Secular citizens of Turkey have never felt so alone

By Ezgi Basaran  - Article Date: 3 January 2017

The country's social fabric is torn apart.


Police barrier in front of the Reina night club, after the terrorist attack

Hours after celebrating the new year, Turkey witnessed its 15th attack claimed by the Islamic State since 2014. This time, the target was Reina, a famous upscale nightclub on the shores of the Bosporus. The militant group has been targeting Turkey ever since a shift in policy in 2015 made it harder for Islamic State fighters to travel between Turkey and Syria.

But the nightclub outrage revealed another story that is as important for understanding Turkey today as the political and executive failures that led to the attack. Turkey’s social fabric is torn at the very heart, which makes it impossible for the country to grieve as one, let alone share joy and happiness — not that these feelings are much to be found in the country these days.

Reina is no ordinary place. In the past five years or so, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been railing against secular Turks as members of an “old Turkey,” people who are out of touch with the country’s reality and unfairly privileged, who — in his words — “sip their whisky while enjoying the view over the Bosporus.” Indeed, Reina is characteristically frequented by secular “white Turks” — a term coined by the late journalist Ufuk Güldemir — the well-educated upper middle class. Not so long ago, nobody in Turkey really cared if some of the club’s clients drank too much alcohol, got wasted, danced and had some carefree fun. Now not only is the lifestyle of the secular people under threat, but their joy is, too.

In the last days of 2016, there were systematic “preemptive strikes” from several mayors, government institutions and nongovernmental organizations against people who would celebrate the New Year. Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate claimed it “illicit” for Turkey’s Muslim citizens to celebrate the new year. Banners showing a bearded man punching Santa Claus in the face were hung around Istanbul, while a group pointed guns at their friend in a Santa costume to demonstrate their protest over secular New Year’s Eve celebrations. Santa is associated with Christmas and New Year’s in predominantly Muslim Turkey. On the morning of Dec. 31, a headline in an Islamist newspaper read, “This is our last warning, DO NOT celebrate.”

Although the majority of Turkish people are conservative and religious, alcohol consumption or celebrating the new year had never been a big issue among the public. Everyone knew that respect for other lifestyles was not a matter of human decency in Turkey, a melting pot of cultures, but a condition for peaceful coexistence.

Those days are gone with the old Turkey. Turkey was never a proper democracy. It has not been able to transform its institutions into inclusive ones following the 1980 coup. But what it experiences now is also unprecedented. Now, we have a new country: a new Turkey without any shred of tolerance.

The shift in policy on Syria helped bring about the current crisis. Between 2013 and 2015, Islamic State recruits could easily and freely move in and out of Turkey. But when that changed in 2015, the militant group designated Turkey as a main target. Islamic State attacks in Turkey were, at first, mainly conducted by recruits from within Turkey and not claimed by the terrorist group. Now it seems the organization’s strategy with respect to Turkey — a Sunni majority country — has changed, too. Like the Atatürk airport massacre in June, authorities believe the nightclub attack on New Year’s Eve was perpetrated by foreign Islamic State members. This was also the second attack on Turkish soil for which the Islamic State “officially” claimed responsibility through its news agency, Amaq.

And this time, some Turks appear to be relating to the terrorists. In the hours following the Reina attack, social media were full of comments describing the attack as “fair,” or as “retribution for those who celebrated New Year and got wasted.” A soccer referee tweeted, “What did you expect? Your Santa doesn’t bring presents all the time. Do you think the beers and rakis you drank would help you thrive in the afterlife? You wish!” Others wrote, “Damn you, Santa. This time you raided your friends’ place,” and “If you have fun with your miniskirts while the world burns, this is what you get.”

This was not only a matter of some trolls trying to stir up anger for their own amusement or being insensitive to those mourning the deaths and injuries the attack caused. It was the perceived silence of the government that was heart-wrenching for secular Turks — especially compared with the way authorities responded to an attack last month by the outlawed Kurdish rebel group the PKK. Then, government officials hunted down people who criticized Erdogan’s Kurdish policy and detained more than 200 over their tweets, which officials regarded as “promoting and helping the terror organization.” This time it was different.

Even a pro-government comedian, Şahan Gökbakar, raged over tweets that praised the Reina attack and called for “the authorities to do something.” But what the authorities have done, so far, is blame leftists. The Ministry of Internal Affairs’ official Twitter account posted a video of two left-wing students entering a coffee house in Istanbul and called on people to unite against “ISIS, jihadists and ambitions for an executive presidency.” The ministry said the video had been shared with the terror squad and asked people to report any sightings of these young people. (The post was later deleted, in response to outrage online.)

The Reina attack showed that the Islamic State’s mentality and rhetoric are shared and tacitly condoned by a considerable number of Erdogan’s followers. The result is that the other half of the country — the secular people, the old Turkey, the white Turks — not only feel themselves to be a constantly slandered minority but also a prime target of the terrorist group’s attacks, along with Kurds and Alawites. Their deaths and agonies are ignored — or hailed — by the majority.

The climate is making it harder and harder for dissidents to speak out. One prominent journalist, Hasan Cemal, declared Monday that he was ceasing to write his column because he was afraid of what 2017 would bring to Turkey. Another, though, Nuray Mert, continued to express fury in her column in Cumhuriyet, an opposition newspaper where almost half of the reporters, columnists and executives have been jailed by Erdogan’s regime. “In a country where the opposition party was accused of supporting terrorism, where our friend and journalist Ahmet Şık was jailed on the last day of the year …” she wrote, “where everyone but the government and their entourage was smeared and threatened, what kind of a unity are we talking about?”

Secular people in Turkey have never felt so alone and so under attack. Sadly, they do not even know how to deal with this pressure. An intellectual secular exodus from Turkey is probably imminent.

Ezgi Basaran is a Turkish journalist and academic visitor at St Antony's College, Oxford University.

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