Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkish government over the course of the last 16 years has demonstrated a mixed track record with regard to religious minorities, characterized both by gestures of benevolence, as well as egregious scapegoating and persecution of the same groups. This has been especially true in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016. What appear to be inconsistencies in the Turkish government’s rhetoric and policy toward minorities are, in fact, various modalities of a coherent neo-Islamist strategy of instrumentalizing minorities. Erdoğan has used this strategy to consolidate power at home and to pursue foreign policy goals abroad.
When 47-year-old Erdoğan established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, he claimed to have broken with his Islamist past and defined the orientation of his new party as “conservative democratic,” likening it to the Christian Democrats of Europe.1 This promise should have entailed a sharp break in rhetoric and policy with his mentor Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of five successive Islamist parties between 1970 and 2011. Erbakan was known for his anti-Semitic and anti-Christian worldview and rants.2
What differentiates Erdoğan’s neo-Islamism from Erbakan’s Islamism is the systematic dissimulation effort the former has undertaken to portray his party’s ideology as democratic, inclusive, and tolerant. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Erdoğan has been building a majoritarian and authoritarian regime, pursuing social engineering, and pivoting Turkey from the transatlantic alliance and its values.
Taken at face value, the AKP’s 16 years of behavior while in power offers a bewildering array of contradictory discourses and practices, ranging from ostensibly warm embraces of minorities to the vilest smears and hate speech. In Erdoğan’s schizophrenic rhetoric, for example, the word “Armenian” has appeared both as a term of endearment, as in his call to “our Armenian brothers,” as well as a word of insult that he felt the need to precede by, “I beg your pardon….”3,4
For example, at the policy level, Erdoğan has overseen the most ambitious restitution process for non-Muslim minority foundations in the history of the Turkish Republic.5 At the same time he has also made damaging attempts to block those same foundations from holding elections for their boards, thereby bringing these institutions to the brink of extinction.6
Making sense of the apparent contradictions in the Erdoğan government’s policy and discourse toward minorities requires situating them in their respective contexts, as well as mapping the domestic and global parameters that shaped them. What appears to be contradictory at first glance fits into an overall neo-Islamist game plan that reinforces sectarian hierarchies, institutionalizes discrimination, transforms rights into discretionary benevolent acts, and solidifies majoritarian hegemony.
An holistic and contextualized look at the AKP’s rhetoric and policy reveals the following four modalities of the Turkish government’s policy:
- Scapegoating of, and incitement against, minorities to mobilize the electorate, solidify the ranks of loyalists, and strengthen majoritarian hegemony at home.
- Propagating conspiracy theories about minorities to divert the Turkish public’s attention from the government’s policy failures.
- Performing acts of neo-Ottoman “benevolence” to portray the regime and its leadership as “tolerant” at home and abroad, while also highlighting and reinforcing sectarian hierarchies between the ruling majority and subject minorities.
- Implementing policies ranging from benevolent to nefarious toward minorities to ensure favorable treatment or to extract concessions in international relations.
The AKP’s Early Years
The AKP’s rise to power with the general elections in November 2002—a year after Erdoğan’s founding of the party—was the result of Turkey’s 2001 economic crisis and the ensuing electoral discontent that reshuffled the country’s political landscape and eliminated mainstream political parties from parliament.7 During the AKP’s early years in power, Erdoğan was busy providing assurances both to Turkey’s pro-secular electorate and to the country’s Western allies that he was a moderate politician who had left his Islamist past behind.
A key tactic Erdoğan deployed in those early years was to signal his “reformist” approach by pursuing a more liberal attitude toward minorities.8 Turkey is home to a wide range of ethnic and religious minorities. While Kurds comprise almost 20 percent of the population, the country is also home to Arabs, Circassians, Georgians, and Albanians, among others. In addition to the Alevi community, who make up approximately 10 percent of the population, other major faith communities include Armenians, Jews, the Greek Orthodox, Syriac Christians, Latin Catholics, Protestants, and the Bahai. Although Turkey is nominally a secular state that stipulates equal treatment of all citizens, successive governments across the political spectrum had failed to accommodate the country’s cultural diversity and guarantee citizens freedom for and from religion—a shortcoming Erdoğan saw as an opportunity.
