An Islamic sohbet is a little like a jazz gig, and its current master in Turkey is an imam named Ahmet in Cassocks. The Arabic-rooted word means “conversation,” but for Sufis, a sohbet consists of a lonely cleric sitting behind a lectern, pontificating, often for hours, before an audience that listens in reverent silence. Ahmet in Cassocks, the John Coltrane of sohbet sessions, has no problem captivating his 856,000 YouTube followers with his free-spirited, experimental rants that consider practical concerns of modernity through the ancient teachings of Islam. In a throaty voice that occasionally betrays a hint of sarcasm, he invokes the Quran and the hadith, a collection of Prophet Mohammad’s sayings and anecdotes. With his lustrous silver beard and wooden walking stick, Ahmet cuts a distinctive figure as he explodes the internet.

Ahmet’s sohbets, streamed online every Thursday, have attracted more than 200 million views since he launched his YouTube channel in 2013. One might engage with Darwin’s theories; another will touch on the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. His most popular sohbet, watched 3.8 million times, lasts just six minutes and ponders the religious implications of oral sex. In other videos, he recommends masturbation as a method to avoid the temptations of rape and questions whether handling a smartphone in the bathroom is religiously acceptable. (He claims that it is, as long as the user is reading Ensonhaber, a Turkish pro-government news site.) But most of his lectures are more subdued. In a recent three-hour sohbet, Ahmet riffed on inheritance law, trending topics on Twitter, and the financial strains Muslims face in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. All are free to view, though, in 2020, he tested a membership scheme: for roughly $4 a month (30 liras), subscribers to his YouTube channel received early access to new material and had emojis of Islamic flags attached to their usernames.

As a leading spokesperson of Naqshbandi, one of the oldest and most powerful Islamic orders in history, Ahmet in Cassocks wields immense power. There are 30 main branches of Sufism active in Turkey today — Naqshbandi is one of them — and 400 sub-branches, including the community that Ahmet belongs to. In total, these branches, or tariqas, are believed to have 10 million followers, including the 8 million that Naqshbandi claims. Like the American evangelical pastor Rick Warren or the German guru Eckhart Tolle, these Sufi clerics devote their lives to authoring books, delivering speeches, and, if they’re truly successful, shaping public conversation. Islamic sects led by charismatic sheikhs and their appointed spokespersons have existed in Turkey, India, and Pakistan since at least the 12th century, but thanks to the internet and more recently the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, they have been enjoying a revival. To a global Muslim audience yearning for content and community, YouTube clerics offer the best of both worlds: spiritual wisdom enjoyed from the safety of one’s living room.

Turkish authorities have for centuries had a complicated relationship with Sufi clerics. In 1925, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, announced a wholesale ban on Sufi sects, as their sites of worship had earned a reputation for being “brothels and wine houses,” in the words of one prominent sheikh. This attitude changed after a conservative opposition party came to power in 1950, and since then, Turkish leaders have not only been sympathetic to tariqas but often are quiet believers. The current health minister, for instance, is reportedly aligned with the İskenderpaşa order, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is close to several Naqshbandi sheikhs. While the Turkish government will aggressively go after anybody it perceives to be an enemy, including academics and journalists, perhaps because of these ties, clerics have largely been spared.

This winter, religious-themed streaming content grew rapidly as Covid-19 raced around the world and restrictions on in-person gatherings became the norm. For some anxious Turks faith became a savior. In one national poll conducted last June by Istanbul’s İbn Haldun University, 86 percent of 3,070 interviewees reported using prayer and worship to deal with the fear, anxiety and stress brought about by the coronavirus. While Turks are about as religious as they have been for years, there are more opportunities to engage with religion than ever before. In part because of new technologies, “religion is more integrated into daily life,” Ismihan Simsek, a media commentator and author of Popstar Islamic Preachers, told me. She cited a study by Erciyes University which demonstrated that the internet has become a primary source of religious information, alongside books and family.

Ahmet in Cassocks’s sohbets have attracted more than 200 million views since he launched his YouTube channel in 2013.

