Ziya Meral interviewed on BBC World about the terror attack in Ankara
Published by Conservative Home, 14 October 2015
Last weekend’s terror attack in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, have sent shock waves across the world. The number of fatalities has past a hundred, with many still in critical condition. This is the single most fatal terror attack in Turkey’s history. While most commentary focuses on the domestic context and developments, few are drawing attention to the implications of this event for Turkey’s partners and wider international community.
It will indeed take a while for the entire picture to be clear, but the initial clues from the attack point to a certain direction. The type of bombs used, as well as their deployment and target choice show striking similarities with at least two prior attacks in Diyarbakir and Suruc. The gathering in Ankara was organised by a wide coalition of left-leaning trade unions, civil society groups, political activists with a large presence from the Kurdish party HDP. The rally was held to ask for a political solution to the lapse in Turkey-PKK ceasefire which saw more than 600 people – including Turkish soldiers, PKK militants and civilians, killed since the elections in June
In Diyarbakir, the attack was directly on a rally of HDP, and in Suruc it was on a wider group of left-leaning activists with a dominance of Kurds heading to bring aid and practical help to the town of Kobane in Syria, which ISIS tried to overtake from Kurds last year. Thus, these attacks clearly aimed at not only Kurds, but also at fuelling the on-going clashes in Turkey, as large number of Kurds accuse the Government of not taking necessary caution and some even accuse it to be directly involved with ISIS. It is telling that the Ankara attack occurred on the day that the PKK declared a temporary ceasefire until the next set of elections in November.
In both the Diyarbakir and Suruc incidences, the suicide bombers were established to have been related to ISIS and travelled to Syria. Indeed, one of the bombers was reported to the police by his own parents following his affiliation with ISIS. There are still suspects at large from both incidents and, because of an injunction brought by the Turkish Government, the media has been limited in what it can pursue on the follow up to these attacks. Now the same patterns show themselves in yet another attack, raising questions on whether Turkish state security structures provided enough security to protesters and whether the intelligence services failed to prevent the attack. The fact that the attacks were successful is perhaps the answer to that question. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Prime Minister, jas stated that two suicide bombers were stopped last two weeks in Turkey, which suggests that the state may be keeping certain developments away from the public eye.
No group has publicly claimed the attacks, causing some to speculate that this is unlikely to be an ISIS attack, since ISIS often enjoys broadcasting its murderous campaigns. However, this does not necessarily follow. We have seen how in Iraq and elsewhere similar groups have at times not claimed responsibility, which creates the maximum social and political effect in causing confusion, fear and chaos. It also serves as a veil to protect new networks being formed by the terror group. In the case of Diyarbakir, Suruc and now Ankara, signs suggest a Turkish cell founded or operating from the city of Adiyaman, by Turks who have direct relationship with ISIS, though they may be acting on their own.
Clearly, the fight between ISIS and Kurdish groups in Syria is now manifesting itself in attacks by ISIS or other Islamist extremists on Kurds in Turkey. While Turkey is part of the anti-ISIS coalition that includes the UK, it has chosen to play a cautious role. However, by attacking the precarious Turkish-Kurdish fault lines, but not the Turkish soldiers or state amidst such political instability in the country, and by choosing to remain unknown, the terrorists are punching above their weight as their network in the country is relatively new and has limited social appeal and logistic support.
This creates larger worries for Turkey, for Europe and the UK. It is plausible to suggest that we will see more terror attacks in Turkey. While the Turkish security apparatus has once again pulled all of its resources to combat PKK, there are legitimate questions to ask on its capacity to handle an increasing domestic ISIS threat. ISIS expanding its activities into a NATO state and an EU candidate country brings the risk directly to us in wider Europe. It also creates substantial questions on foreign direct investment in the country as well as the tourism sector. Some 35 million tourists visit Turkey each year, with more than four million of them being Brits.
Yet every tragedy is also an opportunity. Following unprecedentedly strong single party rule by the AKP for 13 years, Turkey is now set for weak coalition governments when it desperately needs political unity and bold decisions on a wide range of issues ranging from solving the Kurdish issues to undertaking a serious foreign policy reconstruction project. Turkey needs its partners more than ever, and at such a moment no outreach goes missed by the public and by the state officials.
