Turkey: Four explosions and a dud

Following the two sets of twin explosions that rocked Istanbul within a week, Turkish and international media had a field day, running wild scare stories.

Following the two sets of twin explosions that rocked Istanbul within a week, Turkish and international media had a field day, running wild scare stories. The four explosions killed 55 people, and injured almost a thousand. Scores of buildings were severely damaged, including, of course, the British consulate.

The political establishment has been shaken, and sections of the left disoriented. The revolutionary organisations of the working class must stand firm in the face of the propaganda onslaught.

The first set of suicide attacks targeted the Jewish community of Istanbul on Saturday November 15. Pick-up trucks loaded with explosives were detonated in front of two synagogues during Sabbath prayers.

The Jewish community in Turkey is made up mainly of Sephardic Jews, descendants of those expelled from Spain in the 16th century who settled in the western part of the Ottoman empire and in Istanbul. They speak Ladino, which is derived from old Spanish, just as the Yiddish spoken by eastern European Jewry is closely related to German. Their numbers have dwindled since the nationalist-driven Turkification of every aspect of social and economic life in the early years of the republic, and then through emigration after the formation of Israel.

One of the synagogues, the Nove Shalom, is situated in the ancient district of Galata, the financial centre of Ottoman Istanbul. Galata is a maze of narrow streets, with hundreds of businesses sharing six or eight-storey buildings. The Nove Shalom had been targeted at least twice in recent decades, and partially collapsed after a previous attack. When it was rebuilt, a fortified wall was erected to protect it. This saved the lives of many who were praying inside.

However, despite several warnings and requests by Jewish community leaders, the Turkish authorities had done little to protect the synagogue other than post a couple of policemen in front of the gates. Istanbul’s moderate islamist local government had declined to pedestrianise the street, on the grounds that such a move would hamper local commercial activity. The consequences of such wilful neglect became apparent on November 15.

Also apparent was the close relationship the Jewish community had with Israel. The Israeli foreign minister flew to Istanbul to visit the bomb sites - as if the synagogues were extensions to Israel’s territory, and as if the victims were Israeli citizens. Even the local Jewish community leaders felt uneasy at this shameless presumption on the part of the state of Israel. They tried to disguise it by ensuring that the coffins of the Jews who died during the explosions were draped with Turkish flags (with the special permission of the governor of Istanbul); and with speeches stressing their citizenship of and commitment to their ancient homeland of Turkey, and praising the acts of solidarity of their non-Jewish neighbours. However, these gestures had little effect on the prevailing atmosphere of anti-semitism amongst both moderate and hard-line islamists, as well as amongst the nationalist so-called left.

Spectre of islamist terror

As it became clear that the perpetrators were islamist terrorists, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was put in a difficult position: such an admission would touch its most sensitive nerve. The most islamist administration in the history of modern Turkey accusing islamists of committing terrorist atrocities? No way!

The efficiency of the attackers was an indication of their identity, and within a short space of time organisations calling themselves the Islamist Great Eastern Raiders Front (IBDA-C) of Turkey, and the Abu Hafz al-Masri Brigade, a new offshoot of al Qa’eda, claimed responsibility. The Turkish police identified the two drivers of the suicide vehicles as Turkish nationals who had taken part in ‘jihads’ in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosova, Chechnya and Ogaden.

Despite all the available information the government twisted and turned, and stated that it condemned terrorism no matter who the perpetrators were, but stubbornly refused to admit that these particular perpetrators were islamists. Under pressure from the opposition and media, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came out with an unfortunate comment: “Some say that the explosions have come as a warning. I sweep aside this warning and trample on it.” Within 24 hours, two more explosions proved him not only wrong, but incompetent.

British interests targeted

The second set of explosions were targeted on British interests in Istanbul - just as George W Bush was visiting his chum, Blair, in London. The local headquarters of HSBC bank and the British consulate were hit with home-made bombs, stashed in pick-up trucks. The consul was among the dead, providing the bombers with something of a coup.

The carnage posed quite a few awkward questions concerning security arrangements. Every working day a long queue of visa applicants starts to form in the small hours and ends up snaking along the street. Some even camp outside the British consulate to increase their slim chances of getting in. While loitering outside the US consulate was banned, British officials charged with preventing unwanted immigration in their wisdom declined to take proper precautions despite several requests to control the situation in front of the consulate.