Ekrem Süle, a medical supply salesman, is a 32-year-old follower of Ahmet. What he admires in the cleric is “his way of telling stories, his diction,” and the breadth of his knowledge about Islam. Süle stresses that Ahmet is ehl-i sünnet, an Islamic term that means someone belongs to a community that embraces a spiritual path. Harun Boyacı, another follower, has been enjoying Ahmet’s talks for the past 25 years. “His oratory is so beautiful and impressive,” he says, adding that his relationship with Islam has been “very much strengthened,” thanks to Ahmet’s talks. Cevahir Topaloğlu, a 19-year-old journalist who works as an editor at a local newspaper in the Black Sea city of Rize shared similar feelings but noted that he only allows himself to watch the cleric’s videos on his phone at night. “If we use our gadgets all day long for viewing sohbets, they’ll of course create addiction. We have to schedule our use,” says Topaloğlu, who said that his life changed after he began following Ahmet.

On social media, debate about Islam is dominated by about a dozen well-known clerics. They create trending topics through public arguments and controversies — Ahmet has accused fellow clerics of sacrilege and been called an informant for the Turkish government — and play off each other’s successes and failures to win new followers. After spending decades traveling to remote Anatolian towns to deliver sohbets, Ahmet has seen social media prove an especially efficient way to grow his audience. The hours-long format of the traditional sohbet has given way to snippets that can go viral on Twitter or on Instagram, and like all savvy modern-day preachers, he tailors his speeches to better fit those platforms. Covid-19 also pushed him to scale up. His organization now releases between 20 and 25 new programs a week — up from three or four — and produces live sermons for broadcast. Ahmet and the community’s leaders have “a very direct relationship” with the IT department, observed Aytuğ Halil Akar, a ’90s-era-coder-turned-pious-Muslim who oversees production.

The growing influence of these independent clerics has not gone unnoticed by the country’s leaders, who have a track record of censoring tech platforms for hosting content they disapprove of. Turkey banned YouTube in 2007 for a video that “insulted Turkishness,” again in 2014 for secretly taped recordings of government officials, in 2015 for videos depicting the assassination of a Turkish state prosecutor, and in 2016 for ISIS-produced execution videos of Turkish soldiers. In addition, authorities temporarily banned Blogspot and Blogger and shut down Twitter for two weeks, after the last refused to remove tweets alleging government corruption. According to Turkey’s Freedom of Expression Association, in 2019 alone, the government banned 130,000 web addresses, 7,000 Twitter accounts, 6,251 Facebook posts, and over 10,000 YouTube videos. A study published in 2020 found that Turkey ranks third on the list of countries with the most VPN users. Finally, just last winter, the government began enforcing legislation mandating that foreign social media platforms appoint representatives in Turkey to execute removal requests. If the companies failed to comply, they would be fined, and their bandwidth for Turkish traffic would be slowed by 90%. After being forced to pay about $5.4 million (40 million liras), YouTube gave in. On January 8, TikTok — where impersonations of Ahmet are a popular pastime — followed suit, as did Facebook shortly thereafter. 

Digital clerics are beginning to come under similar scrutiny — including Ahmet in Cassocks. Wary of his popularity, Erdoğan has made clear that he can pull the plug on the preacher any time he likes; while Ahmet, who openly supports Erdoğan, has boasted that his sohbet sessions 25 years ago may have helped raise the autocrat to power — and hinted that his new ones could do the opposite, if he so desired. Last year, in a show of force, Erdoğan ordered Ahmet to police headquarters for questioning. Yet even in this climate, digital sohbets remain a popular way to speak out about sensitive issues. Since taking office in 2002, Turkey’s ruling AKP, the party of Erdoğan, has promised to create a “New Turkey” — a country in which religious freedom would be prioritized in the name of democracy. Internet clerics serve this Islam-friendly agenda, but they pose their own problems. Among the legions of YouTube sheikhs fawning over the government, there are also those subjecting it to thoughtful scrutiny on Twitter. And now, as more and more would-be clerics and followers have come of age in this new Turkey, they are joining a flourishing ecosystem that won’t easily be contained by authorities in Ankara.

Photography by Nicole Tung for Rest of World

Alparslan Kuytul is an internet-famous preacher known for his passionate speeches, bold political statements, and suave good looks. On his YouTube channel, which has gotten more than 14 million views in the past six years, the silver-haired cleric’s sohbets typically follow a standard form: an exegesis of the Quran followed by hot takes on Turkey’s foreign policy from a conservative standpoint. When a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet downed a Russian attack aircraft in 2015, Kuytul was one of the few Islamists who publicly opposed the move. The following year, when the country discussed drafting a new constitution, Kuytul attacked the Turkish government for not wanting to remove an article declaring secularism a founding principle of the republic. But it was Kuytul’s critical stance toward Erdoğan that finally led to his arrest in 2018. (The Turkish government contends he was guilty of financial malpractice.) The cleric spent ten months in Bolu Prison in solitary confinement, but even that didn’t stop his YouTube activity. Kuytul’s wife began recording their 10-minute-long weekly phone calls and posting them on social media. These prison sohbets continued for 43 weeks, until the summer of 2019, when authorities took away the couple’s telephone rights. Censorship ended up being the subject of Kuytul’s 48th episode.

