Minorities under threat as Turkey’s ruling party embraces Islamism

Erdogan's rule of Turkey and his adherence to Islamist politics fanned the sectarian flames.
Sunday 15/12/2019
Members of Turkey's Alevi community march in Ankara. (AFP)
Sectarian woes. Members of Turkey's Alevi community march in Ankara. (AFP)

In the heady days after the “Arab spring” revolts erupted in 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party were held up as models of moderate Islamist democracy that new governments could emulate.

Turkey’s support for Islamist parties abroad was married to a reformist approach at home that saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) promise to address problems suffered by Turkey’s minorities in a series of what the party called “openings.”

There was the Alevi Opening, the Armenian Opening, the Romani Opening and the Democratic Opening, in which the AKP vowed to resolve the country’s decades-long Kurdish issue.

The party promised mother-tongue education for Kurds, legal status for Alevi places of worship, a drive to improve relations with Armenia and guarantees for the rights of Turkish Romanis, one of the country’s most isolated minorities.

The AKP welcomed three important foreign guests to its party congress in 2012: former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi; Masoud Barzani, then president of the Kurdistan Regional Government; and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas. Behind the enthusiastic reception for these three guests, at least in part, was public optimism over what many viewed as promising democratic drives for reform that began with the openings in 2009.

However, since Erdogan became president in 2014 and began the path towards the executive presidential system and one-man rule of today’s Turkey, those openings have fallen by the wayside and consigned to memory.

First forgotten were the promises to the Romani communities. Those in Istanbul’s historic Sulukule quarter lost their homes after their neighbourhoods were handed over to developers to build new luxury housing projects.

Turkey’s relations with Armenia have historically been hostile, because of the massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey starting in 1915 that are widely recognised as genocide and the Azeri-Armenian dispute over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

A brief thaw began under the AKP government in 2008 and 2009 when then-President Abdullah Gul made the first visit of a Turkish head of state to Armenia and the two countries’ foreign ministers signed two protocols in Zurich aimed at normalising relations.

However, the protocols were never ratified and the old enmity crept back. In 2014, when Erdogan said at a rally he had been called an Armenian -- as if this was an insult -- many viewed this as a subconscious slip that exposed the lack of sincerity behind this opening and made it evident that it had been planned purely as a vote-winner.

At home, the AKP promised to extend funding from Turkey’s Religious Directorate -- now the best-funded Turkish public institution -- to places of worship of Alevis, the largest religious minority in the country.

Despite its promises and a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights demanding it support the minority, the AKP government has failed to even subsidise fuel expenses for Alevi places of worship -- as is provided to mosques -- let alone providing them with official legal status.

The Alevi opening had been greeted with optimism in Turkey. Alevis, who make up 10-20% of the population, suffered greatly under nationalist governments and during the high tensions that have blighted Turkey’s modern history. Pogroms of Alevi communities in Kahramanmaras, Corum and Malatya preceded the military coup in 1980 and dozens of Alevi intellectuals were killed in 1993 when an Islamist mob set fire to a hotel in Sivas.

The opening lost credibility when the ruling party invited nationalist politician Okkeş Şendiller, the prime suspect in the Kahramanmaras massacre, to join a working group on the issue. Since then, the government has further alienated the minority by ramping up compulsory religious lessons taught from a Sunni Muslim perspective.

Like the Kurdish Opening, which collapsed after the AKP lost its majority because of the success of the pro-Kurdish party in the 2015 elections, the Alevi Opening is history.

Far from bringing assurances of peace and equal rights for the Alevi community, sectarian harassment has continued under AKP rule. Incidents in Izmir and Mersin, in which Alevis woke to find their homes marked with crosses in red paint and the phrase “Alevis out,” followed years of similar abuse across the country.

As much as Erdogan condemns such incidents, his rule of Turkey and his adherence to Islamist politics fanned the sectarian flames. While each minority opening has crashed to a halt, the AKP closely supports Sunni Islamist allies around the world.