The Lessons of Istanbul

Irfan Khawaja
November 25, 2003

God will have all, or none; serve him, or fall
Down before Baal, Bel,or Belial;
Either be hot or cold. God doth despise,
Abhor, and spew out all neutralities.

--Robert Herrick, “Neutrality Loathsome”

As I write, the city of Istanbul is reeling from two suicide bombings that killed about 55 people and wounded perhaps 700 more. According to The New York Times: “Turkish authorities said Friday [Nov. 21] that they had arrested several people in connection” with the bombings, and that “three groups claiming to have links with Al Qaeda have declared responsibility for the attacks. Though the suicide bombings on Thursday [Nov. 20] were aimed at British interests here, only four of the dead were reported to be British. The rest were all believed to be Turkish.”

 Many commentators have discussed the significance of the terrorists’ having targeted Turkey, “a Muslim country”—or more precisely, a country with a largely Muslim population. And there is, to be sure, something odd about the zeal with which Al Qaeda (or its allies, or whomever) has been intent on spilling rivers of Muslim as opposed to Western blood in its most recent depredations: besides the Turkish bombings, think of the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia as well as those on the UN and Red Cross compounds in Iraq. Most of these commentators have then gone on to remark that Turkey’s secular, pro-Western, and pro-Israeli policies go a long way toward explaining why Islamists might have targeted them. There is some truth to this, but it can’t be the whole truth, as it ignores two anomalous facts, and sidesteps two corresponding questions.

 The first anomaly is that Turkey’s current government is much less secular than its past governments have been: the ruling Justice and Development party is about as close to an Islamist government as Turkey has had in a long time. So the first question is: why would Al Qaeda have attacked such a government, rather than seeing in it an approximation of its own ideals? Second, Turkey made a big show last spring of distancing itself from Operation Iraqi Freedom, refusing the Coalition the right to use Turkish soil to open a northern front against Iraq. More recently, it refused to allow its troops to participate in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. These latter Turkish moves were obviously attempts at appeasing Islamist sentiment in Turkey and elsewhere. And so we’re led to our second question: why would Islamist terrorists have attacked Turkey despite its conspicuous slap in the face of the Americans (and the British!)? What’s the matter with those Islamists? Don’t they “get it”?      

 Oh, they “get it,” all right—it’s the Turks and their admirers who don’t. Look more carefully at Turkey’s Islamist posturing and you see in it just the sort of indecision that makes a country the perfect target of a terrorist attack. On the one hand, Turkey was trying its pathetic best to burnish its Islamist and anti-imperialist credentials…by attacking the only reliable allies it has on the planet—the US and the UK. On the other hand, Turkey happens to an ally of Israel, a member of NATO, a prospective member of the EU, and a country with a long-standing secular tradition codified both in its laws and in its culture—not exactly sentiments calculated to win Wahhabi hearts and minds.

 The predictable result? A Turkey caught between a rock and a hard place—not “Western” enough to stand reliably by its allies, but not “Muslim” enough to abandon those allies for dar al Islam. In other words, a Turkey alienated from its natural sources of support, but maximally vulnerable to enemies that it was desperately trying to appease: i.e., the perfect terrorist target.

 To put the point yet another way: the purpose of the Istanbul bombings was to force a decision that the Turks have been unwilling to make and simultaneously to call the bluff of the Justice and Development party. As if to ask: whose side are you really on? It’s an either/or question, not an essay; no partial credit is allowed for ideologically-confused political parties or philosophically-confused populations.

 Perhaps a bit of theology is in order here. As every madrasa-educated Muslim knows, to be allied with al kafirun (the infidels) is tantamount to being one of them, or at the very least of being a hypocrite—munafiqun. Muslim believers travel along one road; non-believers travel a divergent one.  “Which way, then, are you going?” asks the Quran, with characteristic directness (81:26). I would have expected Islamist politicians to have posed the question themselves and answered it. But they clearly haven’t.

 Actually, listen to the Turkish reaction to the bombing, and you begin to wonder whether maybe ordinary Turks have. From the Times: “Like many people, Zehra Toprakcecker, 24, weeping at the home of a friend who was killed at the British Consulate…blamed America for pulling her country into a violent orbit with its campaign against terrorism and invasion of Iraq. ‘The US paved the way for these attacks,’ she said as women wailed in a dimly lighted room behind her.” And: “Many Turks wondered openly whether their government’s close ties to the United States were worth it. There is a growing perception among some here that the United States is using Turkey for its own economic and political ends in the region, regardless of the damage it inflicts. In particular, many Turks see the war in Iraq as an American grab for power and oil. ‘We’re paying the price for other countries’ profits,’ said a man at one of the funerals on Friday.”

 Note Zehra Toprakcecker’s reflexive condemnation of the US, which “paved the way” for an Islamist attack on a British bank in a country currently out of sympathy with US policies. Note, too, the reporter’s odd choice of astronomical metaphor for the relations between the US and Turkey: “we” exert a gravitational pull on Turkey, and “it” cannot help but orbit “us.” (An oddly Orientalist ascription of fatalism to the Turks, wouldn’t you say? Where is Edward Said when we need him?) Notice also that it doesn’t occur to the man at the funeral to ask why Turkey was paying the price despite not reaping those profits or even supporting those who (supposedly) were. Nor did it occur to him to ask about the conception of justice motivating people who will kill innocent bystanders for being innocent of “wrongdoing.” Nor does it occur to the Times’s reporter to raise such questions.

 Is this just the sort of thing people say when consumed by terrible grief and trauma? Perhaps. But it could also be that what people say in the grips of deep sorrow is what they really believe. And from that perspective, these Turks are giving voice to the same self-induced cognitive dissonance that one finds among Muslims the world over: how many times, and in how many versions, have I heard the same thing from Pakistani mouths?

Evidently, such people want a world in which they can somehow remain neutral between Islamism and the fight against it, deplore “terrorism” while conveniently defining “terrorism” to include wars against it, admire the West except when it defends itself, and condemn terrorism without committing themselves to any form of action against it. When all hell breaks loose, as it has in Istanbul, it should come as no surprise that such people will blame everyone except those responsible for the crimes against them.  They’ve effectively trained themselves to see all issues but the ones that matter.

Unfortunately, self-induced blindness doesn’t get you very far, and it won’t get the Turks out of the jam that they’re currently in. Since Al Qaeda and its allies can only be defeated by the combined efforts of those regimes threatened by it—and in principle, that includes every regime on earth—perhaps it’s time to see that neutrality in the war on terrorism is not an expression of caution, prudence, or national pride, but of stupidity, recklessness and national suicide.

The Turks will undoubtedly be on the receiving end of more attacks no matter what they do, but there is only one way of defeating the perpetrators of the Istanbul bombings, and that’s to join with those aiming to destroy them. The acid test will be whether the Turks confuse “assertion of national interests” with “defiance of America,” the standard operating fallacy of Third World politics. Perhaps there’s time enough to turn things around, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Turkey is already on the slippery slope that leads to the valley of death called “contemporary Pakistan.” It’s not a fate one would wish upon one’s worst enemy. One wonders whether it’s the fate that the Turks have wished upon themselves.


Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and lecturer in politics at Princeton University.