Sectarianized Securitization in Turkey in the Wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings

May 24, 2019

Lecture by Dr. Ceren Lord
SPF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford

I want to thank and express my gratitude to the Sasakawa Peace Foundation for the fellowship program at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, which has really enabled me to undertake this research that formed the major part of what I will present today, and which will also be published in an upcoming issue of the Middle East Journal in 2019. I am extremely grateful not just for my research on Turkey and the Middle East and the opportunity to conduct research during the time of my fellowship, but I am immensely thankful that I have been able to engage with my Japanese colleagues. I wanted to be part of a growing network of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation fellows. I think this collaboration is hugely valuable in terms of the exchange of ideas and learning from each other, and I do hope that it will continue going forward.

To move on to my presentation, my focus during this fellowship has been very much on the drivers and repercussions of sectarianism in Turkey. Particularly since the 2011 Arab uprisings, sectarianism has emerged as a major facet of the politics of the Middle East, and it's possible to identify very broadly two trends in these analyses.

Firstly, within the scholarship or the mainstream approaches of what is being described as the new wave of sectarianism in the Middle East since 2011, there's largely a consensus amongst scholars that almost everyone is a constructivist, in that they dismiss the idea that sectarianism in the region is an ancient hatred or primordial element that has simply resurfaced as a result of the outcome of the conflicts that have developed. Academics have focused instead on things like colonial interventions, geopolitical rivalries, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the instrumentalizing of identity by authoritarian regimes or from below by identity entrepreneurs or the communities themselves. For instance, a recent book on sectarianism called Sectarianization by Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi portrays sectarianism as a function of authoritarian politics or geopolitical competition in the region. They also helpfully suggest that sectarianization is a more useful term for understanding what's happening in the region to emphasize, unlike sectarianism, that it's an ongoing constructed process.

The second dynamic is that largely within these discussions on sectarianism in the Middle East, the Turkish case is often completely ignored or overlooked. Most of the recent works on sectarianism don't even mention Turkey. When I ask some of the authors of these books, they are not even aware of any dynamic of sectarianism in Turkey in the first place. I think the reason this occurs is because there is a mistaken but predominant understanding of Turkey as a unique majority Muslim secular republic, and at least until the 2013 protests in the country and opposition protests, the main narrative was that Turkey was going to be a model in the region and that the Islamist government was leading the process of democratization in the country.

In my research, I make three main arguments that I will present today. First, I argue that Turkey is not an exception to this wave of sectarianization unfolding in the Middle East, particularly since 2011.

Secondly, I will argue that this new sectarianism in Turkey has involved the securitization of presenting as an enemy as well as violent targeting of the Alevi community, which comprises the second largest faith community in Turkey after Sunni Muslims and makes up around 15-20% of the population. I show how these state policies against the Alevis are both unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic, but at the same time related to – and I think this is the thing that is most missed in the literature of sectarianism – very long-term sectarian politics and institution building, traced to the earlier failures of nation building in Turkey, and particularly the role of the Islamic authority or the Muslim clerics that are integrated within the state in Turkey. I argue that the Turkish case shows us that recent analyses of sectarianism in the Middle East sometimes neglect in their constructivist or overly dismissive arguments of sectarianism as purely authoritarian politics these long-term processes of how sectarianism becomes embedded in the nation as a state-building process.

The third argument I'm going to make is that efforts by the regime in Turkey to push sectarianization or target Alevis has had limited success compared to, for example, cases in Bahrain, because actually this minority has resisted by either arming or radicalizing in a way that perhaps has been provoked by these very securitized policies by the Turkish regime. By exploring this intersection of geopolitics, foreign policy, and identity, I try – through the Turkish case – to further understand and shed light on the broader dynamics and second-order effects of this new wave of sectarianization in the Middle East.

Background of Turkish Alevis

Before I go on to those arguments, I want to briefly outline a summary of what I mean by Alevi. There's a huge amount of confusion about this community and lack of knowledge about who they are. People often think that Alevi is the Turkish version of the name and Alawite is the English version and there's an association between Syrian Alawites and the Turkish Alevis, but they are very distinct and separate communities. What's happened, especially since the Syrian conflict from 2011, is that all of these communities are being represented as Shia minorities, whereas the Alevi movement especially has identified Shiafication by Iran through the building of Shia mosques in Turkey or Sunnification efforts by the Turkish state through trying to articulate and Islamize Alevis as the biggest threat to their faith. The conflation of these groups has become a huge problem especially since 2011.

