Turkish gov’t warns against sectarian spillover from Syria

Turkish gov’t warns against sectarian spillover from Syria

“If the Syria resistance fails, there will be a face-off with the sectarian barbarians of Shah Ismail in Anatolia. Everyone should prepare for that.” This tweet posted on Dec. 13 by Abdülkadir Şen, an academic at the Malazgirt University in eastern Turkey, started a serious debate and had a snowball effect in the country. 

The reference to Shah Ismail was a not-so-veiled address to Turkey’s Alevis community. In a battle in 1516, Iranian armies led by a Shiite Turk, Shah Ismail, were defeated by Ottoman “Yavuz” (Brave) Sultan Selim I, and many Anatolian Turkish Alevis sided with Ismail. 

In another tweet posted on the same day, Şen said “the sectarian barbarians will pay [for Aleppo]. You have become shahs [again], so we’ll become Yavuz.” The “sectarian barbarians” he was referring to were clearly Turkey’s Alevi community, estimated to make up over 10 percent of Turkey’s population of 78 million people.

Şen was suspended by his university after uproar over his tweets. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) took the issue to parliament and asked how such a person - who had also been detained in the past on accusations of making propaganda in line with Al-Qaeda – could possibly be employed at a public university.

But anti-Alevi coverage and hate messages on social media only spread as civilians living in districts of Aleppo under the control of rebel militias struggled to leave the town in one piece due to attacks by the pro-Iranian Hasdi Shaabi militia and the Syrian army of the Bashar al-Assad regime, breaking the agreement between Turkey and Russia for evacuation.

Government spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş sounded concerned as he answered questions from the Hürriyet Daily News over the phone about the rise in hate messages against Turkey’s Alevis on social media.

“It also came to my attention that there are people using such discriminatory language on social media” Kurtulmuş said. “This is wrong. Everyone should be careful in the language they use. On the Anatolian soil we have to be careful. For us there is no difference between [14-15th century Sunni theologian] Hacı Bayram Veli and [13th century theologian and founder of the Bektaşi Alevi branch] Hacı Bektaş Veli. Alevis and Sunnis of these lands are all same.”

Kurtulmuş recalled the Kahramanmaraş massacre in December 1978, when 105 people were killed and more than 300 homes and businesses owned by Alevis were destroyed by angry mobs, as well as similar attempts in the years before the 1980 military coup in Sivas and Erzincan. “Now some dark circles are trying to do the same,” he said. “But with the same spirit of patriotism, we have to take care of our neighbors and friends. We should stop those who want us to attack each other.”

Reflecting the seriousness of the threat, Kurtulmuş said the Turkish government saw no difference between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and extremist Shiite militia.

“There is a human tragedy going on in Aleppo. Turkey and Russia are working together to implement a plan to evacuate civilians trapped there. But some groups are trying to block it by sabotage. If civilians cannot be taken out of Aleppo, this is not an action of one faith or another but rather an act of the end of humanity. We do not see any difference between DAESH [ISIL] and the Hashdi Shaabi [pro-Iran militia], we stand against the acts of terror of both of them,” he added. 

“We do not call them Sunni or Shiite militias. DAESH does not represent Sunni Islam and the Hashdi Shaabi does not represent Shiism, just like the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK does not represent all Kurds. While trying to sooth the sectarian rift outside of our borders, we should not fall into that trap inside Turkey,” he said.

The trap, or “game” according to Kurtulmuş, is similar to the one 100 years ago, imposed by the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France to redraw the borders of the region.

“Imperial powers divided the people of this region with artificial borders. Now they are trying to divide and make us fight each other through two fault lines. The first one is the sectarian, by agitating differences between Sunnis, Shiites and Alevis. The second one is ethnic, by trying to exploit rifts between Arabs, Kurds, Turks and others in the region. This is a trap we should not fall into,” he said.