The Rabita affair underlines the extent to which the post-1980 regime in Turkey has turned to Islam as a bulwark against the left. “Rabita” — the Saudi-based Rabit’at al-Alam al-Islami (World Islamic League) — advocates the establishment of a pan-Islamic federation based on the shari‘a. One would have expected it to be among the last allies sought by Turkey’s Atatürkist generals, since it promotes a political system anathema to the military and funds publications which denounce Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his secular policies.
Rabita’s ties in Turkey date back a decade. They came to light only in March 1987, when Ugur Mumcu, the country’s foremost investigative journalist, reported in the left-liberal daily Cumhuriyet that a 1981 decree by the military-backed government of former Admiral Bülent Ulusu allowed Rabita to pay the salaries of Turkish religious functionaries in Belgium and Germany. Rabita was also given carte blanche to fund numerous religious organizations and projects in Turkey. At a time when thousands of leftists were being prosecuted for links to “international communism” and a new constitution prohibited international contacts by labor unions and political parties, the World Islamic League had gained access to the highest reaches of the Turkish government through Saudi links with conservative politicians, among them the family of Prime Minister Turgut Özal. An increased budget for Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs made Rabita’s payments superfluous after 1984, although payments to Turkish imams not affiliated with the Directorate of Religious Affairs continue.
Aside from providing money to build a small mosque on the grounds of the parliament, Rabita also funded a mosque and an Islamic center on the campus of the Middle Eastern Technical University, long a center for radical left activities. This project was first proposed by Korkut Özal, Prime Minister Ozal’s brother, and was submitted for President Evren’s approval by Yusuf Özal, yet another brother, who then headed the State Planning Organization. In addition, Saudi Arabia funded a major portion of the university’s Arabic language program.
Rabita had also established ties with Istanbul University and made donations to Ankara’s large Kocatepe Mosque and Islamic center as well as to organizations and projects in Izmir, Adana, and other cities. Rabita also dispensed nearly $1 million in the Northern Cyprus Turkish Republic. Rabita’s interest extends to the Turkic republics in the USSR. In April 1988, Rabita’s assistant general secretary took part in an Istanbul conference on Turkistan; also attending were Radio Free Europe director Enders Wimbush and Paul Henze, former CIA station chief in Ankara.
The Rabita affair highlights the growing Saudi financial presence in Turkey. There is the Faisal Finance Corporation founded by Salih Özcan, the only Turkish member of Rabita’s founding congress, and the al-Baraka Turkish Financial Corporation founded by Korkut Özal and Eymen Topbaş, a top Motherland Party figure. The Özal government decreed these companies exempt from legislation pertaining to regulating commercial activities and placed them under the supervision of the prime ministry. The partners of these firms include rightwing Turks and similar corporations in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Sudan. While these companies do engage in regular commercial activities, their interests extend to providing financial support for Islamist publications and newspapers. These Saudi-financed companies also established a number of religious foundations to “educate” Turkish youth.