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. 

Paranoia in the new Turkey

People – who run the risk of being thrown into prison any time on charges of trying to undermine our government – often say that our Supreme Leader has a lot of fear.

According to this, our Supreme Leader’s only motivation now, is fear. He is doing all that he does out of fear. For example, he is going after the academics who signed a peace declaration condemning atrocities perpetrated by the Turkish state in the southeast, because he is too fearful.

He is paranoid that even the most valued aide might one day turn against him. He is playing in his mind constantly a replay of the impending act of betrayal that might come from anyone at any time. All the sycophants and yes-men surrounding him, his slavish advisers, obedient deputies, servile bureaucrats, his businessmen cronies, even the closest members of his family…their unquestioning obedience..all these mean nothing to him. People say our Supreme Leader is being consumed by the paranoia that his Empire might collapse because of one traitor; that he is losing sleep at night fearing that just one man or woman can bring all of this down.

The same people claim his fears are not unfounded. Levent Gültekin, for example, recently wrote in an article he penned for the Turkish-language alternative news-site Diken that he knew that Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies tend to talk very differently behind closed doors than they do publicly. They are worried, deeply.

Gültekin appealed to AKP deputies to stop offering endless support to Turkey’s all-powerful leader:

I know what you think about where the country is headed; I know what words you speak behind closed doors; even if our people don’t.

When you are in the company of friends, you speak about the kind of disaster the country is being dragged into. You tell your close friends and family that ‘you can’t get any sleep at night.’”

But do they really? How does he know? If all this is true, then why are AKP deputies going on living this lie?

In the new Turkey, paranoia and fear are certainly not reserved for the mighty alone.. Understandably, critics have reasons to fear, such as potentially being locked behind bars, loss of jobs, lack of financial security..etc. But the new atmosphere is breeding a thick aura of distrust between ordinary people as well.

There are many questions, and not good ones, that we are compelled to ask daily.

If AKP deputies know that Turkey is being dragged into hell, then why are they doing this? Do the voters, AKP voters specifically, also know?

People speak of their conversations with pro-AKP cab drivers. Do these AKP supporters really mean what they say, or are they like the AKP deputies? “Now it is the people who are in power. This is why you don’t like the new regime,” they say. But do they believe it?

They are shutting down websites, cutting access, and more importantly, they are actually erasing things from the Internet, by force or by other means. They call this “on-line reputation management.” Could it possibly work? Do things just evaporate from people’s memories as well? Do people really not remember? Will they be able to destroy digital evidence of the voice recordings as well? Can reality really be this Orwellian; this convenient for power holders? Has it always been that way?

Surely, the boot-licking pro-government media; their columnists, since they are the ones who doctor most of the government’s policies to look good in newsbulletins printed on glossy paper, also know what’s going on. They must. We have an idea of how much they are paid.

It is impossible to guess who might be a government supporter in any public setting; and sadly now it is good to know. They are taking people away from their homes in the middle of the night for “insulting the president,” just for sharing a tweet. Can anyone on your Facebook friend list be a government snitch? Could something you share or say be used against you in a court one day?

When there is a fight on a public transportation vehicle, when somebody says something, it is hard to discern what they mean. Are they really talking about giving up that seat? Do they mean something else; something more political, a disguised show of ‘being on the side of the government’? If they are on the side of the new regime, do they really believe everything they are told, or are they just “faking it” like the AKP deputies?

A woman called into a very popular live show, the kind the dreamy masses like, to tell what’s going on in the Southeast; begged people to wake up. “Children shouldn’t die,” she said. The host agreed, on air. Later he had to apologize. Did all that really happen? Doesn’t everyone know what’s really going on? Prosecutors are now going after both the caller and the show host. Don’t they know how unreal all this is?

At the hairdresser.. Is the manicure girl one of them, or is she one of us? Surely, she can’t be not bothered by all of this. She said “I really like Germany.” What does that mean? Does she want to leave the country? She can’t be happy. Or is it a bait?

Who is a true believer? Who is a fake? Does it really matter if they all say the same thing? Would the true believers turn if the others spoke up one day? Is that Erdoğan’s worst fear?

Could it be that at least some of the voters, the sycophants, the Erdoğan-lovers really believe any of the egregiously obvious lies blaring from the TV? Of course not, it can’t be. They all have something in for them. Then so, why are we living in this manufactured bubble of never-ending government propaganda? Who is it for? If people know and still support the AKP, do we really need it?

Do they know something we don’t?

What could it be?