The principle of secularism (laiklik) is enshrined in the Turkish Constitution’s preamble as well as its articles 2, 13, 14, 68, 81, 103, 136, and 174.9 Most Turkish politicians and voters across the political spectrum, however, fail to perceive secularism as separation of religion and state, and freedom both for and from religion. Hence, the term continues to be perceived and implemented as the state’s control over religion. In practice, this peculiar understanding leads to a sectarian regime: Sunni Islam of the Hanafi rite, the government’s preferred and privileged form of faith, dominates all other faiths and confessions. It was Erdoğan’s neo-Islamist rule that brought this underlying logic to the fore with full force, aligning the energies of his party, state bureaucracy, the media, and loyal followers to institutionalize majoritarian and sectarian regime.
Erdoğan’s attempts to reach out to religious minorities, by restituting confiscated property, restoring a number of churches and synagogues, and closer engagement with faith leaders were welcomed not only by minority communities, but also by Erdoğan’s liberal allies in Turkey and interlocutors in the European Union. As such, these policies played a key role in legitimizing Erdoğan. But at the same time, he was busy consolidating his rule by gradually eliminating all institutions that could serve as checks and balances.
Erdoğan’s outreach to minorities were less an attempt to institutionalize equal treatment of all citizens before the law, and more a demonstration of his tolerance and benevolence toward subjects, echoing the Ottoman treatment of subjects.
Over the years, as Erdoğan increasingly consolidated his one-man rule, he felt less need to secure the support of liberal allies at home, or the legitimacy that Turkey’s European Union accession process granted. This, in turn, diminished his need for spectacles of tolerance and inclusion, and gradually gave way to scapegoating minorities to rally his support base.
In 2014, Erdogan claimed that “new voluntary Lawrences,” referring to the British army officer T.E. Lawrence who orchestrated Arab revolts against Ottomans during World War I, were “disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists,” accusing them of “making Sykes-Picot agreements” once again to carve up Turkish territory.10 In 2017, he again used the same trope of “new Lawrences,” in an anti-Kurdish and anti-Semitic polemic about the independence referendum of the Iraqi Kurdistan.11 Over the years, the presentation of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities as fifth columns susceptible to foreign meddling has become one of Erdogan’s key strategies to sustain his rule.12
Turkey’s 2016 abortive coup, the ensuing state of emergency, and Erdoğan’s ongoing alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have intensified further this toxic climate for minorities, as they became systematic targets of state-sanctioned hate and prejudice.13
The Toxic Climate of Post-Coup Turkey for Minorities
State-sanctioned scapegoating of, incitement against, and persecution of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities are not unique to the AKP’s 16-year rule. In fact, there is a long-established pattern that can be traced back to both the Ottoman and Republican periods.14 What merits special attention is the way in which the AKP has over the years systematized and institutionalized such practices through a well-funded and meticulously orchestrated campaign, involving state and party apparatuses as well as print, visual, and digital media.15
Turkey’s draconian state of emergency has undermined human rights, the rule of law, due process, and attorney-client privilege, precipitating an especially toxic climate for Turkey’s most vulnerable groups.16
Although Turkey’s religious minorities were quick to demonstrate their loyalty to their homeland in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt, they still became victims of a wave of hatred and violence for their supposed “complicity” in the coup. The day after the abortive attempt, the religious leaders of the Jewish, Armenian, Greek-Orthodox, and Syriac communities denounced it in a joint declaration, joined later by representatives of the Alevi and Shiite faiths. These gestures, however, did not suffice to shield them from the rising anti-minority sentiment of government supporters. 17,18,19
On August 7, 2016, in a demonstration of solidarity, Turkey’s Jewish and Christian religious leaders joined the “Democracy and Martyrs” rally, the government’s million-strong anti-coup demonstration in Istanbul.20 In denouncing the coup plotters, however, three of the government officials who spoke at rally insulted religious minorities by tarring the plotters as “seeds of Byzantium,” “crusaders,” and as a “flock of infidels.”21
The hate speech targeting minority communities at the rally was later echoed in Turkey’s pro-government media, as part of an alarming trend to connect the coup plot to religious minorities. A pro-government journalist insisted two days after the abortive coup that Fethullah Gülen—a U.S.-based Sunni cleric who is widely considered by the Turkish public to be the coup’s mastermind—had a Jewish mother and an Armenian father, and is a member of the Catholic clerical hierarchy.22,23 Another pro-government daily even published a fabricated Vatican passport to show that Gülen is a Catholic cardinal.24 The Greek-Orthodox ecumenical patriarch was slandered for “plotting” the coup with the CIA, while another pro-government columnist claimed that the plotters might be hiding in churches.25,26 Unsurprisingly, it was not long before incitement led to physical attacks against religious minorities.
