Jihadi v. Jihadi

CEP Research Analyst


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At the funeral of a slain police officer, Ahmet Camur, Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated, “We bid a farewell to our martyr that we believe has reached martyrdom. How happy is his family, how happy his nears!”

The cult of martyrdom is a well-documented psychological tool used by Islamists to recruit individuals for jihad. It is interesting to see Erdogan’s use of the same jihadist rhetoric against the Kurds, but not ISIS. ISIS has already called for the fall of Istanbul and challenged the authority of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), calling Erdogan “treacherous” and a “taghut” (idolater of false gods), “who trick people into becoming slaves of the crusaders,” as reported by Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman.

For Erdogan, ISIS is a threat to the larger Middle East but not to Turkey, where the Kurds pose the biggest threat to Turkish sovereignty. The slain police officer died in clashes against the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), a militant faction within the larger pro-Kurdish rights movement in Turkey. The group is part of a separatist movement that has gained momentum since the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussain. The AKP fears a loss of Turkish territory to a larger Kurdish state should the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups keep gaining strength.

Ironically, Turkey’s governing political party, the AKP, originally gained prominence by being an inclusive party and by promising to recognize Kurdish identity and language as part of Turkey’s national identity.

Instead, Erdogan now appears to be doubling-down against the Kurds.  Domestically, Kurdish identity remains unrecognized. Moreover, Turkey has assimilated more than one million Turkic-refugees from places like Dagestan, Afghanistan and Iran. This has resulted in an upheaval of local demographics.  Already-present minorities like the Kurds, who comprise approximately 15 percent of the total Turkish population, are likely to see that percentage shrink in the next generation should this policy continue. 

Further, Erdogan continues to label pro-Kurdish activists as terrorists, turning Kurds into a national security threat to improve AKP’s poll numbers and chances for an electoral sweep in expected elections later this year.

It is likely Erdogan hopes that ISIS will wipe out the nascent state of Kurdistan in Iraq’s north before targeting ISIS directly. Unfortunately, by invoking jihadist rhetoric against the Kurds, Erdogan risks opening the door to pro-ISIS radicalization in Turkey and increasing the country’s instability, not strengthening its sovereignty as he hopes. Both the AKP and ISIS are Islamist parties vying for their respective versions of an Islamic state. Like ISIS, the AKP believes in the superiority of Islamism over other ideologies like secular democracy and capitalism. ISIS is merely a more violent strain of the Islamist movement the AKP represents. 

By targeting the Kurds instead of negotiating with them, the AKP is increasing the likelihood that factions within the Kurdish nationalist movement will be co-opted by pro-ISIS Islamists.

The Islamist narrative transcends borders, turning regional issues wherever Muslims may be present into a global “Muslim cause.” The anti-Russian and secular Chechen nationalist movement was hijacked by Islamists through this rhetoric as was the Iranian revolution after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Today, Islamists are manipulating domestic problems from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to hasten the overthrow of what they perceive as corrupt governments in favor of an Islamic state. Erdogan, as an Islamist himself, does not realize that he and his AKP party are simply another corrupt government that requires removal in the eyes of ISIS. While Turks are unlikely to respond to Erdogan’s call for martyrdom against the Kurds, there is a chance that some within Turkey will respond to ISIS.

Incidents recently in Turkey bear this out. A pro-ISIS Turkish Kurd bombed a rally organized for the liberal Turkish-Kurd HDP party on June 5, 2015, days before the country’s national elections, killing four and wounding more than 100. In the following month, another pro-ISIS Kurd killed 32 people and wounded 100 in an attack at the Turkish border town of Suruç. Such incidents are likely to empower minor players like the Turkish Islamic Front or Hezbollah in Turkey. Both groups have ties to foreign Islamist groups and states.

For now, there has been pushback against Erdogan’s jihadist rhetoric. A Twitter-storm erupted after Camur’s funeral following further statements by Erdogan to the effect that more Turks should become policemen as it is a path to happiness because martyrs sit next to prophets in heaven.

One anonymous individual tweeted:  “Let ministers of the AK Party send their kids for military service to be happy.”

Another chirped: “I don't know what to say [about Erdogan’s remarks]. The only think that I know is I felt ashamed to be a human.”

It would be in the AKP’s best interests to negotiate with secular Kurds if the party truly wants to protect Turkish sovereignty and be a real regional player in the Middle East.