Grief for Istanbul—and the Indifference that Followed

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This week, the “unimaginable” happened… yet again.  A small group of terrorists launched a vicious attack against civilians in a major metropolitan area… yet again.  Istanbul.

The visions of the carnage were unbearable, just as they were in Paris, Brussels, or the attack in Orlando last month.

But for me, this attack was perhaps more disturbing.

For one, it was personal.  I love Istanbul—a city that took hold of me at first glance and never let go.  It’s such a wonderful fusion of things, such as art, culture, food, and architecture.  It’s a place where all the different eras of its 2,500-year-old history are still vividly present… and constantly in communion with each other.  A mighty city that is literally rooted in both Europe and Asia, at the meeting point of Christianity and Islam.  It is a city of hopeful, forward thinking as well as the deep nostalgia as recounted by one of its most famous residents, the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk.  It is a city I could never get tired of.

A few years back, a friend casually asked if I had suggestions of a few things to see while in Istanbul—my response was a detailed, 23-point walking tour that I think both excited and vaguely terrified him.

And in my time there, I quickly realized it was a place where hospitality was taken seriously.  This was true everywhere in Turkey, but particularly so in Istanbul where people literally crossed the street to help you if you looked lost.

Given all this, its not surprising that the recent terrorist hit me hard.

But there was something else to this attack that made it feel particularly painful. Although the attacks in Paris and elsewhere were met with global concern and global support, the Istanbul attacks quickly faded into the background.  Few buildings were lit with the colors of the Turkish flag.  Facebook didn’t provide a temporary photo filter to overlay profile pics with the Turkish flag to show solidarity with Istanbul, as they had for Paris.  Public vigils were notable by their absence.  The Union of European Football Associations didn’t hold a moment of silence, as it had for other countries that were attacked, citing that Turkey had already been eliminated from the tournament.

This feels incredibly callous.

Yes, I recognize that we as a country have more—and deeper—ties to Paris than we do with Istanbul.  And I recognize that Turkey has been a historic enemy of Europe for many years.

But this attack deserves to be mourned and remembered.

A Facebook post that went viral after a deadly bombing in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, in March highlighted the disturbing reality that the outpouring of support in the wake of an attack in Turkey was significantly more muted than it was after the attacks in Paris or Brussels.

Author James Taylor asked readers to think about the victims being “people you see every day on your way to work, people just like you and I, normal, happy people.”

“These people are no different. They just happen to be Turkish,” he wrote.

He is absolutely right.

And there’s more. Turkey is a friend… and a good friend of ours.  It is key ally in NATO, and has also been a key ally in the fight over terrorism in the Middle East.  In fact, it’s at the front line of the fight with ISIL in Syria right now.  That is what makes this attack so portentous; Turkey could be drawn much more actively into the civil war in Syria, with serious ramifications for us all.

It is also important to remember that while Turkey, like every other country, has its share of problems and challenges, it represents something incredibly important—an Islamic country that has embraced democracy, has supported modernity, been an ally to Israel, and has served as a bridge Europe and the Middle East.  Turkey is literally the antithesis of ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.  It is the model of what we hope Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East should be like. We should be running to its aid.

So to the people of Istanbul, let me say that I share your grief.  I feel your suffering, and my heart goes out to you. And so do millions of people around the world.  You are not alone, and not alone in this fight.

You are not forgotten.

* * *

Allow me to share two musical selections that capture my feelings right now, drawn from the extraordinary album, Istanbul, by early music specialist Jordi Savall, which presents music from the Ottoman Imperial Court in from the early 1700s.  The first is a haunting lament by an Armenian composer that captures grief with heart-breaking eloquence:

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The second is perhaps more representative of Turkish music of the era—a gentle improvisation of great profundity:

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Again, to the people of Istanbul, we stand with you.

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Xochipilli

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4 thoughts on “Grief for Istanbul—and the Indifference that Followed

  1. Scott, I agree with you about the world and the U.S. reacting differently to the attack in Turkey vs. Paris or Brussels. And now we have a new attack, one of willful hostage-taking and killing. How will we mourn those people?

    While Turkey is indeed a much different country than most in the Middle East, in recent years, under Erdogan, it has become less democratic, with clamp downs on the media there, and especially on writers. Pamuk has been a target as well as others. While Turkey stands with us and our allies in the fight against terrorism, Turkey also has some things it needs to take care of in its own back yard as well regarding freedom and democratic processes. I wonder how a Kurd would respond to calling Turkey a democracy?

    I’ve never visited Istanbul. The photos of it that I’ve seen, and video record in movies, have shown it to be an unusual and beautiful city. I share your dismay about how the world has responded to the attacks on that city.

    Cinda

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    • Hi Cinda, I completely agree that under Erdogan Turkey has taken a few steps back—its democratic institutions have been, in my opinion, eroded… and tensions with Israel have sharpened (although I am pleased that that situation seems to be resolving). And while I understand the issues surrounding the Kurds (and for that matter, Greeks and Armenians, too), at this particular time I choose to focus on support and solidarity with the people of Istanbul.

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  2. Scott, I think the unfortunate difference in the US response between the Istanbul (and Ankara) attacks and the Paris and Brussels attacks comes down to something pretty basic and practical.

    It’s not just that we have more and deeper ties to Paris and Brussels. It’s that the anglophone news media has a much greater infrastructure already in place in Paris and Brussels than in Istanbul, and many more anglophone journalists speak and understand French than Turkish.

    So our media organizations can usually do ongoing coverage of the aftermath in Paris and Brussels without spending much money that they’re not already spending anyway.

    I don’t know, but I expect that German- and Dutch-language news media have been doing more ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the Istanbul attacks than ours has.

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