Turkey, Orhan Pamuk, Pamuk
Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip

Arrests Skyrocket in Alleged Turkish Ultranationalist Terrorist Ring

January 12, 2009 12:35 PM
by Anne Szustek
More than 100 people in Turkey have now been arrested in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the country’s Islamist-leaning government.

Arrests Continue in Alleged Ultranationalist Terrorist Case

Over the weekend of Jan. 10–11, 14 more people were formally arrested by a Turkish court, part of a group of some 40 people detained, for their alleged ties to an ultranationalist, secularist terrorist ring, bringing the number of defendants in the so-called Ergenekon case to more than 100.

The supposed network is accused of being behind high-profile murders and bombings and plotting to overthrow the Islamist-rooted government. The wave of arrests, which followed an investigation that revealed a cache of weapons in a forest near Turkish capital Ankara, is the 10th of a series of arrests that began nearly a year ago in a case emblematic of the widening gulf between Turkey’s conservatives of two different stripes: ultranationalists who see Turkey as a secular nation in which citizens are Turks first, Muslims second, and Islamist-leaning politicos who espouse Islam as more important than Turkish identity.

Judges began hearing the indictment on Oct. 20, after a lengthy police investigation. Prosecutors allege that the Ergenekon waged their violent campaign in an attempt to “breed chaos and public despair, paving the way for a military coup and derailing Turkey’s European Union-mandated democratic reforms,” reported Time magazine.

There was a delay in court proceedings when defendants and lawyers said that they could not hear what was going on and the proceedings “descended into chaos,” reported Turkish newspaper Hürriyet. On Oct. 23, the court resumed hearings and ruled to detain 46 suspects out of the 86 accused.

The indictment itself, at 2,455 pages, describes an intricate conspiracy involving lawyers, journalists, police, academics, the mafia, hit men and former military members, reports the BBC. The group is linked to the murder of a secular judge in 2006 and a grenade attack on an office of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, which is known for its opposition to the government—but takes a liberal, rather than a far-right bent. Yet at the same time, Ilhan Selçuk, a prominent columnist for the newspaper, is among Ergenekon defendants.

Time magazine wrote about the case, “billed as an historic opportunity for Turkey to rein in renegade security elements that see themselves operating beyond the reach of law—many Turks have long suspected the existence of such a network, popularly referred to as the ‘deep state,’” an alleged underground fascist network thought to wield power to preserve the vaguely definable concept of “Turkishness.”

Background: The Ergenekon case; nationalism in Turkey

The Ergenekon group is thought to have named itself after a valley in Central Asia that is the mythical birthplace of the Turkish people. Due to deep anti-Western sentiment, they hold a strongly isolationist stance.

The government’s case against it was kick-started last year when a weapons cache was discovered in the house of a former military officer. Members of the group face charges ranging from possessing firearms to running an armed terrorist organization. The indictment also accuses them of creating a hit list of targets, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk.

On the night of Jan. 26, Turkish authorities arrested 13 ultranationalists suspected of planning assassinations of dissidents. The group is also thought to have connections to the government.

“The Ergenekon terror organisation is known as the ‘deep state’ in our country and organises many bloody activities aiming to create an atmosphere of serious crisis, chaos, anarchy and terror,” wrote prosecutor Zekeriya Öz in the indictment, according to the BBC.

But anti-Western sentiment, stemming largely from what many Turks see as endless pre-EU accession demands, is on the rise as a whole within the country. Statistics compiled by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy show Turkish popular support for EU accession dropping from 65 to 49 percent between 2002 and 2007.

Article 301, a law that had banned criticism of “Turkishness” was amended in late April to criminalize insulting only the “Turkish state” and Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Previously, the law made illegal any communication found to be disparaging of the vaguely defined concept of “Turkishness.”  But with a recent rise in nationalism, not all Turks welcome the new leniency.

Lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, one of the defendants in the Ergenekon case, has brought cases under Article 301 against at least 40 writers and was indicted in January along with 12 others for conspiring to assassinate known Turkish dissidents, including ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. After Dink was killed by a hard-line nationalist teenager, his murderer was photographed being embraced by police officers sympathetic to his cause. Novelist Pamuk's statements about the Armenian Genocide prompted death threats and a Kerincsiz-led Article 301 case against him.

