Anti-Turkey Bullswool

My New Zealand diplomatic people in Ankara send me regular updates on how they view the security situation in Turkey. Recently I got this one:

‘We now advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk). This is an increase to the risk level for Ankara and Istanbul.’

On 9 April 2016, the US Embassy in Ankara advised US citizens of credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya.

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While in Brussels don’t forget to ride the Metro

So if you had been thinking of a trip to Turkey in the near future, you may now be reconsidering. On the other hand, Auckland’s number one (and only) newspaper, The NZ Herald, published a travel advisory on 23 March entitled ‘Why you need to visit Belgium’. The piece begins:

‘We love Belgium. This week’s terror attacks in Brussels have cast a pall over a beautiful country.

The best thing Kiwi travellers can do? Put Belgium on the list for your next European visit. Here are five reasons to visit the home of Tintin and great chocolate.’

Well, I’m ok with The Herald’s position here. In fact, the best response to terror is to get on with your life and not bow to the fear. I do, however, find the contrasting advice somewhat paradoxical. Especially given the rather limited list of attractions the writer offers to recommend Belgium:

Apparently the food is great, though specifics boil down to chocolate, waffles and hot chips! There’s a comic culture, and it’s not just about Tintin! Beer is plentiful and available in 1,000 varieties. There are lots of markets, and Christmas time is especially lovely. AND THE CLINCHER . . . There are 67 kilometres of coastline! That’s about the same length as Auckland’s Muriwai beach, in the entire country!

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Picturesque Belgian beach

The whole glowing article took 435 words – approximately the number of people you can expect to rub shoulders with per square metre of beach, I’d say, during Belgium’s month-long summer. My guess is, if you don’t have local friends to entertain you, you’ll be lucky to last a week. I’m not going to begin to list the attractions of Turkey. I reckon you could spend 435 days here, and do something memorably different every day.

Sadly, Western news media everyday publish ‘news’ and opinion pieces denigrating Turkey and its government. I have in front of me a page from CNN’s website penned by a Turkish academic and follower of the shadowy ex-pat. Fethullah Gülen. It’s not so long ago that Gülen was arousing much suspicion in his adopted homeland, America, and was the evil bogeyman of Turkey’s secular elite. In the last couple of years, however, there has been an about-face, and the mysterious Muslim cleric seems to have become the darling of anti-government propagandists within the country and abroad. We hear the same criticisms repeated again and again:

President Erdoğan is polarizing Turkish society.

In fact, a noisy minority of Erdoğan-haters has been doing its best to polarize Turkish society since the AK Party was elected to govern in 2002.

The state cracked down brutally on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, and holding public protests has become a life-risking activity.

Political protests in Turkey have always been known for violence. The so-called Gezi Park protests attracted a motley collection of anti-Erdoğanists with nothing in common other than their hatred of him. Some of the protesters may have been well-meaning tree-huggers, but there was the usual hard core of anarchic vandals.

The government is waging a war of terror on peace-loving Kurdish villagers.

The AK Party government made genuine efforts to work out a peace process with its Kurdish minority, including the establishment of Kurdish-language TV channels and the opening of a previously impossible dialogue. The US government, on the other hand, has been supporting and supplying Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria for years for its own ends, making it more difficult to find a solution in Turkey. The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization.

Opposition media and members of parliament are harassed by the government and its supporters.

Political opposition to government policies is one thing – libelous personal attacks and deliberate incitement to violence quite another. Freedom has its limits.

Erdoğan has been seeking to change the constitution to create an all- powerful, executive-style presidency.

This is what the United States already has. But anyway, Mr Erdoğan can’t change the constitution by himself. There is a democratic process that must be followed. The USA might benefit from public debate on its own incomprehensible electoral system.

Reporters Without Borders call Turkey “the biggest prison for journalists in the world.”

This is nonsense. Who are these journalists that are in prison? Can we see a list of names?

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Memories of Turkey’s 1980 military coup linger on

The writer of this article, Alp Aslandoğan, says: ‘I was a middle school student in the 1970s during another period of instability, when armed groups thrived and thousands of young people were killed. I’m even more worried for Turkey now.’

