The Grey Wolves: A Marriage of Ethnic Religious Extremism

The name hides an extremist ideology behind a cloak of vague metaphors. Who exactly are Turkey’s Grey Wolves (Turkish: Bozkurtlar)? There is no easily identifiable leadership structure, yet their activities often appear coordinated. They use a vocabulary commonly associated with racism, yet they are responsible for some of the most egregious religious freedom violations in Turkey’s modern history. Turkish media frequently denies that the Grey Wolves exist, yet many government officials have an irrefutable connection. To those unfamiliar with it, the Grey Wolves’ language at times sounds harmless, but hidden underneath such language is the capacity to ignite a firestorm.

That firestorm has been ignited, the fruit of which is most evident throughout the many regional conflicts Turkey is engaged within. The time has come to officially name the Grey Wolves as a significant driver of persecution and an entity of concern for religious freedom violations.

Understanding Turkishness

The preamble to Turkey’s Constitution makes it clear that the protection of Turkishness is a core component of the country’s identity. It states, “That no protection shall be accorded to an activity contrary to Turkish national interests, Turkish existence and the principle of its indivisibility with its State and territory, historical and moral values of Turkishness.”

There is no question that Turkey’s historical and moral values are rooted in the Ottoman Islamic Empire. The demise of the empire following World War I led to the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey. Most of the territory previously controlled by the empire was lost, and new countries emerged. The empire previously enjoyed a status as the heart of the Muslim world, but after the empire’s dissolution, that heart moved elsewhere. Who was to blame for these changes? Non-Turks, the Christians.  

As one ethnic Turkish Muslim convert shared with ICC, “I became a Christian and immediately felt like I betrayed my country. I still feel that way. During the independent war, we fought against lots of countries and some bishops blessed the Turks’ enemies. That’s why people started to hate Christianity and Christians. Also some of the enemies’ flags had crosses, like Greece… Turkish people believe that if you aren’t Muslim, you’re an enemy. When you ask people’s religion here, some people will say I’m a Turk. Because people believe that if you’re a Turk, then you have to be Muslim."

The Grey Wolves and MHP

The marriage of a Turkic ethnic identity with an Islamic religious identity is engrained within Turkey’s culture, and it is a marriage radicalized by Turkey’s Grey Wolves. They use many names when identifying themselves, including the terms ultra-nationalists and idealists (Turkish: Ülkücü). They are sometimes described as the fascist paramilitary arm of Turkey’s MHP political party, who aligned with the ruling government’s AKP party three years ago. It was an alliance the legitimized the Grey Wolves ideology throughout society. A popular slogan used by the MHP describes the unification of ethnicity and religion as “Our bodies are Turkish; our souls are Islamic. A body without a soul is a corpse.”

They also make it clear that regional expansionism is a goal of this unification. The MHP’s website states, “(Our vision) is to make our country a super power and a ‘leading country’ both in her region and in the world with a new concept of Turkey-centered civilization and world order.” Indeed, the evidence of this goal is everywhere. Turkey is not the same country as it was three years ago, and its ability to influence across continents remains unparalleled compared to other Middle Eastern countries. The underlying Grey Wolf ideology of the MHP has not only been exported globally, but is involved in a number of racist religious freedom abuses.

For outsiders looking in, understanding the Grey Wolves can be challenging. This is particularly true since Turkey’s state-run media often denies that there is an organization known as the Grey Wolves, but affirms its existence in other contexts. For example, the Daily Sabah stated that “Bozkurt’ means Grey Wolves in Turkish and its use has been banned in France and Germany, even though no such movement with the name exists.” In a separate Daily Sabah article, the Turkish Foreign Ministry was quoted as affirming the Grey Wolves’ existence. It said, “The fact that a regulation published on Feb. 11 (2019) in accordance with the Austrian Interior Ministry’s so-called “symbols law” includes the ‘grey wolf’, which is the symbol of a legal political party in our country, is on the same list as the symbol of a bloody terrorist organization like the PKK is a complete scandal.”

