Turkey's Violent New Nationalism

The threats have been arriving daily, often via e-mail. "You traitors to Turkey have had your day," reads one. "Stop prostituting yourself and your country to foreigners or you will face the consequences."

Not long ago, E, a prominent Turkish writer, would have shrugged off such missives—as did his friend Hrank Dink, the editor of Agos, Turkey's main Armenian-language newspaper, who for years had been a target of nationalist hate-mail. But after Dink was shot dead last month by a 17-year-old ultranationalist assassin, the threats suddenly became deadly serious. "Things are changing in Turkey, very much for the worse," says E, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. "Before Dink's murder, I always spoke out against nationalism and narrow-mindedness. Now I fear for my life."

A wave of violence is sweeping Turkey, targeting its modern, pro-European elite. Prominent liberals like Can Dundar, a columnist at the newspaper Milliyet who supported a 100,000-strong march in Istanbul protesting Dink's killing, have received warnings to "be smart" and tone down their coverage. Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk, vilified by nationalists for comments he made last year condemning the massacres of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, canceled a reading tour in Germany and has left Turkey for self-imposed exile in the United States. Many other academics and journalists have been given police protection.

It's not only intellectuals who feel beseiged. Turkey's ruling AK Party faces the same peril—a nationalist backlash that is undermining four years of sweeping progress. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once feared by Turkey's pro-Western elite for his Islamist background, finds himself fighting to protect liberal values on everything from human rights and free expression to membership in the European Union. Erdogan condemned Dink's murder as "a bullet fired at the heart of Turkish democracy." The killers, he said, were "not nationalists but racists," bent on isolating Turkey from the modern world. But the evidence is mounting that the tide is turning against him and his European agenda.

The nationalists have a growing list of grievances. Chief among them: that Erdogan, prodded by Brussels, granted more cultural rights to the country's 13 million Kurds. But instead of peace, the last year has seen an upsurge in Kurdish guerrilla attacks on Turkish soldiers. That's given rise, in turn, to a number of anti-Kurdish nationalist groups. The leader of one such group, the Patriotic Forces in Mersin, an ethnically mixed town in the largely Kurdish southeast, recently called on "Turkish patriots" to take to the streets to prevent Kurds from "taking over." Worse, Erdogan's entire EU project was called into question last December when Brussels partially suspended talks in a dispute over Cyprus. After so many sacrifices for Brussels' sake, many Turks considered it "a slap in the face," says Naci Tunc, an activist for the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP.

With national elections this fall, Erdogan himself is under intense political pressure to take a more nationalist line. Recent polls in Milliyet show that support for the MHP has risen to 14.1 percent, up from 8.4 percent in the 2003 vote, while support for the AK Party has slipped from 33 percent to 26. A bellwether of just how far Erodogan is willing to go in accommodating the nationalists involves the notorious Article 301, a provision of the national legal code that criminalizes "denigrating Turkishness" and has been used to prosecute dozens of journalists and writers, including Pamuk. Brussels insists that it must go; all of Turkey's opposition parties, chasing nationalist votes, insist it must stay. "We want to change the article," says a senior member of Erdogan's cabinet. "But we are alone."

Another test comes in April, when Erdogan must decide whether or not to run for president—a largely symbolic post, but one which carries veto power over all legislation. The president is elected by Parliament, where Erdogan enjoys a comfortable majority. But as a former Islamist, imprisoned as recently 1999 for sedition, he faces strong opposition from conservatives in Turkey's politically powerful and staunchly secular military, judiciary and bureaucracy—collectively known as the "deep state." They insist on a more moderate, secular president as a counterbalance to Erdogan, or whomever the AK Party might choose to succeed him.

Perhaps not even Erdogan himself, as yet, knows whether he will indeed make a play for the presidency. But if he does, Islamist-hating nationalist radicals are sure to be inflamed. Dangerously, there's evidence linking many of Turkey's ultranationalists to the Army and security forces. A video leaked to the media earlier this month showed Dink's 17-year-old killer, Ogün Samast, posing with smiling police officers and holding a Turkish flag after his arrest. An internal investigation has also shown that warnings of plans to kill Dink were ignored by Istanbul police—though it's not clear whether due to negligence or malice.

Erdogan is too canny a politician to antagonize the country's Army to the point that an old-style coup becomes likely. But at the same time, he must tread carefully. Last week the chief of the military General Staff, Yasar Buyukanit, spoke out against those who sought to "split the state." It was a clear warning to pro-Armenian liberals and separatist Kurds, but most of all to Erdogan as he considers the thorny problems of reforming Article 301 and whether to run for president.

It's a delicate balancing act. He must at once crack down on ultranationalist thuggery, without alienating an increasingly nationalist electorate. And he needs to continue with his government's program of reform, lest Turkey's EU bid fail irrecoverably. As resistance to his policies continues to grow more violent, that job will become vastly more difficult—if not impossible.