In today’s Turkey, there is not one, not two, but at least three major areas that deeply cut society into occasionally quite antagonistic fronts: politics, religion, and, more importantly, ethnicity, which is being translated into terror. All of them intertwine.
The first deep divide is about politics.
In Izmir, there are two grocery shops (markets or “bakkal,” as they are called in Turkish) just a few steps from our home in a middle-class neighborhood where hundreds of government employees also live. These two markets are divided along political lines.
One shop owner is a tough, secular, pro-Ataturk retiree who does not miss any opportunity to criticize the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The other shop owner has a portrait of the president hanging in his store and every small manner of his speaking and behavior suggests that he is a devout Muslim.
The first shop owner greets you in a traditional Turkish manner with “gunaydin” (“nice day”) and the second in a traditional, Islamic way: “Selamun-Aleykum.”
Finally, the second shop owner sells no alcoholic drinks whatsoever, not even beer, in a city that has traditionally been quite secular. The first shop owner used to sell any sort of alcoholic drink in the past, especially the Turks’ favored raki (Greek ouzo). But with increasing pressure, direct or indirect, by the Islamic-leaning government of Erdogan, our secular “bakkal” started to cover the shelves holding “undesired” drinks. No law (yet) bans the sale of alcohol and the secular bakkal keeps selling it. But the shop owner doesn’t want to incur the protests of loyal government employees, either.
Depending on your political point of view and to which party or personality you lean toward (and that can vary,) you don’t trust parliamentarians a word, nor TV moderators, nor in fact TV channels, or newspapers, or neighbors and co-workers considered to be supportive of the other side.
The deepest political divide is between seculars, who think of themselves as true followers of principles of laicism and a democratic republic introduced in 1923 by Ataturk, on the one side, and those who claim to be faithful and committed to Islam and tradition, on the other.
The second group is far more conservative and primarily religious in all aspects of life, from women wearing Islamic clothing to men publicly going to mosque to pray during work hours.
The seculars are in fact more “democratic-minded” in some sense of Western standards. Not only do they not pressure women to wear head scarves, but they even encourage them not to do so, although their mothers or at least grandmothers usually went out with their heads covered in the traditional way (different from the “political” hijab that became fashionable among the Islamic movements of the Erdogan era.)
The seculars usually don’t pray but still fast during the month of Ramadan. Also, drinking beer or raki, and more recently the more fashionable wine, is a normal thing for them. Family relations are more liberal but still very traditional. They are oversensitive to any criticism of Ataturk and the Turkish Army and history. They usually don’t like the Ottoman sultans, especially the last ones before the founding of the republic, and believe most of them had become puppets of Western colonial powers in the early 20th century.
But ironically their understanding of democracy is usually very anti-Western and generally overwhelmed by diverse and occasionally incomprehensible conspiracy theories that are impossible to prove, although sometimes difficult to deny. All bad that has come upon Turkish society was and still is from the West, as well as Israel and Armenia. All the world is plotting against the Turks and now the West is helping the Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and inside Turkey to split their country, as they did with Iraq and Syria. Their political representation is mostly in the main opposition “social democratic” party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), but also in the main nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
In many aspects, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Unity Party (HDP) also shares a lot of these political concepts. Probably they are more areligious, called secular, and more liberal toward women, at least in urban and politically rather leftist circles. But before anything else, they are heavily ethnicity-focused — with the Kurdish community in Turkey and neighboring countries as their guiding compass.
Many of the conspiracy theories enthusiastically defended by seculars and the Kurdish groups, and more, and in different variations, are shared by the conservative/religious group that is politically represented by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The outbursts by Erdogan that we regularly hear and read in local media are partly played for political consumption, but are generally genuine, though embarrassing. They are, in essence, Islamic-minded with a quite strong, though not MHP-like, nationalism that borders on racism.
This brings us to the second factor, the religion dividing the Turkish nation, before we talk about the main divisive cut through society: the Kurdish issue and the ethnicity problem.
The thing that divides Turkey first and foremost is not religion. It is the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, an ethnic-military confrontation that has been going on for more than 32 years.
But there is one major religious disparity between two large sections of Turkish society, which creates tensions and potentially threatens to aggravate the ethnic conflict and emerge as an acute threat to the country’s stability: a row between the Sunni and Alevi followers of Islam.
This almost sounds like the 17th-century wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants.
Well, yes, though not exactly. The Sunni-Alevi conflict started 500 years ago. In the early 1500s, the Alevis of the Ottoman Empire sided with the country’s neighbor to the east, the Safavids of Iran, who were fierce Shi’ite believers and made Shi’a the official school of Islam in Iran.
During the wars between these two regional “superpowers” of the time, Turkish Alevis strongly supported the Iranians and helped the Safavid clan rise to power. They were ideologically and militarily trained by Iran and sent back to the Ottoman lands to incite social upheaval. The Ottoman Army and regional tribal forces killed and deported the rebellious Alevis for being “heretic agents of Shi’a Iran.” Tens of thousands of them immigrated to Iran while large groups of Iranian Kurds found refuge and support in the Ottoman Empire.
