Germany’s ‘Gray Wolves’ and Turkish Radicalization

What the sway of far-right Turkish groups reveals about the politics of inclusion in Germany

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Germany’s ‘Gray Wolves’ and Turkish Radicalization
A demonstrator makes the nationalist ‘grey wolves’ sign during a gathering outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, on March 11, 2017 / Bas Czerwinski / / AFP via Getty Images

Rarely has an issue conjured up as much consensus in the European Union as the desire to stem the rise of far-right Turkish groups on European soil. Blamed for sedition, organized violence, and spreading hate speech against minorities in Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, lawmakers are seeking to curtail the free rein of Turkish ultranationalism on their home turf.

The ban on the Ülkü Ocaklari (Idealist Hearths), also known by the moniker “Gray Wolves,” is framed by various national parliaments as a crackdown on Turkish far-right extremism. In its annual Turkey report released last month, the European Parliament urged the EU and its member states to consider adding the Gray Wolves to the EU terrorist list and to ban their associations. This constitutes the first official bid to link the organization to terrorism. Firing back a rapid denunciation, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç described the Gray Wolves as part of “a legal movement, which is associated with a long-established political party in Turkey.”

Overlooked in the muddled picture is how the issue relates to wider questions about assimilation and inclusion of Turkish immigrants in Europe, why many refuse to cut ties to their homeland even generations on, and whether such bans will radicalize a rootless youth who are deemed “non-European” in their adopted home, always on the outside looking in.

In my conversation with Bilal (not his real name), a fourth-generation Turkish German in Berlin, he said, “The Ülkücü (idealist) ideology is more than the sum of its parts. Even if some groups are legally banned in Europe, the expression of Turkish milli (nationalist) identity or ideas should be protected as free speech — unless it espouses violence. Some people say to me, ‘If you’re a nationalist, then go live in Turkey!’ But it isn’t that simple. I can be a law-abiding citizen of Germany but identify as a proud Turkish Muslim. Who gets to decide where to draw the line?”

The Ülkücü movement is the outgrowth of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (which later became the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP) led by the party chairperson Devlet Bahçeli, a seasoned politician who has commanded do-or-die loyalty among the party’s rank and file since taking over from Alparslan Turkes after his death in 1997. The Idealist Hearths or Gray Wolves began as the party’s youth movement in the 1960s but gained notoriety for its daredevil brand of Turkish nationalism and nefarious role in armed violence in the Cold War modus operandi of the 1970s and 1980s that targeted so-called internal enemies in the murky underworld of the Turkish “deep state.” Among the more notorious members of the Gray Wolves is Mehmet Ali Ağca, the gunman behind the assassination attempt 40 years ago against Pope John Paul II, said to be “in revenge” for an attack on the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Legend, folklore, and a romanticized history of conquest and victory are central to the Ülkücü worldview, not unlike other ideologically organized movements elsewhere. In Turkic mythology, a gray wolf in pre-Islamic times led ancient Turkish tribes out of the wilderness of Central Asia, where they had been trapped for centuries following military defeat, and into salvation. The movement’s salutation involves the fingers of the right hand with an outstretched arm to form a wolf’s head.

In the 1960s, the Ülkücü movement postured against the left and social democrats who took up ideas around Atatürkism, named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s charismatic founder and the architect of a secular state and society. At the time, the dominant “Ülkücü” ideologues took Atatürkist secularism as shorthand for godlessness and a misplaced envy of the Western world, deemed antithetical to true Turkishness. The movement changed direction in the 1990s, when Atatürk fandom was mainstreamed on the right and gained haste in the 2000s. By then, Bahçeli’s MHP had embraced Atatürk’s legacy as part of its own agenda for the expansion of Turkishness at home and in the Turkic world.

Inside Turkey, the Ülkücü movement (the name “Gray Wolves” is rarely used in Turkish political discourse) is splintered into subgroups that are connected by a binding ethos of loyalty to the Turkish nation and state. Many identify as the dutiful “soldiers” of Atatürk commanded by duty to flag and country. A subset still draws upon the outdated “Turkish History Thesis,” a pseudoscientific doctrine designed during the early republican years of the 1930s to sever the new secular Turkey from its Ottoman and Islamic past. Instead, the ideology claimed that Turks were racially superior, Central Asia was the cradle of humanity, and that the origins of global civilization lay within Central Asiatic and Turkic prehistory. Others are more overtly concerned with Islamic referents and take a hybrid Turkish Muslim identity as their compass.

