Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Shifting Minority Politics

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After more than a decade in power, what can we make of the AKP’s relations with Turkey’s ethno-religious minorities?  On the one hand, certain properties confiscated by the state from Christian minorities have been returned.  Journalists have documented on multiple occasions the rare but real phenomenon of Greeks migrating to Turkey to work or in some cases to return to the homeland their ancestors were forced to abandon.  The Turkish government has pledged to protect all Syrian refugees that seek shelter within its borders, no matter their ethnicity or religion.  On the other hand, both the government and its army of sycophantic journalists have engaged in anti-Semitic fear-mongering as a retort to any and all criticism or protest against the current government.  The minority that has arguably suffered the most under the AKP are the Alevis.  The vast majority of those killed as the result of the past year’s anti-government protests were young Alevi men.  In a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, the deaths of Alevis have resulted in protests and unrest in Alevi towns and neighborhoods, triggering harsher police crackdowns and ultimately the deaths of more Alevis.

Despite the laudable actions the current government has taken regarding the return of confiscated properties and the welcome it has extended to non-Sunni Muslim minorities fleeing Syria, the AKP has failed to change the national cultural attitudes that ultimately undermine the status of ethno-religious minorities.  Of the multiple cultural and historical factors that inhibit the acceptance of minorities, it is the threat of international sabotage, a neo-Sevres Syndrome, that is the current AKP favored political red herring.  Erdogan’s nearly daily speeches accusing foreign elements of instigating everything from the Soma disaster to the corruption probe to the Gezi protests attests to the fact that this kind of rhetoric still holds significant political sway over hearts and minds of Turks.  Jews and Alevis have simply replace the Greeks in the Sevres narrative.  Turkey’s current tolerance of native Christian groups does not signal a greater opening toward ethno-religious minorities, no matter what the pro-government press may claim.  Greek-Turk relations have improved over the years and in its current economic and political state, one would be hard pressed to make the case that Greece and Greeks are still the perpetrators behind Turkey’s woes.  Erdogan and the AKP have simply replaced one boogeyman with another.

Populations that exist on the margins of the majority, blurring the lines between the categories of “us” and “them” often become the targets of violent identity politics.  Therefore, Turkish acceptance of religious pluralism hinges largely not on its relationship with Christians or Jews but Alevis.  A fuzzy symbolic boundary can become a severe existential or even political threat to socially constructed groups.  The centuries-long persecution of Alevis by Sunni Muslim authorities is a prime example of this phenomenon.  It is often easier for religious plurality to exist when beliefs and practices are very distinct, and thus establish clear boundaries.  However, it is not impossible to overcome these kind of existential issues.  For example, if the Turkish government would offiicially recognize the Alevi house of worship, called a Cemevi, as a legitimate worship space, this legal act could also serve to create symbolic boundaries between Sunnis and Alevis.  Currently the government argues that Alevis are Muslims and the only appropriate worship space for Muslims is a mosque.  Recognizing Cemevis would not preclude Alevis from self identifying or being identified by the state as Muslims, but would create a boundary marking them as a distinct type of Muslim.

This kind of recognition of a group as “same but different” has worked to reconcile other boundary groups to a hostile majority, a prime example being the Mormons in the United States.  I would of course not be a magic cure for anti-Alevi sentiment and would have to be accompanied by pluralistic educational initiatives as well.  As evidenced by this recent piece in Al Monitor falsely equating Alevis with Syrian Alawites, even educated elites in Turkey lack a clear understanding of Alevism.  In general, Turkey has a long way to go in embracing and understanding the diverse ethno-religious groups that historically inhabited its territory.  The AKP has made only symbolic gestures toward its original platform promise of creating a pluralistic Turkey.  Hope for real change must be shifted to Turkey’s recently politically-awakened youth demographic.  It has become cliche, but all credible sources agree that Gezi was a rare moment of true pluralism.  We can only hope that youth aspirations toward pluralistic ideal will survive subsequent avalanche of xenophobic propaganda that has come in Gezi’s wake.

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