The ascent of preachers like Ahmet and Kuytul unnerves the Islamist government. While Turkey has fashioned itself as a secular country since becoming a republic in 1923, it has always remained predominantly Muslim, with a population that is deeply conservative. Each of the country’s major cities house a variety of Islamic sects, and fearing that any one of them might hijack the national religious conversation, the Directorate of Religious Affairs in Ankara has controlled all aspects of religion over the past century, setting the appropriate tone with weekly Friday sermons. Perhaps in a sign of its desire for greater control, the directorate is starting to pick up tricks from online clerics. Last year, it ordered 81 local muftis (Islamic jurists who issue opinions on religious matters) to, in effect, become their own digital brand managers and post 15-minute sermons on social media several times a week. “They were told to target young, educated mothers, who are among the most devoted consumers of religious content on Instagram and YouTube,” said media commentator İsmihan Şimşek. Now, during daytime hours, when women are expected to be home tending to domestic duties, they can tune into Islam-friendly programs like “Children’s Hour” or “Our Family Home.”

In recent years, the state has come to fear the growing power of individuals it once invested in, including Fethullah Gülen, a former government-employed cleric who is now Turkey’s most high-profile enemy, and Metin Kaplan, the radical Islamist son of another well-known preacher who turned against the republic and went into exile in Germany. In 2016, after a failed coup attempt that was attributed to Gülen’s followers, Turkey’s National Security Council commissioned a sweeping 226-page report on the country’s religious landscape. Leaked online in 2019, the report devoted 46 sections across eight chapters to the country’s most influential preachers and their social media practices, whom they see as performers threatening to corrupt the state-sanctioned version of Islam. In a section on Ahmet, singled out for his popularity, the report’s anonymous authors darkly noted his use of “religion for commercial purposes” and warned that he might put “worldly concerns for survival and power … before the individual’s spiritual purification.”

As Erdoğan has gone from being a conservative reformist to a populist authoritarian, he has used Islamist sects to control and monitor public life, says Mustafa Akyol, the author of “Islam without Extremes.” Up until a decade ago, Akyol says, state-led Islam was moving toward moderation and reformism, allowing its former leaders “to preserve a more independent stance,” while unofficial clerics were “a bit timid if not covert about their views and activities.” That is no longer the case. The directorate today is “unmistakably statist, nationalist, and socially conservative,” Akyol observes, while “the civil Islamic sphere has become more diverse, and visibly so, especially thanks to social media.” Unofficial Islamic leaders exist across the political spectrum, but in the eyes of the current administration, ideology is less of a concern than loyalty. “The bottom line is civil Islam is tolerated as long as it conforms to official Islam, which is the Islam of the ruling party,” Akyol said.

The most influential renegade cleric to emerge in recent years is undoubtedly Gülen, although his story is, uniquely, as much about political power as it is about Islam. First through grainy VHS tapes and later via digital platforms, Gülen built a large and devoted fan base (known in Turkey as the Cemaat), which the state has attempted to dismantle with its own high-tech initiatives. Through his melodramatic and enigmatic sohbets, widely considered the secret sauce of his movement, Gülen convinced followers around the world that he is a once-a-millennium prophetic figure, and at home, his followers climbed to key positions in state bureaucracy. Titans of industry, military leaders, and stars of academia risked their own livelihoods to challenge the government and install him as president. Through his educational network, Gülen has inculcated millions of people — a 2016 U.S. State Department report puts his total number of followers at up to 4 million — and convinced tens of thousands of them to pay himmet, a percentage of their earnings, to support his global movement. As his ascent coincided with the rise of social media, supporters began sharing videos of his sohbets alongside broadcasts of Gülenist events and op-eds from Gülenist newspapers. This bolstered the cleric’s popularity — and it made it much easier for the Turkish state to surveil the Cemaat.