Image source: Andrews, P., & Benninghaus, R. (1989). Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey (Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients. Reihe B, Geisteswissenschaften; Nr. 60). Wiesbaden: L. Reichert
Image source: Andrews, P., & Benninghaus, R. (1989). Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey (Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients. Reihe B, Geisteswissenschaften; Nr. 60). Wiesbaden: L. Reichert

In terms of where they are situated in Turkey, this is a map from an ethnographic study from the 1980s that shows the dispersion of Alevi communities, which is pretty much all over Turkey. If we get to the question of what is Alevism, there is a huge contestation within the community itself as to whether it should be seen as a faith, as an interpretation of Islam, or outside of it. But they explicitly reject being called a sect like Shia or Sunni within Islam. The word Alevi is used as an umbrella term for various heterogeneous communities from Central Asia into the Balkans, including many significant Bektashi communities from Albania to Greece. They also include very different ethnic language groups. A significant portion of Alevis are Kurdish in origin and there are some varied ethnic groups.

There is a description by an Alevi spiritual leader of the four defining characteristics of Alevism, which are the adoration of humans, adoration of light, adoration of women, and adoration of trees. My research is not really focused on this definition of Alevis because of course identities are fluid and constructed, but I'm interested in how these identity boundaries shift over time. I think a helpful way of thinking about how the Alevis situate themselves in Turkey, for example, is the argument made by Martin Sökefeld that the master narrative of Alevism typically employs Sunni Islam as a negative template in order to define itself. In other words, Alevis typically define themselves by referring to their difference with Sunni Muslims. You can see this kind of tactic in a quote by another elder who says that we do not have ablution, we do not pray, we do not fast. Women and men come together and we drink wine and spirits. So the equality of women and consumption of alcohol, for example, are two ways in which Alevis distinguish themselves from mainstream Sunni Islam. One of the most influential Alevi organizations, the Confederation of Alevi Communities in Europe, defines Alevism as a belief in its own right. Alevism is actually taught across many European countries as a distinct faith in British and German schools.

In terms of the politics of the Alevi movement, one key aspect that is often noted is the affinity and loyalty to the republic and secularism. The reason for this is quite simple and it is partly owing to the experience of persecution under the Islamic Ottoman state and that, in theory, the ostensibly secular Turkish Republic makes all of the citizens the promise of equal citizenship. Despite this, Alevis have been targeted throughout the life of the Turkish Republic, seen as a possible internal enemy by the state, and have been subjected to periodic bouts of political violence, often led by the state. In the 1970s, what we saw was the increasing engagement of Alevi citizens with the leftist movement, which saw them be categorized as an internal enemy or national security threat alongside Kurds and communists. They used to call them the KKK, the three k's, the internal enemies of the Turkish state.

Approaches by the Turkish state

In terms of how the Turkish state has treated Alevis and to show you why this AKP era after 2002 and especially after 2011 is unprecedented, I want to give you a brief idea of what happened prior to that in the early phases of the Turkish State. In terms of my first point about the embeddedness of sectarianism from the early phases of nation state building and the religious authority or the Islamic ulema in the Turkish case, in the early years of the Turkish nation state, there was, on the one hand, the process of secularization of the legal framework and the process of homogenization, which comprised elements of and promise in the theory of nonsectarian citizenship. This is very different to the case of Lebanon where sectarianism was from the start very much institutionalized. Turkey is of course considered a unique country case in that it is a Muslim majority country with a secular constitution, but of course there's no recognition of different religious or ethnic groups in Turkey by the state. On the other hand, in the Turkish case, because of the Ottoman legacy of religion becoming an important ethnic marker, this very process of nation building involved a privileging of Sunni Muslim Turkish identity and the integration of the Sunni orthodox ulema into the body of the state.

