Turkey: Cold War-Era Origins Of Islamism And Its Rise To Power – Analysis


By Behlül Özkan*

The dichotomy between Kemalism and Islamism is one of the dominant paradigms in studies of Turkish politics. According to this paradigm, the Kemalists achieved a monopoly over the Turkish political establishment with the founding of the Republic in 1923, at which point they undertook far-reaching reforms with the aim of thoroughly modernizing Turkey politically, economically, culturally, and socially. These reforms, especially during the first decade of the Republic, resulted in lasting changes to many areas of Turkish life, such as the adoption of the Latin alphabet, Western dress, a civil code, and a modern educational system. The fiercest resistance to the reforms came from the traditionalists in Turkish society, namely the Islamists, who – along with the religious communities known in Turkish as cemaats – lost much of their former standing in politics between 1923 and the end of the 1940s. Accordingly, the aforementioned dichotomy between Kemalism and Islamism is, to some degree, a useful lens through which to understand this era. There is, however, a danger in viewing it as the main dynamic in Turkish politics and in assuming that it has been in full force throughout the whole 90-year history of the Republic of Turkey. 1

Starting in the early 1990s, Islamists began to win greater and greater percentages of the vote during a political ascendancy whose causes remain the subject of much scholarly debate. The paradigm most commonly employed to explain it is as follows: Islamists represent a strand of politics originating in the periphery and demanding democratic reform; they are ranged in opposition to an authoritarian, secularist Kemalist bureaucracy (and its political representative, the CHP, founded by Atatürk in 1923), which has controlled the levers of power in Turkey, being particularly strong in the military and judiciary. According to this narrative, the once-invincible Kemalists steadily lost power to the Islamists during a process that started in the 1990s and culminated in the latter’s 2002 electoral victory. 2 Furthermore, the struggle for power continued after 2002, with the Kemalists resorting to yet more coup attempts in order to effect a purge of the Islamists. In 2007, the Constitutional Court stepped in to block the election of the AKP’s presidential candidate, Abdullah Gül. This was followed by a closure case against the party, which was decided in the AKP’s favor by a margin of one vote. Starting in 2008, the AKP retaliated against the military and judiciary bureaucracy as well as opposition politicians and journalists through a series of indictments that it later admitted had been concocted. By means of such show-trials, it effected a purge of anti-AKP elements (in the state, media, and especially the military) which was unprecedented in the history of the Republic. 3 It bears mentioning that the AKP’s coming to power in 2002, and its victory in the subsequent power struggle against its opponents, particularly in the military and judiciary, occurred with the support not only of Turkish Islamists, but also some Turkish liberals and, to an extent, leftists, as well as the EU and the US. The AKP was billed as a proponent of a well-integrated and global market economy;  it was also expected to bring about a democratic transformation. In his 2005 article, Vali Nasr described the AKP’s political ascendancy as “the rise of Muslim democracy”; even as late as 2009, Henri Barkey and Morton Abramowitz, two US scholars and diplomats with an expert knowledge of Turkey, wrote an article for the prominent international relations journal Foreign Affairs entitled “Turkey’s Transformers” – referencing, of course, the ruling AKP. In the article, Barkey and Abramowitz argue that the West should support the AKP in its quest towards “becoming a tolerant liberal democracy.” 4

The present article rejects the paradigm that reads Turkish politics in terms of a Kemalist-Islamist dichotomy and – as a result – characterizes Islamism as a political actor representing the periphery in opposition to the center and civil society in opposition to the state. At present, in 2017, after 15 years of being governed by an AKP majority, Turkey is under a State of Emergency regime, in which rule of law and freedom of the press have been suspended, opposition politicians have been arrested, and the preconditions for free and fair elections no longer exist. The AKP has failed to realize the mission to democratize Turkey that has taken up for well over a decade; on the contrary, as of 2017, democracy in Turkey has regressed to a state worse than in 2002. This article likewise rejects the claim that Turkey has had a secularist, authoritarian, Kemalist establishment for more than 90 years. With the beginning of the Cold War in 1945, domestic and foreign policy in Turkey were shaped by an opposition to communism and to the Soviet Union. When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, anti-communism, which became the backbone of its state ideology, was fortified by nationalist and conservative values; the Islamists, for their part, were happy to seize this opportunity to forge an alliance with the establishment. In short, contrary to popular belief, Islamism in Turkey during the Cold War era was never a movement representing a periphery oppressed and victimized by the political center. Rather, it had the full blessing of the center, which had seen it as an antidote to the post-1960s ascendancy of the Left. Consequently, the Turkish establishment was unperturbed by the fact that the Islamists began to form parties and take part in coalition governments from the 1970s onward or, during the same decade, to run critical ministries like the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Justice.