The UK remains one of Turkey’s closest and strongest allies in Europe. British diplomats in Turkey are doing exemplary work reaching out to the public, building relationships with officials and advancing British trade in the country. The British Government’s signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Turkey has been a benchmark, bringing the two countries closer on a wide range of issues from trade to security and defence cooperation to joint research and investments. There is now much closer work between security agencies in both countries on handling British suspects travelling to Turkey to join ISIS in Syria. In Ankara, there is a deep awareness that its bid for EU will not be possible in the short-run, if ever. Thus bilateral relations gain much more importance. The UK’s steady stand on Turkey’s EU bid as well as cautious diplomacy places it at an advantageous place.
This is the time for the UK to seek much closer and pro-active relations with Turkey, both for UK’s interests but also for supporting a country that is pivotal to the protection of Europe’s borders, handling of Syrian refugees, and countering the increasing Russian ambitions. While such a call would get a hearty welcome from both the Foreign Office and the Government more widely, British NGOs, think-tanks, and universities have, sadly, a long way in discovering the importance of bilateral relations as well as the complexities of Turkey, including its desperate need for constructive support in its moment of need. To that extent, British Parliamentarians and political parties can play a key role in not only building bridges between the Turkish communities in the UK but also actively supporting closer relations between both countries. They must do so now.
Ziya Meral on BBC World discussing how US and Turkey differs in perceptions of threat and policy aims on Syria
As Turkey sees a violent lapse in ceasefire with the outlawed PKK, the most common argument read in the press as an explanation is that this is an Erdogan plot to create chaos, thus earn votes in a snap election and usher his much desired enhanced presidency. It is a comforting clear cut explanation amplified both by domestic Turkish politics and international trends, yet, it is horribly misleading and far from helpful in understanding and responding to latest developments.
Even if there were to be new elections this year, there is no grounds to think that the outcome will be any different than June elections. Far from it, after a decade of pursuing half-baked policies and outreaches on Kurdish concerns and historic direct talks with the PKK, AKP has lost majority of its Kurdish voters due to a series of incidences from the Uludere bombing to Kobane to nationalist discourses deployed during the last minute attempts to stop vote loss in June.
It is the shifting Kurdish vote, both from the AKP, but also from a younger Kurdish generation that voted for the first time, and unprecedented level of turnout that gave the main surge for HDP to achieve passing of the 10% threshold. The much hyped Turkish 'left' and 'liberal' votes to HDP for sure contributed some, but in no way as decisively as it has been assumed. With the current developments, the Kurdish votes are not coming back to the AKP in the near future. Thus, HDP's 10% success is set to remain as it is.
The nationalist votes AKP lost to MHP are also not coming back. MHP has played its cards effectively in this process, and while commending AKP to finally respond to the threat of PKK, it has also condemned AKP for allowing such a wide space for PKK and letting these risks reach this level. MHP meets the strong nationalist vote amidst such a charged political setting and attacks by PKK more than the AKP, as the luxury of being in the opposition gives it the chance to declare a much harsher and uncompromising stand. In other words, the nationalist votes too are not coming back to the AKP in the near future.
Therefore, snap elections before the end of 2015 as assumed to be happening by many is a serious risk for AKP. There is no added vote value of such a violent lapse with PKK for the AKP. If it was merely about AKP's vote games, other parties could have responded effectively, and most importantly the PKK and Kurdish politicians would have refused to play the game Erdogan wants, which they effectively did in lead up to the June 2015 elections and caused the first actual loss to AKP since 2002. It is a bitter fact after all that we still do not have a coalition government formed.
