DURING our last visit to Turkey in the autumn of 2013, we spent less than a week in Istanbul. But it felt like as if we had lived all our life 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 total strangers fall in love 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 civilizations.
As Hamid Dabashi brilliantly argues, it is this all-embracing nature of Istanbul in particular and cosmopolitan urbanity and diversity of all 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 revelers, who had gathered to welcome the New Year with their Turkish friends, had come from across the Middle East and from around the globe, coming from as far as India. Their carefree celebration of a “pagan festival” — in the words of Daesh (the so-called IS) hatemongers — doing away with the notions of the East and West and civilizational conflict went against the limited worldview of the fanatics.
It is not just the fact that they were celebrating a “Christian New Year” that made them a potential target of terrorists; with its unique blend of internationalism and tolerance, Istanbul (and Turkey itself, to a large extent) makes a perfect target for the extremist fringe.
This attack, as Dabashi puts it, is on the culture of tolerance, on the factual pluralism of Muslim countries that is represented in Istanbul. For the vast Ottoman empire, stretching from the Caucuses in Europe to the Middle East and 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 long centuries thriving Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Hindu communities before it imploded during the World War I.
Indeed, in the words of Dabashi, Muslims have lived alongside the followers of other faiths in successive empires — from the Abbasids to the Seljuks to the Ottomans; the Safavids, and the Mughals. Up until its fateful encounter with European imperialism, Istanbul was the epicenter 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 opened its borders to host more than 3 million Syrian refugees for the past 5 years and has actively and consistently taken the side of Syria’s oppressed people against the Baathist regime in Damascus — more than anyone else — 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 Eve carnage was one of nearly a dozen terror attacks that the country has suffered over the past year or so with hundreds of casualties, not to mention the devastating effect it has had on its crucial tourism industry and vibrant economy. Turkey finds itself truly in the eye of the storm.
What is more, the country is increasingly isolated from its traditional Western and NATO allies after President Reccep Tayip Erdogan’s veiled accusations that the recent failed military coup against him enjoyed the West’s blessings. He has alleged that Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Gulen movement, based in the US, enjoys Washington’s support.
While it was only Erdogan’s sheer courage and force of personality, coupled with the massive popular support that he has enjoyed over the past decade and more that defeated the coup plotters, 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 Daesh terrorists in Syria and in Turkey’s border areas, a serious charge if it is true. There have also been hints that the US embassy in Ankara had had the intelligence about the New Year Eve attack which it chose not to share 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 deserves their support and not the terrorists. This even as he has dramatically improved the equation with Russian President Putin, which has incidentally helped in their working together for the ceasefire in Syria after backing the two opposing sides for years.
What makes Turkey the most vulnerable and truly the frontline of this war is its fight against Daesh that it has taken right to its doorstep, deep inside Syria. As the Independent reports, 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 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. The Turkish military has been engaged in a major operation inside Syria against Daesh and has been incurring significant losses. Sixteen soldiers were killed last week outside Al-Bab and two soldiers were burned alive.
Daesh appears determined on striking back, where it hurts most. Over the past few months, a stream of fighters has been intercepted at the border, attempting to come into the country from Syria along with huge caches of weapons.
Battling for survival in Iraq’s Mosul and its de factor capital of Raqqa in Syria, Daesh is particularly angry with Turkey. “It’s a Muslim country whose rulers have allied with the Americans and the Russians. Daesh has declared war on Turkey,” a defector told the Independent.
The method in the madness is hard to miss in the series of attacks that Turkey has suffered over the past year or two, from the Gaziantep bombings to the cowardly attacks on the Ataturk International Airport, and from the savagery in Al-Bab to the targeting of New Year revelers in Istanbul.
This is a war Turkey cannot afford to lose. Yet look at the callous indifference in Western capitals to the carnage in Istanbul. Middle East watcher Robert Fisk sees 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 Gulf based writer. Email: Aijaz.firstname.lastname@example.org