My first memory of that Saturday morning was being woken up by a woman’s guttural screams. Against a backdrop hum of the urban city, its dissonance was chilling. Sitting among Istanbul’s tea drinkers, typing and sipping in mutual harmony at one of the city’s numerous cay houses, I am still unaware of the real cause of such cries, yet it remains a mental soundtrack of sinister suitability to what had just occurred.
amidst the news bulletins, the political accusations, the official warnings, is it simply terrorism which creates this culture of fear?
I can see Taksim, the touristic area shaken by Turkey’s 12th bombing of the year on Saturday 19 March, from my bedroom window. I’d been on Istiklal Street a few hours before five people lost their lives, as had many others, making the weekend pilgrimage to Istanbul’s clubbing district. This helps explain why, even though our neighbourhood of Kadikoy stands in another continent to where the blast occurred (we are on the Asian side of the Bosporus), a sense of unease still proliferates. Doubtless these acts of terror have an internal effect too: on the streets, the earnest brows of the bread-selling simitci, the old men huddled in conversation on side roads; all of these potentially harmless routines of daily life assume the symbolism of a city on edge. And yet a question remains unanswered: amidst the news bulletins, the political accusations, the official warnings, is it simply terrorism which creates this culture of fear?
The fundamental change of Turkish society in the past five to ten years is a theme many Turks have related, nostalgically, to me. Their eulogies are not baseless, either: its secularism, its apparent release from the troubled past of civil war and military coups, its economic prosperity were the basis for observers the world over to laud the “Turkish model”. To point to the near-insurrectory 2013 Gezi protests as the beginning of this ideal’s erosion is popular, but simplistic. In truth, the seeds were planted long before.
In 2012, Turkey ranked third on the OECD inequality scale, despite having the fastest growing economy in Europe. The Justice and Development Party, in power since 2002 and led by the Machiavellian duo of Recep Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu, have initiated a clampdown on opposition voices that has led to their government consistently ranking in the top three for global journalist imprisonment statistics. Meanwhile, attacks on democracy and secularism (the 2012 education reforms sought to create what Erdogan called “a pious generation”) were key contributors to the Gezi protests which brought over three million people onto the streets.
The number one nation for journalist imprisonment in 2012 has taken media censorship to dizzying new heights. Recently, the major opposition newspaper, Zaman, had its offices tear gassed and taken under government control, while in the second half of 2015, Turkey blocked more Twitter content than any other country. The reach of Erdogan’s repression has likewise expanded: after the January bombing in Istanbul, academics who had signed a petition supporting the Kurdish struggle were denounced as spreading “terrorist propaganda”, and many lost their jobs.
The tensions with the Kurds, previously showing signs of abating, have surged to new heights. Sudden renewal of conflict with the PKK broke out in July amidst Ankara’s unease regarding Kurdish victories in Northern Syria, coupled with imminent elections in which the new Kurdish party, HDP, looked to be preventing the JDP’s much coveted majority. Violence was not merely meted out to PKK militants; the brutal oppression HDP activists suffered – offices looted, rallies violently broken up, alleged assassination attempts – prevented them campaigning in the November elections for security reasons.
Behind Turkey’s culture of fear, this is the true context: a government which has reignited political tensions and abraded accountability and transparency, leaving citizens in the dark to their country’s political reality. The bombings have catalysed this process. Perfectly conforming to the political procedure Naomi Klein terms “shock therapy”, rapid policy measures have been pursued in the wake of attacks that left the population in stasis.
Behind Turkey’s culture of fear, this is the true context: a government which has reignited political tensions and abraded accountability and transparency
The government followed up February’s Ankara bombings with coordinated attacks on Kurdish YPG forces in Northern Syria, Davutoglu publically criticising America’s support of the “terrorist” group – this, despite YPG denial of involvement. The government chose the aftermath of Istanbul’s January bombing to coordinate their attack on pro-Kurdish academics, while last year’s attack in Ankara, Turkey’s biggest ever terrorist attack, was effectively utilised by Erdogan to present an image of himself as state protector: an image which convinced enough Turks to give him an unexpected majority in the proceeding election.
Yet as the bodies are carried off and the rubble rearranged, many people are drawing another, more extreme conclusion. In the wake of the first Ankara attacks, tens of thousands of Turks convened in major cities chanting “Katil Devlet”: the state is the killer. Such accusations are easily dismissed as conspiratorial hyperbole, but are not without historical precedence.
In 1962, President Kennedy was approached by American security services requesting permission to carry out false flag attacks on American citizens, laying the blame on Cuban terrorists as a means of whipping up public support for military action against the South American nation. These requests – blocked by Kennedy – are not the superstitious suppositions of chat-room enthusiasts: a brief flick through the National Security Archives lays out Operation Northwoods’ proposals in detail. An even closer comparison can be drawn with the 1999 Russian apartment bombings: in that case, an authoritarian leader (Vladimir Putin) exploited the bombings to assert his Presidential authority, renewing an internal conflict (in Chechnya) whilst preventing a public investigation and violently suppressing those who opposed his narrative of events.
The similarities between these past events and Turkey’s current situation are striking, and while it would be impetuous to definitively assume government involvement, the opaqueness and unaccountability with which JDP have consistently acted throughout these attacks only serves to stoke the flames of the cynically minded. After the 2015 Ankara bombings, Davutoglu issued a statement blaming Islamic State, Kurdish forces or far-left militants. The opportunism was evident: blame all of our opponents, get the public on side. Fear is often brought on by confusion. Our fear of the dark lies in what we don’t know to be there. Our fear of death, humanity’s ultimate concern, is similarly rooted. In Turkey, confusion reigns, and in confusion, it is the despots who prosper.