“Mentor” of political Islam dies in Turkey

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Rajab 29, 1432 2011-04-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 2, Rajab, 1432)

While Muslims in the Islamic East and North Africa were going through great turmoil, in February, the Muslims of Turkey lost one of their greatest leaders. Professor Necmeddin Erbakan had been in hospital since early January for various problems and he finally died on February 27 of cardiac and respiratory failure at the age of 85.

While Muslims in the Islamic East and North Africa were going through great turmoil, in February, the Muslims of Turkey lost one of their greatest leaders. Professor Necmeddin Erbakan had been in hospital since early January for various problems and he finally died on February 27 of cardiac and respiratory failure at the age of 85.

Nicknamed “Khoca” (mentor), Erbakan was born on 29 October 1926 in the city of Sinop, on the Black Sea coast in Northern Turkey. He was an exceptionally bright student and excelled in his studies from an early age. After completing his high school education, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1948 and pursued an academic career in Germany. He received a PhD in 1953 from the RWTH Aachen University there, and then participated in major military projects in the world famous Deutz factories in Germany. This period of his life was particularly important for young Erbakan as he was deeply impressed by the rapid revitalization of German industry, as well as the discipline and efficiency that Germans demonstrated during this process.

When he returned to Turkey, Erbakan wanted to implement his experiences in Turkey and achieve a similar level of industrial and technological progress. However, he did not wish to adopt the “German model” without major alterations. He was a deeply committed Muslim and thus wanted to create a synthesis between Islamic awakening and western technological and economic supremacy. This is what many Islamic thinkers and activists had been trying to achieve since the turn of the 19th century and had fallen short. Erbakan was a pragmatist who did not confine himself into a particular methodology and did what had to be done within the methodology of the Prophet (pbuh) to best achieve his goals. He was not Machiavellian in any sense: he adhered to strict Islamic principles and never compromised them, regardless of the heavy cost he was forced to pay.

Erbakan first wanted to work as an academic to realize his vision of Turkey. He was a celebrated engineer with revolutionary ideas. Erbakan presented many projects, which would boost Turkey’s economy, to the appropriate ministers of state at the time. The most important of these projects was to manufacture a car in Turkey, in a symbolic push to achieve an industrial revolution and eschew dependence on western technology. Erbakan’s vision was far beyond the comprehension of the 1960s Turkey, hence his projects were trashed without careful consideration.

He realized that he could not achieve his goals as an academic. The source of problems in Turkey was political and needed to be addressed by political means. A few years after becoming a professor in 1965, he decided to run as an independent candidate from Konya in 1969, winning in a landslide victory and becoming an MP. Soon after, he established the National Order Party which would later be known as the first “Islamic political party” of Turkey. Many believe that Erbakan was not alone in his struggle; his spiritual guidance came from Mehmet Zahid Kotku, a very influential Sufi (Naqshbandi) shaykh who reportedly encouraged Erbakan to set up a political party which would serve the needs of Muslims in Turkey. Although religious guidance came from Sheikh Kotku, Erbakan alone hatched the main political tenets of his political movement, which continued to be active for four decades in Turkey’s hostile political environment.

According to Ali Bulac, a renowned Muslim thinker in Turkey, Erbakan’s political discourse, known as National View or Turkish Islamism had three distinct characteristics:

  1. It has always operated within a representative framework and never strayed outside of the law. Thus Turkish Islamism has strongly and clearly opposed using violence, terrorism and other drastic methods for political gains. Erbakan’s movement was considered to be “an opposition within the system”.
  2. It embraced an anti-elitist discourse and political agenda. Turkish Islamism defended a heterogenic social structure in which various groups should be able to enjoy a social, cultural, economic and political existence. Erbakan’s movement was a vociferous critique of the domination of the bureaucracy, politics and economy by a “special” minority.
  3. It aimed to create Muslim unity through regional integration in which Turkey plays an active role. The D-8 project, an economic organization founded by Erbakan in 1997, was a major step toward establishing economic, political and social unity among the Muslim countries.