This was the first and largest Sunni-Shi’a/Alevi confrontation in history and its “aftershocks” would be felt for centuries to come.
A Bit Of History
Alevis are Sufi or mystical Shi’ite Muslims who are NOT Sunnis like the majority of Turks. They are followers of Imam Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad in ruling the Muslim world. Unlike the Sunnis who recognize all four caliphs, the Alevis believe that the first three caliphs “usurped” their power from the “rightful” Ali, the prophet’s cousin, and his descendants. That is why they call themselves Alevis or “followers of Ali” a group inside “Twelver Shi’a Islam” whose adherents believe in the divinely ordained leadership of Ali and his 11 successors.
Syrian Alevis are usually known as “Alawites” in the Western world.
Sunnis account for around 85 percent of the world’s Muslim population of some 1.6 billion people, while the Shi’a make up about 15 percent of that number. Iran is the country with the biggest Shi’ite population.
There are estimated to be around 15-20 million Alevis in Turkey out of a total population of 78 million.
Initially, the Alevis mostly lived in rural areas. Originating in Central Asia, centuries before they settled in what is now Turkey, parts of Iran, the Caucasus, Iraq, and Syria, they lived mainly as Turkic tribal groups and were the last to urbanize and integrate with their new social and political environments.
In the Ottoman Empire, the confrontation with Safavid Iran pushed the Alevis further into poverty as well as into political and social isolation.
Both Alevis and Shi’a are followers of the Twelver Shi’a branch of Islam. But there are major differences between them.
Unlike the Shi’a in Iran and Iraq, Alevis do not pray — as tradition prescribes in both the Sunni and Shi’ite beliefs. Nor do they fast the same way in the month of Ramadan. They also don’t go to mosques to pray or to Mecca for pilgrimage. Alcohol is not forbidden in the Alevi faith, and women don’t have to wear Islamic clothing or the head scarf known as the “hijab.”
Many scholars believe Alevis have mixed their Islam with heavily mystical or Sufi approaches, which they adopted from the pre-Islamic, Shamanist traditions of Central Asia prior to their migrations westward a few centuries later, as well as from Iranian mysticism.
In the first centuries of Islamic expansion in Central Asia, mainly Iranian and not Arab thinkers and sheikhs taught and guided Turkic tribes to convert to Islam.
While converting to Islam and migrating to Iran and Turkey, Alevis took the essence and dropped the form of their new religion. In daily life, many political observers consider Alevis to be far more secular and “liberal” than most other schools of Islam — Shi’a or Sunni.
In the last few decades many historians and researchers have argued that, after the Islamization and Turkification of Byzantine Anatolia, thousands of formerly Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Iranian-speaking members of the indigenous population had to change their first language to Turkish and convert to Islam.
These scholars also claim that, with respect to religion, a large portion of the converts chose the Alevi faith since it was easier for them to adapt to. For decades if not centuries, they say, these converts have lived as “genuine Muslims and Turks” although their origins once used to be Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Kurdish.
This is the essence of a potential split in Turkish society – if the players choose to play with it. And they have — at least partly — done so given the rising religious and ethnic tension in the wider Middle Eastern region.
THE ‘KURDISH ISSUE’
Visiting Washington, D.C., Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Unity of Peoples’ Party (HDP), felt it difficult to clearly answer the question he was asked when opening the Kurdish Policy Research Center. “Is there a risk of a Turkish-Kurdish [armed] conflict?”
Demirtas passed. “I try to speak very carefully on this issue; making statements and assessments on this subject is very sensitive,” he replied.
No “yes,” no “no.”
Then, in an interview with The Washington Post, Demirtas was a bit more open and even threatening: “Many Turks and Kurds could die and this could trigger a civil war.”
Unofficially, the HDP is the main political arm of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a bloody war against the Turkish state and army for the last 32 years. Recent suicide attacks by Kurdish militants have killed hundreds of civilians in major Turkish cities, with the Turkish Army pummeling suspected PKK targets both inside Turkey and in northern Iraq.
Similarly, this has created tension between Turks and Kurds in general, including occasional attacks on shops or gatherings of either community by assailants leaving graffiti behind, blaming “the Turks” or “the Kurds” (in plural).
Recently dozens of shops owned by both Kurds or Turks were set on fire and destroyed in different cities including the central Turkish city of Kirsehir, where both communities have been living peacefully for centuries. Local authorities blamed the attacks on “provocateurs” and both Turkish and Kurdish shop owners blamed “outsiders who infiltrated our city to draw a rift between us.”
Many Kurdish activists and columnists accuse past and present Turkish governments of being “racist” and “fascist,” while nationalist-leaning Turkish analysts see each and every demand for improvement of ethnic rights as a “hidden attempt” of separatism and “plans for a Greater Kurdistan.”
Meanwhile, bias and resentment keep spreading wider with each death on either side, regardless of whether the victim is a soldier, guerrilla, or civilian.
So, still no answer to the clear question whether there will be a civil war, an ethnic confrontation, or an all-out massacre between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority of an estimated 20 million people out of a total population of 78 million?
