It’s midafternoon on Dec. 30, 2022, and Sinan Ates (pronounced “AH-tesh”), a 38-year-old academic and ultranationalist political figure, is lying on his back in a pool of blood as paramedics perform CPR on his motionless, bullet-riddled body. His cousin, Selman Bozkurt, himself shot in the shoulder, kneels in shock beside him, on a small, nondescript street between an upscale kebab restaurant and an overgrown parking lot.
They are in Ankara’s central Cukurambar district, a neighborhood popular with the conservative elite, where high-level mandarins rub elbows with journalists and gangsters. The American Embassy stands just a few hundred yards away. Little more than a decade ago, this neighborhood was a slum, but after a shady construction boom under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), newfangled glass towers sparkle in the distance.
The wounds prove fatal.
Ates, darkly handsome with the trademark drooping, crescent-moon-shaped mustache flaunted by Turkish ultranationalists, lectured in history at the nearby Hacettepe University. He enjoyed reading books chronicling the saga of the Turkic peoples, whose languages belong to a common family that spreads from the Balkans to Central Asia, China and Siberia. He had written 10 himself, including children’s books.
Unlike many of the dour older men in Turkey’s ultranationalist movement, Ates often brandished a wide grin, especially when his two young daughters were climbing all over him. He remains popular within the movement, known for being a supportive mentor, someone you could call when you needed a helping hand. Ates was more religious than many of his nationalist comrades, praying five times a day and having made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. But he was also a zealous devotee of Turkey’s staunchly secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ates was the former head of the Hearths of the Ideal, a major Turkish ultranationalist youth group founded in 1966. Its followers, known as Idealists or Gray Wolves, are adherents of the most extreme form of nationalism in a country where a majority of the population and most political parties can be classified as nationalists of one kind or another.
The murder of such a prominent figure in broad daylight in the center of Turkey’s capital exemplifies the violence, intimidation and impunity that have always lurked at the heart of Turkey’s ultranationalist movement. These malignant elements have worsened in recent years, after the movement broke apart when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly embraced a more nationalist stance and started working with the ultranationalist leader Devlet Bahceli. To understand the tumult unleashed by this moment, it’s necessary to trace the history of Turkey’s ultranationalist movement and how its violent ideology penetrated the Turkish state.
Ataturk’s version of nationalism, conceived at the dawn of the 20th century, was a fiercely secular, revolutionary ideology that viewed Islam as one of the causes of the late Ottoman Empire’s lack of development, but also as a central part of Turkish identity. The new state-sanctioned nationalist ideology was imbued with a religion-like aspect, the previous devotion to the sultan redirected toward the homeland and nation. Students pledged an oath to love their country more than themselves and offered their very “existence” to Turkey. Prime Minister Ismet Inonu proclaimed during a Kurdish uprising in 1925 that “nationalism is the only element for our unity” and vowed to Turkify non-Turkish groups in the homeland. One of the slogans of the early republic was “one language, one culture, one ideal.” The Kemalists fostered good relations with their neighbors and looked to the West for inspiration in their modernization drive, but after the bloody breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of Anatolia following World War I, they grew deeply suspicious of foreign powers and groups seen as their internal minions, a paranoia that would become a core characteristic of Turkish political culture.
The nationalist ideology went through an ethnic, even Turkish supremacist, phase in the 1930s until World War II.
“After the collapse of Germany, Japan and Italy, they renounced all those ideas and redefined Kemalist Turkish nationalism as a sort of civic nationalism,” says Ilker Ayturk, a scholar of Turkish nationalism at Bilkent University in Ankara. The official ideology shifted toward an aggressively inclusive, assimilationist form. A Turk was defined in the constitution as any citizen of Turkey, but as Ayturk points out, “there was a huge gap between law and practice.” Persecution of minorities and forced Turkification abounded, and non-Muslims were seen as foreigners.
In the 1940s, a new form of nationalism took hold among conservative, religious youth from rural Anatolia who became indoctrinated with nationalism in school but rejected Kemalist ideology because of its hostility toward public expressions of Islam. These religious conservatives soon split off into Islamist and nationalist cliques.
The eventual leader of the latter group was Alparslan Turkes, a secular pan-Turkist army colonel with possible Nazi sympathies who was court-martialed, imprisoned and tortured in 1945 for “fascist and racist activities,” though the charges were later dismissed. In 1960, Turkes played a prominent role as the public face of a military coup — it was his voice that first announced the coup on public radio — but was then sent to a government post in exile abroad because of his hardline resistance to the junta’s plan to quickly restore civilian rule. He returned in 1963, however, and took control of a small conservative political party, converting it into Turkey’s first true ethnic nationalist party (often referred to as ultranationalist, to distinguish it from the nationalism of nearly every other political party), the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, in 1969. His followers anointed him the “basbug” (chieftain), a term taken from Turkic lore. Sinan Ates would later revere the basbug and quoted him often.