Churches in Malatya and Trabzon—the scenes of lethal attacks against Christians a decade ago—were the first to be targeted.27,28 Later, an Armenian high school in Istanbul was vandalized.29 An Alevi worship hall (cemevi) there and homes in Malatya were next, while Christian tourists were harassed in Gaziantep.30,31
Attacks against religious minorities have remained at the elevated level reached shortly after the failed coup. On March 6, 2018, a lone gunman fired a shot through the window of the Saint Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon, a city on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.32 This was the fifth confirmed attack against the church since the assassination of its priest Andrea Santoro in 2006.33 Saint Maria was one of the churches targeted in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt, as mobs attacked its gates with hammers and broke its windows.34
In February 2018, an incendiary device damaged Saint Maria’s front door a day ahead of the anniversary of Father Santoro’s assassination.35 Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, who assumed office as the vicar apostolic of Anatolia in 2015—a seat vacant since the murder of his predecessor Bishop Luigi Padovese in 2010—referred to the arson attempt as “one of the many episodes of intimidation and vandalism that affect the Trabzon church every week.”36,37,38 Bizzeti complained about assailants who regularly damage the gates and desecrate the church grounds with trash.39 When Trabzon’s local media published the bishop’s concerns, the governor’s office denied that there were weekly attacks and claimed that authorities had been taking necessary precautions.40
State-Sanctioned Incitement on Television
Since the abortive coup, revisionist historical dramas disseminating anti-minority conspiracy theories—funded by or broadcasted on state-run or pro-government outlets—have become the most effective form of propaganda. Studies show that Turkish citizens on average watch four hours of television every day, and two thirds of this time is spent watching TV series, many of which glorify the Ottoman past and indoctrinate viewers with neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamist ideology.41
What is most alarming is the role of Turkey’s state-run media outlets in smearing and scapegoating religious minorities, using state funds for incitement, particularly against Jews and Christians. The most notorious example is Payitaht Abdülhamid The Last Emperor, a historical drama funded and broadcasted by Turkey’s state-run Turkish Radio Television, TRT. It is a blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Christian series.42
The villains in The Last Emperor bear a keen resemblance to all of the Turkish government’s bogeymen, religious or otherwise. In the show, Jewish conspiracies often meld together with those of Britain and other European powers, the Catholic Church, socialists, Young Turks, and Freemasons. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself often refers to such a grand conspiracy, overseen by a nebulous puppet-master he calls “the Mastermind.” In turn, “Mastermind” was the name of a documentary aired on a leading pro-government news channel, which, among other insights, “revealed” that Jews have dominated the world for the past 3,500 years.43
Meanwhile, each episode of The Last Emperor has led to an upsurge in hate speech and incitement online. One Twitter user, after watching this state-funded drama, vowed to turn the territory between the Euphrates and Nile rivers into Jewish graveyards.44 Another Twitter user said, “The more I watch The Last Emperor, the more my enmity to Jews increases. You infidels, you filthy creatures.”45
Incitement Through the Courts
Since the abortive coup, Turkey’s courts and law enforcement system have taken a leading role in smearing and scapegoating minorities. This is best illustrated by the farcical case against U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. For over 20 years before his sudden detention in 2016, Pastor Brunson, a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina, had preached peacefully in Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir.
Following the attempted coup in July 2016, Turkish authorities initially charged Pastor Brunson with membership in an armed terrorist organization.46 Later, they added charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, although there was no evidence to support any of these accusations.47 However, under Turkey’s draconian state of emergency, he could have faced up to seven years of pretrial detention, and, if convicted, served a life sentence.48,49
Brunson’s attorneys were only able to receive the indictment 17 months into his arrest, in March 2018, and then only after it had been first leaked to the media.50 The 62-page indictment is a muddled collection of conspiracy theories based largely on ludicrous accusations from three “secret witnesses.”51 In October 2018, a Turkish court convicted Brunson of aiding terrorism but sentenced him only to time served, allowing him to leave the country.52
Until his arrest, Pastor Brunson was a well-respected member of his community and did not quit his post even after surviving a far-right militant’s armed attack in 2011.53 When Turkey’s religious minorities, particularly Christians and Jews, became scapegoats following the abortive coup in July 2016, Brunson, like many other church leaders, came under increasing pressure.