It is indeed a universal rule; politicians will seek to expand interests and minimise risks in moments of conflicts. That applies to Erdogan, as well as to all other political actors in Turkey from Demirtas to Bahceli. For the most seasoned Turkey analysts, however, a few facts matter more than this problematic and superficial election talk: the legacy of a 30 years long armed conflict; deeply internalised patterns of escalation- violence- response between the PKK and Turkish Armed Forces; developments in Syria and Iraq and their spill over impacts on Turkey; Turkish state's short-term and long-term security threat perceptions of PKK and future of Syria and Iraq; macro geo-political shifts occurring across the region with serious implications for Turkey; a disturbed equilibrium of peace incentives for both the AKP government, HDP and PKK; polarised political and social atmosphere in Turkey that have fatally tied the peace talks to Erdogan's future by his supporters and opposers thus to temporary politics; attempts to manipulation of Kurdish issue for Turkey by Assad, ISIS and even Iran.
Only after talking about these complex issues could one ask what this might or might not mean for Erdogan. As I have often said; Erdogan is not a Jedi Knight. He does not hold a magical power that controls all of these factors and actors. That is why AKP lost in June, even when the hype in media suggested that the elections were set to be fixed in a Russia like authoritarian state that Turkey became. He is at his political weakest. His plans for presidency are no longer possible. AKP's maintaining of the government is the only chance for him and AKP's leaders to stop what might be a process that might very well be the end of their political futures, which will open the door for serious personal vulnerabilities.
Parroting Erdoganology to explain everything in Turkey through him is not analysis. The suffering of Kurds in Turkey have a century long history. PKK's crimes in Turkey and militancy have decades long bitter traces in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran among Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Persians. Almost auto-pilot out of proportion responses by the Turkish army/police and waves of Turkish and Kurdish nationalism they create have played themselves out again and again for decades to such a level that one feels a constant deja vu.
These realities existed before and will exist after Erdogan. What Erdoganolgy is only good for is retweets in social media, and for people who are deeply engrossed in Turkey's culture wars and zero-sum mental and political spaces to tease whether you are with 'them' or the 'other'. Yet, they leave us high and dry, none the wiser about how to take peace forward in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and how to minimise the spill overs of a brutal civil war continuing, and how to ensure that short-term and short-sighted Turkish politics and suffocating culture wars do not cause more damage.
Ziya Meral comments on the implications on historic election results on the BBC World News.
8 June 2015
It is a common language. Many people in the UK, including some Muslims, use it. It saves time and energy in media conversations and most importantly helps to fit a thought into 140 characters of Twitter wisdom. Yet it is horribly misleading and potentially harmful.
It is misleading because there is no such thing as "the Muslim community" in the UK. There are Muslims for sure. Yes, Islam as a shared religion with its religious holidays and activities link Muslims, but they are not a single community. There are countless diaspora networks, some small neighbourhoods where people of similar ethnic origins live in close proximity, and a lot of different mosques and myriad Muslim organisations.
Migration patterns might give more numerical precedent or visibility to some groups, but substantial numbers of British Muslims are just like substantial numbers of British Christians. They dwell in multiple networks at work, school, personal life and religious involvement. They might or not be attending a local church (read mosque). They might be praying on their own, listening to sermons on line, and may be dropping in at a church for special days like Christmas and Easter (read Eid).
Some might be Anglicans (read Muslims that are in organised denominations with formal clerical structures), or like free Evangelicals (read mosques centred on a single minister). Some are like the Emergent Christians, (read Muslims who are on a spiritual journey and find it difficult to fit into a formal mosque). Some might cherish their ethnic heritage, go to family reunions, or it might be that they are a nuclear family and really have no enchanting large weddings but a civil registry and no 'exotic' migrant background.
This poses some serious questions on people we see on our televisions as 'community leaders' and 'spokespersons' for Muslims, or our perceptions of an organised and organic block called 'the Muslim community'. In fact, we mostly see British Muslims with Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins put in such roles, but never British Muslims with Cypriot, Nigerian, Turkish, Somalian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, or Syrian origins. There are rather a lot of them too. Not many of us know why someone calls themselves a sheikh, or why they are called a 'leader' and whom it is they are leading or who is following them.
We would not dare to think that a single Anglican vicar could speak for Anglicanism, let alone British Christianity. And rightfully, we would laugh if someone referred to a 'British Christian Community'. We Christians believe in the 'holy catholic church' with a small c, and being members of the Body of Christ. But we do know that the theological belief and aspiration in no way captures the reality. Christians come in all shapes and sizes, in all political and theological views, with many cultural backgrounds. Christianity becomes the umbrella for all of us to remain under, made possible by certain theological basics we share.
