July 30, 2015 | Politico Europe
Turkish Grey Wolves Target ‘Chinese’
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing came at an awkward time.
So far this month, Turkish ultranationalists have attacked two Chinese restaurants in Istanbul, assaulted Koreans (whom they mistook for Chinese) at an iconic palace and tried to break into the Chinese embassy in Ankara. The perpetrators claim to be avenging China’s alleged prohibition of Ramadan fasting among its Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims. The attacks have not only strained Turco-Sino relations, but also threaten to devolve into a new phase of violence against Turkey’s religious and ethnic minorities.
The violence comes on the heels of an unexpected political opportunity for Turkey’s nationalists. The Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking a coalition partner for the next government, and the main far-right party — which came in third in last month’s parliamentary elections — stands a real chance to join a Turkish government for the first time in over a decade.
The attacks came after days of campaigning by ultranationalist groups against China. Since the beginning of Ramadan, Turkish pro-government newspapers have spread various allegations — with varying degrees of truth behind them — about China’s mistreatment of Uighurs.
“Communist China forces fasting Uighurs to drink alcohol!” screamed one headline in a radical Islamist paper.
Prayer vigils and symbolic demonstrations followed throughout the country — one even involved leaving a bloodied doll on a table at a Chinese restaurant. The instigators of the attacks are reportedly from the radical youth wings of the two major ultranationalist parties: the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)’s neo-fascist“Grey Wolves” and a similar group run by the rival Great Union Party (BBP). In an apparently coordinated campaign, both of the groups hung banners last week reading, “We miss the smell of Chinese blood” — lyrics from a battle hymn by an ultranationalist singer.
Their solidarity with the distant Uighurs may seem odd, but many Turkish ultranationalists view the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia — the region from which the nomads who would settle Anatolia originally came — as their brethren. Pan-Turkic ideology originated in the 19th century but flourished in the 1940s and 50s in the wake of trending historical novels, which glorified the Turkic tribes as warriors while portraying the Chinese as their implacable archenemies. The novels of Nihal Atsız, one of the founding fathers of pan-Turkic ideology, are still listed as recommended reading by MHP’s youth wing.
With chants of “Allahu Akbar” accompanying almost all of the attacks, it is unclear whether the violence was motivated by ultranationalist or radical Islamist feelings — or both. While pan-Turkic nationalism began as a secular movement, it has increasingly incorporated Islam and Islamism — particularly since the 1970s. During the polarization of the Cold War, ultranationalists calling themselvesÜlkücü (“Idealists”) sought to draw religious conservatives to their movement against the radical left. They spread the message of the “Turkish-Islamic Ideal” — the idea that Turks had elevated Islam (and virtually everything else they touched) to its noblest form.
In the political arena, ultranationalists and Islamists became coalition partners in two so-called “Nationalist Front” governments in 1975 and 1977. That period saw exceptional political violence, with daily gang fights between the radical left and far-right factions that took more than 4,500 lives. The Grey Wolves were the dominant force among the far right, attacking not only leftists but also Alevis — adherents of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam who make up between 10 and 15 percent of Turkey’s population. One of the most notorious massacres occurred in 1978, when a mob of ultranationalists killed at least 111 in the southern city of Kahramanmaraş, most of them Alevi. The perpetrators placed the burnt and mutilated bodies of their victims, which included pregnant women and children, on sticks for display. The violence ended only in 1980, when the military intervened in a coup d’état.
In the following decades, some ultranationalist factions became too Islamized for the movement to stay intact. In 1993, Islamist nationalists formally split from the MHP — then, as now, Turkey’s main ultranationalist movement — and launched the more religiously extreme BBP. Today, the rivalry between the two parties extends to their youth wings, with each vying to outdo the other in its commitment to radical nationalism.
Despite the formal split, boundaries remain permeable between Turkey’s ultranationalists and Islamists because of shared religious-conservative values. After the 1980 coup shut down the parties that made up the Nationalist Front government, their newer iterations once again formed a political alliance in 1991 and entered that year’s election on a joint ticket. And while coalition negotiations have only just begun, the AKP’s socially conservative voter base is most compatible with that of the MHP — making a partnership between the two among the likeliest coalition scenarios.
Such a coalition could lead to a third Nationalist Front-style government, and a return to the intolerant atmosphere of the 1970s. While the right-left polarization of the Cold War era has softened, ethnic and religious minorities remain a compelling target for ultranationalists and Islamist radicals. To many ultranationalists, perceived concessions in the Kurdish peace process and a record number of Kurds and Alevis elected to parliament last month are all affronts to the nation which must be remedied by whatever means necessary.
Turkey — rarely a haven of intercommunal bliss — is now witnessing an alarming rise in xenophobia. Last September ultranationalists lynched a 20-year-old man in Antalya for speaking Kurdish, and two months later BBP’s youth wing tried to march to Istanbul’s main synagogue holding a banner threatening to “besiege your temples.” In recent months, the doors of Alevi homes across the country have been ominously marked with red X’s. During the visit of a world-renowned Armenian pianist to the city of Kars last month, the local Grey Wolves leader wondered aloud whether his followers should “go on an Armenian hunt.” With ultranationalists thus emboldened, a return to the violence of the 1970s is distinctly possible.
Remarks by the MHP chairman last week inspire little optimism that cooler heads will prevail. “What is the difference between a Korean and a Chinese?” he said when asked about the attacks on Koreans. “Does it matter? They both have slanted eyes.”
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a nonresident fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu