In a most spectacular show of violence, fans of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in April nearly lynched Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Pictured: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. (Photo by Erhan Ortac/Getty Images)
In most civilized countries, citizens go to the ballot box on election day — be it parliamentary, presidential or municipal — cast their votes, go home to watch news reporting the results and go to work the next day, some happy, some disappointed, to live in peace until the elections. Not in Turkey, where any political race looks more like warfare than simple democratic competition.
One reason is the dominance of identity politics in the country that has its roots deep in the 1950s, when Turkey evolved into multi-party politics. The fighting between “us” and “them” goes on since then. At the heart of the matter is a culture that programs most less-educated masses (and in Turkey average schooling is 6.5 years) into a) converting the “other” and, if that is not possible, b) physically hurting the “other.” A deep societal polarization since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 has widened to frightening levels.
None of the incidents that opposition journalists are facing today is a coincidence. In September 2015, for instance, an angry group of AKP fans attacked the editorial headquarters of Hürriyet, Turkey’s largest newspaper, at that time an opposition media company. Smashing the building’s windows with sticks and stones, the crowd chanted: “Allah-u aqbar” (“God is great!”) as if they were in a religious war. In fact, they thought they were in one because Hürriyet at that time was a secular newspaper critical of Erdoğan. For a long time, security forces watched the incidents with only one police team. The crowd took down the flag of the Doğan Group (which then owned Hürriyet) and burned it. After repeated demands, extra police were dispatched. The AKP Istanbul deputy and the head of the AKP youth branch, Abdürrahim Boynukalın, was in the crowd. He announced on his Twitter account, “We are protesting false news in front of Hürriyet and we are reciting the Quran for our martyrs.” It was a jihad: attacking a newspaper…
A month later, Ahmet Hakan, a prominent Hürriyet columnist and a presenter at CNN-Türk, was outside his home. Hakan was followed home from the television station by four men in a black car before being assaulted near his residence. Hakan was treated for a broken nose and ribs. Only a few months before those incidents, Erdoğan had accused Hürriyet‘s owner of being a “coup lover” and described his journalists as “charlatans”.
In October 2016, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or “Diyanet,” issued a circular for the formation of “youth branches” to be associated with the country’s tens of thousands of mosques. Initially, the youth branches would be formed in 1,500 mosques. But under the new plan, 20,000 mosques would have youth branches by 2021, and finally 45,000 mosques would have them, in what would look like “mosque militia”.
Then there is the curious case of the Alperen Hearths, a fiercely pro-Erdoğan group that fuses pan-Turkic racism with Islamism, neo-Ottomanism, and anti-Semitism. In 2016, the Alperen threatened violence against an annual gay pride march in Istanbul. Alperen’s Istanbul chief, Kürşat Mican, said:
“Degenerates will not be allowed to carry out their fantasies on this land…We’re not responsible for what will happen after this point … We do not want people to walk around half-naked with alcohol bottles in their hands in this sacred city watered by the blood of our ancestors.”
The Istanbul governor’s office later banned the march.
Another time, in 2016, Alperen members protested outside one of the most significant synagogues in Istanbul, to denounce Israel’s security measures after a deadly attack at the Temple Mount that left two Israeli police officers dead. “If you prevent our freedom of worship there [at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque] then we will prevent your freedom of worship here [at Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue],” a statement from the Alperen said. “Our [Palestinian] brothers cannot pray there. Putting metal detectors harasses our brothers.” Some Alperen youths kicked the synagogue’s doors and others threw stones at the building.
More recent times are not more peaceful, sadly. On March 31, when Turks went to the ballot boxes to elect their mayors, violence in one single day claimed six lives and left 115 people injured by sticks, knives, batons and gunfire. A few days later, the death toll increased.
In a most spectacular show of violence, Erdoğan fans nearly lynched Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). In April, Kılıçdaroğlu went to a small town on the outskirts of Ankara to attend the funeral of a fallen soldier, killed during clashes with the separatist Kurdish militiamen. During the funeral, he was attacked by a nationalist crowd and taken to a nearby house for protection. A video of the incident on social media showed a mob pushing, shoving and punching Kılıçdaroğlu as he made his way through the crowd. After he was taken to a safehouse, members of the mob surrounded it and chanted, “Let’s burn down the house!” The man who punched the opposition leader, later happened to be an official member of AKP.
The attacker, Osman Sarıgün, after a brief detention, was immediately released. The next day, he was a hero. Flocks of Erdoğan fans rushed to his farmhouse to kiss his hands in the Sicilian “baccio la mano” manner, paying him the utmost respect for physically attacking a leader of the opposition.
Apparently each unpunished case of political violence committed on behalf of the dominant state ideology (Islamism) and its sacrosanct leader (Erdoğan) encourages the next. In May, a journalist critical of Erdoğan’s government and its nationalist allies was hospitalized after being attacked outside his home. The Yeniçağ newspaper said columnist Yavuz Selim Demirağ was beaten up by five or six people with baseball bats after appearing on a TV show. The assailants escaped the scene in a vehicle.
Everything went miraculously well for Göknur Damat, a 34-year-old beauty specialist who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2017, she appeared on a television show and, weeping, told the audience that her doctors said she would not live longer than six months. She won Erdoğan’s (and other people’s sympathies) and received an invitation to meet the president, who thereafter called her “my foster daughter.” She was now the darling of all AKP supporters. Her business prospered and, even better, Damat miraculously won her fight against cancer. Recently, however, she made a mistake. She donated 20 liras (approximately $3.50) to the election campaign of the opposition candidate running for mayor of Istanbul. Worse, knowledge of her donation somehow fell into the public domain, with thousands of Erdoğan fans asking, “How come our president’s foster daughter donated to the opposition campaign…” Recently, as she came out of her home, an unfamiliar man approached her, asked: “Are you that braveheart?” and stabbed her in the leg. The attacker, like most others, has not yet been found.
Turkey never was a Denmark or Norway in political maturity, tolerance and culture but it is dangerously coming closer to being like one of its neighbors to the south or to the east.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, was recently fired from the country’s most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.