Istanbul and a further case of unjust narratives

HA Hellyer on how reactions to Istanbul attacks have been less hysterical than those to the Brussels attacks.

Family members of victims outside the Forensic Medical Centre in Istanbul on Wednesday. Emrah Gurel / AP Photo
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We were Brussels, we were Paris, but are we Istanbul? It’s not abundantly clear.

When the Paris attacks happened last year, leaders from around the world descended upon Paris for a massive photo opportunity, to express solidarity with the country. When Brussels was attacked, the world’s media focused on it with such dedication, rightfully so. Social media sites like Facebook created profile picture filters so that we could express our camaraderie with France. But earlier this week, terrorists stormed Istanbul’s main airport and it was palpably different.

There was no call for world leaders to fly to Istanbul to stand in unity with the Turkish people, and it is doubtful that there will be. Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1949, an associate member of the European Union since 1963, and a candidate country for full membership for almost 20 years. But though dozens were killed in this brutal attack, not even European allies descended upon Istanbul to make a statement in the face of this brutality.

True enough, a #PrayForTurkey hashtag flickered into life and gained some traction, but the response was more muted than those that marked similar events in Europe.

Had this attack taken place in London, for example, the response would have been very different. Even though the UK has, regrettably, voted to leave the EU, it is entirely likely European leaders would have travelled immediately to stand by the British prime minister’s side. Questions about the roots of ISIL ideology in Islamic teachings and suspicions that ISIL is Islamic would have been asked. But when terrorists attack a predominantly Muslim city, the response is rather different.

Turkish officials have declared that ISIL carried out the attack, which means an extremist group targeted Muslims during the month of Ramadan, one of the most sacred periods in the Islamic calendar.

The bitter irony is – it’s not the first time extremist Islamist terrorists have attacked Muslims.

ISIL makes waves any time it kills western non-Muslims – but their targets, by far, are other Muslims. The destruction they have wrought on Muslim communities worldwide far exceeds that which they visit upon non-Muslim communities; Islamic religious authorities have condemned them and the ideology they espouse.

Yet, the likes of ISIL still raise questions about Islam itself in large parts of the international conversation on terrorism. The famed American imam of Muhammad Ali’s funeral, Zaid Shakir of California’s Zaytuna Institute, repeated, yet again, the mainstream Islamic position against suicide (referring to suicide bombings in general) and the targeting of civilians – similar to hundreds of Islamic religious authorities around the world – but virtually no attention has been given to that. Hundreds of Islamic scholars have condemned ISIL – and yet we still ask if ISIL is Islamic.

If this attack had been on Europe one imagines there would have been commentary aplenty about the deepening “war of civilisations”, between at least a part of the Islamic world, and the West. Istanbul was attacked – a predominantly Muslim city – but that’s not the narrative.

Yes, it is recognised as terrorism – but the reaction is far different. The suspicion is that the attack on Istanbul doesn’t represent a civilisational attack at all – though it would have been considered as such if it were carried out elsewhere in Europe or in a predominantly European city.

The lack of consistency remains peculiar – and galls many in Muslim communities around the world, not least of which in Europe itself. The media is often blamed for disparity of focus – but that is only part of the story. Journalists and writers from a variety of outlets, western and otherwise, go to great efforts and take massive risks to get stories out of Syria, Iraq and other war zones. They try, often desperately, to raise alarm bells among their readers and people in positions of influence about the plight of those who suffer the most from ISIL, particularly refugees. But the unfortunate reality is that media editors don’t always respond with the attention such work deserves.

And the mistaken narrative continues. This isn’t a war between civilisations – it’s a war between barbarism and civilisations. The likes of ISIL aren’t targeting the West and non-Muslims — they are targeting everyone who does not uphold their warped view of the world. And when anyone of that everyone is targeted, we ought to give it the same attention, treat it with the same urgency, and ensure that no one is left behind as we move against this threat.

Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Centre for the Middle East in Washington, DC and at the Royal United Services Institute in London

On Twitter: @hahellyer