The Impact of the Islamic State and Turkey’s Civil Society

Full text of my presentation, ‘The Impact of the Islamic State and Turkey’s Civil Society’. Paper present to TASAM (Turkish-Asian Centre for Strategic Studies) Fourth International Middle East Congress, ‘Turkish-Arab Relations: Multi-Dimensional Security Building’, Hatay, 27-29 April.

Thank you, madam chair.

Hello, good morning and welcome.

I would like to thank the conference organisers for the kind invitation and you here for your time and attention.

My talk is entitled, ‘The Impact of the Islamic State and Turkey’s Civil Society’.

It illustrates some observations and comments based on my wider research on ethnicity, politics and Islam carried out over the last four years here in Turkey. Edinburgh University Press will publish my research as a book in December of this year.

First, I will briefly mention the socio-political reasons for the emergence of the Islamic State.

Second, I explore the implications it has raised for local and regional politics, not least in relation to Turkey.

Third, I will expound on the nature and impact of the ‘Syrian crisis’.

Finally, I will touch upon the top-down and bottom-up solutions that could assist Turkey in building social cohesion, political engagement and delimiting the potential for violence, terrorism and unrest.

The Islamic State emerged due a power vacuum in Iraq and Syria, combined with Turkey’s ambivalence towards the group in its early stages.

However, we also know of the:

  • Effects of foreign interventions in Iraq that have destabilised the region in recent years
  • A legacy of domestic political instability
  • A history of pre-existing ethnic and sectarian differences and tensions
  • Ongoing socio-economic inequalities
  • Lack of political participation
  • Youth demographic bulge combined with high unemployment, but education and technological awareness – hence a series of combined frustrations

What we know of the Islamic State is that it:

  • Has its own internal economy, not least how it is supported by Assad’s oil purchases combined with free electricity provided in certain locations in return (how long would IS survive without electricity and the internet is a good question)
  • IS was at its boldest in 2014, with the siege of Kobanî being a particular show of muscular strength – but it has suffered in recent months, losing ground as well as the value of its currency due to the collapse of oil prices.
  • Assad faces opposition from the US and its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – while Russia, Iran and other elements of the Shia Middle East are in support of Assad.
  • Therefore, we have a proxy conflict – but also a quagmire for all the actors in the region.
  • Meanwhile, Syrian refugees flee north to Turkey, and until recently to the EU through Greece.
  • The Gulf nations have not received Syrians.
  • Over the last two years, the emergence of the Islamic State has created considerable upheaval for Turkey, not least due to acts of terrorism that have destabilised Turkey and created concerns across the wider Middle East.

IS attacks tourist targets in Turkey, disrupting its tourism economy, and severely affecting the mood of the Turkish people.

Though lacking clear direction, as an immediate response the Turkish state has assumed greater control of the media and condemned political opposition in an effort to demonstrate strength.

Given the ‘Kurdish Question’ in Turkey, Turkey’s role in relation to eliminating IS remains ambivalent, specifically given that in the early stages, the groups that became IS were logistically and militarily supported by Turkey. Thus, Turkey has experienced a form of ‘blowback’.

It is also combined with IS targeting sites away of its own geography, namely in the EU and Turkey as an attempt to show might. The examples in Paris, Istanbul and Brussels in recent months demonstrate this.

Though it is important to remember that EU-born second-generation groups with ‘migration backgrounds’ carried out these attacks.

Their motivations emerge in the context of discrimination, deprivation and disadvantage, not Islam, as it were.

Thus, in Turkey, at the level of communities, the ‘Kurdish Question’ and policies towards the IS are inextricably linked.

Before the collapse of the peace process, Turkey was at the margins of direct intervention in Syria, but due to a political miscalculation, Turkey remained on the sidelines for far too long in the hope that Assad would step down and that Syria would hold free and fair elections.

All the while, a peace process in relation to the ‘Kurdish question’ in Turkey progressed in earnest.

However, it has since collapsed, largely because of the IS siege of Kobanî in mid-2014. The Kurds in Turkey became agitated due to a lack of action on the part of the state.

The Turkish state responded by force in Hakkâri. The fighting escalated, and the AKP hammer fell!

With over 3m Syrian refugees in Turkey, there are further anxieties regarding the cultural cohesion of the nation.

  • More than two-thirds of a million are in Istanbul.
  • There are camps on the border, housing hundreds of thousands more.
  • Some come with their personal wealth and live in affluent neighbourhoods.
  • Others are on the streets, forced to beg.
  • Most are neither here or there – and their futures remain uncertain.
  • Until recent minimal policy developments, Syrians could not work. Here, sweatshop factories exploit unofficial workers, including young children.

This is quite disheartening, as among these groups are established and educated middle class professionals who could contribute a great deal to their lives and that of the many in Turkey.

However, at the same time, there is considerable resistance among certain sectors of Turkish society who display responses from overt displeasure to passive disdain in relation to the Syrians.

Thus, this paper argues there are pressing needs inside Turkey for better engagement with civil society groups, combined with a soft-Islamist approach that appeals to Sufi spiritual narratives inherent in Turkish Sunni Islam.

The essence of my argument is that the solutions to such problems cannot be determined unless there are simultaneous top-down and bottom-up initiatives.

At the level of the state, the need to empower civil society is essential, including charities, and pro-dialogue organisations.

There needs to be greater openness in relation to criticism in society. Shutting down newspapers, closing television stations, and silencing journalists (and academics) who challenge the status quo does not help, especially in relation to how the world in general sees Turkey.

A form of Islamism instituted into society without full debate or discussion merely polarises existing different ideological and political factions.

There is a need to implement policies that are not in the image of an imagined Islam, but those that balance the needs of secular liberal democracies combined with humanism, spiritualism and the sacred that is relevant for a twenty-first nation wishing to remain as the bridge of civilisations.

However, secularism can only provide for the different religious systems to flourish within its domain if it does not veer towards ethnic nationalism, which is often unstable and regularly problematic.

At the level of communities, the historic polarisations between Islamist and secularist, conservative and liberal, relativists and purists, pro-European and anti-European could not be wider in Turkey at present. Here, the role of macro-politics cannot be under-estimated.

The power of the state to underscore a dialogical social context remains significant, but the age-old adage that Turkey needs to challenge its enemies from outside and from within remains powerful.

Turkey needs a more open direction from the top so that Turkish citizens are a community of shared interests who are equal citizens of the state who can flourish on equal terms.

This will invariably empower the middle classes who will ask tough questions of the state, but Turkey needs to take the chance and see it as an opportunity for a stronger nation, where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.

I hope my thoughts and observations will stimulate discussion and debate in relation to policy and practice that only the people and polity of Turkey can truly enforce.

Thank you!

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