The shock of the second set of explosions was all the more intense, as the first had been considered an isolated incident. Now it was evident that it was a case of concerted activity that might last quite some time. Nobody knew when it would end and what the next target would be.

The government was forced to admit that the atrocities had been committed by “people with religious sentiments”, but still refused to use the term ‘islamist terror’.

Moderate islamist and islamist terrorists

The perpetrators of the second set of explosions were also identified within a short space of time. They too were known mujahedin who had returned to Turkey after military campaigns abroad and were members of an organisation called Beytul Imam (Union of Imams). This organisation, according to the Turkish police, was not categorised as being involved in terrorism.

We must remember that the Turkish police put young kids shouting slogans for the freedom of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, or in support of hunger-striking prisoners in the isolation blocks, into the ‘most dangerous terrorist’ category, which strangely does not include known islamist cut-throats, such as those who hijacked a ferry on the Black Sea, or those who occupied a hotel in Istanbul and took foreign hostages for days in support of Chechen islamists, or those who send home souvenir pictures of themselves holding up the severed heads of their victims.

Erdogan tried to walk a tightrope. In his early years he was himself one of the leaders of the ferocious Young Raiders, the youth organisation of the Islamist Party. Later he was known as the ‘mujahed of the jihad Erdogan’. He received the blessing of Gulbeddin Hikmetyar of Afghanistan. A picture of him kneeling before Hikmetyar has been widely published in the media.

He was jailed for inciting violence after chanting a poem which read: “The mosques are our barracks; the domes are our helmets; the minarets are our bayonets; the believers are our soldiers.” Because of that conviction he was disqualified from election as a member of the parliament - until a very convenient amnesty.

Today one of the controversies in which both he and the president of the republic are embroiled involves the appointment of the director-general of the state radio and television service. The person Erdogan wishes to appoint was also known to be a disciple of Hikmetyar, and his photograph in mujahedin attire before his spiritual leader was also carried in the Turkish press. Members of the moderate islamist government and its top bureaucrats are all this type of men - similar in upbringing and leaning.

Furthermore this government has provided islamist terrorists with greater operating space. It disbanded the police units specially formed to combat islamist terrorism and released from prison islamist perpetrators of the worst atrocities via its amnesty. The islamist foundations which feed the terrorist organisations have received direct state support and a blind eye has been turned to hidden financial sponsorship. The media has been manipulated and consequently warnings ignored.

As the days passed, it became apparent that the suicide drivers of both sets of explosions belonged to the same group and their pick-up trucks were purchased by the same people at the same time. The state’s initial claim, made within a short time after the first incident, that any further attempts would be prevented was exposed as hollow. The ineffectual and wilfully negligent nature of the moderate islamists was revealed for all to see. The list of political failings and omissions gets longer everyday. For example, the government turned down Germany’s recent request for cooperation against islamist terrorism, asserting that Turkey had succeeded in marginalising Hezbollah already.

However, the government now intends to use the bombings to further restrict the limited press and other freedoms, and to tighten the bureaucratic grip of the state security and intelligence services. The opening salvo came from the director of police, who claimed at the funerals of the policemen killed in the explosion that unrestrained reporting of police raids to apprehend the perpetrators of the first bombings had allowed the second atrocities to take place.

The prime minister blamed media reports for increasing the impact of the bombs - although journalist associations were quick to point out that details of the suspects they had reported had been leaked by senior police officials, and that there is no reliable press information service provided by any official body in Istanbul. In fact gagging orders issued by the state security courts had severely restricted reporting of both incidents.

The government also complained about lack of coordinated intelligence. The finger of blame was inevitably pointed at the government’s nemesis, the high command of the armed forces, which is responsible for the intelligence services and their coordination. Attempts have already been made to wring security from the control of the high command.

The islamist press has tried to shift the blame for the atrocities to Israel and the USA by linking them to similar actions committed in Palestine, and the favourable treatment Israel gets from the USA, compared to the ‘freedom fighters’ of islam, the suicide bombers. It also cites the US occupation of Iraq and the growing resistance of suicide bombers in that country.

