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, but has also for centuries celebrated the marriage of two great civilizations.
As Columbia University scholar 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 revellers, 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 ISIS hatemongers — doing away with the notions of the East and West and civilizational conflict went against the limited worldview of the fanatics.
Culture of Tolerance
This attack, as Dabashi puts it, is on the culture of tolerance, on the factual pluralism of Muslim countries that is represented in Istanbul. 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.
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 three million Syrian refugees for the past five 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.
Getting Increasingly Isolated
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. What is more, the country is increasingly isolated from its traditional Western and NATO allies after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s veiled accusations that the recent failed military coup against him enjoyed West’s blessings. He has alleged that Fethullah Gulen, 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 Kurdish militants and ISIS terrorists in Syria and in Turkey’s border areas, a serious charge if it is true.
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 Vladimir 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 ISIS that it has taken right to its doorstep, deep inside Syria. As Independent reports, quoting many ISIS defectors, the Istanbul attack is an open declaration of war on the Turkish state by the terror group. 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 ISIS and has been incurring significant losses.
ISIS 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, ISIS 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 Independent.
The method in the madness is hard to miss in the series of attacks that Turkey 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.
(The author is an Indian journalist based in Dubai. Email: [email protected])