By the 1990s, the alliance between Islamism and the state had dissolved. By that point, Islamism, which the state had supported during the Cold War as an antidote to the Left, had become far more powerful than expected. Moreover, as the Left’s influence diminished following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its social base increasingly swelled the ranks of the Islamists, who emerged as a political force with designs on total power. 5 In short, with the end of the Cold War, Islamism – having outgrown the rather limited role assigned to it by the state – filled a gap created by an increasingly anemic Left; at the same time, it replaced center-right parties which were perceived as corrupt and responsible for Turkey’s economic woes. Thus, far from being a political outsider, Islamism was the representative of a burgeoning far-right political movement within the establishment which adopted the authoritarian, repressive, anti-pluralist, majoritarian character of the Cold War-era Turkish state, holding that in its struggle for power, the ends always justified the means. Not surprisingly, predictions from the 1990s and onwards regarding the imminent democratization of Turkey by a far-right political movement, namely Islamists, turned out to be entirely mistaken.


In Turkey’s November 2015 elections, AKP deputy İsmail Kahraman, currently in his late 70s, was elected speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Aside from a brief period between 1996 and 1997 when he served as minister of culture for Erbakan’s Welfare Party, Kahraman was not a well-known politician. In August 2016, Kahraman delivered a seemingly inexplicable outburst concerning Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara: “Che was a killer who personally carried out executions and was slain at age 39…he was a guerilla. A bandit’s image shouldn’t appear on the collar or on the shirt of a Turkish high school student.” What could have caused Kahraman to flare up in outrage against the worldwide cult figure of Che, more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War? It is worth noting that Kahraman got his first taste of politics as a member of the Millî Türk Talebe Birliği (Turkish National Students Union, MTTB) – a focal point of anti-communist youth activity in Turkey – in his 20s, and in 1967 he became its president. In other words, Kahraman has been active in anti-leftist politics in Turkey for more than half a century; thus his political career sheds a good deal of light on Islamism’s record in Turkey over that same time period.

During the 1960s, the Turkish Left truly became a mass movement, in parallel with the rising tide of leftism worldwide. In the 1965 elections, for instance, the Workers Party of Turkey became the first socialist party to enter Parliament; even the CHP described its own political stance as “left of center.” Islamism, too, became increasingly visible – in politics, the media, publishing, youth organizations, religious events, and elsewhere – during this period. At the same time, Islamism in Turkey underwent a significant transformation, moving further away from the Ottoman tradition and becoming closer to Islamist movements in the Middle East.

The rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s under the leadership of Nasser was perceived by the US as a threat to its interests in the Middle East. For example, Report No. 5820 by the US National Security Council explicitly stated, “The West and the radical pan-Arab nationalist movement have become arrayed against each other. The West has supported conservative regimes opposed to radical nationalism, while the Soviets have established themselves as its friends and defenders.” 6 Two years previously, US President Eisenhower had written in his diary that in order to counter the influence of Egyptian leader Nasser, “my own choice of such a rival is King Saud.” In Eisenhower’s words, “[Saudi] Arabia is a country that contains the holy places of the Moslem world, and the Saudi Arabians are considered to be the most deeply religious of all the Arab groups. Consequently, the King could be built up, possibly, as a spiritual leader.” 7 The Saudis themselves were well aware that, in light of the Cold War balance of power, it would be much to their advantage to become the leader of Islamist movements as a counterweight to growing Arab nationalism and socialism in the Middle East. The establishment of the Rabitat al-Alami al-Islami (Muslim World League) under Saudi leadership in Mecca during the 1962 Hajj pilgrimage season greatly facilitated coordination among Islamist groups. 8 Indeed, in his 1987 book Rabıta, Turkish journalist Uğur Mumcu described, in exhaustive detail, how Islamism had spread in Turkey (with the help of Saudi capital and the support of the MWL) and how linkages between Islamic capital and politics had been created through the religious orders known as cemaats.9 Yet a full 20 years before the publication of Mumcu’s book, left-wing bureaucrats within the state had already leaked whatever intelligence they possessed about these matters to the press. Such bureaucrats saw the rise of the Islamists – fostered by the anti-communist climate in Cold-War era Turkey – as a threat to the country’s secular republic.

Indeed, an in-depth article on Islamist activities in Turkey with the headline “Who are the ones behind the reactionary movement in Turkey?”, based on reports by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, was published in the March 19, 1968 issue of the socialist journal Ant.10 Notably, the article featured an organizational chart with the title “The Muslim Brotherhood,” and it is striking, when one considers the events of the past half century, how nearly all of the article’s predictions concerning Islamism have been fulfilled. The article stresses that two foreign powers lie behind the rise of Islamism in Turkey: “Reactionary elements in Turkey are acting in concert with the Muslim Brotherhood organization in the Middle East…Anglo-American imperialism views the recent strengthening and coming to power of nationalism and socialism in the Arab states of the Middle East as endangering its own oil revenues. Accordingly, it has seen fit to politicize Islam and, through the CIA, has begun supporting the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Middle East has the patronage of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.” 11 Accusing the USA and the CIA of supporting Islamist activities, which were threatening Turkey’s secular republic, this intelligence report is clear evidence that there was a faction within the Turkish state during the 1960s that was critical of Turkey’s NATO alliance. Its presence within the state was a reflection of the increasingly leftist, anti-American social and political climate in Turkey during that period. According to the article, two individuals ran the activities of the Saudi-founded MWL in Turkey: Ahmet Gürkan and Salih Özcan.

