Dangerous fault lines appear in Turkey

Dangerous fault lines appear in Turkey

Fourteen-year-old Berkin Elvan weighed 45 kilos when his skull was crushed by a tear gas canister shot by Istanbul police at close distance on June 16, 2013, during the Gezi Park protests that rocked the all-mighty image of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

He turned 15 in hospital in a coma and had dropped to 16 kilos when his weak body could no longer resist death early on March 11.

His father had said before that he had send him to the grocery by the corner on that Sunday morning to buy some bread, which increases the tragedy of the death. But that does not change the fact that Elvan was the eighth young man killed as a result of police brutality during the Gezi protests.

The moment that his death hit the media, spontaneous boycotts and protests were sparked in major cities of Turkey. More were expected during his funeral, to be held in a cemevi, the worship place for Turkey’s Alevi community, in Okmeydanı, a notorious lower middle-class district in Istanbul.

By coincidence or not, all young men killed during Gezi were of Alevi (neither Sunni, nor Shiite, a native offshoot of Islam) origin. Three of them were from the same district in Antakya, which borders Syria and has ties with the Alawite community in Syria.

Turkey’s Syria policy and the Gezi protests have further alienated the Alevi community from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which day by day is perceived ever more as the voice of dominant Sunni Muslims.

It’s not only Alevis who feel alienated. Zafer Çağlayan, the former economy minister who had to resign following his son’s arrest during the Dec. 17 graft probe, recently said something that prompted a reaction from the Turkish Chief Rabbinate. He said that “if a Jew, a Zoroastrian, or an atheist” had committed the “plot” against him he could have understood, “but not a Muslim.”

The Muslim he was implying was Fethullah Gülen, the moderate U.S.-based Islamist scholar with a global network of sympathizers, who was Erdoğan’s closest ally until recently. Erdoğan tells crowds during his campaign for the March 30 local election that there is no corruption, but rather a “coup plot” by Gülen. He has already lost four ministers whose names were involved in bribery in relation to oil-for-gold deals with an Iranian origin nouveau-rich businessman, Reza Zarrab.

With a series of legal steps taken since the graft probe opened, Erdoğan has managed to secure new appointments as the judges of critical courts, which has resulted in the release of not only Zarrab, but also the sons of two ministers and the ex-general manager of Halkbank, who is now appointed as its board member.

Hoping for the support of the military, which until two years ago he had cleared from his path with the help of pro-Gülen policemen, prosecutors and judges, Erdoğan sought the release from prison of his former chief of general staff, İlker Başbuğ. A law was passed imposing that those whose trials have not been completed within five years should be released until the legal proceedings are over.

Başbuğ had been sentenced to life, not on convincing evidence anyway, but was released on March 8. Taking advantage of the rule, the mastermind suspect of the murder of Armenian-origin Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, the five murder suspects of three Protestant missionaries in 2007, and the murderer of Council of State member Mustafa Özbilgin in 2006, were also released.

Suzan Riske, the widow of the murdered pastor, told the media that she was worried because of the releases. She is not the only one who is uncomfortable with developments, but is joined by Alevis, Jews, Armenians and actually secular Sunnis nowadays.

The Greek Orthodox Synod held its meeting over the weekend in Istanbul to discuss the status of Hagia Sophia, as the ancient structure is used as election material in the competition between right-wing and conservative parties. Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his concern over a recent statement by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who was answering a question about the possibility of re-opening of Hagia Sophia for Islamic prayers. “Mosques are built for prayers,” Arınç had said about the world-renowned cathedral, built in 537 A.D., long before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad of Islam.

Turned into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by Turks in 1453, the cathedral was turned into a museum after the declaration of the republic in 1935 in order to avoid religious tensions.