Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Erbakan, Kısakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey

Turkish leadership’s rhetoric is increasingly similar to that of America’s adversaries and is only rarely that of a partner and ally

Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Necmettin Erbakan speaking in Turkey in 1980 (Ergun CAGATAY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Necmettin Erbakan speaking in Turkey in 1980 (Ergun CAGATAY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Turkey continues to function as a member of NATO and nominally aspires to European Union membership, but for all practical purposes, it is positioning itself in opposition to the West. The Turkish leadership’s rhetoric is increasingly similar to that of America’s adversaries and is only rarely that of a partner and ally. What accounts for the gap between Turkey and the West? How deep is it? Though there is a great deal of writing on Erdoğan and Turkish political Islam, we have only scratched the surface of the ideological baggage of Turkey’s current elites. This article proposes to dig deeper to discern the key elements of this baggage and the extent to which Turkish policies today are a reflection of this. It links the rise of Tayyip Erdoğan to his predecessor as leader of Turkish Islamism, Necmettin Erbakan, and the more uncompromising Islamist ideologue, Necip Fazıl Kısakürek. The article concludes that a generation of Turkish Islamists and nationalists has been strongly influenced by a worldview that is deeply anti-Western and anti-Semitic, is based on a warped and highly conspiratorial approach to world affairs, and is increasingly widespread in Turkish society.

In December 2017, U.S. national security advisor General H. R. McMaster singled out Turkey and Qatar as prime sources of funding for extremist Islamist ideology globally.1 Roughly at the time of McMaster’s pronouncement, his point was unwittingly reinforced by a key mouthpiece of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the editor of the Islamist daily Yeni Şafak, Ibrahim Karagül: “Turkey is emerging as a new power center opposing the United States, the world’s strongest power … the matter is no longer about Jerusalem or about Turkey and Israel. It is a showdown between the United States and Turkey.”2 Karagül went on to claim that America’s aim was to occupy Islam’s holy sites, Mecca and Medina.

Either of these pronouncement would have been utterly unthinkable little more than a decade ago. Today, they only raise eyebrows. Indeed, there is a growing consensus that Turkey, aside from becoming increasingly authoritarian, is moving away from the Euro-Atlantic sphere mentally and ideologically. This, most observers realize, has important implications for the regional security of both Europe and the Middle East, not to speak of American interests.

But how deep is this shift, and what lies at its basis? There is more debate regarding these critical questions. A skeptic could observe that President Erdoğan appears to use ideology instrumentally. Indeed, over the past few years his rhetoric, and evolving regime constellation, have cultivated Turkish nationalism as much as Islamism. Further, optimists maintain that Turkish society has developed rapidly in the past two decades, and that its economic strides will counterbalance the danger of radicalization. A parallel argument would hold that the problem is largely the abrasive personality of the Turkish president. Post-Erdoğan, thus, Turkey may revert to the mean and return to its position as a reliable ally.

There is merit to these arguments. In particular, the excessive focus in the West on Erdoğan’s person does hinder deeper analysis of the intricacies of behind-the-scenes Turkish regime politics and masks the very real weaknesses of his position. And there is no question that if Erdoğan is an ideologue, he is a very pragmatic one: His government at first relied on the followers of self-exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen to reduce Turkey’s military and right-wing nationalist establishment to size. But when his relationship with the Gülenists turned sour, he promptly struck up an alliance with those very ultra-nationalist elements and turned against the Kurdish groups he had long cultivated while maximizing Turkish nationalist support.

Still, the ideological underpinnings of Turkish policies are undeniable. Education reforms implemented since 2012 strongly enhanced religious content in the public education system and were accompanied by a boom in religious schools, in many cases involving the forced conversion of secular public schools to religious schools.3 A gigantic and activist state directorate for religious affairs has been built to promote Sunni Islam.4 Simultaneously, especially following the 2011 Arab uprisings, Turkey’s foreign policy was increasingly motivated by a Sunni Islamist agenda.5 The Turkish leadership has also showed a worrisome penchant for conspiracy theories. Following the 2013 Gezi Park riots, government representatives famously blamed the “interest rate lobby” for orchestrating the unrest, and statements that clearly pass the threshold of anti-Semitism have become frequent.

This article will argue that Turkey’s slide in the direction of Islamist ideology is real and goes beyond the personality of Tayyip Erdoğan. To illustrate this point, it will study the ideological worldview of the current Turkish political elite and focus on two key sources. One is the worldview of Necmettin Erbakan, Erdoğan’s predecessor as leader of Turkey’s Islamist movement, which was laid out in a posthumously published memoir. The second is the heritage of the Islamist poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a reference point not just for Erdoğan but for a generation of both Islamist and nationalist elites in Turkey. Their once fringe ideas, far from being arcane, have increasingly become mainstream.

A Rare Window into the Worldview of Turkish Islamism

Necmettin Erbakan is recognized as the founder of Turkish political Islam, and was the leader of the dominant Islamist movement, Milli Görüş (National View). His 2011 funeral was attended by a who’s who of the global Islamist movement, including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the Muslim Brotherhood’s former spiritual guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef.6 Tunisian Islamist leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi noted that “in the Arab world in my generation, when people talked about the Islamic movement, they talked about Erbakan … it is comparable to the way they talked about Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.”7 Erbakan’s political career spanned five decades; he became Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister but was deposed within a year by the military in what has been termed the 1997 “post-modern” coup. Though he was banned from politics from 1998 onward, he continued to exert considerable influence on Turkish political Islam.

The title of Erbakan’s posthumously published memoir, Davam, is Turkish for “my cause.” The word dava, from the Arabic dawa, could mean either cause or proselytism. This remarkable book begins with a chapter on “creation and humans,” followed by “our Islamic dava” and “the forces that run the world.” Subsequent chapters discuss Islamic union, Cyprus, industrialization, and culture. But it is the first three chapters that provide the most significant window into the nature of the Turkish Islamist movement. They show that Erbakan’s worldview differed strongly from traditional Turkish Islam and that it exhibits important influences from the modern Middle East, particularly from Muslim Brotherhood ideology. While Erbakan’s anti-Western thinking appears strongly inspired by Qutb’s ideas, he also exhibits an obsession with conspiracy theories and most notably, shares the Islamized anti-Semitism of European origin to which Qutb subscribed.

