Istanbul and Brussels; IS and Us

Reading Time: 4 minutes Saturday night, my partner and I were out in Izmir.

As Turkey’s third largest city – a bustling port with a deserved reputation for political, artistic and intellectual activity, with three universities and a population of four million people – Izmir is generally a lively night out.

But on Saturday, we walked through almost deserted streets, past bars which were largely without customers, and many more which had closed early or not opened at all.

We headed to a cocktail bar where we know the owners and staff, a place we had never seen less than full and where live music plays several nights a week.

It was almost empty. In one corner, a couple shivered over bottles of beer, and close to the door, the owners, some staff and friends sat, transfixed, eyes on the bar’s TV screen.

They nodded, murmured hellos, and turned back to the national news.

Earlier that day, a member of IS had blown himself up on Istiklal Caddesi, a busy shopping street in Istanbul. Mehmet Ozturk, a man from Gaziantep, Turkey, killed five people – including three Israelis and an Iranian – and injured 36 more.

It’s perhaps worth noting here that in the last two years, I have spent a fairly large amount of time in Turkey, for a combination of work and personal reasons.

Apart from Izmir, I’ve spent most time in Ankara, Istanbul and Gaziantep, and Istanbul has fast become one of my favourite cities on Earth.

Istiklal Caddesi is sometimes described as its ‘Oxford Street’. It’s a fair comparison – a major shopping street where people visit for the day out almost as much as to actually buy anything – but it’s actually rather more than that.

Because as well as containing major branches of international chain stores, Istiklal is a pedestrian arcade also lined by restaurants, bars, nightclubs.

At one end, it tapers into a much smaller street containing offbeat independent shops, arts and crafts centres. Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are both more impressive, and the Grand Bazaar is a day out in itself, but Istiklal is at the heart of modern Istanbul, and it is one of the major reasons why, every time I visit Turkey, I try to convince my partner we should head to the city.

I had tried to persuade her we should be there that Saturday, in fact – though this is not a note on ‘how I escaped the Istiklal outrage’: there was never any serious possibility we would actually go.

I’d been in Turkey a little over three weeks, and it’s astonishing and horrendous to note that I’d already had to watch in horror as a place I knew in a city I had visited many times – that time on Ataturk Bulvari, Kizilay, Ankara  – was the centre of a bombing designed to kill innocent men, women and children.

That attack, on 13th March, killed 37 people and injured 125. The Kurdish terror group TAK – analogous to the Real IRA in Northern Ireland – claimed responsibility.

At first, it seemed most likely that the Istiklal attack, too, had been carried out by Kurdish separatists – if only because IS had almost literally nothing to gain by a strike on Istanbul. It had already created chaos in Turkey by restarting the Turkish/Kurdish conflict, and Turkey is remote enough to most Europeans (mentally, if not geographically) that hitting Istanbul is unlikely either to encourage large numbers of new recruits or strike fear into the hearts of EU states.

As it turned out, of course, this was a single-handed attack, carried out by a man trained by IS, but without co-ordinated planning from the terror group itself.

Yesterday, a series of very different attacks took place in Brussels. At least 31 people were killed and 222 injured in bombings at the city’s airport and Maelbeek metro station, close to the EU’s Brussels headquarters. This was not the act of a ‘lone wolf’ but an organised and co-ordinated operation (though there is equally no evidence that IS planned the attack centrally – it is at least as likely that those responsible were, as in the November attacks on Paris, locally-recruited and acting on a plan they had formulated themselves).

But despite the differences between them, both attacks display the sheer disregard by IS for human life. Those targeted in Istanbul and Brussels were simply people attempting to live an ordinary life; shopping or travelling. They had committed no crime, crafted no policy of war, terror or destruction, and posed no threat to anyone. Yet they were slaughtered regardless.

Nor were either ‘religious’ strikes. It is tempting, from a European perspective, to regard the Brussels attacks as an attempt to strike ‘Europe’, ‘the West’, or ‘Christianity’, but the Istanbul attack – as the attack on Beirut just one day before the Paris strikes in November last year – proves that not to be the case. It was on a major city in which the vast majority of people are Muslims.

Despite its name, Islamic State does not act for Islam. It acts solely for Islamic State, in its own interest, and nobody else’s.

IS’ major enemy is not ‘the West’, it is everyone: everyone who does not belong to IS is its enemy, whether those people are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. Indeed, more than 96 per cent of all those killed by IS or its members have been Muslims.

This is not a ‘war between civilisations’, between ‘cultures’ or ‘religions’. It is a series of attacks by a small band of maniacs, who have no aim less tawdry and squalid than owning a state in which they can oppress and terrorise people, while making as much money as possible.

It is why we can all state ‘Ben Istiklal’, ‘Ik Ben/Je Suis Brussel’, ‘Anna Beirut’, ‘Je Suis Paris’. Those things are all true.

But we are also all far more than that.

Whatever our religion (including none at all), or race or our nationality, we can all remember that there are a few thousand people on Earth who are members of IS, and that apart from them, there is us – almost seven billion people, united and together, who cannot and will never be overcome by it.

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