I hope that 19 March, 2016 goes down as the day Turkey says “enough”. As if it wasn’t clear enough already, enough is enough. When the street you have walked down for days (and nights) on end is targeted by a suicide bomber, it is time to say “enough”. When the central street of the city many of your friends live in is strewn with human body parts it is time to say “enough”. In a country where the central areas of the two biggest cities have been turned into bloodbaths three times in the last month despite heavy police presences, it is time to say “enough”. When representatives of that country’s government still spew hatred—ignoring the loss of innocent lives—it is time to say “enough”. When foreigners are deciding to leave that country out of fear for their lives it is time to say “enough”. When the government of that country tries to cynically sell its own dark plans for the future as a human-rights success it is time to say “enough”. When more and more rhetoric begins to appear comparing the state of affairs in reference to failed states like “Yugoslavia”, it is time to say “enough”. Unfortunately, my faith that people will be able to say “enough” is wavering more and more. With each passing day, with each unjustified arrest of journalists and academics, with each exploding bomb and rifle shot, with each drop of spilled innocent blood, I can’t help but feel my hopes and dreams slipping away as well…
On the morning of 19 March, 2016 a suicide bomber targeted Istanbul’s main shopping district, Beyoğlu’s Istiklal Caddesi, killing five and injuring thirty-nine.
Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3500017/Two-dead-seven-wounded-suicide-bomber-targets-tourist-shopping-area-Istanbul.html
This comes just five days after a car bombing killed thirty-seven and injured 125 in the Turkish capital of Ankara. That the tactics of Baghdad and Kabul have come to the very streets I have spent so much time on is upsetting, frustrating, and worrisome. To watch as a country slips through our hands like grains of sand on a beach is…unspeakably upsetting. And frustrating. And worrisome. In the wake of the Ankara bombings Turkish commentator Mehveş Evin said “I see where this is going, I’m scared, and I’m refusing to take sides”. She says “this is not going in the direction of 1990s Turkey, this is going in the direction of 1990s Yugoslavia”. Therefore, for her, it is wrong to take sides since that will only divide the country further—she cries for those killed in Ankara just as she cries for those killed in Turkey’s Kurdish cities which have recently suffered the full wrath of the Turkish Armed Forces.
The complicated part is that there are so many sides fighting this battle. Kurdish militants, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), claimed responsibility for the Ankara bombings, while so far no group has come forward regarding today’s Istanbul bombings. Many of the victims in Istanbul were foreign—Israelis, Irish, German, and Iranian— and TAK have threatened to target tourists, but that does not mean this was a TAK bombing. It could also be ISIS/ISIL given the tactics used and place targeted. A bombing of a transportation hub in the capital targets the state, a bombing in the main tourist hub—the equivalent of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus for instance—targets individuals and seems to be something more in line with international terrorism, such as ISIS/ISIL’s strike in Paris. One representative of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had no sympathy for the international victims; Irem Aktaş, the President of the Publicity and Media Unit of the AKP’s Women’s branch in Istanbul’s Eyüp district, Tweeted in response to a Haberturk story on the Israeli nationals wounded in the bombing: “May it be worse for Israeli citizens, If only they hadn’t been wounded but had all died”. One would think that a person working for the publicity and media branch of anything would have more tact! But no, Ms. Irem Aktaş did not. And she is representative of the kind of cold, calculated, classless, cruel, and brutally insensitive people that are dragging an entire country down a dark path. The fact that she has since been removed from the party cannot erase her rude insult not just to Israelis, but to humanity itself.
Image Courtesy Of: http://www.diken.com.tr/israilliler-icin-keske-hepsi-olseydi-diyen-akpli-partiden-ihrac-ediliyor/
The context of the Istanbul bombing is important to keep in mind as well: This bombing comes on the eve of Turkey’s equivalent of the Super Bowl—the Fenerbahçe Galatasaray football derby in Istanbul—and comes a day after Turkey reached an agreement with the EU on Syrian migrants. No event happens in a vacuum and this one is no different. Hans Eskilsson, a former Swedish international footballer, witnessed the bombing when he was on Istiklal Caddesi on the way to buy tickets to the derby ). Like myself, Eskilsson travels the world attending derbys and there is no telling how many other foreigners are in the city for the same purpose. Safety concerns are another element to keep in mind ahead of tomorrow’s derby; Salah Abdeslam, who was caught on Friday in connection to the Paris attacks in November 2015, admitted that he had planned to detonate himself at the Stade de France. Stadiums, it seems, are becoming a new target of violence across the Middle East and Europe just as soccer fans have been targeted in Africa in the past.
