How to deal with the Jihadist International?
The Jihadist International is a growing phenomenon. Like the Communist International of the early 20th Century, this movement feeds on domestic inequality, and contrary to popular perception, its breeding ground is also in the West. The front-lines of the Jihadist International are made up of fighters foreign to our region. The Western media now accuses Turkey of leniency toward these foreign fighters. I do not think so. The truth is that nobody, not even the mighty states of the West, know of a way to deal with this new International yet.
Have you looked at tourism numbers lately? Turkey is globally the 6th largest tourist destination in terms of the number of entries into the country. Around 38 million tourists visited Turkey in 2013, which marked a 5 percent increase from the previous year. That figure was around 1.2 million entries in the early 1980s. Most of the tourists still come from the West, by the way, despite the increase in the number of tourists from the Middle East and North Africa. That makes Turkey the 4th largest destination in Europe.
How did this happen? Turkey is more connected to the world than ever before. It is easier to come in or go through. Istanbul is a beacon of liberty in our part of the world. People are free to wander at mosques, regardless of their sect, and they are free to party all night, regardless of their place of origin, income or gender.
This freedom makes for lucrative business. Tourism revenues reached around 35 $billion, a far cry from the 1980s, when even millions were far off. Of course, tourism does not cover Turkey’s $50 billion energy bill, but still, it’s something. In a country with a historically high current account deficit of more than 6 percent, foregoing that revenue is out of the question. That is why Turkey cannot afford to crack down on people at the airports. We need it to be easy to come to Turkey; otherwise people will take their business elsewhere.
That is not a trivial matter. We no longer live in the 19th century, when Armin Vambery, a Hungarian Turkolog, traveled to Bukhara and Samarkand and then published “Travels in Central Asia” to tell the tale. Even at that time, Turkey was considered to be a European land. People’s movements were restricted then, so Vambery traveled in Asia disguised as a Sunni dervish with credential letters from a few Ottoman bureaucrats of the time. In his writing, Vambery notes that when he crossed the border from Iran to Turkey, he changed into his European clothes, because he says, he had just entered Europe. So it was easy to enter Turkey even at that time. The ease of access is also important for the transformation of the countries around Turkey, which is why visa-free travel is so important to establish with as many neighbors as possible.
Does that mean that we do not have a problem with foreign jihadists? No. It is obvious that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists’ passage through Turkey is a problem. The Jihadist International is playing the same role as the Frantz Fanon fanatics of our region in the 1960s and 1970s. But they are more dangerous. Why? Because Fanon was an outsider, while these people, though not indigenous, are closer to being insiders. Like Fanon, their movement is a translation from a foreign language, yet this time it rests upon an ancient foundation in the region. That makes the Jihadist International more dangerous than its predecessor. We need to focus on profiling the new terrorists while preserving the ease of access to Turkey. This is a vast area that requires cooperation. It’s time for everyone to stop pointing fingers and start working together.