Turkey's 9/11

So far, al-Qaeda has successfully inflamed the dreaded "clash of civilizations." When its terrorists struck America in 2001, they seemed to confirm the Western world's worst fears about Islam.

Now the terrorists strike at Turkey. Why would Islamists kill Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan? As punishment, because Turkey sided with the US-led invasion of Iraq? But Turkey neither let foreign troops be stationed on its territory, nor did it send its troops into the war.

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Perhaps al-Qaeda's motive in targeting Turkey is to derail a Muslim nation from its progress toward joining the European Union? Not surprisingly, after the attacks Western leaders reaffirmed the urgency of bringing Turkey into the European fold.

But these questions miss a fundamental truth about Turkey. Much comment on Turkish society pays lip service to Turkey's unique place as a "bridge" between Islam and secularism, and between East and West. The problem with being the bridge, though, is that neither side--neither the "West" nor the "Muslim world"--considers Turkey fully one of its own.

Too Muslim for the West; too secular for the Muslims: over time, this dichotomy has been a source of weakness for Turkey, bringing successive national identity crises. In today's multicultural world, however, Turkey stands out as a genuinely multifaceted and complex unity of multiple identities.

The day after the second set of bombings in Istanbul, I took a taxi to the bombed British Consulate. The obvious topic of conversation as the horrors of the bombing, but the driver, while polite, was unresponsive. Perhaps it was just a matter of personality, or he may have been reflecting the shock and confusion that covered most of Istanbul after the blasts.

I spent some moments studying the cab. There were two stickers by the rearview mirror, standing side-by-side and sending seemingly contradictory messages. One read, "Hakimiyet Allah'indir," which roughly translates as "Allah rules" or "power belongs to Allah," a slogan that could be identified with Islamist sentiments. Right next to it, though, was the Turkish flag in duplicate--a central symbol of secular Turkish nationalism. Complicating the picture more was a third item: soft Western music on the car's radio.

Survey after survey show that most Turks believe in God and identify themselves as Muslims. But their adherence to Islam is illustrated by the example of a man I once saw at Muslim prayer in the ruins of the ancient Zeus temple in a small town on the Aegean coast. Clearly, this devout believer was overtaken by the sanctity of this pagan temple and was praying to his own God in the only way he knew. He saw no contradiction between his beliefs and the setting in which he expressed them.

This is what al-Qaeda, as well as purists in the West, can't understand about Turks: they do not feel they have to choose between being modern and being Muslim. In the days following the attacks in Istanbul, Turks across the board condemned this brutal violence: there was no (or only negligible) blame-the-victim sentiment toward Turkish Jews (or toward Israel) or toward the British and Americans, whose war in Iraq is extremely unpopular in Turkey.

At the same time, Turks did not turn against Islam, as though this killing could be justified by religion. Instead, they expressed sorrow for the victims (whether Jewish, Muslim, or British) and a firm commitment to Turkey's chosen path.

The terrorism of Turkey's Kurdish separatists had, in the past, caused great strife, due to numerous mistakes made in assessing and addressing the source of the problem. But the terrorist attacks in Istanbul are unlikely to generate a nervous reaction in restricting democratic rights.

If al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, it grossly miscalculated. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's reaction summed up the Turkish sentiment: "These bombs aim to destroy the peace and stability in our country. We will not change our course. If these bombings are meant to send a message, I will sweep it off and crush it under my feet."

The terrorists have picked the wrong fight. Indeed, even much of the Islamist political movement in Turkey has already made its choice in favor of democracy and universal human rights. When the Muslim world was thrown into confusion and disarray after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the democratic wing of the Islamist movement was working on a platform of legislative reforms it would propose for EU accession.

Turkey's "conservative democrats" in the Justice and Development (AK) Party came to power in the first election thereafter, in November 2002, and were quickly able to marginalize radical elements among both the Islamists and secularists.

In fact, the current AK Party government is the best placed to win the war against al-Qaeda in Turkey. While a secularist coalition, mixing apples and oranges, may have declared war against a broad front of Islamic tendencies, the government, with its moral authority among the Muslim majority in Turkey, will be able to isolate the violent fringe and drive it into oblivion. This would, perhaps, be the ultimate triumph of the Turkey's unique cultural model.