A Turkish War of Religion: Kurdish Activists Sense a Conspiracy
In a widely reported speech last month, Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about Turkey's seemingly perpetual problem with its largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. He insisted on the indivisibility of the country, describing it as "one nation, one state, one flag and one religion." Erdogan, whose Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002, would later insist that the religion reference was a slip of the tongue, that he did not mean to bring up religion. Many Kurdish activists drew a different conclusion. To them, the misstatement spoke clearly to the AKP's unspoken policy of using Islam to lure the Kurds into abandoning their struggle for additional rights and a measure of political autonomy. (Like most Turks, including Erdogan himself, the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.)
Recently, the lightning rod for such suspicions has been the Gulen movement, the controversial religious group suspected of wielding considerable sway over the Turkish government, business community, and the media. (The movement takes its name from Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher.) The group, many Kurdish nationalists suspect, has been part and parcel of a new government strategy to pacify and assimilate the Kurds. "Someone comes here and tries to teach our people religion," Ahmet Turk, a prominent Kurdish politician, said back in 2010. "And they say in the name of Islam, 'Yes, let us help you improve your belief but forget about your identity.'" Says Vahap Coskun, an assistant professor at Diyarbakir's Dicle University, "Together, the [Gulenists] and the government have been using religion to attain the objective they have in mind — to build the unity of the state."
The Gulen movement publicly eschews politics. Its main objective in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, key Gulenists insist, is to focus on a long-neglected issue: education. For the region's Kurds, access to quality schooling has always been scarce. A raging 30-year conflict between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army has made things even worse. The Gulenists — who run some of the best university preparatory schools in the country — have gone a considerable way to address governmental neglect. As a Kurdish columnist at one of Turkey's largest papers — himself a graduate of a Gulen school — told me in Istanbul, "Most of the people from the southeast, if they're here [in Istanbul] and if they're successful, chances are that at some point they went through the Gulen system."