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Turkish Turmoil: Obstruction in Libya, Interference in Syria, Discrimination at Home

3:32 PM, Apr 12, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Concern about Turkey’s convoluted intrigues over Libya stems in part from Erdogan’s previous good relations with Qaddafi. Last December, the Turkish prime minister traveled to Tripoli to receive the ill-named “Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.” Erdogan used the occasion to call for criminalization of speech critical of Islam, and to repeat his condemnation of Israel for its decision in the Gaza embargo incident, “adding that there is much Turkish investment in the Arab country [Libya] and that ties between the two countries are growing.” When the Libyan uprising began, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) accused Erdogan of having been induced by the award to keep silent on the conflict.

In the wake of that embarrassing challenge, Erdogan’s contorted attempt to appease all parties in the Libyan emergency may be more understandable. But Turkish political acrobatics are not limited to Libya. In Syria, which borders on Turkey and is undergoing the latest chapter in the series of Arab and Muslim revolutionary ructions, Turkey appears intent on maintaining good relations with the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad. In March, Erdogan called Assad to assure him of Turkey’s support, and last week Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Assad. The Turkish politician offered Syria assistance in implementing “reforms” as directed by the dictator, and Assad thanked Ankara’s representative for Turkey’s “commitment to Syria’s security and stability.” Whether, like Erdogan’s friendship with Qaddafi, Turkey’s alliance with Syria will unravel under the pressure of internal Syrian events and international reaction remains to be seen.

As its government meanders opportunistically in foreign relations, Turkey will hold national parliamentary elections on June 12, and Erdogan may be concerned to firm up his Islamist ideological base. But reinforcement of AKP control has stimulated mass demonstrations inside Turkey. Last month 60,000 Turkish Alevis (non-Sunni, secularist Muslims oriented toward Sufi spirituality), representing a minority of between seven and 20 million Turkish citizens—between eight and 25 percent of the total population of 78 million, according to differing estimates—massed in the Aegean city of Izmir to demand abolition of the Turkish Diyanet or State Directorate of Religious Affairs, an end to compulsory Sunni religious classes in schools, and cessation of Sunni mosque construction in villages where Alevis, but not Sunnis, reside.

The Alevis also called for legalization of their distinctive houses of worship, known as cemevi. An Alevi leader, Ali Balkiz, charged that Erdogan is headed toward a personal dictatorship “flavored by religious sauce,” and another, Selahattin Ozel, denounced the AKP for a much-heralded “Alevi initiative” outreach effort. According to Ozel, the AKP wishes to perpetuate a second-class status for Alevis, in which their identity is “defined by non-Alevis.” Erdogan’s oscillations between Tripoli, Benghazi and Damascus may be intended to prevent the Arab and Muslim protest movement from crossing his own borders—and may fail.

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