The Influence of Arab Islam

Erbakan’s opening chapter constitutes a passionate argument for Islam as an all-encompassing guide to individual and social conduct. Given that he was a card-carrying Islamist, this may not come as a surprise. But the book begins by asserting that “there is no source of justice or truth aside from Islam” and that “reason without Islam cannot, on its own, know the absolute truths, and cannot tell good from evil.” Erbakan goes on to explain that the clashes between philosophers and the battles between ideologies are all a result of the neglect of this fundamental truth, and asserts that nothing good can come from any science or technology that does not take its inspiration from the Qur’an. To any reader familiar with Islamic theology, this perspective indicates an understanding of Islam more reminiscent of Middle Eastern Islamic traditions than the Turkish mainstream: it derives from Ash’ari rather than Maturidi theology, and from Shafi’i and Hanbali rather than Hanafi jurisprudence.

A clarification may be in order. In the eighth to tenth centuries, a highly rationalist theology known as Mu’tazila flourished in Iraq, heavily influenced by Hellenistic philosophy. It was gradually reduced to obscurity by the three chief theological schools that exist today.8 The literalist Athari school, which gave rise to modern-day Salafi and Wahhabi doctrines and is prominent among the followers of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, rejects the very notion of theology itself, finding it an unnecessary and harmful exercise. While it has received a boost in recent decades through Saudi and Gulf support, it has traditionally languished in the shadows of the established Ash’ari and Maturidi schools of theology. These two ideologies both opposed the Mu’tazilite effort to relegate revelation to secondary status. They have many commonalities, and the main difference between them concerns the role of human reason. The Maturidi school accepts the notion that human reason can discern good from evil without the aid of divine revelation. The Ash’ari school, agreeing with the Athari and Hanbali literalists, vehemently rejects that notion.9 In subsequent centuries, the Ash’ari school became dominant in the largely Shafi’i and Maliki lands of the Middle East and is present in all four schools of jurisprudence. The Maturidi tradition grew strong in areas dominated by the Hanafi madhab. Thus, not every Hanafi is necessarily Maturidi, but in practice, every Maturidi is Hanafi.10

The Ottoman Empire was the center of the Hanafi-Maturidi tradition, which remains the dominant theological school in Turkish Islam, as it does in Central Asia and the Balkans. Against this background, Erbakan’s assertions are significant because they suggest a fundamental departure from traditional Turkish Islam and an embrace of theological thinking from the Middle East. As we will see, this is not the only example. This complicates the oft-stated notion of Turkish Islamism as “neo-Ottoman.” It certainly is built on Ottoman nostalgia and an urge to restore the greatness of the past, allegedly built on Islam. But ideologically, it constitutes a rupture with Ottoman tradition, and its roots lie elsewhere.

Two key ideological inspirations of Turkish Islamism are responsible for this deviation: the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order and the Muslim Brotherhood. As M. K. Kaya and I detailed in a study in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, the Naqshbandiyya’s Khalidi branch was the locus of Turkish political Islam’s formation: it was only with the explicit permission of Erbakan's Naqshbandi shaykh that he launched a career in politics.11 The nineteenth-century founder of the Khalidi branch, Khalid-i Baghdadi, stood out for his emphasis on sharia law. As his Turkish biographer summarizes, he was “itikaden Eş’ari, fıkhi yönden Şafii, meşrep açısından Nakşibendî-Müceddidi”—Ash’ari by creed, Shafi’i by jurisprudence, and Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi by spiritual way.12 Thus, the shaykhs he empowered and who went on to establish the Khalidi branch as the most influential religious order in present-day Turkey were, from the outset, trained in the Ash’ari and Shafi’i tradition. They brought this with them to Turkey, where the Naqshbandi became increasingly influential in the nineteenth-century Ottoman bureaucracy, following the suppression of the Bektashi order. While the predominant Hanafi-Maturidi school did exert influence on many Khalidi disciples in the bureaucracy, their rise nevertheless opened Ottoman Islam to influences from the Middle East.

A second, subsequent source of influence that would confirm this worldview is Muslim Brotherhood ideology. Erbakan writes that Islam is the salvation of all mankind and therefore, every human being, whether Muslim or not, must accept Muhammad’s leadership.13 In this, one cannot ignore the inspiration Erbakan drew from Sayyid Qutb, the key ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, who argued in his seminal work, Ma'alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), that “for human life, there is only one true system, and that is Islam.”14 As we will see, this is far from the only area where Qutb influenced Erbakan.

Erbakan’s View of the West

The way Erbakan saw the Western world was, needless to say, typical of Islamist thinkers and highly negative. He allowed that in comparison to the socialist bloc, the West had managed to build a society with higher production and therefore greater material well-being. But in the end, the West is not so different from the East: both rely on materialistic principles, and human conscience has been lost. Worse, women are forced to work on the same level as men and thus, responsibilities are being forced upon women that conflict with their nature. As a result, Western women are by definition unhappy—unlike in Islamic society, where materialism and spirituality exist side by side. Muslims, in contrast to people in the materialist and selfish West, do not forget their modesty and charity once they acquire material wealth. Quite to the contrary, they constantly strive to help others. And most importantly, women are given tasks in accordance with their nature, to maintain the home and family while men earn the family’s living. In this, Erbakan channels Qutb’s veneration of the homemaker in Al-'Adalah al-ijtima'yya fil-Islam (Social Justice in Islam).15

Erbakan’s disdain for the West goes deeper, and illustrates the question many Muslims ask: if Islam is so superior to other religions, why then is the Muslim world so backward?16 Erbakan’s answer is simple: because all that the West has, it took from the Muslims. At least 60 to 70 percent of human knowledge, he alleges, was produced by Muslims, but “arrogant and imitator” Western scholars fail to admit that much of what they produced builds on what they took from Muslims. The European languages were so poor that it took Westerners until the seventeenth century to understand the knowledge taken from Muslims in the fourteenth century. As a result, Erbakan argues, Muslims are awed by the knowledge in Western books they read, unaware that “those principles were taken by reading books written by Muslims.” In the process, Erbakan commits glaring errors: he claims “a Muslim” (Jamshid al-Kashi) rather than the Greeks first calculated the number pi accurately, but neglects to mention the many Asian and European scholars, before and after al-Kashi, had perfected this calculation. He claims Muslims discovered the decimal system, but omits reference to Chinese discoveries centuries earlier. And finally, he relates the apocryphal story of how Columbus calmed a near-mutiny on his ship by telling his crew that he knew from Muslim scholars’ books that there is land in the West, and “Muslim scholars never lie.”17

Two things stand out in Erbakan’s analysis of the West. First, he exhibits either ignorance or deception concerning the history of science and ideas and the role played by Western societies in their development. Second, it is notable that when discussing other civilizations, he defines them by their ethnic identity—Indians and Chinese, not Hindus, Buddhists, or Confucians—yet when speaking of Arab, Persian, or Turkish historical figures, he systematically defines them by their religious identity, as Muslims, rather than their ethnic or national origin. In other words, he applies different standards to different peoples.

