Violent extremism in Turkey

by Madeleen Castro

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The current wave of violent extremism is not limited to one region of the world. Instead, it has spread across the international arena through a variety of groups and their radical ideologies. And Turkey is on the front lines.  Both internally and externally, it is faced with a major security problem in terms of containing and countering extremism. Religious education is needed now more than ever to counter the appeal that violent extremism appears to hold for many. However, Turkey appears at this stage to be more significantly focused on containing terrorism and retaliating to violent acts than on employing education to counter this plague.

The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 has created an ongoing wave of refugees flooding across the Turkish border that includes an unclear number of regional and international radicalized fighters.  With more than 4 million Syrians displaced by the war, Turkey’s open-border policy has complicated security efforts by welcoming over 2 million refugees. This increase to the country’s population has been accompanied by growing internal hostilities that have violently sprouted across the region and consequently placed two groups – the so-called Islamic State and the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or Kurdistan Worker’s Party) – at the top of Turkey’s security agenda.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that there is no easy solution to the problem of determining the purposes for which individuals within the mass of displaced Syrians seek immediate shelter in Turkey.  There is no “identity card” to separate those who are looking to start a new life in Turkey and beyond from those who are transitioning to European countries illegally, or are susceptible to radical ideologies, or are already radicalized fighters attempting to enter or expand the field of battle.  As a consequence, Turkey is swamped with major security problems that make counter terrorism efforts trivial to none.  The current efforts have been based purely on military retaliation. Although allies including Saudi Arabia, Britain, the U.S., Germany, and Qatar have a vital military presence at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to strike back against ISIS, not enough is being done within Turkey to counter the potential radicalization of individuals.

Turkey has experienced an exponential increase in violent extremism in different regions of the country. In 2015 alone, the cities of Suruc and Ankara were struck by suicide bombings that left nearly 200 people dead. In January 2016, violence struck again, this time at the heart of Istanbul.  The suicide bombing that occurred adjacent to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque killed ten people, most of whom were German tourists.  On February 17th, Ankara was once again shaken by a suicide bomb claimed to be co-organized by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the PKK.  That blast killed 28 people and injured a large number besides.  In the southeastern region of Turkey, increasing tensions between the Turkish military and the PKK has turned the city of Diyarbakir into a fixed war-zone, with curfews and airstrikes characterizing the region.

With the instability and complexity in the region in terms of security, multilateral terrorism, and the uncertain identities of Syrian refugees, the door is left wide open for the spread of violent extremism.  In fact, Turkey may be considered a contemporary geographical hub for terrorist acts existing in a region boiling with conflict.  It does not appear as though current reactionary military actions are effectively curbing violence in and around Turkey.  Perhaps it is time to consider religious education as a security strategy.  Countering violent extremism through education, from which dialogue between students on religious diversity is a central aspect, might help to mitigate the influence of a jihadi mentality that has been so devastatingly active in Turkey.

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