By Mustafa Akyol
Turkey is a very complex society, with various layers of identity, ideology and bigotry not just juxtaposed against but also added on top of each other. To see how this complexity plays out regarding the civil war in Syria, in particular the battle for Kobane between the Kurds and the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), let me suggest you an interesting publication to watch:
“Türk Solu,” or “Turkish Left,” which is an online magazine that subscribes to a blend of very hardcore nationalism and secularism. Its website presents a nice photo of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and most of the magazine’s writers define themselves as “Atatürkist” or “Kemalist”.
Since Atatürk is the symbol of Turkey’s secular heritage, what would you expect this magazine to think regarding the battle for Kobane? They should see the ISIL, a most extreme and bloody manifestation of Islamism, as the threat, and support the secular Kurds fighting against it, right?
But, well, the view of Türk Solu on Kobane has been quite different. Its September issue had an eye-catching cover, with a photo-shopped scene of one the recent ISIL beheadings that made global headlines. The butcher of ISIL was the same notorious killer with a British accent, but the victim was a different person: Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a “terrorist” group that Turkey has fought more than 30 years. The same cover also had the slogan, “The irreligious is defeated by the faithless,” (Dinsizin hakkından imansız gelir), which is a Turkish expression that means that a particular evil is only overcome by a worse evil.
In other words, the all-secular Türk Solu was happy with the ISIL onslaught on Kobane — simply because it perceived the Kurdish defenders of the city as nothing but the PKK. The editors and writers of the magazine kept cheering for ISIL advances against the city on Twitter, along with their thousands of followers who apparently thought the same way.
Of course, Türk Solu is a marginal magazine and does not represent mainstream “Atatürkism.” But it does reflect a particular trend in Turkish society: Seeing the PKK, and its affiliates in Syria, as Turkey’s main enemy, and feeling some “schadenfreude” — pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others — in the face of the ISIL attack on Kobane. This is a feeling that resonates with lots of Turks who have strong nationalist feelings, and who can have either secular or Islamic leanings. (In other words, they can be found within the base of both the main opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP, or the incumbent Justice and Development Party, AKP.)
I must say that I find this view very, very wrong. Yes, the PKK is a legitimate concern for Turkey, but right now ISIL is a bigger threat for both Turkey itself and the region. Moreover, the Kurdish fighters in Kobane are not officially the PKK, but members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is an affiliated but still different organization. Furthermore, Turkey is now trying to realize a “peace process” with the PKK, and thus should be more open-minded regarding its affiliates in the region.
Yet all politics is ultimately local. Therefore, the deep-seated distaste with the PKK has inevitably influenced Turkey’s Syria policy and led to the reluctance in helping Kobane. Turkey’s Western allies do have the right to criticize Ankara on this reluctance, and ask for more engagement against ISIL. But they should also try to understand how things could be seen from Turkish eyes.