What does Erdoğan have to do with ‘Zoroastrians’?

What does Erdoğan have to do with ‘Zoroastrians’?

On May 28, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan spoke to a crowd in southeastern Diyarbakır, the pivotal Kurdish city. He condemned the ongoing violence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is really Turkey’s most burning problem these days. Besides rightfully renouncing the terrorists, however, the president took the problem to a religious level, condemning the PKK as an enemy of Islam as well. “They are atheists,” he declared. “They are Zoroastrians.”

This take on “Zoroastrians” continued in the pro-Erdoğan media. On June 8, zealously pro-Erdoğan daily Akşam came out with a huge headline: “Zoroastrians! The Traitors of PKK Shed Blood Even in Ramadan.” The story was about the deadly bombing in Istanbul the day before, which of course deserved all condemnation. But what did it have to do with “Zoroastrians?”

This weird narrative is not new, and is based on a distorted fact: The PKK is a very secular movement, and some of its literature has praised the pre-Islamic era of the Kurds, when Zoroastrianism was the national religion (in a similar vein, some extreme Turkish nationalists have also praised the pre-Islamic era of Turks, when Shamanism was the national religion). Since Islam is a religion that plays down ethnic barriers among Muslims, it is only normal that ethnic nationalists want to play Islam down.

Yet it is not only wrong but also absurd to depict PKK militants as actual “Zoroastrians.” It is also offensive to real Zoroastrians, who now make up tiny minorities in Iraq and Iran. Needless to say, it is also offensive to atheists to speak of the PKK terrorists as “atheists.” It is in fact as offensive as the rhetoric of the Islamophobic demagogues in the West who use the terms “terrorist” and “Muslim” almost interchangeably.
What Erdoğan is trying to do with this narrative is not hard to figure out: The aim is to establish an us-versus-them worldview, “us” being the Muslims, “them” being the infidels. Since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, this in fact has been the dominant theme in Erdoğanist propaganda, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Erdoğanists have always been the good Muslims. Their enemies, on the other hand, have always been either outright enemies of Islam or “Trojan horses” planted inside by conspiratorial infidels. 

Granted, this propaganda works. It helps solidify support and even foster ideological mobilization. However, it has a very chilling result: It makes society hatefully divided, which only plants the seeds for more tension, conflict and even outright violence. Nothing good can come out of a policy that does nothing but deepen such dangerous dynamics. 

With regards to the PKK, especially, what befalls on the state is to stop lying to society and rather tell the truth. The truth is that the PKK is driven not by “atheism” or “Zoroastrianism,” but by Kurdish ethnic nationalism, which is shared by a few million of our citizens. They are not merely “pawns of imperialist powers” who are supposedly plotting against Turkey. They are people driven by the same exuberant nationalism that many Turks also share on their own terms. 

There is also the bitter truth that we will not “destroy all terrorists soon,” as our statesmen have been telling us almost every year since 1984. There is no final military solution to this problem, and we will either make some political concessions or continue to bleed. As a nation, we should make a decision on which path to choose. But first, we must be told the truth.