Turks still divided, in grief or triumph

ISTANBUL • After the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history, world leaders such as the Pope, US President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and others offered condolences to a grieving nation.

Turkey's President, though, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, usually a dominating presence in public life, issued only a short statement and did not make a speech.

Just days earlier, Turkey had something to celebrate: Turkish-American scientist Aziz Sancar won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Rather than rejoice, a debate erupted on social media about whether he is truly Turkish, given that he is a distant relative of a lawmaker in the Kurdish party and was born in the Kurdish-dominated south-east.

In an interview with the BBC, Prof Sancar said: "I do not speak Kurdish, I am Turkish. That's it."

Nothing seems to be enough to bring Turks together these days, even for a shared moment of grief or triumph. And the recent reactions reflect a deepening feeling that the country has become dangerously polarised. "This is the most fatal terror attack on Turkey in its history, and the fact that we cannot come together as a country at the moment and mourn for the loss of our citizens is deeply saddening," said Mr Ziya Meral, a Turkish academic who lives in London.

Within hours of the attack last Saturday outside the train station in Ankara, the Turkish capital, where two suicide bombers killed nearly 100 people, political leaders engaged in more bickering than consolation, and angry citizens began protesting against the government.

Analysts explain the lack of unity in Turkey, even in the face of such a tragedy, as a result of the increasingly divisive leadership of Mr Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party which has ruled for 13 years. Turkey has long been divided by a number of fault lines - secular and religious, rich and poor, Turks and Kurds - and at one time, Mr Erdogan seemed capable of resolving these tensions. He sought peace with the Kurds, empowered the formerly oppressed religious masses and presided, for a time, over a robust economy.

In recent years, though, that has all been reversed, as Mr Erdogan has alienated many of his former supporters. His government has jailed journalists, chased businessmen with politically motivated tax investigations and cracked down on peaceful protesters.

On Monday, as grief and anger mixed at funerals around the country after the double suicide bombings, Madam Nadiye Surel, a retired dentist, was walking in Istanbul and stopped in at a mosque after she saw a crowd of mourners.

At 71, Madam Surel has lived through her share of Turkey's traumas, from the political violence of the 1970s to the raging Kurdish insurgency of the 1990s. "I've seen all the vile and bloody periods in our history," she said. "But I've never seen so much hatred between ordinary citizens."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Turks still divided, in grief or triumph'. Print Edition | Subscribe