1. Gezi Park protesters
I’m not sure whether this trend started with Gezi park, but it certainly kicked off in a big way in 2013, when Erdogan, facing his first really significant public protest movement, said that the people who occupied Gezi Park in Istanbul to stop it being bulldozed to make a shopping mall were terrorists. Of course, the rhetoric never really matched the reality, as the people protesting at Gezi were people like the girl in the red dress getting maced, and Mucella Yapici of the Taksim Solidarity Platform. Philanthropist Osman Kavala, of course, is still in prison, even after being acquitted of “attempting to overthrow the government” over the Gezi Park protests.
2. People supporting the Gezi Park protests
You didn’t even have to be part of the Gezi Park protests to be a terrorist in Erdogan's eyes. You just have to support them. In 2018, state-run news agency Anadolu reported that “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that those who praise the 2013 Gezi Park protests are supporters of terror groups like PKK and Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).” That will surely be news to the many Kemalists I talked to who were present at the Gezi Park protests. I remember one girl telling me ‘We are the children of Ataturk’, and I doubt you will find much support for Kurdish militants or a religious sect among people like that.
3. Kurds fighting ISIS
Of course an obvious target for Erdogan's terrorist label is the Kurdish YPG/J militias in Syria. Ideologically, the group is clearly related to the PKK, who are designated a terrorist organization by many countries, but the Syrian offshoot has been backed by the United States in its fight against ISIS, who may not have been defeated without the boots on the ground provided by Kurdish forces. Did Turkey do anything when ISIS was trying to take over Kobane in 2014? Turkish tanks stood by and watched on the Turkish side of the border from Kobane but did not intervene, though Turkey let Iraqi Peshmergas travel through Turkish territory to assist their Syrian compatriots. Turkey again stood by while ISIS were massacring Yezidis in Sinjar. Instead, that was the YPG who helped them. In general, you can tell who the real terrorists are by what they do, rather than what their enemies say about them.
It’s also worth remembering that the YPG is still in charge of prisons housing thousands of suspected ISIS terrorists, like this one in Hassake, photographed in 2019.
Clearing the border of these ‘terrorists’ was the justification for Turkey’s interventions in Afrin in 2018 and elsewhere along the border in 2019. Arguably, some of the Syrian anti-government militias Turkey has supported or worked with in Syria should also be described as terrorists, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, who Turkey even designated a terror organization, despite Turkey backed militias working with them in Idlib. If you’re going to go around calling everyone terrorists, you should probably make sure you can’t be accused of the same thing.
In 2019 Turkey and France fell out at a NATO summit over whether the YPG should be described as terrorists, with Macron saying there was “no consensus” with Turkey on the definition of terrorism.
4. Jailed journalists
Turkey is well known for being one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists found 37 journalists jailed by Turkey in 2020, second only to China.
Back in 2018 there were more than 160 journalists behind bars, many caught up in the purges of following the failed 2016 coup attempt, which Turkish authorities used as cover to target political opponents with baseless accusations of terrorism. Kurdish journalists like those of Mezopotamya News Agency, who were arrested in 2020, are often accused of affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party for exposing human rights violations against Kurdish civilians.
Erdogan has also called journalists “gardeners” of terrorism, which would seem like an attempt to shift blame for terrorist acts from those with political power to those who report on it.
Despite the relentless criticism of state repression of opposition journalists, Erdogan has always insisted that all the journalists his government prosecutes are terrorists, saying in 2018 that “You have to make a distinction between terrorists and journalists. We are talking about ... those who have been caught red-handed bearing weapons, those who have been killing people.” This is clearly false, as there are prominent journalists like Ahmet Altan in jail whose crime amounted to the laughable accusation that he had been sending “subliminal messages” to the 2016 coup plotters. Subliminal terrorism is not a crime I have ever heard of before, personally.
5. Academics for Peace
Following the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan argued that the definition of ‘terrorism’ should be enlarged to include supporters of terrorist groups. More than 2000 people signed a petition in 2016 calling for peace in Turkey’s Kurdish South Eastern region, after the resumption of the decades-long conflict between the Turkish army and PKK in 2015. 1,128 academics who signed the petition were charged with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization”. Usually terrorism is defined as the use of violence for political purposes, so it’s hard to see where ‘signing a petition’ fits into that. US academic Noam Chomsky also signed that petition, but he’s 92 years old, so maybe there’s an age limit for who the Turkish government is terrified by, since no legal action has been taken against him.
