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[OPINION] Nationalist Vigilantes and the Turkish State


On the 24th of December 2017, emergency decree No.696 was proclaimed by the Government of Turkey. It states that “regardless of an official title or duties or the lack thereof, people who played a role in the suppression of a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and subsequent events and terrorist activities will be exempt from criminal, administrative, financial and legal liability.” It is an amendment to Article 37 of decree No.667, which gave immunity to government officials in the pursuit of removing alleged Gulenists from Turkish society. No.667 has been used to justify torture and ill-treatment against ‘enemies of the state’, and to deny investigation or prosecution into complaints. The newest decree extends immunity to civilians, promoting pro-state vigilantism.


Nationalist Violence

Turkey has a history of nationalist violence. In the latter half of the 20th century, alongside state-supported massacres against minority Greeks and Alevis, numerous Kurds were lynched in response to the PKK conflict. Then the 2000’s saw the rise of the Red Apple Coalition. The Coalition claimed that Turkey was under threat by imperial powers (i.e. the USA, EU and Israel) and their domestic collaborators. This was fuelled by conspiracies surrounding the fall of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent coups in the Turkey republic.


By 2005, the Red Apple Coalition had produced nationalist vigilante organisations such as The National Force Association, Association of Union of Patriot Forces, and Association of Turkish Socialist Nation. These groups spread anti-minority propaganda and held military training camps. Members were allegedly complicit in the infamous murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. They also targeted the Kurdish. In the words of Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin, “In Turkey’s near history, mobs targeted mainly Armenians, Syriacs, Jews, Greeks, Alevis and Kurds”.


Although these vigilante groups tended to anti-AKP, holding the view that the party was in cahoots with the imperialists, this started to change in the late 2000’s. Erdogan and the AKP began to push similar propaganda, blaming the ills of the Islamic world on the West and their collaborators.


AKP Support for Vigilantism

As well as inciting nationalist violence through propaganda, Erdogan has sought informal security structures to ensure loyalty and control. He has a fear of political overthrow, grounded in Turkeys history of coups and ‘military campaigns against Islam’. This is why Erdogan encouraged Gulenist infiltration of official security structures (and judicial system) until his fallout with Fethullah Gulen in 2013. The fallout, combined the 2013 Gezi protest, increased his paranoia.


The most notorious vigilante group affiliated with Erdogan and the AKP is the Osmanlı Ocakları (Ottoman Hearths). These neo-ottoman nationalists were officially registered in 2009, and now have about 2 million members across Turkey. They were allegedly set up by Erdogan himself as a counterpart to the Idealist Hearths, known as the grey wolves, which are associated with AKP ally the nationalist MHP party. The Ottoman Hearths were implicated in attacks against opposition parties HDP and CHP, and against the Hürriyet Daily newspaper in 2015. The latter was incited by AKP member Abdurrahim Boynulkalın. Despite CCTV footage of this, Boynulkalın was subsequently promoted to the AKP’s National Executive Board.


Erdogan also developed a close relationship with military contractor SADAT. Some claim that the nationalist firm is providing protection to the Turkish government as a ‘personal militia’. SADAT was founded in 2012 by Adnan Tanriverdi, a former general who was dismissed in 1997 for radical Islamism. Its mission is to build a “Defensive Collaboration and Defensive Industrial Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World”. The firm’s website includes a letter penned by Tanriverdi outlining how Islamic countries, exploited by Western powers, need to work together to become a superpower – with Turkey leading the way. Apparently, this includes the removal of the ‘enemies of Turkey’. He has stated that “NATO has been a tool for American imperialism that is under Jewish control, just as the United Nations”. Opposition members have queried the AKP’s links to the organisation in parliament to no avail.


Likewise, Erdogan has been criticised for inciting less-organised vigilante violence. In 2014, he claimed that “when need be, shopkeepers are police, soldiers, combatants or guardians of the neighbourhood”. After his remarks, several high-profile incidents occurred. For example, in 2015 one Nuh Koklu was stabbed to death by an Istanbul shopkeeper after hitting his window with a snowball, and an off-duty Air Force pilot was attacked by shopkeepers after he was accused of being a PKK member. There has also been pro-Islam vigilantism, with those caught eating during the day throughout Ramadan being attacked. In 2016, a record-shop owner was assaulted and threatened with death for playing Radiohead and serving beer.


On top of this, there have been hundreds of mob attacks against Kurds and their businesses, and attacks against left-wing bookstores since military operations resumed against the PKK in 2015. Police often fail to intervene. Both the Ottoman Hearths and Idealist Hearths have been involved. SADAT was also implicated, with Kurdish politician Sebahat Tuncel claiming that members attempted to burn 34 villagers in Diyarbakir. Nationalist violence has increased again following the 2016 coup attempt, with alleged Gulenists becoming the target.


Civilians Supress the July 2016 Coup

On the night of the coup, Erdogan called for ordinary citizens to take to the streets and protest the “illegal action against the democratically elected government”. Calls were issued from minarets, on orders from Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, for civilians to take responsibility for the protection of their homeland “for the love of Allah and Muhammad.” Military officers were lynched, with one soldier beheaded on the Bosphorus Bridge where large mobs had gathered. Another had his throat cut in Taksim Square. The night after the coup, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım continued to request civilians to occupy the streets. Pro-government Islamist mobs attacked several churches this night.


