The Magazine

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Don't hold your breath for Turkey to enter the European Union.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Minority issues further dramatize the distance between the present Turkish style of governance and European principles. Kurds make up at least a fifth of Turkey's population. They are an Indo-European, not a Turkic, people, and their presence in the region, like that of the Greeks and the Armenians, predates the arrival of the Turks. In Turkey, they have produced a notably nasty bunch of terrorists, including the notorious Abdullah Öcalan of the former Kurdistan Workers party or PKK, an extreme Communist group once aligned with the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But most Kurds are no more radical than their co-ethnics in Iraqi Kurdistan, who are exemplary in their moderation.

But apart from token measures of amelioration adopted to please the Europeans, Turkey continues to deny Kurds the right to enjoy their historical cultural and linguistic traditions. Considering how far Spain has gone in recognizing Catalan, Basque, and other minority-language cultures, and the significant gains by the Scots and Welsh in securing political autonomy in the United Kingdom, Turkey has a long way to go before it will satisfy a European criterion on ethnic minorities.

If the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the memory of brutalities inflicted on the Armenians are still provocative topics, the condition of another minority in Turkey, the Alevis, is arguably more dramatic in that they are Muslims. Ethnically both Turkish and Kurdish, the Alevis are Sufi-Shia Muslims and comprise as much as one quarter of the population of the republic, around 18 million people.

The religious traditions and social attitudes of the Alevis illustrate the spiritual diversity of the Islamic global community. While reference volumes, including The CIA World Fact Book, routinely cite the official Turkish claim that 99 percent of Turks are Sunnis,
Alevis do not follow the established precepts of Sunni Islam. Rather, they honor the 12 imams or religious guides of the main Shia sect. Alevi women do not cover themselves, and they participate equally with men in prayer. Alevis worship "truth" (hakk) rather than a divine creator, and they believe truth resides in the hearts of all humans. Their devotion represents a synthesis of Turkic pre-Islamic ecstatic religion, transcendental Sufi practice, and protest against worldly injustice. Like other Shia Muslims, they appear more influenced by contact with Christianity than do Sunnis.

Cruelties inflicted on the Alevis in recent years include an incident of mass murder in the Turkish town of Sivas in 1993, when 37 people died in a hotel set on fire by Sunni extremists. The pretext for this lynching was that an Alevi cultural group was meeting to hear an author, Aziz Nesin, who had defended Salman Rushdie's freedom of the pen. Erdogan's AK party includes no Alevis in its leadership, and Alevis believe the prime minister seeks to exclude them from recognition as Muslims.

Under the Erdogan administration, Alevis fear the rise of a new government-backed, Sunni fundamentalism with strong similarities to the official Wahhabi cult in Saudi Arabia--a shocking possibility in Turkey, where Wahhabis were always despised as enemies of the Ottomans. How could a Wahhabization of Turkish Sunnism take place? With frightening ease: If Erdogan empowers a new state Sunnism, it will expose the inadequacy of religious education and the degraded state of theology in Turkey, a result of the nation's secularist heritage--and a gap in religious culture the Wahhabis will handily fill.

That is the typical Wahhabi response to the revival of Islamic feeling under or after secular rule; the pattern has been seen in Algeria, the Balkans, Central Asia, Nigeria, Malaysia, the Caucasus, and Iraq. In most cases the effort at Wahhabization has failed, but only after serious bloodshed. Turkey would be a most tempting prize for the fundamentalists. In any case, the Alevis seem destined to endure second-class citizenship, if not direct oppression, although they are immensely influential in Turkish cultural (especially musical) life. Turkey is bad, and probably getting worse, for Muslim religious minorities like the Alevis, as well as for the much smaller non-Muslim communities. And as we see in Iraq, fighting among Muslims can be bloodier than combat between Muslims and non-Muslims.