Turkey’s pro-government media was shameless in its smear campaign against Pastor Brunson. The media claimed that the pastor would have become the next director of the CIA had he been successful in helping to coordinate the attempted coup against Erdoğan.54 When there was a bomb attack against wardens of the maximum-security prison where Pastor Brunson was being held, a story accusing the CIA of masterminding the attack ran under the headline “The Pastor’s Bomb.”55
Such smear campaigns also have had a detrimental effect on the Christian community at large. In its 2018 Human Rights Violations Report, Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches stated that during Brunson’s case “many churches and individual Christians were made targets,” and “[a]s a result of this case a climate of insecurity has reigned in the small Protestant community.”56
The conspiracy theories in the Brunson indictment also included outrageous accusations against volunteers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including allegations that “English teachers at Turkey’s military high schools have been members of the LDS church since the 1990s,” and that they all have the same identifying feature: a missing finger! The indictment’s targeting of the LDS Church put their volunteers in Turkey at risk, leading to the decision to reassign all of them to other countries, “due to a prolonged period of heightened political tension in Turkey.”57
In addition to helping propagate a conspiracy theory that the U.S., and more specifically Christians, were responsible for the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government’s targeting of Pastor Brunson was also aimed at extracting concessions from Washington. Following the coup, Erdoğan launched a campaign of hostage diplomacy, emulating Iran’s tactic of holding Western nationals captive.58 Turkish authorities have arrested on dubious charges not only U.S. citizens and consular staff, but also British, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek, and Swedish nationals, including journalists, academics, human rights activists, and a Christian pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem.59
In September 2017, shortly after issuing an emergency decree giving himself the authority to trade foreign nationals held in Turkish prisons for individuals incarcerated abroad, the Turkish president publicly offered to release the pastor, proposing a prisoner exchange with the United States that would involve the extradition of Fethullah Gülen.60,61
This offer, however, was a red herring. Gülen was one of Erdoğan’s closest allies for more than a decade after the Turkish president’s rise to power in 2002.62 Had the U.S. extradited Gülen, and if he then had appeared before a court of law in Turkey, his testimony could have revealed embarrassing details of their partnership, thereby hurting Erdoğan at the ballot box.63
When Erdoğan made this swap offer in September 2017, he was actually aiming for an exchange that involved Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian gold trader who was scheduled to stand trial in New York in November for evading sanctions against Iran.64 The Turkish president wanted to prevent Zarrab from revealing information to U.S. authorities that might implicate his own role in sanctions, evasion and corruption.65,66
Zarrab’s attorneys confirmed swap rumors by stating to the judge that they had been looking for a “diplomatic solution,” a euphemism for a trade that would release a sanctions-busting suspect in exchange for an innocent hostage.67,68 Pastor Brunson’s case illustrates clearly how religious minorities have become scapegoats, exploited to cover up embarrassing developments at home and abroad, as well as pawns to be used as leverage in bilateral relations.
Erdoğan and the Turkish courts have also cooperated in propagating anti-Semitic conspiracies. On November 21, 2018, Erdoğan told a meeting of local elected officials that “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros” was a force behind Osman Kavala, Turkey’s leading philanthropist and civic activist, who, Erdoğan claimed, had “financed terrorists” during the nationwide anti-government protests of 2013.69 He added that George Soros is “a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them. He has so much money and he spends it this way.”
Turkish authorities detained Kavala on October 18, 2017 and held him without an indictment for 478 days, denying him bail 19 times without the prosecutors questioning him even once. Similar to the Brunson’s case, Kavala’s attorneys first learned about the 657-page indictment against him from pro-government outlets. The Turkish president and prosecutors accuse Kavala of masterminding the Gezi Park protests of 2013, as well as the abortive coup of 2016, demanding that he be sentenced to life in prison.70
Erdoğan’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories linking the countrywide protests of 2013 to a Jewish plot concocted by Kavala, Soros, and his Open Society Foundations (OSF) prompted the foundation’s November 2018 decision to leave Turkey.71 Reacting to the OSF’s announcement, a pro-government daily echoed Erdoğan’s anti-Semitic rants: “The Open Society Foundation of Jewish speculator George Soros, who is an aide of the great devil the United States and Zionist Israel, fled Turkey.”72,73
Spectacles of Benevolence and Tolerance
Amid systematic smearing, scapegoating, and targeting of Turkey’s minorities, the Erdoğan government has also choreographed spectacles of benevolence and tolerance toward those same minorities, intending to polish its tarnished image at home and abroad. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan held a meeting with religious minority leaders in Turkey, promising reforms and pledging to embrace them with “respect and love.”74 Turkey’s former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, in an op-ed he later penned for Project Syndicate, argued that “after decades of official neglect and mistrust,” Erdoğan’s listening to religious minority leaders’ “problems and concerns” was “a clear signal of his government’s intent to buttress their sense of civil inclusion.”75
Erdoğan has continued to choreograph spectacles of tolerance, even while his government started propagating anti-minority conspiracies following the 2016 failed coup attempt. On January 7, 2018, Erdoğan unveiled Istanbul’s Bulgarian Orthodox Sveti Stefan Church, after a seven-year restoration project, together with the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, only a week after Bulgaria had assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.76 Although Erdoğan stated during the ceremony that “it is the responsibility of the state to ensure everyone can worship freely,” Turkey’s state-run media noted that “the church had been restored under so-called rules of reciprocity” in exchange for Sofia’s green light for the restoration of the mosque in Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv.77
Erdoğan’s meticulously-planned spectacle was aimed at winning the good graces of the European Union’s rotating president, Bulgaria. At the same time, Erdogan was bolstering his own international image as a patron of minorities abroad, while also proving to his followers that he could defend the rights of Muslims in former Ottoman territories by astutely extracting concessions from Western Christian powers.
