A tragedy made of divisions and violence threatens the Turkey we knew

When terrorism is exploiting a much deeper and internal problem of polarization, where we have to look at is not the attacks, but the forces that caused that tragic polarization

On Saturday 10thOctober, Turkey and the world stopped astonished and incredulous at the suicide attack that took the life of 97 people and injured more than 200.
The target of the attack – occurred tree weeks before November elections – was (again) a peaceful rally organized in Ankara by the pro-Kurdish HDP party, convened to the streets to ask for a cease of the hostilities between Kurdish separatists of the PKK and the Turkish government.
Not immediately clear who was concealing behind the attacks, each party began accusing the other (as it is almost the rule in all cases of internal civil tensions).
Some voices were pointing to the PKK – the number one enemy of the government that though would have little interests to fulfil in hitting a demonstration of pro-Kurdish supporters. Other voices were pointing at ISIS – whose immediate aim could be that of creating turmoil in another Middle Eastern country. ISIS’s long-term hope with such an attack, then, would be to lead Turkey to abandon the air campaign against the Caliphate (that though has not thus far been particularly assertive) and to reach the same objective with respect to the Turkish Kurds (whose commitment to fight ISIS has been more resolute than the government’s). Finally, there were some voices coming from the HDP side accusing of the attack radical elements close to the government – whose logics could be that of creating insecurity to lead an exasperate and scared Turkish population to vote for Erdogan’s AKP party in November, so as to allow the President to build the stable government the country desperately needs.
All these internal mutual accusations, though, have been (partially) silenced by the findings of the Turkish police, a few days after the attack, who identified the bombers as two individuals apparently linked to ISIS.

End of the story? Not at all.
Found the culprits and mourned the death of those innocents whose only fault was their belief in the right of free political association and free political expression, the question “how could it happen?” is still open.
How could such an attack be perpetrated in Turkey – a unique country with an Eastern soul and a Western mind that since its earliest days has been regarded as one of the most positive examples of fusion between Islam and democracy?

To answer we should look at the reality that, over the past few years, Turkey – guided by a leader who seems to have forgotten that it is the President who is supposed to mirror the country, not the other way around – has been moving along a dangerous path that is putting at risk the country’s stability.
Therefore, if Yunus Emre Alagoz and Omer Deniz Dundar are the perpetrators of the attack, the roots that created a favorable environment for it would better be found in the most recent developments that saw Erdogan as protagonist and Turkey as his theatre. A story that the latest acts now risk to turn into a tragedy.
Often regarded – and admittedly not wrongly – as the most prominent figure of politician Turkey has had after Ataturk, Erdogan has over the past years embarked on a political project that (rightly) looks to many liberals as being too authoritarian and too Islamic.
Erdogan’s intention of turning Turkey into a Presidential Republic to increase the powers of a figure that hasn’t traditionally been the pivotal one (role that the Turkish Constitution attributes to the PM) has worried many of those who had until that moment been AKP supporters.
How not to be worried by a leader who changes rules as the cards in his hands change?
Moreover, for a Turkish population that has always been proud of its being a religiously Islamic country without being a politically Islamic Republic, the renewed focus put by Erdogan on Islam and on the role it should have in Turkish public life has created some concern among those who believe in a Western-inspired separation between politics and religion.

The blow suffered by Erdogan and his AKP party at summer elections, then, didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Of those elections, what did surprise was the high percentage obtained by the HDP, a leftist largely Kurdish party emerged in the last years that won more than 10% of votes. Outcome that was important not only because it showed how Erdogan has to move more carefully in the Turkish political arena, but because from that moment on the situation has been a downward spiral.
In July, in the majoritarian Kurdish city of Suruc, an attack was perpetrated by ISIS’s affiliates against activists gathered there to discuss and plan the reconstruction of the neighboring Syrian city of Kobane. The consequence was that the PKK accused Erdogan’s government of lack of protection – when not of compliance with ISIS’s terrorists – and a ceasefire between the PKK (that spent the last three decades fighting to see more rights and possibly independence granted to the 14 million Turkish Kurds) and the government was revoked.
After elections that had already sown the seeds of tensions by changing a political environment that had remained unchallenged since 2002, Suruc emerged as the event that definitely opened the Pandora Box. Attacks from each side against the other, in fact, have been marking since then Turkey’s political dynamics, and have been particularly exacerbated by the intervention of the Turkish government in the international fight against ISIS – whose price, though, is paid more by PKK’s members than by ISIS’s apphiliates.

This said, when Erdogan defined Saturday’s tragedy as “a heinous attack against our unity, solidarity, and the peace of our country” I am personally unable to tell which unity is he referring to.
In a moment in which those differences that are the heritage of the Ottoman Empire’s millennial history of pluralism are progressively being turned into sources of conflict, Erdogan’s words couldn’t be further from what the reality actually is.
It is undoubtedly true that the transition from Empire to State is always a delicate process. It is equally true that since 1923 one of the major challenges the new Turkish Republic had to deal with was how to balance the new national identity with the traditional ethnic and religious pluralism. And History is something not even Erdogan can change. However, it is also true that if the issue of minorities has hardly been tougher than it now is, the fault is not of History’s dynamics but of a man’s errors.
It is indeed that man’s party that has adopted a divisive politics and a divisive language that have created an unprecedented polarization, not only in the political environment but also – and more worryingly – in the societal one.

How November elections will go is something only time has the power to foresee, and only the Turkish people have the power to decide.
No one will ever be able to cancel what happened in Ankara, nor what has been going on since summer, or since the past few years, but it is now up to the Turkish people to decide through their November vote that internal divisions and tensions (and the violence they bring about) deserve to be left behind. A message that only a united people can send to their government.
Because whatever the outcome will be and whoever will take the reins in Ankara, everything has to change so that nothing can stay the same.

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