Turkey massacre exposes growing fault lines

People placing flowers in front of the Reina night club, in Istanbul, Turkey, on Jan 2, 2017.
People placing flowers in front of the Reina night club, in Istanbul, Turkey, on Jan 2, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

Nightclub attack the latest blow to a country tearing apart amid terrorist attacks and political instability

ISTANBUL • When a lone gunman murdered dozens of New Year revellers early on Sunday, he targeted a symbol of a cosmopolitan Istanbul that is increasingly under threat: a dazzling nightclub where people from around the world could party together, free from the mayhem and violence gripping the region.

It was there, at the Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus - a hot spot for soap opera stars and professional athletes, Turks and well-heeled tourists - that those hoping to move past a particularly troubled year died together.

The assault was the second in two weeks in Turkey, and it further exposed the fault lines in a country that is increasingly tearing apart amid terrorist attacks and political instability.

The killings brutally highlighted a dilemma for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Even though he has cracked down on opponents and put in place security measures to bring stability to his country, the attacks keep mounting.

"I don't know what to say," said Mr Zeynep Ozman, whose brother Ali was wounded in the attack. "I don't want to say anything political but this can't be accepted as the new norm. Terrorism is everywhere now and the government has no control. Something needs to be done. There is no life left in Istanbul."

Turkey has been reeling for several years now as it has been increasingly drawn into the Syrian civil war. By opening its borders to foreign fighters trying to reach Syria, critics say, it inadvertently supported the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, which is carrying out attacks within Turkey. Then, in 2015, a stalled war with Kurdish militants was renewed and, last year, Turkey faced an attempted coup.

 
 
 

The attack is likely to further diminish Turkey's democracy by giving Mr Erdogan a freer hand to expand his crackdown on opponents, which accelerated after the coup attempt. It is also likely to erode the country's economy, which has already suffered because of a decline in tourism and foreign investment.

"Nothing that the government is doing is helping to make Turkey more secure," said prominent Turkish writer Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The crackdown on domestic dissidents is further destabilising the country and, when it is not destabilising, it is increasing the dangerous polarisation here."

On Sunday, Mr Erdogan vowed in a statement that the fight against terrorists would bring the country together.

Even before the Arab Spring revolutions six years ago, Turkey sought to set itself apart and shape regional events with its "zero problems with neighbours" foreign policy.

Now, all that has changed. Turkey, a member of Nato, has been engulfed by the dark and destabilising forces gripping the Middle East and the surrounding regions, where everything seems to converge: terrorism, the migrant crisis and the rise of authoritarianism.

Even with so much uncertainty, the attack on Reina seemed to symbolise one of Turkish society's deepest divides, between the secular and the pious - a fissure that has grown deeper under Mr Erdogan, an Islamist who has expanded religious schooling and sought to restrict alcohol sales.

"I guess it is a target because it's full of high-class Turks and foreigners," Mr Emre Eytan Can, 34, an investment banker from Istanbul, said of the Reina. "And it's a place where people let their hair down and drink, which is not in line with Islam."

By Sunday afternoon, the now familiar rituals of grief following terrorist attacks were in full swing, with consulate officials and grieving families converging at an Istanbul morgue, where officials had set up tea stands outside in the bitter cold.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline 'Turkey massacre exposes growing fault lines'. Print Edition | Subscribe