North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Turkey’s broad definition of terrorism does nothing to halt radicalisation

Rather than tackling causes of violent radicalisation, Turkey takes a punitive approach that curtails individual freedom and doesn’t stop attacks

Nazlı Özekici Hasret Dikici Bilgin
20 January 2022, 12.00am
Turkey’s only deradicalisation efforts are prison programmes, police force projects, and activities by the Directorate of Religious Affairs
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Alexey Panferov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Turkey is one of the countries hardest hit by violent radicalisation. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in nearly 2,000 deadly extremist attacks in the last two decades. Separatists, jihadists and extremists from both the Left and Right have bombed public gatherings, gunned down intellectuals and journalists, ambushed law enforcement personnel, and targeted religious and ethnic minorities.

But instead of developing an integrated legal framework that would not only punish those responsible for attacks but also impose deradicalisation measures, Turkish state institutions have instead adopted a very broad definition of terrorism that increasingly covers peaceful acts of dissidence and further limits political freedoms.

There is a lack of clarity in the laws around online crime, and internet law is more widely used to restrict freedom of expression than to identify online radicalisation. The law sets limits on what is permitted in online content. It also forces international news and social media platforms to appoint local representatives, localise their data, and speed up the removal of content if requested by the government. In addition, it gives the state the right to acquire communication data without court permission, with this data sometimes used to incriminate the opposition.

In 1994 Turkey introduced the Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project, which promised new housing and infrastructure in Kurdish rural areas, in an attempt to repair the damage caused by the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish armed groups.

Given the Turkish state’s punitive legal framework and emphasis on security, the project should be recognised as a substantial effort, despite its failure to realise its goals. It aimed to remedy the consequences of the conflict by creating incentives for Kurdish groups to give up their armed struggle, while acknowledging their right to make peaceful demands concerning their ethnic and cultural identity. Nevertheless, the project was withdrawn.

The project only targeted Kurdish-separatist radicalisation – we don’t see similar efforts targeting jihadist, right-wing or left-wing forms of radicalisation – and the state’s return to its traditional counter-terrorism method of operation has been swift and determined. Politicians such as Selahattin Demirtaş, former leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have been imprisoned without any solid evidence tying them to violent acts allegedly committed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The elected mayors of several Kurdish-majority municipalities have been dismissed on grounds of terrorist activity, only to be replaced by caretaker bureaucrats.

The country’s only deradicalisation efforts are prison programmes, police force projects, and activities by the Directorate of Religious Affairs. These are mostly directed against jihadist radicalisation, with seminars on the peaceful interpretation of religion held in prisons.

Crimes against dissidents, minorities, women and LGBTQ individuals are downplayed, and investigation into the penetration of radicalisation into law enforcement and other public bodies is almost absent

But why does Turkey consistently fail to introduce comprehensive deradicalisation programmes? To date, the Turkish state apparatus has failed to recognise the dysfunctionality of its counter-terrorism approach. It’s an approach that does nothing to identify the dynamics that might lead to radicalisation and therefore fails to take any measures that might prevent the alienation of vulnerable groups. .

Crimes against dissidents, minorities, women and LGBTQ individuals are downplayed, and investigation into the penetration of radicalisation into law enforcement and other public bodies is almost absent. As the attack on the Izmir branch of the HDP in December 2021 illustrates, perpetrators are immediately declared as lone wolves with mental problems and organisational connections are ignored.

In fact, only a few legal provisions in the Turkish Penal Code regulate the punishment of activities that incite hatred or discrimination towards a social group. These provisions do not specify any particular groups as only non-Muslim religious communities are legally accepted as minorities.

One of these articles (Article 122) is well-intentioned but remains limited in its scope and does not cover many contemporary forms of hate crimes such as violence against women and LGBTQ individuals. Article 122 provides that discrimination against people due to differences of language, race, skin colour, sex, political views, philosophical beliefs, religion, or sect etc. shall be considered a crime and be punished. However, it only specifies four acts as falling within the scope of hate crime: preventing the sale or rent of a property; preventing access to a service; preventing employment; and preventing ordinary economic activity due to discrimination and hatred against a certain group. In practice however, it is very difficult to prove that any of these four acts occurred due to discrimination against and hatred of a particular group. It becomes even more difficult in cases involving women and LGBTQ individuals.

Overall, the Turkish government channels its resources into identifying and punishing acts that fit its definition of terrorism. There is no substantial effort to develop an approach which seeks to understand the dynamics that lead to feelings of grievance, alienation and polarisation among the groups and individuals who feel that they have been treated unjustly.

Consequently, deradicalisation programmes which aim to reintegrate convicted extremists are also absent, as is cooperation with civil society stakeholders and policy makers. Maybe the reality is that this is not an issue of failure but one of preference.

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