Death of a Marxist


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.


DHKP-C bomber Ecevit Sanli, with suicide belt and detonator

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.


2 thoughts on “Death of a Marxist

  1. You know, honestly, I don’t think I ever really thought about the issue of one’s motivation for a given act concerning religious beliefs and/or political view points. I suppose you could call me a typical American idiot, but I guess I just assumed these types of occurrences in the Middle East were most likely taken up by, what I might call, a brainwashed religious nutcase. Now that I have thought about it, it makes sense that someone could simply have such a passion for their political views that they may do something just as rash as someone who believes the act will redeem their soul or send them straight to heaven. Sort of like a “die for the cause” thing, with the cause being the same as always (civil injustices, the evolution of governments…) yet the actions taken simply resemble what we consider an act of terrorism. Indeed, claiming our independence from Great Britain could be considered treason, yet the American colonists got away with it and became their own independent nation. Interesting read. I like things that make me think (more than things which require me to think).

  2. Hi Diggs, thanks for your comment.

    I think your analogy to fighters in the American civil war is very apt. I can imagine many of the fighters in that conflict being quite devout, and indeed likely believed that their secular political cause (independence) was in some ways divinely supported, or sanctioned. Yet we would hardly consider them, in retrospect, as religious terrorists.

    A more fundamental point I sought to get across – and one I hope to explore in more detail in further posts – is that even when suicide bombing is carried out by Islamic fundamentalists (an amorphous term at best) commonly their stated motivation has more to do with what we might term ‘secular’ pursuits that religious ones: opposing occupation, oppression, and political corruption.

    I don’t want to overstate this, especially considering the confessional violence taking place in Syria and the broader Islamic world – but regardless I think it is an important point to consider.

    Thanks again for reading and hope to hear from you again.

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