I would wonder what a 12-year-old child of a privileged Turkish family really understood of the political chaos that reigned in his country in the 1970s; chaos that began with a military coup in 1960 when the Prime Minister was summarily hanged by the coup-leaders, and continued through the 1990s until the most recent military intervention in 1997. Anyone who says that Turkey is less democratic now is either ignorant of his (or her) own history, or deliberately distorting the facts for some ulterior purpose. ‘Thousands of young people were killed’ then – and it’s worse now?

Then there are the accusations of government corruption. Even if these accusations had been proven, which they haven’t, they would pale into insignificance beside previous governments that twiddled their thumbs while presiding over decades of banana-republic inflation, as they allowed 90% of the country to languish in medieval backwardness.

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Not everyone loves him either

Like me, you may have been following with interest the current scandal unfolding as a result of the ‘Panama papers’ leaks. One of my foreign colleagues, outspoken critic of Turkey’s AKP government, expressed surprise that Mr Erdoğan and his people had not been mentioned as involved in this ocean of money-laundering and tax evasion. British Prime Minister Cameron, however, has been named, and is facing calls to resign from his own citizens and local media.

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New Zealand police dealing with protester

New Zealand, it seems, is one of the countries recommended by lawyers Mossack Fonseca to their mega-rich clients as a reliable place to hide cash. Prime Minister John Key has made no secret of his grand scheme to turn our tiny nation into the Switzerland of the South Pacific. And what exactly does that entail? Mr Key has made a name for himself over the past year for his sponsorship of a project to change NZ’s flag, pushing ahead with referenda despite apparent lack of public support. Just yesterday it emerged that much of the financial backing for Mr Key’s questionable project came from ‘wealthy Chinese donors’ wooed at secret private fund-raising luncheons – which must surely raise speculation as to how much the NZ PM’s political success depends on those same wealthy Chinese donors. Despite his government’s repeated denials, it seems certain that the property boom making Auckland houses amongst the world’s most unaffordable, has been driven by rich Chinese ‘investors’.

Another frequent criticism leveled at Turkey’s government is that they are ‘Islamic-rooted’, whatever that means. So it was with interest that I read on Friday that Democratic presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, beloved of the American intellectual Left, has accepted an invitation from Pope Francis to attend a conference in the Vatican just four days before the New York Primary. According to NBC, ‘Since 1972, the winner of the popular vote in every presidential race won the Catholic vote, going by the exit polls. From Nixon in 1972 to Obama in 2012.’ And what has the Catholic Church got to say about a woman’s right to choose? Anyone? Anyone?

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Bernie Sanders – friends in high places

So don’t expect too much from President Sanders, is my advice, even if he does manage to edge out Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination – and whichever capitalist ignoramus the Republicans select. Previous darling of the liberal Left, Barack Obama, has had eight years to close Guantanamo Prison as he promised – and those unconvicted inmates are still waiting. On Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that “civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been” in past U.S. drone strikes, but said the administration is now “very cautious” about striking where women or children are present. Good to hear – especially for those families of civilians killed in previous US drone strikes. Mr Obama went on to say, “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately.” As far as I’m aware, however, the United States has not actually declared war on any of those countries whose citizens they are killing with drone strikes. But maybe that’s just a semantic quibble.

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Not the only beach in Turkey – and five months of summer

Anyway, what I really want to say here is, if you were thinking of a trip to Turkey, don’t be put off by the bad publicity. If you’re American, you or your children are probably more likely to be shot by a disaffected nutcase in a random massacre; or if you’re an Asian in New Zealand, to get mugged on the street by young hooligans. It’s a dangerous world – but Turkey is a beautiful country. There may not be a thousand varieties of beer, but there are a thousand-and-one other things to do.

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The War on Terror – Could we possibly try a different approach?

You find a good deal of unadulterated donkey droppings in most of the mainstream media these days on the (in their view at least) related topics of terrorism, Islam and the Middle East. So it was with feelings of surprise and relief that I chanced upon a balanced and insightful piece in our very own New Zealand Herald, beloved daily rag of my hometown Auckland.

asymmetric-by-ted-rallRichard Jackson, deputy director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago (nice to see that some universities manage to fund departments that probably don’t attract a huge amount of commercial sponsorship!), was speaking with a Herald reporter, Scott Yeoman. Mr Jackson said he was expecting more terrorist attacks on Europe and the rest of the world so long as world leaders continued to respond in the predictable and clearly unsuccessful ways they have been doing over the past fifteen years (and maybe longer). These responses include increasing security, intensifying military attacks on areas of the world where we think the terrorism is coming from, increasing restrictions on civil liberties, increased surveillance and the targeting of Muslim communities, and the introduction of “draconian” legislation’‘the only thing that has achieved,’ he said, ‘is more terrorism.’