The Ülkü Ocakları Cultural Centers

The legal political party in question, the MHP, claims that they do not support extremism, instead often referring to the Grey Wolves through different names, particularly the Idealist Movement. Anadolu Agency quoted the 2020 MHP Deputy Chairman as saying that “The cultural and social representative of the idealist movement is still Ülkü Ocakları and the political representative is MHP.”

Ülkü Ocakları Cultural Centers, or Idealist Cultural Centers, are the Grey Wolves’ education arm and is responsible for exporting its ideology abroad. The centers are not necessarily connected by an obvious hierarchal structure, nor is there an obvious and consistent academic standard. The uniformity is in the ideology, and materials produced by Grey Wolf influencers are commonly used. For example, Ahmet Arvasi is sometimes regarded as the “ideological father” of the Idealist Movement. His book, The Turkish Islamic Ideal, was key for framing the kind of Islamic-Turkic nationalism that the Grey Wolves are known for.

The nuances of the meaning of Islamic-Turkic nationalism are debated throughout the Ülkü Ocakları Cultural Centers and other parts of society, but the end result is very clear. Through these centers, the Grey Wolves have gained a foothold across multiple countries. Violence follows wherever they are established. France has banned the Grey Wolves, and Germany’s Parliament has passed a similar motion. Austria has banned the Grey Wolf salute. There have been multiple calls for the European Union to pass similar resolutions, and to even include the Grey Wolves on the terror list.

Religious Freedom Implications  

As self-described Turkish nationalists, the Grey Wolf movement can be easily labeled as racist. But the religious freedom implications that flow from the definition of Turkishness are profound. It is no coincidence that the instances of Christian persecution inside modern Turkey’s borders often include a Grey Wolf element. In 1981, a member of the Grey Wolves attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II. The 2006 murder of Father Andrea Santoro in Trabzon was committed by a Grey Wolf member. The 2007 assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink is believed by many to have been executed by the Grey Wolves, either funded by or with the foreknowledge of Turkish Intelligence. The Grey Wolves are believed to have had some involvement in the 2007 Zirve Publishing House murders.

These incidents are well-known amongst the religious freedom advocate community and demonstrate a pattern of targeted assassinations conducted by a handful of perpetrators. Each case involves a sense of mystery, a sense of unanswered questions that after the passage of so many years, will just have to remain unanswered.

Today, the religious freedom incidents involving the Grey Wolves are of a different nature, though the mystery remains. Their activities appear globally coordinated by an invisible hand, and their ideology appears militarized and organized in conflict zones. It is an unprecedented cross-border exportation of ethnic religious freedom abuses.

For example, the Sultan Murad Brigade in Syria is one of Turkey’s main allied groups and maintains close relationships with the Grey Wolves and MHP. Members often post pictures while making the Grey Wolf salute, and their involvement in multiple types of human rights violations are documented by a number of international organizations. They are, quite simply, terrorists.

When Turkey encouraged Azerbaijan to begin a conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian: Artsakh) this past fall, Turkey provided military support by paying Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside the Azeri army. A number of those mercenaries were from the Sultan Murad Brigade. ICC documented dozens of photos and videos showing unidentified fighters using the Grey Wolf salute during the Karabakh war. The Syrian fighters were recruited specifically to “kill Christians”. Video and photo documentation shows a particular kind of brutality towards Armenian Christians during this war, including beheadings. The Grey Wolf salute punctuates many of these violent activities.

The Grey Wolves have a long history of terrorism towards ethnic religious minorities, but their skillset has evolved. They are stronger than in the early 2000’s. The MHP’s political alliance with Turkey’s ruling AKP three years ago legitimized them, giving the Grey Wolves a new sense of unity. They are militarized, they are efficient, and they are on the move globally. Their mission is Pan-Turkic Islamism, and any ethnic Christian who exists within their targeted sphere is at risk.

Now is the time to name the Grey Wolves for what they are: an entity of particular concern for religious freedom.

For interviews please contact Alison Garcia: press@persecution.org

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?