Turkey’s support for the Free Syrian Army and its hawkish stance against the Syrian president, an Alawite Muslim, is stirring unrest in its own minority communities. Turkish Alawites of Arab origin who live in the border province are upset with the security situation and look unfavorably on the influx of thousands of Sunni Muslims being given refuge by the Turkish government. Further afield many are unhappy that fighters are allowed to organise and train on Turkish soil.
"It’s as if the government has declared war on Syria. It should immediately stop the transit of foreign mercenaries coming from other regions to fight there. The minority communities in Turkey and Syria are extremely disturbed. Turkey will surely be condemned in years to come because of today’s policies," Dogan Bermek, president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, told Al-Monitor.
There are fears that a prolonged conflict in Syria could put added pressure on an already highly polarized Turkish society. In recent weeks, 15 homes occupied by Alevis in Istanbul’s Kartal district were marked with painted blue crosses that appeared in the dead of night by unknown hands. A cultural center was torched. Considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, Alevis have a close spiritual bond with Alawites but their religious rituals differ.
Bercan, a non-Alevi pro-democracy youth activist who grew up in Kartal, says this is a worrying development: "Nearly half the population there consists of Alevis. In order to prevent the efforts of those aiming at conflict between Alevi and Sunni Muslims, we have to defend our brotherhood. Kartal is especially important considering the population dynamics."
Alevis number an estimated 20 million and, unlike Alawites, women often lead the religious rituals in mixed-gender ceremonies. They read the Quran in Turkish and gather weekly in prayer at cemevis for a ceremony that includes meditative music and dance — a practice viewed as unorthodox to state-employed imams who promote a conservative Sunni intepretation of the Quran in Arabic.
For decades, leading proponents of the Alevi faith have maintained that the all powerful Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, has served to reinforce Sunni Islam. And, in a break from the past, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had garnered some respect from the traditionally left-leaning Alevis during his second term by promising education reforms that would tackle Alevi faith by addressing their concerns. However, this optimism has all but gone.
The prime minister also promised cemevis equal status to state-run mosques, which receive subsidized utilities. Instead, the Diyanet’s 2012 budget was boosted by 22.4% to cultivate Sunni Islam, which includes hiring 7,000 imams and building 2,000 more muezzins. Last month, Erdogan, a conservative Sunni Muslim himself, described the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as "not a real Muslim" — a gaffe he may live to regret.
"It’s not the PM's job to decide who is good or bad at religion. Politics are not based on religion, so such a comment is totally absurd. Surely such comments which are actually a declaration against Alevi Muslims in a way are creating and increasing tension," says Bermek.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkmen Alevis were freer to practice their faith under Ataturk’s secular agenda until the Arabization of Turkish Islam in the 1950s. Many within this community, believe foreign forces meddling in Turkish affairs are behind the Kartal attacks. A collective sentiment the government will need to address because of its support for the FSA who reportedly employ foreign fighters.
Ayse, a Turkmen Alevi and broadcaster who didn't want her full name used, told Al-Monitor: "The imperial powers [the US and UK] who are behind such actions toward the Alevis want to reorganize the geography, the politics and the oil wealth of the Middle East, which includes reshaping Turkey."
Says Bermek: "As Assad has Alevi origin, Saudi Arabia and the international powers are now trying to use the historical Sunni Alevi conflict to justify the internal conflict in Syria. The aggression in Turkey is growing because of these factors."
Alevis have been historically persecuted. In 1993, 37 people, mostly Alevi intellectuals, were killed when a Sunni mob torched the Mardimak Hotel in Sivas. No one has ever been held accountable, which has left a deep scar.
Some point to an influential coalition of high-level intelligence services, military and judiciary. The neo-nationalist structure is under investigation for carrying out an anti-democratic campaign designed to agitate ethnic and religious strife in order to trigger a military takeover.
Haydar, a Kurdish Alevi whose family was killed in 1938 by the Turkish military in an incident known as the Dersim Massacre, says the Kartal attacks signal trouble. "This has happened before. But, it usually happens at Ramadan because we don’t fast, or on the anniversary of the massacres," says Haydar, whose surname is omitted because of his family history with Dersim. "The timing is different now because of the Syria issue."
In an August poll by the Andy-Ar Research Centre, 67% did not support the government’s policy on Syria. The poll also showed that the ruling AK party’s popularity is down by 8% from the last general elections.
However, this growing dissatisfaction seems to be of no concern to Erdogan who is expected to run for presidential office in 2014 — the first time a president will be elected by the people rather than parliament.
Haydar says Erdogan is more interested in making history than solving Turkey’s minority issues, "He wants the support of the nationalists for the elections. He apologized for the Dersim massacre. But there was no official apology or compensation. He’s a great manipulator of people’s weaknesses. He lifts the lid off the jar and then puts it back."
Bercan agrees and believes that, with Erdogan at the helm for the foreseeable future, Turkey’s democratic development is doomed, "We can’t be sure who is to be blamed for these vicious actions, but the important thing is dealing with the political and social consequences of it effectively," Bercan said. "The prime minister, who was elected by nearly half of the population, doesn’t seem to be interested in the problems of our Alevi citizens. We have to focus on the notion of equality of citizenship, something I believe, as do many, he is not able to do."
Erdogan would be wise to take lessons from the Syrian case. Broken promises of democratic reform are a dangerous gamble in today’s Middle East. Turkey is a mosaic of ethnicities and faiths not unlike Syria, and Turkish minorities have for some time now become disillusioned with his style of democracy.
Jody Sabral is a broadcast journalist, filmmaker and author of the novel Changing Borders. She lived and worked in Turkey for 10 years as a freelance reporter for Hurriyet English Service, CBC Canada, France24, BBC, Aljazeera, Press TV and Metropolis TV. She has also produced films for Aljazeera's investigative program People and Power.