Turkish Islamists: Advocates for Iran, Enemies of Secularists and Minorities
by Stephen Schwartz
Turkey under the Islamist rule of the Justice and Development Party [AKP] is moving faster toward the embrace of Iran, while further alienating its domestic secularists and large religious and ethnic minorities. AKP prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and president Abdullah Gul serve as allies and accomplices of Tehran's dictator, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his own clerical backers, as well as of Hamas in Gaza. But radical Islam at the helm in Turkey has also increased the country's internal polarization.
At last week's UN General Assembly, Turkish president Gul held a closed-door meeting with Ahmadinejad just as the Iranian demagogue was preparing to disgracefully accuse the U.S. of culpability in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Gul flattered the Iranians while speaking out for Hamas in a Washington Post interview.
The boldness of AKP advocacy for the Tehran clerical regime, however, has been paralleled by major internal institutional and political changes, mainly through plans to revise the national constitution. Secularists and minorities fear that new constitutional reforms will further embolden the AKP in its movement toward a "shariah state."
Turkey's voters approved a package of amendments to the country's secular constitution at mid-September. The future of Turkey's most ardently secular institutions, as well as its minority constituencies, hovered over the political confrontation: the judiciary and military feel threatened, along with non-Sunni Alevi Muslims and Kurds. The referendum "reformed" the Constitutional Court, which may open the way to further Islamist legal measures, and has lifted immunity from prosecution of the leaders of Turkey's last full-fledged military coup, which took place in 1980.
Turkish generals involved in the coup thirty years ago may now be put on trial for their actions then. That takeover was directed against leftist and rightist extremists, who had conducted a vicious, de facto civil war, as well as against Kurdish terrorism and the penetration of political life by Islamists. In the last category, the radical Welfare Party of Necmettin Erbakan was removed from power in 1997 under military pressure, in what has been called a "post-modern coup." But another warning against the Islamist ideology of the AKP, issued by the Turkish military in 2007, a decade afterward, carried little impact.
Both Erdogan's AKP and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have benefited, in Western elite circles, from promises that they will not use violence to gain power. A significant lobby of Western politicians and experts identifies AKP and prospective Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt with democracy. But both AKP and the Brotherhood have aspects visible in plain sight that discredit their democratizing claims. For the Brotherhood, the rule of its Palestinian branch, Hamas, where it won the 2006 Gaza election, shows that while it may gain power by the ballot box, its governance is based on open, terroristic dictatorship rather than on popular sovereignty.
The dark side of Erdogan's AKP is visible not only in its assistance to Hamas, but also in the divisive rhetoric it has employed against the secularist Republican People's Party [CHP], the lead opposition party. Turkish politics today partake fully of the country's ethnic and religious diversity, including activism by Alevi Muslim Turks, as well as antiterrorist, Alevi Kurds, The CHP is currently led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who comes from the spiritual Alevi and Zaza-Kurdish ethnic communities. Alevis practice a heterodox form of Islam drawing on Sufi spirituality, Shia Muslim beliefs, and pre-Islamic Turkic practices. Alevis also repudiate the authority of Shariah as common law, and promote gender equality. Zazas are a group of at least two million people, impoverished but with a distinctive culture and language, separate from Kurdish, but who identify with the much larger Kurdish contingent of 12-14 million in Turkey. At least half of Zazas are Alevis.
In addition, Kilicdaroglu's mother is reported to have been Armenian, which further makes him a target of demagogy, given the inflammatory history of Turkish-Armenian relations. As a symbol of Alevis, Zazas, Kurds, and Armenians, Kilicdaroglu has a powerful attraction to voters protesting against enforcement of Turkish Sunni domination, which brings with it economic neglect as well as discrimination. A composite of Turkish Alevis, Kurdish Alevis and Sunni Kurds may comprise a third of Turkey's population of 75 million.
In one among Turkey's many unfortunate paradoxes, the same state that defined itself as secular for decades held that Turkey's Kurds and Zazas were really Turks, and that the country's Muslims were 99 percent mainstream Sunnis. The secular government bestowed authority over religious affairs to a Sunni state directorate for the administration of clerics, the Diyanet. Alevi meeting houses, known as cemevi, are denied recognition as religious facilities; and Alevi children are indoctrinated in Sunni Islam in state schools. As a minority, the Alevis are devoted to secularism, which they view as guaranteeing the limited freedom they enjoy. They have had particular incentives to emigrate to the West in search of better economic opportunities, aside from their concentration in Turkey's poorer eastern Anatolian areas.
Alevi concern over the direction of the Turkish government is expressed among Turks, and those interested in them, in the U.S., as well as in Turkey itself. At a major academic conference on "The Turks and Islam," held at Indiana University on September 11-12, representatives of the Alevi community appeared as honored guests; panels were devoted to Alevi traditions neglected in Turkish scholarship, and the Islamist ideology of the AKP was subjected to serious critical scrutiny.
Small and seldom-noticed Alevi communities in New York have protested Erdogan's attacks, in his speeches preceding the constitutional vote, on "domination of high judicial posts by a clique of Alevis." Erdogan alleged that the "clique" took orders from the leaders of the Alevi religious community. Erdogan and other AKP politicians were reported in Turkish media to have promised a purge of Alevis from the judiciary. Erdogan apparently does not object to religious guidance in the public sphere when it comes from Islamist Sunnis, but stridently opposes alleged political participation by heterodox Alevis, who do not seek to inject their theology into governmental affairs. Already at odds with the AKP regime for their divergence from Sunnism, and in an environment where the AKP claims to seek conciliation with the Kurds, Alevis fear they will become a new scapegoat for Erdogan in his reach for wider power -- and victims in another, and potentially violent, confrontation between Turkey's socially, ethnically, politically, and religiously diverse communities.