That is the same for Islam and Muslims. Yes, Islam speaks of an umma, and unity of Muslims. But while Muslims might see a global affinity with other Muslims, in reality, umma is only an elusive longing at best. In reality even though there is an umbrella of basic tenets of faith in common, Muslims are as fragmented and as disconnected from their co-religionists as anyone else in the world. Differences of language, politics, culture, theology and personal differences are very real.
When we apply to Muslims what we would never apply to ourselves, the issue goes beyond being simply an intellectual failure. We are effacing and dehumanising up to 3 million Brits who are Muslims, lumping them into a tiny box that is not there, burdening them with a responsibility for all other Muslims which we'd never place on ourselves for all other Christians out there.
We want the world to be simple. We want to be able to have clear lines. We want to be able to have a structure where we can go to engage. Thus, we burden British Muslims with our own shortcomings, demanding apologies from them for things they have nothing to do and asking them to "sort their community out" when the community they are part of is actually the British Community, which includes you and me, thus, ironically, burdening us with a lot of sorting out too.
After each terror incident relating to Muslim extremism, we see avalanches of commentary debating the doctrines of jihad in Islamic thought. A notable example of this is a recent essay by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which has sparked a firestorm of debate. The trouble with these discussions is that they confuse theological justifications made by radical groups for the use of violence with causes behind the emergence and deployment of violence and its appeal among particular groups. The sum of all of the discussions on jihad in Islamic thought only leads us to a conclusion that it is permissible for a Muslim to deploy violence under certain circumstances and conditions. This finding is neither interesting nor useful for policymakers and strategists.
All uses of violence, whether by militants, terrorists or regular armies, need framing and validation. The social mechanisms used for unleashing violence as well as controlling the limits and outcomes of violent episodes are universal. It is not only religions that offer a cosmic framing of why war or violence might be inevitable at times; secular humanism, nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and international law too provide us with the same grounding, using the same mechanisms to appeal to and mobilize human beings. In fact, our common language of “just war” is a deeply theological framing and validation of the use of violence.
Thus, focusing on how the use of violence is justified in Islamic thought does not leave us any wiser about why we have seen groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerge, and why we have increasing numbers of people joining their campaigns and committing acts of terror as part of an “imagined community” fighting an imagined global battle.
It is clear that religion is an important part of this issue, but a healthy theological discussion starts somewhere else. The fundamental theological question that lies behind the appeal of such groups is not that of jihad but of theodicy.
This is not merely a highbrow intellectual ordering of theological debates in a linear fashion. It is a vital re-focusing of analytical energy and, most importantly, of responses given to countering violent extremism and programming that seeks to address radicalization.
It has been some 300 years since Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz coined the word “theodicy”, deriving from two Greek words that can be understood as “justifying God.” It refers to questions nearly as old as humanity: Why does God permit evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is omnipotent, holy and loving, then the presence of suffering and evil in the world poses a serious challenge to idea of God.
While the question of theodicy is now most commonly posed as an atheistic challenge to religious belief, the question itself is about human experience in a world that often feels out of control, unfair and full of injustice. It is the fundamental question of human existence. Thus, Albert Camus famously stated that, “there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”, simply because the absurdity and suffering human beings are exposed to demands an explanation and resolution. As Nietzsche put it: those who have a why to live, can bear almost any how.
It is this question that connects the Book of Job in the Bible with writings of Viktor Frankl and with one of the oldest stories we have on record, “The Dispute of a Man with his Soul”. This is a story recorded on papyrus from 2000 BCE, in which a poor man does not see a reason to live and wants to end his life. His suicide is prevented by his soul who convinces him that he must work hard and get rich for a glorious funeral so that at least the soul will have a good life in the next world.
The fundamental imperative to make sense of the suffering in the world, find a reason to wake up in the morning, and decide what to do with our lives is as much a personal burden as it is a political one. Thus, it is not just Buddha who saw suffering and offered a path to address it. Communism, socialism, and the project of human rights also follow the same structure of reading the world: diagnosing what is wrong and offering a solution to it.
