Erdogan’s ‘divisive authoritarianism’ a factor in Istanbul attack?


The attack on Istanbul’s main airport has underlined President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increased weakness, a vulnerability that’s a product of the actions of Turkey’s allies and opponents alike. But it’s partly Erdogan’s own doing, according to Lina Khatib, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Erdogan has used the conflict as an opportunity to crack down on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a militant group that has been battling the Turkish state for decades and is listed by NATO, the U.S. and the EU as a terrorist organization, says Khatib (right), previously the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law: 

The government stoked the fires of Kurdish grievances, and the PKK returned the favor in-kind — ratcheting up its terror attacks on the Turkish state, mainly against security institutions like the police, which have increased in number and frequency over the past five years. But the attacks also benefited Erdogan, who used the attacks to present himself as the only person able to secure Turkey from terrorism.

The tactic worked for a while and enabled Erdogan to use the fear of instability as a rallying tool to secure a sweeping victory for his party in the last parliamentary election. But the focus on the PKK also meant diverting security resources that could have been deployed to gather intelligence on and prevent attacks by another cause of instability — ISIS, whose fighters are believed by some Turkish officials to have been behind this week’s airport massacre [discussed above by Joshua Walker, a Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy].

Turkey has become so vulnerable lately because it is polarized internally and isolated externally, writes Mustafa Akyol, the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” This is not the result of a “global conspiracy,” as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s propaganda machine keeps saying. It is the result of the president’s rigid, divisive and combative policies. He has picked fights with our neighbors and tried to crush his opponents at home.

Erdogan shares responsibility for the bombings, says analyst Leela Jacinto. The Syrian conflict is changing Turkish society for the worse, she writes for Foreign Policy:

Takfiri ideology — which advocates excommunication for Muslims not practicing the faith the strict Salafi way — is replacing the traditionally syncretic form of Islam practiced in Turkey, where Sufism and Hanafi Sunnism has long prevailed.

If Mr Erdogan is shrewd, he will apply more of the pragmatism he has shown this week both with Israel and with Russia, which received an apology for the shooting down of one of its fighter jets, The Economist adds:

He should stop stoking conflict within Turkey between Islamic conservatives and Western secularists, and between ethnic Turkish nationalists and Turkish Kurds. He must make defeating IS his priority in Syria. The last thing Turkey needs from Mr Erdogan is more divisive authoritarianism.

By not taking responsibility for its attacks in Turkey, ISIS wants to trigger societal fault lines, this time between supporters and opponents of Erdogan, leftists and rightists, Turks and Kurds, seculars and conservatives, notes Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute:

Turks of all political persuasions and backgrounds ought to learn from Iraq and unite in the face of the ISIS threat. At the same time, the Turkish government needs to use its full force to combat the ISIS threat to prevent Turkey’s potential catastrophic descent into chaos as a result of ISIS attacks.

Journalist Andrew Finkel says it appears Turkish authorities were able to keep the attackers outside of the Istanbul Ataturk airport terminals.

But Finkel, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, criticized the ostrich-like attitude of a state that reacts to bad news by trying to stop social media talking about it.

The Istanbul attack shows that a mistaken narrative continues. This isn’t a war between civilizations – it’s a war between barbarism and civilizations, writes Dr HA Hellyer, a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Centre for the Middle East in Washington, DC and at the Royal United Services Institute in London:

The likes of ISIL aren’t targeting the West and non-Muslims — they are targeting everyone who does not uphold their warped view of the world. And when anyone of that everyone is targeted, we ought to give it the same attention, treat it with the same urgency, and ensure that no one is left behind as we move against this threat.

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