The Turkish People Are Stuck Between Erdogan and ISIS

The symbiotic relationship between terrorism and conservative government strikes again.

Last night’s horrific attack in Istanbul only highlights the precipice on which seemingly the entire civilized world rests.

Terrorism and conservative state fundamentalism have a symbiotic relationship: the funneling of wealth upward from the middle classes in developed nations creates an increasingly desperate and angry populace. In developing nations with extraction economies like the petro-states of the Middle East, tyrants use oil wealth to keep their people sedated but without options or hope, and hold revolution at bay by implementing fundamentalist religion and focusing anger at outside “Western” influences. Conservative imperialist governments foment regime change and invasive wars to control resources and military bases, which angers the local population, leading to terrorism. In response to terrorism, scared voters in the developing world elect authoritarian leaders who funnel money from the middle class to their rich friends. And the cycle continues.

Turkey is no exception. Turkey has been guilty of appalling human rights abuses in the last two centuries, from the crimes of the Ottoman Empire to the Armenian genocide to the wholesale abuse of the Kurdish people. But because Turkey has maintained a comparatively secular government, because of its proximity to mainland Europe, and because of its usefulness as a military staging ground against Russia, the United States and the West have largely overlooked these evils. The Turkish people are are decent as people tend to be everywhere, and the country is more enlightened and modern than most to its south and east, but its governments have left much to be desired.

The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq created a catastrophic set of falling dominoes. Among these was the rise of ISIS caused by the power vacuum in Sunni Iraq and by the destabilization of Syria. The Kurdish people rose as one of the most effective combatants against ISIS, which unnerved the Turkish government in Ankara. As fundamentalist Islam rose around the Middle East in large part due to internal hopelessness and western belligerence, fundamentalist Muslim Turks began to grow tired of their intently secular government.

Into this stew stepped the dictator Erdogan, a man who is destroying Turkish democracy, throttling freedom of speech and the press, and directly empowering religious conservatives. Erdogan’s Turkey has been covertly hampering the fight against ISIS in many ways because they’re ultimately more concerned about empowering the Kurds than about ISIS. But the Turkish government also opposes and fights ISIS at an overt level.

Which leaves the people of Istanbul caught in a trap. ISIS terrorists have a close and easy target in cosmopolitan Istanbul, which is also dealing with a hefty portion of the refugee from Syria. At the same time, free and secular Turkey is dealing with an internal assault from the conservative Erdogan regime, which exists in a symbiotic relationship with ISIS terrorism.

It’s a bad situation, and there are no easy answers except to forcefully oppose fundamentalist conservatism wherever it rears its ugly head.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.