We may add a fourth characteristic which Ali Bulac chooses to not to mention in his analyses, which would be, of course, Erbakan’s staunch opposition to Zionism. In fact this characteristic was at the core of his teachings, as Erbakan believed that Zionism has been the sole reason for the depleted and weak situation of the Muslims, and the only way to escape from the current situation is to eliminate Zionism.

“Zionism is the cause of all evil”

In Erbakan’s perception, Israel was considered to be a major threat against not only Muslim Arabs, but also Muslims of all persuasions in general. He believed Israel’s ambitions could not be contained within its current borders and sooner or later would threaten Turkish sovereignty. Erbakan based his anticipation on the common Jewish belief mentioned in the Old Testament and oft-repeated by Zionist forefathers. According to this belief the so-called “promised lands” include the area between the rivers Euphrates and Nile, which covers a significant portion of Turkish territory. Erbakan did not hesitate to express his views on the ambitious Israeli expansion project in 1996 in a high level government meeting while he was still prime minister:

There are two blue lines on the top and bottom of the star in the Israeli flag. These lines are symbols. The top line represents the Euphrates, the bottom line the Nile. According to Jewish belief these borders are the natural borders of the state of Israel.

Erbakan had always accused Israel of meddling in Turkish political affairs and held Zionism responsible for shedding the blood of fellow Turkish citizens, especially in the turmoil of the 1970s wherein rival factions from communists, nationalists and Islamists would kill each other on a daily basis. When Israel announced Jerusalem to be their capital in 1980, Erbakan stated:

Those who know Zionism compare it to an octopus. This octopus has numberless arms. Communism is one arm, capitalism another arm, freemasonry a side branch, racism another arm. Those who become part of these currents, without knowing, are serving Zionism, are fighting for Zionism — whatever they might call themselves.

Erbakan also pointed out the so-called “world domination of Zionism”. He believed that Zionism through economic and political dominance had enslaved not only Muslims but the world population. He was adept in using his anti-Zionist discourse in his domestic campaign to convince electors. He made a clear distinction between his movement and the other political movements operating in Turkey. He averred that anyone who is not part of his movement is intentionally or unintentionally taking side with Zionism:

Zionism, which has its centre in Wall Street of New York, is an ideological power. They believe that they are God’s chosen people and that other people are created to become their slaves. They believe that they will dominate the world and the more they exploit other people the more worship pleasure they take. Zionists have world imperialism under their control. They exploit all humanity with the capitalist system based on interest. They continue their political dominance of the world through imperialist states. In Turkey imperialism and Zionism support the “imitation parties” [all political parties other than Erbakan’s party] and these parties try by all means to rule the country.

A constant political struggle

Erbakan also believed that political dependence on the West, and Westernization of social life was a Zionist plot that Muslims in general should be aware of. It was their ultimate aim to destroy Islamic values and social life, so that the Muslim masses could be kept under control. Erbakan considered secularism to be a part of the Westernization project and criticized it tirelessly, a stand which worked against his political career at the very early stages. His first party, the National Order Party, established in 1970 was disqualified and shut down during the following year on charges of acting against secularism. After a brief hiatus, Erbakan founded the National Salvation Party in 1972. However, this party and the other two parties Erbakan founded were also forbidden from constitency development and participation in the electoral process.

The National Salvation Party was closed down by a military coup in 1980. Erbakan then established the Welfare Party in 1983 and waited for 13 years to come to power. His party finally won the 1996 elections and he became prime minister in coalition with the True Path Party, becoming the first Muslims with an Islamic program to hold office in the Republic of Turkey. However, due to its conservative mainstream background, the True Path Party was not aligned with Erbakan’s political vision. Nevertheless, Erbakan embarked upon developing Turkey’s relations with Muslim countries. He further implemented an economic welfare program, which did improve welfare among many sections of the society. Similar to policies implemented with the current AKP rule, Erbakan’s coalition government also tried to achieve rapprochement with the neighbouring countries.

Soon after, a military coup staged in February 1997, removed Erbakan from power. A constitutional court decision closed down the Welfare Party again on charges of acting against secularism, and banned him from politics. He finally got his remaining disciples to found the Felicity Party. Attacks against him and obstacles put before him only made him grow stronger in the eyes of the people.

