By Dexter Filkins
January 3, 2017
Following the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul, democracy in Turkey is likely to enter a death spiral. The issue isn’t the attack itself, terrible as it was. On New Year’s Eve, a lone gunman made his way into the Reina dance club, which was jammed with revellers, and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing thirty-nine people and wounding dozens. The shooter has not yet been identified, but, in an Internet posting, the Islamic State claimed that one of its soldiers had done the job. In its typical deranged language, the group said that it had happily struck the revellers, “turning their joy into sorrows.” The attack, the group said, was in retaliation for air strikes and other military operations carried out by the “Turkish apostate government” against Isis in Syria.
If the shooting were an isolated event, the effect on Turkish society would probably be minimal. But it was the latest in a series of violent attacks against the Turkish state, which has prompted sweeping retaliatory measures that have seriously undermined Turkish democracy. Sunday morning’s massacre will no doubt trigger another wave of detentions and arrests.
The catalyst for the crisis occurred in July, when a group of rogue officers and soldiers in the Turkish armed forces tried to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The attempted coup failed, but two hundred and sixty-five people were killed. The details seemed to have been lifted straight from a spy thriller: many of the plotters were followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania. (In October, I wrote about Gülen and the attempted coup for the magazine.) And while it appears, on the evidence, that followers of Gülen may indeed have been behind the attempted putsch, Erdogan has used it as a pretext to launch a sweeping purge of Turkish society, with the apparent goal of crushing whatever is left of democratic opposition to his rule. A series of other attacks—some by Kurdish separatists, some by isis loyalists—has only further legitimized the President’s crackdown.
It’s impossible to find precise numbers, but since July thousands of civilians have been arrested and jailed—many, if not most, with no apparent connection to Gülen or isis or Kurdish militants. Hundreds of thousands of others have been either fired or suspended from their jobs. Among those arrested are university professors, career bureaucrats, leaders of the democratic opposition, and journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least eighty-one journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey, and more than a hundred news outlets have been closed. Last week brought word that Ahmet Sik, one of the country’s most fearless investigative reporters, had been arrested and detained; apparently, Turkish officials charged him with spreading “terrorist propaganda” through a series of tweets. In 2010 and 2011, he served a year in prison, in a blatant (and futile) attempt by Turkish authorities to halt publication of his investigation into the secretive activities of Gülen—who, at the time, was Erdogan’s most important ally—and his followers. I saw Sik this past August, after the purges had begun, and he told me he had little doubt that Erdogan aimed to remove all impediments to his rule. “Very soon, I think, they will arrest me, too,’’ he said.
As Erdogan has moved ever more assuredly toward dictatorship, he has also pulled Turkey—a member of nato and historically the Islamic world’s strongest secular state—away from the West. Erdogan has imposed a number of measures increasing the influence of Islam in public life; as it happens, government-appointed Muslim clerics—whose sermons are typically prepared by the state—told their followers at a recent Friday prayer that New Year’s Eve celebrations belonged to “other cultures and other worlds.”
The Turkish government’s policy toward isis has been just as galling. When the uprising against the Syrian dictatorship began, in 2011, Erdogan was so determined to see Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, fall that he threw open Turkey’s borders, allowing tens of thousands of Jihadis to pass into Syria. In late 2015, at the urging of President Obama, Erdogan finally joined the coalition against isis; hence the group’s bitterness toward the Turkish state. But Turkey’s leaders bear a heavy responsibility for the rise of extremists across the border—and inside Turkey, too. isis, allowed to operate inside Turkey for years, is now well established there.
Following the New Year’s Eve attack, Erdogan asked his countrymen to remain calm. “We will retain our cool headedness as a nation, standing more closely together, and will never give ground to such dirty games,” he said.
If only Erdogan would follow his own advice.
Dexter Filkins joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2011.