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washington post: A Test of Turkish Tolerance

By Andrew Finkel

Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page B02


Sami Levi, the shamas who looks after the synagogue in my Istanbul neighborhood, was on duty last Saturday morning for the first time since suicide bombers attacked two other synagogues in the city. He was a bit surprised to see me — I am hardly a regular attendee. But having stood with the herd of television cameras outside the rubble of one synagogue, I felt the urge, once the dust had settled, to join a peaceful congregation at prayer. Levi escorted me in past the closed-circuit cameras. He was wearing his usual broad smile and, beneath his raincoat, a bulletproof vest.

The reopening of a handful of Istanbul’s 18 synagogues is a small but vital sign that the heart of one of Europe’s largest cities is again beginning to pump. The road past the British Consulate, the scene of yet another outrage, is still closed, but the rubble has been cleared and the rain has mercifully washed away the acrid, burning smell. The traffic is now flowing again past the scarred headquarters of the HSBC bank, where the fourth explosion took place.

The dates of the attacks were Nov. 15 and 20, but Turks see these assaults in which 61 people died as their own Sept. 11 — an attempt to disseminate fear and to prove them vulnerable despite the national rhetoric of strength. Turkey has become the latest victim of religious extremists. It is all the more disquieting because they were home-grown: All of the suspects are Turks. The son of one of the bombers recently told a Turkish daily that he felt no grief over the six Jews who were killed in the synagogues — he didn’t like Jews anyway — but he was sorry that Muslims had to die. Both he and his sister thought their father had been avenging the thousands of women whom they believed allied forces had raped in Iraq.

The bombings have not made Turks more empathetic to U.S. concerns about terrorism. If anything, people now hold the American invasion of Iraq responsible for instigating a contagion of resentment that has spread their way. They see Washington as a bee-stung giant, thrashing about with reckless disregard for the damage it does. This sense of disillusionment extends to Europe, which like the United States declared its solidarity with Turkey after the bombings and then exaggerated the risk and then, after calculating the actuarial odds, urged travelers to avoid the country like the plague. The decision by UEFA, the European soccer governing body, to force Turkish teams to play crucial matches not at their home stadiums but in Germany appears to have done more psychological damage to the city than the blasts themselves.

The events of last month will inevitably shape the way Turkey views its future and its relationship with the rest of the world. Turkey has long advertised itself as a bridge between East and West, and between Islam and the traditions of the Judeo-Christian world. The bombers tried to blow up that bridge.

“I’m just surprised a terrorist attack didn’t happen earlier,” said Ishak Alaton, a successful businessman who happens to be Jewish and who devotes most of his time to running a foundation that promotes civil society. In his view, Turkey’s very existence is an irritant to those who see the world as split between Islam and the West. And of course he is right. Ankara is a NATO stalwart, Israel’s only regional — let alone Muslim — ally, and it is desperate to claim a place within an enlarged Europe.

Since the bombings, I have encountered some bitterness among my Jewish friends, but frankly not as much as I expected. Turkey prides itself on the sanctuary the Ottoman Empire provided Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and the protection, some 450 years later, that the modern republic gave those escaping Nazi wrath. Schoolbooks praise the Ottoman Empire as a place of tolerance where non-Muslim communities could regulate their own affairs. There is a Jewish Museum in Istanbul, the only one in the Islamic world.

At the same time, nationalism is a powerful force in Turkish life and has justified a polity in which the allegiance citizens owed the state was far greater than the obligation of the state to its citizenry. Jews and other religious minorities have fit uncomfortably into this unequal contract. They were punished with a tax levied unequally on non-Muslims during World War II. An earlier generation of minorities could not become officers in the military. When I first lived in Istanbul in the 1960s, people spoke of Jews and Turks, rather than Turks who happened to be Jews.

This is no longer the case, even though the number of Jews in Turkey no longer exceeds 25,000. There is a whole generation of Turkish citizens — Jews, Armenians, ethnic Kurds, other ethnicities and religions including various branches of Islam — who not only want to be part of a political Europe but who are European in the way they layer their identities — their faith, their nationality, their parents’ ethnicity, the cultural bias of their education, the music they listen to and of course the soccer teams they support. Today’s Turkey is not a re-creation of the cultural complexity of Istanbul at the end of the 19th century, when Muslim Turks were a plurality rather than an outright majority of the population, but it is in some ways a rational progression.