The Central Role of Anti-Semitism

Erbakan’s chapter on “the forces that govern the world” is more remarkable and chilling than his anti-Western diatribes. Events do not happen by chance, Erbakan argues: “It is necessary to see there is a force that wants to ensure its hegemony and enslave, subordinate, and exploit all humans.”18 That makes it imperative to understand the methods used by this force. Who is this force? The answer: the Jews. All Jews blindly follow the orders given in the Torah, Erbakan asserts. But what is the Torah? Only five of its thirty-nine books were given to Moses, and the others were written over subsequent centuries by men. Therefore, it is not the unadulterated word of God—it has been manipulated and has lost its religious nature.. Zionism and the belief in a superior race, which Erbakan believes comes from the Torah, cannot be attributed to a prophet, nor can what he terms the “sexual perversity” found there. Therefore, it follows, Judaism is not really a religion. Jews do not worship God but themselves, and strive only to protect their race’s superiority. Judaism is an ideology created by rabbis based on racial arrogance, and then decorated to look like a religion. The atheism of the Jews is shown by Genesis 32:28, which proves that the Jews see themselves above God, since Jacob “struggled with God and won.” Since Jacob was told his name would henceforth be Israel, the name of the State of Israel is a symbol of being against God.

In fact, Erbakan argues, the Jews have made control over the world a central element of their ideology. The Talmud broadened the Torah’s edicts on world hegemony and explained Jews’ racial superiority. The Torah announced that a Jewish land would be created in Canaan and would be the center of a world kingdom. The Jews harbor a deep hatred for all other peoples, which has led to their orchestrating countless massacres and instigating multiple wars. Over time, their wish to control the world became a belief in its own right: world hegemony became their religion. As a result, in the past 400 years, the Jews exploited the riches of America, Europe, and Asia. They created world capitalism, which made them astronomically wealthy. Gradually, they came to control the politics of all countries. To accomplish this, they took over all media and news agencies, as well as think tanks. In sum, Erbakan writes, they created a “secret world state” and now manage the world.

The secrets of the Jews are found in kabbalism—of which freemasonry is a product—and only three kabbalists in Jerusalem know all the secrets of the conspiracy. This group is selected from among the Sanhedrin, a seventy-member council of rabbis, under which a “sworn council” of seventy is tasked with implementing the requirements of those who rule the world. To control the world, Erbakan claims, the Zionists created a number of organizations. These include formal ones such as the United Nations, but equally important are the informal groupings, particularly the Bilderberg Group, “created by a group of Jews in 1954” to “plan world politics and economics for Zionist profit.”19 To advance the Zionist aim of a world union under Jewish control, the Bilderberg Group created the European Union, as well as the Trilateral Commission. To run America’s foreign policy, Zionists created the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), run by thirty-seven permanent members, of which ten are Jews and the remainder Freemasons. The CFR controls the “showpiece” State Department.

How do the Zionists control the world economy? Their means, asserts Erbakan, include driving countries into economic crises and then lending their governments money at exorbitant interest rates. Most of the decolonization movement in the third world was for show: colonies became independent states, but the new rulers were Freemasons who further entrenched the dependence and colonization of their countries. For Zionists, Erbakan argues, dividing and breaking up other countries and forcing them into war with one another is not just politics, “it is a belief.” For, Erbakan says, the Torah and kabbalah both note that Jews are the superior race; other races developed from monkeys to serve the Bani Israel (children of Israel). Further, “those who control the world” take 9 percent of the value of all flight tickets through the International Air Transport Association, insure all world shipping through Lloyds of London, and charge 1 to 5 percent commissions on all banking transactions.

As proof of this conspiracy, Erbakan cites the great seal of the United States on the one-dollar bill: “Annuit coeptis” really declares the victory of the Zionist project, and “novus ordo seclorum” announces the Zionist world order. Lest anyone think the date 1776 has anything to do with the Declaration of Independence, Erbakan knows better: it refers to the creation that year, by Zionist leader Adam Weishaupt, of the first lodge of the Order of the Illuminati.

The first step in Jewish world domination is for Jews in the Diaspora to gather in Palestine, and then to form Greater Israel between the Nile and the Euphrates. Then, Zionists will rebuild the Temple of Solomon on the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque in the belief that the Messiah will arrive. For Israel’s security, therefore, there can be no independent Turkey. Erbakan relates Theodor Herzl’s approach to Sultan Abdülhamit to buy land in Palestine, a staple of Turkish Islamist—and extreme nationalist— conspiracy theories. When this request was rejected, Erbakan claims, the Zionists at the first Zionist Congress in 1897 decided to overthrow Abdülhamit, dissolve the Ottoman Empire, and within a hundred years, dissolve Islam itself. To implement the plan, the Zionists created the Committee for Union and Progress, which completed the first task in 1909, sending Abdülhamit into exile. Then, Zionists forced the empire into the First World War, bringing about its dissolution with the Treaty of Sèvres, which was “fundamentally a project of Greater Israel.” While the Turkish war of independence reversed their plans, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was introduced in order to create a state where the Turks would be alienated from their religion and all their institutions taken over by world Zionism. Thus, from that point onward, “collaborators” in Turkey have tried to join the EU to remove Turkey from its own identity. Every force Turkey confronts—nay, every force in the world— is controlled by world Zionism and bent on the destruction of Turkey as a state, nation, and community.

