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In an unverified recording released in November, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS), demanded that his followers wage war against Turkey. “Turkey today entered your range of action and the aim of your jihad,” Baghdadi said to his loyalists, and further instructed them to “invade it and turn its safety into fear.” The declaration followed Ankara’s decision, in late August, to send troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, a gunman, allegedly affiliated with ISIS, killed 39 people and wounded dozens more in a shooting at a ritzy nightclub in Istanbul. The attacker escaped; Turkish authorities claim to have identified him and are engaged in a manhunt, but have not released his name, and the country remains in a state of emergency. The attack, meanwhile, has sharpened divisions between secularists and Islamists, some of whom look favorably on the death of revelers celebrating an “un-Islamic” holiday such as New Year’s, which in Turkey is associated with Christianity.
The club shooting is thus the latest example of ISIS’ strategy of stoking existing schisms in Turkish society. Over the last two years, the group’s bombings have killed hundreds in Turkey, with victims from different religions and ethnicities. But ISIS is also trying to fan the flames of sectarianism, and experts worry that Alevis, the country’s largest religious minority, may be its next target.
WHEN THE ALEVI BREAKS
Alevism is a unique branch of Islam found in Turkey. About one-fifth of Turkey’s 80 million people, including both ethnic Kurds and Turks, are Alevis. Like Shiites, Alevis revere Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and like Sufis they focus on spirituality. Their differences with other mainstream Muslims in terms of ritual and custom, however, are vast. Alevis tend to be liberal and leftist. They don’t pray in mosques, they don’t fast during Ramadan, and Alevi women rarely cover their hair unless they are in the prayer hall. According to Cemil Boyraz, an Istanbul-based expert on Alevis, “Alevis live for this earth, not heaven and hell,” and “they have humanistic values, including diversity, gender egalitarianism, and a secular theology.”
Alevis don’t pray in mosques, they don’t fast during Ramadan, and Alevi women rarely cover their hair unless they are in the prayer hall.
Such secular customs make the Alevis a natural target for ISIS’ hardline brand of Sunni Islam. Police have already thwarted two plots against Alevis in Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey close to the Syrian border. On September 17, police arrested a suspected ISIS member for scheming to bomb a cem evi, an Alevi religious and cultural center. Then, on October 16, three Turkish policemen were killed when two suicide bombers blew themselves up during a raid on their cell, which authorities allege was planning an attack on Alevis and Kurds.
Members of the Alevi community say they’re no strangers to persecution. Many claim that ISIS wants them dead because they’re not Sunni, and some hardliners mistakenly connect them to Syrian Alawites, the sect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. But as Vedat Kara, an Alevi activist, told me, “It’s not just a sectarian conflict. ISIS is using us as simply another target.”
Indeed, these attempted strikes are an example both of ISIS’ desire to incite regional sectarianism and its need to strike back against Turkey for the latter’s involvement in Iraq and Syria. The idea is likely to drive a wedge between the Turkish government and the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. Cengiz Tomar, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Marmara University, told me that through these attacks, ISIS is “trying to create a rift in Turkey.”
Such a rift already exists. Alevis believe they have been continuously persecuted throughout their history, including by modern Turkish governments. They tend to align themselves with Kemalist secularism, and their relations with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which follows an ideology of Sunni Islamist populism, have been fraught. For instance, Turkey has failed to recognize the Alevis as a religious minority or grant them the rights they are entitled to under treaties that Turkey has signed, a fact that caused the European Court of Human Rights to rebuke the government in 2014.
This lack of official recognition deprives the Alevis of funding for their religious institutions and makes it more difficult for them to preserve their identity. The AKP funds Sunni mosques and institutions, but Alevis must rely on private donations. The majority of Alevis in Turkey come from low-income backgrounds, and many of their neighborhoods suffer from poverty and drug abuse.
Turkey denies discriminating against Alevis and has made attempts to ease tensions. Two years ago, the government turned a military barrack in Tunceli, the city where 13,000 Alevis were killed in the Dersim massacre of 1937–38, into a museum commemorating the victims. In 2009, the AKP even organized workshops to listen to the community's grievances. Yet according to Boyraz, who participated in the workshops, government representatives, rather than listen, repeatedly tried to convince Alevis to give up their identity and adopt mainstream Islam. The government fears that conceding to Alevi demands would weaken national unity and open the door for other minorities to demand rights.
The government fears that conceding to Alevi demands would weaken national unity and open the door for other minorities to demand rights.
Tensions have been especially high since the failed coup attempt on July 15. Although Alevis have been spared from mass arrests, the national state of emergency has Turkey’s minority communities on high alert. Indeed, on the night of the coup, fights broke out in the Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul between AKP partisans and Alevis, who chose not to mobilize in support of the government. A few miles away in the Kucuk Armutlu neighborhood, pro-government protestors singled out the Alevis, blasting demands for their participation through loudspeakers. When the Alevis refused, the protesters accused them of being traitors, but left without a clash, said Sinan Yesilyurt, 21.
Alevis say they are frightened that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is moving to remake Turkey into a place with little room for dissent or even different lifestyles. They accuse the government of kicking them out of their historic strongholds by replacing them with Sunni Syrian refugees. In Anatolian Turkey thousands of Syrians, funded by international donors, the AKP, and themselves, have been relocated to Alevi neighborhoods where rents are cheaper. In March 2016, for instance, the government demolished homes in Kucuk Armutlu to make way for new development sites, which would push out many of the local residents.
Nuray Gedik, 42, is an Alevi woman whose son Hasan was killed for publicly protesting against drug traffickers in their neighborhood. She expressed concern about the direction of the country’s politics. “It will get worse for Alevis because people will become divided and create different groups,” she told me. “Tayyip [Erdogan] has said Alevis aren’t Muslims because they don’t pray and they don’t fast. For this reason, he doesn’t like us.”
A NEW HOPE?
Yet even as mistrust between Alevis and the government lingers, ISIS’ very attempt to divide them may, ironically, be pushing the two sides together. As Tomar explained, the Turkish police’s role in preventing attacks against Alevis in Gaziantep may inadvertently bring more unity, by turning ISIS into an enemy against which Alevis and the Sunni majority can rally.
This is because ISIS’s attempt to drum up fear and division comes at a time when the Turkish state cannot afford to make more enemies at home. Since the coup attempt, the government has purged the institutions of Kurds and Gulenists, accusing some of terrorism. More than 125,000 people have been fired or suspended and at least 40,000 detained.
“The government isn’t crazy about the Alevis, especially the Kurdish ones, but they’re going to protect them against ISIS to present a united front,” said one Turkish law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They need the Alevis as allies right now.”
Boyraz said that ISIS’ threats against Alevis are nothing new, but that the government has been paying more attention to them in the last seven months. “Intelligence in the last five years of attacks against Alevis was ignored,” he said. “Now it’s more important for the government because it’s directly [tied to] fighting ISIS.”
Alevis say that they are afraid of continuous ISIS attacks, just like other Turkish citizens, although they don’t trust the government to protect them. But activists also say that if the AKP is extending a genuine hand of solidarity, they would embrace it. ISIS is a common enemy they must confront together as a nation. As Ali Yildirim, an Alevi student, told me, “ISIS is targeting innocent people whether they believe in Sunni Islam or Alevism.” Yet if help is to come, it must come soon. The threat of ISIS “makes me feel afraid and sad,” Yildirim continued. “Sometimes I’m losing my hope for a better future.”