This has affected Turkish football as well. After the Ankara bombings, where Galatasaray striker Umut Bulut’s father lost his life, Galatasaray’s star German striker Lukas Podolski has stated that he wants to leave the Turkish side at the end of his contract due to the violence and it will be important to keep an eye on how other foreign footballers react; the teams themselves have been quick to condemn the violence. Podolski’s country is similarly worried about the deteriorating security situation as the German Embassy in Ankara, Consulate in Istanbul, and schools were closed Friday due to threats; Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir said “Yesterday [Thursday, 16 March] evening, some very concrete indications – to be taken very seriously – reached our security services, saying that terror attacks against German institutions within Turkey were being prepared”. Since the perpetrator of the Istanbul bombing was allegedly heading towards a different target when the device was detonated it is possible that the intended target was, indeed, a German interest; this leads me to believe that ISIS/ISIL had a hand in the bombing given that they killed 12 German tourists in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square on 12 January, 2016. This, of course, also begs the question: If the Germans knew, then why didn’t the Turks know? How could a bomber infiltrate an area so full of police as the heart of Istanbul has been since the Gezi Protests of 2013?
For an answer to why Germany (and Turkey) are being targeted it is worth looking at the second event that contextualizes the Istanbul bombings: The deal concerning Syrian migrants that Turkey made with the European Union on Friday, 18 March. Since Germany has been one of the main migrant destinations—as well as one of the leaders of the European union—they may have become an additional target for ISIS/ISIL.
The BBC lists the key points of the agreement below (Courtesy of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35840272):
- Returns: All “irregular migrants” crossing from Turkey into Greece from 20 March will be sent back. Each arrival will be individually assessed by the Greek authorities.
- One-for-one: For each migrant returned to Turkey, a Syrian migrant will be resettled in the EU. Priority will be given to those who have not tried to illegally enter the EU and the number is capped at 72,000.
- Visa restrictions: Turkish nationals should have access to the Schengen passport-free zone by June. This will not apply to non-Schengen countries like Britain.
- Financial aid: The EU is to speed up the allocation of €3 bn ($3.3 bn; £2.3 bn) in aid to Turkey to help migrants.
- Turkey EU membership: Both sides agreed to “re-energise” Turkey’s bid to join the European bloc, with talks due by July.
Of these “key points” there are two that are worth looking at in depth: the fact that “irregular migrants” will be returned to Turkey and that Turkish nationals will have visa-free access to the Schengen zone by June 2016. These two parts of the agreement criticized by many and brokered by the AKP government will allow for the AKP to do their own demographic re-arrangement of the Turkish polity.
Opponents of the AKP tend to be secular, generally come from the wealthier upper and middle classes, or are Kurdish; indeed according to Turkey’s 2013 ranking of provinces by socio-economic development no province won by the opposing CHP in the November 2015 elections was ranked lower than 30 out of the 81 provinces (3) Izmir; 7) Muğla; 15) Tekirdağ; 26) Edirne; 30) Kirklareli; Provinces with traditionally high CHP support–some that the party won in the June 2015 elections–also rank highly such as 4) Antalya, 9) Adana, and 21) Manisa). While the government may use military force to silence their Kurdish opponents in the east, a similar tactic is not viable in the urban areas of the west. The solution here, it seems, is to secure the visa-free travel agreement—which will mainly benefit wealthy, liberal, “Western” Turks—and simply get them out of the country. Perhaps the AKP believe that their opponents will take the opportunity to either migrate or just forget about the issues in their own country with the distraction of newfound freedom of movement.
The second component of this new policy—the return to Turkey of some migrants—is even more troubling. Where will Turkey settle all of these Syrian refugees? We have already seen a trend of Turkish men taking on Syrian wives—sometimes as their second and third wives—in the east of the country, which has had a devastating effect on marital and familial stability. Constanze Letsch noted in 2014 that:
Resentment is growing. Women in border towns and cities accuse Syrian women of luring away their husbands, saying their spouses routinely threaten them with taking a Syrian wife.
At the hairdressers in Reyhanli [a town on the Syrian/Turkish border], several local women express their anger. ‘Syrian women have broken up many families here,’ says Kadriye, 36, who owns a bridal wear business nearby. ‘Our husbands have become real beasts since the Syrians came. The men now make all kinds of excuses to bring in a second wife. They threaten us because of the smallest things: the food, the housekeeping, anything. Some take wives the age of their daughters.’