The project of the modern nation state, with its narratives and all-encompassing structures, has been another answer given to the same human quest for meaning, safety, stability, immortality—achieved through the narratives of belonging to a nation and cosmic reasons for why “we” and “our land” are special.
The same quest lies at the heart of why most radical religious organizations and responses emerge in failed states and conflict zones. While we were amusing ourselves with the myopic question of how religion leads to violence we have missed out on the main question: How does violence alter religion and religious believers? Exposure to violence and injustice, seeing no “why”, and looking for a “how” to survive, requires theological responses in their rawest form: What is wrong with this universe? What is right? How do I understand what I see? How do I respond to the challenges and how do I live?
When a state fails, when its promise to deliver a fair society does not actualize, and all other offers of a solution remain too feeble, religious networks, imaginations, solidarities, and mobilizations emerge as the most powerful, and often the only alternative, to address the question of theodicy and recreate a moral order.
Thus, Boko Haram is not the first cult to employ gross violence in Nigeria. In the 1970s and 80s, an identical group named Maitatsine, in the same vein, spread like a plague and took thousands of lives. They were only finally stopped by an equally brutal military response. Both Boko Haram and Maitatsine followed the story line of “retreat” like the hijra of Prophet Muhammad, leaving persecution, corruption and idolatry behind in pursuit of a purer community and holier lives. It is only later on that both groups transform into violent beasts.
For the European jihadi, too, the first question is not whether the Qur’an or Prophet teaches jihad. It is first a moral reading of the universe through personal experience, and the finding that it is corrupt, chaotic, and unfair. That is why it was only after deciding to travel to Syria for jihad did two confused British gap-year-adventure jihadis order “Qur’an for Dummies”. And that is also why ISIL pursues intense indoctrination to keep the jihadists in the right cosmic war framework before they realize the absurdity of war, which is never glorious or beautiful, as it is in the movies.
In other words, by the time theological discussion of when and how Muslims can engage in violent jihad occurs, the more important questions will have already been asked and answered. Jihad is the last theological question. The context in which religious actors found themselves first forces them into a formulation to answer theodicy. It then sets them on a reading of the universe and shows them a path of salvation, a path of solving the problems.
In a context where violence is already present indiscriminately, it is easily seen as a regular and legitimate political option. Deployment of violence becomes a radical attempt to tame, control and re-order a universe that seems to be in decay and evil. Thus, it is not nihilistic as it is often thought, but a Nietzschean attempt to move ‘beyond good and evil’, to establish a new moral order as an answer to the question of theodicy.
An understanding of religious violence deployed by Muslim extremism through the question of theodicy rather than jihad has countless direct implications: from our aid and development programs to long-term counter-terror strategies at home and in theaters of conflict.
Most obviously, this means that we should stop efforts to have other Muslims “condemn violence in the name of Islam” or push for programs that promote theologies that challenge the use of violence. Such programs help to a certain extent, but often lead to a lot of counter-productive pressure on Muslims.
The main theological challenge that lies before us is not whether or not a Muslim can commit acts of terror, but rather, how can there be theologies of hope and social change that channel deep grievances and deprivations into non-destructive activism. This means that our efforts to offer counter-narratives and break cycles of radicalization should not go through arguments on jihad and violence, but projects and messaging that offers a hopeful reading of the world and how deeply religious believers can work to improve, heal and restore a broken world.
New essay by Ziya Meral on Turkish Iranian relations in report "Post-Nuclear: the Future for Iran in its Neighborhood", European Council on Foreign Relations
Turkey and Iran have once again found themselves facing parallel challenges in the form of the group that calls itself Islamic State (here ISIS) and its implications for both countries’ security policies as well as interests in Syria and Iraq. These developments have led to some suggestions that Turkey and Iran could explore and co-operate on areas of mutual interest closely.
While such efforts and regional developments do bring the two countries closer, this essay argues that a brief look at the history of relations between the two countries, particularly during the last ten years, reveals a pattern of similar moments when both countries faced shared challenges and sought to work closely, which only revealed deeper differences and conflicts of interests and produced primarily mutual economic benefit. It argues that Iran and Turkey continue to walk a tightrope between the prospects of major diplomatic fallout caused by opposing policies and interests in the Middle East and the benefits of maintaining good bilateral relations.
