Turkey: Six Important Dynamics for US Christians

Dr. Iosso was aided in this article by consultation with an academic from Turkey and expresses his thanks to that person and to all involved in Turkish civil society.

Co-Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso
Co-Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso

Turkey is a country of 83 million people, bordering 8 other nations, poised between Europe and Asia and Europe and the Middle East. In a discussion of the greater Middle East, Turkey’s role cannot be underestimated. In an online Christian justice journal, looking at the prospects of peace at the turn of a new year, we see a nation whose religious complexity and moral aspirations are consistently underestimated. This article is a brief pointer toward more in-depth articles and reflects discussions between two friends, one Turkish and one American. We write in hope that both nations may be part of non-military solutions to the several proxy wars going on in the region and that Turkey’s own internal tensions be worked through democratically.

The six key dynamics are:

  1. The role of the Alevi religious minority in Turkey, 10-15% of the population, even less understood than the Alawites in Syria.
  2. The rise of the Justice and Development Party (JDP, or in Turkish, AKP), which took power in 2011 and has shown varying degrees of Islamic emphasis, appealing to elements of the Sunni majority identity suppressed during the post-1925 secular period.
  3. The place of the Hizmet (or Service) movement led by Fethullah Gulen from his exile in Pennsylvania, which was initially allied with the JDP.
  4. The tension with the Kurds, approximately 20% of the population, some holding Alevi views but most concerned with the fate of Kurdish minorities in Syria and Iraq.
  5. The Syrian refugee situation, arguably the result of short-sighted thinking by Turkey as well as Western powers, including the failure to support a sustainable Arab Spring.
  6. The need (in our view!) to encourage Turkey’s peacemaking role and its democratic capacities, including the bravery of its journalists and the richness of its culture.

We should say that there could be many other dynamics listed and possibly linked to religious themes. Turkey has 13 World Heritage sites, and potentially 60 or so more. On a light note, for Christian tradition, St. Nicholas, eventually known as Santa Claus, came from Patara. This may illustrate the great changes that have occurred since Paul of Tarsus first helped spread Christianity and since the Byzantine empire fell to what became 600 years of the Ottoman empire, ending only with the First World War. Politics, similarly, reflect conflicts developed over hundreds of years, with untold and rewritten parts of the region’s history. While we are concerned to apply moral judgments, nations combine different peoples and interests in a way that makes simplistic verdicts impossible.

As an example, we may honor Turkey’s wise decision not to provide launching points for the disastrous 2003 Iraq war, while disagreeing with Turkey’s current alliance with the US in opposition to Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. More on the refugee situation in a moment, but in itself, hosting two million refugees is a very moral policy.

1.) The Alevi Minority

To turn to the first item, it would be hard to understand Turkey and Turkish politics without addressing the Alevi minority in Turkey. It is a relatively complex belief system, neither Sunni or Shiite, described in the first article linked as “… syncretic in nature, mixing Islam and Sufism, as well as harboring respect for some traditions of Christianity and the Turks’ pre-Islamic religion, Shamanism.” Having seen US policy makers underestimate the Alawite role in Syria, this brief treatment lifts up the differences and similarities between the two communities within states: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/are-syrian-alawites-and-turkish-alevis-the-same

And here is some of what Alevis currently face in Turkey: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/turkey-alevi-sunni-clash-erdogan-secular-media.html

2.) The Justice and Development Party

The political party currently holding the majority in Turkey is the Justice and Development Party. It was founded in 2001 after another party with a similar constituency was banned by the equivalent of the Turkish Supreme Court. Very surprisingly, it came into power after a very short time, in 2002. During the initial phase, they publicly moderated their Islamic tendencies and claimed to be democratic conservative in the political spectrum. During that period, they built allegiance with the Hizmet movement (next item), but have now purged that movement from power and labeled its leader terrorist. This party and its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were able to tame the Turkish military, but its own authoritarian and nationalist tendencies may also widen Turkey’s distance from the European Union (which had resisted the earlier Turkish government’s application for membership).

