Turkey Pulse

Why do Turks blame the West for PKK terror?

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Article Summary
Conspiracy theories aside, Turks can be forgiven for thinking that Western support for Syrian Kurds is essentially support for the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party.

On the night of Dec. 10, Istanbul was hit hard by a double suicide attack. First, a car bomb rammed into a bus carrying riot police who had just finished work at the Besiktas stadium, in the heart of the city. Then, a minute later, a suicide bomber marched toward the scene, apparently to kill the people who would come to help the victims of the first attack. Police spotted the second attacker, and he detonated his explosives prematurely. Still, 44 people lost their lives. Many of them were police officers, others were just bystanders.

The government soon said the attackers were members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the separatist group fighting Turkey for Kurdish autonomy since 1984. A little later, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed the attack, but this did not make much of a difference. In Turkey, the TAK is known as the offshoot of the PKK, created to claim responsibility for radical acts of violence with which the PKK does not want to be associated.

Naturally, the attack led to a wave of anger against the PKK across Turkey. The PKK, however, was not the only target of the fury. The United States and the European Union (EU) also received blame. When crowds gathered at the crime scene to commemorate the “martyrs,” they also protested against the EU. When a delegation of consuls general in Istanbul, headed by American and European diplomats, visited ground zero to lay flowers in honor of the victims, some in the crowd gathered yelled, “The murderers are here.”

The pro-government media was more fierce. Yeni Safak ran the headline, “Heinous Attack in Besiktas Is Claimed by PKK, the Subcontractor of Europe and America.” Aksam, another mouthpiece of the same political ilk, went with the headline, “Whose Dogs Are You?” a rhetorical question aimed at the PKK and pointing to Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. Some Twitter trolls even pointed fingers at Western journalists in Turkey, accusing them of having advance knowledge of the attack, without any logic other than mindless hate. The controversial mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, even claimed that the BBC had been “prepared” for the attack.

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Why are so many Turks, especially government supporters, expressing such anger not just at the PKK, but the Western world as well?

The first reason is Turkey’s penchant for conspiracy theories, which in recent years has become a key component of official ideology. Accordingly, the PKK and other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, target Turkey not because they have ideologically driven ambitions of their own, but because they are “subcontractors” of a conspiratorial Western cabal. This evil force wants to halt the rise of President Tayyip Erdogan’s glorious “New Turkey” at all costs. That is why the nation has so many troubles.

Viewing the PKK as part of a Western plot to create a “puppet Kurdish state” in the Middle East is nothing new. Previous Turkish governments and ruling elites have believed the same, which is easier than asking how Turkey might have wronged its Kurdish citizens. The resurgence of conspiracy theories under Erdogan during the past three years, however, is unprecedented in scale and ferocity. The theories may be laughable to Western observers and cosmopolitan Turks, but millions of other Turks actually believe them and thus have developed grudges against the alleged conspirators.

The second reason for the anger at the West does not involve political paranoia, but rather mistakes made by the West. It stems from the sympathy the PKK and its affiliates have lately found in the West, a sentiment many Turks see as confirming the basis of their distrust.

This sympathy is mainly a product of the Syrian civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State, on which Western attention has focused in the past three years. Western politicians and media are heard to repeatedly praise “the Kurds” as the most heroic fighters against the Islamic State, without always differentiating which Kurds they mean. In Iraq, they are represented by the Kurdistan Regional Government, led by President Massoud Barzani, with which Turkey has no problem and, in fact, has good relations. In Syria, however, “the Kurds” means the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which shares the same narrative and ideology developed by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Thus, when Turks read in the newspaper that the United States is arming the military wing of the PYD, the People's Protection Units, or see an exhibit at the European Parliament in Brussels seeming to glorify PYD fighters, they get angry. They may be mistaken in taking Western support for the PYD as also being support for the PKK, but it is an easy mistake to make. Moreover, the weapons that the United States provides the PYD seem to end up in the hands of the PKK, making Turkey’s fury understandable.

Adding to the problem, the PKK sometimes receives praise in Western media for being a “progressive” movement that brought gender equality to Kurdish society. Well, the Marxist PKK’s “progressivism” on that front resembles that of Stalin and Mao: Women are indeed “liberated” from tradition and “empowered” against the traditional yoke of men, but only to become apparatchiks of a totalitarian movement, not free individuals. These women include PKK, or TAK, suicide bombers, such as 24-year-old Seher Cagla Demir, who blew herself up in March, killing 37 people in downtown Ankara.

In short, while the conspiracy theories spun in Turkey are preposterous, Western leniency toward the PKK for being “feminist” or anti-jihadist makes these theories seem more credible. To break this vicious cycle, and also to be true to their own principles of opposing terrorism, Western political and opinion leaders should take a clearer stance against the PKK.

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Found in: terrorism, tak, recep tayyip erdogan, pkk, kurds, european union, democratic union party, conspiracy theories

Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for LibertyAkyol is currently a visting senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish

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