We’ve all seen (or posted, but don’t feel bad, I still love you) the familiar sentence all over social media: “You were Paris, will you be Ankara?”
By Alaz Ada Yener
A common reaction after a terrorist attack such as the ones that occurred in Istanbul and Ankara in the past months is to ask “Will you be (insert city name)?”, following the trend of “being” the victim for solidarity. When people say this about Ankara, they usually mean both “Europe doesn’t care about Turkey because Turkey is Middle Eastern!” and also “Turkey isn’t really Middle Eastern, (it’s better than them), but Europe thinks it’s like them and doesn’t care about it!”. Both of these approaches are fundamentally wrong and oversimplifying, and I want to talk about the reasons why. I’m going to try to not focus on the fact that the concept of the “Middle East” is fundamentally flawed and constructed based on the experience of European colonialism, religion, and Orientalism, and therefore is incoherent and inapplicable as a geographical or identity-based category, as it may cause a campus-wide existential crisis. Instead of getting into an argument with countless well-meaning friends who expressed this similar sentiment on Facebook, as I don’t like Facebook fights or essay-sized comments, I decided to actually write about it.
Starting with the “Europe Doesn’t Care Because Turkey Is Middle Eastern/Muslim/Whatever” approach, it is true that European tragedies get more attention than others, but I don’t think people in newsrooms look at a map and think “let’s not talk about these bombings, since we do not care about their lives” (but as I will show later on, some people definitely do this).
I think there are two reasons driving media attention, the first one being the fact that Turkey (despite its past as a colonial power and its current attempts to take a seat at the adult’s table, or at least to pose with them in photographs), is not a major international actor in the Europe-USA context.
With the increasing repression and violence, the unaddressed corruption scandals, and the unstable, erratic foreign policy, the country and its leader create an image with which European and North American leaders (i.e. what one would call “The West”), have no desire to associate with (unless it’s to outsource the refugee crisis). Turkey isn’t “fashionable” (less suitable for serving the European dream of liberal political Islam and a tool to shape the region) anymore and therefore the lives of its citizens have been devalued.
The second reason, according to me, is the fact that, in perception, the attacks in Turkey have no direct impact on the lives of European or North American people as a whole, in contrast with the following Brussels attack, for example. It is not acknowledged that these attacks are a part of a global trend and can very well be interconnected, and instability in a region could easily result in destabilizing its unwilling neighbors. This is about the inaccurate classification of Turkey as a distant, isolated country and its perceived geographical, and the following sociopolitical, remoteness from Europe.
Arriving at the “Turkey Isn’t Really Middle Eastern, So Please Care” approach, and related to the previous concept, even if we don’t take into account that the concept of the Middle East is incoherent and inapplicable as a geographical or identity-based category, saying that “Turkey is not a Middle Eastern country and therefore its tragedies are mournable” is obviously a problematic approach.
The Turkish people have a tendency to distance themselves from the “Middle East,” and for the wrong reasons. It would make sense for a Turkish person to feel uncomfortable with the Middle Eastern label due to the past of the country as a colonial power or due to the fact that it hasn’t experienced European colonialism (sorry, those affected by the Sevres Syndrome, but losing in WWI doesn’t count, and unlike what our history books and teachers may say, we didn’t “also count as losers because Germany lost”). However, a Turkish person looking down to what they call the Middle East and assuming that Turkey is completely separate and superior (more modern, more advanced, essentially more “Western”) to what the category implies is more due to the Turkish perception (when I say “perception”, please feel free to read it as “delusion”) of Turkey as a modern, developed, stable, peaceful country, which is experiencing an exceptional, uncharacteristic rise in violence recently. The last part isn’t completely inaccurate; however, peace and stability have never been the country’s default, rather a brief trend before the recent decade or so. This also goes on to show that Turks in Turkey tend to ignore the state violence present in the primarily Kurdish regions of the country and declare lives lost to this violence as unmournable (or routine, exaggerated, even justified). Not many people call attention to the tragedies in Cizre and Sur. The majority of Turks exhibit the same hypocrisy they are seeing in the Western world and media.
