The Land of Martyrs

In this article from the December 2016 issue of Beehive: Middle East Social Media, Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak investigates the radicalization of discourse on Turkish SNS after the terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Kayseri.
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Aftermath of Kayseri bombing, December 2016
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Aftermath of Kayseri bombing, December 2016



Since the attack in Diyarbakır last June, Turkey has faced an unprecedented wave of terrorism that so far, has resulted in the deaths of 421 civilians.[1] This wave erupted as the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) collapsed and Ankara’s military cooperation with the anti-ISIS Western coalition forces began. During this period, Turkish cities have become easy targets for attacks, resulting in civilian and security force fatalities. In December, two murderous attacks, one in Istanbul and the other in Kayseri, captured public attention on social networking sites (SNS), revealing the nationalist discourse of various segments of Turkish society.

On December 10, Turkey was shocked by coordinated terrorist attacks carried out in central Istanbul, near the Beşiktaş soccer stadium, killing 36 policemen and eight civilians.[2] The timing of the explosions, about an hour after the end of the evening’s soccer match, indicated that the fans were not the main targets, but rather the security forces. Because of the volatile relationship between the fans of rival teams, extra forces had been assigned to the game - transforming the stadium into a prime location for an attack on security forces. Turkish authorities blamed the PKK for the attack, but a subsidiary organization, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), which was responsible for several terrorist attacks in the capital last year, claimed responsibility.[3]

The high number of victims from the police force elicited national sympathy, and SNS spread this spirit with slogans like “I stand by my policeman.”[4] The scenes of this attack soon became pilgrimage sites, and one of them was renamed “Martyrs’ Hill.” The Turkish government commemorated victims by incorporating the term “martyrs” into the renaming of attack sites - a common practice since last July’s failed coup attempt, in which hundreds of civilians were killed as soldiers fought coup perpetrators. Fans of the rival teams flocked to Martyrs’ Hill, answering a call, spread on SNS, for rivals to visit the site together, as a sign of appreciation for the police who secured the game. [5]Similar gestures were made at other playing fields. The first such gesture occurred when Yasin Öztekin, a player for Galatasaray, after scoring a goal, rushed to embrace policemen standing near the field.[6] This act won wide support on SNS and was imitated by other players.

Yasin Öztekin hugging Turkish policemen. From the newspaper Yeni Şafak
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Yasin Öztekin hugging Turkish policemen. From the newspaper Yeni Şafak



Conversely, there were also conspicuous expressions of joy at the killing of policemen. These were disseminated by both fake and authentic accounts, especially on Twitter, where a Kurdish user, Berfin Kadem tweeted, “an attack aimed at special forces. How good!”[7] These statements shocked users, who responded by sharing screenshots and sending them to the police who, in turn, began a campaign to arrest the relevant users. Within in a short time, ten arrests were made, including the arrest of Kadem.[8]

Turkish SNS discourse was polarized by difficult images of the attack and arrests of users who posted incitement. Many nationalist users called for reintroduction of the death penalty, which was eliminated in 2004 in response to pressure from the EU. Some even recommended carrying out executions in real time, instead of making arrests.[9] In contrast, there were also prominent moderate voices strongly condemning terrorism, while stressing the need to avoid hatred of the Kurdish people. Their tweets urged people to sidestep the “trap” set by the terrorist organizations that strive to divide the Turkish and Kurdish peoples, and used hashtags like “#Pray for Turkey” and “#We won’t get used to it.” [10]

While public attention was focused on the attack in Istanbul, another attack hit security forces near a Special Forces base in Kayseri, a city in central Anatolia. A car bomb went off, killing 14 Turkish off-duty soldiers, and wounding 55 more, who were riding a bus going downtown.[11] A video of the murdered soldiers’ comrades at the scene of the attack, in uniform and swearing to avenge the deaths, was circulated online; it went viral and amplified the nationalist discourse.[12] The scene of this attack also became a pilgrimage site, and the bus stop was renamed “The Martyrs’ Station.” [13]

The passionate discourse on SNS concerning the terrorist attack in Kayseri was also expressed by angry masses on the streets. Violent demonstrators associated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) targeted offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). At the same time, calls for reinstituting the death penalty spread on SNS, using the slogans like, “the death penalty begins tonight” and “death penalty for murderers.”[14] The cycle of accusations and incitement on SNS expanded to include not only Kurds, but also Jews and Armenians. Jews were accused of planning and supporting terrorist acts behind the scenes, and some even described the terrorists as Armenian or Jewish.[15]

The public discourse on Turkish SNS following the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Kayseri once again revealed a rift in Turkish society. This discourse contributed to strengthening nationalism and increasing hatred towards Kurds and other minority groups in the country. Even the terminology adopted to commemorate the victims at attack sites heightened polarization of the discourse. Such events further distance Turkey from the peace process with the Kurds, while expanding the exposure of ordinary Turkish and Kurdish citizens to acts of violence.

Editor’s note: This article was written before the New Year's terrorist attack on the Istanbul nightclub, Reina Club. This attack adds an additional 39 deaths to the number of fatalities from terror in Turkey.

 



[1] Son dönemde Türkiye’de düzenlenen terör saldırıları," Sözcü, December 17, 2016.

[2] "İstanbul'da saldırı: 44 kişi hayatını kaybetti," BBC Türkçe, December 11, 2016. 

[3] "Istanbul stadium attacks: Kurdish TAK group claim attacks," BBC, December 11, 2016.

[4] #polisimin yanındayım

[5] Taraftarlar Şehitler Tepesi'nde buluştu, Hürriyet, December 13, 2016. 

[6] Yasin Öztekin asker selamını verdi polislere sarıldı, Yeni Şafak, December 11, 2016. 

[7] "Berfin Kadem kaçmaya çalışırken yakalandı," Haber 10, December 13, 2016.  

[8] "Sosyal medya paylaşımlarına 10 gözaltı," En Son Haber, December 12, 2016.

[10] #Alışmayacağız #PrayForTurkey

[11] "Kayseri'de Erciyes Üniversitesi yakınında terör saldırısı," Anadolu Ajansı, December 17, 2017.

[12] VineTurkiye, Facebook. 

[13] "Kayseri'de bombalı saldırının ardından durağa 'Şehit Komandolar' yazısı," Habertürk, December 19, 2016.

[14]#İdamHemdeBuGece #Katillereidam #Teröreidamistiyoruz #CanilerHesapVerecek

[15] Serdar Korucu, "Twitter’ın Antisemit Kullanıcıları Kayseri Saldırısı Sonrası da İşbaşında," Avlaremoz, December 17, 2016.