Combating Terrorism –and treating Turkey right

I paid a visit to the US Consulate in Istanbul recently. I’d heard about it, but this was my first visit to the new location. It’s an impressive building, if a little out of place, its stark minimalist architectural bulk rising over the modest apartment blocks and roadside stalls of backstreets Istinye.

The US Consulate in Istinye, Istanbul
I was reminded of the previous consular building in Şişhane, in the heart of the city’s old European district of Galata/Beyoğlu. Like its neighbours, it was a 19th century structure of the belle époque – built on a more human scale, considerably more accessible, and infinitely less intimidating than its modern replacement. Perhaps its best feature, as far as I was concerned, was the library, which was open to the public. In my early days in Istanbul, in the mid-90s, before the Internet created a research centre on my desktop, an English language library was a pearl without price.

There was another such library, a few hundred metres up the road near the Galatasaray High School, part of the facilities provided by the British Council, in their mission to bring the English language to nations in need. That one too has gone, both of them victims, not human, but sad losses nonetheless, of the terror that struck the Western world in the early years of the new millennium.  In addition to the suicide plane attacks in New York and Washington DC, there were bombings on public transport in Madrid and London. In Istanbul, two synagogues, the British Consulate and the headquarters of HSBC Bank were targeted.

The Istanbul buildings were high profile locations, and the dead included six Jewish people, as well as the British Consul-General himself. The HSBC Bank was an iconic new tower in a particularly public spot on a main thoroughfare in Istanbul’s financial district. The force of the explosion blew off most of the white marble and green glass that were a feature of the façade – and the denuded concrete skeleton remained a grim reminder of the attacks for nearly seven years.

It seemed that the terrorists had focused particularly on foreign nationals in Istanbul, so we can understand why the British and Americans were somewhat nervous. The Americans, in fact, had already moved four months earlier to their impregnable fortress some distance from the metropolitan heart of the city – which probably saved them from featuring among the targets. The British decided to stay where they were – no doubt reluctant to leave what must surely be one of the most expensive and desirable pieces of real estate in a city rich in such treasures. They did, however, take the precaution of building a seriously high wall around the perimeter of Pera House’s four hectares of elegant lawns and sculptured gardens.

The British Council had continued operating their library, English teaching and teacher training programmes from a conveniently located building in the historic area of Beşiktaş, beside the Bosporus. After the bombings, they moved across the road to the second floor of the five-star Conrad Hotel. I did visit them there once or twice, negotiating, with some difficulty, hotel security and a labyrinth of corridors – but I was not altogether surprised to hear that they had closed down their Istanbul operation, one assumes, from lack of suitably determined customers. I checked out their UK website recently, under the ‘What We Do’ heading, and I found this:

Creating international opportunities and building trust
The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide.
We call this cultural relations.
We have offices in more than 100 countries and territories and are active in many more.
Cultural, diplomatic and economic benefit for the UK
We create long-term relationships that provide cultural, diplomatic and economic benefit for the UK.
We provide access to the UK’s assets (language, arts, education and society), especially in big and emerging markets, as well as opportunities for millions of people to engage in global dialogue.
We are operationally independent from the UK government, which enables us to build trust on the ground in places and with people where relationships with our country, society and values are strained.
We place the UK at the heart of everything we do. We are working for the UK where it matters.

Well, clearly Turkey is not one of those one hundred countries where the British Council have an office, nor even one of the ‘many more’ in which they are particularly active. My attempts to locate them online turned up a PO Box in the Turkish capital, Ankara, an Istanbul telephone number, a web address that connects to the British Consulate (despite their ‘operational independence’), and a Google map with a flag which, on closer inspection, announces ‘This address does not belong to the British Council Istanbul office’.

Anyway, that’s the British Council, a non-profit-making, non-governmental organisation, with no particular obligation to risk life and limb in the establishment of cultural relations. But what about the British Government itself? Their diplomatic representatives in Istanbul used to hold an annual fete in the grounds of their palatial Beyoğlu Consulate to raise money for charitable causes. Tickets were sold at the gate on a Saturday in early summer. Hundreds of Turks and ex-pats took advantage of the opportunity to shop for second hand clothes and books, rummage for treasures at the white elephant stall, partake of tea and scones, and generally immerse themselves for a few hours in a moderately authentic English ambience. Sadly, no longer. The fete continues, but tickets must be purchased weeks in advance, from limited, user-unfriendly outlets, and the occasion these days hardly warrants the effort required.

Again, you may say, so what? The staff of a General Consulate have more important business than providing entertainment and cheap shopping opportunities for down-at-heel locals and itinerant back-packers.  But what business? There used to be an office attached to the Consulate which carried out passport renewal and visa-issuing services. After the bombing, these services were outsourced to a Turkish company whose premises were located across the Bosporus on the Asian side of the city. Last year I heard from an English colleague that even this minimal service had ceased. Check it out for yourself – British residents in Turkey are now required to apply to the United Kingdom’s Regional Passport Processing Centre in . . . Dusseldorf, Germany! I wonder what the Queen thinks about that as she celebrates her 60th year on the British throne. If she happens to pass by the churchyard of St Martins in Bladon, Oxfordshire, she may well hear the rattling of Winston Churchill’s bones as he stirs restively in his grave.

