An unintended and unforeseen consequence of the Arab uprisings in and after 2010/2011 has been the rise of violent Islamist groups as formidable forces in Middle Eastern states that descend into vicious civil wars. These groups do not only establish control over sizeable territories but also manage to attract Muslim foreign fighters including a large number of Turkish citizens. This report discusses the impacts of these regional developments on Turkey with a focus on the evolution of violent forms of Islamist activism. A growing number of Turkish citizens have joined the Syrian opposition since 2012. This ominous development is likely to have crucial repercussions for the future of democracy and social peace in Turkey. I identify three factors contributing to the limited but notable appeal of armed struggle among Islamists in Turkey: a) widespread moral outrage in the face of continuing carnage in Syria, b) increasing prestige of Salafi jihadist movements that fight on behalf of Sunni Muslims, and c) foreign policy choices and domestic policy priorities of the ruling AKP that provide an opening for Salafi Jihadist mobilization. This report aims to advance public debate on the subject that deserves systematic attention and policies that would contain Salafi Jihadism in Turkey.
Until recently, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AK Parti) successfully cultivated a new image of Turkey as a country where pious Muslims politicians achieved sustainable economic growth and democratic reforms, undertook initiatives to end a decades-old ethnic insurgency, and pursued an ambitious foreign policy. The initial euphoria characterizing the Arab uprisings bolstered the AKP’s attempts to export its model of Muslim governance to the Middle Eastern countries where ossified dictatorships were no longer able to contain popular demands. However, this euphoria proved short-lived, as the uprisings failed to achieve pluralistic and competitive political regimes with the exception of Tunisia. In some countries, such as Egypt, popular fears of instability and polarization prevailed over the desire for political change; authoritarian backlash overwhelmed grassroots activism. In other countries, such as Syria, insurgencies containing powerful radical Islamist groups thrived. Under these regional conditions, Turkey was hard pressed to find natural allies committed to democratic rule and had to enter into tacit alliances with violent actors to pursue its geopolitical goals. These foreign policy choices have had negative implications for societal peace and democratic pluralism in Turkey.