This idea also exists in international perspectives. Another reason behind my writing this was an article in the Guardian: I made a bad decision and also read the comments below. The article was flawed in itself, pointing out that Turkey mourned Paris but Europe didn’t mourn Ankara as if mourning is a tit-for-tat exchange.
It also quoted American musician James Taylor, where he said “Contrary to what many people think, Turkey is not the Middle East. Ankara is not a war zone, it is a normal modern bustling city, just like any other European capital,” to justify mourning Ankara. This approach implies that “the Middle East” is a war zone, it is not and cannot be “normal” or “modern” or “bustling”, and therefore it is okay to ignore deaths that happen here, and furthermore, Turkey is somehow completely isolated from this imaginary region, and it’s okay to feel sad because it’s like “any other European capital.”
Look, everyone, it’s a normal city, you can be sad! This American musician said it’s normal, #jesuisankara!
The comments on the article, naturally by “Western” perspectives, pointed out two things: “Turkey is in the Middle East, only a small portion of it is in Europe, so I don’t relate to it and will not be it”, and “the Turkish people elected their current repressive, violent government so I will not support them.” To be honest, there were some very reasonable comments, some reflecting the points I made above, but these interesting perspectives weren’t exceptions, but the norm.
The first perspective shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how “Middle East” acts as a category, implying that once I cross the Bosphorus to meet my friends, or take a flight to see some relatives, I go from Europe to Middle East. If I was to be killed there, would it be more normal than for me to be killed at home in Europe? If so, can someone blow me up the next time I’m in the Middle East, so I don’t read comment sections again?
The second perspective shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how politics work. According to this logic, if a government prevails in a country, the whole (or a big majority) of the population must be supportive of it, and they must be held accountable. This accountability should go as far as rendering them unmournable. The society is uniform, and groups in a country are targeted and endangered equally, and everyone is fully educated and aware. People who are citizens of a country must be benefiting from the atrocities committed by its government and cannot possibly be suffering under it. This is obviously not the case, but this was the logic used by those who refused to be Ankara. I want to quote some exemplary comments below, not touching the spelling and grammar for authenticity:
“In Paris there is always something to believe in, there is truth……in Turkey under Erdogan where is the truth to believe in?” (Translation: Suffering from an autocratic government makes people unmournable)
“Most of Turkey is in the Middle East not Europe and right or wrong get’s lumped in with all the other dysfunctional regimes in that region. It is hardly helping itself at the moment by slipping rapidly into dictatorship.” (Translation: I do not speak English, naughty children who let authoritarianism prevail by unjust means in their country deserve to get bombed)
“No. Turkey is headed down the pan fast, in another 30 years it will be a Pre-civil war Syrian-esque place. Religion poisons everything.” (Translation: I do not understand things)
“Paris is just across the water and a train ride away. They are just like us but with better pastry. It could have been me or my family. Ankara is the middle east. It would never be anyone I know in Ankara. And they are not like me. May as well be Iraq. That’s the perception I think, rightly or wrongly.” (Translation: I am incapable of empathizing with people I see as different, but I am honest about it)
“When Ankora shouts out loud and proud, liberty, equality and fraternity, and means it, I may have some sympathy, until then I don’t really care, secularism is but a very thin veneer in Turkey these days.” (Translation: I only care about the lives of people I agree with and cannot conceptualize that these people may be suffering from the regime I disagree with. Also, this was by someone with the username “babyboomer1957.”)
To conclude, the Middle East as you know it does not exist, the location and origin (and even governments!) of lives lost should not determine how mournable they are, but this can be stated without asking people to be Ankara, for whatever reason. I completely understand the frustration of feeling like people care less about you and people like you than others, to be honest I felt this myself after the Brussels attacks (although I never want to see that photo of the crying flags with the passive-aggressive addition of the Turkish flag). However, it’s completely possible to express this without being hypocritical yourself, reinforcing harmful and inaccurate ideas, and reducing mourning to a hashtag of #iamwhatever.