Turkey: Stop Worrying and Just Learn to Love ISIS

E. BARIS ALTINTAS — From International Boulevard
Photo taken from International Boulevard, which originally published this piece.
Photo taken from International Boulevard, which originally published this piece.

Thirty-nine people were massacred for celebrating the New Year at a nightclub in Istanbul in an attack which has since claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS). In response, the Turkish government imprisoned a secular fashion designer — after allowing airport workers to beat him first- for expressing his emotional distress over the shooting in a video.

That the Islamic State would eventually turn its sights on Turkey seemed predictable to many. “If a democratically-elected dictator wants to act as a conduit in a neighbour’s civil war, what does he expect but massacres in his own major cities?”, Robert Fisk recently asked in the Independent. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has not only been lenient towards ISIS activities inside Turkey, but it also allegedly sent weapons to jihadi groups in Syria, not excluding the Islamic State. The country has also chosen to bomb Kurds, who are fighting ISIS in Syria.

Toll of terror

1796 people have died between June 7, 2015 and Dec. 13, 2016 according to statistics shared by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in terrorist attacks. At least eight of the attacks in Turkey that have taken place since 2015 were perpetrated by ISIS. All of them have targeted minority groups — such as Kurds and Alevis –, foreigners or secular segments. In operations carried out in Syria against the group by the Turkish military, 45 soldiers have been killed; a figure that does not include two soldiers who were shown being burned to death in an unverified video released by ISIS.

Yet, the government and its propaganda-machine seem to be confused about what to make of the threat. Government loyalists on Twitter, who are allegedly paid out of state funds—they’ve been nicknamed AK Trolls – very nearly applauded the massacre, which had followed a week of sermons and other exhortations condemning celebrations of the New Year by the country’s powerful Directorate General for Religious Affairs and government representatives. Polarization has always paid off well for the country’s strongman leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and violence is no reason to give up such a valuable treasure for a man who recently survived a coup attempt.

Although the Turkish government now seems to be changing course in its initially anti-Assad and Sunni-oriented foreign policy, its timidity in speaking against ISIS still remains in place. In fact, government members as well as AKP deputies have, on many occasions, expressed sympathy with ISIS in the past. Earlier, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the main ideologue behind the AKP government’s initial Syrian policy — who’s since been sacked by the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — in 2014 said of ISIS, “This structure that we call ISIS might be viewed as a radical, terror structure. But there are Turks, Arabs and Kurds among those who join [IS]. The structure [in Iraq], previous grievances and anger have produced a widespread reaction across a large range.” AKP deputy Orhan Miroğlu once stated in televised remarks that “ISIS is not a terrorist organization.”

Let them go

The Turkish Ministry of Interior Affairs recently announced that 1313 people were arrested in 2016 over suspected ISIS links. This number also includes individuals who are no longer in prison; and therefore highly misleading.  According to academic Efe Kerem Sözeri, who examined the figures cited in responses given by the Justice Ministry to parliamentary queries on ISIS, there were only 121 ISIS suspects under arrest pending trial and two others who were convicted on terror charges in August 2015. One year later, as of July 2016, there were 513 ISIS suspects in prison while the number of ISIS suspects serving a sentence was seven. According to Sözeri, half of those currently in prison are foreign nationals, and most of the seven suspects have been convicted on theft charges.

Blame the opposition, or worse

Although the Turkish judiciary seems to be extremely lenient towards ISIS militants, the situation is markedly different in its treatment of civil society, independent journalism and individual freedoms. Currently, 146 journalists and media workers are in prison. In March 2016, there were 1845 ongoing investigations on charges of “insulting the president of the Republic of Turkey.” Although there are no current numbers, dozens are believed to have been arrested on presidential insult charges.

In other words, ISIS seems to be tolerated for now as it has so far attacked mostly Kurds, Alevis and in New Year’s, secular segments. However, the AKP, hoping to mobilize its own voter base, which has a segment sympathetic to ISIS’ ideology, will unlikely be free from ISIS violence forever. For one, there is history. Sezin Öney, a columnist, in a piece about the recent history of Bangladesh warned: “[Religious fundamentalist] attacks in Bangladesh first started only by targeting segments considered “marginal,” and today, anyone who’s not a member or supporter of these organizations, including those in power, have become a target.

There are believed to be more than 2000 militants from Turkey among ISIS’ ranks. It is well known that ISIS has active recruitment centers in Turkey, including the Turkish capital. The group can even freely sell merchandise in Istanbul and has held mass prayers in the city. Turkish police, known for its harsh response to anti-government protests, hasn’t detained a single person in pro-ISIS events.