Until a hundred years ago, there was no big distinction between Turks and Kurds in political and social life. In the Ottoman Empire as in other Muslim states like Iran, “nation” was determined on the basis of religion and not ethnicity or language. Inside the empire, there were the nations (“millet”) of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism who lived side by side, even under their own religious laws and regulations, though in distinct city districts or villages. They had to pay additional taxes on property and income (“jizye”). But they were widely free, especially compared to, say Jewish communities in France or Spain.
Turks and Kurds, however, were and still are mostly Muslims. Moreover, they were and still are of the same, Sunni, school of Islam.
So, it’s not about religion or confession.
And it’s not even about ethnicity and race. Yes, history tells us that in the early 11th century Turkic tribes invaded the then-Byzantine Empire and gradually took over the entire empire, including its capital, Constantinople, in 1453 that became Istanbul under Turkish rule. But history also tells us that the Turkish newcomers’ numbers were less than that of the locals, who were primarily Greek, Aramaic, Armenian, or Iranian speakers.
To adapt to new rulers and their rule, most of the locals gradually and in the course of centuries changed their religion to Islam, their language to Turkish and even their names. Today, almost all anthropological studies find that more than 90 percent of the ancestors of today’s Turkish population are Mediterranean or Southwest Asian like their Greek, Caucasian, Iranian and Middle Eastern neighbors. Only around 5-6 percent of the current Turkish population’s genetic code is Central Asian, going back to the migrants of the post-Byzantine period.
To sum up: the vast majority of Turkish and Kurdish speakers in today’s Turkey have a very similar set of genes.
Two Different Languages
But yes, sure, the language. Turkish and Kurdish are two different, though very connected languages. Turkish arrived in Anatolia 1,000 years ago with the migration of Turkic tribes. It originates from Central Asia and is a branch of the Altaic language group, like Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, or Mongolian. But well before Turkish, languages of three different groups, Indo-European, an old Anatolian, and Semitic groups were spoken in eastern Anatolia, such as Hittite, Urartian, Greek, Armenian, Median, Pahlavi, as well as Aramaic.
Kurdish is one of the descendants of Western Iranian languages.
Contemporary Turkish and Kurdish/Iranian Persian have heavily influenced each other in the course of the last 10 centuries.
The Last 90 Years
Most probably, something went wrong after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Emerging from the ruins of the empire that had lost much of its lands as a result of World War I, Ataturk’s young republic tried to define itself as a new, modern, Western-oriented nation-state. Following its heavy defeat in the war, the young republican regime needed a strongly confident nation looking ahead as a member of the Western community.
Doing so, it fell into the trap of the extreme, even occasionally racist, and simply false imagination of the “pure Turkishness” of the new nation — ethnically, linguistically, and historically. “A Turk equals the whole world” was the early Turkish government’s slogan and “Turkish culture and language is the origin of all the world’s languages and civilizations.”
Not only was learning Kurdish banned, but even reading Kurdish books could be punished, as was identifying yourself as a Kurd with Kurdish as your mother tongue.
Soon, though, that euphoria of the first years left room for a state ideology of a “Turkish identity based on Turkish citizenship only” — and not race, language, or religion. But many laws and especially practices of the past remained intact. And it was apparently too late. Many members of ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities rejected identifying themselves as “Turks,” even if that was just supposed to mean citizenship.
Add to all that the imbalance between the western, quite developed part of Turkey and the more backward, eastern provinces of the country that were the original geography of Turkey’s Kurdish community, bordering Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
And add to that the repressive military coups that came time and again to power in Turkey, interrupting the country’s civilian governance and bringing “order” to the occasional “chaos of democracy,” using methods such as banning political freedoms, state terror, and torture.
This was the ideal moment for the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization that combined far-left ideology with Kurdish nationalism. Founded in 1984, it started a war against the Turkish state and army, hitting and retreating to northern Iraq and provoking harsh attacks by the Turkish Army.
In the last 10-20 years, some practices were relaxed. You can now buy songs and books in Kurdish and there are newspapers and even a government-owned Kurdish TV channel. But for many Kurdish militias and activists the Turkish government’s plans to “solve the Kurdish issue” are not honest and too slow. Some even believe they have achieved these “little steps” only because of actions publicly condemned as “terrorist attacks.”
The PKK is branded a “terrorist organization” by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. But that is not the issue, at least not a key to open the door for peace and reconciliation before it’s too late.
Call it a “struggle,” as does the PKK, or a “war on terror,” as does the Turkish government and army. Since the war started 32 years ago, it became a “de facto civil war” that expanded to western regions of the country through attacks on military and civilian targets and killed about 40,000-45,000 people and cost billions of dollars.
Forget about “they started first, we are just responding to them.” Forget about “NATO’s strongest army” that is fighting PKK, forget about Turkey’s majority and minority, and forget about PKK’s hope of support from the Kurdish hinterland and militias in northern Iraq and Syria.
The question is whether both parties genuinely believe that they can emerge victorious from this vicious circle of violence, destruction, and national divide. And if they genuinely believe they can reach a solution alone and without the other side of the conflict.