Erdoğan is not playing cleanly

Erdoğan is not playing cleanly

While addressing a large crowd in İzmir the other day, during his campaigning for the presidency, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “I respect Alevis. Just as I declare my sectarian affiliation, he should do the same. Hey Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu! I am a Sunni. Why don’t you come out and say you are an Alevi?”

He was referring to the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who is an Alevi Kurd by origin. But why should it matter what religion or sect one belongs to? This is what Erdoğan is not explaining. Why should it matter, for that matter, if one is an atheist or not? 

In a modern and civilized society none of these matter. Especially in a secular republic that claims to be on the path of contemporary civilization that its founding fathers charted for it.

What should matter for such a republic is advancing democracy to its limit, ensuring a secular system that respects all beliefs, respecting human rights without reserve and expanding freedoms as much as possible. 

Playing the religious/sectarian card in this insidious way, however, clearly matters for Erdoğan.

Otherwise he would not come out and say such a thing when there is no call for it. Kılıçdaroğlu is an equal citizen of this republic and an elected leader of his party and that is all that counts.

But Erdoğan clearly sees some political value in using such provocative language. By effectively saying “I have nothing against Alevis,” Erdoğan is actually signaling to the conservative Sunni majority that he is a devout Sunni. He is trying in this way to make a distinction between himself as a Sunni and those who are not.

Erdoğan knows this goes down well with the lesser-educated Sunni masses in Anatolia, which form the backbone of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and which will vote for him next Sunday, Aug. 10. Erdoğan is not just the populist he has always been, but also, as his remarks indicate, a staunch Sunni Islamist.

But, as Taha Akyol, the veteran Hürriyet columnist and one-time supporter of Erdogan indicated in his column on Aug. 4, Erdoğan is playing a dangerous game given the violence and mass murders perpetrated against Alevis in Turkey in recent history.

What he is doing is also dangerous in terms of the sectarian tensions that are rising in the Middle East due to developments in Iraq and Syria and have the potential to spillover into Turkey. Put another way, Erdoğan is poking at more than one dangerous hornet’s nest for the sake of advancing his political ambitions.

Erdoğan is using similar below-the-belt tactics against Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, who was put up as the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) as a candidate for presidency. He keeps harping on about the fact that İhsanoğlu was born in Egypt, where he grew up as a child. He is trying to strike a chord among nationalist elements in this way.

In a similar fashion, Erdoğan is hitting at his other presidential rival Selahattin Demirtaş, by challenging him to declare that he is a Zaza Kurd. Erdoğan claims in a convoluted way that by not declaring this, Demirtaş is tricking the Kurds in Turkey.

It is in fact commendable that Demirtaş has not been underlining his ethnic identity and promising instead to be everyone’s president, irrespective of religion, creed or ethnicity. Erdoğan is clearly trying to prod the Kurds against Demirtaş in this way.

Once again, just as in the case of Kılıçdaroğlu, who cares if İhsanoğlu was born in Egypt, or if Demirtaş is a Zaza Kurd? But again, it is obvious that Erdoğan sees political advantages to trying to denigrate his presidential rivals in this way.

No one can argue that Erdoğan is “playing a clean game” in the presidential race. One can’t help but wonder why he has to stoop to these tactics when he is the one slated by just about everyone to win.

Could it be that he fears he may not win?