Who be-hooded the US sailors in Istanbul?

Who be-hooded the US sailors in Istanbul?

On Nov. 12, a bizarre “protest” took place in Istanbul. Near Sarayburnu, a big harbor, the American warship USS Ross had stopped by on its way back from a NATO mission in the Black Sea. Some sailors got off the ship to see the magnificent Istanbul, but a few of them saw something less fancy: A group of ultra-nationalists who were apparently prepared not only to yell, “Yankee go home,” but also make sure that they meant it. They approached two of the sailors, telling them in English, “We define you as murderers, killers.” Then they threw stuff at them, shoved them and ultimately put hoods on their heads, before letting them go.  

The attacked sailors might have feared that they would be beheaded soon, as it has become a custom of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to be-hood people before beheading them. However, as CNN International accurately reported, apparently with some surprise, “[The attackers] did not appear to be tied to ISIL, which is based in neighboring Syria. Instead, they carried Turkish flags and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Westernizing, secular founder of the Turkish Republic.”

Indeed, these anti-American youngsters had nothing to do with ISIL, or anything that is remotely Islamist. Rather, they were members of the Turkish Youth Union (TGB), which is a hardcore secularist and nationalist group active mostly in universities. Their website is full of articles on the importance of “laiklik,” (Turkish-style secularism), and presents a photo of Atatürk wearing a “kalpak,” a conical headgear, taken during the War of Liberation. (This nuance is important, because while more mainstream “Atatürkists” use his fashionable suit-and-tie photos taken during his presidency, the ultra-nationalist “Atatürkists” prefer his wartime outfit, which emphasizes their “anti-imperialism.”)

In politics, the TGB is closest to the İşçi Partisi, or Workers Party, which has been led for decades by Doğu Perinçek, who has made a name himself first as a guru of Maoism, then the beacon of “anti-imperialist” Kemalism. For these people, Atatürk is a great hero - not as a Westernizer, but rather as a liberator from the Western yoke. Notably, the same ideology has some resonance within the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), despite the efforts by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the party leader since 2010, to move away from this line. No wonder one of the politicians who supported the TGB youngsters after their attack on American sailors was Süheyl Batum, a CHP deputy and one of the key hardcore secular-nationalists within the party.

So what does this all mean? Well, it means that anti-Americanism is a widespread tendency in Turkey, and is not limited to the Islamists, as some Westerners might readily assume. In fact, until very recently, the Islamists in power (i.e., the AKP, Justice and Development Party) were condemned as American puppets by the likes of the TGB. (I used to define the AKP as “post-Islamist” for about a decade, but now the prefix looks increasingly unnecessary.)

It must be granted that this widespread anti-Americanism in Turkey skyrocketed only after the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, and is kept alive by the U.S. support for Israel’s ongoing policies of occupation and aggression. It is, in other words, partly a response to the sins of the U.S. government.

But it is also a manifestation of Turkey’s bitter, fanatic and paranoid political culture, which defines almost all colors of the spectrum, from hardcore Islamists to hardcore secularists.