When a suicide bomber struck at the U.S. embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara last week, a strange thing happened in Istanbul: Nothing. No one seemed to care. No one was particularly surprised or outraged. No one had much to say.
It was odd. Istanbul is one of the protest capitals of the world. Barely a day goes by without some sort of march along the city’s historic Istiklal Caddesi. If it’s not Kurdish mothers condemning the war in the east that is killing their sons, it is communists dismayed by Turkey’s economic sellout to corporate interests. Sometimes the fascists come out, other times the secularists, and other times still, the Islamists. When Turks have something to say, they usually don’t hold much back.
The reticence this time around is puzzling. Perhaps people really don’t have much to say. Or maybe it’s fear: the perpetrator of the attack was a member of a radical leftwing group that in the past wreaked havoc in Turkey, a reminder of the devastating left-right clashes that shook Istanbul in the late 1970s. No one wants those days back. It may also be a pervading insensitivity to such violence: so much is happening in and around Turkey these days that a lone suicide bomber killing himself and one security guard, even at the entrance to the U.S. embassy, feels anti-climactic.
There’s no doubt that Turks have other things on their minds: a decade of unprecedented economic development has provided ample distraction from the mayhem unfolding around Turkey. Whether it’s the war to the south in Syria, the civil war against Kurdish separatists to the east, the political intrigues in Iran or the simmering war in Iraq, the perennial intrusion of geopolitical chaos into their lives, and the dizzying array of explanations for it, must be beginning to feel like old hat.
In the hours after the attack in Ankara, for example, friends and colleagues presented me with a half dozen possible scenarios for it. The first was, naturally, Islamist radicals, of which Turkey has its share and whose hatred of America is trope. Next came the deep state. This was a black flag operation carried out by members of the military, a colleague suggested, perhaps manipulating Kurdish separatists, or jihadists, to do the dirty work in an attempt to derail one of any number of government initiatives currently under way in Turkey, including peace negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the supposed Islamisation program of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The radical leftist theory also cropped up, the thesis of which cited a recent crackdown on the group that would eventually claim responsibility for the attack and the deployment of Stinger missiles near the Turkish border, an act of Imperialism on the part of America, according to the leftist narrative.
There were others also, some far-fetched, others merely a stretch. But the salient point was this: only in a country like Turkey could so many possibilities exist simultaneously.
Ultimately, the radical leftist theory was correct. But rather than providing clarity, finding the culprit only raises more questions. Is leftwing terrorism back in Turkey or are these the death throes of a spent force? Could the violent leftists collude with jihadists, as they have in the past, and create mayhem again?
“We have violent leftists in our country,” Utku Basar, a television journalist in Istanbul who has covered Turkey’s radical left, tells me. “We have Kurdish separatists and fascists. And now we have Syrian’s, some of whom happen to support the Assad regime and may be here to cause trouble. Do you think it’s any wonder that Turks just don’t want to think about it?”
Indeed, Turkey’s meteoric rise over the past decade on the word stage, both economically and politically, sits at the heart of a transformation Turks were perhaps not expecting, or ready for. Most simply want to bask in the glory of their nation’s resurgence. But in this neighbourhood, success does not come without consequences.
In Istanbul in particular, the burst of economic activity has attracted millions. The city’s population has mushroomed to somewhere around 15 million officially, though most experts put the actual number closer to 20 million. It is a seething cauldron of ethnicities and ideologies, attracting revolutionaries, exiles and the merely angry, in addition to the financially desperate.
A Turkish writer friend of mine put it to me this way: “It’s become such a complex mess around us that we’ve broken our existence down into easily digestible parts. The things we fear, we extract from the big picture and set aside. It’s simpler that way. But some day we will have to swallow those bitter pills.”
Not thinking about what could happen is a survival technique in a city like Istanbul, and much the same for the rest of Turkey. For the time being, the money is flowing. Roads are being built. Shopping malls are stocked with all of the latest gadgets. Life is good. So why worry about a suicide bombing every now and then?
Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer who lives in Istanbul and Islamabad.