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Far-right group the Grey Wolves banned in France after attacks on Armenian memorial

The Grey Wolves, a far-right Turkish organisation, has been outlawed by the French government. This came after a memorial in Lyon dedicated to the Armenian genocide of 1915 was vandalised in early November with bright yellow graffiti. With tensions spilling over from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, angry Turks have been seen on the streets in Aremenian neighbourhoods during the height of the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Grey Wolves History

The group is an ultra-nationalist organisation founded by Alparslan Türkeş, a colonel who was involved in the 1960 coup which overthrew Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. The Grey Wolves is the informal name for Ulku Ocaklari, which translates to Idealist Hearths in English, or Loups Gris in French. The organisation was founded in the 1960’s amidst the Cold War as part of the anti-communist effort against the Soviet Union, and had U.S. support and training.

Türkeş, who was called “başbuğ” as their leader, “head soldier” in English and inspired by the German “Führer”, was training in the U.S. in the 1950s as a young army officer in special warfare, irregular warfare and guerilla tactics. In 1956, he was the Turkish representative in NATO, and became the first counter-guerilla expert in Turkey and the head of the NATO offices under Turkey’s Chief of Staff.

“Irregular forces”, which the group took part in with U.S. backing, included acts of destruction to property, sabotage, espionage, dissemination of propaganda, assassinations, extortion, and even terrorism. Irregular forces act as a state security apparatus, with the Grey Wolves aligning with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in Turkey. The relationship between the Grey Wolves and the Justice and Development Party (APK) has improved considerably during Erdogan’s tenure, as the APK reversed many pro-Kurdish reforms and has espoused a more aggressive, nationalist, pan-Turkish policy. The graffiti on the defaced Armenian memorial included Erdogan’s initials.

The violence peaked in Turkey during the 1970s centre-left government of Bülent Ecevit, where there were mass killings at Istanbul University and Ankara’s Bahçelievler, claiming the lives of many intellectuals and young people. The group faded after the 1980’s military coup, after many members were arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the state they thought they were working for. They then resurfaced with links to the Mafia, and in the 1990s actively fought against the Kurdish political movement, opposing the Kurdistan Workers Party. They were also involved in fighting against the Aremnian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, a group designated terrorists by the Turkish state, as well having thousands of members fight in the first Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990s for Azerbaijan.

Today’s far-right

Today’s Grey Wolves still remain against the rights of minority groups, such as the Armenian and Kurdish groups within Turkey, France and other European nations. They defend the Sunni Mulsim character of Turkey, and have carried out acts against minority religious groups such as the Alevi.

The banning in France is ambiguous and vague, not explicitly referring to the Grey Wolves but instead refers to a hand salute commonly associated with the group. The hand sign is known as “Bozkurt” or “Wolf Sign” in Turkey. It is used by many Turks and right-wing groups to signify a nationalist sentiment, being used in the past by President Erdogan and leader of the Repbulican People’s Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Ultra-nationalist group the Great Unity Party and Turkish, Turkmen and Arab fighters in Syria have also been pictured using the salute too.

The decree lists the Grey Wolves as a “de facto grouping”, referring to incidents of anti-Armenian violence carried out in France and the chanting of ultra-nationalsit slogans. The decree describes an incident from 2016 which saw 15 militants from the group, armed with sticks, crow bars, knives and a revolver and wearing scarves with the Turkish flag colours around their face, attacking a stand run by Kurdish demonstrators. Despite the Grey Wolves, or the MHP, not being cited specifically, the France Turkish Federation, a group affiliated with the MHP, condemned the move on 4 November 2020.

Some have welcomed the ban, such as Devris Cimen, the European representative for Turkey’s left-wing pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), who spoke to Middle East Eye. He said the ban comes at a time where there is already tension between Ankara and Paris. He also pointed out that the group is not just active in France but other European countries, who should follow suit.

“In these countries too, action should be taken against this inhuman organisation,” he said, and “one should make a deeper investigation into how this organisation is conducting a hostile policy against Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and other non-Turkish people.”

Across Europe

In Germany, there is pressure to follow France’s move, but it would be of much greater controversy, as Turks are the largest ethnic minority group in Germany. According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education in a 2017 report, the Grey Wolves are currently the largest far-right movement in Germany, bigger than neo-Nazi groups. The Grey Wolves often come into clashes with left-wing groups and pro-Kurdish groups in Germany. Germany’s constitution outlaws “unconstitutional groups”, such as neo-Nazi, Communist and Islamist parties, but has not included the Grey Wolves.

Two years ago, there were attempts to ban symbols associated with the group, such as the hand salute now outlawed in France.

Kurdish-German Die Linke MP Sevim Dagdelen described the salute as “quite comparable to the Hitler salute”, which is banned in Germany.

The ban on the Wolf sign was established in Austria in 2018. Dagdelen called for the specific banning of the German Democratic Idealist Turkish Associations Federation (ADUTDF), a Turkish diaspora organisation linked to the Grey Wolves. The ADUTDF is the apparent “public face of the group…one of the largest far-right, anti-constitutional organisations, with approximately 170 local associations and 7,000 members.”

Symbols of the group were also spotted in the UK during a pro-Erdogan rally in London held during his visit to Downing Street. The group’s flag, which shows a grey wolf on a blue background, was seen amongst other Turkish flags waved by Erdogan’s supporters. The pro-Erdogan supporters were rallying against anti-Erdogan protesters, who were protesting against the treatment of minorities and the press in Turkey.

As the human rights abuses against minorities in Turkey continue to be exposed but the right to free press is increasingly restricted, far-right groups are much more emboldened. Caution must be taken following the ban in France, in order to avoid sparks of violence and clashes between the Grey Wolves and ethnic minority communities, whose rights and welfare must be protected.

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