Is Turkey immune from radical Salafism?

This piece initially published in The Daily News Egypt

Turkey is a unique Muslim nation with a distinct history, geography, and political progression. It has never been occupied, and its contemporary path has evolved differently than that of its Muslim neighbors. Turkey has a strong secular establishment and is mostly governed by secular laws. Turks are proud, moderate Muslims who follow the relatively lenient Hanafi School of theology and maintain a strong Sufi tradition. That is why, for many, Turkey is immune from Salafism and radicalism. I beg to differ; I think Turkey is unprepared and fails to appreciate the risk of Salafism that is knocking on its door.

Radical Salafism is now a global phenomenon that has spread across five continents, and no country has found it easy to stop its spread. The path toward Salafism, or literal Islam, is not necessarily linked to vulnerability, poor economic conditions, or political uncertainty, like many believe. The first step is exposure to the ideology without counter interpretation or opposing argument that can dispute and discourage its adoption. This simple fact, sadly, is ignored even by the most articulate thin-tanks that specialise in studying radical Islamic groups.

Turkey is slowly gaining involvement in Middle Eastern countries. Syria is not the only example; Somalia, Libya, Gaza, and Egypt are also included. The closer the link with these countries, the wider the exposure to other ideologies and schools of thought. Ideology is just like physical materials, spread by osmosis from a region of higher concentration to one of lower concentration. It starts with simple contacts related to business, travel, and work and ends with cultural influence and beliefs. The fake image that associates Salafism with poverty and instability is very deceptive.

Many Salafis are well-educated middle class Muslims. Most of the leading Salafi scholars are rich and enjoy a comfortable life; many present regular TV programs on prominent Gulf channels, and some of them already criticise the perceived decadent way of life portrayed in many Turkish soap operas, even though – ironically – these soap operas broadcast on the same TV channels.

Abdulhamit Bilici asked a very important question in his piece in Today Zaman a few months ago, “is Turkey now ambivalent between the politicised Shiism in the new Middle East and the reactionary Salafism?” I think the answer is definitely yes. During his visit to Somalia, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was loud and clear in his criticism of the West, but he didn’t spare a single word of criticism for the radical Al-Shabab group and how it is contributing to the destruction of the country. Prime Minister Erdogan was also quiet when radical groups destroyed several Sufi shrines in Libya, despite the popularity of Sufism in Turkey.

Some may argue that those countries are distant and their impact on the domestic dynamics in Turkey is minimal, but what about Syria? Unlike Iraq, where the Kurdish region shelters Turkey from radical Islamic groups based in other regions, the ongoing revolt in Syria has brought many Salafi groups with various degrees of radicalism right to Turkey’s doorstep. They are here to stay, regardless of the outcome of the ongoing conflict.

In fact, even the best-case scenario − a post-Assad Syria that is unified and stable − may actually be equally bad for Turkey. If there were no jihad, Salafists would focus on preaching. It is simplistic to think that they will somehow abandon their ideology once the conflict ends. Will McCants rightly argued, “Salafis preferred scholasticism, political quietism, and social programs to pressure groups and vocal dissent.” Just as in Egypt, the victory of the Salafi Nour party did not just happen overnight, it was a result of slow, creeping, social growth over decades.

I recently saw on Twitter a video from the Turkistan Islamic party addressing the Turkish people urging financial support for their “Jihad.” That means the Middle East is not the only front that can export radicals to Turkey. Asking for money is always a start; it is usually followed by “nice,” placid, bearded guys selling “Islamic” books and preaching the “right” path. These groups usually avoid big vibrant cities, and trendy beach towns, and focus on conservative rural areas where passion for religious study is high. How will Turkey deal with them? Arrest them like Mubarak did in Egypt, allowing many to sympathise with their cause, or turn a blind eye and hope for the best?

Furthermore, the tension during this year’s Republic Day celebration reflects Turkey’s unease with its identity, a country that is still struggling to find the right balance among secularism, liberalism, democracy, and religion. It also indicates that the current government in Turkey is still preoccupied with the past and views Kemalism as its main enemy. This is why it banned gathering at the first parliament building, which is associated with Ataturk, the founder of the republic.

The secularism that is usually perceived as Turkey’s defense barrier against radicalism is slowly eroding under the current government’s authoritarian tendency. That should not be the case; Turkey cannot afford to fail in its liberal experiment and turn to illiberal democracy under an Islamic slogan. Instead, the Turkish leadership should act as the guardian of liberal Islam, an Islam that does not just tolerate Western-style secularism, but also articulates its own version of “Islamic secularism.” In that version, faith would be protected from secular tyranny, and also from being used and abused for political gain. This is the only defense against radicalism that can truly work in Turkey and in the wider Muslim world.

