The Republic of Turkey and a Trap Called Religious Conflict

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Elyas Vahedi
Expert on Turkey & Caucasus Affairs

Turkey entered the year 2012 as its foreign policy towards some of its neighbours did not represent a remarkable performance in 2010 and 2011. Over the past two years, tensions in relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey as well as Ankara’s hostile positions and policies towards the Syrian government presented a weak image of the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s doctrine of “strategic depth,” which was further reinforced during the first four months of the current year following the escalation of tensions between Turkey and Iraq.

Relations between states do not presumably remain fixed or unchanging and are in fact subject to various factors and variables that are transformed over time and with the emergence of new circumstances and numerous events. Given this, the art of diplomacy is to manage to implement appropriate changes in the making of foreign policy in line with the requirements of the new circumstances. Some inter-state relations, however, have deep effects and implications which do not disappear by introducing a tactical change in a given state’s foreign policy approach, particularly when its foreign relations enter a process of forming blocs and building axes and as a result relations between some countries are influenced by axis-building. Turkey’s relations with its neighbours and Middle Eastern countries have, over the past two years, been determined by such bloc formation and axis building, and what forms the basis of this regional alignment is religious Shiite-Sunni differences.

In general, in trying to explain the nature of Turkish foreign policy from the era of Ataturk to the present (before the outbreak of Arab revolutions), one may point to the lack of religious orientation (Shiite-Sunni) as an unchangeable principle. In this respect, in addition to laicism and Kemalism as the principal parameters of Turkey’s foreign policy, the historical experiences of sectarian religious conflict, which inflicted irreparable damage upon the Ottoman Empire, has perhaps been noted by Turkish politicians in the area of foreign policy making. Though such incidents as the Dersim rebellion in 1937 are seen as bitter experiences in Turkish history, generally speaking, there has been no specific religious orientation in Turkey’s domestic politics and more so in its foreign policy during a period of around nine decades.

In spite of this trend, however, Turkish foreign policy in the current circumstances has moved towards a point where Ankara has practically been engaged in a religious Shiite-Sunni alignment. The growing development of Turkey’s political ties with Sunni Arab governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan, which occasionally involves the approval or at least silence of Turkish statesmen in the face of anti-democratic measures adopted by the aforementioned regimes, on the one hand, and its hostile policies towards Syrian and Iraqi governments as well as its use of unfriendly language in dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other constitute the clear symptoms of Turkey falling into the trap of religious conflict. Turkish leaders conceive of their foreign policy as based upon a set of principles whereby Ankara’s relations with foreign states are assessed and adjusted. However, the performance of Turkey’s foreign policy apparatus over the past years does not demonstrate such an adherence to certain principles, as avoidance of religious disputes and sectarian conflicts is undoubtedly one of them. Rather, Turkey’s foreign policy conduct intensifies religious differences and divisions, which is why one can argue that in contradiction to its principles, Ankara has not only failed to preclude such a conflict but it has also escalated it.

As a consequence, aside from the negative implications of regional states’ foreign policy conduct, regional nations themselves face the grave threat of Sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict, which is by far more harmful than the behaviour of governments. As explained briefly above, the behaviour of states change according to the emergent circumstances, and, two governments hostile to each other, for instance, may alter their positions in a short period of time and become allies, working in the same front. It should be noted, however, that public opinions do not afford to undergo such a change in the short term, not least when the subject of conflict is such a crucial issue as religion, which is so much in the spotlight in the Middle Eastern societies and which is increasingly attracting attention due to the growing religious tendencies of regional nations.

The rising public attention to and interest in the issue of religion and religious Shiite-Sunni conflicts – whether at the political and geopolitical levels or on the ideological and faith-oriented level – can be clearly seen in Turkish media these days, which reflect the thoughts and perspectives of Turkey’s elites and its public opinion. Notably, the bulk of materials and stories that are published and broadcast in Turkish media suggest an inclination towards Sunni Islam or support for the regional policies of Sunni states. In this respect, in addition to prominent Turkish media, which lambast the foreign policies of the Islamic Republic from the standpoint of religious tendencies or even take the controversy to the level of Shiite-Sunni faith issues, other less know media have simply been launched to fuel religious disputes and tensions.