If this account of the “real” politics of the world were not so dangerous, one would credit Erbakan for managing to fit so many diverse conspiracy theories together in one seemingly coherent scheme. Erbakan manages to bring in traditional nineteenth-century conspiracy theories focusing on the purported role of Jews and secret societies, as well as modern conspiracies better known as the “New World Order.” Subsequently, he broadened his reach even further, naming the Rotary and Lions Clubs as the lowest levels of the world conspiracy.20 In other words, Erbakan hardly found a conspiracy theory he did not like—and gave them voice in the many television interviews he gave in the later years of his life.21 In these, he often appeared with his hands full of internet printouts, pictures of the great seal, or newspaper clippings that he claimed prove his points, while he methodically and calmly explained the elements of the “Secret World State.”

The Muse: Necip Fazıl Kısakürek

Born in 1903, Necip Fazıl Kısakürek was the ideological inspiration for a generation of Turkish Islamists and right-wing nationalists. Kısakürek was not primarily a politician but a prolific poet and writer, who built a coherent ideological structure for Turkish Islamism called Büyük Doğu, or “Great Orient.” As we will see, his intellectual legacy was broader and deeper than Erbakan’s.

Kısakürek was born into an upper-class Istanbul family in 1904 and attended several elite schools, which made him fluent in French and led him to spend a year at the Sorbonne in 1924-25. His Islamist and nationalist tendencies were already developing, but Kısakürek led a troubled personal life until 1934, when he met the Naqshbandi shaykh Abdulhakim Arvasi, who immediately exerted an enormous influence on him. Arvasi led him to be initiated into the Naqshbandi order, which remained a key guiding light for him until his death. Kısakürek was a prolific writer, publishing dozens of books as well as the influential Büyük Doğu periodical, which was published intermittently between 1943 and 1978. None of Kısakürek’s books has been translated into English, though Burhanettin Duran’s 2001 doctoral dissertation provides an excellent summary of his life and work.22

Kısakürek’s ideology was based on a rejection of the modernizing revolutions—from the 1839 Tanzimat and the 1876 Meşrutiyet to the 1923 proclamation of the republic. Instead, he advocated an Islamic revolution, leading to a society based on sharia law. While the emphasis on sharia might seem odd for a Sufi, it is fully coherent from the point of view of the Naqshbandi order, which has always sought to remain in the Sunni Orthodox mainstream and views the mystical elements of Sufism as a second story on top of sharia. Indeed, as Thierry Zarcone has demonstrated, the twentieth-century Naqshbandi thinkers of Turkey accorded growing attention to the eleventh-century theologian Al-Ghazali and sixteenth-century Naqshbandi shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi because of their efforts to reconcile Sufism and Orthodox Sunnism. Indeed, as Zarcone puts it, these theologians are “at the core of this movement, which tends to approximate as much as possible, to the point of conflating, Sufism and Sharia.”23 However, Kısakürek was dismissive of modern Islamist thinkers, from Muhammad Abduh to Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Mawdudi, because they rejected the medieval ulema and were anti-Sufi, and thus they refused to appreciate the hidden, inner meaning of Islam.24

Kısakürek, however, particularly admired the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali.25 From Al-Ghazali, Kısakürek drew not only the marriage of Sufism and Orthodoxy, but an understanding of Islam that determined every aspect of political, social, and individual life, leading him to compose a manual of social and individual rules.26 Indeed, just as Lenin concluded that there was no private life for a Communist, Kısakürek believed the same about Muslims.27 The ideology he developed was clearly totalitarian in spirit.

Kısakürek, like most modern Turkish Islamists, was heavily influenced by Western, and particularly fascist, political thought, which he adapted to Islam. Thus, he saw the Islamic revolution—which would take place in Turkey and spread to the rest of the Muslim world—as the culmination of the French, Bolshevik, and fascist revolutions and believed that liberalism, socialism, and fascism would find a balance in the Islamic system, a “synthesis of their thesis and antithesis.”28 The Islamic system would be a deliverance not just to Muslims, but to all of mankind. As a totality, Islam would correct all wrongs and answer all questions. Kısakürek, thus, was fundamentally anti-Western, as he aspired to have the Islamic revolution form a counterbalance to the West’s “material and spiritual imperialism.” But he was astute enough to understand the weak position of the Muslim world and therefore argued that Islam must take what is good from the West, such as technology, but not the bad, particularly its lack of spiritualism. Importantly, he argued in favor of maintaining good relations with the West until such time as the Islamic revolution had matured and the Muslim world was able to stand up to the West.29

The Islamic revolution, in Kısakürek’s view, would enable the full reversal of Kemalism. When the state was guided by Islam, it would employ state institutions, law, and education as vehicles of revolution to create a new, pious youth.

Kısakürek developed a very detailed political ideology. As Tunç Aybak has summarized it, he advocated the “introduction of a totalitarian Islamist regime inspired by the Turkish-Islamist synthesis.”30 This included a depiction of an ideal state, which he termed the Başyücelik, meaning the “rule of the most exalted.” Kısakürek rejected the very principle of democracy, namely that the people were the source of government. To him, without doubt, God was the source. Thus, Kısakürek spoke of a government whose slogan would be hakimiyet hakkındır, power belongs to God, a clear statement of opposition to Atatürk’s motto, egemenlik kayıtsız şartsız milletindir, meaning sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the people. In Kısakürek’s system of government, the country would be led by the most exalted leader, the Başyüce, the most perfect man, who is elected by the members of the Başyücelik Divanı, the “Council of the most exalted.” This leader would embody the will of the people—milli irade—and concentrate executive, legislative, and judicial power in himself. His decrees, as long as they were in accordance with sharia, would be considered the extension of divine law. Only if the 101 exalted members of the council were irreparably split would there be recourse to the people’s will through elections. Of course, in this state, Turkey would have been homogenized into a religiously Sunni and ethnically Turkish nation, with minorities forced to assimilate or leave. In other words, the “people” as seen by Kısakürek was exclusively the Sunni Turkish majority.31

