During its early renaissance stages, modern Turkey was subjected to violent shocks, some of which were neither justifiable nor understandable. However, the Turks’ only option was to deal with them and build upon their positives, while turning their negatives into launch pads for new phases, rather than permanent problems.
One of the first of these shocks was the abolition of the Sultanate and the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic. He then sought to destroy Turkey’s Islamic heritage in all of its intellectual, social and political manifestations. This was a coup against Turkey’s collective consciousness.
The new state lost its heritage and knowledge overnight as the Arabic alphabet was replaced by Latin letters and the people had very few books on the finer points of Islamic beliefs and practices. This tragic situation lasted until the sixties. Only then did Islamic writings start to emerge gradually in Turkey’s Islamic magazines; even then, they were aimed at the elite. Nevertheless, despite these stirrings, the people were alienated from the basics of their religion.
The call to prayer was banned in Turkey for many years, as was teaching about Islam, to the extent that the dead couldn’t be buried according to the rites of the faith in a country where 99 per cent of the population would claim to be Muslim.
During these early attempts to revive Islamic culture among the Turkish people, many translated books formed their elitist Islamic mentality, including Ghazali’s “The Revival of the Religious Sciences”, a copy of which was in almost every religious Turkish home, due to its cultural and moral content.
Books categorised as “Islamic movement” or “organisation” manuals weren’t as popular, although those bearing the religious character of activist leaders like Abul A’la Maududi’s “The Meaning of the Qur’an” and the works of the philosopher and Sufi poet Muhammad Iqbal and Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi were translated. In the seventies, Sayyid Qutb’s “Milestones” and “In the Shadow of the Qur’an” were also translated, in addition to his other works. Despite the distinguished ideas of Qutb in particular, their impact on the Islamic culture in Turkey was not the same as the impact he had on the movements and organisations in the Arab world. Moreover, Qutb’s persona is not viewed by Turkish intellectuals in the same way as it is by Arab Islamists.
Qutb was perceived as a philosophical and literary figure by the Turks, of interest to those across Turkish cultural circles from the far right to the far left. They described him as an enlightened and philosophical individual with a variety of cultural and intellectual interests.
However, Muslim Brotherhood leaders took a different approach and described Qutb’s books as being those of a preacher of the kind belonging to Islamic movement organisations, although the translator, reader or owner of the books did not need to belong to Arab Islamic or any other organisations. As a result, many more books in a similar vein were translated in the eighties and nineties such was the interest in them among ordinary Turks.
These publications created awareness among all observant Muslims in Turkey, even the Turkish Islamic groups and, in particular, the Sufi groups which declared their opposition to political action or any engagement in politics. All were influenced directly by these writers; even those Turks who were against the Necmettin Erbakan movement were reading and recommending Qutb’s and Maududi’s books, despite the fact that they were integrated in secular life and its institutions.
This cultural stage is certainly not proof of the existence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey, but rather an indication of cultural communication on a religious level between the Arabs and the Turks, without this communication being based on partisan or organisation affiliations.
Even the emergence of the Erbakan movement in the late sixties, which had a religious empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood school of thought, had no connection to the Brotherhood as a party, or to any other Islamic Arab political party. Instead, it provided a new contrasting and effective vision through communication between the Turks and their fellow Muslims around the world.
It is in this sense that Erbakan and his companions began their relationship with world Islamic institutions. They established links with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and then with dozens of nationalist Islamist parties and movements. It was natural to communicate with everyone concerned with Islamic issues worldwide, whether they were leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood or the leaders of the Afghan jihad after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
All of these meetings were in the public domain and were held in cultural, humanitarian or other conferences, such as those held by Said Ramadan, during which they worked on strengthening ties between Islamist intellectuals all over the world.
Erbakan was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and all his contact with the movement was made during regular or occasional emergency meetings limited to one individual from every state presenting the concerns and problems of the Muslims in their country.
Such gatherings were important for the Turks to get to know the Muslim world and its issues directly from political leaders or icons of the Islamic movement. Some of these meetings were held in Madinah’s Islamic University, under the sponsorship of cultural and educational institutions in Saudi Arabia. Brotherhood members and their rivals all attended, as did people known to be cooperating with the US and other Western countries. Turkish representatives extended their contacts with fellow Turks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, none of whom were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It was from such beginnings that Turkish intellectuals and politicians developed ties to some leaders of Islamic movements, particularly the Brotherhood. Such links were based on cooperation on generic Islamic issues not membership or affiliation. Neither Erbakan nor anyone else in Turkey could be a member of an Arab Islamic party, despite accusations to the contrary by secular rivals. The former Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, had to retract a statement that Erbakan was the movement’s representative in Turkey as this was clearly not true.
This was an official denial by the Muslim Brotherhood that Erbakan had any organisational links to the Islamic movement. Charges of being affiliated to the Brotherhood were nothing new; they were used frequently by those opposed to the Islamic trend. At that time, communication between Turks and the Brotherhood was for cultural exchange purposes and charitable activities for the benefit of Muslims around the world.
Shortly after the success of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to congratulate the people on their success. Due to Turkey’s support of the Arab demands for freedom and dignity, and the fact that Turkey’s experience under the Justice and Development Party government was touted as a model for the region, Erdogan spoke to Brotherhood supporters in Cairo about the factors for his country’s successful transition.
This was met with some dismay by those who thought that in presenting the Turkish model from a secular viewpoint he was advocating a secularist approach for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is evidence that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is distinct from the intellectual foundations of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Moreover, the Vice-Chairman of the Brotherhood’s political wing, Dr Essam El-Erian, commented: “We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a distinguished leader in the region, but we do not believe that he or his country alone can lead the region or shape its future.” The Freedom and Justice Party official was making it clear that the policies of an Egyptian government formed by the Brotherhood or any other Islamist group would not be dependent on Turkey’s experience.
There is, therefore, no evidence to support claims that Erdogan’s party is linked formally to the Muslim Brotherhood, or that the movement’s leaders in Egypt are in any way linked to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. Such accusations tend to be made by those who are opposed to real change in the Middle East and who believe that the region should be dominated by governments in league with Western interests.
Looked at from this perspective, it is easy to understand Turkey’s position on the recent changes that have occurred in Egypt, including the suspension of the Constitution and appointment of an interim president in place of the legitimate officeholder elected by the Egyptian people in a democratic and constitutional manner.
Turkey’s stand can be seen as support for the will of the Egyptian people, 64 per cent of whom voted for the Constitution in December 2012. Moreover, Mohamed Morsi won with 52 per cent of the votes cast in the presidential election in June last year. The choice of the people should have been respected. The Turks have suffered from military coups more than most of the world’s top nations and the country’s renaissance was delayed by military interventions in politics and its suppression of personal freedoms, the media and other aspects of public life.
The damage caused by the military coups in modern Turkey is enough to make its people anti-coups no matter where they may take place and regardless of the political or intellectual claims made in justification. Opposition to the Egyptian coup is not simply because it has affected the Muslim Brotherhood in a detrimental way. The agreement of the people of Egypt on a road-map for the future would please Turkey and its people, who urge the Egyptians to build on the positives and not let the negatives become a permanent hindrance to democratic progress.
The author is a Turkish political analyst. This article is a translation of the Arabic text which appeared in Al Jazeera Net on 15 September, 2103
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.