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Increasing presence of Salafi groups in Turkey again sparks concern

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The growing presence of radical Islamist Salafi groups in Turkey and allegations of increasing private gun ownership among them have once again sparked concern over peace in Turkish society, prompting the opposition to bring the issue to the country’s agenda.

Salafism is a modern fundamentalist movement that emerged in 19th-century Egypt. The name derives from upholding the traditions of the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims whom Salafists believe lived an unadulterated form of Islam.

Concern surrounding the arming of Salafi groups was sparked when Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, a popular pro-government preacher who goes by the name of Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, alleged in September 2020 that 2,000 Salafist organizations in Turkey were arming themselves and getting ready for a civil war.

Ünlü’s warning prompted Turkey’s Interior Ministry to launch an investigation, with the preacher testifying about his claims.

Ünlü reiterated his allegations during a program on Habertürk TV on Tuesday, saying that currently 3.6 percent of Turks are Salafi – reaching 8 to 10 percent in some provinces – and increasing.

“They started [civil] wars wherever they went. … They have weapons in secret places. They don’t keep them in [the houses where they congregate] that could be raided [by the police]. It is clear to whom and when they are distributed. Radical Salafi groups in Turkey are extremely dangerous right now,” he said.

The preacher also accused Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) of serving to spread the ideas of Salafism/Wahhabism in the country and allowing Kuwaiti Wahabi Sheikh Osman El Hamis to lead prayers and preach in a mosque in Sakarya province.

The Diyanet on Tuesday released a written statement on its website and denied the claims, saying they are “far from reflecting the truth, extremely disturbing and sad.”

Following the developments, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Veli Ağbaba on Wednesday directed several parliamentary questions to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu regarding the Salafi groups in the country and Ünlü’s allegations.

“After Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü … stated that the Kuwaiti Wahhabi Sheikh Osman El Hamis gave a sermon in the mosque in Sakarya, was there any action taken against the person mentioned and those who allowed that person to deliver [a sermon]?” Ağbaba asked Soylu.

He also wanted to know which country or persons fund Salafi groups, the number of Turks and foreigners who had been investigated, detained and arrested on charges related to Salafi terror in the past five years and whether there’s an investigation into the allegations that radical Salafi groups are disseminating propaganda in Turkey through statements and videos and are arming themselves.

Foreign and domestic critics have previously pointed to Salafi groups operating on Turkish soil. One such group, the Dokumacilar, was linked by authorities to several bombings that targeted pro-Kurdish gatherings in 2015, killing hundreds.

The Ahval news website said in 2020, citing a report from the European Union’s intelligence body (EUINTCEN), that some components of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) might have been complicit in one of the bomb attacks that targeted a pro-Kurdish gathering in Ankara in October 2015.

“The modus operandi of the [suicide bombers] points to Da’esh. Given the circumstances [buses arriving with demonstrators not searched, police almost absent at the huge demonstration], there is reason to believe that in this case, forces within the AKP commissioned the Da’esh operatives,” Ahval cited the report as saying.

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