Gürkan and Özcan were present at the foundational meeting of the MWL in 1962 and played an important role in the rise of Islamism in Turkey. Gürkan, a Justice Party MP from Konya, was the deputy who introduced a motion in Parliament in 1950 to change existing legislation in order to have the prayer call read in Arabic. Gürkan also served as president of the Turkish-Saudi Arabian Friendship Association. 12 Özcan was likewise a politician who played many vital roles in the Islamist movement. A native of the Southeastern Turkish city of Urfa, Özcan was from an Arab ethnic background and was fluent in Arabic; he enjoyed considerable clout in the Nur Movement, which is a religious movement founded by Said Nursi (1878-1960) and centered on his writings called as Risale-i Nur (Epistle of Light), becoming known as “the foreign minister of Bediüzzaman” (Bediüzzaman was an honorary title of Said Nursi, the founder of the Nur Movement). When President Cevdet Sunay visited Saudi Arabia in 1968, Özcan was able, through his connections, to arrange a meeting between Sunay and MWL President Suroor Sabban. 13 Özcan was also the one who introduced pro-Saudi propaganda to Turkey by founding the publishing house Hilal Yayınları (with Saudi support) in the late 1950s. From the 1960s onwards, Hilal Yayınları translated the works of Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi, and other Islamist thinkers, playing a key role in bolstering their influence over Turkish Islamism. In 1977, Özcan was elected a deputy for the Islamist Millî Selamet Partisi (National Salvation Party, MSP). After the 1980 coup, he was responsible for setting up a meeting between Mohammed bin Faisal (the son of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia), six generals in the Turkish Armed Forces, and Prime Minister Bülent Ulusu, in order to persuade the Turkish military to allow Saudi capital into the country. In return for his efforts, Özcan was made the first founding partner of Faisal Finans Kurumu, an Islamic bank established in Turkey in 1984 by Saudi capital. 14

As early as 1968, the article published in Ant was already referring to both Turgut Özal (who would rise through the ranks to become prime minister and president in the 1980s) and his brother Korkut Özal (who would serve as a minister for the MSP in the 1970s) as “the Muslim Brotherhood’s man in key areas of the state sector.” 15 At the time, Turgut Özal ran Turkey’s State Planning Organization while Korkut Özal was in charge of Turkish Petroleum. As soon as Turgut Özal became prime minister in 1983, one of his first actions was to sign a decree dated December 16, 1983, which allowed Saudi capital access to Turkey under the name of “interest-free banking.” This influx of Saudi capital ushered in by Özal acquired two main footholds in Turkey: Al Baraka Türk, under the leadership of Korkut Özal; and Faisal Finans, established under the leadership of the Saudis’ right-hand man Salih Özcan.

The intelligence report in Ant described Necmettin Erbakan – then the president of the Türkiye Odalar ve Borsalar Birliği (Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey) – as a key name in the “Muslim Brotherhood.” First entering Parliament as an independent deputy from Konya in 1969, Erbakan went on to found the Islamist Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party). By the 1990s, he had transformed Islamism in Turkey into a profiteering ring with a network of cemaats that had effectively become holding companies. Remarkably, the intelligence report in Ant – evidently based on highly reliable information – described Erbakan as a “candidate for prime minister” in 1968, predicting his rise from deputy prime minister in the coalition governments of the 1970s to prime minister in 1996. 16

Two of the newspapers and their owners mentioned in the intelligence report in Ant, constituting the Muslim Brotherhood’s media wing in Turkey, have been highly influential over the past 48 years: Bugün and its owner Mehmet Şevket Eygi, a prominent thinker in Turkish Islamism; and Muammer Topbaş (of the Topbaş family, one of the most powerful Islamist family businesses in Turkey), the owner of Babıali’de Sabah. Publishing headlines like “The anti-NATO commies have dirtied the streets,” in the Islamist Bugün, Eygi staunchly advocated a Turkey with strong NATO ties, lambasting Turkey’s ascendant left with the words, “No to NATO, eh? God damn all of you.” 17 In 1968, Eygi wrote an article for Bugün entitled “In the Country of Sharia,” which consisted of his impressions of Saudi Arabia, and was effectively a piece of pro-Saudi propaganda. 18 Muammer Topbaş, the owner of the other aforementioned Islamist newspaper, Babıali’de Sabah, also had close ties to Saudi Arabia. Another member of the Topbaş family, Eymen Topbaş, founded Al Baraka Türk together with Korkut Özal during the 1980s, while various other prominent members of the family took on high-ranking positions at the Saudi-funded İlim Yayma Cemiyeti (Society for the Propagation of Knowledge) and Bereket Vakfı (Baraka Foundation). 19 Yet another scion of the Topbaş family, Mustafa Latif Topbaş, a highly successful businessman during the AKP era, was named the 14th richest person in Turkey by Forbes magazine in 2012.

