Is Turkey Immune From the Radical Salafi Virus?

Nervana Mahmoud, writing in the Daily News Egypt, worries that Turkey’s schmoozing with other Muslim countries will expose Turkish society to the virus of radical Salafism. I have argued in my writings that Turkey’s extreme nationalism, Hanefi and Sufi-inflected forms of Islam immunize them to a great extent against non-Turkish transnational forms of Islamism. Naksibendi, Alevi, and members of the Gulen movement are unlikely to be drawn to any form of literalist Islam. Also, among Turkey’s pious Muslim leaders (including some theologians) and in the public in general, there tends to be an antipathy towards anything Arab (except their money, whether through tourism or investment) and a belief that Turkish Islam is superior, that it had been polluted by Arab culture in hundreds of years of rubbing shoulders under the Ottomans. This in a sense is also Mahmoud’s point: that political and economic interaction of the kind that the AKP government is pursuing in the region through these links exposes Turkish society to radical Salafi ideas that then insinuate themselves into the population. That cult follows money, and that exposure without backtalk breeds accommodation.

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.

Mahmoud points out the decline of Kemalist secularism in Turkey and a resulting unease with its identity, implying that Turkey, with a weakened identity, is opening itself to outside influences, or at least not stepping up against them:

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.

The turmoil in Syria also has brought radical Salafis to Turkey’s doorstep and, Mahmoud says, they are there to stay. In the absence of a jihad or conflict, Salafis insinuate themselves quietly and slowly into society.

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.

Mahmoud’s cure?

[T]he 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.

Perhaps I am wrong about Turkey’s resistance to Salafist contagion. Certainly radical groups allied with Arab factions like Hamas are active in Turkey, like the rather mysterious IHH (click here and here) that appears to consist of a bloc of radical Islamist fringe groups.

I do agree with Mahmoud that not pushing back against Islamic forms that are against Turkey’s interest — so as not to offend one’s hosts and lose lucrative contracts — is the road to losing more than just liras, but to losing Turkey’s soul. Turkey’s unique ability to maintain a secular democratic system despite major changes in politics and society has much to do, I would argue, with its variety of forms of worship that allow creativity and growth in Islamic practice and their  adaptation to these political and economic changes. Salafis demand the opposite of that — one strict, text-based formula for everyone, no exceptions. Very un-Turkish.

10 Responses to “Is Turkey Immune From the Radical Salafi Virus?”

  1. Is there a way for a lay person to understand what this unease with identity concept means? I tried asking around at some point but it is odd to ask people who they are. ‘Delinin zoruna bak’ etc. is the kind of answer one gets, but going by the chapter of your book that’s online apparently you have studies that show people as — formerly — saying ‘hepimiz askeriz.’ (Which studies?) How does one probe for this?

  2. Bulent, my entire book is an attempt to explain this question. It is based on a variety of studies, surveys, and my own observations and interviews. All of the references are in the book.

  3. No no I meant in general. That is for a person X of any background, how do you gauge ‘unease with identity’? I don’t understand the concept, and it is far better for any explanation to be about folks that are entirely alien — when it is about Turks or Americans etc. I’m liable to go ‘huh? this doesn’t ring true’ etc. People talk about these things, but the concepts used are all very hazy for regular people — I can’t be the only one.

  4. The non-mysterious fact: The Salafi Islam (in Africa, Asia, America and Europe) is mostly funded by the Saudi Regime which, along with Israel, is the closest ally of the U.S. in the region.

    And here we are talking about mysterious scapegoat IHH.

    Social scientists are very good at hiding the great facts and dealing with trivial details.

  5. Anka is right, this kind of stuff ends up getting perceived as deliberate obscurantism. This is partly because people do take claims of expertise and scholarly neutrality at face value (so mistakes, inadvertent biases, flawed thinking, garden variety intellectual conformity etc. are necessarily seen as results of deliberate and nefarious effort). This then causes folks here to go CIA CIA. Try to sit down and understand such accusations from a reasonably educated Turk, and you’ll see the thinking has a certain internal consistency and evidentiary basis. This has been my experience anyway.

  6. Dear Jenny,
    Congratulations on your new book, which is an extremely informing and important contribution to the study of current developments in Turkey. Your observation about Turkey’s resistance to Salafi influences (even though one should not neglect the wide range of ideological and political divisions within Salafism, which cannot all be subsumed under one tag) concurs with my own finding about Balkan Muslims’ resistance to various forms of “Islamic radicalism” in my new book “Rediscovering the Umma: Muslims in the Balkans between Nationalism and Transnationalism” (OUP, 2013). I have outlined a few important factors that confine the spread of faith-based extremism among Muslim communities in the Balkans (geopolitical developments; efforts by the local Muslim leaderships seeking to safeguard “traditional” Islamic identities routinely describes as tolerant and moderate; state-level policies in the Balkan countries; internal communal and intellectual aversion and resistance against radical ideas and foreign-bred “puritanism”). Additionally, Turkey’s growing influence in the Balkans counters and undermines significantly “Arab” forms of Islam that started to spread during and immediately after the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. It remains to be seen how the dynamics in Turkey will influence Balkan Muslims ongoing identity transformations.
    Kind Regards,
    Ina Merdjanova

  7. Did the quote that Jenny presented as “Mahmoud’s cure?” remind you of something? Such as the good old Diyanet arrangement?

  8. Diyanet version 2.X, yes. (the earlier version did not protect it’s brand of Islam from ‘secular tyranny’)

  9. Argh, ‘its’

  10. Salafis kills musicians.

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