Despite his secular background, Turkes cannily embraced religion in the 1970s to appeal to a larger constituency, merging nationalism with Islam in the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.” He proclaimed that “Turkishness is our body, Islam is our spirit,” boasting that “We are as Turkish as Mount Tengri and as Muslim as Mount Hira,” referring to the mountain in the Central Asian homeland of the earliest Turkic groups, and the mountain near Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have received the first revelation from God. Though the MHP doesn’t oppose secularism, its embrace of conservative Islam and a deep hostility toward cultural Westernization distinguish Turkes’ brand of ultranationalism from Ataturk’s secular nationalism.
The MHP’s base hails largely from the conservative rural Anatolian heartland, and its ideology stresses both ethnic and cultural nationalism. There are MHP followers of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but its supporters often target minorities such as Kurds, Alevis and Armenians. During a televised discussion between Turkes and the Kurdish politician Orhan Dogan, which often broke down into a screaming match, the latter called Turkey a cultural mosaic and Turkes furiously retorted that it was not a mosaic but a solid piece of marble.
In 1966, Turkes inaugurated the first branch of the party’s youth group, the Hearths of the Ideal, which Ates would join and then lead several decades later. The Idealists, as they are known, subscribe to the concept of an “ideal” Turkey, and they took up the mantle to fight against the dozens of revolutionary leftist groups that were sprouting up across the country. Violence and fanatical devotion were at the center of the Idealist movement, and Turkes commanded that “whoever joins the cause and then becomes a traitor, kill him.”
The group is also known as the Gray Wolves, after a mythical she-wolf named Asena, said to have led the Turks’ ancestors to salvation. Their followers salute with the sign of the Gray Wolf, raising their index and pinky fingers as ears and stretching the other three into a snout. They greet each other by lightly knocking the upper sides of their heads together, rather than the traditional pressing of cheeks and two air kisses. Many received paramilitary training from retired generals in so-called “commando camps,” and Turkes pledged that they “must be ready to sacrifice themselves in serving the state and the nation.” The group also served as an incubator for future MHP grandees.
Their ideology venerates the state, seen as the highest embodiment of the nation and exalted as a sacred tool with which to enact the Turkish people’s will. Idealists often speak of “devletin bekasi,” the survival or well-being of the state, and believe in the sacrosanct duty to serve it. Turkes’ colleague and MHP ideologue Dundar Taser said that “for the Turk, the state is something one cannot live without, like bread, like water, but even more essential,” a line Ates loved to quote. Supporters of this ideology are referred to as “devletci” — literally “statists” or devotees to the cult of the state. The Idealists eventually developed a strong presence in the police, security establishment and military, and this was how the MHP, a party that often struggles to surpass 10% of the vote, exercised outsized influence.
Idealists congregate in their local “ocak” (center), spending most of their time shooting the breeze while drinking tea and smoking. “The ocak gives you a purpose, a cause. You feel like a modern-day knight,” says Bahadirhan Dincaslan, a writer who grew up in the movement.
The Idealists appeal to young men who often feel alienated and yearn for a sense of mission. Like a religion, disciples mourn the same martyrs, idolize the same heroes, tell the same mythologized stories and compete over who can show the most devotion. “Like with any religion, people crave a sense of exceptionalism. What makes you special?” says Selim Koru, a political analyst at the TEPAV think tank in Ankara who has spent a lot of time with Idealists.
The movement grew largely on the back of rapid urbanization in the 1970s, providing displaced youth with a community.
“You’re from a small city, going to a big city to find work and a new life,” Dincaslan explains. “You need a network there. Some join religious sects, and others join the Gray Wolves.”
Many Idealists are young men with pent-up aggression who struggle to fit into a rapidly changing society. They “crave structure and authority in their lives, and a male presence to keep them in line,” says Koru. Violence and intimidation are core elements of the movement, but the bloodshed also creates a sense of camaraderie and chivalry. “Some of the Idealists I know, sort of upper-crust Idealists, are well-adjusted, good people,” Koru says. “If I ever needed help, I feel like they would help me, sometimes more than the leftists. They’re more reliable.”
During the mid-to-late 1970s, an epidemic of daily street violence nearly at the level of a civil war erupted between Gray Wolves and revolutionary leftists, leaving around 5,000 dead. Ates’ father, Musa, himself a prominent Idealist, was shot by leftist militants in 1979 as he was leaving his high school, an attack that also killed his friend Taner Kalkanci. Gray Wolves were responsible for the majority of the violence, and also carried out a number of massacres targeting the left-leaning Alevi religious minority. In 1980, a brutal military coup brought an end to the carnage.