The Turkish government has also put a similar plan to use through Turkey’s Syriac Christian minority. When Erdoğan announced his plans for a cross-border operation in northeastern Syria, both the Syriac Military Council and the Syriac Union Partyissued statements in December 2018 that this could lead to the destruction of their communities. 78,79 In the U.S., analysts raised concerns that the proposed American pullout—and the subsequent arrival of Turkey’s Islamist proxies—could endanger minorities, including Syriac Christians and Yazidis in the region.80
Shortly after these discussions, the Turkish government announced its decision to issue the first permit in the history of the Republic of Turkey to build a new church. Coincidentally, it was a Syriac Christian church, a project that had been stalled since 2013.81 The demonstration of benevolence toward Syriac Christians at home, however belated, was an attempt to disavow fears that Turkey and its proxies would pose a threat to Syriac Christians in Syria. Journalists who scrutinized the project more closely, however, discovered that the plot of ground in Istanbul, which the Turkish authorities had allocated for the Syriac church was a Catholic cemetery that had earlier been seized by the state. The conflict that the project triggered between Catholic and Syriac communities was only resolved through the intervention of Pope Francis.82
Although anti-Semitism in Turkey has spiked under the Erdoğan government’s rule, fueled by systematic propaganda in Turkey’s state-run and pro-government press, Erdoğan has made sure to include meetings with Jewish leaders during his trips abroad, including Washingtonand London.83,84
The Washington meeting in April 2016 led to a Haaretz contributor questioning Erdoğan’s motives by asking, “Is Erdogan trying to co-opt U.S. Jewish leaders to launder his reputation?”85 As for the London meeting in May 2018, Turkey’s pro-government media announced it with the headline, “Anti-Zionist Jewish group condemns Israel in meeting with Erdoğan in London,” thus using it as an opportunity to advance the Turkish president’s Islamist talking points.86
Modalities of Erdoğan’s Minority Policy
The Erdogan government’s four modalities in implementing policies vis-à-vis minorities—ranging from scapegoating and incitement to performing acts of benevolence and tolerance—aim to shape public opinion and strengthen majoritarian and sectarian hegemony at home, while also pursuing foreign policy goals. These modalities will continue to shape the status of minorities as the Turkish president looks for ways to extend his rule, which is already into its sixteenth year.
Erdoğan’s key strategy since the 2016 abortive coup has been to strengthen his alliance with the ultranationalist MHP. The ongoing Islamist-ultranationalist partnership has not only resulted in a hardline approach to the Kurdish question both at home and abroad, but also the scapegoating and smearing of Turkey’s religious minorities. The loss of Turkey’s European Union membership prospects, which was the main driver of democratic reforms in the early 2000s, has further exacerbated the rise of authoritarianism and chauvinism in domestic politics.
Given the ongoing downturn in the Turkish economy, and the failure of the Islamist-ultranationalist alliance to deliver in domestic and foreign policy, it is likely that Erdoğan’s ruling bloc will double down on its efforts to scapegoat minorities. This will represent an attempt to divert the electorate’s attention away from the government’s mismanagement and corruption, and will also further worsen the precarious conditions of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkey’s minorities’ best hope, at this point, would be to avoid becoming scapegoats of Erdoğan’s wrath, and to receive his benevolence as his loyal subjects.