As simple and straightforward as this plea may seem, in the Gordian knot that is Turkish politics, it is the idea of “our” that is the toughest sticking point. Identity differences that lend to the richness of Turkey’s society but can also constitute sources of conflict – Turkish-Kurdish, Alevi-Sunni, pious-secular – have been polarized in recent years to the extent that being different is dangerous. For some.
The massacre in the heart of Turkey’s capital was the third terrorist attack in recent months targeting assemblies of Kurds, (non-Sunni) Alevis, leftists and other opposition activists. These are all groups that the Sunni Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has increasingly excluded from those it seeks to represent and, crucially, protect. A bomb attack at a rally for the Kurdish-based Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) just before the June parliamentary elections killed two and wounded over 100. In July, a suicide bomber with links to the Islamic State killed more than 30 activists in Suruc who were preparing to travel to and rebuild the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.
With a government that can keep tabs on whether unmarried men and women are living together and censure them for it, and that employs extremely strict, wide-sweeping security measures for pro-government rallies, many are now demanding to know how these attacks against Turkey’s citizens were able to take place on the government’s watch.
Security forces reportedly failed to act against some Islamic State-affiliated targets identified by Turkish intelligence prior to the Suruc bombing. Similarly, authorities believe the Ankara attack was carried out by the brother of the Suruc bomber, who was supposedly under surveillance, and a man whose father reported him to the police numerous times for a suspected Islamic State affiliation. Further, the heavy police presence that accompanies all rallies in Turkey was conspicuously absent on Saturday. According to eyewitnesses, police swarmed in only after the bombing, using the water cannons and tear gas they became infamous for during the 2013 Gezi Park protests to disperse those trying to aid the wounded, while also blocking ambulance access to the bomb site.
When a reporter asked whether the interior minister considered resigning based on security flaws, the justice minister seated next to him added insult to injury by smirking as though the question of responsibility was absurd. HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas made the gaping disparity in the provision of security for government supporters and their opposition as plain as can be: “We die. You don’t.”
The division of Turkey’s citizens into “us” and “them” categories – each worthy of security to a different degree – as expressed by Demirtaş reflects the not just the political, but also the societal polarization that has become pervasive under AKP rule. Throughout its history Turkey has experienced struggles along multiple identity lines such as those mentioned above; however, the violent attacks on journalists, activists, and others critical of the government demonstrate a visceral hatred observers fear may now rend the country apart. In a pro-AKP speech the day before the Ankara attacks, a well-known ultra-nationalist mob boss ominously declared that “barrels and barrels of blood will flow,” referring to Kurds.
Following a two-year détente in which the AKP initiated a Kurdish peace process and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) declared a ceasefire, anti-Kurdish sentiments have skyrocketed since the June 7 election in which the HDP surpassed the 10 percent electoral threshold to enter parliament. In the eyes of the AKP and its de facto leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this success robbed the party of the parliamentary majority it has benefited from for 12 years. Although the PKK broke the ceasefire first by killing two Turkish policemen as a reprisal against security forces it believed were complicit in the Suruc bombing, government forces launched an all-out campaign against PKK forces that has wreaked havoc on Kurdish civilians as well.
Erdogan has also stepped up his nationalist rhetoric in spades. At a rally heralded as “Millions of Breaths as One Voice against [PKK] Terror,” Turkey’s president proclaimed that he wanted “local” and “national” representatives to be chosen in the Nov. 1 snap election, a less than subtle intimation of “non-Kurdish.”
In seeking the sources of this perilously polarized environment we must focus on the top of the political chain, which means Erdogan himself. Although as president the constitution dictates that he must be non-partisan, his influence over the party and its governance is profound. Supporters refer to him as their “forefather,” “righteous caliph” and “indefinite and eternal leader of Turkey.” As my research argues, this entails that the divisive language Erdogan uses sets powerful norms of appropriate behavior for supporters, while also delineating who belongs to “us” and who is relegated to “them.”
Prior to his newfound enmity for the Kurds following the HDP’s electoral achievements, Erdogan regularly marginalized and demonized numerous other groups. A rallying tactic at party meetings was to remind the crowd that opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi, and then wait for the crowd to boo. He has referred to Armenians and LGBTs as “representatives of sedition” and used anti-Semitic epithets as everyday insults; demonstrators at Gezi Park were “delinquents” and, according to his EU minister, terrorists.
Far from being empty words, this repeated othering behavior by a leading figure cultivates an atmosphere in which animosity is the norm and violence is not only tolerated, but actually rewarded. Calls for Hitler to return and eliminate the Jews following Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza went unsanctioned, while police brutality in Gezi – from which nearly all who died were Alevi – was lauded as “legendary heroism.”
Now over 130 of Turkey’s citizens have been killed in three terrorist attacks, and there are some in Turkey who are satisfied. What was supposed to be a moment of silence for the victims before a national soccer match on Tuesday was filled instead with loud, jeering whistles and shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). Because those who lost their lives were Kurdish or Alevi or not pious or part of the opposition, so this “oh olsun” thinking goes, they were automatically radical, deviant others who had it coming.
This is the heinous consequence of a politics of polarization. Turkish media sources quick to claim that Dicle Deli’s coffin was covered with a PKK flag immediately delegitimize her participation in a rally for peace. A television reporter’s admonition that the Ankara bombing victims can’t all be considered the same because “maybe there were some innocent people there too” implicitly blames peaceful demonstrators for their own deaths. While theories abound as to who is ultimately behind Turkey’s terrorist attacks in Ankara and elsewhere, the responsibility of the AKP government in pursuing a politics of fear and hatred of Turkey’s many “others” – a politics that creates a climate in which such reactions are not only possible but commonplace – is clear.
Lisel Hintz is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.