Well, it’s not an original observation, but good on Richard Jackson for doing his best to keep the message out there in the public eye. We don’t hear so much these days about asymmetrical warfare – but it’s a concept we would do well to keep in mind. It’s fine and dandy for American Presidents to sound off about the cowardly nature of terrorist attacks – but when those presidents have the technology and the shameless gall to assassinate foreign citizens in their own countries without declaring war; and bombing those countries back to the Stone Age if they dare to object, it’s pretty clear that face-to-face combat in the traditional sense is only going to have one result. Check out what happened to Iraq after George Dubya’s ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ in 2003 if you have any doubts.

Despite George the Son’s continued belief in the righteousness of his nation’s actions, there are undoubtedly Iraqi citizens who believe just as strongly that they have grounds for taking revenge. Possibly some Afghans too, one or two Iranians and Palestinians, possibly a few Egyptians . . . who knows? They may even feel strongly enough to wrap some explosives around their waist and blow themselves to a better world, taking a few others with them. Even if we can’t see the logic in such actions, we should attempt to understand the desperation that drives human beings to such extreme measures. You may remember that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ got under way in December 2010 when a young man in Tunisia torched himself in protest at his country’s dictatorial government. I can’t imagine the anger, frustration and helplessness that drove 26 year-old Muhamed Bouazizi to immolate himself in public – and I hope to God I never have to find out.

Asymmetrical-WarfareWhy should we try to understand these people? Simply because, as Richard Jackson points out in the interview, it is extremely difficult to defend against attack by a human bomb, who doesn’t care if he/she lives or dies.

Sad to say, the overwhelming signals we get on mainstream news media, and from Presidential hopefuls in the lead-up to the US election later this year is that the message is not getting through. I’m not going to waste words addressing the mindless outpourings of billionaire Donald Trump. Even Republican Party members in the USA seem to be having doubts about the wisdom of turning him loose in the Oval Office.

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I’m warnin’ that Ayatollah Khomeini!

But who’s Number Two for the GOP? I was astounded to read reports of a speech by Ted Cruz where he asserted that, as president, he would rip up the Iran nuclear deal ‘on day one’. ‘Hear my words Ayatollah Khomeini,’ he is reported as saying, ‘if I am president and Iran launches a missile test, we will shoot that missile down.’ Now that’s scary! Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah’s government, actually departed this world in 1984. Admittedly his replacement, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, has a surname that, to the ordinary culturally-deprived US citizen, may look confusingly similar – but political hopefuls aspiring to leadership of the free world have had 32 years to sort out the difference. After all, we lesser mortals are expected to distinguish between Teddy and Franklin D Roosevelt; not to mention the George Bushes, father and son. How difficult is it? At least those Iranian guys have plenty of other first names, and we don’t have to focus on a ‘Dubya’. Thank heavens Hillary Clinton is a woman, or we’d have serious problems.

While we’re on the subject of Iran, I see in the news that a young citizen of the world, Reza Zarrab, has been arrested in the United States on charges related to the evasion of US sanctions against that country. The actual charges specify money-laundering and bank fraud – but there can be little doubt about the real reason the US government is pursuing yet another foreign national (think Julian Assange, Kim Dotcom).

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So, whose criminal is he, exactly?

Interestingly, anti-government fanatics in Turkey have apparently taken to their beloved social media offering rewards to the American judge who refused bail to Mr Zarrab. Well, it’s not easy to find out what’s actually going on in the world these days, if it ever was, with all the conflicting stories. Certain background information, however, seems to me necessary for an understanding of this business. First, those trade sanctions were imposed in 1979 after an Islamic revolution overthrew the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had been re-installed 27 years earlier by a CIA-sponsored coup d’état. Oil-poor, NATO stalwart Turkey especially suffered economically from those sanctions, which they had loyally and selflessly supported for 30 years. There have been suggestions that Turkey’s AK Party government was involved in shady dealings with Mr Zarrab – but of course, if those dealings were aimed at evading morally questionable US trade sanctions, they would, of necessity, have been conducted out of the public eye – and would have required transactions in some medium other than US dollars.