The “Zaman” newspaper, which is Turkey’s highest-circulation print daily with a wide readership both inside and outside the country and is largely considered as a moderate Islamist outlet close to the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has practically engaged itself in such a controversy these days. Among the materials published by the newspaper, one can witness the harshest criticisms against Shi’ism and the Islamic Republic. It can even be argued that some of Zaman’s stories exceed the limits of criticism and are solely intended to stain the image if Shi’ism and ruin the reputation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Regarding anti-Shiite media propaganda, one can name other Turkish dailies in addition to Zaman, including “Milli Gazete”, “Yeni Akit Gazetesi” and “Turkiye Gazetesi”. Apart from these newspapers, some of whose stories promote anti-Shi’ism and seek to damage the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran and which rarely include notes opposing religious conflict, there are certain electronic media that have dedicated all their materials to stoking sectarian religious clash. The “Iran Threat” and “Distorters of Religion” websites are but two examples of this media current, which have simply been installed in order to undermine Shi’ism and the Islamic Republic, an objective they publicly acknowledge.

The materials published on the “Iran Threat” site include a wide range of anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian issues and seek to vilify influential Shiite figures and the top-ranking leaders of the Islamic Republic in the past and at present, repudiate the jurisprudential principles of Shi’ism and revile the Shiite religious history. The noteworthy point in this regard is that these outlets, all of which are categorized as Islamist media, do not usually publish any story opposing or criticizing the Sunni Arab countries, a matter which reinforces the speculations about the sponsorship of such states as Saudi Arabia for this media current.

In point of fact, the Islamist movement in Turkey, which was once considered as the driving engine of greater and deeper ties between Tehran and Ankara, has now been entangled in a state which increasingly pushes the two neighbouring countries towards divergence. Turkey’s policy of “zero problems” with neighbours, its reference to the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin or Zuhab – which was signed between the Iranian Safavid and Turkish Ottoman empires in 1639 – and the unchanged status of Iran-Turkey borders over the past four centuries – which a few years ago was the main frame of reference for the Turkish leaders to adjust bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic – have all been practically overlooked now or at least receive less consideration than the past. It is worth noting that in the current climate, laic and nationalist groups in Turkey, which constitute the major opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party, constantly warn the government against jeopardizing Ankara’s good neighbourhood policy and its relations with Iran while expressing serious concerns about the possibility of Turkey falling into the trap of Shiite-Sunni conflicts.

On the whole, one may argue that Turkey’s Islamist current, whose religious beliefs are mainly rooted in the ideologies of Arab-language countries and such religious centres as Al-Azhar University in Egypt, has recently been under the influence of radical Sunni-centred tendencies, which can be easily perceived from the comments and materials written by its young Islamist writers. These Islamists, who have acquired their ideologies and religious learning at most during the past two decades and have also been largely inculcated with certain religious dispositions advocate by Arab countries, easily transgress the boundaries of Shiite-Sunni differences, taint the Shiite religion and spark religious hostilities regardless of their writings’ implications for the Turkish society, the region at large, but also for the Islamic world. Such divisive actions are perpetrated also because these young Islamists are not well attuned to or cognizant of the Shiite jurisprudence and religious values and have not had so sufficient association with Shiite societies and religious elites.

The fact is that despite the existence of a totally religious social structure in Iran, there has never been no religious media current as one can see in the making in Turkey now, which is an unprecedented phenomenon and indeed an uncanny innovation given the history of Turkish society and government. This said, it is hoped that the Republic of Turkey -whether at the governmental level or at the civil, media and elite levels – will manage to understand this sensitive juncture appropriately does not neglect to play an impartial role in religious conflicts and controversies, which is indeed what suits to the Turkish social fabrics and government. After all, it should be pointed out, Turkey’s utmost role-playing power lies not in adopting certain religious positions and trying to lead the Sunni world against the Shiite axis but in refusing to engage in religious and sectarian conflicts and making maximum use of its relations with all Islamic countries.

Key Words: Turkey, Religious Conflict, Iran, Iraq, Shiite-Sunni Differences, Turkish Media, Vahedi

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