Turkey’s Sectarian Foreign Policy May Backfire

After looking toward Europe for decades, Turkey has shifted its focus toward the Islamic world and is basing its foreign policy there on purely sectarian considerations, writes Mohammad Noureddine. He argues that a country with internal sectarian problems can't have a sectarian foreign policy without harming itself in the process.

al-monitor Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.  Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files.

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turkish policy on syria, turkish-kurdish relations, recep tayyip erdogan, akp

Aug 3, 2012

Turkey has never lived in such a sectarian and ethnic atmosphere as it does now. This is not a smear but the reality as attested by all Turkish analysts.

The Syrian crisis has uncovered the hidden relations among Turkish society’s components. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policies have been based on an ideology that disintegrated at the start of the so-called Arab Spring. That Spring has already become a sectarian construct with intra-Arab alliances, which Turkey later joined.

It may be natural for the Arabs to act in a sectarian manner but Turkey is a secular country at its foundations. The former head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deniz Baykal says that secularism should be applied not only to the Turkish interior but also to the country’s foreign policy.

All Turkish analysts, even those that are close to the AKP, agree that Turkey has pursued a sectarian foreign policy and that the further Turkey moves from Europe, the closer it gets to the Muslim and Middle Eastern swamp, which is filled with religious and ethnic sensitivities and quarrels.

After its European Union (EU) accomplishments peaked in 2003 and 2004, Turkey got entangled with its Islamic environment. Relations between Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and the EU have been at a standstill for eight years. Turkey has not changed the way it deals with the Europeans. Turkish “secularists” had in the past used that European slogan to suppress the Islamists; and AKP Islamists have used that same European slogan to eliminate the military’s influence. Neither the secular nor the Islamist Turks had the EU as their genuine goal. It was just a tool they used to settle local scores. Whoever wishes to enter the EU should not be describing Byzantine civilization as “black,” as Erdogan did in Cairo. That did not harm the Europeans, for they never wanted Turkey to be a full EU member.

The true reformist face of Turkey under the AKP was uncovered after a short period: more Islamism at the expense of secularism, more ethnic solidarity at the expense of coexistence with the Kurds, and more religious solidarity at the expense of cohesion with the Alawis.

After the October 2011 Van earthquake, many young Kurds were forced to emigrate westward. They went to the town of Emet in Kutahya province to work in construction. But they have been subjected to harassment in the streets and at construction sites. So they were forced to leave. Ali Toboz said in the newspaper Radikal that the ethnic logic triumphed and that “the Kurds left so the situation improved.”

The approach of AKP Islamists toward the Kurdish ethnic problem was like that of previous governments. With Erdogan’s government, the Kurdish issue has become a phobia. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is busy studying the geographic distribution of sects and ethnicities in Syria. Naturally, he has put even more effort in studying Turkey’s sectarian and ethnic map, as have all Turkish leaders since 1923.

There was an incident last week in the town of Surgu, Malatya. It was Ramadan and the town’s masrahati [the one who signals the time to eat during Ramadan] stood in front of an Alawi-Kurdish house and beat the drum signaling the time for Suhoor [morning meal during Ramadan] and called out for the people to “get up for Suhoor.” The people in the house got up and told the masrahati to stop beating the drum because they do not fast. And the problems started. The next day, about 60 young people gathered in front of the Alawi-Kurdish house and started stoning it while shouting “death to the Alawis, death of the Kurds” and “there is no place for you here. Leave or we will kill you.” The incident repeated itself the next day.

The official reaction was that it was an isolated incident, not deserving of attention. But in reality that’s not true. There has been many such incidents in front of Alawi homes whereby threats are issued that the Alawis must fast or they will be killed.

In the August 1 edition of Milliyet newspaper, Mehves Evin wrote that the attackers were incited by the authorities’ Sunni policies and that the incident was not investigated, which encourages the repeat of such sectarian incidents.