Kısakürek’s only attempt at entering politics directly did not succeed. In 1951 he created the Büyük Doğu Party, which did not survive long. After a brief stint in jail, he struck up a relationship with Democrat Party (DP) leader Adnan Menderes, from whom he accepted covert payments.32 He urged Menderes to destroy the Republican People’s Party (CHP), something Menderes resisted (though in the late 1950s, he did take steps to marginalize the opposition). Kısakürek was convinced this failure to destroy the CHP is what led Menderes to be hanged. He then supported the DP’s successor, the Justice Party, in the 1960s, and shifted his allegiance to the first overtly Islamist party, the National Salvation Party, when Erbakan created it toward the end of the decade. But this did not last long: Kısakürek was a rigid ideologue, and Erbakan a shrewd politician. When Erbakan had the opportunity to form a coalition with the CHP under Bülent Ecevit’s leadership in 1974, he jumped at it, and became deputy prime minister. Kısakürek, like many Turkish Islamists, was enraged that an Islamist party would even consider cooperating with the godless party of Atatürk. He denounced Erbakan as a traitor to the cause and shifted his support to Alparslan Türkeş’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In so doing, he was also able to extract concessions. Türkeş, in part in order to receive Kısakürek’s endorsement, publicly declared in 1977 the MHP’s commitment to a Turkish nationalism wedded to Islam.33

Not surprisingly, Kısakürek’s worldview was as warped as Erbakan’s. If at all possible, it was colored by anti-Semitism to an even greater extent, though his conspiracy theories were not quite as lurid as Erbakan’s. It was also considerably more racist. As Gareth Jenkins observes, racist and virulently anti-Semitic ideas “were not peripheral to Kısakürek’s worldview but were at its core.”34 Indeed, among the long list of “orders of the Başyüce” that Kısakürek helpfully proposed in his Ideolocya Örgüsü, the magnum opus which in rough translation is entitled “web of ideology,” there is a specific section on expulsion. It states very clearly that the first groups that need to be expelled from Turkey are the Jews and the Dönme—the latter being descendants of followers of the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Zvi, who converted to Islam in 1666. The Dönme, while nominally Muslim, have maintained a distinct community since then. While Kısakürek argued for the expulsion of other non-Muslim communities such as Greeks and Armenians, these groups were offered the chance to become assimilated to a Turkish and Muslim identity. Even if they did not, they would be compensated for expropriation of their assets when exiled. Not so the Jews and Dönme. According to Kısakürek, Jews had an innate identity that was unchangeable, and thus they could never become real Turks and Muslims. Proof of this fact was the Dönme community, which in spite of its conversion to Islam centuries ago, refused to assimilate. In Kısakürek’s words, they had “shown for centuries that they will not be of us.”35 Therefore, all their assets were to be expropriated, and they would be handed only enough money to survive for a year upon their exile. When this ethnic cleansing was complete, Turkey would be clean and “shine like a diamond.”36

Kısakürek’s hatred of Jews was conditioned by his conviction that the Jews and Dönme, together with Freemasons, had conspired to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. In a much more detailed way than Erbakan, Kısakürek explained that the Meşrutiyet reforms of 1877-1909 were the work of a cabal of Jews, Masons, and Dönme aiming to destroy Islam. The righteous sultan Abdülhamit worked diligently to defend the empire, Islam, and Turkishness against this cabal and the Western imperialism it represented, and that is why he became its victim. In other words, the Young Turk Revolution was a plot by Jewish-led forces against the empire. Especially after Abdülhamit rejected the Jews’ offer to pay all the empire’s foreign debt in exchange for a slice of Palestine, the Jews put in place the Committee for Union and Progress to overthrow him and realize their plan. Then, when the empire collapsed, the Jews orchestrated the “fake” liberation of Turkey from the Western powers on the condition that the nation and state be separated from Islam. Hence the revolution of Atatürk, and the Arab world’s division into dozens of states that the Jews could easily control and pit against each other.37

This fixation with Jews is not limited to Kısakürek’s Ideolocya Örgüsü. The subject colors his treatment of Abdülhamit, Ulu Hakan, and occupies a chapter in his 1973 book Türkiye Manzarası and an entire volume symptomatically entitled Yahudilik – Masonluk – Dönmelik, “Judaism, Freemasonry, and the Dönme.” In all these texts, two things are clear: Kısakürek, on one hand, has a very specific Turkish context for his hatred, namely the conspiracy theory concerning the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. Simultaneously, his anti-Semitism is inspired by European conspiracy theories. Thus, Kısakürek blames the Jews for the French Revolution, the emergence of capitalism, and the creation of Communism. On repeated occasions he published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—in appendices to his books, including Yahudilik, and through serialized commentary in Büyük Doğu. Similarly, he republished Henry Ford’s The International Jew with his commentary and praised both works effusively. As Sean Singer has remarked, “for all his claims about the absolute division between East and West, Necip Fazil’s works, and his anti-Semitism, bear the imprint of European influence.”38

Conspiracy Theories and Anti-Semitism in Turkish Islamism

The worldviews described above could be easily dismissed as delusional rants by an ageing politician and a marginal ideologue. But that would be a mistake, for two reasons. First, these theories are not marginal in Turkish society, and second, their premise is far from innocent. As Daniel Pipes showed in his study of conspiracy theories in the Middle East, The Hidden Hand, far from being relegated to the fringe, “conspiracism constitutes one of the region’s most distinctive political features.”39 As Pipes put it, “however wrong-headed they may be, these views have great consequence … analyzing the region without taking the hidden hand into account is comparable to studying the American economy without Wall Street or Soviet Politics without Marxism-Leninism.”40 Writing in 1996, Pipes argued that “conspiracism has little real impact on the mainstream of public life in Turkey,” but he did include examples from Turkey in his appendix, “with an eye to the future.”41 While his analysis was correct at the time, that future has arrived with a vengeance and contributed to making Turkey increasingly Middle Eastern.

