A 61-year-old Turkish cleric who was convicted of sexually abusing a minor is soon to be released from prison thanks to an amnesty bill pushed through parliament in July by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who used the cleric to advance his political agenda overseas and recruit followers within Muslim communities in foreign countries.
Eyüp Nurullah Şağban, also known by his adopted name Sheikh Fatih Nurullah Efendi, was a powerful sect leader who carried out President Erdogan’s agenda not only in Turkey but also in numerous other countries. He urged his followers to support what he referred to as “the sultan of a new Ottoman state.” Aligning with the Turkish government’s policy of endorsing jihadists, he also encouraged his sympathizers to join jihadists in Syria and advocated for the establishment of an Islamic state.
The sheikh, a father of four, was indicted in September 2020 by the Sakarya Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office for the repeated sexual abuse of children and deprivation of liberty for sexual purposes involving a child. The public outcry, triggered by the scandalous revelations, made it difficult for his political connections to conceal the case. However, it did facilitate a reduced sentence and most likely a speedy release from prison.
Despite the indictment initially seeking a 55-year sentence, the court ultimately convicted him and sentenced him to a reduced term of 10 years, five months, citing the good behavior displayed by the sheikh during the proceedings. Right from the beginning, the government acted swiftly to secure a gag order, issued by a loyalist judge in the middle of the night, shortly after the media coverage of his crimes surfaced. The telecommunications watchdog blocked links to online news articles, and news platforms were coerced into taking down the stories.
A video shared by Sheikh Fatih Nurullah Efendi’s foundation on Facebook shows President Erdogan’s son Bilal and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu participating in a religious ritual resembling those typically led by the sheikh himself:
The conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals on November 24, 2022. Nevertheless, he is scheduled to be released from prison within six months, courtesy of an amnesty bill hastily drafted by the government. The bill was rapidly pushed through parliament and signed into law by President Erdogan on July 15, 2023.
Moreover, the sheikh was indicted and tried a second time, in this instance for the sexual abuse of his sister-in-law’s 11-year-old child, but the court acquitted him in June 2022, citing the lack of credible evidence. The ruling noted that the statements of the child and her father were not corroborated by solid evidence. The victim’s lawyers disagreed with the decision and filed an appeal, which is still pending.
In the first case against the sheikh, the statements of two girls, aged 10 and 12, taken by a public prosecutor with help from psychological counsellors and experts, revealed that the sheikh repeatedly molested the children in the past. The 12-year-old victim, identified only by the initials Y.A. and the daughter of one of the sheikh’s disciples, described three instances of sexual abuse by the sheikh in her testimony in court on December 13. 2020.
She mentioned that the sheikh had informed her that angels had conducted a wedding ceremony between them in a dream, indicating that they were destined to be together. In the sheikh’s room, after they were left alone, he initiated a kiss. The victim’s father, a plumber, had a contract at the compound and was compensated for his work, while the mother was in charge of preparing meals for the sheikh and his guests. The girl used to enter the sheikh’s room to bring tea or food.
In one incident that took place on March 17, 2020, the sexual abuse escalated to a rape attempt. The victim additionally informed the court that she had been threatened by the sheikh not to disclose what had occurred. He warned her, saying, “If you divulge this to anyone, I will harm your mother, jeopardize your father’s employment and leave you homeless.”
A recorded phone conversation that was leaked to the internet also revealed that the sheikh had attempted to conceal the incident. He offered hush money to the victim’s father and even proposed staging the child’s murder to make it look like a suicide in an effort to eliminate the witness. He mentioned that he would have already left Turkey if air travel had not been restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic at the time. Additionally, he suggested that he would take the child as his bride when she reached the appropriate age if that was the desire of the family.
The sect has its origins in Istanbul’s Kasımpaşa neighborhood, where Erdogan spent his formative years. The sheikh, a former wrestler who assumed leadership of the sect about 20 years ago under what appear to be questionable circumstances, has expanded his network with substantial support from the Erdogan government. Events organized by the sheikh’s foundation, Gülzari Mualla Vakfı, were attended by senior government officials.
In a video shared by the foundation on Facebook on January 10, 2018, Erdogan’s son Bilal and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu were observed participating in a religious ritual resembling those typically led by the sheikh himself. When the scandal over the sheikh’s actions came to light, Soylu was still serving as interior minister, overseeing the country’s largest law enforcement agencies, the police and the gendarmerie.
