On the night of July 12, 1960, tanks rumbled into Urfa; the military imposed a curfew on the town, and armed troops cordoned off the shrine of Abraham at the heart of the city. As the town held its breath, soldiers forced their way into the shrine, smashed open a marble tomb with sledgehammers, and removed a shrouded body. The body was lifted onto an army truck, driven along heavily guarded streets to an airfield outside town, loaded onto a military plane, and never seen again.
The date was six weeks after the Turkish coup d’état of 1960, in which a military junta had seized power in Ankara – the first of a series of coups that was to rack the country for the rest of the century. The body was that of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a charismatic Islamic scholar, whose grave had been drawing thousands of pious mourners to Urfa since he had been laid to rest there in March of that year.
“The military rulers were afraid that Nursi would become a symbol of dissent, his grave a shrine to Anti-Kemalism,” Ihsan Yilmaz, an expert for Turkish Islam at Fatih University in Istanbul, explained in an interview last week.
The ploy of removing his body worked in the short term, Mr. Yilmaz said, as followers were discouraged from openly showing their support to the teachings of a man who had clashed with the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, over the role of religion in society.
But in the long run, it did not work. Through his writings, collected in the Risale-i Nur, or Epistles of Light, and clandestinely photocopied and distributed by his students, Nursi’s ideas continued to resonate in Turkey, inspiring a uniquely Turkish Islamic identity and a powerful faith-based movement that shapes the country’s society and politics to this day.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Nursi is the most influential theologian of the Turkish Republic,” Mustafa Akyol, another expert on Turkish Islam, said in an interview in Istanbul last week.
Now, with the shadow of the military removed from the country and immunity from prosecution for all its dealings lifted by a popular referendum two years ago, a parliamentary commission investigating the coups has called for Nursi’s secret grave to be found at last.
The call was included in a list of recommendations issued by the commission in its final report this month, along with more obvious measures such as subjecting the armed forces to democratic control, purging school curricula of militaristic ideology, or re-naming streets and buildings named for putschists.
“The state owes Nursi an apology,” Selcuk Ozdag, a member of parliament for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., and member of the commission, said by telephone from Ankara last week. Finding the body was “vital to reconciliation between the people and the state,” he added.
To this end, the commission interrogated surviving members of the 1960 junta and searched the state archives for information about Nursi’s final resting place. But Ahmet Er and Numan Esin, who sat on the 38-member junta and are now aged 85 and 83, told the commission that even they had not been privy to that information. Only Alparslan Turkes, a former junta member who died in 1997, had known, Mr. Er said in his testimony. And neither police records nor the archives of the prime ministry or local governorates turned up any clues as to the whereabouts of the remains, the interior ministry reported to the commission.
“We will not leave it at that, we are going to find that information, because it is documented somewhere,” Mr. Ozdag vowed. The coup commission has recommended that parliament follow the issue up in a new committee charged with righting the wrongs of the coup era, he said. “Like a snowdrop, the truth will come out,” he added.
The hearings have triggered a popular quest for Nursi’s grave, with new witnesses coming forward in the media and contributing pieces to the puzzle. On television, one such witness, a former editor of the Hurriyet daily, this month recounted a night of tension and turmoil on the Afyon airbase, where the plane carrying Nursi’s remains is thought to have landed and where he was serving as a recruit at the time. “A noncommissioned officer later told me they had buried a body near the highway between Afyon and Isparta that night,” the witness, Erol Turegun, said.
Even without the body, Nursi continues to draw many thousands of pilgrims who flock to his empty tomb in Urfa, to the house he inhabited in Isparta, and even to the Urfa hotel room he died in, piously preserved in its original state by the hotel owner right down to the light bulb.
Nursi’s adherents are known in Turkey as Nurcu, meaning “followers of the light”, and they number in the millions. “About half the Islamic movement in Turkey, meaning the pious, conservative segment of society, are literally direct followers of Nursi, while the other half also respects him,” Mr. Akyol said.
Mr. Yilmaz compared the influence of Nursi’s Epistles of Light on the Islamic movement in Turkey to that of Das Kapital on the communists.
The Nurcu community includes the sizeable Gulen movement, named after the currently US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, as well as several other movements and a separate Kurdish following, all of them distinct, but united in their allegiance to Nursi’s teachings.
Modernity, science, and rationalism play a key role in those teachings, as does the individual, distinguishing the Nurcu movement from more ritual currents of Islam.
Nursi „developed a system of socio-political thinking and activism rooted firmly in Islam, oriented toward modernization and social welfare, and committed to the constitutional-democratic process,” an American scholar, Douglas Garrison, phrased it in a recent academic paper on Religion and Politics in The Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi.
Unlike other currents in the Islamic movement, Nurcus have traditionally steered clear of strident political Islam, rejecting Turkey’s late Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan as too inflammatory, embracing a democratic and pluralistic political system, and hewing to the mainstream conservative parties, Mr. Akyol said.
Lately, pilgrims to Nursi’s memorial sites have begun to include leaders of the country’s ruling party and even members of government. A year ago, environment minister Erdogan Bayraktar became the first cabinet member to pray at the empty tomb of the preacher who was banned and jailed for most of his living years in the Turkish Republic. And when one of Nursi’s closest companions, Mustafa Sungur, died this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally shouldered the coffin at his funeral.
“Practicing Muslims are powerful now in the Turkish Republic,” Mr. Yilmaz, the university lecturer, said. A discovery of Nursi’s remains and a restitution to the shrine in Urfa would symbolize a “normalization” in the relations between state, society and religion in Turkey and a “coming to terms” with its history, he added.
The move is welcomed by Nursi’s followers. “Said Nursi has long been rehabilitated by the people, but his rehabilitation by the state nevertheless gladdens us, after all those years in which it was considered a crime to read his books,” Sait Yuce of the Istanbul Foundation for Science and Culture, a Nurcu association, said in an interview this week. Mr. Yuce was jailed for three months after the 1980 coup when he was caught reading a Nursi work to friends as an 18 year old student. His father, Ilhan Yuce, was jailed for nine months after the 1960 coup for a similar offence.
Mr. Akyol, the Turkish Islam expert, agreed that a restitution of Nursi to his tomb would be “a symbol that things have changed a lot in Turkey.”
“It’s a big political move,” he added.