The Rise of Islamist Dominance in Turkey – Part I
By J. Millard Burr
Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 @ 6:12PM
The creeping diminution of Ataturk’s secular Turkish state began in 1970, when Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), who had been elected to Parliament the previous year, formed Turkey’s first Islamic political party in the post-Ataturk era. A year later, it was banned by the military government. Erbakan himself was a man whose Islamist leanings were never in doubt. His father was a Cadi (an Islamic judge) during the last years of the Ottoman Empire and Erbakan was said to have joined the international Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun, or Ikhwan) during school, even before studying for an engineering degree at Aachen in Germany. While a student at Istanbul Technical University, he was a friend of the future Turkish president, Suleyman Demirel.
Regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, following its return to legality in Egypt in 1951, the Ikhwan created a “Section for Liaison with the Islamic World.” It comprised nine committees, with one devoted to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The committee was expected to use national and Islamic organizations to spread the Ikhwan message. It had a major success in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and at one time included the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. It was less successful in Turkey, where the military leadership of the time solidly opposed the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Many Turkish brothers survived by joining the Turkish Nur, a movement founded by Kurdish Islamist intellectual Said Nursi. The Nur has coexisted with the state while propounding the slogan “Islam is the answer.”
While originally small, Turkey’s Islamist movement was very active in Europe. There, under the leadership of Egyptian Said Ramadan, the hundreds of thousands of Turks who had found work in Germany discovered that they were welcome at the Islamic centers he had helped found (with Saudi Arabian money) in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg. Not much has been written of Erbakan’s activity in Europe, but by the nineteen seventies Erbakan led the Milli Selamet Partisi (National Salvation Party), which had thousands of followers in Germany. Erbakan next founded the Milli Gorush movement in Cologne in 1985. It eventually counted hundreds of cells and its clandestine operations were closely watched by German intelligence. Erbakan also played an important part in the growth of the Nur movement, likely Turkey’s largest social movement, which chose to co-exist with the state.
In 1972, Erbakan recreated his Islamic party and for the rest of his life remained in the forefront of Turkey’s politics. He served twice as deputy prime minister in the nineteen seventies, but his party was again banned by the military in 1980. He was then jailed briefly and banned from taking part in politics from 1980-1987.
The war (1979-1988) against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan had a certain political impact among Turkey’s elite, but overall the nation’s response was muted. Indeed, during the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties, Turkey was more interested in making money and playing-off both sides to its advantage. Also, even though Turkey had established relations with Kurdish political leaders, it used a 1983 agreement with Saddam Hussein to initiate Turkish cross-border operations in Iraqi Kurdistan against Kurdish PKK camps. (Turkey would launch 24 military operations into Iraq between 1983 and 2008.)
From beginning to end, the Afghan war was dominated by other, more powerful regional forces. Most importantly, in light of later Islamist developments, there were the Arab-Afghan mujahideen. Secondly, but no less important, was the support role played by their Pakistani organizers, Saudi paymasters and Foggy Bottom arms purveyors. Turkey took practically no role in that seminal event nor in the creation of the revolutionary Islamist movement, which in the early nineteen-nineties had its focus in Khartoum, Sudan, and within the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference conclaves held there. Still, by the close of the war in Afghanistan, Erbakan was the friend of leading Muslim Brothers, such as Hasan al-Turabi of Sudan, Rashid al-Ghannouchi of Tunisia, Sheikh al-Zindani of Yemen, and the mullah Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In 1987, Erbakan was allowed to openly enter Turkey’s political fray. His presence was noted in the run-up to the November 1987 elections, with the emergence of a growing Islamist movement of intellectuals and politicians that opposed Turkish secular nationalism, NATO’s presence, and what was seen as an endemic drive for Western modernization. Erbakan himself, vowing a return to the Islamic Caliphate, led an openly Islamist revival. And while the Government of Turkey opposed the emergence of Saddam in Iraq, Erbakan and his Refah (Welfare) Party supported it. In doing so he was following the path of what was called a “Turkish-Islamic” synthesis, a dialectic that received the wholehearted support of all Islamist leaders. By 1990 he was head of the rising Refah Party and he maintained very cordial relations with numerous Islamist allies throughout the Muslim World.
In the early nineteen-nineties, Erbakan was active in the pan-Turkik politics, which meant to influence former Soviet republics that achieved independence, following the demise of the Soviet Union. In Turkey, the Erbakan “revival”, and the continuing growth of the domestic Islamist movement were abetted by the religious war being fought in the Balkans. It was during that epoch that a decided Islamist metamorphosis occurred in Turkey, and it did so not only under the eyes of NATO and Western governments, but also with their support.
