaper fundamentally differs in any way from similar quality press in other language areas, it seemed self-evident to first honestly scrutinize a media outlet which I frequently read myself.) The article investigated who Gülen really was and how his movement exactly worked. Predominantly, the article sketches a very amicable image of the movement. Since the article also quoted Dries Lesage, a professor from the University of Ghent with a less mainstream view on these matter, it did not fail to add a short critical note on the fact that, a few years earlier, “the Gülenist judges and prosecutors had jailed hundreds of Kemalist army officers and journalists, supported in their acts by the Gülen oriented media”. But overall, the article discusses Gülen’s focus on education, remarks abundantly that the movement doesn’t have any hierarchical structure and makes it seem as if the movement shuns involvement with politics. It also mentions how Gülen himself was inspired by Saïd Nursi and describes this man as “a Kurdish theologian that saw his faith as a means to fight injustice, poverty and inequality.” As such, when writing the article, the author has apparently overlooked the independent research that showed how the Gülen movement lacks transparency and is organized very hierarchically. He apparently didn’t realize that the Gülen movement is well known for the great lengths they go through to maintain close relationships with the politicians of the countries in which they are based. And apparently he seemed unaware of the fact that Saïd Nursi also had a very tense political relationship with the Turkish leaders of his time.

The final paragraphs of the article should not come as a surprise therefore. It not only ends by quoting Gürkan Çelik, Serpil Aygün and Jenny White, three researchers with a very favorable view on the Gülen movement, but it specifically concludes on a positive note that “both Aygün and Çelik say that Gülen preaches a moderate Islam. (…) White adds that the Islam which is promoted by Gülen shows affinity with the Sufi-movement, a mystical form of religion.”

In the case of Erdoğan, however, it went the other way. Journalists didn’t investigate which types of Islam had ideologically influenced him, opinion makers didn’t link his ideas to the community he belonged to and analysts didn’t try to figure out whether or how his political ideas were connected to his specific spiritual-religious background. On the website of the BBC, for example, one can find a profile page describing his background. The page was updated a couple of days after the coup and, incidentally, the title of the page changed from ‘Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Turkey’s bruised battler’ to ‘Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey’s ruthless president’. This biographical page only mentioned that he went to an Islamic school, that he was an active member in Islamist (i.e. political Islamic) circles and that he was a member of the party of Necmettin Erbakan. Although the profile also mentioned that he stayed in prison for a couple of months because he had publicly read a poem which the court saw as a form of religious incitement, his specific religious-spiritual motivation isn’t investigated any further, no matter how necessary this might be to explain his stances on certain matters.

As telling examples, this can suffice. We don’t have to loose ourselves in every detail of contemporary Turkish politics. For a good understanding of the feud between Erdoğan and Gülen we should go much further back in time to describe the respective backgrounds of both figures and we should make a much broader geopolitical analysis. What is important in the context of this elaboration is the simple consideration that there is a political battle between different figures and groups that all claim adherence to ‘Sufism’.

This does not imply that ‘Islamic mysticism’ is the true cause of the political conflicts — quite the contrary, considering the many socio-economic and geopolitical fracture lines that are present within these conflicts — but it also cannot be denied that the present day expressions of Islamic mysticism form a pertinent element within the broader whole. As such some insight into the teachings and structures of different ‘Sufi environments’ certainly is relevant for a thorough grasp of the socio-political situation in Turkey. Nevertheless, apart from some (and mostly not very well known) academic publications, the mysticism of Turkey is seldom connected to the politics.

All of this is easily explained. When journalists and opinion makers would discover that Erdoğan was a member of a mystical Sufi tariqa, they would be confronted with a problem. They would not be able to place this information within the dominant view on religion and society. Being conservative, authoritarian and radical is an aspect of ‘dogmatic religion’ and not of mysticism. Those who are inspired by mysticism, on the other hand, by definition stay away from politics. That is part of the standard dichotomy and what falls outside of the frame, is difficult to comprehend — resulting in the fact that it’s either not mentioned or simply ignored.

What we see at work here, thus isn’t ‘an effort to objectively inform the public’, as might perhaps be expected. What we do see at work is ‘the politics of mysticism’ — and the manner in which our media lets itself get carried away by those politics in order to amplify the dominant enemy images.


This article is part 5 of a series on Islamic mysticism. To fully understand the implications of this article, it should thus be read within the context of the complete series, which already adressed the central place of mysticism within Islam, the modern shift that started marginalizing ‘Sufism’, the dark sides of ‘Sufism’ and the ‘politics of mystcism’ attached to all of this.