The conspiratorial worldview of Erbakan and Kısakürek was marginal as late as the mid-1990s, but it has now become mainstream and enjoys state support. Turkey’s Islamist circles are deeply permeated by conspiracy thinking, but variations of such conspiracy theories are not limited to the Islamists. On the left and on the right, among nationalists and Kemalists, similar conspiracy theories abound, whether or not they include the Jews in a prominent role. Many Kemalists believe that the West, particularly America, seeks to destroy Turkey—and that Western and U.S. support for Erdoğan and “moderate Islam” in Turkey is a vehicle to achieve that goal.42 As they found themselves out of power, they began to spin even more lurid tales, even accusing Erdoğan and Gül of being crypto-Jews in the service of the same Zionist world conspiracy. Yet as Marc Baer has shown, these secularists have merely borrowed conspiracy theories created by the Turkish Islamists and extreme right—sometimes acknowledging earlier Islamists as their source—and reversed the roles.43

Some of these books have become huge bestsellers, which is worrying in its own right. But what is different about Erbakan’s worldview is that his work is not the rant of a conspiracist journalist, but a political leader—a leader who created and inspired the movement that led to creation of Turkey’s dominant party, in which Turkey’s current leaders got their political education. In Kısakürek’s case it is, as we will see, the worldview of a person still seen as an intellectual reference point for Turkey’s entire ruling elite. Importantly, delusional conspiracy theories focusing on anti-Semitic tales are not an occasional feature of their ideology. They are a central tenet, a pillar of both Milli Görüş and Büyük Doğu thought, from which their social, political, and economic agendas and perspectives on the West cannot be separated. Furthermore, this central tenet leads all domestic enemies of political Islam to be defined as collaborators with Zionism, and therefore as traitors to the nation. Thus, the works of Erbakan and Kısakürek provide a window into exactly how radical and extreme the environment of Turkish political Islam is—and how its followers’ worldview is distorted by wild conspiracy theories.44

As both Bassam Tibi and Marc Baer have shown, this form of anti-Semitism is not based on traditional Islamic antipathy to Jews, but draws distinctly on European nineteenth-century racist thought: the Jews are immutable and evil, and “carry essential biological traits that can never be altered.”45 Indeed, these ideas were introduced into Turkey in the late Ottoman period in part by British diplomats, who had theorized that the Young Turk Revolution was the work of Jewish Freemasons from Salonika.46

Tibi defines this as genocidal anti-Semitism, distinct from the traditional Jew-hatred in the Muslim world.47 As he argues, European anti-Semitism was exported to the Muslim world in the early twentieth century, with Nazi propaganda during the Second World War playing a crucial role—a fact decisively demonstrated by Mattias Küntzel.48 While it was taken up eagerly by Arab nationalists, it was internalized by Islamists, who in turn give “antisemitism a religious imprint and aim to make it look like an authentic part of traditional Islam, not an import from the West.”49

From Mas-Kom-Ya to the “Interest Lobby”

The discussion above has illustrated the worldview of arguably the two most influential figures of Turkish political Islam in the past fifty years. Yet this does not, in and of itself, say much about the Justice and Development Party (AKP), or the political thought of Turkey’s dominant political figure, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Indeed, the AKP was formed very much as a break with the past, with the political tradition that Erbakan represented. Yet while the AKP’s founders broke with Erbakan, they never repudiated his vile conspiracist worldview, and even more symptomatically, they never broke with Kısakürek, whom Erdoğan and virtually the entire AKP leadership continue to glorify to this day.

Erbakan was a controversial leader of Turkish political Islam. Already in the mid-1970s his harsh leadership style led non-Naqshbandi orders to leave the party, and by 1977 he was challenged for the party leadership by Korkut Özal, brother of future president Turgut Özal. (Incidentally, Erdoğan sided with Korkut Özal in this struggle.)50 As a result, Turkish Islamism was divided: large sections of Islamist circles supported other parties of the right rather than Erbakan’s, which prevented political Islam from reaching its true potential. Further, the tensions between Erbakan and Erdoğan are well-known: Erbakan was suspicious of Erdoğan, and may even have prevented him from gaining a seat in parliament in 1991.51 Thus, while Erbakan’s ideology was representative of the Turkish Islamist movement as a whole, there was no direct mentorship relationship between the two men. There is no indication that Erbakan was particularly fond of Erdoğan; if anything, he considered him a threat to his control over the party. Erdoğan, of course, went out of his way to placate Erbakan, going so far as to name his son Necmettin Bilal after Erbakan.52

Erdoğan’s main inspiration is not Erbakan, but Kısakürek. He confirmed this in a 2002 interview with the Economist’s Turkey correspondent, who asked which world figure had influenced and inspired him. The response was unequivocal: “Necip Fazıl Kısakürek.”53 Nor was he alone: former president Abdullah Gül similarly identified Kısakürek as “the most important intellectual who had a major impact on my worldview.”54 In fact, the nineteen-year-old Gül wrote an admiring letter to Kısakürek, explaining that he was at his service “under any conditions.”55 Much later, Gül told a friendly British biographer that later in life, he was “somewhat embarrassed by some of Fazıl’s ideas.”56

Erdoğan, however, appears to feel no such embarrassment. In fact, he frequently appears at events in Kısakürek’s honor. In 2013, at an event organized by the Union of Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, Erdoğan related how he “had read [Kısakürek’s] works, got to know him, and found the opportunity to walk in his footsteps.”57 In 2014, Erdoğan gave the keynote speech introducing an award given in Kısakürek’s honor by the pro-government newspaper Star. He recounted that during his university years, an event involving recital of the “Master’s” poetry was going to be held. There were two finalists, Erdoğan and another youth. Kısakürek rapidly dismissed the first youth but approved of Erdoğan’s reading. “This was a beginning,” added Erdoğan; “we went to many places with the Master. And in this context I got to know him closely.”58 Indeed, at a 1975 “National Youth Evening” organized by the Islamist student organization Millî Türk Talebe Birliği (National Turkish Student Organization, MTTB), Kısakürek recited his poem to Turkish Youth, “Gençliğe Hitabe,” then reportedly called Erdoğan to the stage.59 Speaking at an event in Konya in 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay emphasized that “starting with President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the entire cadre that runs the country, including a large majority of the cabinet, were influenced by Master Necip Fazıl.”60 And when Erdogan in late 2017 warned that relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem would lead to Muslims losing Mecca and Medina, the occasion was yet another event honoring the memory of the Master.61

Indeed, the career of the young Erdoğan illustrates the degree to which he had internalized Erbakan and Kısakürek’s worldview. In 1974, Erdoğan helped direct, and also starred in, a play called Mas-Kom-Ya—short for “Mason, Komünist, Yahudi,” or “Freemason, Communist, Jew.” The young Islamist’s interest in theater stems from the chaos in 1970s Turkey, which was plagued by violence between leftist and rightist groups. The Islamists of Erbakan’s National Salvation Party decided not to get involved in the street fights, instead focusing on developing the Islamist presence on Turkey’s cultural scene. As French journalist Pierre Boisson’s fascinating research shows, a small team in the party’s Istanbul youth wing found an older play called Kırmızı Pençe, written by Mustafa Bayburtlu in 1969. They began to adapt the play to Turkey’s contemporary situation, which included strengthening its anti-Zionist narrative.62