The owner of the Alawi-Kurdish house recorded the incident on her cell phone and gave the recording to the authorities. But no action was taken and no investigation was opened. The drum incident in Surgu was preceded by an incident a few earlier in Adiyaman when Alevi homes were marked with paint.

Also last week, the Turkish judiciary blocked the licensing of an Alawi organization because its by-laws say that the organization will work to establish “gathering houses,” or Alawi worship centers, which are the equivalent to Muslim mosques and Christian churches. The court argued that the Turkish state recognizes only the mosque as a place of worship, ignoring the fact that Turkey is supposed to recognize churches and synagogues as stipulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

There are between 15 to 20 million Alawis in Turkey. But even if they were 10 million, 5 million, or less, they have the right — in a secular or even a religious state — to have state-recognized places of worship according to what the Alawis, not others, see fit.

In Hurriyet newspaper, Sadat Argin writes that the growing religious trend in Turkey is also being fueled by statements from the leaders of the ruling AKP party.

AKP vice president Huseyin Celik has accused former CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu of supporting the Syrian regime out of Alawi solidarity. Erdogan himself challenged Kilicdaroglu to declare his true position with regard to the Syrian regime, alluding that Kilicdaroglu’s position was due to sectarian Alawi considerations. It should be noted that the CHP does not support the Syrian regime but wants to prevent the strife from spreading to Turkey by having Ankara not take sides in Syria.

Former CHP head Deniz Baykal spoke with Milliyet newspaper in an article published August 1. He clearly characterized the problem in Turkish foreign policy. He said that “the events in Syria are part of a general scene happening in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. But Syria is different. In Syria, there is an Iranian-Russian factor ... The Syrian civil war cannot be understood through only the internal dynamic of ‘a battle for democracy and freedoms.’ It is clear that the external factor has ‘pressed the button’ over there.”

He added, “Syria is witnessing a sectarian war. And Turkey has become a party in it. Turkish foreign policy has become a wholly sectarian policy. This is very dangerous because with such a sectarian policy Turkey will be unable to prevent the events from spilling over [to Turkey]. The ones responsible for this rash policy are two people: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu. The principle of secularism must also apply to foreign policy as well.”

Another example of this ideological foreign policy was when Erdogan said a few days ago, “They ask me why I care about Syria so much. My answer is simple. It is that we are the remnants of the Ottoman states, the descendants of the Seljuks, and the descendants of the Ottomans.” But what does being a descendant of the Ottomans and the Seljuks have to do with caring about Syria or Iraq or Iran or other countries and issues? Doesn’t his answer reveal Turkish ambitions to control the region as a continuation of the Ottoman trend? Yes, let somebody explain to us the connection between Syria on the one hand and the Seljuks and the Ottomans on the other.

Hassan Jamal said in Milliyet that if you are not reconciled with your internal components, you cannot be reconciled with the outside, not in Syria nor elsewhere.

Samih Idiz said the same thing, “We did not have to wait very long to witness the bankruptcy of the ‘Zero Problems’ policy. There is no room for ‘Zero Problems’ with someone who is not reconciled with his own people. On July 19, Syrian Kurds began imposing their control over their areas, [in what amounts to an] autonomous Kurdish region, or ‘another northern Iraq’ for Turkey. Turkey [does not want to allow] this configuration to appear. But a Turkish system with serious problems with its own Kurds cannot follow a ‘Zero Problems’ policy with its neighbors ... A strategic depth without the Kurds leads us to a vacuum. A regime with problems with its own people cannot lead the wave of change in the Middle East nor be at its forefront. You first must apply the ‘Zero Problems’ policy with the Kurds, the Alawis, and the secularists, and after that with your neighbors. And then [you can have] ‘Zero Problems.’”

Mehves Evin ended her article by saying, “The slogans of Alawi-Sunni and Turkish-Kurd brotherhood have become empty words. And the government is behaving like a bull in a china shop.”

After all that, Ahmet Davutoglu accused the critics of his foreign and domestic policies of “not having an atom of brains.” Can anyone really believe that accusation?

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