Treating Attacker as a Hero Exposes Moral Deprivation in Turkey’s Politics
Making a Hero Out of an Attacker. The Aftermath of Mob Attack Against Opposition Leader Reveals Moral Corruption in Turkey’s Politics.
Turkey still reels from the reverberating echoes of a mob attack against the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader at the weekend. No less disturbing was how the government responded to the attack in its aftermath.
The prevarication on the behalf of authorities to condemn the assault and the attacker exposes an emerging flawed political culture devoid of any shred of morality. How to describe the incident itself has become a matter of political controversy. Senior government figures equivocated in their wording and stopped short of outright condemning the attacker and other people who encircled the CHP leader for a possible lynching.
Government supporters saw no scruples in embracing Osman Sarigun, the suspect who punched CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as nothing less than a hero. Thousands poured positive comments on his Facebook profile. They even opened a hashtag “#OsmanAmcayalnızdeğildir” (Uncle Osman Is Not Alone) on Twitter. The suspect, who was released on the condition of judicial supervision after a brief detention, had previously been fired from a truck company over allegations of theft. Reports say he was a member of the ruling AK Party.
Presidential press advisor Fahrettin Altun felt compelled to rush to the defense of the attackers whom he claimed were unfairly ostracized by the opposition. According to Altun, they simply used their democratic right to protest. Separately, a statement by the Ankara Governor’s Office described the lynch attempt as a “protest by a group of people” aggrieved over the fallen soldier. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu also shifted the blame on Kilicdaroglu. He said he would have suggested him not to go if the CHP leader asked the minister’s opinion.
The not-so-subtle official efforts to downplay the gravity of the situation on the ground warrant further scrutiny. The episode in Ankara was worrisome enough from countless viewpoints. How could ordinary villagers and citizens be filled with such rage and contempt against a politician? How would hate become so endemic and pervasive among ordinary folk? Do government leaders feel any responsibility for their inflammatory and demonizing remarks? Not surprisingly, the optimism to answer these questions cogently seems to be in short supply.
That aside, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who was present in the scene to attend the funeral, only complicated the debate with his unscrupulous wording when he attempted to calm down the crowd during the hazy moments of the mob attack.
“My dear friends! You displayed your protest, you sent your message,” the defense minister addressed the crowd through a megaphone. But his sweetening and very polite remarks to soothe a seething crowd only invited a fiery backlash on social media. He might not have any malign intent or motive, but his call was read from an entirely different angle. People are tempted to draw similarities between his polite wording and the remarks by retired Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, former Chief of Staff who praised a non-commissioned officer convicted of orchestrating the bombing of a bookstore in the Kurdish city of Hakkari in 2005. Regarding the military officer Ali Kaya, who served nearly 10 years in prison for his role in the attack, Buyukanit said while the trial was ongoing: “I know him, he is a nice boy.” His remarks were read as an attempt to influence the trial and as an endorsement of a defendant facing serious charges.
The Power of Hate Speech
The tragic incident of this past Sunday represents a complete breakdown of social and civic decorum, signaling a bleak political future rife with potential strife and perils. But for observers of Turkey’s most recent political affairs, the attack was not surprising altogether. However startling it may seem at the moment, it was long in the making, especially after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior government leaders’ incessant hate speech and relentless efforts to demonize the members of the opposition party before and after the local elections.
Less than a year ago, Turkey’s Interior Minister Soylu ordered governors to block attendance by CHP politicians to soldier funerals. His instruction was part of a broader government strategy to discredit and demonize members of the opposition party in the eyes of the public, by linking the CHP to the PKK. The efforts became much more intense and palpable in leading up to the March 31 municipal elections. The president even portrayed the opposition alliance as a “terrorist alliance.”
Tethering CHP to PKK became something of a normal in the daily discourse of pro-government media, to a devastating effect. The same day when Kilicdaroglu was attacked, pro-Erdogan Gunes newspaper ran a headline: “Are You Happy Ekrem?” The headline spurred a spirited debate and sparked a fiery backlash from many corners of the political spectrum. The subtitle of the front page story ascribed the blame for the PKK attack that killed four soldiers near the Iraqi border on the newly elected mayor of Istanbul for his embrace of imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.
In an interview with Erbil-based Rudaw last week, Ekrem Imamoglu divulged his views on Turkey’s intractable Kurdish conflict and spoke about how he came to appreciate the political line of Demirtas, the former co-chair of pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). He praised the charismatic Kurdish leader’s peaceful and moderate approach to resolve the protracted conflict that has consumed Turkey for decades. He went on to depict Demirtas as a chance for Turkey.
Imamoglu’s Rudaw interview was enough for the Gunes daily to link him with the PKK, a dangerous association that would make the new mayor an open target for the aggrieved and enraged nationalists. The targeting of Imamoglu contained certain echoes of a trauma engendered by the unexpected loss of election in Istanbul governed by Islamist parties over 25 years. After two weeks of political wrangling and a subtle tug of war between the election authority and the ruling party behind the doors, Imamoglu obtained his mandate on Thursday to govern Turkey’s largest city, ending a saga that had consumed the nation since the March 31 municipal elections.
Imamoglu’s positive remarks about Demirtas during Rudaw interview were also part of his tribute to thank the former HDP co-chair for his endorsement of the CHP candidates in Istanbul and Ankara. The HDP did not place any candidate in both cities, a decision that proved to be vital to sway the vote in favor of the opposition candidates as Kurdish voters, with the call from Demirtas, supported Erdogan’s opponents.
The push for ostracization of CHP over alleged links to PKK might have been driven by a genuine fear on behalf of the Erdogan government over the prospect of CHP’s widening reach to Turkey’s disgruntled and restive Kurds. An alliance between Kurds and CHP (with IYI Party) would be undoing of Erdogan’s political future in next general and presidential elections. To blight such a prospect, there is even talk about Erdogan’s overtures to CHP for a new alliance. The president, according to some observers, mulls sharing power with CHP in a snub to its alliance with nationalists as part of an effort to fix the country’s wobbly economy and to regain the trust of global investors and international markets. Before anything else, Erdogan wants to cement his own fraying position, even if it requires forging an alliance with his erstwhile secular opponents.
Whether the recent attack against CHP leader was organized to sabotage such an attempt is, as our knowledge suggests at the moment, a supreme theme of conspiracy theories. But one thing is certain. Regardless of the opposition claim that the assault was premeditated and pre-planned, the government’s rabble-rousing, hate speech and demonization of opposition figures certainly appear to have contributed to what we witnessed. Osman Sarigun himself confessed. “I was influenced by the claim that Kilicdaroglu was a PKK supporter,” he told in his initial interrogation in custody.
It is quite telling. He felt the urge to act — to attack CHP Chairman Kilicdaroglu — after consuming too much news on (pro-government) television channels where the CHP leader was depicted as a “terrorist collaborator.”
It is no wonder then when the CHP chairman set foot in the village of Cubuklu on Sunday, many people did not mask their contempt and regarded confronting him as a patriotic duty.