Monday, December 19th saw thirteen people killed in two incidents of international terrorism. In Berlin, a man crashed a truck into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 48 more. In Ankara, the Russian ambassador was shot dead by an off-duty police officer. Both incidents have been met with unilateral condemnation.
The assassination of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador in Turkey, comes at a time when Russo-Turkish relations are just beginning to overcome the strain of a 2015 incident when Turkey downed a Russian plane after it entered Turkish airspace. Since then, Turkish President Racip Erdogan has issued a formal apology to Russia and has taken part in initiatives with Iran to broker peace in Syria. This is despite the fact that Turkey has long condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who the Russians are supporting militarily.
And while it seems that this incident would have resulted in a strain in the relationship, the heavy-handed comparisons to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand don’t hold up. While alarmists (or even wishful thinkers) would like this event to be the final straw in the rising tension between NATO and the Russian sphere of influence, there is no such tension. If anything, relations between Turkey and Russia have improved after the incident.
According to the Washington Post, “The perceived Western animosity to Erdogan and Turkey's ruling government has given voice to an ultranationalist, “Eurasianist” camp in Turkish politics that wants Ankara to turn its back on Europe and NATO and embrace nations such as Russia and China instead.”
It makes sense. Both countries are helmed by increasingly totalitarian leaders who have long abandoned a free democratic process. They are both experiencing security risks at home and responding with purges and police crackdowns symptomatic of regimes trying to retain power. This incident, if anything, provides an explanation for more unified action in Syria for both Russia and Turkey. Here’s why.
President Erdogan was eager to blame the assassination on Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric who was also blamed for the attempted coup earlier this year. Putin seemed to echo this sentiment when he called the assassination “a clear provocation aimed at undermining the peace process in Syria.” For his part, Gulen has called the accusations laughable and instead points to lax Turkish security as the root cause.
It’s tempting to blame this attack on radical Islam – the gunman did shout Islamic slogans including “Allahu Akbar” while carrying out his attack – but no formalized Islamic group has taken credit for the attack. Some have pointed to al Nusrah (a Syrian-based al Quaeda-like resistance force) though the group has been silent on the issue. It seems more likely that this attack was carried out by a lone assailant who had a personal interest in the Syrian conflict and the Russian involvement in Aleppo.
Similarly, in the aftermath of the Berlin attack, Donald Trump was eager to point the finger, saying that the Islamic State "and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad."
He added that these terrorists and their regional and worldwide networks "must be eradicated from the face of the earth" and pledged to carry out that mission with "all freedom-loving partners."
Yes, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Berlin attack, but the inflammatory terms used by the President-elect are concerning. They set up a religious opposition between the Christian and Islamic worlds that sound, frankly, crusadey. One that has not been echoed by the German government – you know, the country where the attacks actually happened.
It has become a staple of American politics to exaggerate the threat of Islam to the American way of life, to use the fear created as a tool for political gains. It is to the point where foreign leaders are now doing the same. Erdogan brushes off real national security gaps in his administration as the machinations of a ‘radical’ cleric. Putin is using the fight against terrorism to justify continued atrocities in Syria and the support of a regime guilty of human rights abuses.
While Angela Merkel and her government are doubtless going to have to re-evaluate their open door policy on immigration, I admire their restraint in condemning the Muslim population at large. The act was irrefutably terrorism, however, to think that terrorism is religiously motivated above a political cause is foolish. It may be true that in recent years there has been more terrorism in the name of Islam than other religions, but that denies the vast majority of peaceful practitioners of the faith. Yes, Islam has a radicalization problem, but that is not grounds for framing a holy war.
Earlier in this article I said comparisons to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand have no grounds – and they don’t. But the response to the assassination and Berlin incident remind me very much of Pope Urban II making a faith-based decision which had no substance. He made that call in 1095 – we simply can’t afford to regress that far.