The Turkish state is traditionally far more repressive toward the left than the right, and the coup was no exception, but thousands of Gray Wolves were shocked to find themselves arrested and tortured along with the leftists and Islamists. Many of their senior cadres still carry this trauma today. Turkes, whose MHP had been in a coalition government, was imprisoned for years and put on trial facing death for allegedly ordering the assassinations of prominent leftists. The indictment accused him of “longing for a fascist dictatorship” and prosecutors claimed that while the militant left was trying to foment a revolution, the Gray Wolves’ objective was simply “massacre.”
During torture sessions, guards played a nationalist song by Muserref Akay, “My Turkey,” that opens with the lyrics “betrayal has infiltrated my heroic race” and decries the homeland’s enemies, lamenting how Turks have no friends but each other. Listening from their jail cells, many Idealists bemoaned that “our ideas are in power, yet we’re in prison,” a statement made famous at the time by the MHP ideologue Agah Oktay Guner.
Despite targeting the Gray Wolves, the head of the junta, Kenan Evren, embraced the merging of Islam with nationalism outlined in Turkes’ Turkish-Islamic synthesis as a means of aiding social cohesion and opposing communism, incorporating it into state policy. Like Turkes, Evren, though a self-proclaimed Kemalist and secularist, believed the education system had produced a decadent and Westernized society, neglecting conservative Anatolian values and leading to spiritual decline. Surely, this was what had caused the violence of the 1970s, and thus a new “model human being” had to be constructed from the malleable youth. The junta reinvented Ataturk as a pious Muslim, and mandatory religion and ethics classes glorified martyrdom, described Sunni Islam as “our religion” and presented nationalism and love for the state and military as religious obligations. Eighth-grade textbooks taught students that “The Turks are from birth a nation of soldiers. Islam also commands one to constantly fight for the fatherland.”
Turkes was eventually released from jail and acquitted, then began to soften his rhetoric, stressing nonviolence. This process continued under a new leader, Devlet Bahceli, an economics professor whose unusual first name means state. Bahceli succeeded Turkes after his death in 1997, managing to overcome an armed putsch within the party by Turkes’ son. He gained even tighter control over the party and continued the effort to gentrify the Idealists, downsizing the branches and purging some of the seedier bosses. The Idealists were given courses on public speaking and dining etiquette, and published a pamphlet called “How to Behave in Public.” Under Bahceli’s more palatable image, the MHP vote more than doubled to 18% in the 1999 elections.
It was under Bahceli’s reign that Sinan Ates rose through the ranks of the nationalist movement. Like many, Ates was born into it. He grew up in Osmangazi, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Bursa, a large city not far from Istanbul, and his whole family struggled to make ends meet. His father Musa was a prominent Idealist who worked on construction sites.
Like his dad, Sinan joined the Gray Wolves in high school and gradually progressed through the ranks. Later, he became an adviser to an MHP deputy, received his doctorate in history and finally, in 2019, was appointed the head of the Idealists, the first proper academic to hold the title. It’s an important, prestigious position, almost like being the head of a political party.
“When they enter the room, it’s really an event,” says Koru, the analyst.
Ates represented a new generation of more sophisticated nationalists who came of age under Bahceli and were no longer composed simply of street brawlers but of lawyers and other professionals. He was active on social media, often posing on rearing horses, and tried to revitalize the Idealist movement, its support having stultified among Turkey’s increasingly cosmopolitan youth. Ates launched an environmental campaign under the slogan “environmentalism is nationalism,” directing his followers to plant saplings, set up recycling bins, pick up trash, watch over spawning sea turtles and feed stray animals.
He saw young people as experiencing a crisis of “national and spiritual values,” and organized chess classes, theater groups and summer sporting events. He often spoke as though Turkey were at war, seeing “internal and external enemies” everywhere, and obsessing over the historical victimhood of the Turkish people. In one speech in 2019, commemorating the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, Ates declared that “the conquest was the most definitive and sharp response to Western barbarism, which has been seeking a Turkish-free Anatolia for centuries.” He believed it was important to instill children with a sense of “national vengeance” to keep them constantly on guard.
Even as Bahceli’s tenure was marked by a newfound respectability for the MHP, Gray Wolf violence continued, targeting mostly leftists in the ’90s and then Kurds in the 2000s, during the ruling AKP’s so-called Kurdish Opening, when cultural rights were modestly expanded. Much of the violence was internal, to keep their own men in line. “It’s like omerta — you’re our person so we can beat you,” explains Dincaslan.
