The AKP’s tenure was at first lauded in the West as the triumph of democratic forces over semi-authoritarianism. The AKP inherited a system in which Turkey’s General Staff and high judiciary often dictated terms to officials. But over time, the AKP moved to change Turkey: it steadily turned away from Europe, focusing on Turkey as a Middle Eastern power with a growing Islamist and Sunni sectarian ideological character. Over the past five years, the AKP has also moved on the domestic front, infusing the education system with Islamic themes. In scenes that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, President Erdoğan brandished his Quran at public rallies during the June 2015 electoral campaign, often beginning his remarks with Quranic citations.
This article is not a study of the policies of the Turkish government; it is an inquiry into the religious and ideological environment informing Turkish political Islam. Turkish political Islam, and with it Turkish politics, is increasingly based on powerful religious orders and brotherhoods, collectively termed tarikat and cemaat, respectively. These communities constitute the deep structure of Turkish power, and share a common ideological source: they belong to, or stem from, the Khalidi branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. While they differ from one another in interpretation and tone, the Naqshbandi-Khalidi groups have formed Turkish political Islam, and through the AKP, the Khalidi worldview has become the dominant political force in Turkey today. With only slight exaggeration, the ruling Justice and Development Party as well as the government it has led could be termed a coalition of religious orders—a fact generally ignored by analysts of Turkish politics. This article discusses the background of the religious orders in Turkey, focusing on the Naqshbandi-Khalidi order, before studying the various offshoots that have assumed important roles in Turkish politics today.