How is the Christchurch Attack Reverberating in Erdogan’s Turkey?
There are about 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world, all of which probably strongly condemned the attack against innocent Muslims in Christchurch on Mar. 15. Yet Turkey’s reaction has been different, so much so that the Australian government was at one point weighing travel advice for its citizens visiting the country for Anzac Day, an annual holiday honoring the Australian and New Zealander soldiers who participated in the Gallipoli Campaign, their first action in World War I. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has had to send her foreign minister to Turkey in order to, as she puts it, “confront” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his comments regarding the shooting and “set the record straight, face-to-face.” The crisis now appears to have fizzled out, but it’s worth asking what happened. What made Turkey’s reaction different from other Muslim countries?
When news of the Christchurch shooting hit Turkey, there were a few details that immediately stood out. Brenton Tarrant, the shooter, had covered his assault rifles with dates and names that were significant in the world of Christian extremists — things like the 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna and Miloş Obiliç, the Serbian soldier who killed Sultan Murad I after the battle of Kosovo in 1389. And if that wasn’t enough to get Turks’ attention, he wrote “Turkcofagos” and “Turkdevourer” along the barrel of his gun.
Then there was his “manifesto.” The murderer’s belief system appears to have been couched within a particular historical narrative, but consistency isn’t its strong suit. The document he left behind is a small window into a deprived mind. He is awfully repetitive, makes strange attempts at sarcasm, and clearly has no sense of proper punctuation. At one point he fantasizes about being a U.S. marine, an omnipotent warrior killing his liberal questioner. In this strange stream of consciousness, there are a few lines entitled “To turks” in which he vows to kill us all if we don’t vacate “Constantinople” west of the Bosphorus. Two pages down, he blames “european men” for being weak, and allowing themselves to be “ethnically replaced.” He closes with a challenge: “UNTIL THE HAGIA SOPHIA IS FREE OF THE MINARETS, THE MEN OF EUROPE ARE MEN IN NAME ONLY.”
Most Muslims in New Zealand and Australia are from South Asia. Why this odd Turco-centricity? It’s hard to know for sure, but it could be many things. Australia has a relatively large Serbian population, and the shooter used many symbols used in Serbian nationalism, so there could be a connection there. Tarrant doesn’t appear to have Serbian roots, but could have been influenced by that community’s nationalistic (and inevitably anti-Turkish) leanings. Another — possibly overlapping — reason could be that the shooter was trying to stir trouble. He does this throughout the document, dropping names, for example, to get famous people in trouble and stir public unrest. One such case is in the following excerpt, written in a question-and-answer format:
Is there a particular person that radicalized you the most?
Yes, the person that has influenced me above all was Candace Owens. Each time she spoke I was stunned by her insights and her own views helped push me further and further into the belief of violence over meekness. Though I will have to disavow some of her beliefs, the extreme actions she calls for are too much, even for my tastes.
Considering the dark world of conspiracy theories that this person inhabited, as well as his white supremacist and misogynistic beliefs, it is highly unlikely that Owens, an African-American woman involved in mainstream U.S. politics, actually served as an influence on him. By using the word “radicalized,” he also assumes the language of post-facto analysis, another sign that he’s playing the reader. (Plus, the shooter says that Anders Brevik was his only “true inspiration.”) Owens, however, does hold radical anti-immigrant views, and Tarrant’s citation of her as an influence triggered its intended bout of left-right polarization. This sort of behavior is sometimes called shitposting, and the shooter’s actions are replete with it, including references to YouTube channels and video games. So why not poke the Turks? Considering that the shooter’s extensive travels had taken him to Turkey twice in 2016, he might have thought that the land of Erdoğan would be particularly keen to play his game.
If he did, he was smarter than he let on. Reacting to news of the shooting in the small hours of Mar. 15, a popular anonymous pro-government Twitter account wrote, “God, make [us] servants of revenge.” Plenty of individual Twitter users shared the sentiment. People gorged on the details, with television stations and social media accounts deciphering the messages on the assault rifles and social media accounts and sharing the horrible video of the shooting. On some level, an initial reaction of this kind is understandable. People are fascinated by morbid things, especially if their community is the victim. Suffering becomes a communal process, and individuals feel a need to share their pain and anger with the group. It doesn’t matter if that’s what the attacker wants at that point, it’s just a human reaction.