During the Balkans war, Erbakan and a small knot of Turkish politicians, including a rising star Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were known to have achieved an alliance with the international Muslim Brotherhood and together they played a significant part in the war that beggared the former Yugoslavia province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A small but influential Ikwhan that supported the Muslim mujahideen was centered in Sarajevo and not surprisingly was led by Erbakan. By then, Erbakan was the well known Aachen-educated Ph.D, Turkish politician and founder of a succession of Islamist political parties. He was able to create a sort of neutral ground where Islamists of many stripes — the Shiite of Iran, and the Sunni from Africa, the Middle East and Europe itself — could meet to arm and to finance the Balkans war.
Throughout the war in the Balkans, Erbakan maintained a close relationship with the notorious Third World Relief Agency (TWRA) and its director, the Sudanese diplomat, al-Fatih Ali Hassanein, who studied in Yugoslavia and joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s. In his role as director of the Islamic charity, Hassanein was handling contributions from the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Royal Family, and Iran. Likewise, he was working directly with Bosnia’s Islamic figures, most notably the Muslim Brother and former Zagreb Imam, Hasan Cengic.
Sponsored by Sudan, the first Islamist state, the TWRA was a bogus charity that by the early nineteen nineties became the chief broker of Balkans black-market weapons deals. The TWRA was created in Yugoslavia, in 1987, by Hassanein as a ‘humanitarian organization.’ It moved to Austria and became directly involved in the funding and movement of arms from Sudan to Croatia and other locations in the Balkans. It opened offices in Bosnia, Turkey and Russia and used accounts in Liechtenstein and Monaco to launder the hundreds of thousands of dollars it received. Some $80 million dollars were remitted on a Vienna account in the First Austrian Bank in 1992, followed by $231 million in 1993, the highpoint in its operation.
Eventually, Austria closed the TWRA front and Hassanein and his “charity” moved to Turkey. There, Hassanein had friends among the emerging Islamist leadership. From his new base in Istanbul, Hassanein sustained the TWRA funding effort and continued his close contact with Bosnia’s Muslim authorities. An indication of just how close Hassanein was to Turkey’s Islamist leadership can be seen in April 2006, when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan apparently skipped a Khartoum dinner for Arab League dignitaries hosted by Sudan President al-Bashir, in order to meet with an old acquaintance, the Sudanese “tycoon” Dr. Al-Fatih Hassanein, labeled a financier for al-Qaeda and for “ist movements, particularly in Bosnia.”
European intelligence services were aware that the Turkish Islamists were active in the banking through their relationship with the Vakufska Banka, Islamic bank in Bosnia. Yugoslav intelligence claimed that Vakufska Banka began operations at Sarajevo in 1992. It was a correspondent of Al Baraka Turkish Finance House, which was known to transfer money to al-Qaeda operatives. The Al Baraka and the Saudi-based Feisal Finance Institution of Istanbul had been the first banks to introduce Islamic business practices in Turkey.
The intelligence services were able to close down the Hassanein operation in Western Europe, but could do little to interfere in its activity in Bosnia or Turkey. Hassanein operation in Turkey was protected by a circle of Turkish Islamists that including Erdogan, then the mayor of Istanbul and leader of the city’s arm of Erbakan’s Islamist-dominated Refah Party. Ironically, the Refah was already too narrow in scope to harness the ambitious Erdogan. It was only a matter of time before he would succeed Erbakan as leader of Turkey’s Islamists. That was accomplished thanks to a Aziz Zapsu, who helped Erdogan found the Justice and Development Party. It was reported that Zapsu and his mother gave $300,000 to the Muwafaq office in Turkey. (The Muwaraq was a Saudi charity founded by the Bin Mafouz family)
By 1994, in addition to their activities in the Balkans, the Turkish Islamists were also working closely with Pakistan’s Military Intelligence (ISI) director Djavid Ashraf, in support of the Chechen secessionist Djokar Dudayev. Al Qaeda had already leant its support to Dudayav, but strapped for funds, they used a new route from Turkey to Baku, Azerbaijan, from where al-Qaeda operatives guided the fighters to Daghestan and Chechnya.
Erbakan would emerge as Turkey’s first elected Islamist Prime Minister in 1996. The military, which still considered itself the guardian of the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, had previously overthrown three of Erbankan’s coalition governments (1960, 1971 and 1980). It would quickly end the Erbakan rule the following year, but not until he had made a $30 billion dollar deal with Iran by which the latter would initially supply 105 billion cubic feet of gas a year to Turkey and increase it gradually to 350 billion cubic feet in 2007.
The overthrow of the Erbakan government would be, in effect, the last serious coup-de-main of an attenuated military that had grown fat and rested much too long on its laurels. The last military coup, the “Ergenekon”, failed to bring down the Erdogan’s Islamist government after it achieved power in 2002.