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How Istanbul nightclub attack was linked to Turkey’s culture war

Did the Islamic State target “the apostate Turkish government” or New Year's Eve? The answer is complex.

On New Year’s Eve, many Turks, including myself, were hoping to begin a less bloody and less depressing year than 2016. It took only one hour and 15 minutes, however, for 2017 to present its first carnage. A lone gunman, later identified as a militant of the Islamic State (IS), entered Reina, one of Istanbul’s top nightclubs, and killed 39 people who were celebrating the New Year. He also triggered a deep fault line in Turkish society between the more secular, Westernized Turks, and more traditional Islamic ones.

What related the attack to Turkey’s culture war was the campaign against Christmas and New Year's Eve, which are often confused and conflated by Islamists. As in previous years, some Islamist groups came out with the slogan “Muslims do not celebrate Christmas!” An ugly poster showing an Islamist punching Santa Claus showed up in the streets, and a group of ultranationalists staged a scary protest where they pointed guns to the head of Santa Claus. Besides these extreme voices, the official Directorate of Religious Affairs released an intolerant statement defining New Year's Eve celebrations as a tradition of other worlds, other cultures and even as "illicit.”

That is why in the aftermath of the Reina massacre, many secular Turks blamed not only the all-extreme IS, but also more mainstream Islamist voices. Accordingly, the terror attack on the nightclub had come in a poisonous ideological atmosphere in which New Year celebrators were demonized. The attack was thus a “culmination” of Islamist intolerance in Turkey spearheaded by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The attack also was seen as having shown that "[IS'] mentality and rhetoric are shared and tacitly condoned by a considerable number of Erdogan’s followers” — and secular Turks have never “felt so alone.”

Such concerns by secular Turks are by and large justified. Yet I would partly differ from this common secular wisdom that defined the meaning of the attack by merely looking at the target. To understand the meaning, we should also look at what its culprit, IS, declared.

The IS declaration came out a day after the attack and began by praising “the heroic Caliphate soldier” who took revenge “against Turkey, the servant of the Crusaders.” It referred to the Turkish military campaign against IS in Syria and vowed, “The apostate Turkish government should know that the blood of Muslims shed with airplanes and artillery fire will, with God’s permission, ignite a fire in their own land.”

In other words, this was an act of retaliation against Turkey’s war on IS. In that sense, it had little to do with Turkey’s own culture war. That is something that secular Turks need to see. Also, all Turks need to see that no matter how Islamist the current government in Ankara may be, it is still an “apostate regime” by IS standards.

However, IS targeted not just any random target, but a nightclub where alcoholic drinks and miniskirts are abundant and a party was being held to celebrate the Gregorian New Year. No wonder the IS statement emphasized this aspect of the attack as well. The “heroic Caliphate soldier,” IS explained, “tore down one of the most famous nightclubs where Christians celebrated their polytheistic feast.” Since most people who go to Reina are not “Christians,” this was probably a reference to New Year’s Eve, which in the sick ideology of IS must have looked like a “polytheistic feast.”

In other words, those Turks who interpreted the Reina attack as an attack on a secular Western “lifestyle” were not wrong. IS decided to punish the “apostate Turkish government,” but chose a specific target that is deplorable according to its militantly religious worldview — similar to the November 2015 attacks in Paris where IS targets were restaurants, cafes and a rock concert.

By looking at all of this, here is what I can reason: To see the IS attack on Reina as a “culmination” of the anti-New Year bigotry in Turkey is a bit farfetched. That bigotry is ugly in itself, but to draw a direct line from that to the massacre would be wrong. As Turkish Christian Ziya Meral said, “Groups protesting against Christmas/New Year's Eve in Turkey have been around for two decades, but nowhere near the threshold needed for the attack last night.” Moreover, for IS, the mainstream Islamic authorities in Turkey — such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs — are “apostates,” and their ideas have no weight.

However, it is possible that IS might have thought the other way around: By attacking a target disliked by Turkey’s Islamists, it might have hoped to garner some sympathy for its carnage. No wonder the attack did find some sympathy, as some social media accounts expressed joy or at least malicious indifference about the massacre. This led to a major controversy, and the government initiated an investigation into “347 social media users who posted in support of terror following the Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul” — 347 people are not a lot, but they are not a little, either.

That is why Turkey’s Islamic opinion leaders should do a much better job of combating IS on the level of ideas. Typically, all they do is deny that IS has anything to do with Islam, and then explain it away as a Western conspiracy. After the Reina attack, their main focus was denying that it had something to do with targeting the secular lifestyle. They should have rather offered unreserved solidarity with the secular citizens who, rightly or wrongly, feel like outcasts. They also need to see that a culture of hatred can invite disastrous consequences and create a swamp in which evils like IS can flourish.

On a brighter note, the best religious response to the Reina attack came from Mehmet Gormez, the Islamic theologian and head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Perhaps also to make up for the negative stance of his institution on New Year's Eve, Gormez condemned the IS massacre immediately and declared, “There is no difference whether this barbarous act is committed in a bazaar, a place of worship or in a place of entertainment.” 

In other words, Turkey’s top cleric confirmed that the souls partying in a bar are as sacred as the souls worshipping in a mosque. That is a message that some conservative Muslims, in Turkey or elsewhere, really need to hear — and accept.

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