Minorities back under threat as Turkey’s ruling party embraces Sunni Islamism

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

Turkey’s support for Islamist parties abroad was for years married to a reformist approach at home that saw the AKP promising 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 finally the so-called 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 Mohamed Mursi, Masoud Barzani, then president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Khaled Meshal, the leader of the Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas. Behind the enthusiastic reception for these three guests, at least in part, was the public optimism over what many viewed as promising democratic drives for reform that began with the openings in 2009.

But since Erdoğan became president in 2014 and began the path toward the executive presidential system and one-man rule of today’s Turkey, these openings have one by one fallen by the wayside and been consigned to memory.

First forgotten were the promises to the Romani communities. Those in Istanbul’s historic Sulukule quarter have 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, thanks in part to the massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey starting in 1915 that are widely recognised as genocide, and in part thanks to the Azeri-Armenian dispute over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

A brief thaw began under the AKP government between 2008 and 2009, when then-President Abdullah Gül 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. 

But the protocols were never ratified, and the old enmity crept back. In 2014, when Erdoğan 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. 

Back 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 own promises and a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights demanding it support the minority, the AKP government has so far 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 somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population, had suffered greatly under nationalist governments and during the spells of high tension that have blighted Turkey’s modern history. Three pogroms of Alevi communities in Kahramanmaraş, Çorum and Malatya preceded the military coup in 1980, and dozens of Alevi intellectuals were killed in 1993 when an Islamist mob burned down a hotel in Sivas.

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

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

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

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

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.