The Use and Abuses of Terrorism


For countless reasons, it is not too difficult–particularly for Counterpunchers–to formulate criticisms of the Republican candidates in the run-up to this year’s presidential election; I’ll forgo those criticisms here. Without the farcical presence of Donald Trump or the clownish candidacy of Herman Cain, the field has thinned and there’s at least a semblance of actual discussion taking place between the representatives of the various mainstream conservative factions.

But the humor is not entirely gone, especially from the vantage point of Istanbul.  There is always at least a suppressed chuckle when I explain to friends and colleagues who don’t already know about the history and principles of Mitt Romney’s religious beliefs: Jesus of Nazareth, the Prophet Muhammad of Mecca, Joe Smith of Elmira–somehow it just seems funny. My point is not to knock Mormonism, but to say that many people in Turkey are interested in the current state of the American opposition party and what it might mean in terms of Obama’s potential reelection. But from inside Turkey, where political parties are regularly banned and opposition leaders are frequently “investigated” (shorthand for being thrown in jail with or without formal charges), American politics often seem  like a joke.

Much of that changed after Monday night’s debates from South Carolina, which caused a jarring shift in the perception here of the current state of American political discourse. I am referring specifically to the Q&A between the moderator Bret Baier and Texas Governor Rick Perry, which turned to the subject of Turkey. According to the Fox News transcript, it went as follows:

Baier: Governor Perry, since the Islamist-oriented party [Justice and Development Party, AKP] took over in Turkey, the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 per cent there. Press freedom has declined to the level of Russia. The prime minister of Turkey has embraced Hamas and Turkey has threatened military force against both Israel and Cypress. Given Turkey’s turn, do you believe Turkey still belongs in NATO?

Perry: Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists…we need to send a powerful message to countries like Iran, and Syria and Turkey that the United States is serious and that we’re going to have to be dealt with..

I’ll leave aside the moderator’s loaded question (the AKP didn’t “take over”, they were, and continue to be, elected), and Perry’s neglect of the profound differences between the Iranian, Syrian and Turkish states and the people who inhabit them. Never mind too, the recent activation in Turkey of a major NATO missile defense system at the behest of the American military. Perry’s weird juxtaposition of Turkey, Syria and Iran, which makes no sense to any serious observer, becomes justified because of the word “terrorist” and the knowledge that these countries are Muslim. There is no other explanation required; the label does the work.

This is not too surprising, particularly from a desperate candidate like Rick Perry, who was on his last legs and indeed quit the race three days later. It made perfect sense for him to heave an anti-Muslim Hail Mary downfield in a last ditch effort to woo undecided voters, particularly in a state like South Carolina. But Perry’s words, which were negligible in the long-term history of American politics, are having a greater impact in Turkey than they probably are inside the United States.

In today’s Turkey, charges of “terrorism” are thrown around so often that the term has lost all meaning. The Ergenekon conspiracy, in which various factions of the Turkish military were said to be plotting a coup to restore the power of the so-called “deep state”, is a big part of the story. The AKP has been steadily arresting high level military officers including most recently the former Chief of Staff, the retired General İlker Başbuğ. In light of the inherent tension between the AKP government and the secularist military, what is significant is not so much that General Başbuğ and other top brass have been arrested, but that they were charged with “establishing or administering a terrorist organization”.

Since the initial disclosure of Ergenekon in 2007, the AKP has used the “terrorist” label as the basis for arresting not only military figures, but to crack down on a wide range of political dissent, most of which has little if any connection to the original Ergenekon case, which, in turn, would seem to have little connection to what most people would define as “terrorism”. The arrest of the journalist and author Ahmet Şik is another good and recent example. Şik was arrested because of his book, İmamın Ordusu (The Army of the Imam), which claims connections between the Turkish police force and the Fetullah Gülen movement (based in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, of all places). Turks critical of the AKP, particularly hard-line secularists, tend to view Gülen as a puppet master in cahoots with the ruling party, whose followers have infiltrated various government institutions and are presently working to establish an Islamic state. In any event, Şik, by most accounts a pacifist liberal who spent much of his career criticizing the military, stands accused of being connected to the Ergenekon “terrorist organization” and attempting to destabilize the government.

Aside from the Ergenekon net, the state has also used “terrorism” to crack down on political dissent within universities. Last year several students were arrested for displaying a banner calling for free education during an Istanbul University campus visit by Prime Minister Erdoğan. The students were held for 18 months on charges of being part of an unnamed “leftist terrorist organization”. They were only recently released.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the “terrorism” framework has to do with, for lack of a better term, the “Kurdish issue”. The armed wing of the Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is probably familiar to most readers, although it is hardly the only target of the Turkish state under the “terrorist” heading. In late October of last year, the political science professor Büşra Ersanlı was arrested because of her relationship with the main Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and with the Union of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK), to whom she apparently provided legal advice. The KCK is defined by the Turkish state as the “urban wing” of the PKK.

Thus, “terrorism” is far from merely a question of the armed conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK. Any person tangentially connected to the various Kurdish social or political groups can easily become labeled a “terrorist” in the eyes of the state.

The wide net of the “terrorism” arrests has been regularly defended by government officials, who point to the necessity of state security to justify any secrecy or ambiguities. The Interior Minister, Naim Şahin, recently attempted to make coherent the state’s vision. Speaking on December 26, 2011, Şahin argued that “There can be psychological terror, scientific terror, terror that feeds in our backyard…there is terrorist propaganda…there can be artistic terrorism.” In short, terrorism is not simply the targeted killing of civilians to create fear. It can be any number of activities, including, quite literally, the painting of a picture on a canvas.

Şahin’s comments foreshadowed the horrific events of the following days, as 35 Kurdish civilians were spotted by one of the U.S. Predator drone aircrafts used by the Turkish military to fight “terrorism”. The civilians were routinely crossing into Turkey (it is not uncommon for Kurds to cross unmarked national borders, as their traditional homelands encompass parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Armenia). The civilian caravan was carrying drums of diesel fuel, which exploded during the bombings, and which likely raised the death toll. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the state maintained that it had killed only “terrorists”. But as evidence mounted, that position became untenable.

The bombings seemed to many a telling example of how blurred the lines between fiction and reality had become in dealing with “terrorists”.

The killing of the Kurdish civilians received a pathetic amount of coverage in the United States media. Perhaps this is because the U.S. is hesitant to criticize its newest toy in the “War on Terror”: the Predator drone. But perhaps too it has something to do with the fact that the U.S. is not quite sure what to make of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Turkey (despite what Perry might think) is an ally of the United States and certainly the U.S. military will help its allies fight against what those allies define as “terrorist” threats. But on the other hand, the Kurds were instrumental for the American military during the Iraq War…it gets quite complicated.

We know that the terrorist label dehumanizes people. We’ve seen it in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; we’ve seen it in the videos of American troops urinating on Afghani bodies. We know too that when a government raises the specter of “terrorism”, it tends to make it criticism difficult of the government difficult. Who can support terrorism?

But the supreme irony in the comments of Rick Perry is that it takes the post-9/11 “War on Terror” full-circle: The Americans fight “terrorism”; the American government supports other governments, like Turkey, who fight “terrorism”; Turkey gave support for the American war in Iraq; the Americans then turned a blind eye to the suppression of the Kurds… now Perry calls the Turkish government Islamic terrorists? The snake seems to be eating its own tail.

JEFF HOWISON can be contacted at