Since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, Ülkücü groups have rallied around Islamic nationalism, fusing religious scripture with an ethnic ideal of Turkishness. Since the parliamentary election on June 24, 2015, the AKP has ruled in a de facto parliamentary coalition with the MHP, after it lost its electoral majority for the first time. The AKP currently has 288 seats and the MHP has 48 seats, giving the alliance a 336-seat majority in the 600-member national assembly. This alliance of convenience inaugurated a resurgent Turkish Sunni Islamist identity at the helm of the state. The Turkish diaspora in Europe, with hearts and minds tuned to the Motherland, kept pace with the shifting balance of power in domestic politics.

European debates on the ban of the MHP-related Ülkücü movement first sparked in Austria, which in 2019 banned the hand symbol of the wolf. Next, France announced that it would ban the Gray Wolves in November 2020, following street clashes spurred on by Turkish and Azeri members of diaspora communities against Armenians in the French city of Lyon, ominously dubbed a “Hunt for Armenians” by local newspapers. The backdrop of the clashes was the conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that broke out in late September between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in which Turkey supported Azerbaijan. An Armenian monument near Lyon was spray painted with the words “gray wolf” and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s initials (RTE) in neon yellow. Dutch members of parliament mirrored the motion, asking the government to outlaw the Gray Wolves and to pressure the EU into implementing a similar ban.

Germany, home to over 3.5 million immigrants from Turkey, came next. Germany holds the largest foreign Turkish electorate, which means their loyalty is cause for courtship by Turkish political parties. This has prompted the German far right to see Turks as a sizable fifth column — a claim that the Turkish diaspora, the largest minority group in Germany, reject. The AKP receives the bulk of the registered vote, spurred largely by the socially conservative and Ülkücü Turkish constituencies.

For years, the Ülkücü groups have been on the radar of the German national intelligence service and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, flagged as a potential threat to the German constitution. Authorities decry how Ülkücü leaders and members promote pan-Turkish ideologies marinated in racial superiority theories, antisemitism, and hatred of multiple “enemies,” such as the Kurds, Alevis, and Armenians, and pose a threat to the principle of equality. Last November, several politicians from opposition parties in the German parliament called for a ban on the symbols of the Gray Wolves. Not one to mince her words, Left party lawmaker Sevim Dagdelen said, “The greeting of the Gray Wolves, one of the largest right-wing extremist and anti-constitutional organizations in Germany, is quite comparable to the Hitler salute and should therefore be banned.”

The Ülkücü network is organized under two main civil society organizations in Germany. In a 2019 report on the protection of the constitution, the German Federal Ministry of Interior describes the Federation of Turkish Democratic Idealist Associations in Germany (ADÜTDF) as the largest Ülkücü umbrella organization. Established in Frankfurt in 1978, the organization is believed to be represented by 170 local associations and has 7,000 members. This is the figure frequently used by lawmakers to argue that the Gray Wolves constitute the largest far-right movement in Europe. The Union of Turkish Islamic Cultural Associations in Europe (ATIB), based in Cologne, is also accused of being linked to the movement.

In fact, the Ülkücü movement involves a sprawling and often amorphous network of clubs, charities, coffee houses, and neighborhood associations. Most followers lead ordinary lives outside the limelight. Some participate in street protests or mill about sparse sidewalk gatherings on notable days of protest or Turkish national holidays, others lash out as “social media wolves” posting nationalist slogans, crooning ballads to the immortality of Ülkücü heroes and hashtags online under anonymous accounts. Often, Ülkücü handles leave ominous comments on YouTube or Twitter against perceived opponents of “Turkishness.” Şafak Salda, a popular comedian of Turkish descent living in Berlin, offered a brief explainer to his 90,000-plus followers about the German ban. “Listen,” he said earnestly, talking about how Ülkücü accounts prey on their opponents on social media, “When someone leaves a menacing comment on Facebook like ‘our boys will pay you a visit’ we know that they’re not referring to the local Turkish golf club.”

Of course, not all Ülkücü followers are men. Lena Wiese, a social scientist specializing in migration, gender, and exclusion practices, argues that women, while a minority, are not invisible in Germany’s Ülkücü movement. Some women enter the male-dominated, patriarchal structures of the Ülkücü world by association with their fathers, husbands, and uncles. While they are not central figures, some women identify with the close-knit sense of family and communal roots the groups cultivate — a home away from home.

