The Ataturk airport attack is just the latest symptom of Turkey’s affliction
Trepidation gave way to awe moments after I exited Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on 8 June, two days after the beginning of the holy month of Ramzan, and a day after bomb blasts had ripped through the city, killing several policemen. Except for the barricades and huge posse of security personnel, it was quintessentially summertime Europe, breezy and sunny, and there was no sign of unrest. “Bomb blasts? No dikkat. All fine,” said my cabbie in halting English. Dikkat, Turkish for danger, is the root of its Hindi variant. The trouble was far away from us, assured the taxi driver, who in his seventies seemed dressed to kill. Named Aydin (meaning ‘enlightened’), he was a veteran, he confessed, having driven many celebrities around Turkey’s largest city in his heyday. He had his ear to the ground, I was convinced, as we headed towards my Taksim Square hotel, taking in the breathtaking beauty of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, the natural strait which separates the European side of the country from the Asian, also called Anatolia. The dikkat was confined largely to eastern Turkey, Aydin promised. And I was not planning to go there.
Three weeks later, the suicide bombs of 29 June that killed at least 40 people and injured hundreds at Istanbul airport left me in a state of shock. They shouldn’t have. Mohammed, a Syrian trader I met on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street in the evening of 11 June, had forewarned me: “The people of Turkey are in denial, like the government. The danger is not just at your gates. It is inside your mansion.” Mohammed had fled his war-ravaged nation in 2014, abandoning his olive farms. I smiled at him knowingly, factoring in the trauma typical of middle-aged refugees who have to start from scratch in a new land. “Refugees always hold subversive views,” I told my wife over wine and lamb kebabs at the ornate Marmara Restaurant, reassuring myself that the decision to holiday in Turkey may have been impulsive, but was not reckless.
How wrong I was. There was no reason to be a tourist in denial. After all, you are there of your own volition, like those feisty Australian women in their late sixties, a handsome 30-something Los Angeles-based writer, and a young brown-skinned Englishman we met who said they didn’t give a damn about travel advisories issued by their countries.
Let’s face it. Over the past year, Turkey had seen numerous bomb attacks killing innocents going about town for work, study or for tourism, including people at Ataturk Airport, Europe’s third-busiest. This time, three suicide bombers carried out the assault on the airport shortly before 10 pm local time on Tuesday. According to reports from Istanbul, one of the assailants opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle outside the International Arrivals entrance. Another managed to get inside the building and was shot by police in the Departures area on the first floor before all three blew themselves up, officials were quoted as saying by Los Angeles Times reporters.
The European part of Istanbul, home to some of the world’s most iconic monuments, has been vulnerable for more than a year. In just this period, terror strikes in Turkey have claimed the lives of 500 civilians, more than 500 police officers and troops, and over 5,000 terrorists. The land of literary greats like Orhan Pamuk and Yasar Kemal is under attack from all sides.
Every time the Turkish army has killed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in the countryside, or ISIS troops in Syria, terrorists have struck back. On 7 June, PKK militants attacked police personnel in Istanbul’s Vezneciler region, and the next day, in Mardin, a south-eastern town. As columnist Burak Bekdil points out, referring to the twin attacks in Istanbul and Mardin, contrary to claims by the Turkish army that it was they who were launching pre-emptive strikes, ‘the first pre-emptive strikes came from the terrorists’. Interestingly, the attacks came within days of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan giving the go-ahead to a bill lifting lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution, a plan apparently aimed at crushing dissent.
As the terror attacks on Turkey have heightened, another tragedy has been unfolding alongside, argues Ismet Berkan, another Turkish columnist and journalist. He says that on the morning of 8 June 2015, just as the country was done with its parliamentary elections, Turkey’s political institutions also started slipping out of the administration’s control. Politicians were no longer interested in consensus but in maximising their political interests, worsening matters. That was the new low, he argues.
VEDAT KILICHUVRAN HAS a funny name, and the 28-year-old knows it. “Many Indians find my surname funny. I don’t know why, but it is a real Turkish name,” says this beaming cashier at a Flo Shoes shop on Istiklal Street, renowned for its street food stalls, budget stores and flea markets, and where footfalls have fallen sharply over the year, forcing even lifestyle- product outlets to offer huge discounts to attract customers. Before blasts ripped through the street this March, killing four people, the number of visitors to this lively bazaar in Turkey’s Beyoglu area—which houses the iconic Taksim Square and is popular for its roaring nightlife—had reached 3 million a day. For the crashing sales at his shop, Kilichuvran blames terrorism and the perception that his country, a fast-growing economy with the image of a modern state, is tottering.
