Germany's mission to muzzle the Grey Wolves
It would take him just one day, he says, to get a million or so followers of the Grey Wolves out onto the streets in Turkey. "And with a few more hours, I can mobilise two, maybe three million," Azmi Karamahmutoglu says. Until 23 years ago, he was the leader of the ultranationalist movement, but many people still recognise him as a figure of authority: Karamahmutoglu is the foster-son of Alparslan Turkes – the founder of the Grey Wolves.
Turkes, who was trained in the USA by the CIA and NATO, started the movement more than 50 years ago, calling it "Ulkuculer", or "idealists". It was intended as a kind of nationalist counter-movement to the communist endeavours both at home and abroad. At that time, the Grey Wolves prowled the country on the hunt for left-wing radicals and dissidents, sometimes acting like death squads. Many attacks and hundreds of murders can be traced back to them.
These days, they make waves in Turkey first and foremost when local groups threaten ethnic or religious minorities. And the agitation doesn’t stop at the Turkish borders: the Grey Wolves have also been active in other countries for many years.
Attacks on Armenians, Kurds or Jews have been attributed to them. And according to some reports, local Grey Wolves groups make a point of approaching people with Turkish origins – especially young people – to impart their far-right ideology to them.
Over the years, all of this has earned them the reputation of being "Turkish Nazis". It’s a term that Karamahmutoglu strongly rejects. "The aim of our nationalism is to develop and enrich Turkish culture."
Right-wing extremism, on the other hand, would put Turkey’s territorial integrity at risk. He says that protecting this is the movement’s number one priority. Their nationalism, he adds, is what people in Europe call "patriotism".
"The movement doesn’t think of itself as racist, either," Karamahmutoglu says. He tells me that the attacks and massacres that the Grey Wolves carried out in the 1970s, in which many members of ethnic minorities lost their lives, were part of the fight against communism.
People didn’t die because they were Alevites, Kurds or Armenians, he says, but because they were suspected communists. In other words: the Grey Wolves killed them in order to destroy communism, which in turn was seeking to destroy the nation.
Defending the nation is the practical expression of the Grey Wolves’ dream of "Turan": an empire uniting all the Turkic people, from Asia to Europe and all the way to North Africa.
There are people from various Turkish societies living there. But this is about the cultural and ethnic tribe of the Turks, rather than the Republic of Turkey. Their symbol is the wolf, which is revered in Old Turkic shamanistic mythology as a magical helper.
"There is a secular character to nationalism"
Islam plays no role in this. But even so, for many years the Grey Wolves have also been regarded as defenders of Islam. That Turkish-national and Islamic values should be inseparable for the Grey Wolves is something that academics worldwide call the "Turkish-Islamic synthesis". Karamahmutoglu sees this as a misunderstanding. "There is a secular character to nationalism," he emphasises, and reminds me that in its early years, the movement advocated for secularism.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he says, the Grey Wolves even fought against Islam – political Islam, that is, which was later raised up into Turkish state ideology, personified by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Political Islam was an international project that targets Turkish nationalism. It’s an ideology like communism."
What Karamahmutoglu says stands in stark contrast to the reality of the Grey Wolves in the 21st century. At many of the country’s universities, the movement’s youth groups threaten their fellow students if, for example, they don’t observe the fasting month of Ramadan or refuse to wear a headscarf. And in government, the Grey Wolves’ political arm, the MHP, has been in coalition with Erdogan’s conservative Islamic AKP for years.
It is no secret that this coalition is a marriage of convenience: Erdogan is not a nationalist, and nor do the leaders of the Grey Wolves want political Islam. They are merely hitching a ride with the AKP in order to exercise political power. This is the only way for them, for example, to obtain a far-reaching amnesty for convicted mafia bosses and contract killers this year. And they – unsurprisingly – almost all belong to the Grey Wolves camp.
Cooperation with Erdogan has also led to a section of the MHP splitting off to form the IYI Party. This kind of thing is not unusual in Turkey and has been used once before by nationalists as a way of parking their own followers somewhere else until they could return to the mother party. And for the Grey Wolves and the MHP, that can only happen once Erdogan has gone. Until that point, the movement’s political arm risks further division.
There is also a kind of separation in the movement itself. It began on the day that the current head of the MHP, Devlet Bahceli, took over leadership of the party. Chairs were thrown around the conference room where he was elected. Shots were even fired. Karamahmutoglu, who at that time had stepped down as leader of the Grey Wolves to let Alparslan Turkes’s biological son take over, and was not a candidate for MHP leader, either, mounted the stage and shouted: "We do not recognise this election! Long live illegality for the traitors!"
What he meant by this was that those who had in voted Bahceli had betrayed the legacy of Turkes, father of the nationalists. Under Bahceli, whom he accused of political opportunism, the movement would be unlawful. But his words were interpreted as a call to more illegality and as a threat against Bahceli. In order to protect himself, Karamahmutoglu went to Cyprus for some time – until a Turkish court ruled in his favour over the statement. Meanwhile, Bahceli partly disempowered the movement. It is, for instance, no longer allowed to stage demonstrations or campaigns without his permission.
Grey Wolves in Germany: against assimilation
The deliberate weakness of leadership has led to the movement changing, with some parts becoming radicalised and taking on far-right and racist characteristics. There has been a similar development abroad. In the 1980s, German politicians may have praised the Grey Wolves in West Germany, but today a move to ban them by law is supported by almost every faction in the Bundestag.
There are said to be up to 20,000 Grey Wolves living in Germany. They belong to the umbrella organisation the Turkish Federation of Europe. Its former deputy chair, Suat Basaran, says its activities are perfectly legal: "We are in other countries, because Turks live there, too. We advocate against assimilation. That’s our mission."
He and Karamahmutoglu insist that there are no institutional links between the European Federation and the Turkish idealists. By that, they mean that the Turkish Grey Wolves are not responsible for what happens abroad. The movement can do what it wants there – and change as it wants, as well. In Germany, for instance, it operates first and foremost via mosque communities, which would be unthinkable in Turkey.
A ban as revenge against Erdogan?
The Green politician Cem Ozdemir calls the Grey Wolves "the long arm of Erdogan" – another connection that no one in Turkey would make. In all likelihood, there has never been such a yawning gap between the reality at home and abroad, and the movement’s original ideology.
A potential ban in Germany, like the ones that have already been issued in France and Austria, is a cause for concern in Turkey. "The people making the application for this are carrying the ideological conflict between communists and nationalists from Turkey to Berlin," says Karamahmutoglu.
But the politicians shouldn’t be working so hard against the Grey Wolves simply to get one over on Turkey in the figure of Erdogan. "The Turks in Germany aren’t part of this political conflict." Banning the movement or its symbols is a threat to Turkish identity in Germany, he says – and it will create more problems than it solves.
© Qantara 2020
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin