In 2011, one of the first major decisions of the government that came to power in Yemen after that year’s revolution, which was controlled by the Islah party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, was to build a giant memorial for the Turkish soldiers who invaded and occupied the country twice, in 1538 and 1849. The memorial stayed there in Sanaa until the Houthis decided to bomb it in early 2023.

The memorial upset nationalist Yemenis because it was seen as honoring an invader. Some non-Islah ministers withdrew from the cabinet meeting objecting to the decision — but Islah had already done the math. Its ally, then-Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, appeared insistent on carrying out a step that would endear him to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even if it meant what many Yemenis saw as rewriting Yemeni history and ignoring nationalist Yemeni narratives and feelings.

That wasn’t the last bet Islah would place on Turkey. Throughout Turkey’s hotly contested 2023 presidential race, Yemenis affiliated with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (the official name of the Islah party), stood at the forefront of Arab Islamists cheering and praying for the success of Erdogan and his party. But to understand the party’s evolution to that point, one must look back at its history.

The Islah party’s seeds were planted in the 1940s by Al-Fudail al-Wartlani, an Algerian preacher who was tasked by Hassan al-Banna, the brotherhood’s Egyptian founder, with creating a wing for the movement in Yemen.

But it was another 50 years until Islah was officially formed, when political parties became legal in Yemen in the 1990s. A deal between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the powerful tribal leader Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar allowed the latter to co-found Islah with Saudi support to balance the socialists in the newly unified Yemen, according to al-Ahmar’s biography.

Yet today much of the party is in exile. Many Islah leaders live in Turkey while Yemen’s war is almost in its 10th year. And as a political party that thrives on peace and elections instead of war, Islah is at one of the lowest points in its history, suffering from weakness, fragmentation and poor leadership. As negotiations to end the war continue, it finds its major ally, Saudi Arabia, in talks with its greatest enemy, the Houthis, leaving Islah behind.

The party’s exile has had a dual impact on its fortunes — its distance has made it weak in Yemen while it has become beholden to the country that took its cadres in and allowed for its continued existence. The party is now loyally following the Turkish Islamist movement’s most prominent figures and inserting itself into Turkish politics. To them, Erdogan’s victory in the recent elections carries even more importance than defeating their political rivals in Yemen.

Much like the rest of the Turkish political establishment, Erdogan does not understand Yemen’s current complexities but has a sentimental attachment to the country based on the Ottoman past. Yemen’s history is deeply entwined with Turkey’s, spanning the two Ottoman invasions in the 16th and 19th centuries, and a lengthy occupation that saw the last Turkish troops leave or integrate into Yemeni society in 1919. As a result, Turkey’s approach to Yemen is restrained and pluralistic, even if Islah is wholly beholden to it; Erdogan’s Turkey plays host to Islah leaders as well as to some of their Yemeni political and military opponents. In Istanbul’s streets, you can run into Houthis, leaders of Saleh’s party, Yemeni business owners and a wide range of Yemeni factions.

For Islah members specifically, Istanbul is not like any other city in the world. Their emigration from war-torn Yemen carries deep religious and historical resonances, the legacy of a chapter in the early history of Islam when followers of the new religion in Mecca suffered the oppression of their polytheist compatriots. Many migrated to Abyssinia in two groups, by order of the Prophet Muhammad, who praised the Abyssinian ruler Najashi, saying: “Here lives a king under whom no one is oppressed.”

Najashi — whom some Islah members have likened to Erdogan — is said to have been sympathetic to the followers of the new religion. That image belies the reality that Erdogan’s power base and legitimacy are based in Turkish nationalism, despite Islamist roots. Yet these disparate realities mean that even today many of the party’s cadres fantasize about the idea of a caliphate centered in Turkey.

During numerous visits over the past seven years, I explored Istanbul’s community of newcomers, specifically those from my country, Yemen. For me, unlike my Islahi compatriots, Istanbul was not “dar hijra wa-qarar” (a permanent migration), but rather an occasional “dar obour” (place of transit) where you could make use of its fantastic air connections between East and West.

Islah members in Turkey are torn between adherence to Erdogan’s polity and the country’s dynamics, and fears caused by the aimlessness of a party in exile and the risk of falling further into irrelevance.

Those fears are rooted in Erdogan’s modus operandi, which has largely relied on the opportunistic embrace of Islamist movements for influence, discarding them when they become a liability. He has allied with and abandoned Islamist movements across the region as he sought to repair his relationships with Arab nations like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which vehemently oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism writ large.

