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Turkey's increasingly toxic atmosphere

January 3, 2017

The attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul occurred amid deep ideological discord. Turks disagree on their country's cultural identity. And Ankara's turnaround on Syria has confused an already muddled situation.

Istanbul Reina nightclub nach Anschlag
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

Enjoying a New Year's breakfast on January 1 is a tradition that is beloved in some parts of Turkey and despised in others. Muslims traditionally celebrate according to the Islamic calendar, which this year put the turn of the year on September 21. But people in the country's big cities, especially secular Turks in Istanbul, celebrate according to the Gregorian calendar. Their conservative compatriots tend to accept that fact. Others are much less tolerant and see the celebration as an attack on Muslim culture.

The Turkish state has also voiced increasingly strong criticism of the tradition over the years. The Washington, DC-based online magazine "Al-Monitor" reports that Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, Diyanet, looked favorably upon New Year's celebrations as late as 2003. "Al-Monitor" quoted the agency's official declaration at the time, which stated that such celebrations were "part of a universal culture, like Mother's or Father's Day," and thus markedly different from Christian festivals such as Christmas. Yet, this well-meaning - or at least indifferent - attitude has disappeared. "Over the last few years," writes "Al-Monitor," "Diyanet statements have taken on a much less positive tone. Now, the office points out that such celebrations 'alienate' Muslims from their own culture."

'No friendship with non-believers'

That message is being taken to heart by a portion of Turkish society. "Al-Monitor" also reported that shortly before Christmas, members of a conservative religious youth organization protested against the increasing popularity of Christian Christmas symbols among secular Turks. Their displeasure was not only directed at the festival itself; the protesters accused secular Turks of "leaving the faithful and befriending non-believers. Are they seeking honor and dignity at their side? All greatness and honor is with Allah."

Masked revellers in Istanbul
Not everyone in Turkey wants to see New Year's celebrations like these in IstanbulImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/E. Gurel

The terror attack in Istanbul was not carried out just at a time of cultural tension. The crime was committed before the backdrop of a sharp change of foreign-policy course. From the very start of the rebellion in Syria, Turkey's conservative government, under then-prime minister and now-President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has strongly supported his resignation. Turkey's government has also been repeatedly accused of giving logistical support to Sunni extremists as well as offering them safe haven in Turkey. Journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül of the Turkish newspaper "Cumhuriyet" reported on such activities. As a result, both men were given long - though not yet legally final - prison sentences.

Armed police standing outside the Reina nightclub
Turkish police currently face huge challengesImage: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgul

Political reversal of Syria policy

Many observers were therefore very surprised by Turkey's complete reversal of policy on Syria. Last week Ankara announced it would work in cooperation with Russia and Iran, both of whom have been fighting to keep Assad in power. Shortly before Christmas, the Turkish foreign minister, along with his counterparts from Moscow and Tehran, signed the so-called "Moscow Declaration." In it, all three top diplomats announced their "full respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic." That is no less than an indirect call for Assad to remain in power.    

In the London-based newspaper "Rai al-youm," political analyst Abdel Bari Atwan recently wrote that this political about-face would not fail to attract the notice of "Islamic State" (IS) supporters. "One must suspect that this change has caused Turkey to drift into the bloody earthquake of terrorism. The country's policies and positions are confused, and its political leadership has lost its orientation. This has created a number of enemies for it."

Scant condemnation of 'IS'

The terrorists that struck on New Year's Eve did so against a politically ambiguous backdrop, wrote Bülent Mumay - formerly a journalist at the Turkish newspaper "Hürriyet" - in the German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung." Following an IS terror attack that killed 100 people in Ankara in October 2015, Mumay says, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the terror organization as a "collection of people brought together by anger." According to Mumay, Davutoglu's deputy Emrullah Isler even went a step further, saying, "IS kills but it doesn't torture."

Mumay went on to write that IS had yet to be pursued as it should be in Turkey. "But what can one expect from a country in which people were allowed to drive through the streets honking after the terror attacks in Paris, their cars adorned with IS flags? And booing and whistling by Turkish soccer fans during a moment of silence for victims of the IS attacks also received broad support," says Mumay.

Türkei  Recep Tayyip Erdogan Ankara
Erdogan speaks of mysterious "powers" behind terrorism - but does not say who they areImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y.Bulbul

The president's word games

Statements by President Erdogan have also done little to calm the situation. Kristian Brakel, who heads the German Green party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation's Istanbul office, told DW that the president has repeatedly unsettled the country's citizens with unclear allusions.

"Erdogan is always talking about the existence of invisible hands, invisible enemies, that attempt to hinder Turkey's rise. Depending on how one reads it, that could mean the Americans, the Jews, the Europeans or the Germans." Erdogan used his New Year's address to repeat such suggestions once again. "Terror organizations are simply the visible face, the tool in this fight," he explained. "We are primarily engaged in a fight against the powers behind these organizations." He did not elucidate exactly who those powers were.

The crimes committed on New Year's Eve have obviously failed to unite Turks in common defense. Many observers have noted that the president, who normally comments on such attacks verbally and publicly, chose to comment on the deaths of mainly secular Turks in a nightclub with a written statement instead.