The reaction of Turkish pro-government circles however, went beyond horror and grief. After reading the manifesto, some Turks renewed the long-standing Islamist call to take down the Hagia Sophia’s museum signs and re-inaugurate it as a mosque, starting with the funeral prayer of the Christchurch victims. Misvak, a pro-government satirical magazine published a cartoon (later removed) in which an assault rifle painted with significant dates for the Ottoman Empire was laid over a Turkish flag. Its subtitle read “this is how history is written.” The rage went on well into the next day, when the headline in the Turkish Islamist paper Yeni Şafak was “KORKTUĞUNUZ KADAR VARIZ,” meaning roughly, “We are as much as you fear.” Most columnists wrote on the topic, with one imploring his readers to take a trip to Gallipoli and look at the graves of “New Zealand’s Crusader soldiers” there.
People in Turkey were primed to mirror the language of the attacker because they don’t need to go to obscure online forums for conspiracy theories. Their government pumps the stuff into their heads every day. State-backed television channels feature expensive-looking programs about thousand-year struggles against crusaders, dark forces, and Jewish puppeteers plotting the downfall of the Muslim revival. Anyone who doubts this, the line goes, is either naïve or a secret agent of said forces. Turkish people put dates like 1453 (the conquest of Istanbul) or 1071 (the battle of Manzikert) on the sides of buildings, bumper stickers, and coffee shop chains. This world of swashbuckling Ottomans looks a bit ridiculous most of the time, but the Christchurch attack, for a fleeting moment, vindicated its vicarious clash of civilizations.
As messages of solidarity from New Zealand and other Western countries came in however, something unusual began to happen. A surprising number of government supporters put their epic rage on pause. A hardened Islamist and open defender of groups like al-Qaeda, for example, shared one of the many touching videos of Prime Minister Ardern, adding in two tweets:
In New Zealand, it is true, a terrorist who resurrected the rhetoric of the crusaders and was inspired by radical Christianity, committed a massacre. Whom should we get revenge from? From the Christians who are standing watch at mosques, or those who are praying for Muslims in churches?
One must understand the New Zealand events. Of course we are angry, sad, pained. But one must especially note the sincere empathy for Muslims that the majority of the population is displaying. One must understand that attacks on civilians are not legitimate.
This went on. The pro-government media loved “egg boy,” so-named for smashing an egg on the head of a far-right Australian senator who blamed the attack on Muslim migration. As videos of Christian and Jewish people showing support kept streaming in, and Ardern’s government invited Islamic symbols into their legislative chambers, even the most belligerent right-wing social media accounts praised them. It seemed like there was a real opportunity here to overcome simmering resentments. Mustafa Yeneroğlu, an AK Party parliamentarian who grew up in Germany, noticed. He must have been so alarmed by the initial drawing of swords that he began to furiously share messages of solidarity across the world. He criticized Misvak for one of its cartoons and probably thought for a second that he was a German parliamentarian, since he publicly hinted disapproval of the actions of Erdoğan.
Before getting to those actions, it’s useful first to look at the comments of Ibrahim Kalın, special advisor to the president, as well as his spokesman. Holding a PhD in Islamic studies from George Washington University and being a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Kalın is the undisputed academic heavyweight of the presidential palace. As such, he is usually content to operate behind the scenes. On that Friday, however, his tall, angular frame materialized for a rare 50-minute television interview. Kalın opened with tried and true points about Western double standards in dealing with these attacks. When “those perceived as Muslims,” meaning members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the like, kill innocent people, he said, “the whole system moves into action,” meaning things like the United Nations, the United States, and the global news cycle. When white nationalists or Christian fundamentalists kill people, however, he said it didn’t make as much of an impact. This point is demonstrably true, if unoriginal. (The days following Kalın’s appearance would see wall-to-wall coverage of the Christchurch attack in the Western media. His point about “the system” has also been made by people like British journalist Mehdi Hasan, with growing success.)
