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Turkish Islamic groups face state crackdown for speaking out

Despite the ruling AKP's Islamist background, challenging them is still risky business for fellow travellers
Furkan Vakfi leader Alparslan Kuytul is arrested by Turkish police (AA)

The police came early in the morning, smashing down the doors before storming the nondescript office in the southern city of Adana, in the hunt for those accused of "disturbing public order" and "establishing a criminal organisation". 

However, those arrested in the 30 January raid were not the usual enemies of the state, such as supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, or associates of pro-Kurdish or Marxist Leninist guerillas. The office belonged to Furkan Vakfi, a conservative Islamic organisation.

Twenty-four members of the group, including its leader Alparslan Kuytul, were scooped up by police. Kuytul was charged with "inciting hatred" and "insulting the president". Five people, including Kuytul, were sent to prison and the organisation was closed down.

The move is a further indication that even groups who might be considered fellow travellers of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) are not immune to scrutiny if they don't follow the government's line.

Speaking to Middle East Eye, a spokesman for the organisation suggested that Kuytul's public stance opposing the offensive against the pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria was a likely cause for the raid. 

Translation: Teacher Alparslan Kuytal and four of our friends, 46 days in detention.

"When the government took the decision to carry out a military operation at Afrin, Sheikh Alparslan warned it could be a trap and advised the government to act with care," the organisation's spokesman said.

"He went further to remind the government that the US government had dispatched 4,900 truckloads and 2,000 aircraft loads of arms and ammunition to that zone and this could be a deadly trap set up by those who want to see the downfall of Turkey."

He added that Kuytul had long been a critic of Turkey's involvement in the Syria war.

"His criticism of the wrong steps taken by Turkey at the beginning of the Syrian war was the main issue, and not the Afrin military operations," he said. "This humane and well-intentioned explanation did not go down well with the government."

In the Erdoganist narrative, supporting Erdogan is equated with being patriotic, which makes criticism of Erdogan a treacherous thing to do

- Mustafa Akyol, columnist

While the AKP has arrested Islamists in the past, they have primarily focused on Gulenists - whom the government accuses of staging a coup and who have a long, complicated relationship with the AKP - or on organisations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, who actively carried out attacks in Turkey.

Furkan Vakfi, by comparison, is a non-violent Islamic advocacy group. Unlike most Islamic groups in Turkey who trace their origins to orders established during the Ottoman Empire, Furkan Vakfi is more influenced by Egypt's Islamists; Kuytul has studied at al-Azhar in Cairo.

Unlike the AKP, Furkan Vakfi has never hidden its Islamist intentions, talking dismissively of the AKP's public proclamations favouring secular government and suggesting that many other Islamic groups fell into line with the government rather than criticising its actions.

"The government wanted every religious leader to be silent irrespective of whether they criticise his wrong policies or not," the spokesperson said.

"Many Muslims and the Islamic communities saw it as a necessity to side with the government in order to guarantee their jobs and their livelihood. They started pretending to be favouring democracy and a secular system.

"At this point, it will not be wrong for anyone to say that the greatest harm done to Muslims during the AKP era is perhaps turning them into benefit-seekers, pseudo-democrats and pseudo-supporters of secularism."

'The Great Leader'

Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the New York Times and Al-Monitor, told MEE that ultimately Turkish politics in 2018 came down to where you stand on "the great leader".

"President Erdogan himself is a religious conservative and most of Turkey’s religious conservatives, either as individuals or groups, identify with him. Most of them passionately support him. But his supporters may come from the secular camp as well," he explained.

An example of how different Islamic movements have found themselves split vis-a-vis Erdogan is that of the Nur movement. Based on teachings of Kurdish theologian Said Nursi, the movement has many different branches within Turkey. The most prominent offshoot is the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gulen, but Nursi's followers ultimately led in many different directions with each group maintaining its own literature and political and social relations.

