By Aijaz Zaka Syed
January 06, 2017
During our last visit to Turkey in the autumn of 2013, we spent less than a week in Istanbul. But it felt as if we had lived all our lives in the ancient city that is hard to define until you have experienced it yourselves.
Istanbul has that magnetic charm and warmth about it that makes strangers fall in love with it and feel at home. Straddling the Bosporus Straits, Istanbul or Constantinople does not just connect Asia and Europe and the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. For centuries, it has celebrated the marriage of two great civilisations.
As Hamid Dabashi brilliantly argues, it is this all-embracing nature of Istanbul, in particular, and the cosmopolitan urbanity and diversity of modern cities in general, that those who attacked the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve were looking to target.
Most of the revellers, who had gathered to welcome the new year with their Turkish friends, had come from across the Middle East and as far as India. Their carefree celebration of a ‘pagan festival’ – in the words of Isis hate-mongers – did away with the notions of the East and West and civilisational conflict and went against the limited worldview of the fanatics.
It is not just the fact that they were celebrating a ‘Christian New Year’ which made them a potential target of terrorists. With its unique blend of internationalism and tolerance, Istanbul (and Turkey to a large extent) makes for a perfect target for the extremist fringe.
This attack, as Dabashi puts it, was on the culture of tolerance and the factual pluralism of Muslim countries that is represented in Istanbul. For the vast Ottoman Empire – stretching from the Caucasus in Europe to the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia and ruled from Istanbul – welcomed and sheltered the Jews when they were being hunted like animals in Europe and elsewhere, just as it hosted for centuries thriving Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Hindu communities before it imploded during World War I.
Indeed, in the words of Dabashi, Muslims have lived alongside the followers of other faiths in successive empires, such as the Abbasids, the Seljuks; the Ottomans; the Safavids; and the Mughals. Until its fateful encounter with European imperialism, Istanbul was the epicentre of a confident cosmopolitan culture. “How could any such cosmopolitan empire be limited to the myopic zealotry of any particular sect of hateful fanatics?”
But it is not just Turkey’s tolerance and welcoming nature that is under assault. The fact that it has opened its borders to host more than three million Syrian refugees for the past five years and actively taken the side of Syria’s oppressed people against the Baathist regime in Damascus makes it uniquely vulnerable. Its open borders have also been exploited by terrorists from around the world – as well as the Kurdish insurgents and those loyal to the Syrian regime – to target Turkey.
The New Year’s Eve carnage was one of nearly a dozen terror attacks that the country has suffered over the past year or so. The attacks have resulted in hundreds of casualties, not to mention the devastating effect they have had on the country’s crucial tourism industry and vibrant economy. Turkey truly finds itself in the eye of the storm.
What’s more, the country is increasingly isolated from its traditional Western and Nato allies after President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s veiled accusations that the failed military coup against him enjoyed the West’s blessings. He has alleged that his friend-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen, the preacher and leader of the Gulen movement – who has been based in the US for many years – enjoys the tacit support of Washington.
It was Erdogan’s sheer courage and force of personality – coupled with the massive popular support that he has enjoyed over the past decade or more – that defeated the coup plotters. However, the subsequent nationwide crackdown on various arms of the state, including the army, judiciary and the media, hasn’t gone down well with the West.
Ankara has also accused the US of arming and supporting both the Kurdish militants as well as the Isis terrorists in Syria and in Turkey’s border areas – a serious charge, if it is true. There have also been broad hints that the US embassy in Ankara had advance intelligence about the New Year’s Eve attack and chose not to share it with the host.
No wonder Erdogan is upset. He has angrily reminded the US and European friends and allies that as an ally and Nato member, Turkey – and not the terrorists – deserves their support. This is vital as Erdogan has dramatically improved his equation with Russian President Vladimir Putin – which has, incidentally, helped both countries work together for the much-needed peace and ceasefire in Syria after backing the two opposing sides for years.
What makes Turkey vulnerable and truly the frontline of this war is its fight against Isis which it has taken right to its doorstep, deep inside Syria. As Kim Sengupta of the Independent reports this week, quoting many Isis defectors, the Istanbul attack is an open declaration of war on the Turkish state by the terror group. There may be many more such attacks in the days and weeks ahead.
Even in its message claiming credit for the Istanbul nightclub attack, the group minces no words, accusing Turkey of being “the protector of the Cross”.
While Western attention has remained focused on the attacks in Europe and its own vulnerability, some of the worst atrocities have taken place in Turkey.
Right now, the Turkish military has been engaged in a major operation inside Syria against Isis and has been incurring significant losses. Around 16 soldiers were killed last week outside the town of Al-Bab and two captured soldiers were burned alive by the terrorists.
Isis now appears determined on striking back, taking ‘jihad’ to the heart of Turkey. Over the past few months, streams of fighters have been intercepted at the border while attempting to come into the country from Syria along with huge caches of weapons.
As a defector told the Independent, battling for survival in Iraq’s Mosul and its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, Isis is particularly angry with Turkey: “It is a Muslim country whose rulers have turned against Islam, allying themselves with the Americans and the Russians. They are seen as the worst of enemies – Daesh [Isis] has declared war on Turkey.”
The method in the madness is hard to miss in the series of attacks that Turkey has suffered over the past year or two – the Gaziantep bombings, the cowardly attacks on the Ataturk International Airport, the savagery in Al Bab and the shameful targeting of New Year revellers in Istanbul.
This is a war Turkey cannot afford to lose. Yet, the callous indifference in Western capitals to the carnage in Istanbul is astounding. Veteran Middle East watcher Robert Fisk goes to the extent of terming the Western reaction as typically racist. However, those deriving vicarious pleasure out of Ankara’s woes mustn’t forget that it is fighting their war. This is everyone’s war. If Turkey goes down, they wouldn’t win either.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based columnist.