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I recently spotted three curious newspaper pieces that neatly illustrate how the ruling mentality in Turkey approaches the “Alevi question.” Each one frames the issue in terms of “love,” “unity,” and “brotherhood,” but the underlying assumptions behind these words – ubiquitous and sacrosanct as they are in Turkish political culture – are worth investigating. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to be robust enough when it comes to answering the Alevi question.

The first example was published two weeks ago in mass circulation pro-government daily Sabah, written by columnist Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı. In two columns published on consecutive days, Kütahayalı argued that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should heed “serious recent intelligence reports” suggesting that “outside forces” were planning to “exploit” Turkey’s Alevi citizens: “Outside forces and their inside co-operators are planning a new chaos plan. The intelligence for this is very serious … They want to drag Alevi citizens into a violent rebellion.” Then, in a spectacular example of drawing the right conclusions from a hopelessly misguided route, Kütahyalı went on to suggest that these threats were reasons for the government to take steps to heed the Alevis’ democratic demands:

“If the AK Parti government takes brave steps to solve the Alevi problem, as it has done with the Kurdish problem, then nobody will be able to construct a chaos scenario using the Alevis … The Alevis’ demands on rights and freedoms are very important, and the government should do whatever it takes to meet these demands.”

Kütahyalı’s argument was almost identical to the one in the Today’s Zaman column by Abdullah Bozkurt that I mentioned in my previous post. In that article, Bozkurt explicitly stated that Iran was looking to use Alevis, (as well as spies disguised as LGBT people), to foment sectarian war in Turkey. He then went on to say that this potential danger was why Turkey should be extra careful and now grant Alevis more rights:

“The Turkish government should be more vigilant than ever over Iranian activities and hasten the process of addressing Alevi demands, including the recognition of their places of worship (cemevi) and the provision of fair-share subsidies from taxpayers’ money. Alevis, who number over 10 million, should be able to establish and train their own clergy and the government should provide financial support for that.”

Hüseyin Gülerce also engaged in similar mental acrobatics in one of his Zaman columns in June. In it, he repeated the official government view that the Gezi Park protests were all part of a grand unpatriotic plot aimed at foiling Turkey’s economic ambitions, but he went even further: “The plan, the project, is based on exploiting, on exacerbating the Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and secular-religious divides. Unfortunately, the Gezi Park events have turned best friends into antagonists.” Like Kütahyalı and Bozkurt, Gülerce used this logic to justify “further democratization”:

“We need to overcome these divides … Democratization must not be halted. The democratic front must be strengthened, progressing to universal democratic standards … Starting with the prime minister, we have to come together in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation.”

The mentality that essentially sees Alevis as a threat that should be handled with care is shared by all three columns, and it is echoed by many government officials. It was also there in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent warnings against “sectarian division,” when he declared that “if being Alevi means loving the Caliph Ali, then I’m a perfect Alevi.”  In similar tones, ministers constantly repeat how Alevis should never worry about the government, as they are “brothers and sisters” who see “difference as a richness.”

It sounds nice, but it was refreshing to see a piece on T24 by Alper Görmüş last week that took aim at such patronising discourse. In it, Görmüş questioned the glib “embracing brotherliness” displayed by the AKP, saying that Alevis wanted not simply “love” and “brotherhood,” but “equality” and “respect”:

“In families, it’s always the elders who emphasise ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity’… Alevis know that the Sunnis who use these terms are the strong, advantaged ‘family elders,’ and this does not suggest ‘equality’ and ‘respect’ to them.

“The prime minister’s emphasis on ‘love,’ ‘brotherhood,’ and ‘affection’ basically translates for the broader Sunni mass as meaning: ‘Alevism is not as authentic or respected as our beliefs, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love or feel affection for Alevis themselves.’

“Genuine, lasting brotherhood is not built on ‘affection’ alone. A brotherhood that doesn’t contain equality, cannot be considered genuine brotherhood, and isn’t sustainable … Just like the Kurdish issue, the Alevi question cannot be solved by approaching Alevis without ‘equality,’ and without a genuine respect for their beliefs.”

This seems fairly watertight to me. It’s easy for the Sunni “family elders” to talk blithely of love and brotherhood, but it all rings a bit hollow when some still consider Alevis as “potential threats,” and when the state still only spends tax money on Sunni mosques, without even recognising Alevi cemevis as separate houses of worship. As Görmüş suggested, the AKP still has a long way to go before truly gaining the trust of Alevis.

