By Samuel Aslaner
The October 10 bomb attack at the Ankara Train Station during Kurdish peace rallies was the most deadly terrorist act in the history of the modern Turkish Republic . The demonstrators had gathered in the capital to protest the recently growing conflicts between the Turkish Armed Forces and the terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. At the moment, there are only speculations regarding the motive behind the attack, but it is interesting to note that it occurred just 21 days before the general elections on November 1. Regardless of who was behind the attack, it is apparent that Turkey has become more polarized than it ever has in its 93 year history.
Turkey, a modern republic founded on secularism, is now faced with one of the most challenging internal conflicts it has seen in its brief history. Founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 amid regional fighting during the aftermath of World War I, Turkey has been forced to overcome many disputes within its borders in order to ensure the creation and continuation of a democratically progressive nation. The Turks, since the 1300s, had been ruling most of the Middle East through an Islamic dynasty, known as the Ottomans. But, when secularist leader Atatürk gained power, the new country was stripped of its centuries-old Islamic traditions and progressed with Western style reforms. Turks were suddenly forced to accept Western customs, such as the illegalization of Islamic clothing and Islamic law in favor of Western styles and judicial systems. During this early period of the republic, these reforms were a necessary way to unite the country and move forward into the twentieth century. However, many of these radically secular movements were not easily accepted by all, and this is clearly seen in the Islamist government today.
In the current media we hear a lot about political instability and growing autocracy in the current ruling Islamist party, AK Party (Justice Party). However, this is not the first time Turkey has had to deal with religious movements in politics. When a new party, called the Democratic Party, gained power in the late 1950s on a platform that did not pursue Westernization with the same previous vigor, the Turkish Military staged a coup d’état in 1960. After purging the government of religious-minded politicians, the secular democracy resumed control. Islamic movements were thus squandered in this way until the 1990s, when the current ruling AK Party began gaining considerable public support. Much of this support was rooted in AK Party economic platforms, which brought much success to domestic Turkish business, turning the Turkish economy into one the fastest growing in Europe by the mid-2000s. As a result of the economic success and growing international influence, AK Party seems like it is here to stay, acquiring more than double the votes of its main competing party during the most recent election on November 1st.
For the first time in the history of the modern Republic, Turkey is forced to come to terms with a leader whose policies stray away from the core secular principles upon which the republic was founded. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the AK Party, was the Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014 and is now currently furthering his political agenda as the President. His longevity in power gave him sufficient time to curb the political power of the military, preventing future military coups like the ones that reduced Islamic influence during the 60s, 70s and 80s. As Turkey slowly finds itself under the authoritarian control of an Islamist leader, it becomes even more important to take note of the Islamic movements occurring right outside Turkey’s borders.
ISIS, the well-known, extreme anti-west terrorist group, has essentially formed a controlled area of land that resembles a functional state along the southern Turkish border with Iraq and Syria. ISIS gains much of its power through the porous southern Turkish borders thus causing much violence to spread into the country. The illegal movement of weapons and soldiers over the border leads to events like the terrorist attacks in the South East and ultimately culminating in the Ankara Bombing last month. President Erdoğan stated on Turkish television that ISIS is currently the main suspect, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the current Prime Minister, also said that the attack was obviously intended to have an impact on the upcoming elections. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the political environment of Turkey and its relationship with ISIS, when interpreting the significance of the Ankara attack. Turks have various opinions on the source and motives of the attacks and clearly this event has stoked polarization and tension within the country that has never been seen before.
Much of AK Party’s opposition have openly faulted Erdoğan for not holding a firm stance against the Islamic State, blaming the lack of action as a cause for many of the attacks that occur on Turkish soil. Opposition party leaders questioned whether there was sufficient security for such opposition demonstrations. However, when talking to the Istanbul native, Tuna ’19, about these accusations he said, “I am struggling to find a beneficial reason why AK party would allow an event like this to occur.” He went on to explain that he felt it was simply the work of an elaborate terrorist plot completely separate from Turkish government influence. This stance can be found all over Turkey, and is the opinion most commonly found in the media and in other moderate political parties. However, a friend of mine studying at the Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara, who had lost friends in the attack, had a different perspective. She feels that AK party is riddled with corruption and should be held completely responsible for the recent terrorist violence in Turkey. She said, “They killed our friends, burned our buildings, bombed our rallies and stole our elections.” Many liberal students like her, who have been behind large scale protests in the past, feel that AK Party must be out of power before a more democratic Turkey enters the foreseeable future.
Clearly, Turkey is facing a crisis on a scale it has never seen before. This attack only leads to the destruction of an already fragile yet volatile political system. As AK Party gains more control, as seen in the November 1st elections, it will be interesting to see how the Turkish people react amid the current instability. Will the nation eventually turn back to its founding secular principles? Because, at this point, it seems likely it will continue to forge a religiously based political and social climate, slowly distancing itself from the West.
Sam Aslaner ’19 is an undergraduate in Calhoun College. Sam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org