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The revival of Turkey’s 'lynching' culture

Nationalist and religious fervors have revived Turkey’s tradition of physical and political "lynching," with the victims ever unprotected and the assailants ever untouchable.

Turkey’s collective memory is heavily burdened with state-provoked, politically motivated mob violence attempts against minority groups, colloquially described as "lynching." In recent weeks, hundreds of violent incidents have heralded the resurgence of the mob violence culture as the country’s climate grows more toxic by the day, with political actors fanning hatred and normalizing violence.

In Turkey’s near history, mobs targeted mainly Armenians, Syriacs, Jews, Greeks, Alevis and Kurds. As Tanil Bora, author of the book “Turkey’s Lynching Regime,” puts it, “When it comes to Alevis and Kurds, this has always been a ‘free shot’ area. The 'lynching' of leftists has always been permissible. Police and ‘sensitive citizens’ act on the basis of this knowledge.”

The latest target of the mobs are the Kurds again. As of Sept. 16, a Google search with the key words “lynching attempt” in Turkish produced some 78,800 results for the period since July 24, when Ankara resumed military operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), shattering the settlement process with the armed, outlawed group.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — vilified by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since the run-up to the June 7 polls and always deemed an enemy by the Nationalist Action Party — has seen its offices vandalized, ransacked or torched. According to figures provided by the HDP media department, 128 party offices were attacked in the Sept. 6-11 period alone. Ordinary Kurds have not been spared either. Kurdish workers and bus passengers, Kurds speaking Kurdish in the street, and even tanned people mistaken for Kurds have been attacked and Kurdish-owned businesses vandalized.

Turkey’s past century has seen a series of pogroms and mob violence in which the state apparatus directly took part, acted as an instigator or conductor, or simply looked the other way. The 1915 Armenian genocide, the 1914-15 massacres that wiped Syriacs off this geographic area, the 1937-38 massacres of 13,000 Alevi Zazas in Dersim and the deportation of 12,000 others could be seen as planned actions of the state. But the 1934 pogroms in Thrace, which prompted the exodus of up to 15,000 Jews; the Sept. 6-7, 1955, Istanbul pogroms, which saw Greek, Jewish and Armenian properties ransacked; the 1978-80 massacres of Alevis in Maras, Sivas and Corum; and the 1993 torching of a hotel in Sivas in which 37 Alevi intellectuals perished are engraved in memory as the terrible deeds of frenzied mobs.

One can hardly argue that democratic values have now advanced and this is all left in the past. The phenomenon is recurring.

The first harbinger came with the 2013 Gezi Park protests as stick-wielding shopkeepers took to the streets, terrorizing the demonstrators who were challenging the government. Legitimizing the sticks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would later famously say, “When need be, shopkeepers are police, soldiers, combatants or guardians of the neighborhood.” He went further last month, calling neighborhood mukhtars (elected district headmen) to duty as informers: “I know my mukhtars [are aware] what kind of people live in which house. They [need to] go to their governors or police chiefs and report this to them.” This rhetoric has sanctioned another form of unlawfulness that opens the door to a new form of mob attacks at the hands of informers.

As military operations against the PKK resumed, the PKK stepped up its own attacks, and funerals of policemen and soldiers became a daily routine. Easily agitated “sensitive citizens” and long-established nationalist groups such as the Idealist Hearths went on the rampage against Kurds, joined by a hitherto little-known group, the AKP-linked Ottoman Hearths. Here are several examples of the mob violence that has simmered since late July:

  • On Sept. 8, nationalists in the Mediterranean town of Fethiye launched a manhunt for Ibrahim Cay, a Kurd who had shared a picture of himself clad in traditional Kurdish attire on Facebook. Cay received a call from the local paramilitary police commander, who told him to stay at home and that he was coming to pick him up. Soon, not the commander but two cars and four motorcycles arrived outside his home. Cay saw what was coming and ran away. A mob of about 70 people soon got hold of Cay, beat him up in the town square and forced him to kiss the Ataturk statue there. It was only then that the paramilitary police arrived to rescue the battered man. In the hospital, doctors refused to treat him, while a mob of some 300 frenzied people gathered outside, waiting to lynch him. The security forces, who did nothing to the assailants, took Cay to the police station for questioning. The paramilitary commander then attempted to send Cay out on his own, though the mob was now waiting outside the police station. Cay managed to safely leave the station and then the town thanks to relatives who came to pick him up. The five assailants he had named in his testimony walked free after questioning, while the prosecution launched a criminal investigation against Cay on charges of “praising crime and criminals” by posting a picture of himself in “peshmerga attire.”
  • On Sept. 14, a group of men taunted Kurdish construction workers in Mudurnu, northwestern Turkey, for “looking disrespectfully” at a Turkish flag and followed them to the site where they were building a school. Soon, rumors spread that Kurds had burned a Turkish flag, drawing hundreds of people to the construction site. The mob set the building ablaze as the eight workers holed themselves up on the roof. They were barely rescued after several hours. Again, not the assailants but the victims were questioned. It turned out four of them hailed from families serving as “village guards,” which are government-armed Kurdish militia that back the army against the PKK.
  • On July 29, rumors spread in Askale, eastern Turkey, that a Kurdish construction worker wore a ring "symbolizing the PKK.” This alone was enough for 2,000 people to flock to the construction site and attack the some 50 Kurds working there.
  • On Sept. 8, the makeshift homes of seasonal Kurdish workers in Beypazari, near Ankara, were burned down and their families battered.
  • On Sept. 9, a man with a dark complexion was beaten up in the Mediterranean city of Antalya as the assailants wrongly assumed he was a Kurd. He was let go only after producing an ID card that showed he was born in western Turkey.

The attempts at physical attacks go together with political attacks and character assassinations. The Dogan Media Group, to which the mass-circulation daily Hurriyet and the CNN Turk news channel belong, has become one of the main targets of character assassinations. In addition to two mob attacks on the offices of Hurriyet, which, by the way, has an anti-PKK line, prosecutors have launched a probe against the Dogan Media Group on charges of supporting terrorism.

A striking example of political attacks came from the AKP mayor of Antalya’s Gundogmus district, who, heeding Erdogan’s portrayal of the HDP as a terror-linked party, hung a billboard that proclaimed HDP voters enemies: “Kurds who pray in the mosque and then vote for the HDP can’t be my brothers. Brotherhood is a sublime rank. Dastards can’t make for brothers. Those who vote unwillingly for the HDP are cowards and those who do voluntarily are dastards.”

In sum, nationalist and religious fervors have resurrected the tradition of physical and political "lynching." While seemingly issuing calls for restraint, Erdogan has not hesitated to tickle the fascist mind, programmed to kill and destroy. Last week, for instance, he spoke of “fists raised up in rage looking for a place to come down.”

In what remains an unchanging trait of the state, the perpetrators of violence enjoy the favor of the security forces, who are more interested in grilling the victims than the assailants. Despite hundreds of mob violence attempts, the security forces have detained only a handful of people, only to release them after questioning. And almost always, they have found a reason to investigate the victims. To use Bora’s words, so-called "lynching" — used as a “governing technique and a means to mold public opinion” — is back in play in Turkey with a new format and new actors.

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