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Don’t Blame Everything on Erdogan

Don’t Blame Everything on Erdogan

The Turkish government doesn’t have a soft spot for the Islamic State, and Ankara stands to lose more than anyone if the terrorist group makes a comeback.

Washington’s Turkey experts were left working overtime during the holidays when a routine conversation between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended with the announcement that the United States would immediately withdraw its troops from Syria and let Turkey take the helm in the fight against the Islamic State. Trump’s maneuver had raised worries that a premature withdrawal risks reversing the gains that have been made against the Islamic State.

Indeed, on Sunday, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, suggested that U.S. troops would be staying put until the Islamic State was defeated and Washington’s Kurdish allies were protected, prompting a furious response by Erdogan in a speech to the Turkish parliament and a defiant op-ed under his byline in the New York Times vowing to defeat the United States’ Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey rightly regards as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. To make his anger clear, Erdogan refused a meeting with Bolton when the U.S. official passed through the country on Tuesday after a trip to Israel.

Despite Bolton’s recent attempt to roll back Trump’s withdrawal plan, it seems likely that the United States will be pulling out some of its troops soon. Pundits and policymakers in Washington are nervous that Turkey cannot (or will not) fill the gap. At the root of these fears is Washington’s firmly held distrust of Erdogan, who has no one but himself to blame for his infamy. While there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether Turkey would do enough to counter Iranian influence or if it could effectively push back against Russia, the most common worry is that Erdogan has sympathies for the jihadis or that he might turn a blind eye to them while cracking down on America’s Kurdish allies, who have helped U.S. forces beat back the Islamic State.

Even in the pages of Foreign Policy, top-notch scholars such as Steven A. Cook have fallen for some of these fantasies. Other contributors, such as Ahmet S. Yayla, who, as a chief of Turkey’s counterterrorism police, had a hand in turning the country into Erdogan’s panopticon and seemed to have no qualms about his policies then, are today alleging that Erdogan can’t be a reliable ally, after having come under fire themselves. But these concerns betray a lack of understanding about Erdogan’s true intentions.

The notion that Erdogan is ideologically sympathetic to the Islamic States reveals an ignorance of Turkey’s domestic politics.

The notion that Erdogan is ideologically sympathetic to the Islamic States reveals an ignorance of Turkey’s domestic politics.

 Religious orders, also known as tariqas, play a critical role in Erdogan’s governing coalition. Like their counterparts in other faiths, these groups have hundreds of thousands of members, control billions of dollars, and exert immense influence over political life. They enjoy a global presence, with franchises all around the Muslim world, and live by their specific codes, rituals, and prayers. Most tariqas are named after saints—Qadiriyya after Abdul Qadir Gilani, Naqshbandiyya after Baha-ud-din Naqshbandi Bukhari, Khalwatiyya after Omar al-Khalwati—who are believed to be chosen by God, endowed with divine favor, and capable of miracles. The faithful pray to them for intercession, and their tombs and shrines are considered places of worship.

In contrast, Wahhabi Salafism, which inspires the Islamic State, is a puritanical creed, and it considers such rituals idolatrous. Indeed, Islamic State militants have relentlessly targeted the tariqas in the territory they control, executing dozens of sheiks, many of whom were popular in Turkey, and demolishing sites such as the tomb of Jonah in Mosul and the shrine of Uwais al-Qarni in Raqqa, which many tariqas, including those in Turkey, consider sacred.

Consequently, Turkish tariqas are deeply hostile to the Islamic State. The rhetoric of the popular televangelist Ahmet Mahmut Unlu, a Naqshbandi sheik whose viewership is in the millions, is one example. He is no religious moderate, yet he has been unsparing in his stance against the Islamic State, even going as far as issuing a fatwa declaring that “those who kill [the Islamic State militants] and those who are killed by them are martyrs and will be eternally blessed as such.” Indeed, these clerics drew such ire from the Islamic State that the group, through its magazine, Rumiyah, threatened them with murder.

Erdogan’s personal faith has roots in these tariqas, and his political interests depend on their continued support.

Erdogan’s personal faith has roots in these tariqas, and his political interests depend on their continued support.

 Hence, he does not have much sympathy for the Islamic State. The militants understand this well and have called for jihad against Erdogan, whom the group considers a “taghut,” or tyrant.

But even if Erdogan has no sympathies for the Islamic State, this is no solace for those who fear that he will turn his attention to the Islamic State only once he disposes of the YPG, a move that critics argue risks paving the way for the terrorists’ comeback through negligence if not malfeasance.

These claims do not pass muster either. Few countries face as potent a threat from the Islamic State as Turkey does. The country suffered some of the group’s deadliest attacks, targeting opposition rallies, as well as Istanbul’s tourist hot spots, its international airport, and one of its most popular nightclubs. These attacks not only hurt the economy—reducing tourism revenues by more than one-third—but they also broke Turkey’s fragile peace, halting the ongoing talks with the PKK and renewing violence in the country’s Kurdish-populated southeast. It makes little sense to argue that Ankara would turn a blind eye to the Islamic State when it stands to lose more than anyone if the terrorist group recovers its former strength.

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