There are these two tensions and different political projects that were there from the establishment of the state, which resulted in two very broad approaches to these minorities. The first instinct or the first strategy of the state toward Alevis was to try to assimilate them, so nationalist absorption. Alevis were seen especially by parts of the military and early Turkish nationalists, presented as Turkish Islam or real pure Islam. The second strategy within the state was of the Ottoman ulema, which became the Turkish Republic's ulema, who continued to see Alevis as a heretical community and a danger to Islam. They have been the key faction within the state that have absolutely resisted the integration or assimilation even of Alevis as Turkish citizens in a sense. For example, they resisted the recognition of Alevi places of worship, which would mean that Alevis would enjoy equal access to resources of the state like mosques, and therefore they blocked the equal citizenship demands of key state organization that blocked the demands of equal citizenship by Alevi communities.

I would argue, however, that both of these strategies within the state share an overlapping consensus in really seeing the hegemonic status of Sunni Muslim Turks in the Republic and both sides see Alevis as a suspect, an internal enemy. This is why even when there is recognition by the secular-oriented state actors, like some parts of the military in previous years, Alevis continue to be seen as potential threats to the state. Against this backdrop of systematic persecution and discrimination, what has emerged since the 1990s is a sort of transnational Alevi movement with the impetus provided by the diaspora in Europe, which has been actively struggling for recognition of equal rights in Turkey, and is very active in Germany and the UK in particular.

What's happened since the Islamic AKP came to power in 2002? My argument is that this context that I've given you and the persistence of sectarian boundaries is important when we come to the AKP era for understanding why sectarianization became a viable strategy after 2011. In other words, we need to look at the historical context of nation state building to understand this new wave of sectarianization in recent years. Right from the start when AKP came to power in 2002, relations with Alevi communities were very difficult, partly because of the experience of Islamist sectarianism involvement in violence towards Alevis in previous years. However, you can still differentiate between roughly two periods since the AKP came to power.

The first period is from 2002-2011 in which the AKP continued with previous state strategies, wavering between assimilationist policies involving rearticulating Alevism in an Islamic framework or Sunni framework as we saw through the policies in 2007 when they launched a so-called Alevi opening in which they said they were going to help address demands made by Alevis, but nothing came out of this process at all. At the same time, they were periodically adopting sectarian framing of politics, but this was a bit more muted at the time.

From post-2011, there were a very clear shift in what I described as the sectarianized securitization of Alevis, so an adoption of very explicitly sectarian policies. What I mean by securitization here is that I'm using this from international relations theory to understand how states create enemies or construct security threats and then use violence in a way that invites counter violence by the securitized actors, which is meant to legitimate the initial move by the state against these securitized actors. This is really to show how you go from every day, banal sectarianism to more violent forms of sectarianism in Turkey since 2011.

This securitization as I mentioned earlier was driven really by the interplay of both domestic factors and regional politics. There was a confluence of these two things. Domestically, like in other parts of the Middle East, sectarianization was related to growing authoritarianism under the AKP. The AKP was suddenly faced with major challenges to its rule, including the 2013 Gezi Park protest and the failed coup attempt in 2016 allegedly by his former allies, the Gulenists. Like the Bahraini case, the AKP tried using sectarianization to counter a wide coalition challenging the regime. Together with this dynamic domestically, what you have is the augmentation of the sectarian nature of the state because of a massive expansion of the religious field under the AKP.

The role of the chief Islamic authority, which is called the Presidency of Religious Affairs, is massively increased in terms of the active role in social policymaking, in education, and in all fields of life in Turkey. In terms of regional politics, what we have of course is the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and the AKP goes from being friends with Syria and with Assad to calling the Syrian Regime very explicitly the Alawaite dictatorship, emphasizing Turkey's Sunni identity. More broadly, you can see actually within the English media especially in the UK and the U.S., that the narrative of a Shia/Sunni schism is then extrapolated onto this Alevi/Sunni fault line in Turkey as if the Alevis are a part of this conflict even though they reject being categorized as Shia.

