Thinking in the age of terror

Thinking in the age of terror

I was just drinking my late-morning coffee yesterday when I heard the breaking news: Suicide bombers had hit Brussels, the heart of the European Union. I felt sad for all the innocent people who lost their lives and all the traumatized families they left behind. Let me, here again, offer my condolences to the good people of Belgium, and reiterate my contempt for the terrorists who targeted them with such cruelty.

This, sadly, is not an isolated drama. Back in Turkey, we have been hit by similar cruel terror attacks that killed dozens of innocent civilians. Just last Saturday, when I was drinking another cup of morning coffee, my own city, Istanbul, was hit by a suicide bomber who killed five people and injured almost 40. Just a week before that, downtown Ankara was hit by two suicide bombers, who had killed 35 innocent souls. Before that, Ankara was hit twice, in February and October, by other suicide bombers who killed more than 130 people in total. And before that, there was similar carnage in southeastern Turkey, in Suruç.

All of this violence, as we typical call it, is caused by “terrorism.” But terrorism is not an amorphous monster, just trying to kill people for the sake of it. Terrorism, rather, is a tactic used to advance political causes. No wonder there are very diverse, in fact dissimilar, political forces that use this tactic. Turkey’s recent wave of suicide bombs, for example, came from two forces that are actually at war with each other: Militant Kurdish ethno-nationalism, spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoots such as the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), and extreme Salafi jihadism, represented by the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (In other words, suicide bombing and other forms of terrorism is emerging not only from Islamist roots; it is emerging from pretty secular ones as well.)

In Turkey, and perhaps elsewhere, the common reaction is to “condemn terror, wherever it may come from” and “stand united” against it. That is all fine, but it also does not help much in understanding where the trouble comes from and how can we really deal with it. 

In my humble view, there are a few key facts we should understand about terror after condemning it. The first thing is that our liberal modernity, with all its benefits such as comfortable homes, shopping malls, movies and popcorn, also has a dark side: It has bad consequences for other people. The nice SUV you drive on your neat highways is fueled by the oil produced in a dictatorship whose prisons are filled with tortured inmates. And the latter’s hatred grows against not just against that dictator, but also his “allies.” Similarly, the nice and fun life in Tel Aviv costs something terrible to the man in Gaza. Or, the nation-state that gave security and dignity to us, Turks, meant less inspiring things for others, such as the Kurds.

So, how to deal with this dark side of modernity is the big question. Our hawks, wherever we are, will give us a simple answer: We should just bomb the dark side, and wipe it out! Yet that only means adding only more fuel to the fire, and fast-forwarding to disaster.

The other fact is that in the areas of the dark side of modernity (which may range from the streets of Raqqa to the suburbs of Paris), there are people who condemn liberal modernity on principle, and vow to establish an alternative dystopia. ISIL is exactly that. That is why a “battle of ideas” is very necessary within non-Western civilizations, especially Islam. 

Neither that, nor the “battle of ideas” for a better liberal modernity, should be denied.