Julian Assange extradition

Wonder if the US administration has considered a drone strike to take him out

Well, I have neither the time not the interest to pursue further the case of Mr Zarrab. I would like to turn briefly, however, to another surprising news item: the announcement by Russian President Putin that he would be withdrawing his military forces from Syria. Russian planes have been bombing the bejabers out of Syrian opposition troops that have been waging a civil war for five years against President-for-Life, Bashar al Assad. Now, I have mixed feelings about Vladimir Putin – but you can’t deny that the guy does what he thinks best for his country. In this case, he apparently felt the need to make a point that no one has the right to overthrow a country’s government other than the citizens of that country themselves – and it’s hard to dispute that, whatever arguments United States administrations may advance to the contrary. You assassinate Saddam Hussein, and what do you get in his place?

But I began with the subject of terrorism, and to that subject I wish to return. Another rumour the anti-government gossip-mongers in Turkey have been putting about lately is that Mr Erdoğan and his people are somehow working with the terrorists. They claim that they knew about the recent bombing in Ankara, but did nothing to prevent it. Which begs the obvious question: why would a democratically elected government connive in the murder of its own innocent citizens? I know some Americans believe George W Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks – but can he really have been that evil? In fact, it seems that Turkish police were expecting an attack on the Prime Ministerial HQ in Ankara, and turned back a suspicious-looking vehicle – whereupon the occupants decided to cut their losses and detonate. More plausible, at least to anyone not totally committed to blackening the AK Party government.

More interesting, it seems to me, is the news that two cabinet ministers in the Belgian government offered their resignations after it was announced that Turkey had arrested and deported a DAESH militant who turns out to have been one of the suicide bombers involved the March 22 attacks. Turkey had done its job, as requested by EU countries, to turn back militants trying to cross into Syria. They had returned Brahim El Bakraoui to his country of origin, with a warning that he was a militant, and apparently he had also ‘broken terms of his parole from a nine-year sentence for armed robbery’. In spite of Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens’ admission that ‘we missed it’, his boss, Prime Minister Charles Michel, has decided not to accept the resignations.

I would have thought that, in the circumstances, ordinary Belgians would be baying for the resignation of PM Michel – but on the contrary, it seems that everyone is full of sympathy. Not much sympathy for Turkey, however, I gather. The tourism sector has already been hard-hit by Russia’s decision to keep its citizens at home in their frozen wasteland rather than allow them to take their customary shopping trips to Istanbul, or sunshine breaks on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast; and European warnings that Turkey is now a dangerous place for its citizens to visit.

Not only tourists, it seems. On Wednesday the Dutch government announced that it was ‘temporarily’ closing its consulate-general in Istanbul because of a ‘possible terror threat’. Well, pardon me for saying, I think that’s pretty pathetic! I would expect high-level foreign diplomats to show a little more backbone – especially when nothing’s actually happened to them yet. Turkey’s own diplomatic HQs abroad were targeted in a sustained campaign of terror by Armenian fanatics in the 1970s and 80s – but as far as I know the Turks toughed it out, and kept their offices open.

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Nice place! Wonder what they do there all day?

Still the Dutch are following a precedent set by the Brits in the early years of the millennium. After a couple of bombings in Istanbul in 2003, in which their own consul-general was unfortunately killed, the Brits built an impenetrable wall around their palatial consulate, and permanently ceased carrying out any of the normally expected consular services: visa issue, passport renewal, etc. I’m curious to know what they do there these days. The British Council, purveyors of English language teaching to benighted heathen the world over, also closed their Turkish operation in sympathy, leaving the Turks to get on with the job in their own inimitable fashion.

Well, at least the Turks retain their sense of humour. A couple of local newspapers, possibly in retaliation, advised their readers, I assume with tongue in cheek, ‘Don’t go to Europe’. But as far as I am aware, Turkey’s embassy in Brussels remains open for business.

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