There are, naturally enough, efforts afoot to nail down a cause for the suicide bombings that have lately claimed at least 50 lives in Istanbul. Turkey, after all, did not join the "coalition of the willing". Although influential members of its ruling elite were keen to chip in, the option was rejected by parliament - and, to its credit, the nation’s powerful armed forces chose not to the overrule the democratic verdict. And when Turkey decided to accede to an American request for assistance in policing postwar Iraq, its offer of troops was rejected by Kurdish members of Iraq’s so-called governing council.
Whether the situation in Iraq can indeed be categorised as "postwar" is, of course, arguable. In recent weeks, in response to progressively more daring acts of violent resistance, the occupation forces have resorted to acts that belie the supposition that "major combat" ceased six months ago. But that’s another story.
The fact remains that Turkey has not intervened in Iraq on a large scale. It does, on the other hand, maintain close relations, bordering on an alliance, with both the United States and Israel. Some Turkish commentators cite this as the likeliest reason for the terrorist operations. Others cite Turkey’s European aspirations, and the fact that the democratic ascendancy of a reputedly Islamist party has not led to a fundamental change of course.
Although founded as an Islamic republic, Turkey felt confident enough to discard the religious clause from its constitution shortly afterwards and has generally been proud of its secularism.
There have consistently been tensions, however, and the army has been prone to intervene frequently in politics, sometimes in the name of preserving Kemal Ataturk’s legacy. Amid the intermittent experiments with democracy, the state has earned a reputation for human rights abuses, particularly against Kurds aspiring for a degree of autonomy and the right to preserve their culture.
Nonetheless, given that Turkey is 98 per cent Muslim (with minuscule Jewish and Christian minorities), its secularism is creditable - as well as a red rag from the narrow-minded Islamist perspective.
Therefore, there may well be some merit in both the explanations offered for the targeting of Turkey. However, likeliest reason for the outrages is simply the accessibility of the targets and presence in Turkey of cells capable of carrying out such acts of destruction.
The November 15 attacks were aimed at Jews: one bomb exploded outside the Neve Shalom synagogue, another in the distinctively Jewish neighbourhood of Sisli. The bombs killed more Muslims than Jews, but that does not exacerbate the atrocity: it would have been equally awful if all the innocent victims had been Jews.
The Jews of Istanbul, who number about 17,000 now, have lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours for five centuries. Their forebears were 15th-century refugees from Europe’s Christian fundamentalism. Fiachra Gibbons, the British author of a forthcoming book on minorities in the Ottoman empire, describes them as "living proof that Jews and Muslims can coexist in harmony". She adds:
"Theirs is one of the great anomalies of Jewish history - a happy story. [But] this truer picture of what Jewish-Muslim relations can be has been obscured and all but erased in the handful of decades since the creation of Israel.
"They are the last survivors of the great Islamic-Judeo civilisation of al-Andalus, and they carried its language and cultural achievements with them to Turkey when Sultan Beyazit II sent ‘mercy ships’ to rescue them from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 . ... Four decades before their expulsion from Spain, within weeks of the fall of Constantinople and the ending of the old Byzantine empire, Beyazit's father Mehmet II ordered that Jews from all over his empire be brought to his new capital. A city without Jews, the sultan reasoned, was no city all.
"Happiness isn't supposed to last, but in Istanbul it has lasted more for more than five centuries ... Even now, close to the grand bazaar in Istanbul, a mosque and a synagogue share the same building."
The next attack, last Thursday, was aimed at British interests and representatives. The bombs targeted the HSBC bank and the British consulate, claiming the life of British consul-general Roger Short and 26 others - most of them, once again, Muslims.
One of the organisations that claimed responsibility for these murderous and utterly inexcusable acts styles itself as the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, named after a deceased close collaborator of Osama bin Laden, and claims to be acting in coordination with Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, arrests by the Turkish authorities and the identification of the suicide bombers suggest that the perpetrators were Turks rather than outsiders.
Whatever the merit of these claims, it is widely accepted that the attacks on British symbols were timed to coincide with George W. Bush’s state visit to Britain. During that trip, the self-proclaimed crusader for democracy was kept well protected from the people of his host nation, an estimated 200,000 of whom clogged the streets of London in what could well be the largest weekday protest in the British capital. Led by an American - the well-known disabled Vietnam veteran and peace activist Ron Kovic, a banner behind whom read: "Proud of my country, ashamed of my president" - they pulled down a large effigy of Bush in a mock re-enactment of the American orchestrated toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein.
Demonstrators were shaken but not all that surprised as news came in of the atrocities in Istanbul. As Lindsay German, the convener of the Stop The War coalition, put it: "I hate to say we told you so, but we have been saying from the beginning that the war with Iraq would inevitably lead to more terrorist attacks."
Inevitably, neoconservative hacks will seek to portray such opinions as a rationalisation of terror. That is ultimately a self-defeating view, because terrorism cannot effectively be tackled by those who religiously refuse to recognise its well-springs or its internal logic.
At a press conference in London, Tony Blair and his guest (who was spared the embarrassment of having to address the Mother of Parliaments, wherein he may have encountered opposition from a substantial section of the prime minister’s party) pushed the usual buttons: The terrorists struck because they hate freedom. We will fight them on every front, and as long as necessary. We will eradicate them...
The hatred-of-freedom phrase features frequently in Bush’s utterances, partly because his aides realise they cannot trust him to coherently articulate more complex notions. But do they realise how utterly hypocritical the word "freedom" sounds coming from the mouth of someone whose administration is so doggedly determined to deny its exercise not only to people in faraway lands, but to Americans as well?
Perhaps not. And perhaps they also do not realise that thus far their war against terror has been an abysmal failure. In seeking to combat the phenomenon by military means, they have only bred more terror. It cannot be said for certain, but it’s a fair bet that the suicide bombings in Istanbul, and the ones in Riyadh before that, are a direct consequence of the conquest and occupation of Iraq.
And then there is the daily death toll in Iraq. More American troops have been killed in Iraq thus far than in the first three years of the Vietnam War. They are not the only victims, of course. Iraqis are dying too; and the thousands who have been incarcerated reportedly face torture among a variety of humiliations. And other members of the military coalition are, inevitably, also being targeted. There is an important difference, of course, between striking at occupation forces in Iraq and killing innocents in Istanbul or Riyadh. It’s a difference that fanatics cannot be expected to appreciate. But if they cannot be brought to heel, is it absolutely necessary to go on provoking them?
The worst fears of those who suspected than an unnecessary war against Iraq would progressively reduce the Middle East to a bloody mess are now being realised. The US could indeed do something to reduce the terrorist threat: it could pull out of Iraq, instead of boasting about the absence of an exit strategy. Even the expedited hand-over of responsibility to Iraqis is intended to create a comfort zone for the American military presence rather than to end it.
As for the conscience-keeper of the "free" world, his prevarications have become legendary even among his own countrymen. "Now we know that no other president of the United States has ever lied so baldly and so often and so demonstrably," Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, recently told a gathering of American intelligence officers, diplomats and Pentagon officials, according to a report by John Pilger. He went on to say: "The presumption now has to be that he’s lying any time that he’s saying anything."
That assessment is hard to argue with. It can’t be extended, however, to Bush’s defence secretary, if only because his sentences are difficult to digest. Donald Rumsfeld is a veritable folk poet, straddling the fine line between profundity and nonsense with a dexterity that would shame Bob Dylan. In shock and awe, then, let’s allow him the penultimate word:
"The message is that their are known knowns - there are things that we know we know. There are known unknowns - that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns .... things we do not know we don’t know. And each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns."
Is that clear? Why, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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