Having lived in both countries, the reaction to Terrorism in Belgium and Turkey are markedly different.
When my flat was blown up in Istanbul, I learned some valuable lessons about the Turks. Even in the midst of chaos, there is order. It is as if an invisible site manager takes over and steps through the debris, car wrecks and body parts with a clipboard. Efficiency wins the day, any day.
What a difference a hop in the time machine makes, and what a tidal wave a week is in the terrorism business. If we are to believe the reports and “experts,” then the recent suicide bombings in Ankara and Istanbul have left the Turks “nervous” and “in a panic.” The Republic of Turkey, regional super power and secular, truncated remnant of one the most stupendously wealthy, greatest and powerful Islamic Empires in the world, is “helpless.” This vital NATO member in the vortex of internal and regional overlapping security crises, the buffer between Europe and the Middle East and the messy beyond, will bring the house down – our house, in our street – Europe!
I don’t believe it. If there is one superimposed image from that Godless day, November 20, 2003, it is not panic, but the lack of it. The Disney sky turned a dense charcoal grey and was spiked with blue and orange flashlights. A young man from al-Qaida (remember them?) drove a truck packed with explosives through the gates of the British Consulate. Our building was opposite and my desk looked out over the magnificent English gardens. I was out, running errands nearby. While I picked up the dry cleaning, 30 people died, including the Consul-General, and 400 were injured. The Consul’s lap dog survived; it was carried out of the rubble by a firefighter. That dog! It was the stuff of action movies. The picture was worldwide front-page news.
Then this: out of the fog stepped a little man in overalls with a broom. It was Cengiz, the man from the municipality in charge of the flower beds. While the victims were carried off, Cengiz was sweeping the street. Then he handed out fags to passers-by, listening to the monologues of shock.
A “nervous” Cengiz makes no sense. Cengiz is a popular boy’s name from folk hero Gengiz Khan, who’s Mongol Empire gave Turkish nationalism (and Pan-Turkic sentiments) its mascot, the Grey Wolf. Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” – the “father of the modern republic” – gave it a new Constitution, borrowing heavily from the French and the Belgian, but he kept the Grey Wolf. The Americans and NATO like it, because Turkey’s Grey Wolf is the only match for the Russian Bear, and that is oddly reassuring these days.
Turkey is a country of systems, statistics and planning boards. Office phones are answered within two rings (that’s a rule!). During the population census, civil servants even trek into the slums with clipboards. Turkey’s slums are administered by the State, like street markets and parking meters. The concept dates from the days of Empire and is still covered by an old Ottoman law: if you can build a roof, any roof, overnight, you have the right to reside on (public) land and the state must provide services like running water, electricity, garbage collection, even schools. There are still some old Ottoman laws in place in the former imperial provinces, including Israel.
It is like learning to see in the dark. Things work. Things get done. This Turkish efficiency goes to unsettling lengths. Even the brothels are State-run, with civil servants and, usually, next door to a mosque. Practical. It is the State as a pimp, with a clipboard. Critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan call him an autocrat, accusing him of trying to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. They overlook a detail: when Erdogan was (a very popular) mayor of Istanbul he tackled the menace of porn magazines, not by banning them, but by having them covered in Islamic green plastic sleeves. Perhaps a degree of wishful thinking is at play and Turkey is scared?
For anyone following recent events from afar, it must seem as if Europe is in meltdown. The flames are licking its heels. The End Game has begun. Next stop: the abyss. Terrorism comes with its own narrative and mood, but it is fair to say that once suicide bombings move from “over there” (as Edward Said put it) to Europe, the more apocalyptic the language.
Europeans have the talent for forever extending their lease on innocence. On the continent of war, they suffer from the Alice in Wonderland-syndrome.
We have had every superlative in the book. Pendulums have swung; so have temperatures, and those who know their Dante have shown off with “infernos.” (Note: the plural, as if one inferno is not enough.) Dark minds predict World War III or some Hobbesian scenario, which is basically deeply awful, total civil unrest, with even the dogs at war with each other. Hobbes warned that in the absence of proper rule, man returns to a “state of nature.” It is what he calls the beginning of time, the Cain and Abel story. (He describes this in detail in Leviathan Xiii, 11 – the Latin version only.)
But where does that leave us now? Post-Paris and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the (not so nice) satirical magazine and its café society, France has turned into a version of the Bourne Ultimatum. President Francois Hollande simply declared war, ignoring Napoleon’s advice to “Never declare war until you have your troops ready.” The enemy turns out not to be from “over there,” but the boys next door. The Paris bombers were Belgian citizens, petty criminals and dope fiends, from a sink neighbourhood under the cigar smoke of Brussels’ corridors of power. The ringleader and his brother owned a café and, we are told, watched Islamic State films on YouTube, with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other.
In the wake of the Brussels bombings, the Belgians have adopted Tintin as their symbol of national solidarity – not Tintin in the Congo, but Tintin in tears. And so he should be. It took the Belgian security forces four months to catch the stoned mastermind. He was staying with friends on his own home turf where he made a name for himself as a bit of an hombre. The sheer incompetence of the French and Belgian police has been startling.
In France, the various forces are run like regional fiefdoms, distrustful of Paris, refusing to share intelligence. Belgium has the added problem of having three official languages: Flemish (Dutch) French and German, and thus three of everything, which then further subdivides into a mini-me version of the Holy Roman Empire.
Eurocentricity is never far from the debate, but at the heart is a deep fear of Islam in general and of Turkey in particular. It causes dangerous blind spots. France and Belgium even accused Turkey of being a “transit” on the refugee route for potential jihadis. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, “Turkey cannot guarantee security.”
Was it not Chopin who said, “Don’t eat anything bigger than your own head”? Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered the coup de grâce himself. Turkey arrested one of the Brussels bombers on the Syrian border and deported him, warning Belgium that he was a suspected IS fighter. Brussels waved it off.
Belgium has admitted “mishandling Turkish terror warnings.” Why?
Well, as one MP said, full of indignation, “Because it is Turkey, uh, you know.” It is as daft as that.
To make things worse, the French superstar philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has said that “Europe is now in a state of emergency.” Levy is the swashbuckling Lord Byron of the intellectual world, who dons his signature white silk shirt – open to the waste – for local garb, and sits down with the Taliban, al-Qaida, and, no doubt soon, the YouTube Caliphate, to work things out.
The BBC asked, “Could this mean the death of Europe?”
“Mais oui, of course.”
In ancient Arab poetry, a nostalgic sentiment is evoked in a poem by traces of an abandoned, smouldering camp, where the poet and his tribe had halted at some time in the past. I have lived in both Turkey and Belgium, so there is a fondness. But I also weep in equal measure for both divided nations: one very, very big and powerful, the other tiny, and not quite real to its own people. After a minute’s silence for the dead in Brussels, the crowd burst out into spontaneous applause. But when a man shouted, “Vive la Belgique!”, only one or two lone rangers clapped. It broke my heart.
I even read Tintin in Turkish – the one where he goes to the moon with Professor Calculus from Syldavia, who is on a secret mission. It showed that even a comic strip could be read in different ways. Which astronaut is really in control? My bet is Cengiz and his pet the Grey Wolf. When fate strikes, and suicide bombings follow their own ugly agenda, I would rather be in Ankara and Istanbul (or London for that matter) than in Paris or Brussels.
That is not folly, but an observation made in daylight.