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Discussion Point: Counterterrorism Strategies and Democracy: Lessons for the US from the (Unfortunate) Example of Turkey


The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

On Saturday May 11, two massive car bombs exploded in the center of Reyhanlı, a town in the province of Hatay, Turkey, which has served as a refuge for Syrians who have fled from the civil war since 2011. The official death toll stands at 51 people, mostly Turks and some Syrian refugees, while unofficial accounts point to about 200 dead and hundreds of injured. The reason there are official and unofficial numbers is that, within the same day, the Reyhanlı Court banned all audio, visual and written media reports on the bombing. Censorship is not new to the Turkish people. Neither are terrorist attacks.

Turkey has long struggled against Kurdish insurgency, and the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) has carried out terrorist attacks against civilians since 1984. The West often refers to Turkey as a "democratic model" and an "inspiration" to Arab Spring countries for its accommodating brand of Islamism and its democracy. Nevertheless, the media have been under strict supervision from the military in the decades after the 1980 coup. The media ban after the Reyhanlı bombing shows that they still are censored, but this time it was the courts instead of the military behind the decision.

The opposition argues courts are no longer independent in Turkey. Regardless, censorship and inaccurate information are the first blows to democracy in any country that deals with terrorism. Nil Satana Until the Turkish military's power was finally curbed in the 2000s, the public was not able to obtain complete and accurate information on terrorism from the Turkish media. All government offices involved argued that accurate information would undermine the legitimacy of the government and aggrandize the terrorists' cause.

Unless one traveled to the affected areas of the country, it was quite possible to believe that in the last 30 years, only a handful of terrorists were fighting against the Turkish military and they were constantly failing. In 2003-2005, I carried out field research in Iraq and Southeast Turkey for the case study chapter of my dissertation. I could hardly believe how little I knew about the Kurdish issue despite all I had read before going in the field. Except for occasional attacks in Istanbul that were difficult to hide from public eyes, the media concealed the details of the ongoing conflict.

Details were so well concealed that as I presented chapters from my dissertation, I received threats from ultra-nationalists for calling the Kurdish conflict what it was: "a civil conflict." Now a decade later, the government has negotiated a peace deal with the PKK and most authorities have accepted that this struggle with the PKK was a civil conflict after all with 35,576 deaths.

Censorship is only one consequence of what a military approach to counter-terrorism policies has done to Turkey's "exemplary democracy" in the Middle East. After their first attacks in 1984, the PKK hardly discriminated between civilian and military targets. This remained true until a ceasefire was declared in 1999 upon the capture of PKK's leader, Abdullah ?calan, with the help of the United States. The heart of the conflict, the Kurdish issue, was treated independently of PKK terrorism by the military and civilian governments.

The strategic communications strategy was to avoid the Kurdish issue in public discourse and cope with terrorism through military means. In 2003, the attacks resumed and escalated; the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government first opened public dialogue on the Kurdish issue (Satana, 2012) and finally started peace negotiations with the relatively new leadership cadre of the PKK. Until the last few years, both governments and the society were perfectly content with assigning the duty of protecting the country and the regime to the military. Consequently, the military approach in counter-terrorism empowered the military, stalled civilian oversight of decision-making in the security sector and hindered democratic consolidation in Turkey.

A few examples of how terrorism was dealt with since the 1980s in Turkey include: arming Kurdish villagers (korucu) to fight against the PKK (at times their own family members); implementing emergency rule in east and south east provinces; conducting, numerous cross-border operations into Iraq to bomb PKK bases; and allowing the military to take a controlling role in creating and amending the 1980 Constitution. Consequently, the Turkish society has become increasingly militarist and nationalist at great risk to Turkish democracy, and remains so according to the latest surveys. 

