Role of religion in clashes between the Islamic State and Turkey?

Day after day, the news keeps flooding into major media about the victories of the Islamic State and the long-range implications of this movement for the Middle East and surrounding regions. Like I said the other day, it's frustrating to try to keep track of it all.

But the coverage does seem to be improving, especially if your goal is to find clues as to the role religion is playing in this historic drama. Here at GetReligion, we continue to be interested in mainstream-news coverage of several fronts, especially the impact of ISIS rule on religious minorities, including Christians, and the violence that is rising between warring Islamic camps.

On that second issue, The Washington Post foreign desk just turned its attention to strife on the Turkish border in a solid news feature that ran under the headline, "In Turkey, a late crackdown on Islamist fighters."

Note the word "late" in that headline.

The key to the story is that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who once had neo-Ottoman dreams of this own in the region -- is suffering some blowback on his administration's decision to enthusiastically back all, repeat all, of the rebel opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now, as the Post team notes, it's hard to yank that "red carpet" that once was offered to Islamic State fighters in towns along the border.

The story does a find job of showing this in human terms:

In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
“Turkey welcomed anyone against Assad, and now they are killing, spreading their disease, and we are all paying the price,” said Tamer Apis, a politician in Reyhanli, where two massive car bombs killed 52 people last year. In a nearby city, Turkish authorities seized another car packed with explosives in June, raising fears of an Islamic State-inspired campaign to export sectarian strife to Turkey.
“It was not just us,” Apis said. “But this is a mess of Turkey’s making.”

The problem, once again, is the lack of specifics about the role of religion, specifically the forms of Islam advocated by Turkish leaders, as opposed to that offered by ISIS.

Yes, it's clear that the Islamic State represents the radical, literally bleeding edge of Islamist life and that it views Turkey as not radical, or Islamic enough. But what are the key issues, other than, as the story puts it, that ISIS tendency to stage "public crucifixions and the beheading of enemies"?

Readers who have followed events in Turkey know that Erdogan has been trying to swing this highly secularized land back toward his own vision of traditional Islam. This has worried some European Union leaders and others concerned about religious freedom in Turkey.

Thus, some big religious questions loom over this Post story: How many Muslims in Turkey are sympathetic to the Islamic State? What are the crucial doctrinal differences between the Islamist visions of ISIS and Erdogan? In other words, there is a new, stronger dream in the region when it comes to Islam and empire.

Yes, politics and guns are crucial. But what are the key doctrinal issues here? In this Post story, as usual, the main people talking about religion are the fighters on the ground and those caught in the crossfire.

This passage is crucial. Read carefully.

“It is not as easy to come into Turkey anymore,” Abu Yusaf, a 27-year-old senior security commander for the Islamic State, said in a recent interview conducted in the back seat of a moving white Honda in Reyhanli. “I myself had to go through smugglers to get here, but as you see, there are still ways and methods.”
Wearing a polo shirt and white baseball cap to blend in on the more secular streets of Turkey, Yusaf, the nom de guerre of the European-born fighter who joined the group 21 / 2 years ago, added: “We don’t believe in countries . . . breaking and destroying all borders is our aim. What matters are Islam and a Sunni reign.”
Asked about the United States’ role in the region, Yusaf said, “We don’t fear the U.S., we only fear God. We fight whoever are fighting us. If the U.S. hits us with flowers, we will hit them back with flowers. But if they hit us with fire, we will hit them back with fire, also inside their homeland. This will be the same with any other Western country.”

Stay tuned, to say the least. Where are religious refugees in Iraq and Syria supposed to flee if ISIS crushes the Kurds and has sympathetic allies on the Turkish border? Journalists need to ask that question early. Centuries of religious life and tradition hang in the balance.

IMAGE: A Turkish shirt in support of ISIS?

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