The bombings are now believed to be the work of an underground organization that shares the aims of al Qaeda. They were organized from the largely Kurdish city of Bingol, with apparent financial help from abroad, authorities here said. There is also the uncomfortable suspicion that the bombers may have had substantial help from closer to home. Just as the Taliban was given an initial leg-up by U.S. agents in fighting the Russians, Islamic radicals in southeastern Turkey are suspected of having been quietly fostered by the country’s security forces in the early 1990s in the hope of creating a natural predator of the secular Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the early 1990s.

“For us the bombing is déjà vu,” said Nedim Ipekel, after worship last Saturday. He was a teenager in 1986 when a band said to be linked to the Palestinian faction of Abu Nidal fired randomly inside Neve Shalom synagogue. Security measures added since that blast saved lives when Neve Shalom was attacked last month, but the fact that this time the assailants were Turks bears the worrying implication that it could happen again. “There is always going to be a small percentage of crazies,” Ipekel said.

If the Jewish community has residual fear, then its Muslim neighbors are also uneasy. The current government appeals to a conservative, religious constituency and is particularly uncomfortable with the notion that there is anything intrinsic to Islam that gave ideological encouragement to the men of violence. The very notion of Islamic terrorism “makes my blood boil,”said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the attacks. Instead, he said the violence was the work of “religious zealots.”

There certainly is a conservative establishment in Turkey that argues that the clash of civilizations is happening here. It is an establishment skeptical of the view that Turkey has a future in Europe. It fears that concessions made in the name of liberalism would be exploited by hostile neighbors in Syria, Iran and the morass that is Iraq.

There are those, too, well to the religious right of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, who live off the resentment of what they see as American and Israeli contempt for Islam. It is a school of thought far more likely to see Turkish Jews as having a supra-national set of loyalties — and who saw red when the Israeli foreign minister arrived to pay his condolences after the bombings. “End the occupation,” reads a poster for the Islamic party from which Erdogan seceded and which won just over 2 percent of the vote in last year’s general election. It shows a sweet little girl with a bandage around her head who, in the creative ambivalence of the advertiser’s art, could be a young Iraqi, a Palestinian or a Turkish child opposed to a “spiritual occupation” of her homeland. This poster’s message is simply a more polite version of what the terrorists believe.

If 9/11 succeeded better than its perpetrators might have thought in forcing the United States into a period of dangerous introspection and estrangement from the rest of the world, then the Turkish 9/11 may serve the same purpose of isolating Turkey from its natural allies. Yet while Turks may feel abandoned for the moment, no one can really believe that isolationism is a practical option. Turkey’s fear is that, like its soccer players, it will be ostracized by Europe politically now that it has been tainted by terrorism. The argument it has to win is that what happened in Istanbul today could occur in Rome or Manchester tomorrow, and that Europe needs the cultural mix that Turkey represents more than ever.

After the bombing of Neve Shalom synagogue, Erdogan made it clear that the Jews who lost their lives were Turks whom the state had failed to protect. I, too, felt a sense of loss when the cantor in my synagogue read out the names of the Jewish dead, people I had never met. Yet I also remember the congregation’s singing at the end of the service — loud and determinedly lusty, a reprimand to anyone who thinks that life doesn’t go on. A few of my Muslim neighbors were in the courtyard of the synagogue — making the tea, manning the security gates, being there, like me I suppose, because they thought it was the right thing to do.

It would be wrong to say that life has returned to normal here. The sadness and shock remain and some people are a little jumpy. But the stock market around the corner from the HSBC bank has recovered its losses, and the drinking dens near the British Consulate are filling up once again. In the end, it may be the very senselessness of the attacks that turns out to be their only blessing. Their brutality points to no future. Their only accomplishment is to have united people of many faiths in thinking them a disgrace to the name of God.

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