Sowing Dragon Teeth

05.18.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | International Affairs | 1 Comment
Istanbul and Ankara saw explosions this Sunday on the eve of British PM Tony Blair's visit to Turkey, the first of what had been expected to become annual mini-summits between the leaders of the two countries. The four blasts aimed at the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation appear to be a retread of similar attacks by Turkish Hezbollah last November. While grotesque terrorist acts like these -- as well as the shooting and suicide bombing at a Istanbul Masonic lodge that claimed one victim -- are hardly new, there is a significant chance in the ideology of the attackers: A secular, leftist-nationalist resistance has been replaced by a radical Islamist one; a consequence of the authoritarian nature of the Turkish state and its harsh counter-insurgency methods.

The pattern begins to crystallize after 1887 with the formation of the first revolutionary socialist party, the Hunchaks, in what was then Ottoman Armenia. The situation worsened later with the formation of the more strictly nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Dashnaks, which later broke with the far less violent Hunchaks, its leadership declaring: "The Armenian is no longer imploring. He now demands, with gun in hand." Such proclamations, in conjunction with the spread of their activities as far westward as Istanbul, spurred Sultan Abdul Hamid to employ tactics that would begin a disturbing pattern in Turkish history: arming irregular armies to fight dirty wars. Forming a Kurdish cavalry force, 15,000 strong by 1892, Sultan Hamidiye or "men of the Sultan" were launched against these Armenian raiders and, armed with this official excuse, sowed fear through Istanbul's Christian quarters as well.

This pattern of leftwing resistance replaced by more violent Islamic resistance, and the government responding with increased and ill-focused violence of its own reemerged in the 1990s, albeit on a far greater scale. A Kurdish insurgency, led by the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, claimed 30,000 lives, most of them civilians, many killed during relatively small acts of terror. With its leader Abdullah Öcalan imprisoned, the group, now renamed KADEK, has renounced violence as it flirts with legitimate political activity. But it was during the military conflict of the 1990s that Turkey, in backing the PKK's chief rival, Turkish Hezbollah (which bears no connection to its Lebanese Shi'i namesake, although the Turkish military claims it receives funding from Iran) sowed the dragon's teeth for Islamist violence.

Considering the PKK's stridently secular, Marxist makeup it was inevitable that it would provoke the wrath of its Islamic counterpart in the Kurdish separatist movement. Taking advantage of this rivalry, the Center for Defense Information reports, Turkey backed the Muslim group with covert support, evidenced by revelations that the group was using weapons imported by Batman Governor Salih Sarman in the mid-1990s. Sarman, the Economist reported, claimed he was following the orders of then PM Tansu Ciller, who in turn said the plan had the approval of the military. Later in 1999 when the PKK agreed to a truce, Turkish Hezbollah lost its use to the authorities and the group suffered a series of government raids in 2000.    

In 2002, after authorities had believed the group was eradicated, Hezbollah killed Diyarbakir's chief of police and five other officers. In the past month they've stepped up their activities, attacking the HSBC branches in Istanbul as well as the British consulate there, claiming 28 lives. Only days prior, 25 had been killed and more than 200 injured in a car bombing at that city's oldest synagogue.

Now that Turkey is feeling the effects of having been allied with such dark forces, its options are rather limited. Strict military action has proven ineffective leaving the reformist approach the best path now available.

Justice and Development, the moderate Islamic ruling party, is battling the secular establishment, particularly the generals, for greater allowances for religion in civil society. The most recent conflict involves a penalty of religious education, in which those who received a religious high school, known as a Imam-Hatip, have their college entrance exams reduced by a fixer percentage.

Understanding the marginalizing effects this can have on religious students' education and subsequent careers (and, presumably, how such treatment can breed extremism and violence), PM Recip Tayyip Erdogan has lobbied forcefully to repeal such restrictions. So much so that the military establishment felt it had to comment on what elsewhere would be understood strictly as an education issue, an indication of how much further Turkey must travel to be truly considered a democracy.

Putting such reforms on the table falls far short of the heroic solutions that seem commensurate to the threat posed by such violent and primitive forces to be sure, but it's a necessary kind of heroics; one that takes the risk of gradually developing the fundaments of a civil society, which are anathema to Islamo-Fascist ideologies. Commentators in the west have drawn comparisons between violent Islamic movements such as Turkish Hezbollah and Fascist movements in Europe following the First World War and one such strong belief shared between the two movements is a quasi-mystical, organic interpretation of society. Such a view abhors the perceived bloodlessness of liberal society with its fidelity to the rule of law and way of diluting the religious zealotry on which it feeds. With luck the Turkish armed forces will prove PM Erdogan right. 

Does this O'Keeffe roustabout have a point in mind, besides filling up several hundred words with Googled research? When people tell me blogs and internet news is the future, I'll be sure to point them to New Partisan to shwow them the folly of their prophecy. Which is not to say those people are necessarily wrong, only that this utopianism is much the same as that which greeted the introduction of the radio. Hit me baby one more time. And somebody please hit Johnathan Leaf as well for his poorly focused, ill-considered and rather hysterical attack on Schlesinger, who deserves a far better thought-out hit piece. Somewhere, old partisans are turning in their graves.
05.18.2004 | Richard

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