Also presented in the “Muslim Brotherhood” organizational chart in Ant was a list of the institutions and societies through which Islamism sought to acquire a popular base in Turkey, along with their associates. One organization in the chart, the aforementioned İlim Yayma Cemiyeti, received donations from the King of Saudi Arabia at the time. Moreover, the İslam Enstitüleri (Islamic Institutes), which were represented as being connected to the İlim Yayma Cemiyeti, hosted a talk by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who spent the summer of 1967 in Turkey. The ties between al-Qaradawi and Islamists in Turkey have steadily grown closer over the past half-century. Known today as a prominent Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, al-Qaradawi described Erdoğan as “the hope of Muslims and of Islam” in a 2016 speech. 20 Another organization featured in the chart is the Associations for the Struggle against Communism, which had a significant Islamist presence. In the 1960s, Fethullah Gülen, the founder and leader of the Gülen Movement, played a key role in the founding of the Erzurum branch of the Associations for the Struggle against Communism. 21

One of the societies listed in the “Muslim Brotherhood” organizational chart is especially worthy of mention given its role in the rise of Islamism in Turkey over the past half century: the aforementioned Turkish National Students Union (MTTB). As was noted at the beginning of this section, İsmail Kahraman, the current speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, was the MTTB’s president at the time of the publication of the 1968 report, which described the organization as “under the control of the pan-Islamists.” 22 Kahraman, who has served as a mentor in the training of Islamist youths at MTTB, has been a lifelong opponent of secularism. Seeking to promote the Islamist line at MTTB, Kahraman described the ascendant left of the 1960s as “the servants of our national enemy, communism;” he resolutely opposed the anti-NATO protests of the time, describing them as “part of a plan to make Turkey communist.” 23 AKP leaders like Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül cut their political teeth at the MTTB during the 1970s and served as managers in the organization as well. 24 Furthermore, in a book published by the MWL entitled A World Guide to Organizations of Islamic Activities, the MTTB was at the top of the list of “the MWL’s offices and representatives” in Turkey. 25

During the Cold War, Turkey was hardly immune from the anti-communist ideology that predominated among NATO member countries. The intelligence report that Ant published in 1968 called attention to the fact that Islamism in Turkey had benefited from this situation; it also singled out then-Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel for criticism. “National intelligence reports on the threat of reactionism” had been provided to Prime Minister Demirel as well; however, the report complained that Demirel had “deceived the ignorant masses by exploiting religion to gain votes” and that he remained indifferent to “the danger of reactionism which is threatening our constitutional regime and reforms, a danger which is about to draw Turkey into the darkness of the Middle Ages.” The report added the following warning: “The forces of reactionism, which today are rapidly organizing and have become a state within the state, will one day demand the head of Demirel as well.” 26 It is surely no small irony that Demirel, who did not perceive the rise of Islamism in the late 1960s as a threat – but rather facilitated its presence within the state by forming coalition governments with Islamist parties during the 1970s – led the struggle against Islamism as president during the 1990s, working hand in hand with the military.


Mumcu’s book “Rabıta” published in 1987 provides a detailed account of how Turkey’s state ideology shifted to the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” following the 1980 military coup and how Islamism – with Saudi support – flourished during the administration of Özal, who made no secret of his Islamist sympathies. By that time, left-wing bureaucrats – especially within the security and intelligence apparatuses – who were concerned about Islamization had long since become a minority. In all likelihood, they were the ones to provide Mumcu (who shared their essential worldview) with the information he used in his work. On January 24, 1993, Mumcu himself was the victim of a mysterious assassination by car bomb.

A close examination of the networks exposed by Mumcu – networks linking politics, Islamic capital, and the cemaats – reveals a striking fact about present-day Turkey: the individuals and firms in question were ones that would later achieve prominence during the AKP era. The following are some of the individuals involved with the Saudi-financed organizations and foundations listed by Mumcu in 1987: Eymen and Mustafa Latif Topbaş of the Topbaş family, which has a share in BİM supermarkets, is part of the Erenköy cemaat (a branch of the Nakşibendi religious order), and has close ties to Erdoğan; Hasan Kalyoncu, the founder of Kalyon İnşaat – which was awarded a contract for Istanbul’s third airport and is one of the owners of the pro-AKP media outlet Sabah-ATV – along with its current president, Cemal Kalyoncu; Sabri Ülker, the founder of the Ülker Group (which has long supported Islamist publications and foundations) as well as former prime minister Davutoğlu’s high school classmate Murat Ülker; former AKP finance minister Kemal Unakıtan; and Abdullah Tivnikli, who joined the board of directors of Türk Telekom following its sale to the Saudi firm Oger Telecom. 27 Having formed deep ties to Saudi capital during the 1980s, these individuals entered the limelight during the AKP era, receiving lucrative construction tenders and becoming an increasingly powerful force in the media and politics. 28

