At the crossroads of Ottoman modernization, the Ulama – the educated class of legal scholars that was represented by madrasahs and constituted one of the three backbones of the state (İlmiye, Kalemiye, and Seyfiye) – was deactivated. Indeed, one of the most significant endeavors of the young Turkish Republic was the constitution of a new class emanating from modern education in lieu of the abolished İlmiye class.
Together with the İlmiye class, the tradition of religious thought was supposed to be eliminated. While the Ottoman Empire took its political legitimacy from religious representation (known as the Millet system) and its holy wars (Gaza) against the heathens (kuffar), the new republic tried to construct a nationstate based on Western positivism. In the face of such an authoritarian disposition, which concluded with the closure of madrasahs, tariqas, Islamic monasteries (tekkes) and zawiyas, the religious movements went underground.
The religious sects, such as the "Naqshbandiyya Khalidiyya" formed in the Ottoman period, the "Nur sect" pioneered by the influential Said Nursî, and the "Süleyman tariqa" founded by Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan in the first years of the republic, developed a firm stand against the Republican régime's handling of Islam. The methods of opposition developed by each religious école would turn out to be the religious way of life in the future and they constituted the controversial social and political ground of Turkey.
The Anatolian people, who felt excluded from the legal public space, took refuge in religious sects in order to feel secure against the cruelty of the republican state (ceberrut), or at least, not to break off from their religious traditions altogether. Despite the emergence of hundreds of tariqas and sects, the relationship between the state and the religious sects appeared in three policies:
(i) The Süleyman tariqa busied itself by opening Quran courses and avoided being involved in politics and the state.
(ii) The Naqshbandi tariqas, which were formed in the framework of Mevlana Halid-i Bagdadi's principles of "Islamic ethics, independent motherland, and anti-colonialism," embraced politics in order to secure themselves against the state. Such a position by the Naqshbandi would have been embodied in the political parties established within the "Milli Görüş" (National Vision) movement. As Bagdadi's thoughts influenced the policy of the Islamism and pan-Islamism of Sultan Abdülhamid, the Naqshbandi tariqas led to the introduction of a new Islamist politics through Necmeddin Erbakan.
(iii) Within the Nur sect, especially the Gülen movement, adopted the policy of infiltration into state structures as its main political strategy. Today, it can be blatantly seen that the movement succeeded to such an extent that they had the fate of the country in their hands from time to time.
Since the period of Turgut Özal, Turkey has experienced a comprehensive process of transformation. The former ideology-led state was replaced with one prone to democracy and freedom. Not only was oppression of religious life abolished, but now religious people have become the principal actors of state governance.
While the state continues to transform itself through gradual reforms, tariqas and religious sects have not remained as religious entities, but they have become significant, organized economic powers. The religious sects, which were concerned with the spiritual salvation of the individual and the conservation of the religious lifestyle in the early Republic, seem to be blinded by their accumulated political and economic power, and thus, the sacred aim of reaching Allah was replaced by the profane one of reaching prosperity and power.
Unless the religious institutions turn back their original reasons for existence, they cannot benefit the social structures that have restored society. I believe that as the state transforms itself, religious sects have to do the same. Instead of pursuing power, their main aim should be the breeding of benevolent citizens.