Along with this effect on Turkish families, however, there could be another—much darker—motive that will have a bigger effect on Turkish politics. An Istanbul MP from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Erdoğan Toprak, noted in a report that 500,000 Syrians who entered the country in 2011 will, now after five years of living in Turkey, become eligible for Turkish citizenship. By 2019, Toprak’s report argues there will be around three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Toprak sees these newly minted citizens as an army of AKP votes since, after all, it was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who so enthusiastically fought for the downfall of the Assad regime in Syria and opened his borders to migrants. Toprak further seizes on Erdoüan’s comment “Bir yılda güneydoğuyu yeniden inşa edeceğiz”—“We will re-build the southeast [of Turkey] in one year”. Toprak interprets this “re-building” as a demographic re-arrangement:
AKP hükümeti, mülteci yerleşim planıyla mültecileri bölge illerine dağıtarak, Kürt nüfusun yoğun olduğu yerlerde, demografik değişime gitmeyi düşünüyor olabilir ki bunun ipuçlarını da görmek mümkün.
The AKP government, by spreading refugees throughout provinces in the area through the refugee re-location plan, is thinking of moving towards a demographic change in places with high Kurdish populations. This is a possibility, and it is also possible to see hints of this.
If this is indeed the plan it is certainly a scary thought. By spreading Syrians with a right to vote in Kurdish areas it will 1) make the Kurds an even smaller minority and 2) drown out their voice at the ballot box. As we saw in the November 2015 elections the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was able to sweep Kurdish provinces and get into parliament; by manufacturing more AKP votes in the region through resettlement—gerrymandering through demographics—the Kurdish effect at the ballot will be tempered.
It is too early to tell what the government’s motive is regarding the refugee agreement; it may also be another show of force, one of those things Mr. Erdoğan has come to enjoy often to the detriment of his country. As Abukar Arman reminds us:
The situation in Turkey, Middle East and many other parts of the world beg for transformational leaders with vision, wisdom, and right temperament. It takes more than winning elections to cultivate harmonious society, optimally functioning state, and a nation that puts its national interests above personal, party, or movement. A divided nation is a weak nation, and leadership by wrath is a suicidal option.
In other words, in order to save Turkey, President Erdogan might have to clean up the political derbies and extend an olive branch to oppositions. Otherwise, ‘Lord, have mercy on Turkey’.
I am losing hope in President Erdoğan ever being able to extend such an “olive branch”, just as I am losing hope in people’s ability to finally say “enough”. And one comic that has been floating around Facebook sums up some of the pessimism. The female says “This time a bomb exploded in Taksim… [Referring to the main square of Istanbul, at the top of Istiklal Caddesi]. The male replies “But they made roads. What more do you want?”, referring to one of the AKP’s selling points, one which their supporters always bring up: that they improved Turkey’s highways. Perhaps they did make roads—in this case, its looking like a highway to hell.
Still, giving up hope is not an option in this case. In his ironic stab at the AKP government—who told people to “not worry about rumors” after the German government revealed the possibility of threats two days before the “rumors” were confirmed—Turkish columnist Yilmaz Özdil sends a good message: “Don’t believe the Rumors, Don’t Be Afraid be Brave!” He is mocking the government’s message but at the same time (in my most humble of opinions), he is sending the public a message: Don’t believe the rumors that the country is disintegrating, that it is on a downfall, that it is doomed—be brave and stand up for it. It’s a message I can live with despite the despair expressed by, for instance, novelist Elif Şafak. Perhaps Turkish literature is the place to turn to at this difficult time, when Istiklal Caddesi has been turned into an empty space compared to the bustling energetic hub it usually is.
Now (on the left); Previously (on the right). Images Courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3500017/Two-dead-seven-wounded-suicide-bomber-targets-tourist-shopping-area-Istanbul.html
The poet Nazım Hikmet could not have said it better writing more than half a century ago:
24 Eylul 1945
En güzel deniz :
henüz gidilmemiş olanıdır…
En güzel çocuk :
En güzel günlerimiz :
Ve sana söylemek istediğim en güzel söz :
henüz söylememiş olduğum sözdür…
The most beautiful sea:
hasn’t been crossed yet.
The most beautiful child:
hasn’t grown up yet.
Our most beautiful days:
we haven’t seen yet.
And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you
I haven’t said yet…
As the Beşiktaş fans (and perhaps the other fans of Istanbul United as well) themselves will tell you—again borrowing from Nazım Hikmet—“We will see good days my children, we will see sunny days….”
Güzel günler göreceğiz çocuklar,