Andrew Anthony wrote in U.K. paper The Guardian about the recent surge of Turkish nationalism. Anthony met with former pro soccer player Samim Uygun, a leader of a group of businessmen and politicians, who believes that foreign investment is a threat to Turkish sovereignty, that Israel fancies claims on Turkish territory, that Dink’s murder “was unimportant” and that Pamuk’s writing is but a shill for Armenia. Anthony writes, “Uygun saw himself on the center right, which set the imagination racing over what a member of the Turkish far-right might sound like.”

Opinion & Analysis: Deep state trial polarizes Turkey, emblematic of rising nationalism

The trial has divided public opinion, reports the BBC. Critics say the case is a misapplication of justice. They accuse the prime minister’s ruling Islamist-leaning AK Party, tried earlier this year for trying to Islamize the nation, of targeting its opponents and the military.

“I think this government is using the case to establish a dictatorship in Turkey,” says Leyla Tavsanoglu, a columnist for newspaper Cumhuriyet. “Now everyone is subdued. They have clamped down on the democratic opposition and everyone is afraid that one day they will be included in another wave of arrests.”

Others contend that the trial is a key step forward for democratization. The arrest of two retired generals in the case is without precedent in a country with a recent history of coups d'état and the military has a strong political presence.

But as The Guardian's run-in with ultranationalists shows, such fervent nationalism has been simmering for years, fomented by seemingly endless EU accession demands and what is seen as U.S. foreign policy myopia. This has come to the fore in Turkey in public reaction to pop culture: both foreign and home-grown.

The television drama “24,” starring Kiefer Sutherland and featuring “real-time” accounts of U.S. government stake-outs on terrorist operations, has been wildly popular in Turkey. The first three seasons of it aired on CNBC-e, a Turkish-owned franchise of the CNBC networks that broadcasts financial news by day and subtitled English-language programming in the evenings.

Season 4 featured as its main antagonist Habib Marwan, a recent Turkish immigrant, apparently still involved with a fictional terrorist group in his country.

First off, Habib Marwan is not even a Turkish name, but an Arab one—a mistake, however often made by Westerners, does not sit well among Turks. The season was temporarily suspended. This is not to say, however, that there wasn’t already popular animosity towards America in Turkey.

On July 4, 2003, U.S. troops in northern Iraq arrested, handcuffed and put bags over the heads of a Turkish special forces squad that was apparently channeling arms to squads that were fighting a group of Kurds, considered U.S. allies in the region. The ensuing coverage in the Turkish media rallied the local nationalist cause while posing a public diplomacy dilemma for the United States.

“Kurtlar Vadisi,” or “Valley of the Wolves,” a Turkish television series with a wide fan base, already played off of popularly held conspiracy theories in the country, namely the “deep state." The very title of the show itself, as well as that of the youth wing of the far-right Turkish Nationalist Action Party, is a paean to local legend that the Turks were guided out of captivity by a she-wolf.

A movie spin-off of the series, “Valley of the Wolves, Iraq,” was released in 2006. The film, the most expensive made in Turkish cinema history, wove in both elements of the 2003 incident as well as its penchant for feeding off sentiments held by some segments of its viewership.

Among the characters spun in the movie are a Jewish-American doctor, portrayed by Gary Busey, who is intent on taking organs from injured Iraqi prisoners for resale in London, New York and Tel Aviv, and a bloodthirsty U.S. special forces commander, played by Billy Zane, who proclaims himself “the Son of God” and has a picture of the Last Supper decorating his base.

Reference: Secularism in Turkey

Related Topic: Turkey’s Constitutional Court Decides not to Ban Islamist-Leaning Party

In July, 6 of 11 jurors on Turkey’s staunchly secularist Constitutional Court voted to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party, known locally as the AK Parti, from national politics on the accusation that it was trying to undermine the nation’s legal tradition of secularism. The court instead opted to slap the party with 12 million euros in fines.

The AKP has been heralded in some Turkish circles and by many Western governments for economic liberalization. Within the country however, the party has instigated moves interpreted by some to run counter to the secular ideals instituted by national founder Atatürk at the country’s inception.

Intermittent bans on alcohol, a clampdown on pork production, a failed attempt to illegalize adultery and a parliamentary move to end the ban on the headscarf—which was eventually overturned by the Constitutional Court—were cited by chief state prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya as evidence the AKP has an ulterior Islamist agenda.

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