Turkey: Stop Worrying and Just Learn to Love ISIS

Is there a method to the bloody madness of ISIS attacks in Turkey? As International Boulevard’s Baris Altintas points out in this column, the group’s bloodbaths in Turkey seem carefully calibrated to avoid the full weight of the Islamist governing party’s wrath, targeting leftists, Kurds, and most recently the westernized elite: always minorities. The AK party’s devout Turkish Sunni base, and thus the Turkish state never throws everything into the struggle against the ‘caliphate.’

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