The sect even organized large-scale religious ceremonies in football stadiums that were attended by members of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In one video obtained by Nordic Monitor, it depicts the sheikh leading a parade in Kasımpaşa accompanied by two men dressed in Ottoman military attire, holding swords, bows and arrows. As they proceeded down the alley, they also sang religious songs.
The sheikh is seen leading a parade in the Kasımpaşa neighborhood accompanied by two men dressed in Ottoman military attire:
The sect was in the process of constructing a major compound, often referred to as the “Castle of Islam,” in Ankara with the capacity to house around 3,000 people. It had a substantial presence in Çorum and Bolu provinces while maintaining branches known as “Dergah” in approximately two dozen provinces in Turkey, as well as several in Germany.
In series of recorded sermons, the sheikh was observed advocating jihad and encouraging his followers to join armed groups supported by Turkey in Syria’s northeast. He urged his followers to infiltrate the control mechanisms of the Turkish state, praised Erdogan for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque and described a false flag coup attempt in 2016 as a pivotal moment in Turkey’s history. He claimed that this event marked the establishment of the second Ottoman Empire, with Erdogan becoming its first sultan.
An examination of the sect’s activities suggests that the sheikh had garnered popularity in Indonesia, where he formed close alliances with various individuals and groups. It appears that he had established a close relationship with Dewan Ulama Thariqah Indonesia (DUTI), an organization founded in 2016 with the encouragement of the Erdogan government. A DUTI convention, held December 5-6, 2019, concurrently in Turkey and Indonesia, received praise from President Erdogan, who conveyed a personal message to congratulate the organizers and openly expressed his support for DUTI.
In a letter read aloud at the convention, the Turkish president declared, “Your friends are our friends, and your enemies are our enemies.” In his letter Erdogan criticized Western nations, accusing them of creating terrorist organizations like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) within Muslim territories. He also pointed out their exploitation of the abundant mineral and natural resources in Africa.
In the declaration adopted by DUTI at the conclusion of the convention, it was explicitly stated that DUTI would collaborate with the Turkish government to consolidate the resources of every Muslim nation to work towards the liberation of Palestine from what it referred to as Zionist Israel. Additionally, the declaration mentioned DUTI’s intention to take action against the Gülen movement, a group known for its outspoken criticism of President Erdogan. The Gülen movement was inspired by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been a vocal critic of the Erdogan regime, particularly concerning the issues of corruption and Turkey’s aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups.
Indeed, one of the early and noteworthy actions taken by DUTI after its establishment was to issue a controversial fatwa against the Gülen movement in October 2018 alleging that the group had distorted Islam and collaborated with Zionists. The fatwa was presented by the Erdogan-controlled media in Turkey as a religious edict that was approved by the entire Muslim leadership in Indonesia despite the fact that DUTI represented only a fringe group in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Sheikh Nurullah hosted various Indonesian Islamic figures in Turkey as well as traveling to Indonesia. He even made comments on Indonesian politics. In one video he is seen offering a special prayer for Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, who is currently serving as minister of defense and was a presidential candidate in the 2019 elections.
In addition to Indonesia, the sheikh has established a presence in several other countries, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Germany, Morocco, Algeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, often operating under the guise of a Sufi interpretation of Islam. He frequently traveled to Germany to encourage his followers to expand their network in cities such as Bremen and Ludwigshafen.
Following the conviction and imprisonment of Sheikh Nurullah for the sexual abuse of a minor, the Gülzari foundation maintained a low profile, keeping its activities away from public scrutiny. However, it seems that the group has been clandestinely lobbying for its leader’s early release from prison, an effort that appears to be on the verge of yielding results.
Since 2015 the Erdogan government has escalated its efforts to appoint a significant number of Islamists to government positions. The staged false flag coup attempt in July 2016 was used as a pretext to carry out a mass purge, resulting in the dismissal of more than 130,000 public servants to make way for new appointments. Islamist sects and groups have played a role as a revolving door for putting religious individuals with strong convictions and zeal into government positions.
Erdogan’s letter to the convention held by Dewan Ulama Thariqah Indonesia (DUTI), an organization founded in 2016 with the encouragement of the Turkish government:Erdogan_DUTI_letter