Last week’s forest fires sweeping across the eastern Mediterranean not only showed Turkey’s vulnerability in the fight against global warming and in its climate policies but also the growing tendency to embrace nationalist conspiracy theories.
The flames were fueled by scorching summer temperatures and conditions that experts say were worsened by climate change. However, pundits on pro-government media channels and some social media users who believe in and promote the conspiracy theories accused the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of starting the fires.
Turkish authorities have not directly blamed anyone but also have not denied the accusations about possible arson, nor have they shed light on the cause of the fires.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are still facing criticism over their poor response and inadequate preparedness to contain wildfires, Turkey’s anti-Kurdish sentiment continues to grow.
Ali Duran Topuz, editor-in-chief of the Duvar daily, thinks the Turkish government, after the elections on June 7, 2015 chose to abandon a relatively democratic political environment and instead created an environment of chaos.
“This chaotic atmosphere was strengthened after the July 15  coup attempt. None of the political parties tried to ease the tension. In this political atmosphere, for the main opposition the wildfire disaster is a result of ‘the evil AKP government that always destroys everything,’ while the AKP government looks for conspiracy theories,” Topuz told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.
According to Topuz, with the help of some nationalist circles that want to stir up conflict between Kurds and Turks, people have spread provocative statements and claimed that the forest fires were set by Kurds.
From the first day of the wildfires, some social media accounts spread misinformation that Kurdish militants were responsible for the “manmade” disaster. Some even believed Greeks or Afghan/Syrian refugees were behind it. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, however, did not confirm the claims.
Ahmet Nesin, a columnist for Artı Gerçek, thinks that when needed, there are always people in Turkey who will fuel the flames or provoke, both in normal and hard times. During military coups, these provocateurs were usually in the youth branches of various nationalist parties.
“People with rifles carried out identity checks on people in the streets. They were looking for Kurds to punish them. Some people — we don’t know who — tried to create this kind of chaotic environment. We also don’t know the reason,” said Nesin.
In Muğla, a popular tourist resort on the Aegean coast, some residents angered by the uncontrolled fires blocked roadways, stopped cars they deemed suspicious and hunted down Kurds.
“Maybe they burned the forest,” shouted Muharrem Duygu, a resident of Muğla who was seen stopping a car in a video posted on Twitter. “My forest is in flames right now.”
After hearing rumors about “PKK arson attacks,” another group of some hundred people blocked a road and attempted to attack three passengers in a vehicle in the Aegean province of Aydın.
After blocking the road, the armed group attempted to batter the three individuals in the car until security forces arrived and detained the people in the vehicle.
Nationalist social media users had been spreading rumors about militants seen with Molotov cocktails around fire-stricken areas, repeatedly denied by the authorities.
“From the first day of the fires, dangerous incidents such as the hunt for Kurds took place in the streets. We should examine the murder of seven members of the Kurdish Dedeoğulları family in Konya within the scope of hate crime,” Nesin told Turkish Minute.
According to Nesin, the reason for the anti-Kurdish sentiment and murders was the fake and provocative news published in the mainstream Turkish media targeting Kurds during the days of the fires.
On July 30 seven people from the Kurdish Dedeoğulları family were murdered in the central province of Konya. Family members say the attack was ethnically motivated, while authorities blame a long-running feud between two families.
After an attack on the same family in May, one member of the family – who was among the latest victims – told reporters they were being harassed and attacked for being Kurdish. The family’s lawyer, Abdurrahman Karabulut, had said the family was worried they would be attacked again.
Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-chairman Mithat Sancar said the Kurdish family members were murdered because of hate speech and linked it to a rise in racist attacks. Sancar accused the government of targeting the HDP and Kurds on different occasions.
On July 31 another Kurdish man who had previously been subjected to threats for being Kurdish was killed in Konya. In this case, too, the authorities have denied the crime had a racial motive.
According to Topuz, some nationalist circles are trying to capitalize on the growing anti-Kurdish sentiment, while Turkey’s far-right media continues to target and blame Kurds.
“The circles who saw the possibility of a new olive branch extended to the pro-Kurdish HDP and actually all actors in the Kurdish movement by Erdoğan in a statement in Diyarbakır are not happy about a possible peace process between Kurds and the Turkish Republic,” Topuz said.
On July 9 Erdoğan told his supporters in Diyarbakır that his government had “launched a solution process, braving every risk so mothers won’t cry, no more blood will be spilled and people of every creed and faith will be brothers,” referring to the peace process that fell apart in 2015.
According to Topuz, Erdoğan’s speech, in which he blamed the pro-Kurdish HDP for it falling apart and said, “We, the AKP, did not finish the solution process,” has disturbed Erdoğan’s ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and invisible nationalists actors in the Turkish state, and they want to sabotage the possible new stage in the peace process between Kurds and the state.
On June 17 an assailant with a shotgun attacked the HDP office in İzmir and murdered Deniz Poyraz, who was a party official covering a janitorial shift for her mother at the office. While the HDP was still grieving for Deniz, the HDP’s office in Marmaris became the target of another racist attack on July 14.
“Two attacks in one month are definitely not a coincidence. If the government does not stop its smear campaigns and incessant hate speech against us and effectively prosecute the perpetrators, many more attacks are likely to happen as we get closer to the elections. The political responsibility for these attacks belongs to the government,” the HDP said in a written statement.
Topuz thinks when in trouble people can always rely on conspiracy theories, for which Turkey has always been fertile ground. “Without any evidence, they can point to the Kurds and the HDP. Some people who don’t want a continuation of the Kurdish-Turkish peace process will pursue a different kind of provocation against Kurds.”