Since 2015, Turkey has supported or opposed the Saudi and Emirati roles in the Yemen war according to the changing nature of its turbulent relationships with each of them. After falling out with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their Qatar boycott in 2017 — when a diplomatic crisis between Qatar on one side and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other blew up into a full-on blockade, partly over Doha’s support for the Brotherhood — Erdogan called for an end to Yemen’s wars and suffering; when back on good terms with Saudi King Salman, he condemned Iran’s role there. Furthermore, when he wanted to bully Saudis during the Jamal Khashoggi case, he offered the Yemeni president — and Islah — the option of activating a military protocol Turkey signed with Yemen in 2002. Knowing exactly where he lived (Riyadh), the Yemeni president officially declined the offer.

There were a few cases in the years before and after that where private Turkish companies sold dozens of drones to the Yemeni government specifically to use in its defense against the Houthis, but they were so basic that a military leader who was involved in the deal joked that they were barely good for wedding photography.

In the first half of the 20th century, Yemen (especially its northern part) was a conservative society compared with those of most other Arab countries. Although it was ruled by a theocratic regime during the Mutawakkilite kingdom, a Zaidi theological monarchy led by Hashemite imams that was closer to Shiite than Sunni Islam, the birth of the Islamist opposition movement cannot be considered a purely Yemeni phenomenon.

On Sept. 26, 1962, a revolution began in northern Yemen that overthrew the monarchy and led to the formation of the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, and on Oct. 14, 1963, an insurgency was proclaimed in the south that ultimately kicked the British out of Aden and created South Yemen. The Islamist movement in the north continued to grow in the second half of the last century, but not at the same rate as the nationalist and leftist trends of the time that dominated the Arab political arena and shaped national identity during this revolutionary period.

After those two revolutions, the Islamists adapted to their secondary role with astonishing agility, entering successive alliances with the regime in the north. They mainly settled for a role confronting leftist groups in the north that were supported by the South Yemen regime.

In the decades that followed, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were able to take powerful positions within the security, military and civilian corps. The Brotherhood came under Saudi patronage in the 1970s after Nasser went after them in Egypt and as Saudi Arabia started to support and become the umbrella for Sunni groups globally. This affected Yemen both socially and politically.

Still, it was not until the 1990s that Islah took full shape and reached the peak of its power. The agreement establishing a union between North and South Yemen emphasized the principle of political pluralism, thus helping Brotherhood affiliates gain local autonomy. The newly formed party, now known as Islah, also included a number of influential figures, conservative business owners and returnees from jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan like Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who died weeks ago in exile in Istanbul. Islah became the rallying point for all conservative right-wing groups: Although not every Islah affiliate was a Brotherhood member, all Brotherhood affiliates in Yemen were necessarily part of Islah.

Like all political Sunni Islamic groups in the region, the Islah party’s morale and prospects rose after the region’s first Islamist party came to power by winning the presidency in Egypt in 2012. With the 2011 revolution and Mohamed Morsi’s rise to power in Egypt, Yemen’s Islamists reached the pinnacle of their utopian belief that the “age of empowerment and the return of the caliphate” was about to unfold, as per a speech at the time by Abdulmajeed al-Zindani in Change Square in Sanaa. Fourteen years later, the Caliphate wasn’t established in the world as per Zandani’s wish. Instead, he passed away in the capital of the last Islamic Caliphate. His funeral was attended by Erdogan himself as it coincided with the funeral of the famous Turkish religious leader Hasan Kilic (the leader of Ismailaga community), after Saudi Arabia failed to respond to Zandani’s family’s request to bury him in Mecca.

But Islah’s celebration in 2012 had one problem: It was too early. Just as Cairo had led the Brotherhood to defeat against Zaidi political Islam in the 1940s, it did so again in the 2000s against the Houthis, an armed Zaidi revivalist movement that was inspired by revolutionary Iranian Islamism and a desire to push back against the spread of Saudi-backed Salafism. The July 2013 fall of the short-lived Brotherhood regime in Egypt deflated the Arab Spring uprisings and was felt by the Sunni Islamist movements throughout the region that had been carried to power by many of the popular revolts. In Yemen, it opened a difficult chapter for Brotherhood affiliates. The unfolding of later events in Tunisia and the collapse of the allied regime of Omar al-Basheer in Sudan didn’t help.

