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Turkey Faces Uphill Battle to Defeat Terrorism

Internal conflicts and external interests have created the conditions for violence in Turkey.

In the last 18 months or so, there have been around 30 terrorist attacks in Turkey, killing over 1,000 people. From a country that was seen as having determined the perfect balance between Islam, capitalism and democracy, in July 2016 a failed coup rocked the nation, leaving in its wake up to 350 dead with countless injured and considerable damage to physical infrastructure.

In the space of a few short years, the bridge of civilizations has become the focal point for the intersection of different ethnic, political and ideological conflicts, regularly erupting into instances of violence and terrorism.

What has led to this malaise, and what are the implications for the nation as it continues to straddle one of the most important strategic geopolitical fault lines in in the world?

Modern History of Turkey

Democracy is always an evolving concept in any environment, but especially so in the context of Turkey. A system of authoritarianism was bequeathed by a Kemalist order that effectively oversaw Turkey through suppressive means.

The impact was to mollify various ethnic and racial divisions under the rubric of Turkish national identity, which played on the Sunni Muslim historical perspective but with a distinctly secular and liberal flavor. It looked toward modernity and cosmopolitanism as ways in which to define this identity.

However, in the process, it left behind a significant body of the population who were pious, traditional and relatively conservative with regard to customs and practices dating back many hundreds of years. These pious Muslims were in every way the opposite of their urbanite counterparts. Up until the end of the 20th century, these pious Muslims were only slowly beginning to have a more integrative role in Turkish society and politics, and thereby fashioning the mood music of the country in a way that began to embrace religious and cultural values, looking East rather than West.

While these observable changes were going on at the surface level of the economy and society, underneath ongoing issues in relation to Turkish-Kurdish relations, the experiences of other ethnic and religious minorities were subsumed under the rubric of majoritarian nationalism.

With the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the beginning of the 21st century and until the early 2010s, unprecedented economic growth, political stability and cultural integration led to the emergence of a confident, capable and buoyant country looking east and west, north and south, with poise and certainty.

This was especially so as the eurozone was flailing after the 2008 global financial crisis and the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 was causing uncertainty in the rest of the Middle East.

However, while this was going on, the ongoing conflicts in relation to the Kurdish issue and other minorities such as Roma, Jews and Christians were kept at bay. In the latter part of the 2000s, the AKP issued both an Alevi opening and a Kurdish opening, which were serious attempts to begin to deal with longstanding issues, and as part of an assertive Turkey going forward.

The Threat of Terrorism in Turkey

But all of this began to crumble as Turkey’s ambivalence toward the Islamic State (IS) began to affect Turkey itself. In many senses, as the Islamic State is effectively being eliminated altogether, it seeks to strike out against the West and its allies—in this case, Turkey, especially as the borders remain relatively porous in that region of the Middle East.

At the same time, the peace process in relation to the Kurdish issue collapsed in June 2015, and so Turkey has suffered the unenviable situation of being attacked by enemies entering the country and by groups who are willing to strike against the institutions of the state from within. This dual-edged conflict has destabilized the nation and created considerable consternation among the populous as all seek to find a way forward.

The current period in Turkish politics and society is marked by violence and conflict, but also by the growing dilemma of authoritarianism, which is an instrument of political control often utilized by political leaders at times of instability or crisis. Therefore, what we are witnessing today in Turkey is a period of authoritarianism after relatively progressive periods of the liberalization of society and economy.

The extent to which this period lasts will be dependent on an array of factors external and internal to the country. From an economic point of view, Turkey no longer sees the West as a source for opportunities for investment. Rather, countries such as China, India and parts of Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are the new zones of economic opportunity as Ankara loses confidence in the West and the European Union (EU) integration process, which remains a farce that both sides are prepared to maintain for short-term gains.

What Now?

Inside the country, as urbanization, combined with neoliberal economic policies in general, continues to generate multiethnic cities, tensions in urban areas may well remain until the national identity model begins to adopt a more inclusive rhetoric instead of the current pro-Sunni Islam outlook that dominates the thinking of political elites.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsFrom what were the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish secular republican model placed Islam under the rubric of the state and forced it into the private realm. However, as this slowly reverses, it also inverts the existing dominant paradigms in relation to social relations in the country. Secular liberal elites and the center that dictated the Turkishness of the Turkish state in their own image are finding themselves battling for those spaces with prominent pro-business and pro-Islam Turkish elites who seek to redefine national identity in their own image, looking to a glorious past for a glorious future.

In the search for economic stability and political integration, the people of Turkey were beginning to open up about past issues and to move forward in a way that is inclusive and progressive. However, internal conflicts, plus external interests, have created the conditions for violence and volatility.

Author’s Note

This author’s new book, Contemporary Turkey in Conflict, charts the rise of the AKP at the beginning of the 2000s all the way until the failed coup of July 2016. It chronicles key events and issues, and using both quantitative and qualitative research techniques, it explains issues of ethnic intolerance, political trust, social capital, and the attitudes and perceptions of ordinary people in relation to some of the most central and peripheral questions in Turkish society and politics. The book is available from all good bookshops and online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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