Saudi and Gulf capital steadily increased their presence in Turkey beginning in 2002, when the AKP came to power. As companies like Digiturk, Finansbank, and Türk Telekom were purchased by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Gulf capital became a crucial component of Turkey’s real estate and construction sectors. Many skyscrapers built in Turkey’s big cities in recent years count Gulf companies among their owners. Turkish bureaucrats with close ties to Saudi money typically rise quite speedily through the ranks. Take, for instance, the case of Efkan Ala, who served as minister of the interior between 2013 and 2016. Prior to becoming minister of the interior, Ala served as undersecretary of the Prime Ministry; in 2012, he was appointed a member of the Audit Committee of Türk Telekom, in order to represent the Saudi company Oger Telecom. Without a doubt, the Saudi firm viewed Ala as someone it could trust and as the one who would best represent Oger Telecom. One could also mention Murat Çetinkaya, the governor of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey since April 2016, who has long held high-ranking positions at Gulf-controlled, Turkey-based firms such as Al Baraka Türk and Kuveyt Türk. But this influx of Gulf – and especially Saudi – capital into Turkey is highly problematic. For one thing, such money is not subject to normal accountability mechanisms, meaning that its entry into Turkey suffers from a lack of transparency. Moreover, every sum of money invested in a country comes with an attached ideology, so to speak. Investors from Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, are the product of an anti-democratic monarchical system, with a totalitarian worldview shaped by Wahhabi doctrine. It would be surprising if they did not seek to alter the political and economic makeup of Turkey in line with their own interests. 29 Visiting Saudi Arabia in 2010, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan declared “whatever the EU is to us, Saudi Arabia is, too”; nonetheless, in the seven years since that time, Riyadh has achieved far more cordial ties with Ankara than Brussels has. Turkey created the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) in Syria in partnership with Saudi Arabia; Turkey also partnered with the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) in Syria under Saudi leadership, and in February 2016, Saudi fighter jets were deployed to İncirlik Air Base. 30


By the 1990s, Islamism had become a redoubtable economic force in Turkey, consisting of a network of cemaats that had evolved into holding companies, and with a presence in all state institutions. Rather than share political power with anyone, it sought total power for itself. Around the same time, Turkey’s judiciary and military bureaucracy had also begun to perceive political Islam as a threat. Thus the “reformist” wing of Islamism spearheaded by Erdoğan and Gül reckoned there would have to be a purge of the judiciary and military, and that in order for this to happen, they would need support from Turkey’s foreign allies, particularly the US and EU. In the run-up to the February 28 coup and the subsequent closing down of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) and the founding of the AKP, this reformist wing distanced itself from the Millî Görüş (National Vision) line espoused by Erbakan, and began to climb the rungs of power by forming strategic alliances with the West.

As scholar İlhan Uzgel has remarked, two of the AKP’s most prominent politicians, Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, underwent “a significant cognitive learning process” starting in the mid-1990s, realizing that the West, and the US in particular, played an indispensable role in their “coming to power, and staying in power, in Turkey”: “Therefore, the young generation [reformists] of the National Vision preferred to rise to power not in spite of the West, or the US, or the Jewish lobby, but with the full support of all of the above, using them as a means by which to bargain for more and more power.” 31 And indeed, during their visits to the US in 2002, both before and directly after the elections, Gül and Erdoğan delivered important messages regarding the course to be charted by the AKP. In January of 2002, for instance, Erdoğan met with Graham Fuller (a CIA Middle East expert and one of the architects of the “moderate Islam” project sponsored by the RAND Corporation) as well as former US ambassador Morton Abramowitz; at a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an important think tank, he described the US as “Turkey’s natural partner.” 32 Erdoğan’s statement regarding his contacts in the US – “they are keeping track of us” – is quite telling. 33 Undoubtedly, Erdoğan was aware that high-ranking members of the US political establishment sought to use the AKP model to turn the tide of post-September 11 Middle Eastern religious fundamentalism; Erdoğan viewed this as an invaluable resource in the power struggle about to erupt in Turkey. The following lines, written by journalist Derya Sazak in January of 2002, are a striking reflection of the relationship the AKP leadership established between domestic and foreign policy: “Making references to the ‘moderate Islam’ of his electorate, Erdoğan has declared that the political model found in Turkey, based on the principle of ‘coming to power and departing from power through elections’ within a democratic, secular state order, can set an example for every country in the Muslim world.” 34 As early as November of 1999, Abdullah Gül visited the US together with Recai Kutan, the founder of the Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party, FP). During their visit, he stated, “We have learned our lesson from the experience of the Refahyol government” [the short-lived coalition government between Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) and the center-right Doğru Yol Partisi (True Path Party)]. Gül went on to explain that he “was in favor of EU membership” rather than an “Islamic Common Market.” 35

This policy of rapprochement with the US, which Uzgel described as “pragmatic change,” along with the AKP’s in-person messages to Washington that it had embraced democratic principles, did not represent a fundamental shift resulting from a process of profound introspection. Rather, it represented a pragmatic search for a foreign ally that would strengthen the AKP’s hand at home. 36 Erdoğan himself effectively admitted as much, stating, “I have never used the expression, ‘I have changed.’ If saying that one has changed means a renunciation of one’s values, then using such an expression is impossible. We have merely shed our old skin in response to worldwide developments.” 37 This image of “shedding one’s skin” – i.e. adapting to present conditions without altering one’s true nature – well captures the AKP’s trajectory between 2002 and 2011, both in domestic and foreign policy. In a 1993 interview, Erdoğan, then serving as the Istanbul chairman of the Welfare Party, famously stated, “We hold that democracy is only a vehicle. It is a vehicle to choose whatever system you wish to arrive at.” 38 In light of such statements from Erdoğan, one should hardly be surprised at the current state of the rule of law, separation of powers, and freedom of the press in Turkey following 15 years of AKP rule.

