Turkish cleric Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, a woman who faced charges of human trafficking and sexual assault, including cases spanning Morocco and Uzbekistan, and was jailed on two separate occasions, has been enlisted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to sway public opinion in Turkey.
Appearing on multiple networks to push the Erdogan regime's talking points, often laced with religious narratives, the 58-year-old Ünlü, who is colloquially referred to as Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, has spent significant time criticizing minority groups, notably the Greek Orthodox community, Jews and of Armenians in Turkey, while at the same time fiercely targeting Erdogan's critics. In the process, it reinforces the xenophobic conspiracy theories that have become synonymous with the dominant narrative of the Erdogan government and its nationalist/neo-nationalist allies, Nordic Monitor research reveals.
During his appearance on the pro-government CNN Turk on September 4, 2023, Ünlü claimed that there are Turks who treacherously cooperate with the Jews, with the aim of dividing Turkey and giving away some provinces for annexation, in order to fulfill the ambitions of the Zionists and their promised lands. Ünlü is known for his anti-Semitic stance, claiming that Jews are responsible for all the evils and evils of the world. He propagates these views not only through national television networks but also on his personal YouTube channel, which has 1.5 million followers and streams his private sermons to his congregation.
Over the years he has steadily turned his attention to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate located in the Fatih district of Istanbul, where Ünlü and his flock have also established a presence. It claims the patriarchate has secretly acquired properties in the neighborhood with financial help from the World Bank, with the alleged intention of converting the predominantly Muslim neighborhood to a Christian one. It advises private individuals not to sell their properties to foreigners, arguing that sales should be exclusively to Muslims. In a separate sermon, he even made a prediction that Muslims would conquer the Vatican and Rome.
Ünlü also includes Erdogan's opponents and critics within Muslim groups on his list of targets. He has consistently criticized Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric based in the United States, for promoting interfaith dialogue and outreach initiatives, arguing that these efforts are aimed at undermining Islam. Kurds who do not support the Erdogan government also receive their share of criticism of the cleric.
The persistent campaign led by Ünlü is supported by a secret deal he made with President Erdogan through his lawyer, Fatih Oğuz, sometime in 2012, after he was put on trial on sex-trafficking and other criminal charges. offences. In his testimony before the 2nd Supreme Criminal Court of Isparta on 16 August 2017, his lawyer revealed that he had met with Erdogan privately at the Beylerbeyi Palace to discuss his client's case and brief the president. This deal eventually led to the cleric's acquittal, with Erdogan stepping in to influence the trial. The acquittal came a month after the cleric met with Erdogan in February 2016.
The first public evidence of cooperation between Erdogan and the cleric came to light during corruption investigations in 2013. Those investigations implicated then-prime minister Erdogan and his close associates in activities related to evading sanctions, which they included a gold merchant who laundered money on behalf of the Iranian regime by bribing Turkish government officials.
During this investigation police obtained a wiretap dated November 29, 2013, which recorded a telephone conversation between the cleric and Erdogan. This conversation revealed their coordination on the strategy of a public campaign, with Erdogan instructing Ünlü on what to say and how to say it, resulting in the cleric's favorable response.
Interestingly, just one day after this phone conversation, Ünlü contacted Mehmet Fatih Saraç, a prominent figure with Islamist connections who held a position of power in a major media outlet. Ünlü informed Saraç about his conversation with Erdogan and discussed the details of an upcoming program scheduled to be broadcast by the agency's television network.
A background check conducted by Nordic Monitor revealed that Ünlü has been in serious legal trouble in the past. He was arrested, charged and subsequently tried on charges of inciting hatred and enmity based on religious differences. On December 17, 2000, the court found him guilty, resulting in his imprisonment for almost three years. The verdict was subsequently upheld on appeal on 21 June 2001.
The hard evidence against Ünlü resulted in his arrest and subsequent indictment, prompting the court to order his pretrial detention. Despite mounting evidence against him, the cleric has strongly denied any wrongdoing, claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by Jews, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate and non-Muslims to tarnish his reputation. In an attempt to rally support, his wife and associates instigated protests, rallying the cleric's followers to take to the streets for demonstrations.
The mobilization of Ünlü supporters raised concerns among the police, particularly regarding the possibility of backlash against minority groups and non-Muslims in the city. Police Intelligence Officer Ubeydullah Çelik, during his testimony on January 4, 2018 at Istanbul's 13th Supreme Criminal Court, developed these concerns. He explained that the police had begun to be vigilant for violent incidents targeting non-Muslims. To address this issue, the police had obtained a warrant from a judge to monitor the phone of the cleric's wife, Mine Ünlü, as the cleric was using her phone to coordinate his activities and mobilize his supporters.
This campaign had already caused tensions among residents of the Fatih neighborhood, leading to protests involving hundreds of people. However, the police were able to prevent potential challenges by taking precautionary measures after gathering information through wiretapping conducted by the police intelligence unit.
As a sign of appreciation for his support to the government, President Erdogan managed to wash away Ünlü's crimes. As a result, the cleric was acquitted of all charges in March 2016 after the panel of judges hearing the case was replaced by Erdogan loyalists, even though there was substantial evidence against him. The court's decision resulted in the conviction of only the gang leader, Nejat Ergin, who received a nominal fine as punishment.