But he could not avoid losing his brightest students during these difficult times. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul departed from Erbakan’s party in 1998 in a rift caused by difference of opinion between the “progressives” represented by Erdogan and Gul and the “conservatives” represented by Erbakan and his close followers. The “progressives” criticized Erbakan for not giving any space to the younger generation and most importantly for not being able to harvest policies to deal with the necessities of the time. Therefore, they established their own party to realize their own vision of Turkey. Despite the rift they always showed their respect to their “mentor” and were forgiven by Erbakan.

Admiration for Islamic Revolution in Iran

Erbakan’s opinion about Zionism differed slightly from that of the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Imam Khomeini. According to Imam Khomeini it was the US that caused the trouble for Muslims and all other oppressed people around the world, which was formulated in his famous manifesto: “America is the greatest Satan”. Unlike Erbakan, Imam Khomeini believed that Zionism was merely one of the tools the US used to achieve its hegemony in the Islamic East. This variation in the appraisal of the world situation from his own never prevented Erbakan from admiring the Islamic Revolution and he always referred to Iran as a paragon for an ideal Islamic state.

Fatih Erbakan, the son of Necmeddin Erbakan, noted this when he received a group of diplomats from the Iranian embassy after his father’s death. He pointed out the important position of Iran in the eyes of his father:

My father had always held Iran in high regard. When he became the prime minister, he paid his first visit to Iran and the last country he visited in his lifetime was Iran. When he was working on the Muslim Unity and G-8 project, he was pressured from inside and outside Turkey “to prioritize Arab countries”. They suggested that “Iran’s role should be secondary [in this project].” However, my father always asserted that “Iran is our closest brother. It is the country that struggles most bravely against world Zionism. Thus we first need to embrace them”. My late father had a famous expression “We are at opposition in Turkey but at power in Iran.”

The story goes that Erbakan’s admiration for Iran was one of the reasons for the split between him and his spiritual leader Sheikh Kotku in 1979. Coming from a conservative Sunni background Sheikh Kotku was troubled with Erbakan’s support for the Islamic Revolution achieved by Shi’is and his relations with the pro-revolutionary Turkish youth. Thus, he eventually asked Erbakan to leave the party leadership. Instead, Erbakan decided to depart from Sheikh Kotku’s Iskenderpasha movement and continue alone.

Erbakan and the global Islamic movement

Erbakan’s ideas were indeed echoed outside of Turkey. His teaching on “opposition within the system” was adopted by some other Islamic political movements. The leader of al-Nahdah, the Islamic movement of Tunisia, Rashid al-Ghannushi came to Istanbul to attend the funeral of the late Erbakan. When he was in Istanbul, al-Ghannushi gave a speech in an IHH event and he said: “Erbakan was not only my friend but also my mentor, he had a distinct reputation in the Arab world”.

Hamas Health Minister Bassam Naim issued a statement following Erbakan’s death. In his statement Naim referred to Erbakan as a “…leading figure and thinker of the Muslim world.” He then went on to say: “Turkey and the Muslim world have lost a major flag of contemporary Islam who devoted his entire life to Islamic issues, particularly those in Palestine and Jerusalem.” The Hamas leadership based in Damascus also issued a statement and conveyed their condolences to Turkey. Sheikh Kamil Khatib from the Islamic Movement in Occupied Palestine also sent separate messages to President Cul and Prime Minister Erdogan to express condolences.

Many important Muslims figures from around the world were present at Erbakan’s funeral, which made clear his position in the global Islamic movement: the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akif; the head of the Islamic Party in Kashmir, Abdur Rasheed Turabi; the chairman of Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Lutfi Hasan Ishaq; and former Sudanese President Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab were some of those who were present at the funeral.

In accordance with Erbakan’s last will, no official ceremony was held for his funeral. Yet, in Istanbul where the ceremony was held around 1 million people gathered to bid farewell to Erbakan at the Fatih Masjid. His coffin was carried on the shoulders for 5km and buried in Zeytinburnu Merkezefendi Cemetery. The crowd chanted “Mujahid Erbakan” which was a symbolic nickname given to Erbakan and was often heard during his political campaigns. His most important disciples President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Leader of HAS Party, Numan Kurtulmus along with many other significant figures joined in the crowd to offer the “mentor” their final du‘as.

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