Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 69

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) members of Turkey’s Parliamentary Human Rights Committee have called for the establishment of a subcommittee to study the relationship between unemployment, poverty and radicalism in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, including its role in recruitment to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“Unemployment in the region has become the PKK’s primary instrument of propaganda,” commented CHP Deputy Ahmet Ersin. He claimed that other radical groups, including the Sufi religious brotherhoods known as tariqah and the Turkish Hizbullah, were also exploiting the often desperate socio-economic conditions in what has long been the most underdeveloped region of Turkey. “The local people are faced with pressure from unemployment, the tariqah, Hizbullah and the PKK. The state has to find a solution to unemployment, protect people’s lives and contribute to the development of the region,” he said (Vatan, April 11).

The CHP deputies’ call for the creation of a subcommittee, which they suggested should be named “Unemployment, Hizbullah, Tariqah and PKK Pressure in the Southeast,” is probably at least partly motivated by a desire to embarrass the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP); not only by underlining the failure of more than five years of AKP rule to solve the region’s problems but also by revealing the very close relations between some AKP deputies and the tariqah.

Nevertheless, although most domestic and international media attention has focused on the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish security forces, the call by the CHP deputies has also highlighted a struggle that may ultimately have more important repercussions for the future of southeast Turkey; namely, the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population, which is currently being waged by organizations, publications and charitable foundations associated with rival social networks.

In addition to being economically underdeveloped, southeast Turkey is also the most conservative region of the country. Traditionally, the main social networks in the region have been those based on clan or membership of one of the tariqah.

As well as confronting the Turkish state on the battlefield, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the PKK has sought to consolidate its popular support by establishing or controlling political parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in the region. In the early 1990s this rivalry even led to a war between the PKK and the Ilim group, which the media usually refers to as Turkish Hizbullah and which was the most powerful violent Islamist organization in southeast Turkey.

The capture and imprisonment of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 resulted in the organization announcing a halt to its armed campaign. In January 2000 Hizbullah also abandoned violence after its founder, Huseyin Velioglu, was killed in a police raid. Both organizations continued, however, to propagandize and use NGOs and charitable foundations to broaden their bases of social support.

Unlike the PKK, which resumed its armed insurgency in June 2004, there is still no indication as to when or if Hizbullah will return to violence. In recent years, it has concentrated on building up a network of Islamic charities, Qur’an courses, bookstores, publications, websites, foundations and associations. The most prominent is İnsan Hakları ve Mustazaflarla Dayanışma Derneği (Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with the Oppressed or Mustaza-Der). In April 2006 Hizbullah demonstrated its growing strength by organizing a rally in Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeast Turkey, which was attended by more than 80,000 people.

In recent years, other non-violent organizations have also stepped up their activities in southeast Turkey. In theory, the tariqah were outlawed in 1925 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic. In practice, the ban merely forced the tariqah underground. Since the 1950 the tariqah have gradually reemerged, although the continuing theoretical ban means that they tend to conduct their activities through NGOs and charitable foundations. Most of the members of the decision-making core of the AKP have, at some point in their careers, been associated with one or another of the tariqah. Although he no longer regularly attends meetings, for a long time Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was an active member of the Iskenderpasa Lodge of the Naqshbandiyah, the largest tariqah in Turkey. Particularly since the AKP took office in November 2002, the Naqshbandiyah has become increasingly active in southeast Turkey, not only organizing Qur’an courses and holding lodge meetings but also setting up soup kitchens and distributing food and fuel to poor families.

The tariqah have been joined by followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is currently in self-imposed exile in the United States. The Gulen movement is currently the fastest growing Islamist organization in Turkey (see EDM, November 21, 2007). Unlike the tariqah, the Gulen movement is not institutionalized and there is no clear organizational hierarchy. Nevertheless, in addition to propagandizing and distributing food and fuel to the poor, Gulen’s supporters have been very active in establishing dormitories and providing scholarships for tens of thousands of poor students.

Although there have been instances of individuals associated with the tariqah and the Gulen movement becoming involved in extremist violence, the organizations themselves are opposed to violence in the name of Islam. Both, however, are committed to the greater Islamization of Turkish society.

“In the southeast, it is no longer a question of whether you become associated with an organization,” a member of the Turkish police in the region told Jamestown. “It is a question of whether you become associated with one of the tariqah, Hizbullah, the PKK or the Gulen movement. Not being associated with any of them is not an option. It is better, of course, to be associated with a non-violent organization, but then that still means that the region will become more conservative and more Islamic.”