Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent statements that his country is united by "one religion" have caused quite a stir, drawing criticism both inside and outside Turkey. Erdogan made the comment in reference to the Kurdish issue in two recent speeches, saying what he advocates for is "one nation, one state, one flag and one religion." (A classic nationalist refrain heard in Turkey, mostly meant as a rebuke to Kurds, is that the country has "one flag, one nation, one language.")
Facing mounting criticism of Erdogan's remarks, Huseyin Celik, a deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said they were a "slip of the tongue":
Çelik suggested that Erdoğan might have intended to emphasize the common religion of Islam that Turks and Kurds share, in the face of “attempts by Turkish and Kurdish chauvinists to trace their origins to Shamanism and Zoroastrianism.” The prime minister “may have meant to say that a common faith is one of the main reasons that no ethnic strife has erupted in this country despite all the efforts of Turkish and Kurdish chauvinists,” he said.
Even Erdogan, a proud politician not prone to admitting his own mistakes, said he slipped up, meaning to say "one homeland" rather than "one religion." In a column in yesterday's Today's Zaman, analyst Lale Kemal takes a look at why Erdogan's "slip of the tongue" struck such an off note:
The fact that Erdoğan made a highly discriminative remark regarding one religion came as a surprise since his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been the only governing party in recent Turkish history that has been following policies that address the problems of not only non-Muslims but also Alevis.
The government passed a law last year that paved the way for the return of properties of Christian and Jewish religious foundations that have been confiscated since 1936. Under the law, in cases where property belonging to such groups has been sold by the state to third parties, the religious foundation will be paid the market value of the property by the Ministry of Finance.
Similarly, the government got together with all Alevi groups in Turkey to address their problems, such as discriminative religious policies. For example, the Alevi community in Turkey, which is estimated to number between 10 to 20 million, seeks official recognition of their worship places, called cemevis, which are different than the mosques where Sunni Muslims pray.
But considering Erdogan's "one religion" remarks were made in the context of the Kurdish issue, his words, while disturbing, are not surprising. In March, discussing his government's plan to reinvigorate its stalled Kurdish initiative, Erdogan told a meeting of AKP officials this about Turks and Kurds: "No one can harm our fraternity. We are brothers in faith." Indeed, Erdogan's "one religion" remarks fits into what has been an AKP effort to defuse the Kurdish issue by stepping away from previous governments' effort to insist that Kurds are also Turks and emphasize instead that Islam is the glue that binds Kurds and Turks together. In response, the previously mostly secularist Kurdish political movement in Turkey has itself started using religion in its politicking, with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) joining forces last summer with a group of retired Kurdish imams to organize a boycott of state-run mosques. (You can read more about the Kurdish imams in this 2009 article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.)
Still, even if Erdogan's "one religion" speeches were really more about the Kurdish issue than anything else, they should not be dismissed as inconsequential rhetorical slips. Considering Turkey is in the process of drafting a new constitution, one that would hopefully place an emphasis on protecting individual and minority rights, Erdogan's recent comments -- as the "Ottomans and Zionists" blog points out -- raise some interesting questions about how the new constitution might deal with the sensitive issue of religious minorities. Their numbers may be small, but these historic communities are a living reminder that Turkey has long been a place that's been home to much more than just "one religion."