Turkey has long been haunted by the spectre of a fascist-tinged nationalism peculiar for a largely Muslim country. The politics of the nationalist Right claim legitimacy and roots in the legacy of Ataturk’s Young Turkey movement that united the country under a secular modernizing but authoritarian élite back in the 19th century. The most recent wave of this nationalism gathers around the Grey Wolves youth movement and the Turkish Nationalist Party (MHP). The current leader of the MHP (which re-entered parliament in the 2007 elections) is Devlet Bahçeli, a long-time activist in ‘The Great Idealist Cause’. Bahçeli is a leading champion of a return to the death penalty in Turkey, despite the participation of his party in the government that was forced to abolish it under European pressure.
The ‘Cause’ encompasses the full panoply of what has been traditionally regarded as classic fascist belief – the purity of the blood of the Turkish race, the belief in Turan (a greater Turkish empire which spreads across Asia as far as Xinjiang Province in northwestern China), a sanitized, heroic version of Turkish history that denies the Armenian holocaust and the suppression of the Kurdish minority. It also holds that dissent and democratic rights (particularly Kurdish rights) weaken Turkish civilization.
To realize this programme, the Turkish Right has followed a policy of murder and mayhem against its opponents both in the country and outside it. The main victims have been either Kurds or leftists but the violence is by no means restricted to them. Sympathizers in the military and security apparatus have allowed this policy to be carried out with a degree of impunity, often involving their own personnel in clandestine provocation and killing. After the coup of 1980 the military turned on the MHP, charging 220 of its members with some 694 murders. They were offered leniency, however, if they agreed to restrict their activities to fighting against the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) and the Armenian Secret Army.
We are not talking here about a lunatic fringe of a couple of hundred fanatics. At the time of the 1980 military coup the Grey Wolves were estimated to have 200,000 registered members and a million sympathizers. In recent elections the MHP passed the fairly rigorous 10 per cent threshold of electoral support to re-enter the national stage. Bahçeli ran an unabashedly nationalist campaign based on fierce xenophobic rhetoric and a recognizable fascist hand gesture. In other words, there is a strong base for this authoritarian nationalism amongst sectors of the Turkish people.
The three shots fired into the head and neck of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink on 19 January 2007 outside his Istanbul office provided a stark reminder of the ‘permission-giving’ atmosphere that the nationalists have been able to create to deal with anyone considered to have ‘insulted the nation’. His young assassin claimed Dink had ‘insulted Turkish blood’. Dink’s was only the latest in a series of murders and lesser threats to suppress an emerging self-critical civil society. Writers and musicians, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have all come under threat.
The most brutal assaults, however, have been on the Kurds, including a series of ‘false-flag attacks’ where militants kill and rape in Kurdish towns and villages while pretending to be PKK guerrillas. Such attacks are often in collaboration with security forces. After one 2005 attack on a bookstore in the Kurdish town of Semdinli, two NCOs in the Turkish armed forces were arrested.
The Wolves and the MEP are active in a series of international causes as befits their pan-Turkic ambitions. One, Mehmet Ali Agca, tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. Others have engaged in clandestine action from Cyprus to Chechnya, with special attention to Azerbaijan, where they sided with the forces fighting the Armenians during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Will the electoral avalanche that brought Turkey’s Islamic-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP) back to power earlier this year put an end to the threat of military intervention and the periodic murders that until recently have punctured Turkey’s democratic reputation? In an odd alignment of forces, Turkey today is divided between authoritarian secular nationalists, both military and civilian, on the one side and a liberal pro-Europe Islamic government on the other. The Islamic groups are the ones defending human rights and democratic norms, but how far can they go in challenging the nationalists and the military apparatus that supports them? The case against the murderers of Hrant Dink is not encouraging in this respect – several police officers and security officials from the northern city of Trabzon with advanced knowledge of the plot have not been charged. Charges also continue to be brought against those who violate Turkey’s notorious section 301 of the penal code which prohibits ‘insults against Turkishness’.
But the strength of the AKP shown in their election victory has caused a shake-up in the Turkish nationalist camp. The mainstream Republican People’s Party has become more nationalist, with a political stance similar to the crude rightwing populism of the MHP. In the meantime other groups such as the ultra-nationalist Kuvayi Milliye Association (KMD) have been associated with violent attacks on journalists, media outlets and lawyers associated with human rights advocacy. Bahçeli and his sympathizers continue to have a worrying impact.