That image was crafted by the Republic’s iron-willed founder Kemal Ataturk. His modernisation drive launched in the 1920s, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, touched multiple spheres: political, cultural, legal and religious. Stephen Kinzer, a Turkish scholar and the author of Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, tells me that Ataturk ruled as a dictator because the post-war conditions of the time demanded it. Dani Rodrik, an acclaimed Istanbul-born Harvard economist, notes that Ataturk had laid the path for a Western-oriented, secular, democratic Turkey. An opposition politician I met near the Halic Congress Center in Istanbul raises a point, “‘Why aren’t other Islamic nations like Turkey?’ was a question people often asked. We were a country others looked up to. It is not just about miniskirts and the freedom for women to dress fashionably, but it is about secular political priorities. Nobody will ask that question anymore.” He was among the members of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who carried a black wreath while marching towards the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdoğan, to protest death threats against a senior opposition leader.
Erdoğan is moving Turkey away from the Ataturk ideal, however flawed it might have been, of a strong, secular republic
Neither Rodrik nor Kinzer is an admirer of Ataturk’s autocratic ways, but that cannot detract from the legacy of the man who steered the country away from the hold of the religious right and built a strong Turkey from the ashes of a grand empire that in its prime stretched across Europe, Asia and Africa. Ataturk, without doubt, had built a nation that had the power to intervene in regional conflicts. “Not long ago, Turkey was seen as a nation that could help resolve regional conflicts and set an example of political freedom at home. Now it is becoming the opposite,” points out Kinzer.
For his part, Erdoğan is rapidly moving Turkey away from the Ataturk ideal—however flawed it might have been—of a strong, secular republic. According to Turkish intellectual Mehmet Ugur, Erdoğan, 61, has been “pushing down the throat of the society a project that will take away all the gains they had under restricted democracy and secularism of the past”. Ugur, a professor of Economics at Greenwich Business School, says it is this trait that makes Erdoğan and his party “anachronistic”.
Ugur speaks an incontestable truth: since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Turkey has been a source of instability in the region. In addition, Turkey has been violating international law and international humanitarian law at an exponential speed, he says. “The AKP came to power claiming that Turkey would have zero-conflict with all neighbours. Currently, Turkey is in conflict with all of its neighbours,” he observes. “It has military personnel in Iraq despite the Iraqi government’s objections and calls for withdrawal,” adds the professor, “In Syria, it supports terrorist organisations. It has shot down a Russian plane, leading to economic sanctions from Russia. It is at loggerheads with Iran due to its illegal interventions in Syria. Its border with Armenia is closed and it is reacting in a hostile manner to all countries recognising the Armenian genocide. Its relations with Egypt are at an all-time low because of its support to the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Its relations with the US are tense because of its illegal activities in Syria and its hostile approach to Syrian Kurds. Had there been no refugee crisis, EU countries would have been more vocal in their criticism.”
Ugur’s verdict on Turkey under Erdoğan’s watch: the country no longer has a constructive role to play in world politics.
Foreign tourists have stayed away from Turkey this year, hurting the country’s economic mainstay. Istanbul-based tourist guide Muharram is upset about it, but then nothing stops him from cracking jokes as he shows a group of tourists around the Blue Mosque, explaining how the Ottoman sultans, more than 35 of them, had lived it up in their time. Knowledgeable on history from the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman empires to the formation of the Republic, he regrets that there is a call from a section of the political class to turn the 6th century Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Until Ataturk converted that monument into a museum in the 1930s, it had been a mosque since the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, which was renamed Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet II. Standing outside the awe-inspiring structure that has watched the rise and fall of three empires, Muharram feels that any such move would be a capitulation of the secular values on which the Republic was founded.
“IT IS Erdoğan’s Islamism that is really bad. A once secular Turkey is being dragged back into Islamic obscurantism,” says American military historian Edward Luttwak, who has spent a lot of time in the country researching his works, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. According to him, Erdoğan deliberately re-started the war with Turkey’s Kurds to arouse nationalist support for his party. “Disappointment is in order,” he predicts. “Turkey will sooner or later lose its Kurdish regions because of Erdoğan’s electoral manoeuvre.” Scholar Robert D Kaplan agrees. “Erdoğan decides too many things by himself. A leader who does not accept honest criticism and ignores experts will find himself in trouble,” he offers.
Turkish youth are deeply disappointed by the ruling party’s populism and strategy of aligning with Islamists
Several young people I spoke to around Turkey—in Istanbul, Antalya, Belek and various other locations in western Turkey— are deeply disappointed by Erdoğan’s populism and strategy of aligning with Islamists. They are crestfallen that, thanks to his domestic and foreign policies, the country has made several enemies, including the dreaded ISIS, which is allegedly behind Tuesday’s suicide attacks. In the process, the number of foreign arrivals to Turkey has slumped. It fell by 28 per cent in April to 1.75 million from the same month a year ago, the steepest decline since May 1999, according to data issued by the country’s tourism ministry. Visits by Russians, who comprise a major chunk of its tourists, saw a massive decline of around 68 percent in the first four months of the year compared to the same period last year. Russian tourist inflow fell further in May and June after Vladimir Putin imposed sanctions on Turkey. In Belek, Christina, who travels to work across the border from Bulgaria for work five days a week, says the tourist hot spot has been badly hurt. “Russians, Americans, Australians and Britons were the biggest group of tourists. They have stopped coming,” says the car-rental-agency manager in a pensive tone. Several tour companies had to shut shop in the country over the past few months. The downturn had worsened an already poor job market hit by an influx of Syrian refugees with cheap hands and child labour.
