Paranoia and Polarization in Turkey

On March 31, two men disguised as lawyers entered a downtown Istanbul courthouse. They headed to the office of Prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz, locked the door, drew their guns and held him hostage. Soon they revealed that they were members of the DHKP-C, or the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, an illegal Marxist-Leninist party. Their aim was to avenge the “murder” of Berkin Elvan, a victim of the massive antigovernment protests of June 2013, who died at 15 after being hit in the head by a police tear-gas canister.

Mr. Kiraz was the prosecutor in charge of investigating the death of Mr. Elvan, who has become an icon in Turkey, especially among opposition groups. Mr. Kiraz was the fourth prosecutor to work on the controversial case and the only one who had made some real progress in identifying the police officers who were responsible for Mr. Elvan’s death. Yet the militants were not interested in such facts, and targeted the whole state as the “murderer.”

After six hours of negotiation with the hostage-takers, the police launched an operation that ended with the deaths of both attackers and the prosecutor. The incident shook the nation. Mr. Kiraz was declared a martyr and given an official state funeral. But his killing furthered poisoned the bitter politics of a nation hatefully divided between supporters and opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The main culprit was of course the DHKP-C itself. Violent communism is a bygone threat in most of the world, but this terrorist group, a relic from the 1970’s, the heyday of Turkish Marxist-Leninism, is still active under its red hammer-and-sickle flag. Over the years it has attacked not only the police, but also Turkish businessmen, politicians and even foreign missions. In February 2013, the American Embassy in Ankara was targeted by a DHKP-C suicide bomber, who killed a Turkish guard and wounded several other people.

There is more to this story than mere political ideology, though. In Turkey, the left-versus-right division has been based not mainly on economic class, as is often the case in the West, but rather on sectarian divisions: The majority Sunnis constitute the base of the Islamist or nationalist “right,” whereas the minority Alevis tend to opt for the secular and revolutionary “left.”

It is no accident that the DHKP-C party, as marginal as it is, finds support mostly among radicalized youth in the Alevi neighborhoods of Istanbul. Berkin Elvan, the martyred 15-year-old, was also from an Alevi family. The party is also sympathetic to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad — out of both ideological and sectarian affinity, which heightens its resentment of the Turkish government, a key supporter of the Syrian opposition against Mr. Assad.

This means that the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., and its leaders, Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, must be very careful to avoid sectarian tension in Turkey — especially in a region torn by sectarian wars. Mr. Erdogan sometimes takes steps to calm sectarian fires, such as when, during a recent trip to Iran, he commendably declared: “For me there’s no difference between Sunnis and Shiites; I’m concerned about Muslims, human beings.”

But at other times, especially during election campaigns, he has exploited the Sunni-Alevi split in order to consolidate his base. At a rally in March 2014, Mr. Erdogan even had his supporters boo the late Mr. Elvan and his traumatized family, depicting them as terrorists.

The bigger trouble with Mr. Erdogan’s rhetoric is his tendency to depict all opponents and critics as pawns of a nefarious global conspiracy to topple his rule. The government propaganda that followed the death of Mr. Kiraz was yet another example of this aggressive political paranoia. While holding the prosecutor captive, the terrorists released a photo showing him with guns pointed at his head.

The next day, when various newspapers ran the picture, the government declared that publishing it amounted to “terrorist propaganda.” Prosecutors quickly opened criminal investigations against several papers, including the liberal Turkish daily Hurriyet, which had published the photo with the huge headline, “Woe unto terror.” A few pro-government papers had published the same photo as well, but nobody blamed or prosecuted them. A few days later, the same photo became an excuse for briefly blocking Twitter and YouTube across the country.

Not all the threats Mr. Erdogan sees around him are imaginary, as evidenced by the prosecutor’s death, but the conspiratorial worldview through which he and his followers see these threats makes real solutions impossible and leads the government to curtail civil liberties. It also renders Turkey’s foreign policy rhetoric counterproductive, as was illustrated by the government’s reaction to recent statements by Pope Francis, who referred to the century-old Ottoman Armenian tragedy as “genocide.” Mr. Davutoglu declared on Wednesday that the pope had “joined the conspiracy” of an “axis of evil.” (He could have just said that Turkey respectfully disagrees with the Vatican.)

Apparently, Mr. Erdogan and his followers believe that by using propaganda and heavy-handed police intimidation they will be able to introduce a new constitution after elections in June that will establish an all-powerful presidency, subdue the opposition and create a peaceful “New Turkey.”

They are wrong. This risky experiment with authoritarianism will not work. The death of Mr. Kiraz was a crime that deserves wholehearted condemnation. But it also was an alarming signal that Turkey is on a dangerous course of hate-filled polarization. Things will only get worse unless our leaders stop entrenching themselves to win the next political war and start thinking about winning the peace.

Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

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