July 7th 2021 | Massimo Introvigne | Bitterwinter

Periodical surveys of Russian citizens prosecuted as part of “extremist” religious organizations noted last week that four are awaiting trial as members of the “Nurdzhular Organization.” Several others were prosecuted and sentenced in the past for the same crime.

The question is, what is Nurdzhular. It is a Russian rendering of the Turkish expression “Nurcular,” meaning “followers of Nursi.” The reference is to Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi (1877–1960), the author of the monumental comment on the Holy Quran known as the Risale-i-Nur. On April 10, 2008, the Russian Supreme Court “liquidated” the “Nurdzhular Organization,” and banned it as “extremist” (well before it liquidated the Jehovah’s Witnesses for the same reason in 2017).

In fact, the Supreme Court and other authorities in Russia largely relied on “expert opinions” about the “Nurdzhular Organization” by Roman Silantyev, a leading anti-cultist who in 2009 was appointed Alexander Dvorkin’s deputy as head of the Expert Council on religion at the Russian  Ministry of Justice, which determines which religious organizations are “extremist” and should be banned. Silantyev falsely informed the Supreme Court that the “Nurdzhular Organization” was banned in Turkey, and Web sites connected with him and Dvorkin continue to repeat this claim today. Russians also claim that the “Nurdzhular Organization” “is supported by the intelligence agencies of Turkey and the USA, whose aims are to weaken and then completely destroy Russia.” Both Dvorkin and Silantyev are employees of the Russian Orthodox Church.

I happen to have studied Nursi and his followers (in 2005, I was one of the few non-Turks invited to a conference on Nursi in Istanbul). Nursi was a fierce critic of secular humanism and atheism and, as such, he criticized both Soviet Union’s Communism and the secularism of Kemal Atatürk and its successors in Turkey. For this reason, he spent time in jail and in exile and was consistently persecuted by the Kemalist military regimes.

However, Nursi was not a fundamentalist. On the contrary, he advocated a dialogue and reconciliation between Islam and modern science, as the only way to make Islam relevant for the modern world. Nursi was also a member of the Sufi brotherhood Naksibendi. As I have argued elsewhere, Nursi was persecuted by the Kemalists precisely because he made Islam what they did not want it to be: a living tradition in dialogue with modern culture and science, and a credible candidate to guide Turkey into the Third Millennium.

It is not difficult to discern an influence of Nursi on the AK (Justice and Development) Party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who is also part of the Naksibendi brotherhood, although in a different branch). Perhaps Silantyev and Dvorkin confuse Nursi with Fethullah Gülen, the former friend and now archrival of Erdoğan, of whose movement Nursi’s theology is one, but not the only, root.

While Gülen’s movement is banned in Turkey, this is certainly not the case for Nursi and his books. On the contrary, Erdoğan has highly praised Nursi, and has claimed that, while his books were once banned by the Kemalists, they are now republished at the government’s expenses. He also blamed Kemalists for changing the name of Nursi’s village of Nurs to “Kepirli” in 1960. The AK Party reinstated the name Nurs in 2012.

As for the “Nurdzhular Organization,” it does not exist as such. “Nurcular” in Turkey identifies a network of individuals and study groups who meet, mostly in private homes, to improve their knowledge of Islam by reading Nursi’s commentaries. There are six main organizations with some structure promoting Nursi’s teachings, but none claims to represent the much broader circle of its admirers—and none is banned in Turkey, where in fact the admirers of Nursi include President Erdoğan himself and his party.

In Russia, those who have been harassed and arrested are Muslim believers who do what their Turkish counterparts do: they meet at home and study Islam using Nursi’s books as textbooks. They do not belong to a “movement” or “organization.” And what they learn from Nursi’s books is a moderate rather than a fundamentalist approach to Islam.

The sinister “Nurdzhular Organization” and “extremist” books by Nursi (unless one considers the criticism of the Soviet Union as “extremist”) only exist in the twisted mind of Silantyev and his associate Dvorkin. It would be a farce, if Russian courts who take the anti-cultists seriously had not converted it into a tragedy.