With the New Year’s Eve assailant still on the loose, the Turkish government struggles to prevent its war on terror from spreading to major cities, while the society shows signs of a widening tension between religious and secular groups.
Turkey witnessed a devastating armed attack on one of its most upscale Istanbul nightclubs – Reina – in the very first hours of 2017, leaving the country bereft of hope for peace and stability in the New Year.
According to security camera footage taken from Reina, the assailant walked straight towards the nightclub, shot the security personnel outside, and then began an attack against club-goers bringing in the new year. Astoundingly, it is reported that he then left the club by taxi.
The attack, which left 39 people dead and 65 wounded, was quickly claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS). In a statement issued the day after the attack, ISIS called Turkey: “the protector of the cross” and lauded the “heroic soldier of the caliphate” who attacked the Christians celebrating “their apostate holiday” in Reina.
Twenty-five people among those who died were citizens of foreign countries, including predominantly Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Libya.
Media-sanctioned hate speech
Opinions similar to that of ISIS were becoming more and more virulent in Turkey in the lead up to the attack. The question of whether a “true Muslim” should celebrate New Year’s Eve or not had become popular towards the end of the year. Knowing this, the way in which official newspapers and government bodies sanctioned the idea of celebrations as sinful deserves a detailed examination.
It is important to note at this point that the question seems to initially rise from a common practice of Christian Christmas and Turkish New Year: the spruce tree. Today, some Muslims in Turkey reject it as a Christian invention. However, the tree has historically been such a commonplace practice in Turkey that a famous Sumerologist has even argued it to be a Turkic invention.
On December 26, pro-government and religious daily Yeni Akit published an article titled “Muslims celebrating New Year is forbidden by religion”. The article, which portrays the concept of New Year as “completely unrelated to Islam” and quotes several theologians supporting this point of view, warned its readers that “he who copies any people is one of them,” copying one of Prophet Mohammed’s hadiths.
Similarly, on December 29, Millî Gazete columnist Abdulaziz Kıranşal explained why New Year festivities are ‘wrong’, by quoting several verses from the Quran.
Most importantly, the Friday sermon issued by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) transformed the anti-celebration attitude into a more official and frightening form: “Forgetting one’s self and purpose of creation, displaying illicit attitudes and behaviour that do not coincide with our values, and have no contribution to human life, is never suited for a believer.”
Banners were put up by civilians in various cities in Turkey, condemning New Year celebrations (though some referred to it as Christmas in confusion); one in Istanbul was showing a man in Islamic outfit punching Santa Claus. Also, a conservative group in Aydın published a photo in which they symbolically pointed a gun to the head of a man dressed as Santa Claus, to protest New Year celebrations. These examples clearly show the media’s effect on the public.
Turkey’s religious public indifferent towards the attack
Yeni Akit’s headline on the first day of the year was greeted with widespread shock. It read “May Your Civilization Crash”, and referred to how Western cultures were celebrating on New Year’s Eve while the Middle East was suffering in sorrow.
One would expect the newspaper to apologise for this offensive take, especially in conjunction with the Reina attack. However, the paper portrayed the US as the prime suspect of the attack on its headline the next day, squeezing a solidarity message into a little box on the right side of the front page.
The majority of mainstream Turkish newspapers, on the other hand, hinted at the need for solidarity right after the attack. On January 2, the headlines of Hürriyet, Sabah, Milliyet and Habertürk spoke of how this was an attack on humanity and how it would not be able to divide “us”.
Both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım condemned the attack. Surprisingly, the head of the Directorate of Religious affairs, which had portrayed New Year celebrations as illicit prior to the attack, called the attack on unarmed civilians an atrocity.
Yet these post-attack reactions seem to have been in vain, or at least a little late. A quick search on social media shows that many Turkish citizens were indifferent towards the death of 39 people during the Reina attack.
Social media reactions ranged from jokes about “Santa Claus not always bringing presents” (in reference to a false rumour that the Reina attacker was wearing a Santa Claus costume), to expressions of apathy towards people “who don’t care about national matters, but know how to drink expensive whisky”. Others questioned the idea of naming the street of the attack “martyr’s street” (doing this has become a tradition in Turkey), since naming those who drink and have fun on New Year’s martyrs was seen as questionable.
Lack of action against hate speech
The public’s segregation over the Reina attack shows that the tension between economically and culturally distinct groups in Turkey is growing. In this light, the government is responsible for fostering sympathy and solidarity among the public.
Evaluating the attack, President Erdoğan said he probably was, as a politician, the biggest victim of ‘lifestyle politics’ and rhetorically, and not at all comically, asked whether anyone’s lifestyle had been questioned in the last ten years.
The Turkish Bar Association filed a criminal complaint against those who praised the attack on social media. According to Hürriyet, almost 20 social media accounts were being investigated as of January 5. Foreign governments gave similar reactions, due to international citizenship of many of the victims.
Yet, more than one week after the attack, this seems to be the only news with regards to legal action taken against hate speech related to the Reina attack, and the public tension over the issue seems to have been forgotten.
Despite President Erdoğan’s scolding of ‘lifestyle politics’, the way in which the government is dealing with this situation seems unbalanced in light of the party’s history of lifestyle intrusions. A government that still continues a massive investigation against academics who signed a peace treaty is in the least expected to impose heavier sanctions on outright examples of hate speech. With only 20 civilians and no official newspapers being held accountable for hate speech against the Reina victims, it is evident that the Turkish government recognizes some lifestyles as valuable and some, not as much.
In the meantime, the state’s inability to find the assailant points out that Turkey has entered a new stage in terms of IS terror. The Reina attack, which has become symbolic of a shift in ISIS’ policies – both due to its target group (wealthy and Western) and the nature of the attack (shooting instead of human bombs) – further indicates that Turkey’s intervention in Syria will affect the nation’s own territories in 2017.
However, the Reina attack has spread fears among the public that a war between different lifestyles is going on not only between ISIS and Turkey, but also between Turkish citizens of various cultural backgrounds.