The action takes place in a factory somewhere in Turkey, where Ayhan bey, the factory boss, is warned by pious Muslims of the growing Communist threat. As an enlightened person who sent his son to Europe to study, he ignores their pleas. When his son Orhan—played by Erdoğan—returns from Europe, he ridicules Islam and tradition, complains of the smell in the streets and the backwardness of the people, and boasts of his debauchery in Europe. His grandmother points an accusatory finger at Ayhan bey, saying she had urged him to send Orhan to study the Qur’an in childhood, but he had not listened. In the final scene, the workers occupy the factory in the name of the Socialist revolution. Ayhan bey finds out that the instigator of the revolt is a young Jew who had adopted a Muslim name, Memed, and tries in vain to berate the workers for being tricked by this degenerate. His friends lament how the Jews are behind every evil in the world, and would “burn the world to cook an egg.” In a final turn of events, the workers are themselves arrested by Communist, presumably Soviet, soldiers who break into the room led by Memed the Jew. Memed cruelly announces that he has fooled everyone, that the Communist revolution has been completed. Everyone is now a slave of the Communist regime, will be forced to work, and will be given just enough food to survive. Before being taken away, the workers turn on Memed, asking, “Do you not have a shred of Turkishness or faith in your body?”63

This play was no marginal affair. When it was screened by the MTTB in Istanbul in 1976, over two thousand people attended the premiere. It was staged twenty to thirty times in Istanbul and kept drawing full houses in cities and towns across the country for the next two years, as Erdoğan and his friends toured by bus on weekends. In 1977, the play was staged in the Ankara Palace, with Deputy Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in the audience, along with other Islamist dignitaries. Erdoğan’s co-actor Atila Aydıner, presently mayor of the Istanbul municipality of Bayrampaşa, reported that Erdoğan was even more brilliant than usual that night—and that Erbakan took note of the young man.64

That Erdoğan and his friends were young firebrands is, at least to Turkey watchers, no surprise. But many have assumed that as they grew older, they changed or evolved. Indeed, this “evolution” is the key foundational myth that made the AKP acceptable to centrist domestic audiences and to Europeans and Americans.65 But there is much more evidence to suggest that the core worldview and values of Turkey’s leaders have remained the same, even though they have proven able to repress them when needed. Indeed, their more controversial statements and actions of late are indicative of the extent to which they continue to be inspired by the Islamist ideology of their youth, and in particular by Kısakürek’s ideas.

First and foremost, as some Turkish commentators have concluded, Kısakürek appears to be the main inspiration for the presidential system Erdoğan won approval for in the 2017 referendum.66 It is easy to see the parallels between the exalted position of Erdoğan and Kısakürek’s utopian Başyüce. Like the Başyüce, Erdoğan rules without checks and balances, initiates legislation, and seeks to dispense justice unilaterally. Of course, Turkey today is not a full Başyücelik—there is a parliament, though it is increasingly reduced to rubber-stamping Erdoğan’s initiatives. There are courts, though increasingly, they, too, are solidly under the executive’s control. Moreover, just like the Başyüce, Erdoğan finds it appropriate to take an interest in the private affairs of his subjects, dispensing advice on the role of women in society, how many children they should have, and the appropriateness of various cultural genres. While still prime minister, Erdoğan famously stated that “I am the prime minister of this country. Everything is my business.”67

When faced with corruption allegations against his government and family in late 2013 as a result of the raids by prosecutors aligned with Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan responded by mobilizing his followers through large demonstrations under the banner Millî Irade, or “national will.” Not coincidentally, this was the very same term used by Kısakürek for the popular consultation mechanism envisaged in the Başyücelik form of government.68 Another inspiration lies in Kısakürek’s notion of sovereignty: hakimiyet hakkındır, or “sovereignty belongs to God.” In a notorious 1994 speech that can still be viewed online, a young Erdoğan can be seen telling a large crowd that Atatürk’s notion that sovereignty belongs to the people is a “huge lie.” Erdoğan purposefully uses Atatürk’s concept of egemenlik kayıtsız şartsız milletindir (sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the people), changing it to egemenlik kayıtsız şartsız Allah’ındır (sovereignty belongs unconditionally to Allah)..”69

The list could go on. As Fatih Yaşlı has observed, during deliberations for the 2012 reforms that began to re-Islamize the education system, Erdoğan spoke about “raising pious generations,” using language that borrowed heavily from Gençliğe Hitabe, Kısakürek’s poem to Turkey’s youth, mentioned above.70 Some have drawn a parallel between Kısakürek’s hatred for the CHP and Erdoğan’s frequently voiced grievances against the single-party regime’s deeds—noting his focus on the same matters that most preoccupied Kısakürek.71 Finally, a trace of Kısakürek’s thinking can be seen even in Erdoğan’s approach toward minorities. On one hand, Erdoğan strongly emphasizes his ethnic Turkish heritage, disregarding the well-known fact that much of his family hails from Georgia. He has reacted viscerally to allegations that he is anything except Turkish by heritage, channeling Kısakürek’s racism, which is less visible in Erbakan’s more pan-Islamic thinking.72 Even in Erdoğan’s much-lauded approach to the Kurdish issue, Kısakürek’s inspiration does not seem too far-fetched: while Kısakürek advocated the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and other smaller minorities, he was more conciliatory toward the Kurds. Because they are Sunni Muslims, Kısakürek envisaged them remaining in the country, on condition that they assimilated under the Muslim and Turkish umbrella. Indeed, Erdoğan’s own Kurdish “opening” similarly appeared to assume that he could focus on the Kurds’ Sunni Muslim identity, and that given the greater emphasis on this religious identity under his rule, the ethnic question would somehow go away.

The negative attitude of Turkey’s rulers toward Israel and Jews is by now well established. At times, Erdoğan has toned down his vitriol for reasons of political expedience. This was the case in the early years of the AKP, when Erdoğan needed American and European support; it has been the case again following what can best be termed a cease-fire with Israel after the 2016 coup attempt.

