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Turkey is losing its natural resistance against ISIS
ISIS does not have a strong base in Turkey. Claiming the opposite would be an exaggeration and does not reflect reality.
Foreign fighter numbers in Syria also prove this. The number of fighters from Turkey who joined the war in Syria is estimated at 2,000-2,500. Moreover, it cannot be said that all of them joined ISIS.
According to the Soufan Group, a US-based security consultancy firm, there are 21-37 thousand foreign fighters from 86 different countries in Syria and Iraq. Considering the fact that the total number of foreign fighters is more than 30,000; participation from Turkey is not high.
It is argued that Turkey’s historical and contemporary sociology is different from that of other Muslim countries, and that the participation to ISIS from Turkey is therefore low. Proponents of this idea assert two reasons. First, Islam’s long-lasting togetherness with Sufism and the dominance of Hanafi-Shafi’i Sunnism in Turkey. It is assumed that even though this composition does not prevent the participation to ISIS and like-minded radical Salafi groups, it does not encourage it. The second assumption builds upon the idea that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) alleviates the tension between the regime and Devout Muslims and Muslims are not alienated. AK Party’s strong popular base demonstrates this. In that case, it can be assumed that the AK Party can restrain the ultra-conservative section of society.
These two social and political reasons are said to reduce Turkish participation to ISIS and like-minded groups, and make them less popular in Turkey. However, reports in media channels suggest that support to ISIS is increasing. Why?
Has the sociology of Turkey changed or is there something that we do not know about?
Is the support for ISIS in Turkey increasing?
I will not get into debates on radicalization processes here, but we know from researche on this issue that ideology is significant, to say the least. In fact, the most significant factor that pushes people from different cultural, economic and social backgrounds to act for a common purpose is common religio-political propaganda and loyalty to this religious ideology. As a report on this issue by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) reveals, the religious ideology of ISIS and like-minded groups is radical Salafism. Thus, we can say that it is the most prominent factor that strengthens radicalism in Turkey.
Understanding the platforms through which radical Salafism gains wide currency is crucial. Islamism and Islamist movements have a long history in Turkey. The influence of radical thoughts on Islamist movements can be traced back to the 1960s, when the works of certain thinkers from Arab world such as Sayyid Qutb and Maudidi were translated. In addition to this, the revolutionary Shi’i thoughts that came out of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and simultaneously the Afghan Jihad created a third wave of translations, such as Abdullah Azzam’s works. It should be remembered that these processes detracted Islamist thinking in Turkey from its traditional ties.
In addition to this, the dominance of conservatism in Turkey that started with Turgut Özal in early the 1990s prevented serious radicalization. The contrary has occurred – a harmony has emerged between the religious people and concepts like democracy, pluralism and secularism. Debates radiating from the İslami Araştırmalar Dergisi (Journal of Islamic Studies,) which began publishing in 1997 provide the best examples of this.
However, it seems that the Syrian war reversed this process. Debates on democracy and pluralism have been replaced by arguments like “Democracy is Infidelity.” “How did we come here” and “how ISIS recruits people from Turkey” are highly interrelated. Therefore scrutinizing the sociology that enables ISIS to find a popular base has merit.
What is the sociology that enables ISIS to recruit people?
Social media, internet and print media in Turkey have been inundated with Salafi texts and visual materials in recent years.
Despite this, I think the increasing visibility of radical Salafi ideology in Turkey is not related to the organizational power of their ideology. Turkey’s state-controlled religious education network after all, is fairly wide spread itself. In other words, ISIS and like-minded groups increase their popularities not through the strength of their propaganda machines, but because of a weakening of Anatolian Sunnism, which one would expect to be resistant against this ideology. This means that Turkey is losing its natural resistance against ISIS.
The theological base of Sufi groups, tariqats and religious education institutions that make them resistant against radical Salafism depends on two schools. These two schools have determined the faith of the majority of Muslim world since the 10th century. They intermingled with philosophical and sufistic thought in Anatolia from Seljuks to Ottomans. These two schools called the Maturidi and Ash’ari schools have been the two main pillars in Muslim world on which Sunnism was established, and according to which Anatolian tariqats were framed.
Fractions in Pax-Sunnica
These schools have been prevented takfirism (excommunication) for centuries by claiming that ahl al-qibla (the people who face Ka’bah in prayer) cannot be excommunicated and religious practice is separate from faith. These two principles prevented the transformation of differences to takfir and excommunication of Muslims, even if they committed great sins. That is how what I call the “Pax-Sunnica” was established. Although today’s splits in the Pax-Sunnica have political, social and economic reasons, the most significant reason that infects religious sphere with political struggles is Muslims’ labelling of differences as infidelity, polytheism, apostasy. The establishment of a kind of piety that does not tolerate even the slightest of analytical interpretation and defines political issues through religious concepts can be explained by the reduction of resistance against takfirism.
In order to understand this reduction of resistance, we have to look at the presence of the founders of the Pax-Sunnica: the Ash’ari and Maturidi traditions in Anatolia. The most powerful actors in Turkey shaping religious life are the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Divinity Faculties and Imam-Hatip Schools. Tariqats and religious communities whose influence on public and informal education is pretty high are also significant. Some of my research on the first group may give an idea to the extent of this. We tried to evaluate the knowledge of 200 religious officials who work in the institutions affiliated with the Directorate of Religious Affairs on Maturidi and Ash’ari thought. An official who has served for 30 years answered a question about Maturidism this way: “I do not remember anything about Imam Maturidi.”
Another official whom we interviewed demonstrates his knowledge on Maturidi by saying that “he is the second imam of sect imams. I read some of his books but do not remember anything.” Only 30 divinity students out of 140 said that they are adherents of a systemic theology which formulize core tenets of its aqidah. This means that approximately 80 percent of students do not know or care about the principles of the Pax-Sunnica discussed above.
Tawhid (monotheism), Aqaid (creed) and Aqaid of Ahl al-Sunnah texts published by the religious groups and tariqats are influenced by radical Salafi thinkers such as Ibn Taymiyya and Mohammed bin Abdalwahhab instead of the founders of the Pax-Sunnica, Maturidi and Ash’ari traditions. These texts, which are influential in both formal religious education institutions and civil sphere, erode anti-radical structures that we know and trust. The decline of traditional Sunnism in Turkey may enable the proliferation of these books and expansion of their popular base.
At that point, it is important to ask how long the AK Party’s rhetoric, which defends the rights of Muslims in the Middle East, can prevent radicalism inside the country. Moreover it should be remembered that often-emphasized anti-sectarian discourses carry the risk that weaken the resistance against radicalism. ISIS’ threats against Turkey in spite of Turkey’s support to opposition in Syria and oppressed Muslims in the Middle East seem worrying. Social media accounts of ISIS that claim democracy and voting are apostasy reveal that the AK Party cannot prevent radicalism on its own.
In conclusion, unless a strong base is established against radical Salafism and takfirism in Turkey, this problem will become complicated. As trusted Sunnism in the center weakens, political decision makers will face more difficulties in preventing radicalization.