Turkey in the Midst of the Syrian Crisis: Security, Democracy and Secularism

By Gonenc Uysal:


After years of civil war in Syria, that has caused more than 210,000 – mostly civilian – deaths, the international community has recently been shaken by videos of war crimes undertaken by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These have included beheadings and mass executions, sexual slavery, child soldiers and destruction of cultural heritage. Despite this, Turkey has not changed its rigid position against Bashar Assad, maintaining the doctrine of strategic depth outlined by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu. Moreover, the significant majority of international commentators, including scholars and journalists, continue to argue that Syrian rebel groups, particularly Islamists, have tried to reconcile liberal democracy with Islamism/political Islam.

Alongside the rise of radical political Islam in the Middle East, including in Turkey, there has been an apparent decline in support for the secularist principles that have long acted as the foundation of the Turkish state. This article argues that secularism should be reconfirmed as the founding principle of Turkey. This must be done in order to maintain the security of its democracy.

The tension between religion and secularism cannot be reduced to politico-cultural relativism, since secularism dictates the nature and boundaries of sovereignty, and thus the relationship between the state and its citizens as well as the relationship among citizens. Political Islam considers the spiritual sphere as sacred and grants sovereignty to divine rule. It also divides society into two antagonistic groups – believers and unbelievers – and claims the legitimacy of the former over the latter. Therefore, political Islam should be considered as a project which foresees the reconstruction of both state and society in accordance with the dictates of religion.

In various countries political Islam has been portrayed as being compatible with liberal democracy.[1] The result of this position is to veil class inequalities and the exploitation of the capitalist system, as well as the deepening dependence of national economies under the global capitalist system.[2] Such reconciliation between political Islam and liberal democracy is fundamentally in contradiction with the principle of equality of human beings,[3] and it has overruled any secular criticism that could overcome deficiencies of capitalism at the global, regional and domestic levels.

In the international sphere, Turkey served as a balance between the monopolist Western capital and the rising Gulf capital. Although the former remained cautious, it was still in alliance with the latter, for instance, by supporting Syrian rebel groups under the CIA long before the plan on training and equipping Syrian rebels took shape. However, in the face of ISIL’s war crimes and radicalisation among parts of the Western population, the West began to search for a way to legitimise the possibility of future cooperation with regional actors, such as Iran.

While a significant chunk of the international community began to discuss whether Assad could be a necessary evil, it also began to blame Turkey for encouraging ISIL by supplying military equipment and training, and medical care, and for fighting against the PYD (Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat –Democratic Union Party), which has an organic relationship with the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane –Kurdistan Workers’ Party). As long as the possibility of changing power dynamics between Iran and the Gulf capital has existed, the sympathy of the international community toward the PYD has risen. Consequently, in order to regain its image as a Western ally and a bulwark against radical political Islam in the eyes of international and domestic public opinion, Turkey has let the USA use Incirlik air base close to the Syrian border, and called NATO for a meeting on the basis of the Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Turkey further agreed with the USA on an ISIL-free buffer-zone consisting of Syrian rebels, including a majority of the moderate Islamists.

However, since Turkey also contributed to the training and equipping of Syrian rebels, it still faces the possibility of the inadvertent radicalisation of Islamists,[4] similar to the case of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Any government’s tacit consent and arguably support for the so-called moderate Islamists would contribute to the deterioration of fundamental human rights and freedoms both in Turkey and in the Middle Eastern region. Therefore, Turkey urgently needs to reformulate its foreign policy and respond to the Syrian crisis in accordance with the principle of secularism.

In the domestic sphere, although the AKP government had already passed the controversial omnibus domestic security bill in April 2015, the latest terrorist attack against socialist activists in Suruc in July 2015 could not be prevented. On the contrary, whereas the police used disproportionate use of force against labour demonstrations on 1st May 2015 and the LGBT parade in June 2015, the police did not intervene in the Caliphate Parade, which called for the application of sharia in Turkey and which was organised by Hizbut Tahrir in June 2015.

In July 2015, the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation against left-oriented pro-Kurdish HDP for allegedly supporting PKK’s terrorism, and President Erdogan declared that ‘the peace process’ was terminated. Beginning in August, the armed conflict between the PKK and the constabulary forces has begun to escalate with the loss of tens of civilians and combatants, and practices of martial law have been implemented in particular towns in south-eastern Turkey.

In the meantime, protests against the PKK’s terrorism turned into acts of vandalism against the opposing political parties and newspapers while shouting takbir (‘Allah is the greatest’). Although Davutoglu assured that the interim election government would prevent fratricide, he did not publicly discuss what the peace process exactly consisted of and why it was terminated, and he failed to delegitimise the political use of religion. Indeed, neither the AKP government nor the political opposition were criticised for their inability and unwillingness to prevent the political use of religion, and thus the rise of political Islam, by underestimating the importance of secularism.

In the face of the rise of radical political Islam and conflicts alongside ethnic and sectarian cleavages in semi-peripheral and peripheral countries of the global capitalist system, Turkey should understand the importance of secularism for addressing security issues and preserving fundamental human rights and freedoms. Marx once said that the critique of religion was ‘the prerequisite of every critique’, necessary to dismantle social domination.[5]

Any ideological movement which calls for the superiority of religion over the worldly sphere cannot be reconciled with democratic principles, particularly fundamental human rights and freedoms, since it aims to politically use religion as a tool for power.

In the era of neoliberalism security issues, as well as both authoritarian political regimes and deficiencies of liberal democracy, can be overcome through a political agenda which accepts the primacy of secularism. Since Turkey remains a semi-peripheral country within the framework of the Bretton Woods system,[6] and since Turkey has a majority Muslim population, the quest for secularism is urgent. Only through secularism can Turkey solve its domestic security issues and respond to its regional security issues.

Gonenc Uysal is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where she focuses on the state discourse on secularism and its interaction with civil-military relations in Turkey.


[1] For the relationship between periphery/semi-periphery countries and the global capitalist system: Samir Amin, Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1976); Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007)

[2] For the relationship between political Islam and capitalism: Samir Amin, Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion, and Democracy: A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism. (R. Moore and J. Membrez, Trans.) (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009)

[3] For the paradoxical relationship between liberal democracy and capitalism: Ellen M. Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). For neoliberalism: David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

[4] For a comprehensive summary on rebel groups in Syria: Fehim Tastekin, “Egit-Donat: Bir Batak Hikaye Daha”, Radikal, October 10, 2014, accessed http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/fehim_tastekin/egit_donat_bir_batak_hikaye_daha-1217979

[5] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’. (A. Jolin and J. O’Malley, Trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p.131

[6] For the semi-peripheral place of Turkey in the global capitalist system: Nesecan Balkan and Sungur Savran, The Ravages of Neo-Liberalism: Economy, Society and Gender in Turkey. Eds. (New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2002)

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