Last week Ecevit Sanli, a 40-year-old member of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), strolled into the American embassy in Ankara and detonated an explosive laden jacket, killing himself, a Turkish guard, and wounding a journalist. While last year’s embassy bombing in Benghazi and, more recently, the French incursion into Mali have supplied the foreign policy establishment more than ample opportunity to trumpet the danger of radical jihadists, the DHKP-C’s position as a Marxist organization has challenged the seemingly unimpeachable narrative that Islamism is at the core of anti-western violence in the Middle East.
The overarching reaction among professional policy analysts to the involvement of a Marxist party was one of confusion. In a New Yorker article, Turkish journalist Elif Batuman expressed surprise at claims of DHKP-C involvement, and presented a laundry list of possible culprits, ranging from – in descending order of likeliness – the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (P.K.K), Al Qaeda, other Islamist rebels or, finally, ‘someone’ angered by Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition. Bruce Hoffman, a specialist in terrorism at Georgetown University told the New York Times that it would seem much more likely that an Islamic group would have carried out the attack. “I’m rarely stumped on these things,” he told the paper, “but I am stumped.” No one, it seems, suspected the Marxist DHKP-C.
It is ironic that the United States, a country that for decades spent untold billions of dollars and sacrificed tens of thousands of lives perpetrating a war against Communism, now finds itself entirely incapable of even considering Marxists as the possible perpetrators of an attack against them. It is not enough to point to the increasing complexity of a multi-polar world in contrast to the simplicity of a Capitalism vs. Communism binary that supposedly existed during the Cold War.
Batuman rightly notes that, as with any attack against American interests in the Middle East, unless a claim of responsibility is immediately forthcoming, it is incredibly difficult to sort through the multitudes of groups and individuals who harbor resentment towards U.S. involvement in the region to find a proverbial ‘smoking gun’. Fair enough; but the immediate call to suspect Islamists for any and all acts of terror in the Middle East, and the surprise that is expressed when it is not, is indicative of a dangerous tunnel vision that clouds the policy community’s ability to accurately represent political violence in the region.
The problem commonly arises when a Muslim carries out an act of violence that is motivated by a cause separate, or only tangentially related, to his or her Islamic faith. To assign culpability and responsibility (the conceptual centers of western notions of legal and social guilt), it is important to ask whether an act of violence is carried out for political (i.e ‘legitimate’) or religious (i.e illegitimate) reasons. In the West we commonly understand and legitimize violence, justifying the deaths of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, in the name of the ostensibly laudable aim of nation-building. The ends, put simply, justify the means. Religious violence, on the other hand, is perceived as thoroughly distasteful and entirely counter to the liberal standards we hold ourselves to. It serves a political purpose, then, to explain anti-western violence as being motivated by ones sect, religion, or ethnicity rather than by their political opposition in order to delegitimize their motivation as irrational.
So it goes with our Marxist as well. Ali Nihat Ozcan, a senior fellow at a Turkish policy think-tank, inferred that the DHKP-C had carried out the attack as much in solidarity with the Alawite leadership of Syria as in sharing their political aims:
“We are talking about a highly marginal but dedicated urban terror group that has a large Arab Alawite membership, and tied to the Syrian intelligence with strong historical links since 1980s.”
While Mr. Ozcan’s comments cannot be either proved or disproved, nowhere in his analysis is there room that the DHKP-C might have carried out their attack in response to – as they explicitly claim – the ‘imperialist ventures’ of the U.S in Syria, Libya and Egypt.
This may be a case of focusing on the forest and not the trees. That is, assuming there must always be an ethnic or religious subtext to expressions of political violence in the Middle East to the detriment of any other frame of analysis. This can in some cases be prudent, groups in the Middle East do commonly show solidarity along these lines, as they do elsewhere in the world. What is happening here, however, is more pernicious. Here there is a process of reduction; a claim that despite what one may define themselves as or fight against, in this case Marxism or anti-imperialism, they are never truly more than their constituent race, religion or ethnicity. So our Marxist dies a second death, first by his own hand, and then by the dehumanization of inaccurate analysis.