Largely because of the Kurdish Opening, which involved negotiations with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, Bahceli was hostile toward the AKP and Erdogan, who emerged from an Islamist movement often at odds with the ultranationalists. Bahceli vowed to take him to court for treason and corruption. Furious Gray Wolves protesting against peace talks with the PKK in 2013 shouted to Bahceli, “Tell us to strike and we will strike! Tell us to die and we will die!” Bahceli ominously assured them that “the time will come for that.”
Erdogan’s alliance with the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers rivaled the MHP’s for bureaucratic roles, was another point of contention. “During the Gulenist era, Idealists were pushed to do the toughest jobs,” says Koru. “The Gulenists had all the desk jobs and these guys were on the streets.”
But in 2015, a partnership between Erdogan and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, fell apart, and Erdogan began losing the crucial support of the Kurdish movement. To replace those votes, he began making overtures to Turkey’s ultranationalists. In January, a foreign dignitary was met in Erdogan’s new presidential palace by 16 guardsmen who looked as though they were wearing Halloween costumes, accoutered as warriors from various Turkic dynasties. “People were mocking it, but I think it was a brilliant move,” says Ayturk. “Erdogan the former Islamist, paying his respects to Turkey’s Turkic past. I’m sure it moved all the nationalists a lot.”
In the June 2015 general election, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority, with many of its seats going to the HDP, and Erdogan scuttled negotiations to form a coalition government, calling for snap elections in November. In the run-up to the vote, Erdogan, who’d always had a nationalist streak, took a sharply jingoistic turn in a bid to pilfer votes from the MHP. The cease-fire with the PKK fell apart and soon Turkish tanks were flattening Kurdish-majority cities in the southeast. Bahceli called for the town of Nusaybin to be “leveled to the ground” and to “leave no one alive” apart from “our” citizens. A crowd in Istanbul chanted, “We don’t want a military operation, we want a massacre.” Their wishes were granted, as stories emerged from the besieged town of Cizre that 130 civilians had been burned to death by security forces, many of whom left Gray Wolf graffiti on the walls. The bodies piled up so fast that they needed to be preserved in refrigerators. Students spelled out the word “peace” as a form of protest and were detained by police and sued by Erdogan for insulting the president. Over 1,000 Kurdish activists and politicians were arrested, and nationalist mobs flashing the Gray Wolf salute torched hundreds of Kurdish-owned shops and political offices.
The cynical strategy worked. The AKP regained its majority and, as Erdogan’s increasingly nationalistic policies converged with Bahceli’s, their relations grew warmer. As Turkey was pummeled with a series of devastating terror attacks by the Islamic State group and the PKK in 2015 and 2016, and government propaganda bombarded the public with jingoistic narratives about being surrounded by enemies, citizens felt increasingly unsafe. Many found comfort ensconcing themselves in a nationalist worldview and sought the protection of a strongman leader and well-armed state. A militaristic fervor took hold, as Turkey invaded and occupied northern Syria three times from 2016 onward, and nationalistic TV shows glorifying the armed forces dominated the airwaves. Meanwhile, resentment built against the millions of Syrian refugees who had been pouring into the country for years, sometimes boiling over into racist mob violence.
On July 15, 2016, a grisly coup attempt, organized in large part by Gulen followers after a falling out with Erdogan, failed. Afterward, pro-NATO generals were purged from Turkey’s substantial armed forces and replaced with anti-Western nationalists. The government baselessly blamed the coup on the United States, threw tens of thousands into prison, and accused anyone insufficiently loyal of not having “local and national” values. Erdogan besmirched all manner of critics as foreigners, infidels, atheists, homosexuals, traitors and terrorists.
Erdogan conjured a narrative of an embattled country constantly under siege from foreign powers and their domestic lickspittles, proclaiming that Turkey doesn’t merely have an army, but “we are a nation that is itself an army.” He appeared in public swaggering around in flight jackets and military fatigues, as his servile media played Ottoman military marches and showed photos of newborns appearing to give military salutes. His increasingly erratic policies cratered the economy and devastated relations with Turkey’s Western allies. Erdogan and other AKP officials even began flashing the Gray Wolf sign in public, and his supporters wore headbands sporting the nationalist slogan “one homeland, one nation, one flag, one state.”
Erdogan’s brand of nationalism, like Turkes’ and Evren’s, is heavily tinged with Islam. He converted the Hagia Sophia — which was originally a Byzantine cathedral and was later turned into a mosque and then a museum — back into a mosque, calling this a second “conquest,” while Bahceli referred to “the right of the sword” and derided naysayers as “Byzantines.” Erdogan’s greatly expanded Directorate of Religious Affairs published a children’s book that glorified the military and taught kids “how beautiful it is to be a martyr.” Erdogan called anyone who drinks alcohol an alcoholic, including Ataturk, and significantly increased taxes on all alcoholic drinks. He spoke of “raising pious generations” that should “carry a computer in one hand and a Quran in the other” and banned schools from teaching evolution, which a former minister of education and devotee of Turkish-Islamic synthesis had unsuccessfully attempted in 1987. He pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention preventing violence against women to appease his Islamist supporters.
