I used to think that disasters strengthened people’s sense of community. Right after the great Istanbul fires of my childhood and the earthquake of two years ago, my first instinct was to share my feelings, to discuss the disaster with others. But this time, seated facing the television in a small Istanbul coffeehouse near the quay frequented by carters, tuberculosis patients, and porters as the twin towers in New York blazed and collapsed, I felt desperately alone.
Immediately after the second aircraft hit the tower, Turkish television channels commenced live broadcasting. A small crowd in the coffeehouse watched the unbelievable images on the screen in detached amazement, astonished but apparently without being deeply affected. At one point I felt like standing up and declaring, “I spent three years of my life in Manhattan. I lived among those buildings. I walked those streets without money in my pocket. I kept appointments with people in those towers.” But, as in a dream in which one feels increasingly alone, I remained silent.
I went out into the streets because I could not bear to see what was happening, and even more because I wanted to share what I had seen with other people. A short while later I saw a woman on the quay weeping as she stood in the crowd waiting for a ferryboat. From her expression and the faces of those around her, I saw immediately that she was not weeping because she had a relative in Manhattan but because she thought the end of the world was approaching. In my childhood, when it was feared that the Cuban crisis would give rise to a third world war, I had seen similarly distraught women weeping, as middle-class Istanbul families stocked up with packets of lentils and macaroni. I went back to the coffeehouse, and resumed watching the scenes on television with the same irresistible obsession as the rest of the world.
Later, as I walked the streets again, I met one of my neighbors. “Sir, have you seen, they have bombed America,” he said, and added fiercely, “They did the right thing.”
This angry old man is not religious at all. He struggles to make a living by doing minor repair jobs and gardening, and gets drunk in the evening and argues with his wife. He had not yet seen the appalling scenes on television, but had only heard that some people had done something dreadful to America. I listened to many other people express anger similar to his initial reaction (which he was subsequently to regret). At the first moment in Turkey, many spoke of the brutality of terror, and how despicable and horrifying the attack was. Still, they followed up their denunciation of the slaughter of innocent people with a “but,” making restrained or resentful criticism of America’s political and economic power. To debate America’s role in the world in the shadow of terrorism that is based on hatred of the “West” and brutally kills innocent people is both extremely difficult and perhaps morally questionable. But in the heat of righteous anger at vicious acts of terror, and in nationalistic rage, some will find it easy to speak words that might lead to the slaughter of other innocent people. In view of this, one wants to say something.
Everyone should be aware that the longer the recent bombing lasts, and the more innocent people die in Afghanistan or any other part of the world in order to satisfy America’s own people, the more it will exacerbate the artificial tension that some quarters are trying to generate between “East” and “West” or “Islam” and “Christian civilization”; and this will only serve to bolster the terrorism that military action sets out to punish. It is now morally impossible to discuss the issue of America’s world domination in connection with the unbelievable ruthlessness of terrorists responsible for killing thousands of innocent people. At the same time, we should try to understand why millions of people in poor countries that have been pushed to one side, and deprived of the right to decide their own histories, feel such anger at America.
We are not always obliged, however, to look with sympathy at such anger. Moreover, in many third-world and Islamic countries, anti-American feeling is not so much righteous anger as an instrument employed to conceal their own lack of democracy and to reinforce the power of local dictators. The forging of close relations with America by insular societies like Saudi Arabia that behave as if they were determined to prove to the world that Islam and democracy are mutually irreconcilable is no encouragement to those working to establish secular democracies in the Islamic countries. Similarly, a superficial hostility to America, as in the case of Turkey, allows the country’s administrators to squander, through corruption and incompetence, the money they receive from international financial institutions and to conceal the gap between rich and poor that in Turkey has reached intolerable dimensions.
There are those in the US today who unconditionally support military attacks for the purpose of demonstrating America’s military strength and teaching terrorists “a lesson.” Some cheerfully discuss on television where American planes should bomb, as if playing a video game. Such commentators should realize that decisions to engage in war taken impulsively, and without due consideration, will intensify the hostility toward the West felt by millions of people in the Islamic countries and poverty-stricken regions of the world—people living in conditions that give rise to feelings of humiliation and inferiority. It is neither Islam nor even poverty itself that directly engenders support for terrorists whose ferocity and ingenuity are unprecedented in human history; it is, rather, the crushing humiliation that has infected the third-world countries.
At no time in history has the gulf between rich and poor been so wide. It might be argued that the wealth of the rich countries is their own achievement and should not affect the concerns of the poor of the world; but at no time in history have the lives of the rich been so forcefully brought to the attention of the poor through television and Hollywood films. It also might be said that tales of the lives of kings are the entertainment of the poor. But far worse, at no other time have the world’s rich and powerful societies been so clearly right, and “reasonable.”
Today an ordinary citizen of a poor, undemocratic Muslim country, or a civil servant in a third-world country or in a former socialist republic struggling to make ends meet, is aware of how insubstantial is his share of the world’s wealth; he knows that he lives under conditions that are much harsher and more devastating than those of a “Westerner” and that he is condemned to a much shorter life. At the same time, however, he senses in a corner of his mind that his poverty is to some considerable degree the fault of his own folly and inadequacy, or those of his father and grandfather. The Western world is scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population; it is a feeling that people have to try to overcome without losing their common sense, and without being seduced by terrorists, extreme nationalists, or fundamentalists. This is the grim, troubled private sphere that neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom. And it is while living within this private sphere that most people in the world today are afflicted by spiritual misery. The problem facing the West is not only to discover which terrorist is preparing a bomb in which tent, which cave, or which street of which city, but also to understand the poor and scorned and “wrongful” majority that does not belong to the Western world.
War cries, nationalistic speeches, and impetuous military operations take quite the opposite course. Instead of increasing understanding, many current Western actions, attitudes, and policies are rapidly carrying the world further from peace. These include the new visa restrictions imposed by many Western European countries on travelers from outside the EU; law enforcement measures aimed at impeding the movement of Muslims and of people from poor nations; suspicion of Islam and everything non-Western; and crude and aggressive language that identifies the entire Islamic civilization with terror and fanaticism. What prompts an impoverished old man in Istanbul to condone the terror in New York in a moment of anger, or a Palestinian youth fed up with Israeli oppression to admire the Taliban, who throw nitric acid at women because they reveal their faces? It is not Islam or what is idiotically described as the clash between East and West or poverty itself. It is the feeling of impotence deriving from degradation, the failure to be understood, and the inability of such people to make their voices heard.
The members of the wealthy, pro-modernist class that founded the Turkish Republic reacted to resistance from the poor and backward sectors of society not by attempting to understand them, but by law enforcement measures, prohibitions on personal behavior, and repression by the army. In the end, the modernization effort remained half-finished, and Turkey became a limited democracy in which intolerance prevailed. Now, as we hear people calling for a war between East and West, I am afraid that much of the world will turn into a place like Turkey, governed almost permanently by martial law. I am afraid that self-satisfied and self-righteous Western nationalism will drive the rest of the world into defiantly contending that two plus two equals five, like Dostoevsky’s underground man, when he reacts against the “reasonable” Western world. Nothing can fuel support for “Islamists” who throw nitric acid at women’s faces so much as the West’s failure to understand the damned of the world.
—Istanbul, October 18, 2001; translated by Mary Isin
November 15, 2001