The moment that the first of the two bombs, that killed over one hundred people in Ankara at the “Peace Rally” of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), trade unions and other progressive organizations went off, was captured in a video footage; it showed young activists joined together in a traditional Anatolian folk dance, eerily singing “This is a bloody square.” The tune and lyrics that accompanied the dance adds a symbolic dimension to the terrible moment; it helps to place the massacre that took place seconds later in a broader historical context. The lyrics of the song that was interrupted were about another “Bloody square”- Taksim square in Istanbul – where young leftist demonstrators were murdered by a fascist mob in 1969, as the police looked on.
That day is remembered as the “Bloody Sunday” by leftists in Turkey, and was immortalized by the folk singer and poet Ruhi Su. What will be remembered as the “Bloody Saturday” in Ankara has demonstrated that the poet’s lyrics, decrying the murder of young demonstrators, still remain as pertinent, if not more so, nearly half a century later. Indeed, what they impart is nothing less than the essence of Turkey’s modern history.
The Ankara massacre is the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s history. Never before have so many people been murdered in one single strike. But the carnage in Ankara is anything but atypical in terms of what it stands for politically. Not only did it follow on the terrorist attacks against another HDP rally in Diyarbakır before the June 7 election and the subsequent massacre of young socialists in Suruç; these attacks and the carnage in Ankara that they had been the harbingers of all fit into a pattern of political violence that subsumes decades of Turkish political history.
"It helps to place the massacre in a broader historical context"
It does not matter if the regime is Kemalist or moderate Islamist. The pattern of the string of mass killings – from the “Bloody Sunday” 1969 to the May 1, 1977 massacre, also on Taksim square in Istanbul, to the massacres in Kahramanmaraş and Çorum in 1978 to the massacre in Sivas in 1993, on to Ankara in 2015 – is the same: The victims are always progressives and minorities, Alevis, Kurds. And the perpetrators are always drawn from the popular reservoir of ultraconservatism and ultra-nationalism. Sometimes they are identified: the murderers on Taksim square 1969 were fascist youth; the murderers in Sivas 1993 were Islamists. According to the Turkish government, the perpetrators of the Ankara massacre were two Turkish citizens, who had allegedly joined the Islamic State.
Even though some of the perpetrators of the massacres of leftists, Kurds and Alevis have on occasion been identified, justice has nonetheless never been administered. And the Turkish state has never demonstrated – in its rhetoric or through its actions – any empathy with the plight of the victimized left and the minorities, let alone offered any reason to assume that it identifies with them.
The right-wing government at the time unabashedly defended the perpetrators of the “Bloody Sunday” of 1969, none of whom were brought to justice. Just like was the case in 1969, the security forces did nothing to stop the Islamist mob that perpetrated the massacre in Sivas 1993, when a gathering of Alevi intellectuals was torched and thirty-five people were burned to death. The pattern was similar in Ankara: not only had no security measures whatsoever been taken to protect the rally; when the police did intervene, it did so by firing tear gas over the wounded and the dying after the twin bomb blasts. According to the Association of Turkish Doctors, several of the wounded perished as a result of the attack of the police.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s first reaction to the bombing of the peace rally of the Kurds and the left was to pour scorn on and accuse the victims, the Kurdish movement and HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş; it was an echo from 1969, when the conservative interior minister accused the murdered leftists of having brought about their own fate.
Demirtaş responded by pointing to the negligence of the state authorities and by saying that an attack of this kind in the middle of the fortress-like capital Ankara could not possibly have been perpetrated without the collusion of elements of the state. Hasan Cemal, a prominent liberal journalist, wrote that he did not harbor any doubt at all that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime has put the instruments of the “deep state,” of which it is now the proprietor, to use.
Coverage in the Hürriyet of the 1969 Bloody Sunday
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Such allegations understandably resonate among those – progressives, minorities – that have been the targets of mass killings whose real authors and instigators have never been identified, let alone brought to justice.
The manifest hostility of the Turkish state against the left and the minorities – amply manifested in official state ideology and practice ever since the foundation of the republic – in combination with the recurrent massacres of leftists and minorities, and the concurrent lack of any attempt by state authorities to offer protection and dissuade new attacks from taking place, have reinforced the perception among the leftist opposition and the liberal and leftist intelligentsia that the state is implicated in the violence.
Indeed, the implication of the “deep state” in the violence during the 1970s that paved the way for the military coup in 1980 is taken for granted in Turkey; years later, a former interior minister at the time revealed that operatives of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) had armed the Sunni mob that carried out the massacres of Alevis in the Kahramanmaraş and Çorum provinces in 1978. Former president Süleyman Demirel, a conservative, once said that what is called the “deep state” is in fact synonymous with the state, only that it is the part that does things that it would not be appropriate for the state to stand for openly.
What is shocking for Turkey’s liberals and progressives is not the notion of the state instigating violence against its own citizens in itself, but the realization that those practices appear to have survived the regime change that took place when the moderate Islamists took power from the old state establishment. They are also shocked by the popular fascism that has manifested itself in the wake of the carnage in Ankara.
The attempt to observe a silent minute to honor the victims of the terror attack when the national soccer team played a European qualifier match in the city of Konya – an ultraconservative stronghold – were disrupted when the crowd reacted with whistling and by chanting religious slogans. In another shocking case, a presenter on state television said that he agreed with viewers who, he reported, had called to point out that all the victims of the Ankara bombings should not be treated as equals, as there were also “innocent” victims, those who just happened to be passing by the area where the explosions took place, municipal workers at the adjacent Ankara central station, and others, thus suggesting that those who attended the leftist and Kurdish rally were “guilty.” What this demonstrates is the effects of decades of ideological indoctrination. The country’s Sunni conservatives – the majority – have been indoctrinated to think of the progressives and minorities as heretics, enemies of God and the fatherland. The supposedly “secularist” Turkish state has not done anything to counter such perceptions; on the contrary, it has sustained them and appealed to them when needed.
Every time the political regime in Turkey has felt under threat, the state has mobilized popular ultraconservatism and fascism. That was what happened in the 1970s, when the rise of the progressive movements challenged the power monopoly of the ruling right, which responded by unleashing mass violence against the left. Today, the progressives – mainly in the shape of the HDP – have once again demonstrated a dangerous audacity to challenge the holders of state power; they are once again paying a high price.
Turkey’s democrats, leftists and minorities have always been prey to the sinister machinations of the multi-tentacle Leviathan that is in charge of the country. Arrayed against them have been authoritarian right wing governments, the military and the deep state. It is a widespread misconception that the defining ideological battle in Turkey has stood between “secularists” and supposedly oppressed Sunni Muslims. In fact, the latter have never been the ones to be killed in droves on “bloody squares.”
The Ankara massacre is a reminder of who the victimized “others” in Turkey really are. It is also a reminder that the course of modern Turkish history has more than anything else been shaped by a sustained effort to stamp out any kind of challenge from the left. The reservoir of popular, ultraconservative, ultranationalist resentment has continued to yield politically instrumental mass murderers. It has ensured that fascism – whether in Kemalist or Islamic disguise – has always prevailed in Turkey.
Halil M. Karaveli is the Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. This article originally appeared on the Turkey Analyst website.