Some, such as the Hazreti Suleyman Education Foundation, have been invited by Turkey's education ministry to actively spread their religious teachings among schools, part of Erdogan's plan for a "pious generation" and greater religious influence in schools.

But other Nursi followers have found themselves falling foul of the government - Yeni Asya, a newspaper aligned with the Nur movement, criticised the government's actions under the state of emergency (OHAL), imposed following the 2016 coup. 

Front page of Yeni Asya following Nur Ener's arrest

The paper's news editor, Nur Ener Kilinc, was jailed on 5 March after it was alleged that she had the ByLock app on her phone. The app has been directly associated by authorities with the Hizmet movement and the planning of the coup, something which has been criticised by tech analysts. Ener Kilinc has denied either following Gulen or using ByLock.

Pro-government newspapers attacked the paper as "crypto-FETO" - FETO being an acronym for what the government calls the "Fethullah Terrorism Organisation".

Ener Kilinc was released on bail on 22 February, but is still awaiting trial on 19 April and has spent nearly a year under house arrest.

"I am free, but there is a 30-day-old infant behind those doors. There are six children in my prison cell. I pray they will be freed soon," Ener Kilinc said shortly after her release, referring to the reportedly hundreds of children currently languishing in Turkish jails with their parents.

In a statement released on the front page of Yeni Asya following's Ener Kilinc's arrest, the paper excoriated the government for using emergency powers to quash dissent.

"The fact that our friend Nur Ener, who has no other agenda and occupation other than journalism, is arrested and taken into custody on charges of being a 'member of a terrorist organisation', is the last and most grave example of the illegal incidents that have escalated in the process of OHAL," said the editorial.

"This unfortunate decision of the ruling dictators who are trying to fend off [the accusations] with untrue answers such as 'there is no one arrested for journalism'."

'What is their crime?'

Perhaps the most famous and notable Islamist critics of the AKP, however, have been from the Felicity Party (Saadet in Turkish), which like the AKP emerged from the Virtue Party in the 90s.

While the AKP publicly espoused a centre-right, pro-business mantra in the early 2000s, the Felicity Party stuck to a harder line, opposing relations with Israel and the US, opposing free market capitalism and calling for more explicit Islamic policies.

However, the party has in recent years found itself a critic of the AKP for its crackdown on opponents. 

"Foundations are being closed down, scholars are being arrested," party head Temel Karamollaoglu tweeted recently.

"What is their crime? To be in the opposition, to criticise the government." 

Supporters of the Felicity party take part in an election rally in Istanbul (AFP)

Though the party rarely gets more than two percent of the national vote and is therefore unrepresented in parliament, it still commands support from sections of the population who are concerned both by Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism and his perceived failure to actually implement Islamic law.

There has even been talk of former president Abdullah Gul - who has emerged as a soft critic of the AKP and his former comrade Recep Tayyip Erdogan - standing as a presidential candidate for the party in 2019.

Karamollaoglu also specifically rebuffed overtures from the AKP to join an electoral pact, describing the notion as "crazy".

New laws introduced by the AKP which allow for the creation of electoral alliances in the upcoming elections could, ironically, help make Saadet more of a player on the political scene - if, as has been suggested by some commentators, it were to unite with a larger political party. This would enable Saadet to enter parliament despite not passing the 10 percent threshold.

Karamollaoglu's stance has seen him make enemies in the pro-AKP media even if an overt crackdown is so far not forthcoming. Particular scrutiny has been applied to the Felicity party leader's patriotism because of his wife, who was originally from Manchester and who met Karamollaoglu while a student there in the 60s.

"The religious conservatives who are not pro-Erdogan can be demonised by the pro-Erdogan propaganda empire as the enemy within, and find themselves prosecuted by dubious charges as well," said Akyol.

Saadet has faced demonisation while Furkan Vakfı is an example of the latter, he added.

"In the Erdoganist narrative, supporting Erdogan is equated with being patriotic, which makes criticism of Erdogan a treacherous thing to do."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.