The civil war in Syria has brought ever growing international media attention to Turkey, which shares a 822-km border with Syria and has been playing a key role in the conflict by sheltering some 50,000 Syrians in refugee camps as well as hosting (and apparently now also training) the Free Syrian Army. As someone who believes the amount of international media coverage of Turkey is lacking, I at first welcomed this development. However, the increasing quantity of news coverage of Turkey has sometimes proved to be greater than the quality of that coverage, as evidenced by the August 4th New York Times article entitled “As Syrian War Roils, Sectarian Unrest Seeps into Turkey,” authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the Times’ Nairobi-based East Africa Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman.
Gettleman’s Argument: Sunni vs. “Alawite” Tension in Turkey
In his article, Gettleman recounts an incident that took place on July 28 in the town of Surgu, located in the province of Malatya in eastern Turkey. In the hours before dawn that morning a heated argument took place between members of the Evli family and a man who was beating his drum in order to arouse people to eat and drink before beginning to fast at the break of dawn, as happens daily across Turkey during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan; the Evlis, who were not fasting, were disturbed by the noise. Around the same time the following day, the drummer and a hundreds of people shouting “God is Great” attacked the Evli’s home in revenge; the local military police prevented the mob from doing more than breaking some windows. According to Gettleman, the Evli family was targeted by the Sunni Muslim rioters because they were, in his words, “Alawite, a historically persecuted minority sect of Islam, and also the sect of Syria’s embattled leaders.” Gettleman cites this event in support of his assertion that sectarian violence between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria is “spilling over” into, and creating tensions between those same ethnic groups in, Turkey.
In arguing further that “many” of Turkey’s “Alawites” support Assad and implying that the Turkish government’s support of the Syrian opposition is based on its “radical” and international Sunni Islamic agenda, Gettleman seemingly attempts to present a more sobering perspective of Turkey’s championing of the opposition cause as well as the opposition itself, both of which have generally been viewed sympathetically by the international media and US political leaders on both sides of the aisle. Needless to say, at a time when the violence in Syria continues to escalate and members of the international community are considering more robust responses against the Assad regime, the implications of the picture Gettleman draws of the opposition and Turkey’s involvement, published in one of the most widely respected and influential newspapers in the world, are serious.
Yet Gettleman’s argument is fundamentally flawed. Based on an incorrect conflation of two separate religious groups, it generalizes the views of a few Turkish “Alawites” in order to suggest a connection between the Surgu incident and sectarian conflict in Syria, a connection almost entirely absent in Turkish media analysis of the events.
Alevi vs. Alawite
Gettleman’s most basic mistake is to overstate the similarities and links between Syria’s “Alawites” and Turkey’s “Alevi” – as they are called in Turkish – community. While the groups are almost eponymous and non-Sunni, they are essentially distinct. According to Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Syrian Alawites are Arabs who practice a religion that is an offshoot of Shia Islam. (They are also known as Nusayris in both Turkish and English.) Alevism, on the other hand, is an Islamic sect rooted in Turkey that is neither Sunni nor Shia. And although some (Alevis and non-Alevis) in Turkey do equate Syrian Alawites with Turkish Alevis as Gettleman suggests, Capaptay states this is a result of ignorance rather than fact: “Alevis are not Alawites, just as Protestants are not protestors.”
Interestingly, Cagaptay made a similar argument as Gettleman regarding the potential for the “spilling over” of ethnic tension from Syria into Turkey in an article entitled “Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the Same?” published in April. Yet unlike Gettleman, in his nuanced and informed piece Cagaptay asserts that this could happen not because they are of the same sect, but rather out of some Alevis’ solidarity with the Alawites against persecution by Sunnis:
Turkish Alevis have historically defined themselves as a minority group persecuted by the majority Sunnis. Accordingly, should the conflict in Syria turn Sunni on Alawite, it is conceivable that religiously conscious Turkish Alevis will empathize with the minority Alawites in Syria. So, even if Alevis are not Alawites, a Sunni-versus-Alawite conflict in Syria might resonate in Turkey, muddying Ankara’s Syria policy.
The Surgu Incident in Context
Gettleman’s second mistake is to fail to provide any domestic political context to the “Alawite-Sunni” tension that he claims is being stirred up in Turkey by the civil war in Syria. Unlike Cagaptay, who argues that “some of this [potential for tension] is rooted in contemporary Turkish politics,” Gettleman’s argument thus ends up equating the murderous turn such tension has taken in Syria with the riotous one in Turkey as he portrays in the Surgu incident.
