Reaction in Turkey to the death of Osama Bin Laden seems muted. Some of my students and colleagues have offered their congratulations, saying they hated him because he gave Islam such a bad reputation and because he killed Muslims, and they share our happiness. Others have questioned whether he was actually killed, speculating that he probably died three years ago from kidney failure, and this is just a US propaganda ploy. (Since Al Qaeda has now confirmed Bin Laden's death, maybe they'll change their minds.)
I tell them President Bush would have loved to announce Bin Laden's death three years ago -- it would have made him look more successful -- so I seriously doubt he died then. Some have suggested this news is a ploy to help President Obama win re-election, but I reply that the election is 18 months away, so it really won't be very significant by then.
One student asked me if Americans blame Muslims for 9/11, and if they hate all Muslims as a result. "A few do -- those who are ignorant. But I think most Americans do not," I said. "You probably heard about the Florida Pastor burning the Koran." They nodded. "There was widespread outrage among Americans against him. Most people thought he was a fool and an idiot," I said. "Many Christians reached out to their Muslim neighbors and held interfaith peace rallies.
When I first arrived in Turkey in 2009, students were eager to express their sorrow for 9/11 and to reassure me that the vast majority of Muslims do not support Al Qaeda. I remember one student asking me if I had ever visited the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I said yes in probably a rather sad voice, adding that I had visited "before, of course, the World Trade Center was blown up." There was a mournful silence in the classroom; one student piped up, "we are so sad about that."
That said, this is a country of conspiracy theories, some of them quite wild, due in part to the history of military coups (the last one in 1997) and a lack of transparency in the media and by government. One student (before Bin Laden's death) suggested 9/11 was an inside job by George W. Bush as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and plunder them of resources. I replied that there was videotape on Al Jazeera (not exactly a network spreading US propaganda) of Bin Laden claiming credit for 9/11, laughing and bragging, so the assertions that it was an inside job by Bush is absurd. Even linguist Noam Chomsky, a harsh critic of US policies, has said "inside job" claims were "garbage." The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost America far more in lives and money than we might have gained from "plundering resources," so that theory makes no sense either.
I surmise there is some resentment in Turkey and in other Muslim countries over the USA as the world's only super-power, engaging in what they perceive as cultural and economic imperialism and power plays -- killing tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- in the name of democracy and freedom. "Turks don't like the American government, but they do like the American people," is how one student put it.
Even so, support for Al Qaeda has diminished. "Bin Laden's failure to deliver over the years cost him his once heroic popularity. In surveys by the Pew Research Center, confidence in bin Laden dropped from 56% to 13% of respondents in Jordan from 2003 to 2011, from 15% to 3% in Turkey, and from 72% to 34% in the Palestinian territories," the Wall Street Journal reports.
Turkish officials unanimously applauded the death of Bin Laden as a warning to what will happen to terrorists, and I think the vast majority of Turks are pleased about it, but it simply isn't as big a deal to them as it is to us Americans.
In 18 months of living in Turkey, for the most part, I have seen no evidence of support for radical Muslim groups like Al Qaeda. One smart-alecky student, seeming to seek attention, with a smile on his face, said provocatively to my wife (also a teacher) after the announcement of Bin Laden's death, "he was a good guy."
"Bin Laden wasn't a good guy. He killed more than 3,000 innocent people," she replied, and the student sunk into his seat.
Encounter with Al Qaeda Sympathizers?
In 2010, I had one experience in Southeast Turkey, traveling with a group of Turks and Americans, in which we stopped in a rural area overlooking the Euphrates River from a 2000-year-old Roman bridge. Momentarily wandering alone on the other side of the river and under the bridge, I encountered an Arab-looking man who asked me where I was from. "America," I said. A big grin broke out on his face (something common among the Turks, as they are most hospitable). But instead of welcoming me to his country as so many others had done, he said, "Osama Bin Laden," and gave a thumbs up. Then he started climbing down the bridge toward a group of men huddled behind some brush.
I think he was joking, but I wasn't certain, so I turned around immediately, climbed back up to the bridge, crossed it and joined the rest of my group.
I hadn't thought much about that brief encounter until I read that the Turkish government has detained 12 suspects in Istanbul on the possibility they are aiding Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and against NATO force, Reuters reported. Turkey is, of course, a member of NATO, with non-combat troops serving in Afghanistan. "The detentions come just days after four men were arrested in west and southwest Turkey on suspicion of fundraising for militants and a fifth on suspicion of designing computer programs to jam the controls of drone aircraft," the article reported. One of the suspects, Abdulkadir Kucuk, is from Kayseri, the city I live in, and was identified as a 23-year-old mathematics student at a university in Izmir. He wasvcharged with bomb-making and devising computer programs to jam flight signals for drone aircraft used by NATO forces in Afghanistan.
"Al Qaeda's austere and violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing in Turkey," according to the Associated Press. Even so, Al Qaeda radicals such as number two man Ayman Zawahiri of Egypt have attempted to recall the glory days of the Ottoman Empire to recruit Turks to the cause. In centuries past, the “Ottoman State used to send sweeping armies and entire fleets to defend any threatened Muslim areas,” he said in a July 2011 statement, as analyzed by Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Now, in contrast, modern Turkey can only muster a handful of ships that Israel treats like “cattle in the sea of wolves.”
Zawahiri went on to blame the creation of Israel to the fall of the Ottomans. They had ruled Palestine and surrounding countries for hundreds of years until their empire tumbled during World War I.
<<Around 120 al Qaeda suspects were rounded up last January in raids mostly carried out in the southeast.>>
Officials believe the Turks involved in Al Qaeda are all part of the same group, with one designated leader.
There has also been an increase in the number of Turkish language jihadi websites, the article reports, though only rarely have Al Qaeda sympathizers set off violence in the country -- most notably in 2003 when bomb attacks killed 57 and wounded hundreds. Since then, Turkish police have stepped up their surveillance of radical groups.
So do I think Islamic terrorism is a danger for Westerners visiting Turkey? Not really. Turkey seems really safe to me. The overall crime rate is far lower than the US crime rate. I'd say your chances of encountering an Islamic terrorist in Turkey are less than your chance of encountering a random killer in the US.
If you go to Southeast Turkey, you should probably travel in a group, just to be safe. But my caution is less than that of some friends in the states who only read the violent headlines in foreign countries and over-generalize. They said I should stay out of Southeast Turkey as if it was in the midst of civil war. That, most definitely, is a wrong impression, I can say from first-hand experience, having had a delightful time visiting Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Kahramanmaras, Mt. Nemrut, and taking a bus with my 13-year-old son all the way to the Syrian border.
The State Department has issued warnings all over the globe -- there is probably greater probability of suicide bombers everywhere over the next few months. But Turkey seems to have very few Al Qaeda sympathizers so I'm not really worried. And I remain incredibly impressed by Turkish hospitality. So I would encourage any Westerners who've planned a trip to Turkey to come on. You'll probably have a great time.
- Bin Laden's death is little consolation for Al Qaeda victims in Turkey (Today's Zaman)
- New Mideast Turns Away from Terrorists (Wall Street Journal)
- Al Qaeda fishes for Turks seeking jihad.