With all these policies, Erdogan became a sort of civilian Evren in a plaid jacket, the new scion of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. While the MHP leaders may not have sat on the throne, many of their ideas now reigned supreme.
Bahceli was all too pleased with Erdogan’s nationalistic turn. With his support, Erdogan’s 2017 constitutional referendum to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, with virtually no checks on executive power, passed. After all, Turkes himself was one of the original advocates of such a system.
But Bahceli’s support for Erdogan ruptured the fault line within the nationalist movement between secular and religious nationalists. Erdogan’s aggressive imposition of religious values and his stigmatization of secular attitudes have created a backlash, and religiosity is decreasing amongst the young. Ataturk is more popular than ever. “The Turkish republic was established by nationalists, and in the eyes of many of them, this republic is being torn down, destroyed by a regime with which nationalists are partnered,” Ayturk says.
A younger, better-educated, more cosmopolitan and metropolitan generation of nationalists see Erdogan as the antithesis of Ataturk’s secular values and reject Bahceli as overly paternalistic and provincial. This generation is less deferential to authority, more open to the world, and tired of obsessing over past glories, Ayturk explains. “Instead they want to live good lives, here and now. They want to become members of the global community on an egalitarian basis. They want to be able to travel internationally, to send their kids to good schools.”
Dincaslan, the writer, embodies this new nationalist generation, ardently opposed to both Erdogan and Bahceli. He is a more secular counterpart to Ates, whom he knew but didn’t get along with. He was born in 1990 in Kayseri, a bustling provincial capital and MHP stronghold in central Anatolia. As an adolescent, the ocak was like a second home for Dincaslan. He attended an elite science high school where he learned to think critically and began questioning things like religion. Later, he moved to Istanbul for college and met non-Muslims for the first time in his life, realizing that the image of conniving infidels he had grown up with was nonsense. He found that many of the other students were wary of him because of his nationalist mustache.
“At first I was angry at them because I was kind of being bullied, but then I thought it can’t be only their fault, maybe we have some faults on our side too. I decided to question everything,” he says.
Dincaslan became an atheist and came to see religion as a cancer in the nationalist movement. He also rejected the MHP’s ethnic nationalism. “Considering your race to be superior to others is wrong. Using nationalism to suppress minorities or freedom of thought is wrong,” he says. But Dincaslan still firmly believes that secular civic nationalism can be the cement to hold together highly divided countries like Turkey. “Turkish identity is important. Nationalism can be a good source of thrust for societal and regime changes,” he says. He soon met friends who thought like him and, in 2013, they decided to join the mass Gezi Park protests against Erdogan’s authoritarian paternalism. “The MHP called us terrorists, provocateurs, anything that came to their minds. That was a breaking point.”
When Bahceli started supporting Erdogan a few years later, a similar breaking point was reached in the MHP itself, as several popular younger figures, who had long been blocked from contesting Bahceli’s tight grip over the party, began to revolt. They opposed Erdogan and his presidential system, and resented how he poached many MHP votes in the November 2015 elections. The insurgents tried to hold a party congress to elect a new leader but were violently blocked by Bahceli with the help of Erdogan’s subservient judiciary and expelled from the party.
In 2017, the most popular of the rebels, former interior minister Meral Aksener, formed a center-right secular nationalist party, the Good Party (which uses the Turkish word for good in capital letters, IYI, which doubles as the symbol of an old Turkic tribe, the Kayi). Dincaslan and his friends decided to support them, then were hounded and attacked every step of the way by furious Gray Wolves. IYI eventually received roughly the same amount of support as the MHP and staunchly opposed Erdogan and his presidential system. The new party portrayed itself as less extreme than the MHP but maintained a hardline stance on the Kurdish and migrant issues. Aksener, a devout Muslim but also a secularist, had presided over a period of brutal state violence during her time as interior minister in the mid-1990s. Now, she called for the release of the former human rights lawyer and imprisoned HDP leader Demirtas and held rallies in Kurdish-majority regions. IYI’s supporters tend to be middle-class, urban, educated and staunchly secular nationalists, in contrast to the MHP’s conservative provincialism.
