Erdogan Fans the Flames of Discord in Turkey

How many people can Turkey’s Prime Minister declare as traitors and terrorists before he loses credibility even with his own voters?

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, center, at a ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of Republic Day (October 2013)
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, center, at a ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of Republic Day (October 2013)Credit: Reuters
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

With only two weeks left until Turkey’s local elections, the country’s future is looking murkier than ever. Over the course of the last week, Turkey has seen three funerals related to political violence, attacks by fanatics on pro-Kurdish politicians and their party headquarters, and a prison-release of convicted coup plotters, along with suspects jailed for politically motivated murders.

If this was not enough, the country’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems set on fanning the flames, rather than working to ease tensions. In fact, social and political polarization, as long as it diverts public attention from the major corruption claims of which he is accused, seems like his campaign strategy.

During the last few weeks, the People’s Democratic Party, a Kurdish-leftist coalition, has been subjected to racist attacks by Turkish nationalists, including an assault a week ago by hundreds of protesters on its Fethiye city headquarters during which they pelted rocks, smashing windows, with local officials joining in replacing the party’s sign with a Turkish flag. The previous day the party’s co-chairman narrowly escaped being lynched by radical nationalists. And despite Turkey’s far-right nationalist party being the obvious culprit, its leader has denied any involvement, warning party members not take part in similar provocations. If, following the elections, certain Kurdish parties make good on their word to declare autonomy in Turkey’s southeastern region, the situation will be far more precarious.

Anti-Kurdish violence has, however, taken second stage to the events following the death of 15-year old Berkin Elvan last Tuesday. The young boy had been in a 269 day-coma since being hit by a teargas canister fired by the police during the Gezi Park protests. His story became a symbol of sheer injustice: Not even a protester, Elvan was caught up in clashes while buying bread for his family’s breakfast. All calls to find and prosecute the police officer responsible for his injury, and now death, have fallen on deaf ears.

Elvan’s death triggered a spontaneous outpouring of support across Turkish society: People took to the streets, universities and public squares to protest. Hundreds of thousands came out to pay their last respects at his funeral, and were eventually dispersed by police using massive force. The level of violence used against the protesters was astonishing even by Turkey’s recent standards: Teargas canisters shot inside a bakery full of people, water cannon sprayed on them as they were falling down, choking, plastic bullets being shot at close range.

As the protests following the funeral dwindled, reports of pro-AKP/Erdogan supporters taking to the streets emerged, with claims they were armed with clubs to enforce order. One of those groups included the 22-year old Burak Can Karamanoğlu, shot by a radical leftist group following a street gun battle. Then Ahmet Kucuktag, a 30-year old police officer, died from a teargas-induced heart attack battling protesters.

If anyone thought that Erdogan might use the teenager Elvan’s death as a way to calm the storm, he did the exact opposite. Ignoring members of his own government who offered their condolences, or public mourning such as the Istanbul Stock Market’s moment of silence, the Prime Minister’s first comments on the event, at an election rally, threw salt on the wounds. He claimed Elvan had belonged to a terrorist organization in contrast to the pro-AKP victim, Burak, whom he mourned as a martyr.

It would be a grave mistake to think that Erdogan pleased his entire constituency with such defamatory language. All three fathers of the young victims have made numerous statements calling for reconciliation and mutual condolences, recognizing the equalizing effect of their sons’ deaths.

With violence spilling into the public sphere, this week’s release of several Ergenekon convicts adds to the bleak picture. Released “on technicalities” from life sentences for working to overthrow the government, following the government’s recent revamping of the judicial system, some are infamous for wreaking public havoc, by their stringent and purist Turkish nationalism directed against journalists and writers, or their opposition to Kurdish aspirations. The sense of unease about public security has only been strengthened by the release to house arrest of five suspects connected to the 2007 murder of three Christian missionaries.

The convergence of the funerals with these convict releases should send a warning signal out to Turkey’s leaders and public alike that if the right steps are not taken the country could be headed back to darker days that most thought long gone. While the local elections will serve as a sign of which way the country is headed, whatever the turnout, Turkey has a long road to find a way back to a path of hope.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York and writes on Turkish, and Israeli/Palestinian affairs. His upcoming book is on Ottoman Palestine. He has lived most of his life between the U.S., Israel, and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv He blogs at:

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