Understanding the Istanbul synagogue bombings.

A wartime lexicon.
Nov. 18 2003 3:05 PM

Al-Qaida's Latest Target

Understanding the Istanbul synagogue bombings.

When I am at home, I never go near the synagogue unless, say, there is a bar or bat mitzvah involving the children of friends. But when I am traveling, in a country where Jewish life is scarce or endangered, I often make a visit to the shul. I always feel vaguely foolish doing this (the sensation of being a slight impostor is best conveyed in "Christian" terms by Philip Larkin's marvellous poem "Churchgoing") but as a result I have seen some fascinating evidences of survival in Damascus, in Havana, in Dubrovnik, in Sarajevo, and in Budapest, among other places. And more than a decade ago, I did go to the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

This was slightly more than a side-trip of curiosity. Not long before my visit, a group of killers had thrown gasoline through the doors in mid-service, ignited it with a grenade or two, and then followed up with gunfire. This was more energetic than anything attempted on Kristallnacht. The people "claiming credit" for the "operation" (as the sayings now go) were the Abu Nidal group. I had met them, too, along with their leader, in their villa in Baghdad a few years previously. Of course, one must always be careful to insist that there is no "smoking gun" connecting Saddam Hussein to the activities pursued by his honored guests. ...

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

Last Saturday, the Neve Shalom community in Istanbul was hit again, this time along with another Jewish temple, by a truck bomb. There was a bar mitzvah in progress at the time, so the attackers could be assured of a fair generational cross-section of targets. It seems that the suicide-murderers who perpetrated the deed also killed a fair number of non-Jewish Turkish passersby. It also seems, according to the most plausible "claims," that the perpetrators were members of the al-Qaida underworld. There appears little doubt that their action is related, however distantly, to Turkey's fairly neutral position in respect of the current battles in Iraq.

I have not yet read any article explaining how the frustrations of the oppressed Muslims of the world are alleviated by this deed, or how the wickedness of American foreign policy has brought these chickens home to roost, or how such slaughters are symptoms of "despair." Perhaps somebody is at work on such an article and hasn't quite finished it yet. (I have noticed, though, a slight tendency on the part of this school to shut up, at least for the time being.)

There is a vulgar reason for this reticence. In recent attacks from those gangs who have been busily fusing Saddamism with Bin Ladenism—and who didn't start this synthesis yesterday—it has been noticeable that Saudi citizens (the week before last), or Iraqi citizens (every day, but most conspicuously in the blasting of the Red Cross compound in Baghdad), or Indonesian citizens (in the bombing of the Marriott in Jakarta in August), or Moroccan citizens have been the chief or most numerous casualties. To this, one could add the Christian Arabs whose famous restaurant in Haifa was blown up, along with its owners, on Yom Kippur. I sometimes detect a strained note in the coverage of this. Why would the jihadists be so careless, so to speak? Have they no discrimination, no tact?

Those who think this even semiconsciously have already forgotten what jihadists were doing in Algeria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, long before the assault on the World Trade Center (which also killed a substantial number of Muslims). It's pretty safe to say that the large majority of those murdered by Islamic holy warriors have not been Europeans or Americans as the term is usually understood. This is why I disagreed with the president when he described Sept. 11 as an attack "on America." It was true, but it was not the truth. The current jihad is still waged chiefly against Muslim states and societies and, as Istanbul proves, not just against dictatorial ones. (That last distinction is unsafe in itself, by the way, since the Afghanistan of the Taliban was more dictatorial and oppressive than Saudi Arabia or Algeria, and since Bin Laden never conducted any operations against Saddam Hussein or his embassies or outposts.)

Whatever its faults, Turkey is a society with many elements of pluralism and democracy. (Just last week, in accordance with its expressed desire to conform with EU rules, it abolished capital punishment.) It also has a tradition of hospitality, offered in traditional Islamic terms, to the Jewish people. When expelled and dispossessed by Christian Europe, the Sephardim found refuge under the protection of the Caliph, in dominions of Islam as far apart as Bosnia and Baghdad. From this latest outrage, then, we can see how false the Bin Ladenists are, even to their own expressed reverence for a lost Muslim empire. The worshippers at the Neve Shalom were not killed for building a settlement in the West Bank: They were members of a very old and honorable community who were murdered for being Jews. Their Turkish neighbors were casually murdered as "collateral damage."

This is in the nature and essence of the foe that we face. Try and bear it in mind, even as the networks speak so lazily of the same foe for "targeting Americans." Understanding why this is lazy is the whole justification of the war, just as it is the real reason why this war will be won.

Addendum, Nov. 18, 2003:I wrote yesterday that, concerning the murders at the synagogues in Istanbul, I had "not yet read any article explaining how the frustrations of the oppressed Muslims of the world are alleviated by this deed, or how the wickedness of American policy has brought these chickens home to roost, or how such slaughters are symptoms of 'despair.' Perhaps somebody is at work on such an article and hasn't quite finished it yet. (I have noticed, though, a slight tendency on the part of this school to shut up, at least for the time being.)"

Goes to show how soft I am getting. Even as I was writing these words, the presses of the London Guardian were churning out the following paragraph, from someone named Fiachra Gibbons:

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