Islah’s popular base and media arms were busy siding with the Brotherhood in Cairo in 2013 and early 2014, and Islah staged demonstrations in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in support of former President Morsi, who was by then in jail. Meanwhile, the Houthis were taking over the Amran governorate and marching toward Sanaa. By the time the party realized the threat, its fate had become entwined with external actors and it had backed away completely from addressing Yemen’s domestic challenges in favor of other priorities.

The eruption of Yemen’s civil war in 2015 and the Saudi-led military intervention compounded the Brotherhood’s plight in Yemen. The armed Houthi movement, other domestic rivals and the UAE — ostensibly an ally in the Arab military coalition — all aimed to root out Islah because of an opposition to political Islam, intending where possible to close all its party offices, affiliates and businesses, and remove its leaders via imprisonment or assassination.

Islah leaders began to leave the country, with the wealthy business owner and politician Hamid al-Ahmar among the first to flee. Al-Ahmar, whose late father Abdullah al-Ahmar was among Islah’s founding members, left Yemen for Istanbul as the Houthis closed in on Sanaa in September 2014. The group’s historic safe havens, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were no longer favorable to many of the Islah members that fled as the war intensified. Egypt’s military regime had jailed Morsi and carried out mass arrests of Brotherhood members. In Riyadh, the rise of Mohammed bin Salman undermined the Brotherhood’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, prompting Islamists to migrate from Riyadh to Istanbul.

Seeking consolation and meaning in history and heaven, one Islah leader even called it “the third migration to Abyssinia,” referencing the flight of Muhammad’s companions to Ethiopia when the new religion faced oppression in Mecca.

Given Istanbul’s growing importance to Islah, the party opened an executive office in the city in 2016. The Turkish presence in Yemen, where there is an office in every governorate, appears to exceed the significance Ankara actually attaches to Yemen. This trend continued with the Qatar boycott in 2017. The stays of Islah leaders in Istanbul began to stretch from months to years.

Those years of the Qatar crisis were the hardest and most lonely for Islah leaders in Saudi Arabia. Their passports were filled with multiyear visas to enter Qatar but they knew well that visiting their patrons in Doha would risk their relationships in Riyadh, which was embroiled in the war in Yemen.

Hence, Istanbul became an even more ideal destination for many Islah leaders. It enjoyed an environment conducive to investment — a nice perk for the party’s top-tier leaders — and a regime at peace with the Brotherhood and tolerant of its ideologies. In addition, Turkey has allowed the Brotherhood space to establish its communities and shape the politics of the Arab diaspora. Turkish authorities have embraced the proliferation of pro-Brotherhood TV channels broadcasting from Istanbul (heavily funded by Qatar and legally licensed by Turkish authorities), such as Belqees TV, Yemen Shabab TV and Al-Mahriah. In Turkey, they also recently started having unofficial diplomatic conversations with the Iranians, safely and far from Saudi eyes, especially after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.

Some Islah expats have also established close ties with the Turkish security services, allowing them certain privileges to reside, invest and move with relative freedom. For example, before dying, al-Zindani, the Islahi leader whose activities, movements and guests were all restricted in Riyadh, was permitted to proselytize throughout Turkey with security protection until advanced age and deteriorating health curtailed his activities. Today, two of his sons manage his Turkish business interests and finances on his behalf. Others include al-Ahmar, who runs his business empire from Istanbul, and the Qatari-funded militia leader Hamoud al-Mikhlafi. These men had a lot of money, and Turkey didn’t mind that they pursued their politics on the side. For the Turks, the question of what to do with their Yemeni visitors could wait.

Altogether, more than 25,000 Yemenis live in Turkey, including about 6,000 students. Islahis are far from the only ones in town. One can also run into allies of former President Saleh and influential businesspeople from money exchangers affiliated with the Houthis to rich Yemenis just enjoying retirement in Turkey after Yemen collapsed into war. The number of residential complexes where Yemenis congregate has grown since 2015, with most of them in suburban Istanbul, where Libyans and Egyptians who fled their new regimes also reside.

According to Turkish government statistics, Yemeni nationals rank sixth among Arab property owners in Turkey, having purchased more than 4,400 parcels in the past five years alone. Islah leaders’ and members’ shares of these investments is not clear; many Yemeni and other Gulf expats have shifted their families and savings to Istanbul in recent years to pursue a better future, one with fewer financial regulations as well as opportunities for citizenship and good education for children.

