The Zeynebiye mosque in Istanbul is not graced by domes or cupolas; only a stubby minaret marks the flat-roofed utilitarian building in the Halkali neighborhood as a place of worship. On a recent Friday, thousands of protesters gathered outside it after noon prayers to vent their frustration with Ankara’s support for Syrian rebels, its standoff with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and its support for NATO’s missile shield.
“Shia and Sunni are brothers; those dividing them are traitors,” the crowd of Shiite worshippers chanted.
As the Middle East is shaken up along sectarian fault lines, cracks are opening within Turkey, where an increasingly restive Shiite minority is feeling sidelined and beleaguered by their country’s perceived alignment with Sunni powers in the region.
“The government is aligning Turkey with a regional Sunni front,” Ali Özgündüz, a Shiite member of Turkey’s parliament, charged in an interview with Al-Monitor in Istanbul. “It is also trying to create an internal front between Sunni and Shia within this society.”
Özgündüz is a member of the Caferi community, which hails originally from the eastern regions of Turkey and numbers around three million believers. The Caferi have long complained of discrimination in this predominantly Sunni country, where the state builds Sunni mosques and trains salaried Sunni clerics at taxpayers’ expense and to the exclusion of other faiths. It is a complaint shared by other Shia communities under the umbrella identity of the Alevi, in which the Caferi count themselves and whose total number is estimated at up to 20 million out of 70 million Turks.
“Our constitution says we are a secular state, but unfortunately it is not so,” Özgündüz said, pointing to the annual three-billion-dollar budget allocated to the religious-affairs department. “This is a Sunni state, whose state-run religious-affairs department serves only Sunni Islam, and only the Hanafi school at that.”
Unlike the Sunni majority, Shiite communities must raise the money to buy their land, build their mosques and pay their clerics themselves.
“We do not complain about that, because we believe religion should be separate from the state,” Hasan Kanaatli, president of the Shiite Scholar’s Association, or Ehlader, told Al-Monitor in an interview at the association’s Istanbul headquarters. “But we do demand that we should be given a fair share of the taxes that we pay.”
Even more acutely felt is the Turkish state's monopoly on religious education, which effectively amounts to a ban on clerical training for non-Sunni faiths.
“Thanks to the 1923 Lausanne peace treaty, Christians and Jews at least have a legal right to their own seminaries in Turkey, even if that is currently problematic,” Özgündüz said. “But we Caferi and Alevi have no such rights here, and we have not had them for 500 years.”
By necessity, the Caferi send their clergy to Najaf in Iraq and to Qom in Iran for training.
“I myself traveled illegally to study in Iraq and Iran at the age of 13,” Kanaatli, now 55 years old, recounted. “I was expelled first by Saddam Hussein and then by Imam Khomeini, and I was away from home for nine years — can you imagine what that was like?” The need to train abroad also lays the Caferi open to suspicions and charges of acting as spies or as a fifth column for Iran or Iraq, occasionally surfacing in the Turkish press.
Nevertheless, the Caferi have always been dedicated defenders of the Turkish Republic, which they see as all that stands between them and annihilation. Portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic, hang alongside that of the Imam Ali in Caferi mosques and Alevi houses of worship. Conversations with Caferi leaders inevitably turn to Sultan Selim I, who massacred tens of thousands of Shiites in the 16th century, and the persecution of Shia in the Ottoman Empire.
“It is only thanks to the republic that we can practice our faith at all, that we are not persecuted and massacred like in Ottoman times,” Özgündüz said. “In spite of all the injustice and discrimination we suffer at the hands of the state, we are devoted to it and do not rise up against it.”
It is with growing alarm, and against this backdrop, that Turkish Shia have been following recent shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy along a perceived Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East, as Turkey sides with Sunni forces in Syria and Iraq and distances itself from Iran while maintaining alliances with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“We cannot understand what has come over them,” Kanaatli said about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “In its first two terms of office, the AKP did a great job. We Caferi were very happy with them. But now this business of remaking the Middle East has begun, and we are worried.”
In sermons and speeches, Caferi leaders have been asking why Turkey supports Sunni rebels in Syria but not Shiite protesters in Bahrain, and why Syria is condemned as a dictatorship while Saudi Arabia remains an ally.
“It shows that this is a sectarian front,” Özgündüz said. It is a concern shared by the more cautiously spoken spiritual leader of the Caferi, Selahattin Özgündüz, a cousin of the member of parliament. “Recent developments in Syria and Iraq have created an impression in some places that Turkey is taking a sectarian approach,” the imam told Al-Monitor in an interview in Istanbul.
The tipping point came when the Turkish government granted refuge to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi from murder charges in Iraq last year.
“Until then, we had taken the news from Syria with caution, but with the Hashemi affair, the government gave itself away,” Zeynelabdin Solhan, a Caferi imam and board member of Ehlader, told the Shia website Shafaqna in remarks confirmed to Al-Monitor by the association. “By speaking of the ‘Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki’ and the persecuted Sunni al-Hashemi, it instilled a sectarian approach in us all.”
This kind of speech, widespread in the Turkish media, has alarmed and infuriated Turkey’s Shia. “In no other country do we mention the sectarian affiliation of the prime minister, but here it is all about the Shiite al-Maliki and the Alawite regime in Syria,” said Özgündüz, the politician.
Solhan called it a “very dangerous” practice. “Tomorrow, the Iraqi press will speak of the ‘Sunni Prime Minister Erdogan’,” he warned.
Caferi leaders fear that sectarian politics will not remain limited to foreign policy. “If politicians start scratching the sectarian itch, this will reverberate in society,” Özgündüz warned. Solhan spoke of a “terrifying campaign” underway against the Shia in the country’s conservative media. “Turkey’s attitude is radicalizing not only surrounding countries, but also people within this country,” the imam said.
Kanaatli, the Shiite scholar, fears that the country may be reverting back to older ways. “Atatürk changed everything that was left over from the Ottoman Empire — the alphabet, the clothing, the laws — but there was one inheritance he did not change, and that is the sectarian bigotry,” Kanaatli said. “Even Atatürk could not stamp it out — or perhaps he did not want to.”
Susanne Güsten is a foreign correspondent reporting from Turkey. Based in Istanbul since the 1990s, she travels extensively through the country, reporting for American, French, German and Swiss media. Before coming to Turkey, she lived in Nigeria, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Germany and the US. On Twitter: @SusanneIstanbul