The recent terrorist outrages in Istanbul, Turkey, have opened up a new front in the war against terrorism. Turkey, a key U.S. ally and the only Muslim member of NATO, has suffered attacks that threaten to damage its already fragile economy and derail its ongoing political reforms. There is every reason to believe that more attacks are on the way. For all the fine, immediate reaction rhetoric about drawing closer together, Turkey could take the wrong path. What is needed is a real strategy of support from Turkey’s allies in the United States and the EU exceeds words and that ensures that the terrorists are fought effectively and not at the cost of Turkey’s pro-Western orientation.
The suicide bomb attacks of Nov. 15 and Nov. 20 pose a serious challenge to the secular and democratic nature of the Turkish state and its external relations. The terrorists, who were without doubt linked to al-Qaeda, selected their targets on the basis of their perverted ideology. The imagined grievances that animate radical Islam are used to justify the raw anti-Semitism of attacking two synagogues on November 15. The bombs aimed at British interests on November 20 will be interpreted as some form of twisted protest against Britain’s role in Iraq. In reality, the radicals viscerally hate Britain for its supposed role in dividing up the Islamic Middle East into different states in the aftermath of the First World War and for supposedly abandoning the Muslims of Kashmir.
What is too often unappreciated is that al Qaeda loathes the Turkish Republic because it was founded on the ruins of the Islamic theocracy that was the Ottoman Empire. The sultan, who ruled from Istanbul, was both a head of state and the theoretical leader of the world’s Muslims, the caliph. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, formally abolished the caliphate in 1924 and ended the role of sharia (Islamic law), to the widespread dismay of Muslim clerics at the time. Today’s Islamic radicals want to restore the caliphate and impose the sharia on what they regard as the dismayingly secular Turkish society created by Ataturk.
The current Turkish government, which has a clear Islamic tilt, recognizes the depth of the ideological challenge from the terrorists. Indeed, the Islamic roots of the ruling Justice and Development Party mean that it could be well positioned politically to fight off the extremists.
As Paul Wolfowitz has said, the battle between radical and moderate Islam is one that only Muslims can fight. The statement by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — “those who bloodied this holy day (a reference to Ramadan) and massacred innocent people will account for it in both worlds ? these people will be damned until eternity” — shows that he is willing to fight the terrorists with their own Islamic theology. Mr. Erdogan knows that he must consistently undercut any notion that terrorism can be theologically justified or excused.
Yet ,the danger lies not only in the threat but also in the response. Turkey could end up winning its war against al Qaeda by losing its way, damaging its democracy, using tactics that will alienate its U.S. ally and thwart its chances of EU membership. Just as we cannot afford to lose in the new Iraq, so we dare not even consider failure in Turkey.
Turkey has an ambiguous counterterrorism record. Too often fire has been fought with fire, without regard to the political ramifications. The wave of political violence of the 1970s was ended by a military coup and the suspension of civil liberties. The battle against Kurdish separatist terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s left a legacy of torture, intimidation, burnt down villages and hundreds of thousands of refugees that continue to haunt Turkey’s bid to join the EU.
A similarly heavy-handed response now could easily strengthen the radicals politically even while it inflicts short-term damage on them operationally. Those who argue that “the war on terrorism is a war on Islam” would have their beliefs validated by any security forces rampage. Those in the EU who seek any, and every excuse, to exclude Turkey from their club will cite human rights abuses resulting from counter terrorism as yet more evidence that Europe’s largest Muslim country cannot meet their supposedly high standards.
What is needed then is a working, trilateral alliance that allows Turkey to fight terrorism with both the support and guidance of the US and EU. All three can take coordinated action against the radicals who attack in Turkey, organize from Germany and raise funds in the United States. The EU can contribute the economic assistance that Turkey will so desperately need, the United States the technology and organizational skills that it alone has, while Turkey, simultaneously part of Islam and the West, can fight the war of ideas from within.
Zeyno Baran, Director of International Security and Energy Programs, The Nixon Center and Andrew Apostolou, Director of Research, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.