Either way, all this made Kalın deeply concerned for the state of Western liberalism. Muslims were the Jews of the 21st century, he said, and he was afraid that the West was failing yet another test in co-habitation. Kalın of course would never call what happened “Christian terrorism” or other attacks “Jewish terrorism.” It was deeply offensive when Westerners call similar acts “Islamic terrorism,” and he wouldn’t want to engage in this kind of “reverse orientalism.” That after all, was what the terrorists wanted. “Once you do this, military and political confrontation, war, becomes inevitable. We must not fall into this trap,” he said in a calm and collected manner. This was chilling considering that legions of loyalist editors were at the time were punching out headlines that read some variety of “CRUSADER TERROR.”
For most of the interview, Kalın sounded like he lived in a parallel universe in which Turkey was a beacon of wisdom and tranquility and that the “system” denied it justice out of sheer malice. The footage of the attack, he said, should not be published because “aestheticizing violence” was wrong. He cited Hannah Arendt, and reiterated Turkey’s call for a more just international system. All this displayed a brazen lack of self-reflection but wasn’t necessarily harmful. Every once in a while, though, Kalın dipped into the world of Ottomans vs. crusaders: “The West never forgave Turks for conquering Istanbul” he said at one point, cracking a smile. Anyone, he implied, who calls the president a dictator, was in shadowy league against “the people.” And as the program came to a close, he ended with a bizarrely polite taunt: “we are here on the European side of Istanbul,” he said. “If they are strong enough, they should come.”
The president himself dealt with the matter while on the campaign trail for municipal elections. On the first day, his team released footage of him in his campaign bus, talking to Ardern on the phone while citizens were waiting outside. Here, Erdoğan was firmly in the alternative universe of the magnanimous Turkish Empire. He cursed the attack “on behalf of all Muslims” and recommended that the leader of this small occidental country pursue the whole “terrorist network” rather than the sole gunman. He then told her that he had dispatched his foreign minister and one of his advisors to her country because “with them, it would be very appropriate for you to make an evaluation on the point of determining a new road map. We wouldn’t want a shadow to be cast upon New Zealand, the land of freedoms.”
The next day, Erdoğan was on the campaign trail again, ready for civilizational combat. At these rallies, the president has been setting up large screens and using them to show to his audience creatively spliced footage of his hapless opponents. They generally say things that expose them to be vile terrorists, or collaborators thereof. Erdoğan now thought it appropriate to also use this equipment to show footage of the Christchurch massacre. This was the video the shooter uploaded to Facebook in real time embedded in more generic campaign footage. On these occasions, the president also made it clear that he didn’t think there was much of a difference between the crusading terrorist and his political opponents. Media outlets, of course, give generous coverage to these rallies, so even people who don’t have an internet connection were able to get an intimate sense of crusader terrorism. It was the first thing my 92-year-old grandfather said when we sat down the following Sunday morning. “Did you see what happened in New Zealand?”
Ever since the attack, the president has also been sharing with the public his reading of the deranged manifesto. “Why is the West silent? Why is the Western media silent? Because they… prepared it and handed it to him,” he said at a meeting. “We have understood that your scorn, your hatred is alive,” he said at another meeting.
You will not be able to turn Istanbul into Constantinople. Your grandfathers came [referring to the Anzacs of World War I] saw that we were here, and some returned standing, others returned in coffins. If you come with the same intentions, we are expecting you. Do not doubt that we will see you off as we saw off your grandfathers.
This was when Ardern dispatched her foreign minister.
The situation, however, is far beyond the reach of deft diplomacy or policy prescriptions. This sort of thing is bound to recur. “Anger too is an oratory art,” then-Prime Minister Erdoğan famously said, and artists don’t stop practicing their art, not if they are this good, no matter the cost. Maybe somewhere deep, deep down, the president knows that the man who brutally gunned down 51 of his fellow Muslims in New Zealand probably wasn’t part of a powerful underground organization. He probably knows that people in Stuttgart or Ontario don’t get up in the morning and think about the Hagia Sophia’s minarets. But some might, and that’s all that matters.
Selim Koru is a writer and an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).