6. Bogazici students
For very obvious reasons, students and staff at Bogazici University are unhappy about the government’s attempts to control the institution by forcing the appointment of a rector with ties to the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan, however, claims that terrorists are behind the protests. “This is something involving terrorists. Those who joined (the protests) were not students,” Erdogan said.
Perhaps he’s not had a look at social media recently, because if these protests were organized by terrorists, then they don’t seem to be very terrifying, unless perhaps the sight of a trans rights flag instills fear into the President’s heart.
This is not even the first time that Erdogan has called Bogazici students terrorists. He did it before in 2018 when some of them protested against the Turkish occupation of Afrin. “Erdogan's strategy of rhetorical vilification works to delegitimize any type of opposition through naming, blaming and framing,” the Washington Post said at the time.
7. “Economic terrorists”
This is a trickier one, because who is responsible for the Turkey’s economic problems is never really specified by the President. But one thing he does know (apart from that it’s definitely not his own fault) is that those responsible are terrorists. “They’ve made aborigine, tomato, potato and cucumber prices increase,” he told supporters in 2019. “They are spreading terror.” Who exactly? The interest rate lobby, maybe. Or the ‘mastermind’, as another pro-government conspiracy theory goes.
Both of these paranoid ideas blame Turkey’s economic woes on foreign powers, and tap into Antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish people controlling international finance which are unfortunately widespread in Turkey. Erdogan also reportedly believes that "The famous Hungarian Jew George Soros… is a man who was assigned to divide nations and shatter them”, and has been blamed by the President for financing the Gezi Park protests in some way.
"There are economic terrorists on social media," Erdogan said in 2018, accusing random social media users of terrorism for stoking economic fears. The fall in the value of the Lira is terrorism, he says. Turkish people who hold on to Dollars and Euros are terrorists too. There are terrorists everywhere you look.
Israel is a “terrorist state”, President Erdogan said in 2017, much to the delight of religious supporters, no doubt. The finger pointing accusations drew a similar accusation from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said "I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran go around international sanctions and who helps terrorists including in Gaza, killing innocent people."
It’s odd to see two states who have been so criticized for their human rights violations against citizens of their own countries pointing fingers at each other like that, but perhaps a reminder that you’re not forced to take sides in cases like this. I think this also shows the inflationary nature of using the word ‘terrorism’ to describe so many things. With such an expanding definition, eventually everybody who disagrees with you becomes a terrorist, and your enemies will probably throw the accusation back at you. Turkey is now trying to improve its relationship with Israel, so presumably both countries will forget about this incident in the interests of their ongoing transactional economic partnership.
9. Turkish opposition parties
Of course it’s no surprise that Erdogan has called the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) former leader Selahattin Demirtas a terrorist. The accusation has also been used for other opposition political figures, like Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who he accused of being a Gulenist terrorist. “This person [Kilicdaroglu] has never defended the rights of our nation and state. He has always been after unrest and division. He has supported all terrorist organizations,” Erdogan reportedly said.
10. The Turkish Medical Association (TTB)
According to Duvar, Erdogan responded to criticism about his government’s handling from Turkey’s top medical body by saying, “They chose a terrorist as a leader of the TTB," Erdogan said, referring to association chair Sebnem Korur Fincanci, who was previously accused of terrorism links for signing a peace petition. “
So you see, if you sign a petition calling for peace, you’re a terrorist. If you then criticize the Turkish government’s mistakes in responding to the Coronavirus, you shouldn’t be taken seriously because you’re a terrorist. The opposition are terrorists, the students are terrorists, the doctors, the lawyers, the interest rate is a terrorist, academics, Kurds, feminists, journalists and so on. The list is long, and there are likely others not mentioned above. There is probably a much bigger list of people and things that pro-AKP media have labelled terrorists, taking their cue from the President.
It’s always surprised me, working on human rights in various countries, that some of the world’s most powerful people should feel so much terror about someone simply disagreeing with them. Why would the President of Turkey be so afraid of students with LGBT flags? Does he lie awake at night, worrying about rainbows? Does the sight of political and cultural non-conformism trouble his dreams of creating an obediently religious and conservative society? I hope so.
By John Lubbock
Reporter's code: 50101