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SIMON WALDMAN

Where are the ‘martyrs’ of the Istanbul nightclub attack? Add to ...

Simon Waldman is a visiting fellow at King’s College London and the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents.

Turkey’s latest terrorist outrage was an attack against the country’s delicate fault line between secular, religious and nationalist identities.

The shooting attack killed at least 39 people celebrating the new year at the glamorous Reina nightclub in the Ortakoy neighbourhood of Istanbul. Reportedly one of the dead is a Canadian. The assailant is still at large.

As one might expect, condemnation for the attack came through thick and fast from both Turkish leaders and the international community, nowadays an unfortunate common occurrence in Turkey. The country has been rocked by a wave of such outrages over the past 18 months by both the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, there was something different in the tone of the statement of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Condemning the night club shooting he remarked, “I offer my condolences to our citizens’, to our foreign guests’ and to our security officer’s families.”

While this may sound all well and good, what was absent in Mr. Erdogan’s statement was the use of the term “martyr” to describe those who lost their lives. While such terminology might not be appropriate for foreign nationals, it is a word that Mr. Erdogan and his government almost always adopts with the death of a Turkish citizen in a terrorist attack or from military combat, especially since the failed coup attempt earlier in July, allegedly orchestrated by followers of the self-exiled Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen.

After the attempted coup, the iconic Istanbul bridge over the Bosphorus Strait was renamed the “15 July Martyrs Bridge.” This is the very same bridge that the Reina nightclub, that was targeted on Sunday, overlooks. Many street names, landmarks and even bus stops were also named after “martyrs” following the attempted coup.

Following December’s Besiktas stadium attack in Istanbul which killed 46 people, Mr. Erdogan spoke of “martyrs” who lost their lives, stating, “with God’s help we will overcome it, and if we die we are martyrs.” Similar comments were made after the Kayseri bombing, which took place a few days later and killed 13 soldiers.

Although troubling in the minds of many secular Turks, in the parlance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), describing a victim of terrorism a “martyr” is considered praise.

The victims of the new year’s day massacre at the Reina nightclub received no such praise from Turkey’s ruling politicians. Perhaps one reason was because they were revelling at a premises that serves alcohol. Mr. Erdogan and the AKP, both of which have roots in political Islam, have been vocal in their disdain of alcohol, levying heavy taxes on such products and placing restrictions on where it can be served.

Maybe another reason was that those in the nightclub were celebrating New Year’s Eve. This year there has been particular backlash in some ultra-nationalist and religious circles condemning the celebration of non-Muslim practices such as Christmas and New Year’s with Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus. Turkey’s state-run Directorate of Religious Affairs even released a declaration which was read across Turkey’s mosques during Friday prayers warning against such non-Muslim practices.

Or perhaps it was because those who attend glitzy establishments would be less likely to be supporters of either Mr. Erdogan or the AKP, and instead hail from the traditional secular elite of Turkish society who enjoy a Western non-religious lifestyle, the anathema of what the AKP stands for.

Although Mr. Erdogan is right when he said that the aim of the terrorists was to “create chaos,” if he is serious about healing rifts within the country and maintaining unity through this period of instability, the lives of all citizens must matter equally whether religious, secular, Sunni Muslim, Alevi or Kurd. This is especially important as the country reels from last summer’s attempted coup and while purges continue across state institutions and civil society against anyone suspected of being affiliated with the Gulen Movement.

Adding to suspicion and mistrust is Mr. Erdogan’s plans to change the country’s political system into a presidential one, the drafting of which has taken place while the country remains under a state of emergency. Many Turks who do not share the values of the president or the ruling AKP fear that they no longer have a place in Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey. Addressing these concerns should be his primary concern. However, as the undertone of his statement following Sunday’s attack reveals, this is highly unlikely.

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