During the 2018 general elections, the MHP entered into a formal alliance with the AKP, helping Erdogan win the presidency and a parliamentary majority. In return, Idealist cadres replaced the purged Gulenists in the state bureaucracy, and imprisoned mafia bosses with close MHP ties going back decades were released in an amnesty. Alaattin Cakici, one of Turkey’s most powerful mob bosses and a former Gray Wolf notorious for having his ex-wife murdered in front of her son on Cakici’s birthday, had earlier warned Erdogan from prison that, because of the Gray Wolves in the bureaucracy, “you do not own the state.” After being released, Cakici paid Bahceli a visit, addressing him as “my chairman.” As Bahceli’s influence grew, he became increasingly aggressive, taking out huge ads in major newspapers listing his perceived enemies, promising to “never forget what they have done.”
It was during this period of rupture in the ultranationalist movement, when violence was at its highest point since the 1970s, that Ates led the Gray Wolves. The violence was directed mostly against the IYI Party renegades, but also journalists, politicians, unionists, lawyers and anyone who criticized Bahceli, even a former president of the Idealists. Ayturk believes Ates to have been responsible for much of the violence. “This is not a man who renounced aggressive policies or street fighting,” he says. In an interview with local press after becoming the Idealist head, Ates insisted that the Gray Wolves opposed violence, and denounced the negative public perception of them caused by “Marxists in the media,” describing the Wolves as a steel fist in a velvet glove before warning darkly that they “use those steel and iron fists against traitors to the homeland and the dishonorable.” Ates carried a licensed firearm and threatened perceived adversaries with violence or death, including Dincaslan, who had criticized Bahceli.
Erdogan’s docile judiciary shielded the Gray Wolves from punishment, and they grew more brazen. Five separate attacks against nationalist journalists who had criticized Bahceli or supported IYI occurred in May 2019 alone, with Gray Wolf attackers often released within hours. After one attack against an IYI founder in June 2019, the MHP politician and local Gray Wolves head in Istanbul, Ahmet Yigit Yildirim, tweeted that IYI supporters “will meet with idealist justice sooner or later” and sent his greetings to the attackers.
“After all those attacks, they grew bolder and bolder; they felt like they’re gods and can do anything, can take people’s lives,” Dincaslan says.
In 2020, Ates abruptly resigned on Bahceli’s orders. Rumors swirled that Ates was too popular and ambitious for his own good, and that when Bahceli had been very sick recently, Ates asked dangerous questions about who would replace the elder party leader if he died. Nonetheless, he pledged that “as long as this soul is in this body, I will be at the command of my leader.” Ates had also butted heads with influential figures within AKP Islamist circles for their hostility toward Ataturk, and some questioned whether Erdogan told Bahceli to get rid of him. Ates also had a rivalry with Olcay Kilavuz, an MHP parliamentarian who had been the Idealist head before him, after Ates replaced Kilavuz’s cadres with his own, a common practice for Idealist heads.
In March 2022, an Idealist news outlet published an article headlined “A Fire of Betrayal” (Ates means fire in Turkish), dubiously accusing Ates of having links to the Gulen movement. Eleven days later, four men with knives, reportedly supported by Kilavuz, attacked Ates’ friend Cagri Unel, a former local Idealist head in the southern city of Mersin who had defended Ates against the accusations. Unel, who was armed, killed one of them and went to prison.
“Since then there’s been a feud between Sinan Ates supporters and Olcay Kilavuz supporters. In the eyes of Kilavuz and his supporters, they had to respond very seriously, because otherwise their reputations in the movement would have been soiled,” Ayturk says. According to Dincaslan, “there were several potential candidates vying for future chairmanship of the MHP, and Ates was their common enemy,” putting him in a very dangerous situation.
Ates started receiving threats after the attack on Unel. Groups of men showed up at his office and mosque to attack him, but were unsuccessful. He told those close to him that “they broke my pen,” meaning he believed there was a death sentence against him. He began traveling with a bodyguard. In late 2022, Ates barnstormed around Anatolia as though on a political campaign, visiting nationalist figures, local police stations, government offices, tribal leaders and sheikhs. This attracted attention from local Idealists, who threatened him on social media. A former local Idealist head who accompanied Ates was attacked by men with sticks and swords afterward, and sent a message to Ates warning him to be careful. On Dec. 29, Ates shared a photo on Instagram with friends in Istanbul who had sided with Meral Aksener and IYI, a dangerous and provocative or at least careless move.
The next day, he returned home to Ankara with his cousin and bodyguard Selman Bozkurt. The pair would normally drive back to their office from Friday prayers, but that day Ates decided to walk. Both men were carrying pistols in their waistbands, but Ates was feeling calm, looking at his phone, with his guard down. He didn’t see the assassin, Eray Ozyagci, hiding behind a car waiting for them. Bozkurt was shot first, feeling a sudden pain in his shoulder as he collapsed and reached for his gun. Ates was shot five times, in both legs, his stomach and under his chin into his head. Ozyagci was whisked away on the back of an accomplice’s motorcycle, but caught a month later while trying to flee abroad. Paramedics soon arrived and performed CPR on Ates, but it was too late.
