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.

al-monitor Members of Turkish police special forces search a suspicious car during a security patrol in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, Sept. 8, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Sertac Kayar.
Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin

@fehimtastekin

Topics covered

turkish-kurdish relations, protests in turkey, lynch, kurds in turkey, kurdistan workers' party (pkk), armenian genocide

Sep 22, 2015

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:

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