Theologian and writer İhsan Eliaçık in a recent interview said of the Reina attack: “The provocations [against celebrating the new year]prior to the [attack], and that an entertainment venue was chosen on new year’s eve, serve to give the message that ‘Turkey is no longer the old Turkey; the religious segment will bring all others to their knees.’ Now the massacre is being investigated in terms of ISIS links, but questions also need to be asked about those who spread the propaganda that ‘celebrating the new year is blasphemy’.”

These and similar statements from the secular segments of Turkey aren’t only fact-based analyses proven by political history, but they are also a desperate attempt at self-protection. The government’s attitude indicates that it doesn’t care about its secular, Kurdish or Alevi citizens dying. At least, that is the general feeling among the opposition in Turkey — which is half the country. Beyond the grimness of living in such turbulent times for millions of people; there is the certainty that the AKP will eventually come to regret its policies.

Baris Altintas

This article was published on 09 Jan 2017 on International Boulevard. 

Rule of Law in Turkey Becomes Rule by Decree and Denunciation

After the failed coup attempt of July 15, Turkey increasingly looks like a dystopian state; suspects have already died in prison and most of the country’s independent media, including a Kurdish-language TV network for children, have been shut down.

The government’s initial response to the coup attempt was to declare a State of Emergency on July 20, which authorities said would help with the investigation. The government has accused a movement led by the religious cleric Fethullah Gülen to be behind the failed coup. However, many now voice concerns that the State of Emergency has turned into a witch-hunt against all critics of the country’s powerful President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

More than 32,000 people have been arrested under State of Emergency according to government statistics. Over 70,000 people have been taken into custody as part of the investigation. According to data from the pro-government Sabah daily, 22,305 of those released were let go on probation, meaning they can’t travel abroad and they are required to check in with their local police station at regular intervals. More than 100,000 officials, including members of the judiciary, the police force and even school teachers, have been suspended or dismissed, and now there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to Turkey’s post-coup purge.

Most of the arrests allegedly take place in the absence of evidence against the suspects. For example, Mehmet Altan, a professor who was arrested for appearing on a television program affiliated with the Gülen movement, was told by a court that “he must have known about the coup given his level of education and social status” in the official ruling explaining the rationale for his arrest.

At least 74,000 passports have been cancelled under Cabinet Decrees, including those held by the family members of those suspected of involvement in the coup; now legal under Turkey’s State of Emergency rule. Some family suspects have also claimed that their families were held as hostages being told openly by police that they will be released if the real suspect surrenders.

126 journalists and writers are currently in prison; excluding those who are being kept in detention centers awaiting an arraignment to decide their fate. Under State of Emergency, the initial detention period before a suspect is released or charged was extended to 30 days from 48 hours. No contact with lawyers is allowed in the first five days of this period, raising concern about maltreatment and torture. There have been reports of people being kept up to 28 days in detention centers without being charged.

These concerns have already some sound basis: A teacher who was arrested in the coup probe was found dead in his cell; with authorities blaming the death on a heart attack. A prosecutor arrested in the coup probe was found to have killed himself, although his family says he would never end his own life as a devout Muslim. Allegations of maltreatment and torture are rampant, and head of the Prisons Subcommittee of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission Mehmet Metiner’s recent statement that “Military law is in place for the coup plotters; I will blow their heads off,” offers no indication that the rest of the world can rest assured about humane treatment of those under arrest.

State of Emergency powers are increasingly used to silence any opposition. State of Emergency regulations are used extensively outside the coup probe to persecute Kurds, leftists and Alevis; a religious minority in Turkey. In early October, the government shut down 24 television and radio stations that represented left-wing, Kurdish or Alevi segments. Many writers, including celebrated author Aslı Erdoğan, from the Kurdish press have been imprisoned since the start of State of Emergency rule.

Many websites have also been shut down under Turkey’s State of Emergency. Most recently, Turkish authorities blocked access to Google Drive and similar services where hundreds of thousands of people store their data, in response to a scandal in which the gmail account of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s Energy Minister and also President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, was hacked.

Anti-government protests are also not allowed. The government has issued a ban on any commemorative activity to be organized in the capitat to remember the victims of the Oct. 10, 2015 suicide bombing by the Islamic State that left 100 people dead on the first anniversary of the massacre. Twenty-nine protesters were detained in Bursa province on Oct. 9 in an event organized to commemorate the victims of that attack.

Dozens of teachers who belong to the left-wing union Eğitim-Sen have also been dismissed. Seven of them were put under arrest in early October on terror-related charges.

With the State of Emergency being prolonged for at least another three months and state officials adamantly stating that more arrests will be made in the following months, the darkest days for the opposition in the authoritarian country might yet still be ahead.

Evin Baris Altintas

11 Oct 2016

Turkey’s post coup coverage: “It’s the Gülenists!”

