Erdogan Plays Up Religious Tensions


With Turkish PM Recep Erdogan clearing Taksim square of protestors, the Turkish uprising – it is no exaggeration to call it that – is entering a new phase. Thousands of protesters had continued to occupy the square, in defiance of Erdogan's orders to disperse, and were cleared with water cannon and tear gas on Saturday night, several hours before Erdogan's stated deadline of leaving the square by Sunday.

The move has prompted further demonstrations, with protestors regrouping at Harbiye, an upmarket area of Istanbul about a kilometre up the road, and a centre of Ataturkist sentiment. Meanwhile, Erdogan supporters have rallied in Istanbul and Ankara, denouncing the protestors once again as capelcu (chapelju), a word loosely translated as “vagabonds” or “looters”.

Erdogan has been playing that line for weeks, relying on the religious conservatism of his political base, and their support for his economic improvements, to brand the protestors as foreign elements, terrorists and apostates. He has accused them of (among other things) looting shops and drinking alcohol in mosques.

Now that KESK (the public servants union) and DISK (the industrial workers union) have called a strike that began on Monday, Erdogan's hope that the protests could be resolved and wrapped up quickly has proved a vain one. In response, Erdogan has shifted his rhetoric towards dangerous religious sectarianism, beginning to refer explicitly to the safety of our “Sunni” citizens, an unprecedented referral to the principal Muslim division of Sunnis and Shias.

He was referring to the border area bombings a month ago, when more than 50 Turkish citizens were killed in the town of Reyhanli, on the Syrian border, by two large car bombs. Pro-Assad forces are generally blamed for the attack, which have come after Erdogan has made forceful denunciations of the Assad regime, and offered support to Syrian rebels, turning a blind eye to arms transfer through Turkey, and explicitly offering training to Syrian rebels.

The reference to “Sunnis” is in part an attempt by Erdogan to change the way in which the bombing is perceived. He is largely blamed for it, and for dragging Turkey into the Syria conflict. During the initial phase of the Taksim demonstrations, the names of the 50-plus dead from the bombing were pinned to the trees in Taksim Park, a fact which received little reporting on the issue in the West.

The perception that Erdogan is involving Turkey in a war which is rapidly spreading beyond the borders of Syria, to take in surrounding nations has turned public attention to Erdogan's desire to make Turkey a major regional player, exercising an Ottoman-era style influence over surrounding nations. Most Turks, religious or otherwise, want to remain a republic rather than become a new empire, and support for Erdogan is based primarily on his success in creating a dynamic economy which has raised living standards.

To turn to an explicit notion of “Sunni-ism” is thus a strategic move to retain that base through encouraging resentment against foreign and outside elements. In particular, the target of such remarks are the Alewites (also spelled Alawites, in Turkey called Alevi), a cross-border group with a population of 15 million in Turkey.

In Syria, the Assad family are Alewites and so are their support base. Alewites are ostensibly a sect of Shiism. They venerate Ali, Mohamed's son-in-law, and see themselves as Muslims. Many Sunni and other Shia Muslims do not see it the same way. The Alewites do not worship in mosques, do not make a pilgrimage to Mecca and drink alcohol, among other departures from mainstream Muslim practice.

The conflict in Syria has an unquestionably sectarian dimension – once again with little recognition of this in Western reporting – as the minority Alewites have ruled a Sunni majority since Syria was carved out of the remains of the Ottoman empire as a French client state after the First World War.

The division between modern Turkey and Syria imposed a national border between the Arab Alewites and the Turkish Alevi. Part of the determination by Ataturk to give modern Turkey a secular Republican national identity, and a Westward-looking citizenship was aimed at overcoming the tripartite division – between Sunni Turks, Alevi and Kurds – of which the new country was composed. As part of that effort, a law against “inciting religious hatred” was introduced to the republic, and has repeatedly been applied to efforts to foment sectarianism.

For a country whose divisions are now being fought out in the streets, the attempt to introduce new ones is fraught with danger. It would not take much for many Sunni Turks to begin to see Alevi as an alien, minority presence and for the notion of national purity – applied in earlier times to the Armenians and Turkish Greeks – to once again become of influence. There were large massacres of Alevi as recently as 1978, with hundreds of left-leaning Alevi murdered by Turkish fascists, and another outbreak of sectarian violence in 1993.

Erdogan's strategy is obvious. The current divisions are largely based around class and social formation. Those protesting at Taksim are overwhelmingly young, urban, professional people or students. They have subsequently been joined by elements of the working class and middle class, who support the continued notion of Turkey as a secular republic. They object not only to Erdogan's violent repression of the protestors, but also the creeping wowserism, such as increased petty alcohol restrictions, including a ban on outside table service, and a 10pm last purchase, all of which has changed the character of the Istanbul that most of the young Taksimites recognise as their city and culture.

Other interventions in private life have included Erdogan's admonition to women to give up full time work and have a minimum of three babies, restrictions on abortion, harassment of couples kissing in public, heavy handed internet filtering, and most repressive of all, the jailing of hundreds of journalists. Such actions have revived a split between religious and republican ideas of what Turkey might be, and the only reason that the country is not under greater threat of yet another military coup (there have been three since 1945) is that Erdogan has jailed dozens of high-ranking army officers on charges of plotting an overthrow of the government.

Even now, the sympathies of sections of the military are with the protestors – it is rumoured that in Harbiye, soldiers came out of the nearby officers' club to bring them bottles of mineral water. Further sympathy for the protestors would set up a division between the military and the police, the latter being loyal to Erdogan and the government.

But Erdogan may also have become aware that support is shifting from under him even among core areas of support. The violent repression of the protestors – especially given that their stated objection was to the destruction of a park – disturbed many. Had it not, the major trade unions would not be calling their members out for a cause that – in the repressive media environment of Turkey – can easily be portrayed as the work of traitors and foreign agents.

Indeed, the sudden reference to “Sunnis” points up Erdogan's desperation – he is perhaps becoming aware of having overplayed his hand. His aim for years has been to revive a sense of power and regional command of the Ottoman empire – and it seems that he is particularly keen on asserting its Sunni Muslim quality.

Thus not only is Taksim Park – inaugurated by Ataturk and completed by his successor Inonu – being replaced by a rebuilt version of the imperial barracks from which reactionary religious students and Ottoman-era officers staged a revolt against the modernising “Young Turks” in 1909. Also to be built is a mosque, to establish a greater religious presence on what was originally the European side of Constantinople/Istanbul.

The Ataturk Cultural House, housed in the city's Opera House adjacent to Taksim Park, will be knocked down too. Furthermore, a new bridge over the Bosphorus is to be named after Selim Yavuz – or Selim the Cruel – who slaughtered thousands of Alevi in the sixteenth century. The proposed name for the yet-to-be-built bridge is being seen as a needless provocation given that there are numerous other more inclusive sultans and historical figures from the Ottoman-era.

It looks like Ergodan has let a decade in power go to his head, and lost the judgement that made it possible for his Islamic party to defeat the Ataturkist, republican core of Turkey. Curiously, the current moment seems to be a restaging of the low point in his political career – when he was jailed for several months in 1998, under Ataturk's religious hatred law, for reading in public a poem, stating that “the mosques are our barracks”.

What he could only speak of two decades ago, he has now decided to put into practice. Whether the country can survive his determination to impose a conservative and religious vision of the future on a dynamic and modernising society is something likely to be resolved in the streets.

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