Istanbul nightclub attack: Kemalism is under attack from jihadists and Erdogan’s Islamisation

Terrorist attacks like the one in Reina nightclub have widened the gaps in increasingly polarized Turkish society

I was enjoying New Year’s Eve with my family. It was an occasion of dual significance for me, as my parent’s wedding anniversary coincides with the New Year Eve on 31st Dec.

I wasn’t aware of how the next morning will metamorphose itself into a calamity for the Turks, and more specifically for the hospitable and loving residents of Istanbul and will wreak another havoc upon them after an year full of terrorist attacks and an increase in economic grievances more specifically after the July coup attempt.

While I was making my New Year wish along with my parents at 12:00 am I wasn’t aware of how after few hours, there will be a lamentable loss of lives in an Istanbul nightclub.

Turkey, before Erdogan’s decision to intervene in Syria, and before his support for radical Islamic forces in Syria and Iraq, was a Utopian secular paradise for many in the Middle East, Balkans and even in South Asia – or the broader Muslim World. But now Turkey has been metamorphosed from a secular oasis (in a Muslim world full of Islamo-fascist dictators or monarchs from Sudan to Saudi Arabia) to another predominantly Muslim state with decreasing levels of peace, religious tolerance and liberty.

It seems as if Erdogan has vowed not to fight against terrorism but against secular Kemalism (political ideology of Ataturk) and to reignite close-minded conservatism and village mentality of Anatolia.

Erdogan’s ability to polarize the population is impressive –roughly half of Turkey’s 75 million hate him and half love him. Once strong but now eroding institutional secularism, Ataturk gave to Turks was the defining and protective quality of the Turkish nation when it was on the brink of destruction by foreign powers after the collapse of Ottoman Empire.

Turkish national identity was being only preserved by such secularism when Turkish nation was insecure about its status in a post-Ottoman Empire world. Every Turkish leader since Ataturk has struggled in the shadow of the great man, and many people suspect that for Erdogan he is a particular nemesis.

Erdogan represents many of the conservative values Ataturk tried to eradicate, and on a few occasions has nearly slipped up by showing his true feelings towards the national hero – once he obliquely referred to the notoriously raki-loving (Raki is a Turkish wine) Ataturk as a ‘drunkard’.

When the guests arrived for New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Reina nightclub of Istanbul, they were dressed to dance away a tumultuous year. Men wearing expensive suits and women in high heels went to the Reina to bid farewell to 2016 – a year remembered in Turkey for bombings, insurgency, economic downturn and rising insecurity augmented specifically after the violent putsch attempt in July.

I had a video call on the Sunday morning with Enver, one of my friends from Istanbul’s Besiktas district (where the Reina nightclub is located) who has been to this famous nightclub of Istanbul multiple times with his friends from Greece, Azerbaijan and Lebanon.

Enver told me how Islamist AKP of Erdogan and its religious supporters have always been against celebrating Yilbasi (New year)and they have always called the New Year festivities as vulgar and obscene.

He further added how religious fanatics have started overtly spewing their hatred against Western Civilization since Erdogan has come in power in the name of their dislike for New Year festivities.

Enver, who lives in an apartment where he has neighbours like Hatice Teyze (Aunt Hatice) a 62-year-old  conservative Turkish lady from Eastern Anatolian city of Urfa, and has been quite outspoken in the whole apartment about her hatred for Turkish inclinations towards a Western model of governance.

He told me how Hatice also didn’t let the carnage at Reina nightclub go away into past without her sarcastic comments and she called the carnage “a punishment for ‘adulterous’ youngsters celebrating New Year Eve in the nightclub”.

I was quite astonished when Enver told me about presence of such a radical lady in an apartment in the mid of a secular part of Istanbul popular with tourists from hubs of ‘Western Civilization’ like Brussels, Paris, London and New York.

Terrorist attacks like the one in Reina nightclub have widened the gaps in increasingly polarized Turkish society and have often ushered into a blame-game between the government and its critics like Enver who were quick to point to condemnation of New Year’s celebrations by conservative Turks like Hatice Teyze.

Last week, Turkey’s religious affairs directorate also declared New Year festivities as “illegitimate”, while Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit (New Era) criticized a partying crowd of youngsters with its controversial headline “down with your civilization”.

Such occurrences clearly exhibit how terrorists have succeeded in creating a fertile ground for a greater increase in tensions between Conservative and Secular Turks. The carnage at Reina club has not just resulted in loss of lives of upper class Turks, but also in the loss of lives of foreign nationals like those from Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and also in the loss of 2 Indian nationals as confirmed by Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj on the same day.

The carnage at Reina has not just been condemned by Turkish officials, but also by officials from France, USA, UK and Pakistan. Along with a series of condemnations by Turkish celebs on Twitter, it has also been condemned by international celebs like Enrique Iglesias, a Spanish singer famous for his songs like “Bailando” on his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

39 people have been killed in this carnage and the attacker is still on the run and the manhunt for him has been intensified since last 24 hours.

Initially, reports circulated on the Turkish media said that attacker was in a Santa Claus outfit when he opened fire on the people, but later these reports were rejected from the CCTV images which showed that the attacker was wearing a black coat.

After hearing the gunshots, some party-goers tried to flee and in panic several youngsters jumped outside into the Bosphorus and ensured their safety by swimming in the dark waters of the strait.

The club’s owner Mehmet Kocarslan gave a tearful interview to the Hurriyet newspaper in which he said that: “Our souls are dead. My friends, my guests are dead”. Kocarslan further added that “I’m sick of blood”.

After the carnage, on Sunday morning, Turkish officials including the head of religious directorate in an attempt to project strength and unity of Turkish nation said that there is no difference between an attack on a nightclub or on a church or a mosque. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also said that “We will not let terror harm our nation’s unity and brotherhood”.

It is deeply saddening for me to see an unabated tide of terrorist attacks in our brotherly nation of Turkey and I wish that these attacks may not accomplish in their true objective which is to further polarize Turkish society. May the departed souls of victims rest in peace.

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

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