Around the same time, Fethullah Gülen, who moved to the US in 1999, and was a close ally of the AKP from 2002 to 2013, also advocated establishing close ties with Washington. Gülen’s own Cold War-era anti-communist discourse owed much to Said Nursi, the leader of the Nur Movement, within which Gülen was raised. In the 1940s, Nursi urged the CHP government of the time to oppose communism – which he likened to “the invasion of the terrible dragon from the Northeast [the USSR]” – and to “embrace the Quran and the reality of belief.” According to Nursi, it was necessary to side with the US in this conflict: “It is possible for a devout Muslim to become good friends with a mighty state like America, which is earnest in its defense of religion.” 39 In 1997, Gülen publicly expressed the pro-US stance he had inherited from Nursi, stating, “Fanatical communists harbor antipathy towards America without any rational or logical basis.” He added, “It is important to follow the US closely – along with whatever parts there to which we feel an affinity – and to avail ourselves of it properly. In this way, one can raise a ‘golden generation,’ a young generation which will represent science and technology throughout the world.” 40

During that same period, others began to find fault with Turkey’s unilateral dependence on the West, arguing that a Cold War-style alliance with the West would ultimately be untenable, and that new approaches to foreign policy were necessary. İsmail Cem, Turkey’s foreign minister between 1997 and 2002, argued that Turkey needed to align itself with the East, not just with the West; Cem aimed at turning Turkey into a “world power” by developing independent policies towards the surrounding regions. 41 In ulusalcı (leftist-nationalist) circles and among certain high-ranking army officers, a new foreign policy approach known as “Eurasianism” emerged, which questioned the validity of Turkey’s relations with the West. This outlook reached its zenith in 2002, when the secretary-general of Turkey’s National Security Council, General Tuncer Kılınç, declared that Turkey had not received the slightest benefit from the EU, stating, “I view it as advantageous for Turkey, if possible, to adopt an approach which would also include Russia and Iran, without neglecting America.” 42 With the AKP’s coming to power in 2002, these trends in foreign policy came to an end, while the era of unconditional rapprochement with the US and EU began. Following the September 11 attacks, the US settled on the AKP as a “model” for Middle Eastern countries, as a means of countering the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world. The US viewed the AKP as suitable because it was a standard-bearer of neo-liberalism, having embraced free-market economics, and because it had come to power by free and fair elections. In 2004, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented Iraq with the example of Turkey, stating that in Iraq, “there will be an Islamic republic, as there are other Islamic republics – Turkey and Pakistan.” 43 Thus the West supported the AKP as a model of moderate Islam; Erdoğan, for his part, was quick to turn this to his advantage in domestic politics. The AKP believed that a purge of the military and judicial bureaucracy and, more broadly, the country’s Republican secular elites – who, in any case, had begun to question the nature of Turkey’s relations with the West – would be inevitable in order to reinforce its own power. It waged a fierce campaign against them, not hesitating to resort to show trials when necessary; in all of this, it had the full support of the West. In the resulting struggle for power – which included such events as the 2007 presidential crisis, the 2008 closure case against the AKP, and the subsequent Ergenekon and Balyoz operations – political Islam emerged triumphant.

Thus the AKP’s domestic policy began to drift towards authoritarianism, while in foreign policy its relations with the West grew increasingly more awkward. Cultivating ties with radical groups in the Middle East following the Arab Uprisings, the AKP diverged significantly from the moderate Islam the US had come to associate with it. Notably, debates in the US about Turkey’s political drift and its distancing itself from the West began in earnest after 2009. Especially following 2011, the AKP supported Muslim Brotherhood parties in the Middle East, taking sides in the internal chaos and clashes in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya. One could also cite the AKP’s misguided approach to radical groups like the Nusra Front in the Syrian Civil War and its use of the refugee crisis as a means of threatening the EU. At present, the US and the EU have a problematic relationship with Turkey’s Islamist government. Ankara, for its part, is aware that the West has considerable leverage over the AKP. The AKP views the US’s close ties to the Gülen Movement, the July 15 coup attempt, and the prosecution of Reza Zarrab (who is alleged to have overseen the flow of billions of dollars through Turkey to circumvent the embargo against Iran) as attempts to overthrow Turkey’s government. One could cite, for example, the following statement from none less than Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ: “It is unclear whether the person on trial is Reza Zarrab, our Honorable President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or [his wife] Emine Erdoğan.” 44