What types of state policy did this sectarianized securitization involve? Alevis began to be increasingly depicted as an internal security threat as if they were potential fifth columns of Syria, of Iran, or of so-called external forces such as Germany, which is often blamed for trying to divide Turkey in government press. There is an allegation of a sectarian affinity of the Alevis with the Assad Regime. Another strategy is the sort of alleged organic association of Alevis with terrorist groups, such as the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party, a leftist terrorist organization. You see this securitization in the government press through the images of masked men that appear after various protests and police operations in Alevi neighborhoods. Together with the securitizing discourse, sectarian policies have included using demographic engineering by placing Syrian refuges in Alevis areas in order to change the demographic maps. There is increasing discrimination in the form of reduced access to public sector jobs. There's at least anecdotal evidence that Alevis find it increasingly difficult to find jobs in the public sector, and a crackdown on Alevi movement in terms of arrests and harassment, which have all worsened since the failed coup attempt in 2016.

Impact on the Alevi movement

I would like to discuss how this has impacted the Alevi movement itself. So far, I've argued that sectarianism was embedded in the early phases of nation state building and Islamic authority, with imams and clerics playing the biggest role in its persistence over time. Secondly, I've argued that sectarianzation, particularly in the AKP period and from 2011, was a result of both domestic and external developments such as the Arab Uprisings and the Syrian conflict.

I want to now touch on the Alevi movements and mobilization. Firstly, sectarianized securitization, as I mentioned, is a strategy deployed by the regime to counter challenges to its rule, divide opposition, and legitimize itself. A key way in which this is done is by securitizing and using violence, which then invites or enables counter violence by the state. In a sense, there is a provocation involved in securitization for further violence and radicalization. For example, in the Turkish case, the Turkish state appeared to be doing just this in 2015 when the Ankara chief police officer called in the Alevi movement representatives and said there is a potential ISIS threat against your community, but we cannot give you protection, so you should arrange your own protection. This was essentially a call for these communities to start arming for self-defense.

Just after the 2013 Gezi Park protests, there appeared to be some dangers of radicalization, particularly amongst the youth, because they were subject to very heavy violence by security forces for the last couple of years, which results in the appearance of some of these masked men to protect the funerals of Alevis after they were killed by security forces. In 2014, we saw the establishment of a youth group in one neighborhood in Istanbul, presenting themselves as an explicit Alevi militia, which was unprecedented in the history of the Alevi movement because they absolutely reject a sectarian or violent organization.

However, what came through my interviews was that while acknowledging the frustration of the youth, all of these small pockets are very marginal and they're completely disowned by the broader movement. In fact, this group shortly disbanded in 2015 with a statement saying that they were very hurt and disappointed by Alevi communities who rejected them and their activities and saw them as provocateurs of the state. There is a wholesale rejection of any move towards arming or radicalizing.

My second point is that despite this violent securitization by the state, the Alevi movement has been essentially resisting this sectarianization from above, not necessarily developing sectarian politics and demands or building more narrow sectarian alliances that you might see, for example, in cases increasingly in Bahrain or Lebanon, and remaining resistant to the escalation of violence. In this way, it has been going on a similar route to some other cases in the Middle East.

Based on my interviews, there are a number of reasons why I think this is the case. Firstly, for the Alevi movement, there is a very strong collective memory of oppression that goes beyond the AKP era to the Ottoman era. They often recognize that conditions have worsened since 2011 or since the AKP, but they actually have a narrative of persecution that goes to the Ottoman era and they see continuity with the Turkish Republic in the kinds of persecution they saw under the Ottoman State. Despite seeing the augmentation of the Sunni character of the state under the AKP since 2002, there is no conceptualizing of the other side or Sunni Muslims as a homogeneous block. They differentiate between what the regime is doing and the wider public. There is no movement to make the other into an enemy.

The nature of the Turkish institutional framework, despite the Islamization of the AKP in recent years or the rapid Islamization pushed by the AKP in recent years, is important because it still remains, at least in name, secular. This framework is important because it makes the possibility of nonsectarian politics and alliances possible, which is a key differentiating factor from places like Lebanon, India, and so on, where the existence of communal laws, for example, restricts the possibility of trans-sectarian or nonsectarian politics. When you look at the political alliances that the Alevi movement makes, they have remained largely nonsectarian and the demands have been for equal citizenship and not group rights, their demands have been for secular education not Alevi education, and they have been allying with pro-Kurdish parties, secular parties, and social democratic parties.