Nevertheless, you can understand the Brits wanting to stay. Pera House was purpose-built as the British Embassy in Istanbul in 1844, at a time when Queen Victoria’s Empire was well into its century of world domination. The Ottoman Empire was still staggering along, but undoubtedly under the contesting thumbs of the European Great Powers, all of which maintained grand ambassadorial palaces in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’[1]. You can appreciate their initial incomprehension and disbelief when the Turkish Nationalists emerged victorious from their War of Independence and declared the establishment of a new republic in 1923, with its capital in the dusty Anatolian town of Ankara, effectively side-lining the Ottoman Sultan and his government in Istanbul. We can perhaps imagine the European victors of the Great War growing increasingly frustrated as the fledgling republic stubbornly refused to collapse and disappear into a historical footnote.

So the Brits are still there, in that Beyoğlu palace, though heaven knows what they do. The Germans, the Russians and the French similarly maintain architectural reminders of their former imperial grandeur, although their ambassadors and associated staff have long since relocated to Ankara. Still, Istanbul remains by far Turkey’s largest city, its commercial, financial and historical heart, and continues to attract foreign companies and capital investment, huge numbers of short-term tourists and significant numbers of more serious travellers, financing their wanderings by selling their God-given gift of the English language to the EFL industry. There are even some of us who find the country and people so attractive that we elect to make a new life here. Clearly, then, there is a need for consular services. The Americans at least recognise this. Their Istinye fortress may be intimidating, and their demand for payment in Yankee dollars a little arrogant, but at least they provide a face-to-face service.

Now, you may think I’m being unnecessarily critical here. After all, as we noted above, there were four very unpleasant bombing attacks on foreign interests in Istanbul back in 2003, and the British Consul-General himself was killed. Of course the countries concerned will be wary of exposing their people to repeat attacks. It’s a natural response. However, let’s take a look at some statistics:

The final list of casualties in the Istanbul bombings totalled 57 dead and around 700 injured. Most of those killed and injured in the attacks, were, in fact, Turkish Muslims, despite the fact that the perpetrators were apparently Al Qaeda affiliates. Those numbers are comparable to the 2005 incidents in London, when bombs in the Underground and on a double-decker bus resulted in 52 deaths and approximately 700 injured. They are somewhat less than the toll in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which 191 died and 1800 were injured.

The September 11 attacks in the US resulted in 2996 deaths. I have not been able to find the number of injured persons, and I wouldn’t want to speculate. My purpose is not to compare or belittle the scale of grief and suffering caused by these terrorist attacks. What concerns me is that, generally, the response of governments to such events is a determination not to be intimidated, and to return to business as usual as soon as possible. The Assembly of Turkish American Associations records 27 attacks by Armenian terrorists on Turkish embassies and consulates abroad in the 1970s and 80s, in which 21 diplomats and other Turkish nationals were killed. As far as I am aware, the Turkish Government has continued to provide services to Turkish and foreign nationals in those cities.

I have lived in Istanbul for fifteen years, and I have travelled much in the rest of the country. I have to say that I feel safer on the streets of this city of thirteen million, than in my own hometown of Auckland, with a tiny fraction of the population. In no public toilet in Istanbul have I seen a box for the disposal of used syringes, such as are commonplace and unremarked in Sydney, Australia. As a high school teacher in New Zealand twenty years ago, I had to cope with students who would return to class after a lunch break spent convivially toking a joint in a distant corner of the playing fields. My Turkish students of the 21st century are refreshingly and touchingly innocent by comparison. Street crime can, of course, be a problem in certain parts of town, and sensible caution should be exercised in venturing down back streets in seedier areas – but race-based gangs are nowhere in evidence, and unruly public drunkenness is a rare sight.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Brits and the Americans. This is a dangerous part of the world. Every Turkish male is required to do a stint in the armed forces – and one look at a map of the region will be sufficient to understand why. Starting with Greece in the west, and working our way in a clockwise direction, we see Turkey’s adjoining neighbours as: Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Without even considering the Middle Eastern states, as recently as the 1980s, Bulgaria was ethnically-cleansing Muslim Turks; and the Greeks have never forgiven them for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Resentments run deep in this part of the world, and violence for the sake of religion, nationalism or political interests is an ever-present threat.

Democracy and internal security are goals to which (one hopes) we all aspire, but which exist nowhere in their purest forms. Undoubtedly, Turkey needs to work on issues of human rights, freedom of speech and equality of opportunity. At the same time, Western nations should recognise the value of Turkey as an outpost of genuine democratic aspiration and economic and political stability in a part of the world desperately in need of an example locals can identify with. Adhering to ancient prejudices of the Islamic and Turkic world as ‘other’, and treating Turkey as some kind of international pariah will, in the long run, have a negative impact on the West.

What can be done? As a New Zealand citizen, I feel like an honoured guest in Turkey. When I and my compatriots enter the country, we breeze through passport control and immigration without requiring any kind of visa or payment. When I see the hoops the NZ government requires Turks to jump through, even to visit as tourists, I feel more than a little shame. Especially when I see a wealthy young German, with a history of cyber-crime, welcomed with open arms. Some kind of reciprocal visa deal with Turkey would be nice gesture. The US Government might like to consider that accepting Turkish Liras as payment for consular services in Turkey will not unduly compromise their national security or international prestige. The British Government, for their part, might give thought to assisting or encouraging the British Council to re-establish library facilities in Istanbul – in the interests of fostering cultural relations.


[1] Constantinople –
City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924 
By Philip Mansel
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