On a business level, Islah political leaders do not differ much from their Yemeni counterparts in representing various political elites who also found themselves in need of work after the Houthi takeover of Sanaa cut short their political careers. Despite their limited commercial skills, many Islah leaders have actively engaged in business ventures, mostly Yemeni restaurants, patisseries and currency exchange outlets. They have often failed, either because of a lack of proper planning or because their enterprises were primarily ghost ventures established to launder money from conflict-affected and politically tumultuous countries like Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and, more recently, Sudan. But Islahis are far from the only ones doing business in Turkey. Like Amman, Istanbul has absorbed a good amount of the capital and the upper class from countries in turmoil, including Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. Via carefully designed laws and residence permits, they were able to take in the richest from those countries — and from all sides. In February 2022, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several money exchangers and business owners, mostly based in Turkey and doing business on behalf of the Houthis.

All in all, however, the Islah community has thrived in the suburbs of Istanbul and has established a solid base among the Yemeni diaspora. As in Yemen, a clearly defined hierarchical structure governs Islah party members. For example, a “supervisor” who is in charge of the branches and members is assigned in every Turkish province where Yemenis reside. The city of Istanbul, for example, which hosts the largest Yemeni community, is divided into zones, each led by a supervisor responsible for the districts and neighborhoods within his zone. The party also organizes regular meetings for its members in Turkey.

Islah’s proselytizing arm organizes religious symposiums and lessons for Yemenis in mosques and private homes, including some for only women. Most of these lessons involve Islamic jurisprudence (“fiqh”) pertaining to acts of worship and personal behavior, which are integral to Islah’s religious identity and cohesion, but in the long run there is some risk of Islah’s approach clashing with Sufism, which has a strong presence in Turkey.

As Islahis moved to Istanbul, all the conversations and internal struggles and divides that used to exist within the party in Yemen moved with them. For example, one group sees the need to adapt to Turkish life — to stop judging women’s fashion choices and Istanbul’s nightlife — and focus on more political and strategic issues. Others emphasize the importance of proselytizing activities and upholding the conservative ideological systems and approaches embraced by the party ideology.

Islah’s orthodox members generally argue against integrating into Turkish society and adopting a more Turkish lifestyle. They take inspiration from the experiences of Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian Brotherhood members, who have clustered in specific residential areas such as Basaksehir and Kayasehir neighborhoods in Istanbul, turning them into conservative districts where one can walk around and see veils more than in other parts of the city. And despite their geographical distance from the center, the high demand among Islamists to settle in these neighborhoods has raised property prices to make them some of the most expensive areas in the city. This has triggered already high resentment among Turks toward Arab immigrants. While a Turkish citizen’s average monthly income is $500, property in Basaksehir and Kayasehir rents for at least $1,000 a month, and demand, mainly from religious Arab Muslims, continues to rise in both areas. Many of them refuse to meet in places that serve “shisha” (water pipes), let alone restaurants or bars that serve alcohol.

Despite the divergence of views among the Islah party’s elderly leaders on the way of life that should be adopted in Turkey, the reality is that many young men and women who make up the new generation of the Brotherhood have adapted to the Turkish Islamist system, life, politics and doctrine in general. In fact, hundreds of them study in Turkish preparatory and secondary religious schools. While similar in many ways to the scholastic institutes that the Brotherhood ran in Yemen, these schools are affiliated with a religious and political system run by the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party).

The Turkish government also tailors scholarships to religious high schools to the sons and daughters of Yemen’s Brotherhood expats. The religious doctrine these students embrace is austere — even more hardline than the doctrine of Islah. It is not clear, though, whether the strongly conservative beliefs they usually hold are on account of those schools or a reaction to the unholy lifestyle that has shocked them in Istanbul. But the ideology of those young people is radicalized and concerning to the point that in conversation with someone from Lebanon, they might raise as a first topic the radical terrorist Ahmed al-Assir, who fought against the Lebanese army and whom they speak about fondly.

In its attempt to practice overall control of society, Islah has reached for its classical playbook by focusing on the education of the 6,000-strong Yemeni student community in Turkey, including those attending traditional secular schools and universities. Often, conflicts arise between students affiliated with the party and those who are not, most of them ending in favor of the former, as when radical Islah-affiliated students refused to allow a Yemeni professor, Habib Abd al-Rabb Al-Sururi, to attend the annual Nahdat Watan (Nation’s Renaissance) forum because of his outspoken secularism. According to more than one Istanbul-based source within the party, Islah’s executive office in Istanbul made that decision, which was subsequently adopted by the General Union of Yemeni Students.

