By Mustafa Akyol
September 25, 2014
Turkey's position on the Islamic State (IS) has become a bit clearer with the Sept. 23 declaration by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the government will join the fight against the group. Turkey had officially designated the organization a “terrorist” group in October 2013, but Ankara’s fixation on the Bashar al-Assad regime as the fundamental problem in Syria overshadowed concerns about IS. The IS raid on Turkey’s Mosul Consulate in June 2014 helped Ankara wake up to the threat, but it also tied its hands, because IS took 46 Turkish citizens hostage in the operation.
Now that the hostages have been released, Ankara feels a bit more comfortable taking a bolder stance against IS. Moreover, Turkish public opinion does not seem to be an obstacle to such a position. In a recent New York Times op-ed, I wrote, “The Islamic State is an abomination for … Turkish society — which, despite some illiberal tendencies, subscribes to a peaceful and pro-democratic understanding of Islam.” This stance was confirmed by Metropoll, a prominent polling organization that takes monthly surveys of “Turkey’s Pulse.” The survey published Sept. 24 concerns Turkish public opinion on IS. Based on interviews with a statistically representative 1,876 individuals in 28 provinces, the survey revealed an overwhelming distaste for IS in Turkish society. Here are some of the highlights of the polling:
• To the question “Do you sympathize with IS?” only 1.3% responded "yes." Among supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the number rose to only 2.2%. An overwhelming 93.6% of all those surveyed said “no,” while 5% were undecided
• When asked, “Do you think IS poses a threat to Turkey?” 59.3% answered “yes.” This figure was a bit lower among AKP voters, at 49.8%, but notably higher, 73.5%, among supporters of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). Only 11.6% believed that IS does not pose a threat to Turkey.
• When asked, “Do you approve an international military operation against IS?” 67.3% responded “yes.” However, when asked, “Should Turkey be a part of this military operation?” the number dropped to 52%. Apparently, a fair number of Turks prefer that other countries take on this risky job, instead of Turkey becoming directly involved.
• To the question “Do you think IS is a terrorist organization?” 79.8% said “yes.” Only 11.3% replied “no.” It is also notable that the perception of IS as a terrorist group was shared by 70.7% of those surveyed in June, when Metropoll first asked the question. IS violence throughout the summer, including the hostage crisis, seems to have strengthened the view of the group as “terrorist.”
• One of the more interesting questions was, “Do you think IS is organized within Turkey?” More than half of those surveyed, 52.6%, said “yes.” When examined along party lines, the gap between AKP and CHP voters was considerable. Only 37.1% of AKP supporters thought IS had a presence in Turkey, whereas 71.5% of CHP supporters believed it to be the case. The question “Do you think that al-Qaeda, [Jabhat] al-Nusra or IS might plan a terrorist attack inside Turkey?” elicited similar responses
In other words, almost all the survey results point to a nationwide distaste for IS, including voters for the “conservative,” that is, Islamist, AKP. That said, worries about the group’s threat to Turkey were a bit higher among supporters of the secularist CHP.
Meanwhile, backers of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) proved to be the most anti-IS camp. Among this group, support for Turkey taking part in international military operations against IS stood at 82.3%, in contrast with the 52% national average. This is perhaps understandable, because Turkey's Kurds are alarmed about the IS onslaught against their brethren in Iraq and Syria.
None of this means that there are no IS sympathizers in Turkey. Indeed, the survey found 1.3% of respondents to be sympathetic toward the group, which is not an insignificant number in a nation of 75 million people. There is probably slightly more sympathy for other (relatively more moderate) jihadist factions in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Hence, some recruitment for both IS and these other groups are likely taking place in Turkey. Of note, Umit Yasar Toprak, a Turkish citizen who had joined Jabhat al-Nusra, was killed Sept. 23 in Syria in an airstrike by US forces.
Yet, the fact remains that Jihadism is a marginal trend in Turkish society, and sympathy for jihadists — especially those such as IS, which has murdered and oppressed large numbers of innocent civilians, violating the classic rules of jihad — is minuscule. The overwhelming majority of Turks seem to agree with Mehmet Gormez, Turkey’s top cleric, who said, “[IS'] actions have no place in Islam.”
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyat Daily News, and a monthly contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.