Gülen became a household name in Turkey in late 2013, when incriminating recordings of top government officials were leaked on YouTube. In one, an anxious Erdoğan instructs his son to hide tens of millions of dollars from investigators looking for evidence of corruption. Erdoğan later issued a public statement asserting that the tapes had been doctored by police and prosecutors acting on Gülen’s behalf. (A report released by an advisory tech agency to the Turkish government defended this to be true.) Tensions intensified the following year, after the cleric delivered a sohbet that included a five-minute-long condemnation of the Turkish government. Wearing a prayer cap and sitting in front of a bookshelf, Gülen wished that “fireballs would land on the homes” of government ministers and asked his followers to rebel against the Turkish state. Upon concluding his call to arms, he calmly sipped tea from a tulip-shaped glass.

This game of digital cat-and-mouse escalated over the years. As Gülenists recruited secular allies to help take down the government, Erdoğan’s party invested in troll farms to attack them. Intrigue also centered on the cross-platform messaging app ByLock, which was released in 2014 by a Turkish-born American who went by the pseudonym David Keynes. Keynes claims that 600,000 people, mostly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, downloaded ByLock during the year and a half it was available and that an estimated 90% of ByLock’s Turkish users were thought to be Gülen followers. This made the app a valuable source of data for authorities looking to target them.

Keynes stopped paying his server bills in late 2015, and ByLock went out of business the following year. At that point, the Turkish state was already targeting account holders at Gülenist banks, subscribers of Gülenist newspapers, and businesspeople aligned with organizations run by Gülenist tycoons. In the spring of 2016, having located ByLock’s data on a server in Lithuania, a cyber operations team from Turkey’s intelligence service broke into a building in Vilnius, copied the ByLock database, and flew back to Turkey that same night. Intelligence officers reportedly seized more than 17 million messages and 3 million emails and uncovered the names of over 184,000 users — tens of thousands of whom have since been detained.

Over the next two years, the Turkish army designed an algorithm, Fetö-Metre, to snuff out Gülenists within its ranks. Officials ran background checks according to 72 main and 253 secondary criteria — including whether a person had ByLock on their phone, had a convicted Gülenist as a relative, had an account in a Gülenist bank, had been employed by a Gülenist NGO, or studied at a Gülenist university. Those who failed the test were arrested and tried in military courts. Between 2016 and 2020, nearly 600,000 people were detained, and 94,975 were arrested, indicating the lengths the government was willing to go in order to quell a political threat. Meanwhile, Gülen affiliates in Turkey are still thought to number in the millions, although, because the organization has been classified as a terrorist group, followers are reportedly instructed to deny any links to the cleric.

As all this played out, Gülen himself was thousands of miles away. In 1999, while he was being investigated for plotting to undermine the Turkish republic, he moved to a small town in Pennsylvania and received a green card. His compound, the 25-acre Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, includes several houses, a pond, and a community center and was once compared by a visiting journalist to a ski lodge. (It is, in fact, a former summer camp.) Now approaching 80, Gülen rarely gives interviews or makes public appearances, but he is still active online. He continues to direct his movement through weekly sohbet sessions, assisted by the imams who coordinate his underground global network.

George Etheredge

In the past, clerics who were deemed radical and banned in Turkey often had to pursue their fortunes abroad. Nowadays, the picture is different. Many Sufi preachers are choosing to go West, not because they have to but because they want to. Among the Naqshbandi sects operating on the other side of the Atlantic, the most popular is Osmanlı Nakşibendi Hakkani Dergahı, whose YouTube channel has more than 31 million views to date. Streaming from a farmhouse four hours from New York City, Osmanlı Dergahı’s YouTube channel is updated several times a week with videos featuring Sheikh Lokman, a youthful-looking 50-year-old man who speaks perfect English and typically wears a traditional Ottoman costume. In these videos, the sheikh revisits stories from the Quran and the hadith before a mixed-race audience in a room illuminated by nightclub green lights — the color of sharia and the Ottoman flag. Sitting on the floor, followers ponder his anecdotes and partake in Islamic rituals.

Lokman moved to New York from Singapore in the late 1990s for graduate school. “Those were the days before social media,” Lokman recalled. “I was looking for a sheikh and couldn’t find one in any way except by word of mouth.” He eventually came across a holy man who delivered weekly sohbets in a basement in Times Square; after a year, Lokman decided to take the oath of allegiance. “Then I graduated from Columbia and was supposed to go back to Singapore, but I decided to stay a little bit longer here and see where this Naqshbandi path would take me.” Lokman has now been in New York for more than two decades.