It is both sad and amusing to note that there is some sort of a correlation between how badly Islah is losing on the ground in Yemen and how territorial it has become about unimportant syndicates or entities abroad. The famous Islah leader Hameed al-Ahmar, who was once the main face of Islah in opposing Saleh, even showed up to mobilize support for pro-Islah candidates in the Yemeni diaspora elections in Istanbul.

Education remained the party’s main area of focus in Yemen both while it was in power and in opposition, and so Islah gives it equal weight and importance in Turkey. Yemeni schools were established under the same administration that supervised and managed the Brotherhood’s private schools in Yemen. For example, the renowned al-Nahda school opened in Istanbul with the same principal and most of the teachers, where it mostly admits children of the party’s top-tier wealthy leaders, who pay up to $3,000 annually per student at the secondary level. The school employs a strict gender segregation system, just as it did in Yemen, unlike Turkish or other international schools. Similarly, Islah transplanted the same system of Quranic and private schools from Yemen, led by Abd al-Raqib Obad, who previously supervised the Islamic School for Teaching Quran at the Bilal mosque on Hayel Street in Sanaa.

Yemen’s war is almost a decade old. And as a political party that thrives on peace and elections instead of war, Islah is living out its worst days. It is weak, fragmented and hunted, and above all lacks good leadership. Its major ally, Saudi Arabia, is now talking to its biggest enemy, the Houthis, with Islah in the dark. Istanbul, too, is less of a welcoming place than it used to be, with growing xenophobia against Arabs that is a diminishing concern for Erdogan now that he has won the latest elections.

Erdogan clearly retains a sense of historical solidarity with Yemeni Islamists, and Islamists overall. But the costs of gambling solely on them outweigh the benefits of casting a wider net, especially after the recent local elections, in which his party performed poorly. The position of Islah is similar to that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose status in Turkey has suffered to some degree for Erdogan to be able to make up with Egypt. And there is no way for Yemen’s Islamists to be more important to Turkey’s foreign interests than Egypt’s. Simply put, Islah is in a one-sided love story with Erdogan, his party and Ottoman history overall.

Meanwhile, Islah’s host in Ankara is working hard to restore its relationships with Arab states. In the new regional dynamics, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are unlikely to push the issue to the point of depriving the Brotherhood and its affiliates of one of their last truly safe havens. They are smarter than that. Rather, Turkey and their (new) allies prefer that Islah and other Islamists retain a presence in Istanbul, where there is a better chance of being able to tame them when push comes to shove than if they were, say, in a Western capital. Either way, even the regional Qatari funding for the TV channels seems to be downsizing. After easing tensions with the Saudis, Belqees TV, which was initially funded from Doha, was asked by the Qataris to tone its coverage down. And in 2023, the channel laid off two dozen staffers in preparation to downsize to one shift of broadcasting instead of 24/7.

Erdogan’s recent visits to Gulf countries, which included a warm welcome from the UAE along with an economic package valued at $50.7 billion, highlight another simple fact: Erdogan’s calculations have changed post-election. He must now focus on his economic priorities and needs, especially after the collapse of the Turkish lira and the February 2023 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and leveled entire towns.

Erdogan and his party do not need “imams or theorists or anyone,” as a Yemeni diplomat well versed in Yemeni-Turkish affairs recently told me. “They have all the smart people, and they actually think they are the imams. What they are looking for is someone to come with their wallet to invest in their country.”

Even before the elections, Turkish generosity toward Yemen’s Islamists had begun to diminish. While in the past they awarded citizenship to leaders and Islamist figures such as the Nobel laureate Tawwakol Karman, they politely declined to grant citizenship to figures like al-Zindani or Al-Hasan Abkar. Contrary to Islah’s fantasy and wishes, Istanbul is not really a new Abyssinia.

When Islahis read history books, they shouldn’t fall in love too much with either Cairo, Istanbul or Riyadh — or even Doha. Taking a gamble on people and places outside Yemen is not only a risky game but one Islah has definitely lost. In other words, the need for Islah to rely less on the Brotherhood and external state and nonstate actors is, at this point, existential. If they don’t believe that, or that the weather of Sanaa and even Mareb is better than Istanbul’s, all they have to do is take a look at their Egyptian counterparts, whom Erdogan used when he needed and ultimately discarded — and who wander a lonely Istanbul with nothing but their social media accounts.


This article was first published in New Lines Magazine