Several hours ago, a suicide bomber struck Taksim, the heart of Istanbul, leaving many dead and several more injured. This follows only a few days after a car bomb went off in the Turkish capital of Ankara, which killed at least twenty-seven and injured nearly three times as many. About a month before that, Ankara suffered another terrorist attack on February 17, where another thirty were killed and sixty injured.
There’s more. In October 2015, a protest organized between several groups—including several workers’ unions and the largely-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—was attacked in Ankara, leaving over 100 dead and scores more injured. In July of the same year in the border town of Suruc, thirty people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a meeting primarily among young people dedicated to rebuilding the nearby Syrian town of Kobani. In June, four people were killed and 100 more injured when a bomb exploded at a political rally for HDP, where party co-leader Selahattin Demirtas was in attendance.
I’ll stop here and simply note that this list goes on and on. Minor bombings occur on a regular basis. Several groups perpetrate these bombings, most notably the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)—a group designated as a terrorist organization—ISIS, a smattering of small far-left Marxist-Communists, and possibly even the Turkish government.
I’m not going to go full conspiracy theorist here. The Turkish government, if not directly responsible, is at least indirectly responsible for their unwillingness to monitor their own borders with Syria and for their continued aggression against the Kurds in the eastern provinces. Suicide bombers, regardless of which faction from which they come, have no leg to stand on, but the government is at least partially complicit in undertaking actions that assure the country becomes more unstable.
Turkey also has the peculiar practice of what’s called ‘media blackouts.’ During events like the aforementioned bombings, or even directly after polls close in elections, media outlets are not permitted to broadcast information for several hours. This was perhaps best demonstrated during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Istanbul to demand the resignation of the AKP government, yet a program about penguins aired on CNN Turk. The government also routinely blocks access to Twitter and Facebook when information they don’t like is being spread through social media, such as the audio recordings of Erdogan and his son, Bilal, discussing what ought to be done with the large amounts of illegally obtained money.
AKP (Justice and Development Party) has a long and strenuous relationship with the Turkish media. Recently, AKP has taken to seizing media outlets critical of the government, with the most blatant example being that of the daily newspaper Zaman. Zaman was owned and operated by Fetullah Gulen, a prominent Islamic faith figure with religious schools across the globe. Gulen actually helped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan first ascend to power, but their relationship became strained after Erdogan announced all dersahne (small, private tutoring centers) would be closed, including those owned by Gulen. The tone of Zaman, which up until that point had been supportive of AKP, changed overnight, becoming one of the leading critics of Erdogan and his party.
Turkey is also well-known for jailing more journalists than any other country in the world, including the likes of China and Iran. Last November, the government arrested Can Dundar and Erdem Gul of the leftist opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet for ‘espionage.’ Their crime? Reporting that Turkish security forces supplied ISIS with weapons.
There are innumerable reasons for the political strife in Turkey right now. The tension between AKP supporters and detractors is palpable. The country has a long and rich history of violent military coups, and their republic has always been fragile as disparate groups compete for power and unstable coalitions between political parties collapse.
There is no easy solution for Turkey, and there is little Western forces can do to intervene to save the country from itself. Intervening, of course, is more likely to ramp up Erdogan’s anti-Western rhetoric, which he regularly employs to deflect criticism. He has chosen, deliberately or not, a good time to try and solidify his grip on power, as more and more countries in the region become ungovernable.
During the time I lived and worked in Turkey, I witnessed the currency devalue, food prices rise, and the police transform into an arm of pure government oppression. I attended protests where police pepper sprayed people indiscriminately, shot rubber bullets without regard, and laughed at their fellow citizens for their unwinnable plight. In short, I’ve lived in a country not my own where, as an outsider, I was privy to what it would be like to live without a certain set of freedoms unfathomable to be absent in America.
This post isn’t to pose an answer to Turkey’s problems. It’s not to compare Erdogan to Trump. It’s to remind us, Americans, that we should cherish the freedoms we have, and to be ever vigilant when threats disguised as salvation come to take them away.