Vigilante violence continued long after the event, with those deemed ‘anti-government’ assaulted on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. In August, Hazal Olmez, a secretary at the left-wing daily Evrensel, was accused of being “a coup supporter and a Gulenist” then beaten with several onlookers refusing to help. In January 2017, fashion designer Barbaros Sansal, an outspoken critic of the AKP, landed in Istanbul. He was immediately attacked by a mob at the airport, and then arrested for ‘inciting hatred’. The Ankara Mayor condoned the attack, and called defenders of Sansal “traitors”. In March 2017, a former police chief who was dismissed due to alleged Gulenist links was attacked in the streets of Samsun. A video of the incident circulated social media. Dismissed academics have also been subjected to nationalist mob violence and threats of lynching.


Furthermore, structured vigilante and militia groups have played a role in the post-coup purges. The ‘People’s Special Forces’ (Halk Özel Harekat or HÖH) is a pro-state militia of about 7,000 who played a role in preventing the 2016 coup after calling it ‘jihad’. SADAT members were involved in Bosphorus bridge mob attacks on coup perpetrators. SADAT founder Tanriverdi was appointed as senior advisor to Erdogan in August 2016. In October 2016, the chairman of the Ottoman Hearths used his twitter account to call for AKP supporters to take up arms to protect Turkey from another coup, with #AKsilahlanma (AK armament) going viral. His twitter account also has numerous pictures of himself posing with Erdogan, and he has called the group ‘Erdogan’s soldiers’.


There have been reports that Orhan Uzuner, father of Erdogan’s daughter-in-law, has formed a nationalist paramilitary force called ‘Keep Fraternity, Turkey’. A Cumhuriyet Daily investigation found that members receive drone training from the Civil Aviation General Directorate, first aid training from the Health Ministry, and learn how to build wireless communication tools. There is a focus on facilitating mass civilian mobilisation if necessary. Erdogan has also reinstated the controversial Night Watchmen, pro-state civilians who undertake armed night patrols.


Vigilantism against Kurds has also continued post-coup. In September 2017, a mob attacked at the funeral of Hatun Tuğluk, the mother of a HDP deputy who was under arrest for ‘helping terrorists’ (the PKK). The mob even kicked the dead body. Although already at the scene, police failed to stop the attack, and the governor of Ankara was criticised for downplaying the incident. What is more, attacks by pro-state vigilantes against the Kurdish and their supporters have been documented abroad.


Violence Spreads Abroad

One Turkish nationalist group undertaking violence abroad is the Osamen Germania (Germania Ottomans) in Germany. With 20 chapters and 2,500 members, the self-claimed boxing club has been labelled a gang by the German police. The former head, Mehmet Bagci, was arrested in 2016, and investigations show that he pledged to an Erdogan advisor to fight ‘terrorists’ in Germany. In 2017, it was revealed that Matin Kulunk of the AKP funded the Osamen Germania, instructed them to target Kurds and Erdogan critics, and organised protests against Germany’s decision to label the Ottoman massacre of Armenians as genocide. Kulunk denied the accusations and said that Germany was supporting the PKK and FETO (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Group).


Similarly, the AKP-affiliated Ottoman Hearths and MHP-affiliated Idealist Hearths have been linked to attacks on Kurds in Antwerp, Belgium. In the lead up to the 2017 Turkish referendum, a pro-Erdogan mob attacked pro-Kurdish voters at the Turkish consulate in Brussels, and violence ensued in the Netherlands following a row over campaigning. A couple of months later, peaceful protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington DC during a visit by Erdogan were brutally assaulted by both his supporters and security guards.


Decree No.696

Within days of decree No.696 being announced, nationalist fanatics took to social media inciting violence, including threats to kill alleged Gulenists and coup-plotters. Emin Canpolat, head of the Ottoman Hearths wrote “With the new government decree the people who have saved the country have been protected against the traitors. Those who oppose this law and those who betrayed the country on July 15th are the same people. Whose side are you?  Traitors? The defenders of the homeland?”. The HÖH have said they would take to the streets again if Erdogan ordered them to. In Addition, the İYİ Party Chairperson revealed that pro-Erdogan civilians were receiving weapons training in Tokat and Konya provinces, with pictures released by local media. SADAT are allegedly involved.


Numerous people and organisations have denounced the new decree, both in Turkey and abroad. This includes a rare show of opposition by Turkey’s former president Abdullah Gul, an ally of Erdogan. Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party has said that they will appeal the decree at the constitutional court. Yet the government continues to defend the decision, with Prime Minister Yıldırım stating that critics are “no different than coup plotters”. Officials have continued to incite violence and spread nationalist propaganda. Just this week, Tourism and Culture Minister Norman Kurtulmuş called the incursion into Afrin a fight against the imperialist forces seeking to divide the Middle East.  The MHP leader threatened to send thousands of Idealist Hearths into the offensive.


By facilitating pro-state vigilantism, the Turkish government is attempting to shore up support in anticipation of another coup attempt or civil unrest. Certainly, the official police, gendarmeries and military services are severely underequipped given the extent of officers purged due to alleged Gulenist ties. Approximately 26,000 have been dismissed from the Ministry of Interior services (e.g. police, gendarmes, coast guard) alongside another 8,000 from the military, with many being top-ranking generals. By allowing informal pro-state security structures to reign with immunity, Erdogan is cementing his authoritarian control.


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