Puncturing their professed self-image as legitimate civil society groups, over the years, various Ülkücü groups have been implicated in violent acts in Germany that expose the dark, criminal underbelly of many of its members. For example, Turkish ultranationalists cropped up as a subculture of renegade biker gangs, most famously known as Osmanen Germania BC (Germania Ottomans). With around 300 members, the group was banned in Germany in 2018, amid raids in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hesse. Members were prosecuted for carrying out violent crimes, including attempted murder, extortion, drug trafficking, deprivation of liberty, and forced prostitution.

In Germany, fears over intra-communal violence in immigrant communities have been long-standing. Common across secular nationalist Turks and the Islamist Ülkücü members is a shared hostility toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the outlawed armed group internationally designated as a terrorist organization. In 2016, on Easter Sunday in the city of Aschaffenburg, three dozen Kurds were reported to have cast rocks and shot fireworks at a group of 600 Turks demonstrating against both the so-called Islamic State group and the PKK. Kurdish protesters barricaded themselves in a cultural center, attacking police from the roof before the offenders were eventually arrested.

But Ismail Kupeli, a political scientist in Germany who studies Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, told me that to say that Ülkücü Turks pose a threat to domestic security in Germany is an exaggeration. Kupeli argues that Turkish hyper-nationalist ideology undermines the values of a pluralist and democratic society in Germany, and this is the central thrust of any perceived security risk at the moment. Ülkücü groups are reprimanded by German media and politicians for anti-Kurdish hate speech, but Turks insist that they have a problem with the long arm of the PKK in Europe, not the Kurdish people. The timing of the 2015-2016 clashes in Germany coincided with the messy politics of the Syrian civil war and the Turkish military intervention to thwart Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Kupeli adds that so far, the Ülkücü groups have targeted leftist Kurdish groups and occasionally supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party in Turkey (HDP) but not the ordinary or apolitical Kurdish community in Germany. For him, the ultranationalist Turks in Germany remain a much talked about but understudied group.

According to Kristian Brakel, Country Director for Turkey at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, pinpointing which “nationalist group is responsible for what is often a bit hard to differentiate given that their members often flow from one group to the other.” Moreover, big umbrella organizations like the ADÜTDF and ATIB “try to maintain a relatively harmless appearance in the public, which is probably also the reason why a ban would not pass the courts. That does, however, not mean that the larger movement as such is harmless.”

Missing from Europe’s unfolding debate on the Gray Wolves is a deeper take on the appeal of the Ülkücü identity for many Turkish migrants and what this reveals about the politics of inclusion there. Stuck in a disorienting undertow between uneasy assimilation and the easy romance of a Turkish heritage, Turkish German youth still reckon with existential questions of belonging. Diaspora communities globally tend to cling to idealized stereotypes of their homeland that give them a larger-than-life sense of self. The Turks in Germany are no different, long preoccupied with reifying the soul of the nation that they left behind. Feelings of longing and remorse mingle with uncertainty as the ever-present question looms large for many — to return to Turkey or to stay?

While the discourse of the Gray Wolves has never thrived in Germany, it was able to portray its project as a defense of Turkish identity in Europe, a protest against Turks as a persecuted minority on the back foot. This kind of oppressor-victim dialectic has proven appealing and is proving unnervingly hard to shake off.

Whereas critics cry foul for the Turkish government’s tight grip over Turkish voters in Germany as a foreign policy tool to capture votes, for many young men and women, the AKP has conferred something upon them that German society has long kept at bay — a sense of power where before they felt powerless. According to Kupeli, the kind of nationalism embodied by the Ülkücü movement offers a positive identity at a time when many young people still feel like second-class citizens in Germany.

For Hasan, born in Germany to Turkish parents, German society has come a long way since the 1970s, when his father emigrated from Ankara with hopes of training as a mechanical engineer in Germany. At that time, he told me, his father remembers seeing signs on shop fronts in Frankfurt that read “Dogs and Turks not allowed.” In contrast, “anti-racism laws forbid such open hate speech against Turks today, and no one can say otherwise,” he told me last November during an online conversation. He grew up in a mainly Turkish neighborhood but since graduating from university has moved to a mixed area. “The racism I experience today is more subtle, more insidious. … It is in the everyday, basic encounters on the street or at work … a shaking of the head, a long silence, a kind of glare when you tell a German that you are a Turk. It settles in your bones.”

