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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.

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.

The dust has almost settled after the fallout from daily Milliyet’s controversial publication of the “İmralı leaks.” The paper’s reporting of leaked details of the meeting between imprisoned PKK head Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation shook the media agenda two weeks ago, and was widely condemned by government officials as an attempt to “sabotage” the ongoing peace process. In fact, the episode has not had this effect, but it has managed to expose the fragile state of media freedom in Turkey once again – it’s regretful that such bold government criticism of the media has become increasingly familiar of late.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led the reactions from the front, repeatedly singling out Milliyet in the days following the leaks. “If that’s how you’re doing your journalism, shame on you! The media will say [the same thing] again: The prime minister is attacking us. But whoever tries to spoil the process in the media is against me and my government. There cannot be limitless freedom,” he said, before calling on the media only to report “in the national interest.” Of course, given Erdoğan’s past record on such matters it’s not surprising to hear him once again hitting out at media coverage that he considers inconvenient. However, the apparent emotion behind the outbursts on this occasion is probably related to the fact that his personal political destiny depends to a large extent on the success of the current peace talks.

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Milliyet’s front page on Feb. 28, announcing the leaked details of the İmralı island prison meeting between Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation from the BDP.

Rumours circulated that sackings and resignations from Milliyet would follow the leaks, but editor-in-chief Derya Sazak wrote a robust defense on the Monday following Erdoğan’s words: “If the story is accurate, which it is, we print it. We do not take the prime minister’s words upon us.” Nevertheless, the criticism evidently had an effect, as veteran writer Hasan Pulur’s column did not appear on the same day, and it was also widely reported that the paper’s owner wanted government critics Can Dündar and Hasan Cemal to be removed on the prime minister’s order. Indeed, Cemal has not appeared in Milliyet for two weeks since the İmralı leaks, although no official announcement has been made. Dündar and Cemal are perhaps surprising names for Erdoğan to target, as – despite often being critical of the ruling AKP – both have expressed their support for its current peace process.

Although many government-supporting voices in the media unsurprisingly joined Erdoğan in condemning Milliyet’s “sabotage” attempts, there were many others defending the principle of media independence. In her daily Habertürk column, The Economist’s Turkey correspondent Amberin Zaman described Milliyet’s responsibility to print the İmralı meeting details as being a journalistic duty in the public interest:

“A journalist’s job is to find the truth and then inform the public; to protect the citizen from the state … By publishing the İmralı minutes, did Milliyet give Turkey’s enemies advantageous operational information? No. Did it put the sources’ lives at risk? No. Was sharing the talks between Öcalan and the BDP something that would injure the national interest? No. In the end, Milliyet was only doing journalism.”

In an interview with daily Akşam, Alper Görmüş – the editor-in-chief of political journal Nokta when it was closed down under military pressure in 2007 – also said Milliyet was right to print the leaked minutes, stating that he too would have published them if he was in the same situation.

Meanwhile, the International Press Institute issued a statement condemning Erdoğan’s comments and warning about the troubled state of media freedom in Turkey:

“The principle criterion of journalism is honest reporting. The fact that no party has refuted Milliyet’s story on the ‘Imrali transcripts’ and that almost all of Turkey’s newspapers quoted the story the following day show that it was true … The public has been informed truthfully about a process that it has an interest in learning about. This is honest and proper journalism …

“The media has no mission to side with the political power. It should stand by the truth. A contribution to the process of a solution can only be realized by writing the truth and the facts, not by hiding them or by exercising self-censorship.

“Indeed, governing a country and practicing journalism are different things. In a country where those who govern try to teach journalists how to do their job and where journalists attempt to govern, it cannot be possible for democracy to stand on its feet.”

A thoughtful response to the events also came from Today’s Zaman’s Yavuz Baydar, who again returned to the effect of media ownership structures on press freedom in Turkey – one of the most crucial (but less discussed) aspects of the issue:

“Jail and detention have been the focus with regards to Turkey, but the real threat to the media remains (under an old, well-known dark shadow of the power) owner-induced censorship and self-censorship, including being banned from writing on specific subjects.

“Whether one denies it or not, ownership issues dominate the freedom and independence of our media today. If we in emerging democracies need to defend both of these issues, we need new ownership models.”

In the same paper, Orhan Kemal Cengiz bemoaned the more immediate issue of direct government pressure on the media with respect to Milliyet’s İmralı leaks:

“Yes, it is true; the publishing of these leaked notes has damaged the peace process … But it is a level of damage which is absolutely nothing when compared to the damage that would occur to our democracy and freedoms if our media suddenly starts censuring itself out of fear from ‘what will the government say?’ every time it encounters a newsworthy and important document it wants to print.”

Actually, the situation is rather more urgent than Cengiz suggests. The fact is that the damage that “would” come from self-censorship has already been occurring for quite some time.

Daily Zaman is often described as Turkey’s most read newspaper, with its circulation having recently tipped over the 1 million mark. It was therefore rather interesting to see a recent chart on medyatava.com indicating that this figure is made up almost entirely of subscribers, with only around 20,000 copies actually bought in shops every day.

This isn’t a complete surprise – for all its faults Zaman has never really been a “populist” newspaper, always self-consciously higher brow than the average fare on the Turkish newsstands. It’s pretty rare to see the local simitçi walking around Istanbul with a copy of Zaman tucked under his arm – at least in comparison with Sabah, Posta, Hürriyet, etc.

The high proportion of subscriptions can almost certainly be ascribed to Zaman’s links to the Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat). Copies of the paper are delivered to most businesses/schools/individuals/hotels associated with the cemaat, which would account for the disproportionately high subscription number. As the “wikileaked” Stratfor intelligence agency cable explained back in 2009:

“FGC [Fethullah Gülen Community] businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions. Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.”

A similar pattern can be observed at Today’s Zaman, the English-language arm of Zaman, which has 8,500 subscribers to just 1,900 sales.

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While on the dull subject of newspaper circulation figures, it’s worth taking the opportunity to note that since last month’s shock resignations from Taraf, the paper has seen its circulation increase substantially. While Taraf had previously hovered around 50,000, this figure is now approaching close to 70,000. Whether or not the resignations were good from a journalistic perspective, they certainly seem to have made economic sense.

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