Warning Sign

Anti-Semitism is only a partial explanation for the bombings in Istanbul.


The facts of Saturday’s attacks on two synagogues in Istanbul were obvious enough: 24 dead, Muslims and Jews; more than 300 people injured. Less clear are the motivation for the ghastly truck bombings and the identity of those responsible, though the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group inspired by or connected with Al Qaeda, quickly claimed authorship.

Though more Muslims than Jews were killed in the attacks, they were clearly intended to send an anti-Jewish message. Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, immediately flew to the crime scene and blamed the attacks on anti-Semitism, and linked them to the firebombing of a Jewish secondary school in Paris.

“The attacks in Istanbul and Paris are not isolated incidents, they are symptoms of growing anti-Semitism. When Jews cannot pray in synagogues without fear, we are all in danger. Europe has a moral obligation to make sure anti-Semitism is stamped out.”

Granted, anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, but Shalom’s response obscures the vastly different political climates in France and Turkey.

Turkey, uniquely a secular Muslim Nation, lies at the crossroads between East and West. While Turkish democracy has not always cared for its minorities — as the Kurds will attest — Jews, 20,000 of whom live in Turkey, have enjoyed a peaceful co-existence with their Muslim neighbors.

Anti-Semitism is not the whole story here. Turkey’s secularism and special relationship with the United States and Israel are of no small concern to militant Islamists. Shalom was quick to link the attacks in France and Turkey but omitted to mention the recent Al Qaida attack in Saudi Arabia, which left 18 Arabs dead.

The U.S. has struggled for the support from the Muslim world in the war on terror, with one qualified exception: Turkey. The Turkish government, if not the public, has been anxious to help out in Iraq, pledging to send 100,000 troops. The Iraqi Governing Council of course nixed the idea, but Turkey won points for effort. And Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, in 1949. Diplomatic relations between the two states have warmed up since the Israeli-Palestinian peace process began in the early 1990s, and the two states have developed a close relationship, which, to the dismay of other Arab nations, extends to joint military exercises.

K. Gajendra Singh, writing in Asia Times, points out that many see the attacks as a warning sign for Turkey not to get too close to Israel and the U.S.

“Many Turkish experts suspect that the twin bombings were a warning to Turkey, one of the few Muslim countries to have ties with Israel. This secular country has seen a surge in support for Islamic sentiments and parties, as elsewhere. Public opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq played a major role in Turkey’s parliament refusing the US request in March to open a second front into Iraqi Kurdistan in the north by using Turkish soil.

The blasts could be an act of revenge for the daily killings of Palestinians and the Israelis building a much-opposed wall that encroaches on Palestinian land. Such attacks would please Muslims and earn the goodwill of angry and frustrated Muslim youth all over the world, and attract many of them to their cause. It also sends a very stern warning to Turks to keep out of Iraq.”

Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, is likely to retain strong relations with the U.S. and Israel, on the assumption, as the Washington Post editorializes, that the fight is ultimately not about Jews or Muslims, but the political future of the entire Middle East.

“Al Qaeda also claims credit for some of the recent bombings of international targets in Iraq, and its statements continue to threaten a global war against the United States, Israel and the West. But by turning its bombs on Muslims in places such as Riyadh and Istanbul, the movement has effectively confirmed President Bush’s assertion earlier this month that the war on terrorism is also a battle over the political future of the Middle East. The president committed the United States to pursuing a democratic transformation of the region, beginning in Iraq. Al Qaeda’s ideology calls for the overthrow of the Saudi dynasty and other Muslim governments in favor of a regional Islamic dictatorship. Its actions are those of a movement whose fundamental purpose has been threatened.”

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