Turkey's 'holy war' in Syria puts a more religious nationalism on display

Rebranding Turkish nationalism with Islamic themes has helped President Erdoğan mobilize support for the Afrin military operation and his style of leadership. The rhetoric also has deepened anti-Western sentiment.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army fighters were deployed in Afrin, Syria, March 18.

When Turkey’s armed forces finally seized control last Sunday of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, after a two-month campaign, it was presented as a victory by “Islam’s last army” in a holy war, or “jihad.”

Turkey has mounted frequent cross-border operations into Iraq over the years to target militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And “Operation Olive Branch” – as Turkey named the Afrin offensive – is the second major operation into Syria since 2016, aimed at preventing Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK from building their own mini-state on Turkey’s southern border.

But never before has an operation by Turkey’s military – the second-largest army in the NATO alliance, with a fiercely secular tradition – been wrapped in such overtly religious language.

That portrayal signifies how far President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have progressed in rebranding Turkish nationalism in their own, Islam-rooted image. The results, analysts say, have been an extension of the AKP’s conservative and religious agenda; less room for opposition; and a deepening of anti-Western sentiment that has portrayed Turkey as the front line in a clash of civilizations.

“You do have a combination – a nexus of Islamism and Turkish nationalism – that has not existed before,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations who is based in Istanbul.

“It resonates. And the moment you define it as a religious war, you have no sympathy for the people on the other side. They’re the enemy. They are terrorists. They are not innocent,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş.

“Once you call something a holy war, citizens are very constrained in their ability to say anything about it,” she says. “We’ve had lots of people who are detained or under investigation for their tweets, or criticizing the war, so social media has really been silenced about it.”

Kayhan Ozer/AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, center, attends the inauguration of his ruling Justice and Development Party's Politics Academy, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Mar. 9.

President Erdoğan vowed this week that Turkey would advance much further east in northern Syria, using its soldiers and the Syrian militia it supports to seize control over all the border territory, most of it now in the hands of US-backed Syrian Kurds. Much of that ground is now held by Kurdish militias, whom Turkey considers to be terrorists, that were backed by the US to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) – with American units seeded among them.

Taking Afrin was but a “comma” in the Turkish advance, and it will continue “until we entirely eliminate this [Kurdish-controlled] corridor,” said Erdoğan.

The price has been high. Some 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed, with reports of several hundred civilians dead. Turkey claims to have killed or captured more than 3,700 Syrian Kurdish fighters, though other estimates suggest 1,500 of them were killed. Tarnishing the result, Turkey’s own Syrian proxy force has been photographed engaging in wholesale looting of Afrin, as well as destroying a statue of a mythical figure in Kurdish history who represented resistance and freedom.

Surge in religiously infused nationalism

The blending of nationalism and religiosity, which has been a growing feature of AKP rule since it came to power in 2002, surged in the aftermath of a failed July 2016 coup attempt. Nightly “unity” rallies, organized in cities across the country by the AKP for a month, were steeped in mixed religious and political imagery.

Mustafa Akyol, the Turkish author of “The Islamic Jesus” and “Islam Without Extremes,” says Erdoğan is using a religiously infused nationalist narrative to support his status as a strong leader. While “the dominant and official ideology in Turkey has always been nationalism,” he says, the religious component has become more visible in the past couple of years.

“Now we are seeing Turkish nationalism again as the dominant ideology, but this time with a lot of Islamic references, so the nation is defined mainly through its Islamic heritage and the Ottoman Empire. Islamic themes are more visible,” Mr. Akyol says, noting that it helped mobilize support for the Afrin operation.

“The narrative of President Erdoğan in the past 5 or 6 years has been defined by these grave threats to Turkey,” says Akyol, who is also a fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “Some of these are real threats. The PKK is a real threat to Turkey. And the coup was a real threat to Turkey,” he says.

“But then these threats are taken to advance a highly ideological narrative, which basically says Turkey is now threatened by endless conspiratorial powers, the Western allies, the PKK movement, Gülen, and all of them are connected somehow. And against such grave enemies, we need a strong leader, a strong national psyche … with a lot of holy references.”

From the start, the Afrin operation has been cast in Islamic terms.

“There will be no progress unless there is jihad,” Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman said as the offensive began. “The great state will stand up, we have martyrs, may Allah grant them mercy.”

Funerals for fallen Turkish soldiers have also been saturated with religious terminology. Speaking at one last week, Erdoğan said, “paradise is near,” and that, “Our martyrs have undertaken a great struggle … for our religion.”

Erdoğan has a history of using Islamist rhetoric, and was jailed for four months for breaking secular laws in 1997 when he was mayor of Istanbul, by reciting these lines in a speech: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”

Last week he compared the spirit and faith of Turkish soldiers at Afrin to those Ottoman troops whose legendary faith helped them prevail in the World War I battle of Çanakkale on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915.

Marking that anniversary, Erdoğan quoted lines from the poet Yahya Kemal, which spoke of the Turkish Army then as “the army which has died for you; you raise them high in the call to prayer; victory is claimed, because this is the last army of Islam.”

Nationalist concept of ‘jihad’

Even Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs issued a sermon in mid-February, proclaiming upon the Afrin offensive.

“It is the highest level of jihad to enter armed struggle for the faith, existence, the homeland, and freedom,” the sermon said. “Our heroic army fighting for independence and our future, for unity and togetherness, is victorious!”

While words like “martyr” have always been used by the Turkish military, and Allah invoked by soldiers, the open use of words like “jihad” have surprised secular Turks, especially. One columnist asked pithily, after the “last army of Islam” and “God’s army” lines of poetry were posted, whether the Twitter account of the Turkish Armed Forces had been hacked by ISIS.

Author Akyol says he’s sometimes uncomfortable with the use of religious terminology, but sees it in more political terms.

“This is a very nationalist concept of the word jihad, and holy struggle, as defending our homeland against the enemies … but I would not see this language as akin to that used by jihadist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS,” he says.

Islam is more present in Turkey’s official education, with even TV series and state TV making increasing references to the nation's Islamic values and past. But there are limits, too. Erdoğan lashed out this month at ultraconservative clerics – one of whom had recently condoned wife beating – saying, “Islam must be updated.”

“AKP’s social agenda can be rightly called conservatization, more than anything else,” says Akyol. “Does this include ‘Islamization’? Yes, obviously Islam is more dominant in the official narrative, [but] it is not an Islamization that will make Turkey look like, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran in 10 years.”

Squelching opposition

Still, describing the Afrin offensive as a “holy war” has made opposition more challenging, especially under a state of emergency that has continued since mid-2016. Just over two weeks into the offensive, the Interior Ministry announced that 449 people had been arrested for social media use about Afrin, and accused of making “propaganda and terrorism.”

Another element is anti-Western sentiment, which characterizes Turkey’s role as a front line in a broader civilizational clash, says analyst Aydıntaşbaş. She notes that on Turkish television this week – even the CNN affiliate CNN Türk – there have been discussions about “America’s Chaos Plan,” in which panelists speak seriously of US support for ISIS and its aim to bring chaos to the Middle East.

“You see this a lot,” says Aydıntaşbaş. “ ‘Islam’s last army’ isn’t just fighting Kurds, it’s fighting Kurds who are being used by the West and Christian world, in the old set-up that they are describing.

“Turkish leaders want it both ways,” she adds, noting Turkey’s EU membership bid and NATO role. “They want to cooperate with the West, but have the right to do West-bashing, Euro-bashing, and US-bashing in the public sphere.”

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