The criminal justice system was also at work during this time, although it was not the primary counter-terrorism entity nor did it balance the military's actions. Strict anti-terror laws were passed at the expense of democracy. For example, Anti-Terror Law No. 3713 of April 12, 1991 imprisoned thousands of Kurds and Turks for membership to terrorist organizations (not only the PKK but also ideological factions, especially the left) or for thought crimes (i.e. journalists and academics charged of threatening the indivisibility of the Republic). The law was repealed in the European Union harmonization process after Turkey's official candidacy in 1999.

Until then, courts widely used Article 8 of the law for censorship. It appeared that the military was finally back to its barracks in the 2000s when the AKP tackled the Kurdish issue within the public realm. Terrorist attacks escalated in 2006, however leading to a change in the "EU harmonized" laws that enabled the government to label protests as terrorist acts.

In sum, the Turkish government perceived and presented PKK terrorism as an existential threat and dealt with it using a military approach. The PKK's violence and the government's response meant that the grievances of Kurds who did not support the PKK were rarely heard. It is still unclear whether the peace negotiations will lead to a permanent cessation of hostilities. However, there is a large group of people in Turkish society who have internalized the belief that the war against terrorism can only be won through military measures. They view censorship as a sacrifice to combat terrorism; they support vague anti-terror laws and take pride in ultra-nationalist ideologies.

Their genuine belief is that outside forces are trying to divide Turkey through the AKP's decision to forego a military approach and negotiate with the Kurds. The United States is considered one of those "outside forces." This is the collateral damage to Turkey's democracy because of its long armed encounter with terrorism. Upon reading the dire situation in Turkey that I just described, I can imagine most people in the United States would sigh with relief that these issues are not occurring in their homeland. However, it may be too early to relax. Has the United States fared better in its approach to counter-terrorism than Turkey?

Has American democracy not been hurt from a military approach to counter-terrorism as Turkish democracy has been? Is the Turkish experience an inspiration to the Arab countries but also a warning for American democracy? It may very well be so. Granted, the United States has not faced large-scale terrorist campaigns at home following the 9/11 attacks. And it is dealing with global terrorism and not ethno-nationalist separatism. Nevertheless, the approach used has centered on the military and shares other similarities to the Turkish case.

Should we expect a similar decline in the quality of American democracy? The 9/11 attacks were presented as an existential threat to the nation, and shortly after, the counterterrorism response was framed as "War on Terror" by President George W. Bush. After twelve years of war and the increasing use of drone strikes, little has changed except for the lost lives of thousands of American soldiers resulting in withdrawal from Iraq (Romano 2011). From my Turkish perspective, it looks like the American society has started internalizing the military approach of the War on Terror. We have seen this gradually happening in our war against the PKK.

Indeed, Richard Kohn (2005) argues that the global war on terror "brings back the problem of militarization and the threat of militarism" to the American society. Analyses of the "Patriot Act" of 2001 and amendments to the Freedom of Information Act and the Protect America Act show that the United States has passed laws that curtail civil rights of both its citizens and immigrants (Whitaker 2007). Despite presenting U.S.'s counter-terrorism efforts as a global war, the Bush Administration declared that Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war on terror.

Al Qaeda and Taliban militants are not treated as prisoners of war under the current and previous administration. It is assumed that no one should be held in detention for long periods of time without access to public review and trial by independent courts in a democracy. Guantanamo detainees defy this rule, as do Turkish courts that have long implemented the same approach and continue to do so.

Despite cases such as Hamden v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush, Guantanamo detainees remain in Guantanamo prisons and some are tried in military courts instead of civilian courts. The United States and Turkey are very different cases in terms of demographics, history, economics, political and military culture, military capabilities, status in the international system and the type of terrorism that they face. One cannot make a direct comparison and expect to predict the specific implications for United States and its democracy. The Turkish case is a severe one given that its democratic culture is not as deeply-rooted as that of the United States.

