Terror Continues in Polarized Turkey
Turkey has experienced numerous terror attacks in 2016. The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), which is a splinter group within PKK, separately conducted 29 terror attacks that have killed 377 people and wounded 1,648. Like the rest of the world, Turks were celebrating the end of 2016, in hopes that 2017 would be better. But optimism quickly faded during the first hours of the New Year when an ISIL-affiliated terrorist attacked a high-end nightclub on the Bosphorus killing 39 Turkish citizens and foreign visitors and wounding 65 others.
This attack can be viewed as the continuation of a trend that has been ongoing since the summer of 2015. However, this was the first major terrorist attack in Turkey that targeted a lifestyle. Celebrating the New Year has become a controversial activity in Turkey. Some conservative Muslims in the country confuse the New Year holiday with Christmas and argue that it is a blasphemy for Muslims to celebrate. This year, the Turkish government seemed to make this case as well through the Presidency of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of National Education. Through social media and on billboards, others went so far as to threaten violence against those who dare celebrate the New Year.
This has deepened the divide among Turkish citizens. ISIL aims to capitalize on this polarization of Turkish society, and to drive a wedge between secular and conservative Turks with the ultimate aim of creating a power base among the conservative segments of the society. The intolerance to New Year’s celebrations is exactly the type of circumstance that ISIL seeks to exploit, and indeed the group seized this opportunity.
Most Turks will dismiss the threat of ISIL building a power base in Turkey, claiming that the Turkish interpretation of Islam is immune to radical intoxication and that the Presidency of Religious Affairs of Turkey (Diyanet) shields Turks from the Salafi ideology. However, the Turkish interpretation of Islam and the teachings of Diyanet have not been enough to prevent more than a thousand Turks from joining ISIL in Syria or enough to stop ISIL from creating cells across Turkey that are capable of carrying out highly sophisticated terrorist attacks. A survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in June 2015 found out that 6.6 percent of Turks do not see ISIL as a terrorist organization and that 15.6 percent believe that ISIL does not pose a threat to Turkey. In October 2015, football fans during a match in the Central Anatolian province of Konya refused to observe a moment of silence for the victims of the October 10 Ankara Massacre conducted by ISIL. The moment of silence was broken by whistles and jeers.
There is a tendency to ignore these ISIL sympathizers as a marginal group, but this kind of complacency is dangerous. Recognizing this, Turkish officials, including President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, and Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, criticized those who celebrated the massacre on New Year’s Eve and called on all citizens to respect different lifestyles.
Awareness is growing in Turkey of the threat posed by such polarization and radicalization in the country, but there is no roadmap yet on how to mitigate these trends. Such a plan should include a review of the education system, messages given by public and private broadcasters, the language used by media, and last but not the least, the language used by political leaders.
There is no magic wand or easy solution to terrorism anywhere in the world, and certainly not in Turkey, which is uncomfortably situated in the middle of several conflict zones. Turkey has a 911 kilometer long border with Syria and hosts three million Syrian refugees. The decades-long PKK insurgency, and Turkey’s response to it, has alienated and radicalized millions of Kurdish citizens. This is particularly true for younger generations, who have no memories from the days before the conflict started. It is also not a secret that there are several governments in the region who have stakes in a destabilized and weakened Turkey.
Despite these difficulties it would be unfair to underestimate Turkey’s counterterrorism capacity. The high frequency of terrorist attacks in Turkey is more a reflection of the magnitude of the threat it is facing than a lack of capacity. In fact, Turkish security forces prevent terrorist attacks on a daily basis without the general public taking notice.
Even so, the current level of terrorism in Turkey is alarming. The stakes are high not only for Turkey but also for the transatlantic community, as an unstable Turkey is a liability for allies. Everyone needs to do their part. The United States should not treat Turkey's security situation as a secondary issue in its policy toward the region, and should actively support Turkey’s fight against terrorist organizations. EU member states should crack down on the PKK presence in their countries in response to the group’s increasing violence. The Turkish government should aid allies in their support by making efforts to reduce polarization in the country, and should move away from the combative, majoritarian approach to governance toward a conciliatory, pluralistic one. Radicalization should be taken more seriously, the political sphere should be kept open to the Kurdish political movement, and every attempt should be made to correct the democratic backslide that has taken place in recent years.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.