The social democratic and nationalist opposition concentrate their fire on the government’s tacit support for islamist extremism and try to score points by exposing its ineffectiveness. They also try to act as a unifying focus for all those shocked and dismayed by the scale of the unprecedented terror.

The dud

Last weekend a series of silent protest rallies was organised in major cities across Turkey. ‘Peace marches against violence and terror’ were jointly called by the trade unions, public service employee associations and many other organisations. No chanting of group slogans, no placards other than those condemning terror, no banners of individual organisations and no flags apart from the Turkish flag were allowed. Some TV channels and newspapers pushed the idea of a national flag day. Even Taksim Square - where magnificent May Day rallies were held in the 70s, and where demonstrations have been banned since 1980, was given over for one of these state-sponsored demonstrations.

The organisers hoped to ride on the sentiments of the people, but they failed dismally. In Istanbul only about 2,000 people gathered in one corner of the square. In Ankara 300 people attended a rally. In Izmit there were around 2,000 and in Izmir 1,000 turned up. In Antalya, members of Labour Platform - the coordinating body which includes trade unions and public employees, as well as local progressive organisations - attempted to hold a separate rally, which was attacked and dispersed by the police. Equally small demonstrations were also held in other major cities.

By staying away, the working class of Turkey has indicated that it is not prepared to hold hands with its own bourgeoisie. The left should take note. It has, however, failed to take heed of the warnings of the Communist Party of Turkey, which stressed the importance of the struggle of the Alevis for democracy and a secular state in the late 80s. The left chorused its condemnation of the CPT ‘turncoats to Alevism’. Since that time many atrocities have been committed against the Alevis and others who have stood for a secular state.

Religion’s influence over everyday life has been growing steadily. The islamist terrorists have been acting with impunity and with the tacit blessing of the state. They have been used as the state’s secret weapon against Kurdish insurgency, but the left failed to act.

Dismal performance

Many of those on the left who previously failed to take up the question of islamist terror are today on their feet denouncing it. But, instead of doing so from a working class perspective, they have jumped on the bandwagon of those who want to use the terrorist threat to unite the nation behind the state.

Some on the nationalist left have called on the army to “do its duty” - as if we have not suffered enough from the military interventions of the last three decades. Some have joined with the bourgeoisie in condemning terror wherever it comes from. In Turkey such utterances are directed against, for example, the Kurdish guerrilla struggle, but not against the ‘shock and awe’ terror campaign perpetrated by the Turkish army across Kurdistan. These ‘comrades’ have chosen to stand with the ruling class.

Some of them have pointed to the poor state of the Turkish economy as providing a breeding ground for islamist terrorism among the poorest and least educated sections of youth. With Jack Straw and the like giving them hope through hypocritical speeches in support of Turkey’s admission to the European Union, the so-called Turkish left is banking on a quick improvement thanks to EU membership. They have chosen to side with international finance capital.

Some even sought out more moderate islamists and organised joint demonstrations with them against any type of terror. However, just as during the anti-Bush demonstrations in London, those muslims chanting the ezan, the call to prayer, before burning an effigy of the US president, were not marching to our tune, so in Turkey they were allowed to dominate the scene with their muddled ideology. Those who allowed their message to be confused with religion have chosen to side with the most backward-looking sections of society.

Message of working class

The attitude adopted by the political organisations of the working class is very important. We must never side with the ruling class, never side with their state, never side with international finance capital, and never side with their henchmen who hold up the banner of religion or nationalism.

Suicide bombings will not see us scurrying under the wings of the bourgeoisie. We are not afraid of the explosions that shake the establishment. We face the onslaught of their military, social and economic might day after day. We are determined to topple their regime. Our allies are the international working class. We want peace, but we know we cannot achieve it without first engaging in a determined fight.

We do not give any credibility to individual terrorists, of whatever ideological coloration. Our struggle means arousing millions of workers and toilers for their own self-liberation. Talk of fighting against terrorism and for peace without raising the call for revolution only ends up serving the interests of this or that section of the bourgeoisie.

The Istanbul atrocities will not deter us from continuing to convey this message.