Nevertheless, short of the worst case scenario that Turkey represents, the American democracy is being tested by terrorism. Thus, the question we need to ask in the United States is, what exactly are we willing to sacrifice for feeling "secure"? Seema Jilani, a New Orleans-native physician "of brown color," invites us all to resist giving up our humanity or dignity. In a Huffington Post blog of May 7, Jilani explains how she was mistreated by the security guards at the White House Correspondents' dinner. All Jilani wanted that night was to obtain the hotel key from her husband who was attending the dinner. She was turned down from entering the dinner floor since she did not have a ticket and was insulted with the explanation that the guards had to watch out for people like her after the Boston bombings.

Jilani reports having watched other "white women" without tickets treated with respect and escorted to the dinner. It is very obvious from her account of the events that Jilani is alienated from the society she was born into. Research shows that a majority of Muslims living in the United States are (Bakalian and Bozorgmehr 2009). So were the Kurds living in Turkey who had nothing to do with the PKK but were subject to unspoken discrimination. Add alienation to censorship, militarism and ultranationalism. Not a recipe for peace, is it? So what do we do? Let the terrorists win?

In her discussion point of April 29, 2013 Laura Dugan highlighted a very critical point: we all want justice to be served through harsh punishment after hundreds die in a terrorist incident. We also want to deter terrorists. However, terrorists are not deterred by harsh punishment, as ordinary criminals are. On the contrary, harsh punishment is what the terrorists seek. The harsher the punishment, the more easily their cause is justified. Dugan offers the solution that we understand the grievances of the constituencies that terrorists recruit from and try to address those independently from how we deal with terrorist entities.

My research with Johanna Birnir corroborates this notion in that violence is often strategically used to tackle grievances, regardless of the content of religion or of ethnicity (Birnir and Satana 2013). Turkey is a case in point. I tell this story of my own country in hopes that its misfortune can serve as a cautionary tale. There are, in fact, several lessons to take from the Turkish experience that can be useful to understand the U.S.'s options for counter-terrorism. I'll conclude with four:

  1. Military approaches to counter-terrorism do not work as the primary coping method; in fact, Gary La Free (2009) notes that terrorism is not a war that one can win in conventional terms, but a struggle that we manage and mitigate.
  2. Military approaches to counter-terrorism can allow society to internalize war as a norm instead of an exception, and brings the danger of militarism.
  3. Not differentiating the grievances of constituencies from the criminal behavior of the terrorist organizations, and addressing them separately, risks alienating whole communities and strengthening the terrorist organizations' hand.
  4. Democracy is a slippery thing; once surrendered it will be very hard to go back to what the Founding Fathers have envisioned for this great country.

References Anny Bakalian and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond (Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press, 2009) Richard Kohn, "Civil-military relations in the United States today," Security Studies Program Seminar, MIT university, October 12, 2005, p. 3. Available at http://web.mit.edu/ssp/seminars/wed_archives05fall/kohn.htm, Last Access December 12, 2012. Gary LaFree, "Criminology's Third War," Criminology & Public Policy 8, no. 3 (2009): p.431. Silvina Romano, "Liberal Democracy and National Security: Continuities in the Bush and Obama Administrations," Critical Sociology 38, no. 2 (2011): 171-72. Nil S. Satana, "The Kurdish Issue in June 2011 Elections: Continuity or Change in Turkey's Democratization?," Turkish Studies 13, no. 2 (2012): 29-52. Beth Elise Whitaker, "Exporting the Patriot Act? Democracy and the "War on Terror" in the Third World" Third World Quarterly 28, vol. 5 (2007), 1017-1032, p. 1018.

Nil S. Satana [Ph.D. State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo] is Assistant Professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Her research interests include ethnic conflicts, third party interventions and religious extremism/terrorism. She has published in journals such as the Comparative Political Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, Armed Forces and Society and Turkish Studies. She is currently spending her sabbatical year at START Center and working on two book projects; one on civilianization of the security sector and democratic consolidation in Turkey, another on interventions in civil conflicts in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Email: nsatana@bilkent.edu.tr