The video “Turkey and the Fire of Racism” begins with a map of 7th-century Arabia, outlining how Islam came to spread to Central Asia, and thereby to the Turks. It then goes into a narrative of how the Turks have turned their back on Islam in favor of national ties, and the decline they have suffered as a consequence. The 17-minute, high-definition propaganda piece features fancy animations, militants the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) talking into the camera, and idyllic cut scenes, all delivered in crisp Istanbul Turkish, save one Kurdish portion.
The video is part of a stream of Turkish-language recruitment material that ISIL has been reeling off recently. The past few months have seen a proliferation of high-quality websites and translations of Salafi texts, all of which feed into Salafi indoctrination groups in Turkey’s major cities.
ISIL is coming out of a tough year, its ranks thinning with bombardments and its territory threatened on multiple fronts. All the while, Turkey, as a neighboring Sunni-majority country of 80 million, has remained a relatively untapped recruitment resource for ISIL. The group now wants to reach into this pool, which explains the crescendo of Turkish-language outreach material perpetuating its worldview. “Turkey and the Fire of Racism” provides a particularly good example of this effort. It urges those sympathetic to its views to join ISIL, and justifies the sorts of attacks we have been seeing in Suruç, Diyarbakır, Ankara, and most recently, Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district.
ISIL’s View of Turkey
ISIL sees modern Turkey as a prime example of the disastrous consequences of diverting from what it considers to be true Islam.
In the video’s telling, Turks deviated from the faith with the rise of the Sufi tradition, civil law, and modern education in the late Ottoman period — all of which supposedly corrupted their Islamic character. With the founding of the Turkish Republic, the people of Turkey began to glorify national identity and replaced prayer with idol worship, such as the pan-Turkic symbol of the wolf. ISIL uses the word “kavmiyetçilik,” meaning tribalism, instead of “milliyetçilik,” meaning modern nationalism. These pre-Islamic ideas, it argues, opened the Turks to the influence of the “most disgusting of creatures from the West and the East,” by which the video means Europe, Iran, and Jews in general. According to the video, the chief founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is the product of this influence, and his secular abomination of a state is the culmination of years of corruption.
ISIL, in turn, presents itself as a force for correcting nationalism and returning humanity to the natural flow of its history. In this sense, it is not unlike Communism, which advertised a humane post-capitalist utopia. In the video, scenes displaying nationalism, such as Hitler’s Germany, Nasser’s Egypt and Atatürk’s Turkey have an industrial feel to them, often from old newsreels or deliberately distorted images. In contrast, ISIL militants talking into the camera invariably sit against a background of greenery — trees or shrubbery. Before the militants speak, the camera shows cuts of children playing, and birds gliding over a pristine pond. The underlying message is that ISIL is the only polity in the world in sync with God’s creation.
A part of the video features a militant speaking in Kurdish (with Turkish and Arabic subtitles), in an appeal to “Muslim Kurds, especially those living in Turkey.” ISIL here is seeking to establish its credentials as a post-racial society. Addressing the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the militant asks, “Do you believe that your salvation will come from the hands of atheists [the PKK and its backers]?” He continues, “Under the shadow of Sharia, the only thing separating Arab and non-Arab alike is their piety,” he says. In its own way, ISIL is making a progressive claim. Unlike Turkey, which it sees as being dominated by a single “tribe,” everyone in ISIL territory is equal under its law.
The Political Goals of ISIL in Turkey
International observers who accuse the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of aiding ISIL might be surprised that the video takes the longtime Islamist government into its crosshairs. The AK Party, according to the video, clothes itself in Islamist rhetoric while acting as the “Crusaders’ hand of tyranny in the region.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is specifically labeled an apostate who perpetuates the secular agenda of Turkey’s foundation.
ISIL outflanks the AK Party from the right, which is an awkward position for the Islamist behemoth of Turkish politics. The AK Party, after all, is descendant from a radical Islamist tradition that holds opinions very close to those of ISIL. In the past, many who later formed the party’s leadership were known for deeming secularism to be incompatible with Islam, abhorred the secular Kemalist state structure and called for a new Islamic order. The later formation of the AK Party was a great compromise, in which they claimed that they had “taken off the shirt” of radical Islamist tradition and subscribed to more centrist views. This strategy was simple and effective: The AK Party would move to the center, and thereby calm the secular establishment, especially the coup-prone military. Their Islamist credentials were so strong that their long-time supporters on the right would continue to trust them, despite their overture to the left.