Here is a punchy summary—not entirely objective—of modern Turkish politics: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/06/erdogan-turkey-russia-syria-foreign-policy

The role of the Turkish military, its coups, and its relations to NATO through the Cold War are alluded to in this brief article: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/a-birds-eye-view.aspx?pageID=438&n=a-birds-eye-view-2010-02-12

3.) The Hizmet Movement

The Hizmet movement is described in this investigatory article: http://www.city-journal.org/2012/22_4_fethullah-gulen.html

Just as in the case of some split couples, what the Hizmet (The Service) Movement and Justice and Development Party (JDP) say about each other is often true, while failing to see similar truths about themselves. Some Westerners say that Hizmet resembles Opus Dei in its reverence and quiet organization. Hizmet has its own newspaper (an Islamist core accompanied with a range of other coverage that is sometimes good); here is what they say about JDP: http://www.todayszaman.com/op-ed_new-turkey-and-akp-type-capitalism_359666.html

So, step-by-step, JDP got rid of the old state mechanisms ruling Turkey (which claimed to be secular, but very authoritarian and nationalistic) and replaced them with their own bureaucratic apparatus and conservative elite.

4.) The Kurds

As is well known, in the division of Ottoman Empire lands after World War I, the Greeks and the remnants of the Armenians and others got states—sometimes with arbitrary boundaries—but the Kurds did not. The new Turkish identity enforced from 1925 on, did not allow for a separate Kurdish culture, leading to periodic struggles for greater expression or autonomy and some guerrilla warfare met by government repression. Fast-forward to the 2000s, the upside of Islamic emphases is that they may moderate nationalism. The JDP, which initially managed to include conservative Kurds, brought hope to Turkish society by ending the low intensity war going on between the Turks and Kurdish separatists. However, in order to consolidate the more nationalistic bloc of their voters in 2015, the JDP eventually increased the tension with Kurdish leaders. It has also bombed the Kurdish groups most involved in resisting ISIS, possibly widening this significant fault-line in Turkish life: http://www.juancole.com/2014/10/kobane-crisis-turkey.html

5.) The Refugee Crisis

Turkey hosts around 2 million Syrian refugees and has been one of the transfer points for many more going on to Europe. I (the Turkish author) sincerely think that they are taken care of as much as the resources, infrastructure and Turkish politics allow. I (the American author) would point to the efforts of church groups among others to provide humanitarian aid and to provide asylum for more refugees in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. However, the latest agreement by the EU requires Turkey to impose a more strict control of its borders in return of 3 billion euros is seen by some as basically outsourcing a massive refugee camp in Turkish soil.

Here is a recent article written by Joost Lagendijk, formerly a GreenLeft Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who co-chaired the Turkey-EU Parliamentarians delegation, who describes three choices before Turkey. http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/joost-lagendijk/the-missing-links_405808.html

And here is one critical of the outcome still unfolding: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/europes-gatekeeper.aspx?pageID=449&nID=92131&NewsCatID=406

6.) The Peacemaking Role, for both Turkey and the US

Very short-term US thinking would accent current tensions between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, including the shooting down of a Russian plane and Russia’s imposing sanctions. The US would do better, as it did in mediating between Turkey and Israel, to seek to improve relations without denying differences (Turkish citizens have repeatedly tried to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinians effectively blockaded by Israel). The Turkish government has itself taken heavy-handed measures against the press. For example, Turkish journalists have been prosecuted because they reported on how Turkish Intelligence was smuggling weapons to Syria to arm the groups they support: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-going-through-dire-straits.aspx?pageID=449&nID=91742&NewsCatID=409

84288859The challenge for both our nations is how to participate in multi-lateral diplomacy while also resisting the dangers of religious and ethnic nationalism. Demagogues in every society magnify fear of terrorism, focus on ‘homeland’ security rather than human and mutual security, and lump together all ‘others’ in a way that de-humanizes them. While Turkey struggles with its Kurdish citizens and neighbors and the claims of more extreme Sunni states to oppose Shiites and religious minorities, the US also echoes with anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Like Turkey also, the US has crony capitalism, though perhaps less in graft and nepotism and more in the legalized bribery of our billionaire-controlled politics.

As this new year 2016 begins, we pray and turn our hearts toward the most suffering places, while also seeking to better understand and cooperate in the hard work of peacemaking. Particularly for Syria, a negotiated peace settlement would seem at least as important as any new bombing campaign against ISIS and probably more likely to honor the religious and ethnic minorities there and elsewhere in the region. May Turkey and the US be united in at least some of that work.


AUTHOR BIOS: Chris Iosso is the Coordinator for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and the General Editor of Unbound. Dr. Iosso was aided in this article by consultation with an academic from Turkey and expresses his thanks to that person and to all involved in Turkish civil society.

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