My Istanbul: An Idyllic Tourist Mecca, and the Perfect Target for an Attack

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A Turkish police officer directs a passenger at Ataturk airport in Istanbul June 28, 2016 after two explosions followed by gunfire hit Turkey's biggest airport.
A Turkish police officer directs a passenger at Ataturk airport in Istanbul June 28, 2016 after two explosions followed by gunfire hit Turkey's biggest airport.Credit: Ozan Kose, AFP

Just a few weeks ago, I was happily transiting through the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. On my flight to and from Israel, I would need to stopover somewhere, and having lived in Turkey for nearly two years, I choose Istanbul over a European capital any day.

The airport’s security is considered to be quite good, the shopping is almost as fun as a trip to the city’s Grand Bazaar, and I look at any trip back to Turkey, however short, as a chance to rediscover my Turkish or get a su borek, a distant and superior cousin of the Israeli boreka. Plus, when I booked my flight about six weeks earlier, the $715 fare on Turkish Airlines was almost half the cost of that on El Al.

A friend looked askance at my flight plans. “Oh,” I said with a dismissive and knowing attitude. “I feel very comfortable in Turkey. I lived in Istanbul for almost two years.”

“Things have changed a bit since then,” he replied.

I smirked and refrained from accusing him of being unduly nervous or worse, Islamophobic. He didn’t know Istanbul like I know Istanbul. He didn’t know that in this airport, you can hop a flight to Tel Aviv or Tehran, and no one makes much fuss about it.

Of course, he was right: Things have changed since I moved to Turkey in 2002, not soon after which Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party swept to victory in parliamentary elements on a promise to run the country under a banner of pragmatic Islamic governance.

Since then, Erdogan has moved the country quite far away from the worldview of the secular-minded elite, rattling many of my Turkish friends whose values and lifestyles are far more global than they are halal.

Erdogan became a sometimes-virulent critic of Israel, seeming at times to prefer Hamas leaders in Gaza to Israeli officials in Jerusalem. But in the pocket of no one, he defied pressure from Hamas and its supporters in Turkey by inking a reconciliation deal with Israel only days ago.  

It’s unlikely that this agreement had much to do with Tuesday night’s terrorist attack, which bears hallmarks of thoughtful planning. But the fact is that Turkey – whether tied to Israel diplomatically or not – is itself one huge, soft target.

Turkey is an Islamic country that is open to the world, that serves as a crossroads for people from east and west. It is a place where Iranians and Saudis and Emiratis come to unwind and shop and drink. It is a place where Westerners come to get a safe snapshot of Islam lite.

It is a perfect target for an organization like ISIS, which despises this wishy-washy, alcohol-tolerating, sexually-unfettered, liberal-leaning Islam that Turkey embodies.

Of course, many people beyond the fanatics of ISIS have reason to hate the Turkish regime and wish to do it harm. Despite seemingly noble intentions, Erdogan has earned Turkey more than a few enemies in Syria and Iraq.

A Kurdish militant cell or a Syrian pro-government group may also have strong motives for such an attack. Erdogan’s failed attempts to topple Bashar Assad have left him more vulnerable than before. Syria’s brutal five-year-old war, still largely ignored in the West, is moving westward nonetheless. Its ongoing refugee flows helped fuel the forces of Brexit.

And it makes idyllic Istanbul, a tourist mecca which lives in comfortable denial of the hell just southeast of Turkey’s border, a perfect target. Even more perfect: bombers who schemed to skip the heavy security at International Departures, and focus on the soft underbelly of any major airport – a virtually unscreened International Arrivals hall.

After watching the footage of those panicked people running past the blue gate signs I passed only a few weeks ago, it will be hard to go back to seeing Istanbul as a place you vacation in or transit through as carefree as you do in say, Paris or London.

Wait, sayLisbon or Prague. Sadly, we are reaching an age in which few cities worth visiting will be untouched by terrorism.

And we are witnessing the stunning success of terrorists in achieving their aims: Making Westerners a little more reluctant to visit the one Islamic metropolis where they felt safe, and giving the demagogues of New York and London a little more ammunition for their campaign to keep Muslims out.

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