The great gamble paid off, yielding arguably the most powerful coalition in Turkey’s republican history. Its popularity peaked around 2007, when the AK Party received robust support from progressives as well as Islamists. In the rare instances it felt a challenger for Islamist votes, the AK Party diffused it by poaching its leaders, like Numan Kurtulmuş of the Saadet Party, with plum jobs in ministries and the AK Party itself.
By 2011, the AK Party became more conservative and lost support among many progressives. But it continues the balancing act of its founding. As the ISIL video shows all too readily, over its 13 years of rule, the AK Party leadership has laid too many wreaths at Atatürk’s mausoleum, taken in too much foreign investment, and shaken too many hands with “heretic” Iranians and “imperialist” Americans to be the radicals they once were. It is not that they made peace with the Kemalist establishment, but they have become accustomed to the clash between their values and the system, and engage in a continuous negotiation with the status quo, rather than subvert it toward revolutionary ends.
This has estranged the Islamists who think that the AK Party leadership has “gone native” during its time in government. Popular Turkish Salafi websites such as Nakil Kürsüsü argue that the democratic system that has elected the AK Party is a reversion to the time of Jahiliya, pre-Islamic ignorance. Accusations of this sort have a privileged place in Islamist thought. As in “Turkey and the Fire of Racism,” these websites regularly argue that the AK Party government may “fly the flag” of Islam, but its actions perpetuate the secular agenda instituted by Atatürk. It is this crack on the far right of the AK Party constituency that ISIL seeks to exploit.
ISIL’s message to its followers in Turkey is clear: Make the “hijra” (migration) to ISIL. The video draws an analogy to the prophet’s forced migration to Medina, where the first Islamic state was founded. “By God, the Islamic State does not need you! By God, the Islamic State does not need you! But you need to live this religion!” a speaker says. This implies that life outside of ISIL territory is inherently un-Islamic. It is a powerful call for those in Turkey close to radical Salafism. Its reception depends on the political stance the AK Party will take.
In a sense, ISIL is leading the AK Party into a trap. By undermining the party’s theological credentials, it is goading its opponent into a race of religiosity. If the AK Party responds by returning to its Islamist roots, it will lose even more credibility in the eyes of its own constituents, since it cannot outdo ISIL’s Salafism. The long-term threat to Turkey here is not in the death squads of ISIL, which are no match for Turkey’s military and intelligence structure, but the infusion of its worldview into the Turkish political sphere.
Can ISIL Succeed in Turkey?
It would be a mistake to underestimate the appeal of the Salafi worldview in Turkey, especially since the generation that grew up in the 2000s can be insecure in their religiosity and prone to extreme ideas. If Salafi propaganda succeeds in dragging Turkey’s NATO membership or its religiously pluralistic structure into the spotlight of public discussion, these long-standing policies might not survive popular pressure.
To avoid this, the AK Party should retake the initiative. It should remember its centrist stance of the mid-2000s that made it the most potent political force in Turkey’s republican history. It should also own the fight against ISIL, and no longer leave it to the Kurds of the YPG and PKK. This is vital, not merely to improve its reputation in the West, but to provide leadership in the region.
If this seems too far-fetched, we should take heart in remembering that ISIL is wrong about Turkey. Turkish nationalism is not racist, but an identity that unites ethnically and religiously diverse people from the Balkans, Anatolia, the Middle East and Central Asia under a civic structure. Islam is not limited to Salafi puritanism, but contains beautiful traditions that can coexist — and thrive — in harmony with other faiths. Civil law and dialogue, not bloody revolution, is the way forward for the Muslim world.
Radical militant Salafism will most likely outlive ISIL. That is why it isn’t enough for Turkey to crack down against the group on the streets of Istanbul and bomb it in Syria and Iraq. Turkey must provide a strong counter-narrative to ISIL, and take the fight to the realm of ideas, where the roots of this conflict lie.
Image: ISIL video, “Turkey and the Fire of Racism”
“This article first appeared on War on the Rocks on January 18, 2016”