“They killed somebody in broad daylight in the most prestigious district in Ankara,” Dincaslan reflects. “It was beyond imagination.” Many nationalists used an idiom to describe what they saw as a cowardly act: “Aslani sirtlana bogdurdular” — “They made the hyena strangle the lion.”
“I would call this probably the most transformative event for the Idealists in the past 40 years,” says Ayturk. Violence is par for the course in the Gray Wolf movement, but an assassination of a former Idealist head is unprecedented.
What’s worse, an overwhelming amount of evidence points to leading figures within the MHP as having organized the assassination. Over 20 people were taken into custody, nearly all of them with MHP or Idealist connections, including high-level politicians. The assassins were part of an MHP-connected criminal gang from Gulsuyu, a neighborhood in Istanbul’s Maltepe district. The gang has been involved in murder, kidnapping, forced prostitution and drugs. They’ve killed leftist activists protesting against their activities in Gulsuyu, which has a large Alevi population.
According to local reporting based on police testimony, MHP Istanbul Provincial Board Member Ufuk Kokturk allegedly sent 97,000 Turkish lira to Dogukan Cep, a close friend from their time in prison together and a leader of the Gulsuyu gang accused of organizing the hit. First, he sent his man Suat Kurt to Ankara to stake out Ates’ office for four days before the murder. Then, he sent the hitman Ozyagci, driven by two special operations police officers, at least one of whom has Gray Wolf connections, and provided the motorcycle to the rider, Vedat Balkaya. The former high-level Gray Wolf Tolgahan Demirbas helped the killers escape Ankara, in a car reportedly registered with the MHP, and was detained by police while he was in an apartment with none other than Ates’ rival, Olcay Kilavuz.
The public was outraged to learn that many of the suspects had somehow managed to avoid serving prison sentences for past crimes. Cep, accused of organizing the killing, had served just two years of a 35-year sentence for the high-profile murder of Hasan Ferit Gedik in 2013, who was protesting against gangs in Gulsuyu. Cep was released in 2015 and managed to avoid subsequent arrest after a second warrant was issued for him in 2018. His friend who sent him the money, the MHP politician Kokturk, had also been sentenced to 20 years in 2013 for stabbing a 16-year-old to death but served only a year in pretrial detention. The trigger man Ozyagci had been sentenced to 16 years for multiple crimes in 2015 but served just seven months.
The investigation was also mired in controversy, as the initial prosecutor in the case was replaced by a less experienced one who appeared in photos with several MHP politicians. The report mentioning that Demirbas was detained while he was with Ates’ rival Kilavuz mysteriously disappeared, replaced by one saying he was detained alone on the street.
Kilavuz also turned out to have close relations with Ankara Police Chief Servet Yilmaz and former Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu of the AKP (replaced after the recent elections), who is popular with the nationalist movement and has wielded enormous influence among the police. Photos show that Kilavuz visited Soylu four days before the Ates murder, as well as five days before the attack on Ates’ friend Cagri Unel in Mersin.
The murder caused outrage in nationalist circles, but met with a resounding silence from the MHP. No condolences were offered, not even from Ismet Buyukataman, who Ates had worked for as an adviser for 12 years. No one from the party attended Ates’ huge public funeral, in which his little girls were seen wailing and calling out for their dad. Thousands reportedly resigned from the MHP, and some nationalists shared photos of themselves shaving their crescent-moon mustaches in protest. Giant banners demanding “Justice for Sinan” were erected in many cities, including MHP strongholds such as Kayseri.
MHP Deputy Chairman Semih Yalcin lashed out against the critics, threatening to “cut off their poisonous tongues” and “sever their necks,” as several more incidents of street violence between nationalist groups broke out. Alparslan Turkes’ widow Seval condemned the MHP and warned that “an empire of fear is spreading through society.” Reacting to the MHP’s response to the killing, the former Idealist head Alaattin Aldemir asked, “What are you going to do? Kill us all?”
Nearly two weeks after the murder, Bahceli finally made a statement, not deigning to even mention Ates by name or offering any condolences, instead grumbling against those who had criticized the MHP. Ates’ grieving sister Selma told the journalist Ismail Saymaz that Bahceli used to call him “my child,” adding, “This pains us. All they had to do was say one word.”