As Turkey develops to become closer to its neighbors, where borders are not walls (as Foreign Minister Davutoglu always says), where there is full movement of people, goods, and ideas, it needs to remember that, by hugging friends, it may smell their scent, but it can also catch their bugs. Rather than undermining its secularism, Turkey should focus on strengthening its domestic front. It also must change its ambivalent attitude toward Salafism, and start to help its neighbors fight radical Salafism before it the phenomenon starts to knock on its the country’s door and spread slowly inside its own Turkey’s own territory.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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4 Responses to Is Turkey immune from radical Salafism?

  1. Jon Goodfellow says:

    “Instead, the Turkish leadership should act as the guardian of liberal Islam, an Islam that does not just tolerate Western-style secularism, but also articulates its own version of “Islamic secularism.” In that version, faith would be protected from secular tyranny, and also from being used and abused for political gain. This is the only defense against radicalism that can truly work in Turkey and in the wider Muslim world.”

    This rather reminds one of the difference between Muhammed Iqbal and Jinnah over the political founding of Pakistan. They both wanted a refuge for Muslim India, but Iqbal supported the Khilafat struggle while Jinnah saw the solution much as you do. Your recent posts (particularly October 9th)got me to reading Serif Mardan’s work again. The “Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought” comes to mind. Have you read his 2006 work – Religion, society, and modernity in Turkey? It’s next in a reading circle with Bosnian friends in Chicago.


  2. Marietta says:

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  3. ¡Dawa'ah Salafiyya entre hermanas! says:

    All the praises be to Allah subhana wa ta’ala, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon the Noble Prophet Muhammad, with his family, his companions and whoever follows his guide.
    Well! In shaa Allah I will write this comment to defend the salafi community in the best way as possible. I ask Allah that He give you knowledge in the correct understanding of the religion.
    Verily this is the classical speech “pro Sufism” which defames the Salafis.
    The argument about the tolerance founded in the example of people that accept whatever practice of sufism, shiism, ahmadiyya, qutubis, so on (is something really wrong). We don’t follow whatever misguided creed. Salafi Muslims are whom follow the pious predecessors (means the companions of the Prophet – the peace be upon him, and Allah be pleased with them) in the comprehension of the Qur’an and the sunnah.
    It’s an obligation for everyone who wants practice islam in the right way that they adopt this way.
    The methodology of the pious predecessors is a necessity.
    Salafi are the truly sunni muslims in islam, why?
    Because in the sunnah many sayings of the Prophet (salallahu aleihi wa salam) says that we have to follow them, and he (salallahu aleihi wa salam) warning us about the danger all those evil sects and about innovation:

    Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alaeihi wa sallam) said: My nation – this nation – will split into 73 sects, all of them in the Fire except one and it is that which is upon what I and my Companions are upon today.

    He (salallahu aleihi wa sallam) also said:
    It is upon you to adhere to my Sunnah, and
    the Sunnah of my Rightly Guided Khulafaa` after
    me. Hold steadfast to it with your molar teeth.

    About Bida’h (innovation in the religion): Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Beware of newly-invented matters (in religion), for every newly-invented matter is a Bid‘ah, and every Bid‘ah is a Dalalah (deviation from the right).

    About sufis acts:
    Music is haram, evidence in Qur’an, and the Sunnah:

    The sufis dances (is not Dhikr) Allah never said in the Quran that we have to do Dhikr in that way to worship him, The Prophet (peace be upon him) and the companions (may Allah be pleased with them) NEVER used to act like that.

    You know that some sufis ask to others than Allah, and some of they worship graves. (and both are acts of polytheism that make you kuffar)
    (Some sufis obey they “teachers” no matter if they ask to do something like kill or many things like that…)

    We (the salafis) have a strong system against heretics, the Quran, the sunnah, the behavior of the companions, and the fatwas of the Scholars which are upon this way. And Allah knows that we defend the Shariah against his enemies.

    We don’t support terrorism, our scholars speak against those groups.
    You can watch this video, is against ISIS (with proofs upon salafi the methodology) “The Reality of ISIS [DAESH]” is from the Scholar Shaykh Muhammad al-Madkhalee (Hafidullah)

    Audio about the sufi sect

    Books about our methodology: “This is our call”

    “the methodology of the salaf as saalih and the Ummah’s Need for it”

    Click to access SAFW_EB_20140221_methodology_of_the_salaf.pdf


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