A Kurdish Alevi soccer player, Deniz Naki, was brutally beaten on Nov. 2 in Ankara by supporters of the Islamic State (IS) for standing in solidarity with Kobani. Three days after his ordeal, Naki told Al-Monitor he left his soccer club in Turkey because he feared for the well-being of friends and teammates.
Naki, who grew up in Germany, is rather outspoken by Turkish standards; he is unapologetic for his Dersim tattoo. Naki’s family is from Dersim, which is a town known for its Alevi Kurdish population. (The 1937-38 massacre in Dersim is still a bitter memory for Alevis and Kurds, where thousands were killed by the army.) Naki told Al-Monitor the attack was not a sporadic incident, as he had been systemically targeted by IS supporters for seven months prior to the attack. When Al-Monitor asked whether he had sought legal protection, Naki chuckled and said, “How much trust could an Alevi Kurd have in the state for protection, given that all the dead kids from Gezi [Park] are Alevis? Did you forget?” Naki is convinced there is extensive support in Turkey for the IS caliphate beyond a few fanatics who are eager to join jihad.
Naki’s painful experiences lead to a crucial question: How would an IS caliphate affect Muslims in Turkey?
Abdurrahman Dilipak, a prominent Islamist columnist for the daily Yeni Akit, suggested on Nov. 2 that a caliphate, Vatican-style, should be established in Turkey. He claimed that this would be in harmony with the secular government of the Republic of Turkey. Dilipak provided a detailed justification saying that since the Ottoman Empire the caliphate had not been abolished but still lives on and should be reinstituted. Social media and secular newspapers carried Dilipak's arguments to the headlines and a fiery debate started.
On Nov. 3, Ali Bulac, a well-known Islamist writer for Zaman newspaper, without referring to Dilipak’s piece, elaborated on why he thought IS had established the caliphate in such haste. Bulac explained that in accordance with Islamic belief, “Anyone who dies without being associated with a caliph, dies as if in pre-Islamic ages [in 'jahiliyya' — days of ignorance].”
Al-Monitor has been reporting on what the caliphate signifies and the regional competition to claim the right to the caliphate, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Although Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders have not declared any intentions about a caliphate, social media has boomed with thoughts on the Prophet Muhammad’s prophecies on the coming of IS.
A bookstore owner who sells Islamic publications in Fatih, Istanbul — who called himself Mehmet Kilinc (which Al-Monitor could not verify as he later said his name did not matter) — told Al-Monitor, “We are observant Muslims here, and we do not believe what was done in 1924 — abolishing the caliphate by the new Republic of Turkey — was acceptable. I became a fan of IS during the first days of Ramadan when the caliphate was declared — now they represent all Muslims on earth and we are all obliged to support [IS]. I speak to you because I want the world to know the twisted image [portrayed] in the Western media. They always claim that men who are drug addicts seeking money and women join IS. This is wrong. My best friend from childhood, who was a ney flute teacher, joined [IS] six months ago. He had a good life here, teaching rich kids and making good money. He preferred jihad. It is about the honor of the caliphate now.”
The caliphate is not a recent issue for some Muslims in Turkey. A global Islamic organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was established in 1953 and has branches in 50 countries, has been openly calling for a caliphate. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mahmut Kar, the head of Hizb ut-Tahrir's media relations in Turkey, explained in detail not only how his organization views IS' decision to declare a caliphate but also its own struggle for a caliphate.
Kar said, “[Hizb ut-Tahrir] was established in 1960 in Turkey and when we started speaking about the caliphate in 1967 it was the first time the word had been brought back into Turkish public space since 1924. Once the idea of a caliphate was out in the open again, Islamist movements in line with the Muslim Brotherhood started emerging in Turkey.”
It is worth noting that since 1967, Hizb ut-Tahrir's members in Turkey have been persecuted and the situation has not gotten better to this day.
"What matters for these Islamist Brotherhood movements in Turkey is justice. Thus, they argue that once justice has been established it is irrelevant how they got there. That is why they utilize the rhetoric of democracy. As far as I am concerned, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s neo-Ottoman dream is nothing but a dream. For decades, it has been said that the caliphate is integrated in the spiritual essence of the Turkish parliament. So now, could the AKP declare the caliphate with a new decree? That would be absurd because the whole argument about the Turkish parliament embracing the spirituality of the caliphate in its essence is a lie to soothe the Muslims. It is not possible to declare a caliphate through a decree of the Republic of Turkey,” Kar said.
He emphasized that for the "ordinary" Muslim and non-Muslim the association of the caliphate with IS has been detrimental. “As the world is leery of IS violence, the caliphate is now associated with blood,” Kar said. Yet, for those who had been living with the dream of revival of the caliphate, IS could be a promise.
How do other groups in Turkey engage in the discussion of a caliphate? Ali Kenanoglu, head of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Cultural Association, approached the debate from a more pragmatic position when he told Al-Monitor, “The discussion of a caliphate is new in Turkey. Those who initiated this debate have done it precisely because [President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the only possible candidate for such a position in their view. It does not seem realistic to establish a proper caliphate through the AKP’s structure in the short term. However, we are aware how all candidates for government positions are scrutinized for their adherence to Islamic strictures. Further Islamization of the state will put more pressure on Alevis, who are seen as unbelievers — kafirs. This could only lead to further instability.”
Kadir Akaras, the chairman of Ehl-i Beyt Scholars Association, echoed Kenanoglu’s concerns about a caliphate in Turkey in the near future. Akaras said, “A caliphate is a political establishment, not just religious. Hence, there will be political reactions to it. Look at what happened with IS once it declared the caliphate. All Arab Muslim states from the Gulf rallied against it.”
“Iran definitely rejects [Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi's caliphate. First, because they consider IS as a terrorist organization, which they are actively fighting in Iraq and Syria, and second for ideological reasons. Iran's self-perception as an Islamic revolutionary state is crucial. I don't think that they would ever embrace any kind of caliphate,” Safak Bas, an expert on Iran, told Al-Monitor. Bas added that neither Alevis nor Shiites in Turkey would react positively to the possibility of caliphate.
Huseyin Beheshti, a scholar of philosophy and religion, told Al-Monitor, “Sunni groups such as the Salafists now are highly active in Turkey. After the Syria problem, because of the sectarian policies of the AKP, the Turkish Islamist community is becoming more radical and fundamentalist. The caliphate ideology is currently being discussed by many Islamist groups that have no record of discussing it previously.” Beheshti emphasized that the issue of a caliphate is no longer a marginal issue exclusive to members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and argued that the AKP’s pro-Islamist policies helped the formation of a Salafist stronghold in Turkey.
Whether IS has gained more sympathy in Turkey is difficult to determine, but since Ramadan talk of a caliphate has increasingly become a routine daily topic of discussion. So much so that even the latest incidents at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have been linked to the caliphate, with several tweets connecting these events. One of those tweets is particularly telling because it has the Ottoman sultan’s photo that reads: “The caliphate did not recognize Israel. It is the regime of the devil.”