1980, Amnesty International campaign poster about human rights in Turkey.
1980, Amnesty International campaign poster about human rights in Turkey.
A month after the Turkish army failed to overthrow the country’s democratically elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an enormous and unprecedented witch-hunt against all potential dissenters is overrunning the country. A general atmosphere of hysteria has seized the Turkish press where most recently accounts of shady secret witnesses -called “confessionists”- are flourishing.

In the past month since the coup attempt of July 15 against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by a massive crackdown on individuals believed to be affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, the US based Muslim cleric whom Turkey accuses of having masterminded the coup, as well as on the country’s Kurds and left-wing groups, pro-government newspapers and television stations mostly ignored ongoing concerns about fair trials and rights violations, but rather fixed their focus on the alleged role of the US in the coup.

A major theme in post-coup coverage is extensive testimony delivered by former followers of Gülen who have turned into informants (called “confessionists” in Turkish) as well as testimony by some of the suspects in the coup investigation. The ex-Gülenist informants along with government-aligned strategy experts, were given maximum air time sharing sometimes what seems to be very dubious information about the Fethullah Gülen organization, such as Sabah suggesting it is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Pro-government newspapers and visual media also shared testimony from “secret witnesses” delivered during the investigation into the July 15 coup attempt, although an İzmir court ruled for a partial gag order on broadcasting and printing testimony from the investigation, even on social media.

But Turkey’s nascent and refreshingly promising alternative media — mostly online news sites and Twitter accounts — have been more cautious and critical of the aftermath of Turkey’s darkest night. The details of Turkey’s widening purge in both public and private institutions were captured in great detail by alternative media, as in Diken‘s reporting on detention warrants being issued for all businessmen who joined a standing ovation after listening to a speech by the former head of the Gülen-affiliated businessmen’s group TUSKON.

These alternative media channels have also been crucial in keeping record of ongoing rights violations, the possibility of the post-coup investigation turning into a witch-hunt and attempts to keep full records on detentions, arrests or incidents of removals from office. The only columns and opinion pieces critical of the government’s post-coup practices also came from these websites.

For example, Diken writer Levent Gültekin in an article sarcastically titled “Should we hang Gülenists or put them in gas chambers?” wrote that he had always been critical of the Gülen Movement, even at a time when its former allies — the AKP government — didn’t let anyone voice any criticism against the movement. Gültekin said he had no idea that movement was potentially as dangerous as it has proved itself to be, and asked one question addressed to the Turkish Government, “I don’t understand what the government is trying to do. Really, are you aware of what you are doing? We have a humongous problem dragging the country into ruins. But you [the government]are committing such vulgar deeds, completely devoid of justice and conscience; everything you do is working to turn the problem into a gangrene, rather than solving it. People have spouses, uncles, aunts who have links to the [Gulen] Movement in one form or another. Looking at this this way, we are talking about millions of individuals. By demonizing those people who have somehow believed and followed the Movement, by condemning them to starvation and poverty and creating even larger wounds in society, where do you think will you lead us?”

The  columnist Murat Belge, in a T24 article about the practice of removing civilian office holders or confiscating their property under decrees having the force of law, sanctioned under Turkey’s State of Emergency rules. “Please explain, how can one remove a civil servant from office based on a black list? “ Belge wrote that the policy of “sorting out” the suspects is a grave mistake, which has resulted in the removal of tens of thousands of public servants, military officers, tens of thousands of civilians, and the closure of thousands of associations, student dormitories, hospitals, schools and other facilities. He further wrote, “Initially, you should have found at most 100 people [responsible for the coup attempt], and if further action was needed, this could have been done by court orders. The others would be tied to those 100 people. I think currently hundreds of thousands are being accused [of involvement in the coup], and as such, you are fighting the entire nation!”

These websites have been the only channels where comments and opinions from opposition politicians, including the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — Turkey’s only Kurdish party in Parliament which has been excluded from Turkey’s post-coup detenté between the government and oppositions — were given voice.

Online website Diken has been trying to keep track of all the detentions, arrests and purges under the heading “The Coup Attempt,” Jiyan and Evrensel have been reporting extensively on detentions and arrests of journalists. Kurdish newspapers, TV stations and news agencies which have also been targets of Turkey’s State of Emergency with dozens of Kurdish reporters detained, the Kurdish newspaper Gundem shuttered, and some Kurdish journalists arrested since the declaration of the State of Emergency on July 20, have also been running reports about rights violations committed under state of emergency.

Evin Baris Altintas

Originally appeared on International Boulevard – with the headline “Gülenists are everywhere!” URL http://www.internationalboulevard.com/gulenists-are-everywhere/  Aug. 22, 2016