Many Sufi preachers are choosing to go West, not because they have to but because they want to.

His own in-person initiation long in the past, Lokman is convinced that social media is vital to Osmanlı Dergahı’s sustainability and growth: “It isn’t something we have a choice about. … The teachings must be communicated one way or the other. In the old days, it was through letters of clerics and other saints.” Over the last decade, he says, almost all new followers have discovered the organization through YouTube and other social media platforms. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who come from outside and say they want to submit do so because they have seen these videos,” he says. Although this might not sound like a recipe for finding a spiritual community, Lokman insists that technology does not diminish the religious experience. “The majority of followers have my personal number and can text me anytime they want,” he adds. “They can consult me on anything.”

While clerics on both sides of the ocean are focused on expanding their networks and spreading their message, Osmanlı Dergahı and Sufi sects in the West tend to be more open and tolerant than their counterparts in Turkey. Lokman reads The Atlantic and speaks like a Continental philosopher, invoking post-9/11 Islamophobia in the U.S. during our interview. Another Sufi sect, located in a German mountain town about an hour’s drive from Cologne, promises to teach people “about the way of the Sufis” through lectures and music. Run by the son of a Dutch opera singer and a German salesman, the Osmanische Herberge (Ottoman Lodge) boasts a music ensemble that has released several records. In a recording of one of their recent sohbet sessions, the sheikh is seen sitting on the floor, laughing and speaking directly to his mixed-gender crowd. With their more eclectic, expansive outlooks, such organizations serve as a reminder of what Sufism can look like when its leaders are spared from engaging with politics.

There’s no single story to tell about Turkey’s religious sphere and its intersections with politics, particularly in the internet age. The country’s Anatolian heartland, a so-called “cradle of civilization,” is home to a wide array of sects with varying degrees of religiosity: some are radical and militant, others easygoing and philosophical. Together, they form a pluralist religious mosaic. “Thanks to social media, all kinds of Islamic voices can now be heard,” Akyol says. For coming years, he envisions “a chaotic scene, where a broad Islamic spectrum … will exist in Turkey, along with all kinds of secular and even anti-religious thought.” Indeed, in addition to celebrity, feminist, and openly anti-capitalist clerics, Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” has welcomed clerics who openly demonize feminism, LGBTQI rights, and secular lifestyles.

With the presidential election just two years away, Akyol fears that “rigid and conservative” religious circles are “becoming growingly assertive,” as they come to recognize the power they could wield in driving the Islamist vote. Such developments alarm both liberals like Akyol and hardliners like Erdoğan, and they reflect the familiar problem of democracy: when everyone gets a voice, bigots and fearmongers are included. Akyol believes it will take more moderate voices — ones that neither parrot Turkey’s political leaders nor plot to replace them — to create an even more robust religious sphere, one in which no single voice crowds out the rest. And as of December, when Turks take to social media to debate whether and how this can be accomplished, they will do so under the watchful eye of the government.

On April 4, 2020, Ahmet in Cassocks announced on YouTube that his followers could no longer meet in person. He broke this news while sitting at home, commenting on the heroism of doctors and the evils of Covid-19, which he said was punishment for human sin. “Before the virus came along, we did our sohbets with great crowds, and there was so much virtue in those talks,” he recalled gloomily.

It’s strange to watch Ahmet in Cassocks without his community. In a video from 2016, he preaches to a large room filled to the brim with followers. Middle-aged men are bent forward in prayer; children and grandfathers in prayer caps sit raptly. Some are in tears; many close their eyes as they listen to his readings of the Quran. For them, too, the loss of IRL Ahmet in Cassocks must come as a shock. But compared to grainy videos from the 1990s — available on his YouTube channel — Ahmet is more relaxed these days. He no longer struggles to get people’s attention: his introspective exercises, prayer readings, and direct appeals to God effortlessly go viral.

“I love him,” Harun Boyacı, the 25-year-long follower of Ahmet, confessed. “He knows a lot. One day we will die, and how will we fare as we die? Why do we struggle so much inside this finite existence?” For him, and a growing number of followers, only Ahmet’s YouTube channel holds the answers to such questions. Stuck at home, struggling to decipher the meaning of a global pandemic and to survive financially with the world at a standstill, watching Ahmet offers relief. In his blue cap and Burberry scarf, his hands moving forever around his beard, he is a symbol of reassurance.