The Islamic State is pulling Turkey into a vortex

Sometimes a tragedy can unite a family — or a nation. Across Europe, the citizens of various countries that have been hit by Islamic State terrorism displayed a heartfelt solidarity in their moment of national grief. There were candlelight vigils, outpourings of sorrow on social media, a general sense of “We are in this together” across the political spectrum.

This is not happening here in Turkey. Each and every terrorist attack over the past year — and there have been at least a dozen — pulled us further apart as a country, threatening identities and lifestyles, triggering dormant fault lines and getting us at each others’ throats. It has also caused Turkey to pivot toward Russia and away from the West.

Within a year, the Islamic State managed to pull Turkey into the vortex that the Middle East has become — though no one in the West is quite ready to ask “Who lost Turkey?”

People take pictures of a makeshift memorial in front of the Reina nightclub on Jan. 5 in Istanbul, four days after a gunman killed 39 people. (Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
People take pictures of a makeshift memorial in front of the Reina nightclub on Jan. 5 in Istanbul, four days after a gunman killed 39 people. (Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Take the horrific Jan. 1 attack on the Reina night club in Istanbul that took the lives of at least 39 people celebrating the new year. After an annus horribilis, marked by a string of bombings from the Islamic State, Kurdish separatists and a midsummer coup attempt to top it all, Turks were ready to say “Good riddance” to 2016 — only to wake up to a new nightmare a few hours later.

Reina is a wonderful venue with a unique concept of multiple restaurants on the Bosphorus — in the late night, all of them turn into one big club. The Reina killing spree was much like the Bataclan attack — but unlike the solidarity after the Paris incident, reactions in Turkey were mixed. Not everyone mourned. Islamist trolls were quick to point out that the victims deserved their end solely because they were celebrating the new year — a heresy according to Islamists and an “illegitimate” fête “alien” to our values, according to Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs.

In a country long prized as the sole secular democracy in the Muslim world, both secularism and democracy are in retreat — and the Islamic State knows how to manipulate that. For generations, urban and middle-class Turks have been celebrating the new year much like a secularized Christmas — with a tree, a family feast and an exchange of gifts. But now Turkey’s pro-Islamist government is against that. The Ministry of Education has circulated a memo to all schools discouraging New Year’s celebrations, and Islamist mobs have punched and stabbed (yes, stabbed) a blow-up Santa Claus in demonstrations a few days before the Reina attack.

Despondent and powerless in an atmosphere of creeping conservatism, Turkey’s secularist half responded in quiet anger. At a basketball game in Istanbul, spectators brought the house down, chanting “We are soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!” — a reference to Turkey’s founding father and the ultimate symbol of its laïcité. A day later, student activists were canvassing working-class cafes and calling for a “struggle to fight for secularism” — and were swiftly arrested on charges of terrorism. At a municipal opening in western Turkey on Thursday, Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was greeted with chants of “Turkey is secular! Will remain secular!”

So there you have it.

The Islamic State not only has terrorized Turkey but also is breaking its fragile internal peace with carefully calibrated attacks. The initial wave of Islamic State terror in late 2015 targeted Kurds and the Kurdish political party, contributing to the breakdown of the peace talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and inflaming Turkish-Kurdish tensions across the country. The Alawite-Sunni tensions already run high due to the Syrian conflict and the presence of almost 3 million Syrian refugees. And with the Reina attack, the Islamic State now targets Muslims who lead secular lifestyles, touching the most sensitive nerve-ending in a nation deeply polarized.

But that’s not the extent of the damage that the Islamic State is inflicting on Turkey. It is also peeling the country away from the Western alliance into the arms of Vladimir Putin.

Counterintuitive as it may be, Islamic State attacks have unleashed an unprecedented level of anti-Americanism in Turkey, in pro-government media claiming that the Islamic State is run by the United States — or more specifically, the CIA. Islamist papers and columnists directly named Washington as the perpetrator of the Reina attack, and various members of the ruling Justice and Development Party chimed in. Yeni Akit published a photo of President Obama next to the Reina assailant.

In a media climate of fake news, Turks are told every day that their staunchest ally is their main enemy and that only more arrests and consolidation of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could save them.

One day I turned on the television to find a glaring picture of my friend Amberin Zaman, an esteemed journalist who specializes in Kurdish affairs and is married to a U.S. diplomat. The panel of pro-government pundits described her as a “CIA operative” and the organizer of the Reina attack! That is the level of insanity that now goes for commentary on Turkish television these days.

That all this is driven by a top-down campaign and is further damaging the fragile Turkish-American accord is worrisome. That the Obama administration is not doing much about the all-out unraveling in Turkey is even more disturbing.

One of the first tasks of the Trump administration will have to be setting the record straight with Ankara and its difficult leader, Erdogan. The Turkish government has long been unhappy about Washington’s alliance with the Syrian Kurds, suspicious of a U.S. involvement in the July coup attempt and generally confused about its place in the world. Washington cannot ignore the Turkey problem. Turkey is bogged down in Syria and has a massive terrorism problem and a serious economic decline. A reset is possible. But drawing clear lines of cooperation in Syria, managing expectations and defining the acceptable terms of this alliance will have to be the first order of things.

It is not in anyone’s interest for Turkey to crash at this dangerously high speed. It’s also not good for it to be a pawn in the hands of Putin to destroy NATO. But the way things are going, the consequences of Turkey’s drunken driving could be far worse than that.

Asli Aydintasbas is a journalist and columnist for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet in Istanbul.

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