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Not so many years ago, a strategic partnership between Turkey and Iran seemed to be developing into one of the region’s more unexpected modern developments. Turkey was vaunted as a mediator in negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, and the relationship was reinforced by crucial oil and gas sales from Iran to Turkey. Those days feel rather long ago. The two countries now find themselves at loggerheads backing opposite sides of the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria, with fears of a regional sectarian conflagration steadily turning into an apocalyptic reality. A marker of the Syrian crisis’ deleterious effect on the Turkey-Iran relationship came with the diplomatic spat that followed the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on Turkey’s southern border earlier this year, which lead the Iranian army’s chief of staff to declare that the move could be a prelude to “world war.” Less spectacular, but also very important, is Iran’s clear unease with Turkey’s delicate ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which involves the rebel group withdrawing its militants from Turkish soil to their bases in northern Iraq. Tehran is concerned that the withdrawal could result in the militants joining forces with the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is the PKK’s offshoot in Iran.

The schism between Turkey and Iran widened to such an extent that Patrick Cockburn recently described relations between the two as “poisonous,” and this is increasingly being reflected in the rising levels of anti-Iran sentiment in Turkey’s Islamist press. In addition to countless pieces targeting Iran for supporting the al-Assad regime in Syria , it has also been striking to see the AKP media include Iranians among the dark “outside forces” stoking the recent Gezi Park protests, supposedly out of discomfort with Turkey’s economic success. In the early days of the demonstrations, it was eagerly reported in all government-supporting media outlets that an “Iranian agent” had been arrested on suspicion of being a “provocateur” behind protests in Ankara. It later emerged in more sceptical news organisations that the individual concerned, Shayan Shamloo, was in fact a rapper who was living in Turkey as a refugee.

Soon afterwards – in one of those truly befuddling Today’s Zaman stories – Abdullah Bozkurt wrote a column titled “Iran plays a subversive role in Turkey,” in which he argued with a straight face (pardon the pun) that Iran was using the protests to infiltrate Turkey with spies disguised as LGBT people in an attempt to bring down the government:

“Recent protests exposed, among other things, the depth of Iranian infiltration into Turkey … [During the protests] about a dozen Iranian agents who were trying to turn rallies into violent anti-government demonstrations were caught by the police… Since it is difficult to distinguish legitimate non-Muslim minority or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from spies, Iranian intelligence often uses them as a cover to infiltrate Turkey and third countries.”

However weird, Bozkurt’s column wasn’t an outlier in pointing the finger at Iran for Turkey’s problems. Indeed, Zaman and Today’s Zaman have recently been publishing a steady stream of articles and columns critical of negative Iranian influence in the region, and it’s probably also worth noting here that the Today’s Zaman editor, Bülent Keneş, wrote a book on Iran’s links to international terrorism last year.

Much of the Iran-bashing in the Turkish press goes hand in hand with pieces on Turkey’s Alevi minority. The Alevis are an offshoot of Shiism, (distinct from the Alawites in Syria), and have historically been associated by some in Turkey as dangerous fifth columnists with divided loyalties to Iran. Indeed, that association goes back as far as Bosphorus bridge-commemorated Sultan Selim the Grim, whose decision to kill tens of thousands of Alevis was taken during a military campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire in the 16th century.

Some of the most enthusiastic and unpleasant examples negatively associating Alevis with Iran come from the extreme Islamist daily Yeni Akit. For two consecutive days in June, for example, Yeni Akit carried front page headline stories claiming that Iranian authorities had invited Alevi religious leaders across the border to visit Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to foment sectarian war in Turkey. The headline of the first day’s story, “Iran is playing with fire” (İran, ateşle oynuyor), was a stomach-turning play on the Turkish term for “flame” (ateş), in reference the fire often used in Alevi rituals. Of course, it should be stressed that Yeni Akit is far from representative of majority sentiment in Turkey, but it probably isn’t quite as marginal as most people like to think. In fact, a few months ago Erdoğan even put two of its writers – including editor-in-chief Hasan Karakaya – on his “Wise Men Commission,” charged with the august task of repeating whatever he said about the ongoing Kurdish peace process.

It all adds up to a worrying picture. With the Syrian crisis having exploded into a wider geopolitical struggle splitting the region on sectarian lines, it’s increasingly clear that the growing schism between majority-Sunni Turkey and majority-Shia Iran is more than just a temporary trend.

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