Although Gettleman does not mention it, some Alevi religious leaders have indeed linked the Syrian civil war with the events in Surgu. Crucially, however, these leaders specifically blame Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for creating this link through what they claim is his rhetoric about “Alevi massacres” against Sunnis in Syria.
Furthermore, mainstream Turkish media coverage of the Surgu incident, even in those news outlets who interpreted the event as being the result of Alevi-Sunni tension, contained no reference to the Syrian conflict as the causal factor. Columnist for the liberal Turkish newspaper Radikal Oral Calislar, for example, explained that “what happened in Surgu is important…from the perspective of the truths of our recent history,” in which the Turkish state imposed a hegemonic Sunni-Turk identity on the population in order to consolidate its rule, and that “the most important thing here is what the Prime Minister and the government will or will not say.”
In fact, issues relating to Alevis, who generally support the major opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), have recently been on the top of the Turkish news agenda even before the Surgu incident. These issues include debates on whether Alevism is its own religion; the teaching of Alevism in religious classes in public schools; and, most recently, the establishment of a “cemevi,” or Alevi place of worship, on the grounds of the Turkish Parliament. However, these debates and the tension that sometimes accompanies them clearly stem from what, to paraphrase Calislar, the AKP has said and done (or not said and not done), and not from the conflict in Syria. Writing in Today’s Zaman – a conservative English-language Turkish newspaper the tone of whose coverage of the Surgu events generally supported the government’s interpretation that they were “marginal” and not about Sunni-Alevi enmity – columnist Ihsan Yilmaz argued that while the AKP in its initial years of rule made some democratic initiatives regarding the Alevis, it has recently applied the same logic as the previously ruling secular Kemalist establishment that discriminated against Alevis and other minority groups in its rhetoric and policies. In one recent example, Prime Minister Erdogan on Monday called an Alevi cemevi “freakish” just a week after the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that cemevis are not places of worship, a decision the AKP supported.
Finally, there is no mention of the Syria situation in the statements of the drummer (who was arrested two days before the publication of Gettleman’s article for violating public order due to his role in the incident) or the Evli family. Moreover, one of the family members believed they were attacked not just for being Alevi, but also for being Kurds, who make up Turkey’s largest ethnic minority group based mostly in southeastern Turkey. Unlike the Alevi/Alawite issue that Gettleman focuses on, the establishment of de facto rule by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in some northeast Syrian cities has raised concerns in Turkey about spillover effects due to the PYD’s links to the armed separatist group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with which Turkey has fought a protracted conflict since 1984.
While Gettleman does mention that the Evlis’ Kurdish identity may have had something to do with the attack, he wrongly underemphasizes this aspect of the event. He similarly underemphasizes the fact that the Alevi parliamentarian whom he quotes repeatedly in the article, Refik Eryilmaz, is from the CHP. Given Gettleman’s argument, it is curious that he did not mention the fact that the head of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is himself Alevi. Perhaps this is because Kilicdaroglu has criticized the AKP’s Syria policy on the grounds that it is based on the interests of foreign powers and could lead to the breakup of Turkey (an oblique reference to the Kurdish aspect of the conflict) – not because of his faith.
Of course, just because Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan have not directly and openly stated that their confessional beliefs motivate their views on the Syrian civil war we cannot categorically deny that such a connection exists. The same holds true for the events that took place in Surgu. The problem with Gettleman’s piece is that he tries to draw a direct line, one could say a bloodline, between Alawite-Sunni violence in Syria and the Surgu incident in Turkey, whereas the facts of the incident prove that there is not enough evidence to support this claim. Yet we can connect flare ups of Alevi-Sunni tension in Turkey to the words and actions of the AKP government, particularly of Prime Minister Erdogan. As Cagaptay and columnist Amberin Zaman have noted, if Alevis feel they are being discriminated against or oppressed by AKP policies, this could result in their having increasing solidarity with the Alawites in Syria. Unfortunately, the AKP’s policies and Erdogan’s recent rhetoric regarding the Alevi issue have not been helpful in this regard.
This critique may seem to amount to little more than semantics or splitting hairs: if sectarian violence in Syria can ultimately impact Sunni-Alevi relations in Turkey, then, some may argue, the details of how that impact occurs are not important. Yet if we fail to acknowledge the crucial role domestic Turkish politics plays in shaping the impact the Syrian civil war has on Turkey’s different ethnic groups, then we are left with a situation in which it appears only a matter a time before the Syrian Sunni men whom Gettleman describes as “howling in delight” at the thought of killing Alawites become Turkish Sunnis seeking Alevi blood. Fortunately, despite the implications of Gettleman’s argument, this is not the case.