Kemal Bozay, a professor who has written on the Gray Wolves and youth radicalization in Germany, finds that the uptick in anti-immigration or racist slogans in Germany in recent years has pushed many Turkish migrants out of the public debate, to retreat into their own echo chambers. What is surprising is that third- or fourth-generation Turkish Germans feel scapegoated, with few options outside of their own “origin” communities. This dialectic, as he puts it, has serious implications for all sides. Treated as the guarantors of “European Turkishness,” an agitated, soul-searching, or directionless youth seem to have been handed a greater sense of belonging.

Regardless of the pull of identity politics, the majority of Turks shun antagonistic Ülkücü ideas. For many Turkish Germans, the Ülkücü movement is synonymous with a warped, dysfunctional, mafia-esque distortion of Turkish nationalism that has no place in Germany’s democracy. Many who have long called Germany home speak about a different kind of Turkish nationalism, one more akin to civic patriotism and cultural-linguistic pride, than the harsher, all-or-nothing Turkishness that far-right Turks champion. “It does generations of Turks toiling in this country as laborers, teachers, doctors, a disservice when the media caricaturizes us all as Gray Wolves,” Hasan says.

Turkish activists argue that media attention on the Gray Wolves seems to be missing the real danger as German prosecutors turn a blind eye to the neo-Nazi or far-right perpetrators of violence against Turkish and other immigrant groups. On Feb. 19, 2020, a far-right gunman torpedoed two shisha cafes in the city of Hanau in a murderous rampage that the German authorities called an act of domestic terrorism. Before he went on his killing spree, the gunman spun paranoid conspiracy theories that appeared to be inspired by QAnon. The gunman targeted immigrants, killing nine at the cafes. Four Turks were among the victims. Hanau was not the first racially motivated attack in Germany in which victims were mainly of Turkish or Kurdish origin. Turks have been targets of brutal racist and anti-immigration violence in Germany for decades, making it difficult to square such violence with Germany’s liberal-progressive image.

On the one-year anniversary of the Hanau attack, the families of the victims and human rights activists revisited haunting questions of why German security services failed to take timely action that could have saved lives, and why the wider threat of German white supremacist, far-right extremism has been underestimated for so long. The persistence of stereotypes against Turkish immigrants, categories of “guest worker,” or open calls for “temporary” Turks to return home are damaging to Germany’s liberal promise of coexistence. And for far-right German extremists, such tropes are used to justify xenophobic violence against Turkish immigrants.

As parts of Europe grapple with the rise of far-right, populist political parties, Turkish far-right ideas should be viewed as both constitutive of this problem and a reaction to it. That the European anti-immigration far-right has mobilized for decades around a staunch rejection of Turkey’s accession talks is no secret. Seeking either consolation or confirmation, some Turks turned toward groups like the Gray Wolves, where idealogues with a predisposition to hawkishness in the past framed assimilation as akin to annihilation of Turkish identity. And therein lies the quandary for Germany: How to integrate Turks who actively resist it as erasure.

Some observers caution that a ban in Germany will inevitably and problematically radicalize Ülkücü youth, forcing them underground in even shadier configurations or to seek revenge on perceived anti-Turkey groups. This is a well-rehearsed argument about how radicalization works, but it does not apply universally. Episodes of altercation or Ülkücü-led protests have mirrored the pace of political twists and turns in Turkey; these have not arisen in response to German domestic politics. Ülkücü members do not seem inclined to rise up against the German establishment and risk losing their legal status and ways of life. If the parliamentary proposal against the Ülkücü movement is approved, membership in organizations believed to be connected to them could be criminalized, with serious repercussions such as a permanent criminal record, loss of employment, or even loss of residency permits.

It is difficult to untangle the proposed terror listing of the Gray Wolves from the rapidly deteriorating relations between Turkey and the EU over the past few years. Talk of a ban in places like Germany sends a message to Turkey that its aggressive foreign policies against EU member states will not go unchecked. Meanwhile, Erdoğan recently railed against the spreading “virus of Islamophobia” across Europe, likening it to the threat of COVID-19.

Stuck in the crosshairs are members of the Turkish diaspora, seemingly reduced to pawns in the political fallout between Turkey and the EU. But ban or no ban, the long-standing debate around radicalization among disaffected Turks in Germany and the limitations of inclusive politics is far from over and requires a resolution within Germany’s deliberative public sphere.

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