Dr. Ceren Lord and Middle East and Islam Program Department Director Kayoko Tatsumi
Dr. Ceren Lord and Middle East and Islam Program Department Director Kayoko Tatsumi

My last point is that despite this resistance of the Alevi movement toward sectarianization, securitization is still about intervention in identity making. I think this is what is missing in some of the analyses of sectarianism in the Middle East at the moment. Through these policies, the state is trying not only to bolster its regime, but also trying to influence the strategies adopted by the movements of these minorities and shape their identity. This is because securitization necessarily involves an attempt to influence identity. The AKP regime has been trying to designate through securitization certain types of Alevis as more acceptable, such as designating those rejecting an Islamic identity as terrorists or marginal and those that describe themselves as Muslim as slightly more acceptable, but only slightly. I've been trying to map how these identity mobilization strategies have shifted in the post-2011 era, which then may impact the dynamics that I mentioned previously in terms of the resistance to sectarianization in the future.

For example, prior to the 1990s before the rise of identity politics, Alevis used to situate themselves largely within leftist politics. They did not really engage in politics as Alevis. From the 1990s, this is the period of the emergence of the identity movement as a result of the 1993 massacre of Alevis in the province of Sivas by mosque-goers on a Friday. In post-2011, I believe you see another turning point in which they are trying to expand their identity to include more distinct faith communities. In the post-2011 period, they begin to try to integrate communities that were previously they would not necessarily engage with or were their core enemies.

To give you an example, the European Alevis Confederation was trying to find 3,000,000 Alevis who apparently lived in Argentina and Chile since the Ottoman era, which is sad news. There were 3,000,000 of them in Latin America and they started visiting these communities after 2011. Others are trying to look to other communities to build alliances against what they see specifically as the Islamist or Jihadi threat coming from Syria, and increasingly trying to integrate with the Betashis or the Balkans. They're really trying to broaden the types of communities and networks and alliances that go under Alevi. The types of strategies adopted by Alevi organizations really depends on where they are situated. More state friendly positioned Alevis, in very Islamic terms, are more likely to develop ties with, for example, Shiite communities than the European arm of the Alevi movement, which tends to shun the more Shia or Islamic networks. That's the mapping of the movement and the strategies.


I want to summarize my two arguments for the conclusion. I firstly wanted to show that while Turkey has often been overlooked in terms of the sectarianism debate, it has not been exempt from the sectarianization since 2011. My research is very much in agreement with the literature on sectarianization in tying it to the growing authoritarianism in the region and so on. However, I make the additional argument that this sectarianism really became viable at least in the Turkish case because of this early phase of sectarianism being embedded in nation state building and the role of the Islamic authority in reproducing this over time. In the Turkish case, as I summarized, this has taken the form of sectarianized securitization from above by the regime against Alevis, which became seen as the internal enemy.

My second and last point is that I want to show that this sectarianization is not just about the growing importance of sectarian identity in Turkey but that it's also now reshaping these identities in ways and influencing new mobilizing strategies, which will have implications for future conflict dynamics in the region and in Turkey. Ultimately, this increasing sectarianism has consequences for the nature of Turkey's citizenship, and thereby the republican project itself, which despite privileging Sunni Muslim Turks from the start, nevertheless still had a promise of equal citizenship and held together diverse communities through the promise of this equal citizenship, which will have important consequences.

Related links:
"Sectarianized Securitization in Turkey in the Wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings"
Published in the Middle East Journal, Volume 73, No. 1
SPF Now interview with Dr. Ceren Lord
Middle East and Islam Program Department

Related Projects
    Related Program

    Articles on Report


    Business Year
    Business Year
    Related Websites

    The Sasakawa Pacific Island Nations Fund

    This page has information about the Sasakawa Pacific Island Nations Fund activities until FY 2017.

    Related Websites

    The Sasakawa Pan Asia Fund

    This page has information about the Sasakawa Pan Asia Fund activities until FY 2017.

    Related Websites

    The Sasakawa Japan–China Friendship Fund

    This page has information about the Sasakawa Japan–China Friendship Fund activities until FY 2017.

    Related Websites

    The Sasakawa Middle East Islam Fund

    This page has information about the Sasakawa Middle East Islam Fund activities until FY 2017.