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Islamic cult Menzil under scrutiny after death of 74-year-old leader

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The death of Abdulbaki Erol, leader of the Islamic Menzil cult, a sub-branch of the Nakşibendi cult, at the age of 74, has brought debates about the relationship between politics and religious groups in Turkey back into the spotlight.

According to local media reports, Erol’s funeral procession spanned 15 kilometers in the Kahta district of southeastern Adıyaman province on Thursday.

Around 250,000 followers of one of the largest Islamic communities in Turkey flooded a remote village in Kahta to attend the funeral of Erol, who died on Wednesday of multiple organ failure in an Istanbul hospital where he was receiving treatment.

Abdulbaki Erol
Late Menzil leader Abdulbaki Erol

Among those who attended the ceremony were Vice President Cevdet Yılmaz and government and local officials as well as the leader of the right-wing Grand Unity Party (BBP), Mustafa Destici.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and opposition figures Temel Karamollaoğlu, chairman of the Felicity Party (SP), Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) chairman Ali Babacan and Future Party (GP) leader Ahmet Davutoğlu also shared messages of condolence on social media, praising Erol as a “spiritual leader.”

Erdoğan also had a full-page ad published in the pro-government Hürriyet newspaper on Friday that included a message of condolence, describing Erol as one of the spiritual guides of the country who dedicated his life to Islam. 

Turkey’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines, added additional flights every 15 minutes to Adıyaman immediately after the Menzil leader’s death, to allow its more of his followers to attend the funeral. The company received criticism for not acting so quickly to carry a group of miners from the country’s Black Sea region to an earthquake zone in the country, which was hit by two powerful temblors earlier this year, so they could take part in search and rescue efforts.

Menzil has become one of the most influential religious movements in Turkey in recent years, attracting significant attention from the public.

The organization, founded by Abdulhakim Erol, who was born in 1902 and passed away in 1972, and was named after the Menzil village in Kahta, has followers in many parts of Turkey.

BBC Turkish service reported on Thursday that an interview with Saki Erol, an important figure in Menzil, was published in the book “Menzil: Bir Tarikatın İki Yüzü” (Menzil: Two Faces of a Religious Cult) by Saygı Öztürk, the Ankara representative of the Sözcü daily, in 2019.

Öztürk quoted Erol as saying that they had supported former prime minister Adnan Menderes, an emblematic figure for Turkish conservatives, as well as former presidents Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal, former prime minister Mesut Yılmaz, and later Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey. Erol further stated that they continue to support Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

According to BBC, the Menzil community particularly provided significant support to the government during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and subsequent events. They supported Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria, and during the constitutional amendment referendum in 2017 the associations and foundations within the organization supported the AKP government. The same institutions also published messages of support for Erdoğan and his People’s Alliance in the general and presidential elections held in May.

The Menzil cult has achieved significant economic gains in recent years, BBC said, highlighting the activities of the Turkey Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜMSİAD), a business organization affiliated with Menzil, as one of the biggest indicators of this.

There are also active civil society organizations associated with Menzil, including the Semerkand Foundation and the Beşir Association. These organizations have been observed providing effective assistance during major disasters, such as earthquakes and mining accidents, in recent years.

BBC said that the Semerkand Publishing Group is considered the prominent force behind Menzil’s activities in the media and publishing sector, encompassing various outlets such as TV and radio stations as well as magazines.

BBC also reported that there have been claims in recent years that after the 2016 coup attempt, when members of the Gülen movement were purged from the bureaucracy, individuals from various religious groups, including “Menzil followers,” were brought in to replace them and assumed critical roles.

“Menzil has prospered since the failed coup, filling the vacuum left by the Gulenists in the bureaucracy and elsewhere. The Health Ministry is frequently cited as being under their grip,” Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman said in a tweet on Friday.

Erdoğan and his government label the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, as a terrorist organization and accuse them of staging the coup attempt. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

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