Behind Turkey’s tensions with the US and EU lies a paranoid fear that the methods, which the AKP (along with the West and the Gülen Movement) once used against its opponents from 2002 onwards, are now being used against the AKP itself. In 2004, when negotiations regarding Turkey’s EU bid officially commenced to great fanfare, the country’s economy and politics seemed firmly tethered to the EU, allowing foreign capital to flow into Turkey in abundance. Now, in 2017, the situation could not be more different. The rule of law has been suspended in Turkey, corporations have been taken over by the government, pro-AKP trustees have been appointed as mayors in numerous municipalities, opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested, and the country as a whole has become increasingly authoritarian as it leaves the orbit of the EU. As a result, Turkey’s economy is in utter turmoil. Many, not least the AKP, are aware that these problems have reached a boiling point and that a solution is unlikely to materialize. There is no doubt that this sense of desperation induced Erdoğan, the leader of a NATO country, to state, “If Turkey joins the Shanghai Five, things will go much more smoothly.” 45 In short, Turkish Islamism, which rose to prominence in Cold War-era Turkey as part of the struggle against an ascendant Left, is now transforming a secular democratic republic into an authoritarian far-right Islamic polity, in line with its own world view. Turkey’s Western allies, especially the US, are trying to determine a framework and a set of principles on which to base their relationship with the Islamists. Turkey was once a secular republic and – for all its flaws – a functioning democratic polity. The alliance, which was formed to put an end to that polity, in the name of defeating authoritarian Kemalism, has now been dissolved. The relationship between Turkey and the West exists, for the moment, on a transactional basis. Yet at a time when Turkish democracy has been shaken to its foundations, such a pragmatic relationship is unlikely to last for long.

About the author:
*Behlül Özkan
, Associate Professor, Marmara University

This article was published by The Hudson Institute and Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.