The AKP’s hostility to Israel was visible early on, not least in its opening to Hamas at the expense of relations with Fatah. Erdoğan’s reaction to the 2008 Gaza war and sponsorship of the 2010 “Ship to Gaza” flotilla were part and parcel of this attitude. In January 2009, Erdoğan stated that “there is a world media under the control of Israel,” a statement he repeated when the Economist endorsed the opposition in the 2011 elections.73 The anti-Semitic conspiracy mentality went into overdrive following the 2013 Gezi protests, when Erdoğan blamed an unspecified “interest rate lobby” for instigating the riots. His close associates, Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek and Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, did not bother with coded language, openly blaming the Jewish Diaspora.74 In 2014, following the mining accident in Soma, Erdoğan screamed an anti-Semitic slur at a protestor, calling him an “Israeli sperm.”75

In a December 2014 speech, he spoke of a “higher intellect,” a “mastermind” behind events that had afflicted Turkey in the past eighteen months, urging his audience to research the nature of this mastermind for themselves, but adding, “you know who it is.”76 Three months later, a pro-government television station broadcast a feature-length documentary that began with Erdoğan’s words, filling in the blanks: for 3,500 years, it alleged, the Jews had sought to gain hegemony over the world.77 In February 2015, he told a crowd that Judaism is demeaning to women and that the Torah had been doctored.78 The list could go on. In May 2017, after winning the constitutional referendum and after the tenuous mending of Turkey-Israel relations, Erdoğan gave a speech that decried Israel’s “racist” policies and urged hundreds of thousands of Muslims to visit Jerusalem and “support our brothers there.”79 When President Trump announced America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Erdoğan furiously declared Israel a terrorist state—at a ceremony commemorating Kısakürek. Outdoing himself, Erdoğan then declared that “if Jerusalem goes, we will lose Medina. If Medina goes, we will lose Mecca. If Mecca goes, we will lose the Kaaba!”80

This should come as no surprise: there is a straight line linking Erdoğan’s 1976 role in Mas-Kom-Ya with the thinly veiled allegations of Jewish responsibility for the Gezi riots in 2013 and frequent outbursts against Jews and Israel. As the prime expert on Turkish anti-Semitism, Rifat Bali, concludes:

President Erdoğan claims to have given up the ideology of Milli Görüş and to have changed. But the fact that he continues to use anti-Semitics stereotypes shows that reality is entirely different, and shows that the negative stereotypes that he learnt during years reading and listening to them have decisively marked his mentality.81

Looking Ahead: Implications for Turkey and America

This article has aimed to provide a more detailed analysis of the formative elements in the worldview of Turkey’s current leadership. It has shown that Erdoğan and his entourage are deeply immersed in the mindset of Turkish Islamism, as exemplified by Necmettin Erbakan and Necip Fazıl Kısakürek. Crucially, the problem is not limited to Erdoğan: conspiracy theories that used to be relegated to the margins of Turkish political debate have now become mainstream, encompassing groups from secularist Kemalists to nationalists and Islamists.82

What does this mean for Turkey’s future? The answer depends on the degree to which the Islamist movement is able to impose its worldview on the rest of society. Stated differently, it depends on the degree to which Turkish society accepts or rejects this worldview, now backed by the institutions of the state and pliant media.

On one hand, we can expect a gradual acceleration of existing tendencies toward the Islamization of society. In other words, Erdoğan is unlikely to be satisfied by the results of the referendum that strengthened his presidential powers. His further ambitions may not be visible yet and are likely to remain in the background until he is presumably re-elected president in June 2018 and the presidential system is implemented. Then, it is likely that he will seek to further monopolize executive control over the legislative and judiciary branches and to marginalize the parliament and courts.

A key battleground will be the Islamization of education. In coming years, if Erdoğan gets his way, the government will continue to expand Imam-Hatip schools—religious schools originally intended to provide trained imams for mosques, but which grew into an alternative school track—and to Islamize the curriculum in secular schools.83 If the AKP stays in power for another decade, it may well preside over a major shift in the worldview of the next generation of Turks. Thus, even if Erdoğan’s presidency is cut short, considerable damage has been done. The thinking that inspired Erbakan and Kısakürek is spreading to significant portions of Turkey’s new elites. Practically all political forces advance conspiracy theories with abandon to tar their enemies, without considering the damage done to the Turkish public’s worldview. This is a reality that all future Turkish leaders will have to deal with—as will Turkey’s partners abroad. In foreign policy, the situation described in this article complicates the already stretched notion of Turkey as a reliable ally of the United States, simply because its leadership’s worldview and interests differ so markedly from those of America. Most obviously, it has already become clear that Turkey’s leadership viewed Sunni jihadism as a minor threat in Syria and Iraq, far less harmful than either Kurdish nationalism or the Assad regime.

But on the other hand, there are signs that the enthusiasm of Islamization’s proponents may be declining and resistance against it mounting. The last several years have seen both a stagnation of Turkish economic growth and a civil war within the Islamist movement, pitting supporters of President Erdoğan and the Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen against each other. This confrontation, in which the traditional state establishment sided roundly with Erdoğan, culminated in the failed military coup of July 2016 and continues to traumatize Turkey. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Islamists have lost some of their swagger as a result of these developments, while traditional establishment forces have been able to reassert themselves, especially within state institutions. Indeed, over time, Erdoğan himself has shifted his rhetoric in a nationalist direction, speaking of defending Turkey against foreign threats real or imagined, to broaden his base to supporters of the nationalist MHP.

Furthermore, Erdoğan’s emphasis on one-man rule, along with the growth of corruption within the government, has led to unease within the broader Islamic movement itself. Ahead of the June 2018 early election, it is significant that the Saadet Party, representing Orthodox Islamists, joined the broad opposition coalition led by the secularist CHP.

There is no question that Kısakürek’s and Erbakan’s ideas have now entered the mainstream. It is, however, far from certain that they will become hegemonic. Turkey is therefore at a turning point, and the policies adopted by the United States and its European allies will play an important role in determining the outcome. So far, these policies have remained primarily in the realm of economic and security relations. But as this article has shown, the realm of ideas is of crucial importance and is one where the West’s track record is poor indeed. Going forward, it will be crucial to remedy this lacuna if the battle for Turkey’s soul is not to be lost.

Svante E. Cornell is the Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program at the American Foreign Policy Council/Institute for Security and Development Policy, and publisher of the Turkey Analyst (