Ahmat, a Cappadocia-born engineer now based in Istanbul, says that Erdoğan, who has been president for two years and prime minister from 2003 to 2014, is primarily responsible for the crisis. It doesn’t help that tourists are being fleeced left, right and centre across the country, in a telling attempt to make up for devastating tourism losses. On Büyükada island, where I go to visit Russian leader and Stalin’s arch-rival Leon Trotsky’s home of exile from 1929 to 1933, an open-air cafe owner hands me a bill for 435 liras (about Rs 10,000) for a meal of fresh fish, though the average price on his menu is 20 liras. The experience is common in Istanbul, where you shouldn’t be surprised if you are charged an exorbitant amount for the unasked-for bread basket, or a tour of the Bosphorus that promises luxury yachts but delivers also-ran basic services, or for that matter a ‘city trip’ in a ‘luxury vehicle with a registered English- speaking guide’ who is nothing more than a regular city driver with a basic, well-worn SUV. These are desperate times.
The youth is palpably angry in private chats. “The fact is nobody is ready to talk about it openly because the government could come down on you with vehemence,” says a young doctor, seated at Istanbul’s famous Pandeli Restaurant, which was built in 1901 and where the Turkish elite once dined. Relishing the Turkish delicacy hünkar beğendi, she charges the country’s dictator-president with “destroying” relations with all countries in the region and also with Israel and Russia. “We are known for being different in the Muslim world. That is blurring,” she says, adding that her country will, however, remain a “favourite” market for arms suppliers from the US and Europe.
Young and educated Turkish people just want to go away, she insists. This was the sentiment I heard from the likes of Lerna, who works as cashier at a lingerie store to make enough money to return to the US where she had gone briefly to pursue studies. “In this country, politicians don’t respect the aspirations of the youth. What else can explain the policies of those in power?” says the young woman angrily. At a fish joint near the Galata Bridge where they sell fresh catch for less than 10 liras per piece, Arif, a young man who grew up on the Asian side of Istanbul, says, “Past glory is not important for the young man or woman who wants to ‘develop’. It is useful only for our MPs. We need more jobs and opportunities to make money and ‘develop’”. Galata Bridge, a bridge on the Golden Horn, a horn-shaped waterway, finds prominent mention in Turkish poetry and literature.
Like the young doctor and many others, Ugur also claims that “Turkey is—and will remain—an important ‘asset’ for the US and Europe”. He explains, “This is mainly due to its potential as a market for selling Western arms and as a counterbalance against a resurgent Russia. This is return to square one—when Turkey had been an important Western ally against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Throughout that period, Turkey’s place in the world was marked with frequent military coups, restricted freedoms and violence. The West did not bother much then, nor will it bother much in the future, where the past will haunt the future and Turkey continues to be a ‘role model’ for market-fuelled authoritarianism.” The president and his party rule Turkey like a gang and they have neutralised the opposition over key issues such as the rights of minorities, he adds.
Erdoğan, who had won praise for crushing the peaceful Gezi Park protests of 2013, draws strength, according to Ugur, from a large section of Turkish society whose outlook is nationalistic, Sunni, anti-Kurd, xenophobic and state-worshipping. Among the leader’s staunch supporters is Mohammed Ali, an Antalyan cab driver who cannot believe there could be a ‘Muslim American’ boxer with the same name, and who rants against people who worship ‘more than one god’. “All the progress in Turkey is because of Erdoğan,” he insists, before rubbishing the international name for Daesh. “Islamic State? They are not Islamic,” he says in disgust.
Following the latest attack on Istanbul, Erdoğan has come out with strong statements, as he has done before. He has often shown a great penchant for hyperbole, a quality dictators often possess. In a game of politics dominated by artifice, he has had great edge. Over rake (a traditional Turkish liquor) and biscuits, Nuran, a young Political Science student, tells me, “Turkey is a major regional power along with Iran and Saudi Arabia, besides Israel, and how they redefine and remake the Middle East is most likely to be the unmaking of their own people.”
This young lady can’t stand Erdoğan’s “nasty” comments on women and minorities such as the Zoroastrians. Kinzer sums it up, “The strong leadership that Erdoğan is providing is not what many younger Turks want. They look for leadership that will widen their horizons and connect them with the world. Instead, they are faced with a regime that seeks to limit political, personal and public freedoms.”
Deep-seated anger simmers, but on the surface, for a moment, everything could look beautiful, especially when you are trained to be in denial mode. A fun-filled, past-midnight boat ride on the Bosphorus where belly dancers whirl and Bollywood numbers ring out over the waters is at best a momentary distraction from the ocean of problems engulfing a country that straddles two continents and is trapped in its own history of endless intrigue and myriad conflicts.