In stark contrast, Turkey’s political opposition, including many leftists stained by decades of bad blood with the Gray Wolves, harshly condemned the killing. Opposition leaders attended Ates’ funeral, visited his family, and pledged to bring the masterminds of his murder to justice if they won the elections. Some within the Idealist movement showed a startling level of introspection and self-criticism. Aldemir, now with the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, lamented how his movement had been silent during past political assassinations of figures from other groups, such as Kurds or Armenians. “The left has adopted a principle from its experiences, a very honorable stance,” he told the journalist Candan Yildiz. “They did what we couldn’t do. They extended a hand to us. We, as Turkish nationalists, have to shake this hand.”
Regardless of the ultimate motive or the architect of Ates’ assassination, it’s emblematic of the violence, intimidation and impunity that continue to characterize the ultranationalist movement, despite Bahceli’s initial reforms. The murder also illustrates the movement’s continuing links to the state, as well as to mafia groups.
“Turkey’s always going to be very nationalistic. That’s not going to change in our lifetimes,” Koru tells me. Nationalism has been at the core of Turkish politics and society since the foundation of the republic in 1923, and has since taken many forms: religious and secular, conservative and leftist, ethnic and civic, authoritarian and democratic. Citizens sing nationalist songs at weddings, chant nationalist slogans at sporting events, put nationalist images on their Tinder profiles, ink nationalist tattoos onto their bodies, shave nationalist designs into their scalps, greet each other with nationalist salutes, watch nationalist TV series, give their children nationalist names and read them nationalist stories before bed. State buildings are draped in placards that say “Homeland First” and mountains in Kurdish-majority regions are emblazoned with the slogan “How happy is one who says I am a Turk.” Peering out of a window virtually anywhere in Turkey will reveal a multitude of crimson Turkish flags, the color of the martyrs’ blood.
Turkes’ extreme form of nationalism wedded Islam, militarism, xenophobia and veneration for the state. But the roots of a creed that demands unconditional loyalty and constantly sees outsiders and domestic undesirable “others” conspiring to “divide the homeland” go back to the founding ideology of the Turkish republic. As a friend put it to me recently, “Without an enemy, Turkish identity doesn’t exist.”
In the run-up to the May elections this year, Bahceli illustrated this raging antagonism when he vilified the political opposition, representing roughly half of Turkey’s population, as traitors, promising they would either get “life sentences or bullets in their bodies.” It was an extraordinary statement from the main ally of the president of an EU candidate country, and the leader of a political party that’s heavily implicated in a prominent political figure’s murder in broad daylight in the middle of the capital. The day before Ates’ murder, Erdogan had presented his esteemed partner with a cake decorated with the MHP’s three crescents, and Bahceli had reciprocated with 99 roses.
During campaigning for the recent election, both the groundswell of nationalism and the split within the nationalist movement featured prominently, as several parties on both sides vied with each other to prove who Turkey’s true nationalists are.
During a speech in the Black Sea coal-mining city of Zonguldak, as opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu promised justice for Ates, he flaunted his nationalist credentials to a red sea of flag-waving supporters.
“They say to us, ‘Mr. Kemal isn’t a nationalist.’ Who’s the one who loves his homeland? Mr. Kemal! Who’s the one who wants to send away the foreigners? Mr. Kemal! Who are the ones relying on the help of foreigners? They are!” At another speech he flashed the Gray Wolves symbol. Shortly after Ates’ killing, Kilicdaroglu told the Gray Wolves that “Your place is with the CHP. You’re nationalists, and so are we.” Several prominent Idealist figures and organizations pledged their support.
During a televised interview on May 22, Erdogan also assured viewers that “the address of the nationalists is clear and it is the People’s Alliance,” stressing his “local and national” values. He was also sure to mention the fight against terrorism, Turkey’s booming defense industry and strengthening ties with Turkic countries. He complained that the Western world was bothered by Turkey’s success and didn’t want him to win in the second round of the election on May 28.
Two former MHP politicians who were expelled from the party during the revolt, Sinan Ogan and Umit Ozdag, proved consequential in the election. Ogan garnered enough of the vote as an independent presidential candidate to prevent either side from obtaining a majority, throwing his lot in with Erdogan before the second round. Ozdag, from the militantly anti-migrant Victory Party, supported Kilicdaroglu, who took a much sharper turn toward nationalism and nativism in his rhetoric following his poor showing and mostly inclusive messaging during the first round.
In Erdogan’s victory speech after triumphing in the second round, he promised to never release the imprisoned Kurdish politician Demirtas, as a crowd making the Gray Wolf sign and chanting “the police are ours, the soldiers are ours,” called for Demirtas’ execution. Later that night, celebrating government supporters stabbed to death the IYI member Erhan Kurt in front of a district branch office, as demoralized opposition supporters pondered their fate.
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