1 For a leading analysis of Turkish politics based on the dichotomy of the center and the periphery, see: Şerif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?” Daedalus (1973) 102:1, pp. 169-190. ↝
2 Nilüfer Göle. “Secularism and Islamism in Turkey: The Making of Elites and Counter-elites.” The Middle East Journal (1997) 51: 1, pp. 46-58; Yalçın Akdoğan, “The Meaning of Conservative Democratic Political Identity” in Hakan Yavuz (ed.), The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2006), pp. 49-65; Hakan Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). ↝
3 “Erdoğan Subaylara Seslendi: Komutanların Tutuklanmasında Aldatıldık,” Radikal, 19 March 2015, available at http://www.radikal.com.tr/politika/erdogan-subaylara-seslendi-komutanlarin-tutuklanmasinda-aldatildik-1317305/. ↝
4 Vali Nasr, “The Rise of Muslim Democracy.” Journal of Democracy (2005) 16: 2, pp. 13-27; Morton Abramowitz, and Henri F. Barkey, “Turkey’s Transformers: The AKP Sees Big.” Foreign Affairs (2009) 88: 6, pp. 118-128. ↝
5 Behlül Özkan, “Turkey’s Islamists: From Power-Sharing to Political Incumbency,” Turkish Policy Quarterly (2015) 14:1, pp. 71-83. ↝
6 Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, Vol. 12 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1993), p. 188. ↝
7 Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Arab-Israeli Dispute, Vol. 25 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1989), p. 425. ↝
8 Jacob M. Landau, The Politics of Pan-Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 283-287. ↝
9 Uğur Mumcu, Rabıta (Ankara: UMAG, 2014). ↝
10 “Türkiye’de İrtica Hareketini Kimler, Nasıl İdare Ediyor?” Ant (1968) 64, pp. 4-5. ↝
11 Ibid. ↝
12 Mumcu, Rabıta, p. 139. ↝
13 Ahmed Özer, Seyyid Salih Özcan (İstanbul: Işık Yayınları, 2011). ↝
14 Mumcu, Rabıta, p. 142-146; Hakan Köni, “Saudi influence on Islamic Institutions in Turkey Beginning in the 1970s.” The Middle East Journal (2012) 66.1, pp. 96-109. ↝
15 “Türkiye’de İrtica Hareketini Kimler, Nasıl İdare Ediyor?” Ant, pp. 4-5. ↝
16 Ibid. ↝
17 “NATO’ya Aleyhtar Moskofçular Sokakları Kirlettiler,” Bugün, 15 May 1968; Mehmet Şevket Eygi, “NATO’dan Çıkmanın Cezası,” Bugün, 23 May 1968. ↝
18 “Mehmet Şevket Eygi, “Şeriat Ülkesinde,” Bugün, 10 April 1968. ↝
19 Mumcu, Rabıta, pp. 144-146; Kansu, Rabıta’nın Zabıtası, 64-66. ↝
20 “Kardavi: Erdoğan İslam İçin Bir Umuttur,” Sabah, 24 April 2016, available at http://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2016/04/24/kardavi-erdogan-islam-icin-bir-umuttur. ↝
21 Ertuğrul Meşe, Komünizmle Mücadele Dernekleri (İstanbul: İletişim, 2016), pp. 134-135. ↝
22 “Türkiye’de İrtica Hareketini Kimler, Nasıl İdare Ediyor?” Ant, pp. 4-5. ↝
23 Behlül Özkan, “‘Amerikan İslam’ı,’ İsmail Kahraman, Che,” Birgün, 4 September 2016. ↝
24 Doğan Duman and Serkan Yorgancılar, Türkçülükten İslamcılığa Milli Türk Talebe Birliği (Ankara: Vadi Yayınları, 2007), p. 147. ↝
25 Mumcu, Rabıta, p. 199. ↝
26 “Türkiye’de İrtica Hareketini Kimler, Nasıl İdare Ediyor?” Ant, pp. 4-5. ↝
27 For an English-language academic work on the network of all these relationships, see: Birol Ali Yeşilada, “Islamic Fundamentalism in Turkey and the Saudi Connection.” Universities Field Staff International Reports 18, 1989. ↝
28 Işık Kansu, Rabıta’nın Zabıtası (Ankara: UMAG, 2013), pp. 43-86. ↝
29 For more on Saudi Arabia’s religious and financial activities in its efforts to increase its global influence, see: Scott Shane, “Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters,’” New York Times, 25 August 2016. ↝
30 Rıza Türmen, “Dış Politika ve Kimlik,” Milliyet, 4 July 2010. ↝
31 İlhan Uzgel, “AKP: Neoliberal Dönüşümün Yeni Aktörü,” AKP Kitabı: Bir Dönüşümün Bilançosu, ,” eds. İlhan Uzgel ve Bülent Duru, (Ankara: Phoenix, 2009), pp. 19-20. ↝
32 “ABD’lilerin Duymak İstediklerini Söyledi,” Milliyet, 30 January 2002. ↝
33 Derya Sazak, “Kapalı Kapılar Erdoğan,” Milliyet, 01 February 2002. ↝
34 Derya Sazak, “Karzai ve Erdoğan’ın Rol Modeli,” Milliyet, 31 January 2002. ↝
35 Yasemin Çongar, “Yeni Başbakan Eski Sorun,” Milliyet, 18 November 2002. ↝
36 Uzgel, “AKP: Neoliberal Dönüşümün Yeni Aktörü,” p. 20. ↝
37 Güneri Cıvaoğlu, “Tayyip Kabuk Değiştirmiş,” Milliyet, 31.01.2002. ↝
38 Metin Sever and Cem Dizdar, 2. Cumhuriyet Tartışmaları (Ankara: Başak Yayınları, 1993), p. 419. ↝
39 Said Nursi, Emirdağ Lahikası (İstanbul: Envar Neşriyat, 2016), pp. 190, 424. ↝
40 Nevval Sevindi, Fethullah Gülen ile New York Sohbeti (İstanbul: Sabah Kitapçılık, 1997). ↝
41 “Eziklik Bitiyor,” Milliyet, 19 July 1997, available at http://www.milliyet.com.tr/1997/07/19/dunya/eziklik.html. ↝
42 “Türkiye, Rusya ve İran’la İttifak Arayışında Olmalı,” Sabah, 08 March 2002, available at http://arsiv.sabah.com.tr/2002/03/08/p01.html
43 “Interview with Maybritt Illner of ZDF German Television,” US Department of State Archive, 01 April 2004, available at https://2001-2009.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/31016.htm.  ↝
44 “Bozdağ: Adil Öksüz Mit Ajanı Değil,” NTV, 28 September 2016, available at http://www.ntv.com.tr/turkiye/bozdag-adil-oksuz-mit-ajani-degil-bu-bir-propaganda,Kh9-90jumUyiYojAXFAy1w.
45 “Erdoğan: Türkiye, Şanghay Beşlisi İçinde Niye Olmasın?” Evrensel, 20 November 2016, available at https://www.evrensel.net/haber/296392/erdogan-turkiye-sanghay-beslisi-icinde-niye-olmasin.

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One thought on “Turkey: Cold War-Era Origins Of Islamism And Its Rise To Power – Analysis

  • August 6, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    The author in his article seems too hesitant to call a spade a spade when it comes to Kemalism. He portrayed it as a modernist movement. The sad fact is – it was, in essence, an anti-Islamic ideology in which Islam had nothing to do with Turkey.
    That was an absurd proposition given Turkey’s demography who are 99% plus Muslims.
    Kemalism was more secular – an uglier one – than fundamentalist secularism of France. It was only a question of time when people would go back to their religious roots, and dump this aberrant ideology, something that we have seen throughout history, esp. in the last hundred years.

    Even decades of Soviet secular, God-rejecting, rule could not extinguish the influence of Orthodox Christianity among the Russians in the USSR once the regime collapsed there. The same would be the case with China once its communism ultimately collapses in the altar of growing capitalism.

    Extremism of any kind is bound to fail. If President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Islamic-minded let him be reminded by the teachings of his own faith that rejects extremism of any kind either in public or private life or matters and strongly recommends Shura or consultancy on all matters. Otherwise, remorse would wait him for his alleged authoritarianism in both the worlds.


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