Download the Report which includes the essay here:
29 October 2014
29 October 2014
The developments in the Middle East over the last three years have brought home the points which many experts and practitioners have been making: persecution on the basis of religious belief and affiliation is increasing in the world. It is affecting every faith community and those with no faith, fuelling a wide range of interrelated problems from radicalisation to violent conflict, with direct impact on UK domestic concerns such as increasing numbers of asylum applications and faith community relations.
Now, articles calling for an immediate UK response to religious freedom can be seen emerging from all corners of the political and social spectrum. Whilst these articles stem from good intentions, they suffer similar shortcomings.
Often they start from domestic political and religious positions with a wide range of unspoken anxieties about particular religions or the overall place of religion in today’s world. Most of the time they lack a grounded understanding of local contexts in which religious persecution happens, and lapse into reductionism, seeing a particular religion as the root cause of all that we see unfolding before us.
They also lack awareness of global trends and mirror-image developments in Africa, Asia, and even Europe, that make such reductions of the issue down to a single religion rather shallow. Most worryingly, such articles often ascribe no agency whatsoever to persecuted communities themselves and what they can do and how they can respond in the short and long term to address factors leading to persecution.
One can easily list the causes behind these failures; very few academics actually study religious freedom and religious persecution in the UK, let alone teach it as a course. Hardly any British think-tank has ever conducted a proper study and developed a thought-through policy proposal for the Government besides the myopia of countering violent extremism.
Religious freedom advocacy groups also play their part in this failure: the vast majority are mono-faith organisations, primarily working to advance the rights of their own co-religionists, which is ultimately counter-productive and fraught with ethical shortcomings.
Most importantly, their work is primarily reactionary. They document, lobby and raise the profile of cases of persecution with little reflection provided on the very modus operandi of religious freedom advocacy and its future. One can forgive this shortcoming due to the simple fact of limited resources, and, most importantly, chronic ignorance over these issues for decades by mainstream human rights groups, with notable exceptions such as the Minority Rights Group.
The truth is, long before ISIS brought the conversation onto centre stage, increased attention was already being given to the topic within the FCO and British Parliament. The FCO’s human rights team has increased its reporting on these issues and provided training opportunities to British diplomats on religious freedom. At the parliamentary level, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has silently achieved what has never before happened in the UK: it brought a wide range of political figures from different faith and belief backgrounds to raise the issue within the UK political establishment.
Yet this is not enough. While there is merit in the calls for the appointment of an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, inspired by the US model, experience from that same model shows how ineffectual this can be. Similarly, given that the US diplomatic machinery produces two sets of excellent reports every year on the situation of religious freedom in most countries in the world, there is no reason for the UK to re-invent the wheel and increase its own reporting.
What the UK government can do, and must do, is to carry the religious freedom conversation forward at home, in the EU and the wider international community. The unique contribution the UK government can make to this end is to focus its attention on the proactive aspects of religious freedom advocacy.
First of all, the religious freedom issue must be taken together with all of its interrelated aspects, from conflict to stabilization, good governance, human rights and humanitarian crises and public diplomacy. This would mean that religious freedom would not continue to be simply a conversation between the FCO and concerned Members of Parliament, but it would directly involve DFID, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s office.
Secondly, this is a truly complicated issue that demands a wide range of expertise, ranging from specific country and issue experts, to human rights advocates, programming and foreign policy specialists. This is not simply an issue of gathering faith-based NGOs and clergymen to express goodwill. The UK must have its own mechanism in which ongoing issues are analysed and pro-active policy proposals are developed and synchronised across UK government structures.
Thirdly, the UK government must genuinely put its weight behind such a mechanism by directly allocating funds that can be deployed for strategic programmes across the world, and to enable direct access to high-level policy makers across UK state structures. Otherwise, sadly, all these well-intentioned calls for a response, and the clearly-expressed desire of the Government to increase its attention to this issue will be included in the increasingly long list of superficial conversations, when the stakes have never been higher.