Turkey’s sectarian agenda


Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the members of his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at his party headquarters in Ankara July 11, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Many worried that Erdoğan’s victory would bring a religious transformation of Turkey’s traditionally liberal society.

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  • Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan never abandoned his sectarian goals.

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  • Turkey’s interference in Iraqi politics is motivated by sectarianism.

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It has now been more than 10 years since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey.  Despite receiving just 34 percent of the vote, a quirk of Turkish election law enabled Erdoğan’s party to grab two-thirds of the seats in parliament and therefore to dominate government.

Turks and non-Turks alike worried that Erdoğan’s victory would herald a religious transformation of Turkey’s traditionally liberal society. While mayor of Turkey’s largest city, Erdoğan described himself as the "the imam of Istanbul" and as “servant of the Shari'a." In September 1994, he promised, “We will turn all our schools into İmam Hatips," as Turkey calls its madrasas. An early conviction for religious incitement initially left Erdoğan disqualified for higher office and so he could not immediately become prime minister. Fortunately for Erdoğan, the AKP was able to use its super-majority to change the law so he could become prime minister.

As Erdoğan’s party formed its first government, Erdoğan sought to assure the world that he would not pursue a sectarian agenda. “We will build a Turkey where common sense prevails," he explained on the evening of his election victory. And, initially, it looked like Erdoğan would take a more pragmatic rather than religious line. He worked diligently to stabilize the Turkish currency and repair the dysfunctional Turkish economy.

Erdoğan never abandoned his sectarian goals, however. While he described the AKP as an inclusive party representing all Turks, he included no Alevis among the 363 AKP members who took seats in parliament, even though Alevis comprise perhaps 20 percent of Turkey’s population.  Such statistic is not the result of chance; it is the result of blatant religious intolerance. Erdoğan has, indeed, harbored a singular hatred not only toward Alevis and Shi‘ites but any other Muslim who does not interpret his faith through the narrow understanding promoted by Saudi and other sectarian and intolerant clerics.

Hence, Erdoğan has refused to recognize Alevi Cemevis and has even ordered some of these “houses of gathering” bulldozed. More recently, Erdoğan has forced Alevi students who seek to attend vocational school to instead undergo religious “re-education” in Sunni religious schools. 

Erdoğan likewise interprets justice through a sectarian lens. While he has opened investigations and interrogated suspects involved in targeting Sunni activists decades ago (one-in-five Turkish generals  are now in prison), Erdoğan refuses outright to re-open the case of the Sivas Massacre: On June 2, 1993, extremist Sunnis and Erdoğan’s political allies torched a hotel in the central Anatolian town of Sivas which was hosting an Alevi conference; 37 Alevis intellectuals and leaders died in the arson. Erdoğan’s message is clear: The Turkish state protects only Sunnis: Alevis, Shi‘ites, Christians, and Jews are fair game for murder.

Erdoğan’s blatant sectarianism has more recently defined Turkey’s Iraq policy. Erdoğan’s objection to the American invasion of Iraq had more to do with his desire to prevent Shi‘ite representation in Iraq than it did with any concern regarding the lack of explicit United Nations imprimatur. After all, Turkey continues to occupy one-third of Cyprus and attacks Kurdish targets in northern Iraq without any deference to the United Nations; in recent months, Erdoğan or members of his cabinet have also threatened unilateral military action against Israel and Greece.

Turkey’s interference in Iraqi politics is likewise motivated by sectarianism. Prior to the 2003 war, the Turks helped sponsor the Iraqi Turkmen Front. Before the 2003 war, the Turks insisted to American and European coalition members that the Turkmen Front had far greater legitimacy than any reasonable evidence would suggest. After Saddam’s fall, however, it was clear this was nonsense. Not only was the Iraqi Turkmen Front a fiction of the Turkish foreign ministry, but Turkish diplomats only cared for Iraqi Turkmen who identified themselves as Sunni; as far as Ankara was concerned, Iraqi Turkmen who identified as Shi‘ite were unworthy of support let alone defense of their basic human rights.

Sectarianism also motivates Erdoğan’s embrace of Tariq al-Hashemi. The evidence that the former Iraqi vice president was complicit in terrorism is overwhelming. Regardless of deficiencies within the Iraqi judicial system, the fact remains that a panel of nine judges representing various political trends and Iraqi backgrounds weighed the evidence and found him guilty. Iraq continues to have sectarian problems, but this is not a reason to absolve terrorists of accountability for their actions.  Erdoğan’s blindness to Hashemi’s crimes is the same blindness which led him to deny Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s targeting of Muslims in Darfur, and his personal endorsement of Al-Qaeda financiers like Yasin al-Qadi.

Turks—and many Americans for that matter—say that the Iraqi government’s decision to prosecute Hashemi is motivated by Shi‘i sectarianism or Iranian pressure. Tehran is sectarian, but increasingly it is simply the mirror image of Ankara or Riyadh. The religious sect of the victim should not—as in the case of Sivas—be a reason to let criminals get away with murder. If Erdoğan believes that Hashemi was singled out for crimes in which others engaged, let him call for militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr or Kurdistan Regional Government intelligence chief Masrour Barzani’s prosecution on similar charges. In the meantime, let us hope that the Iraqi government will preserve its independence, and stand up not only to Iranian pressure, but Turkish blackmail as well.

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