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Syrians living in Istanbul hold candles at the site of Tuesday's suicide bomb attack at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, Turkey January 13, 2016. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

Dividing lines

Istanbul suicide blast threatens the spirit of unity in an increasingly anxious nation

By Zainab Salbi on January 14, 2016

Aysha, an art teacher in her late 20s was full of fear and reservations in Turkey — not after this week’s bombing, but last week, before any news of an attack. Aysha’s fear was not of terror, but of tension among Turks and intense divisions within the country itself.

This week’s suicide attack in the heart of Istanbul, which killed at least 10 (including nine German tourists) and injured several others, was a shock, yet, on some level, not surprising. I spent the past two weeks visiting different parts of Istanbul, from marginalized and improvised neighborhoods to middle class and elite enclaves. What is clear is that Turkey is a country divided not across class lines, nor according to secular versus conservative religious beliefs, but by issues of core identity: Do individuals see themselves as Turks first (thus inclusive of all religions and ethnicities) or as Muslims first (excluding all other religious minorities including other branches of Islam)?

The attack in the heart of Istanbul will exacerbate the fear Turks are feeling, but is not the original source of the fear’s creation. Aysha, the art teacher, wasn’t anxious about a terrorist incident. Nor did she fear Syrian refugees (though poor Turks in marginalized neighborhoods populated with Syrian refugees do resent the refugees for taking food aid, among other issues). Aysha’s own fear was of a threat to self-expression. “I started censoring myself the day I used the word ‘creativity’ in my art class. The principle heard me saying the word and quickly commented, in front of the students, that “God is the creator. Nothing after that.”

The principle’s conservative misinterpretation of the word “creativity” could threaten the security of Aysha’s job. “Fear does not come suddenly,” she said. “It takes over you in small steps until you start fearing what you say, what you wear, and what you put on social media in terms of your expressions.”

Zaki, a 32-year-old factory worker who barely makes ends meet to support his family, sees fear expressed through mistrust. “We used to love each other,” he said. “Now when we open the door to neighbors, we open it with fear. We are afraid of each other these days.” When asked if this fear was caused by poverty or migration, he responded, “It’s not the poverty. We also had poverty before. We just lost trust. Now we have hatred language amongst each other.”

Zaki and his wife and two children struggle alone to survive, isolated from others.

Red carnations are placed at the Obelisk of Theodosius, the scene of a suicide bomb attack at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, Turkey January 13, 2016. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
Carnations are placed at the Obelisk of Theodosius, the scene of a suicide bomb attack at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, on January 13, 2016. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

Susie recently applied for the Spanish passport granted by Spain’s government to all Sephardic Jews: “It was the king that kicked us out during the Crusade and the Sultan that welcomed us and provided us safety back then. Now we no longer feel safe with the Sultan and are running back to the King.”

Susie “never felt that I needed to hide that I am Jewish in Turkey. But these days I just hope that I disappear when we are in public or when someone asks us our religion. I am Turkish of course. I just don’t think everyone else sees me [as Turkish],” she explained.

Turkey is one of the most diverse countries in the region. Religiously, it is one of few in the Middle East that have managed to sustain a diverse religious community — from Muslims to Jews to Christians. Ethnically, it includes people from all over the region: not only Kurds but also people who originate from various countries of the old Ottoman Empire. There are blond Turks and dark Turks, Sunni Turks and Alawy Turks, and at one point they were held together by a common identity: “We are Turks.” Not these days, though.

When asked what people need the most, Fatma, a religiously conservative woman, says it’s not economic support, or educational improvement. “To be honest with you, we are doing well on all these things,” she said. “What we need the most is trust. We don’t have trust amongst ourselves.”

That lack of trust originated with a division of identity — the creation of an “us” and “them” within Turkey. The ruling party originally addressed the needs of the marginalized and those who did not feel seen — the poor, women who wore the headscarf and were therefore not allowed to enter public institutions, and the Kurds. Eventually, things shifted. Today, Turkey feels as if it’s fallen back to point zero. The Kurds, who only a few months ago were hopeful for their reintegration into the Turkish political system, are now at war with the Turkish government. The poor feel marginalized again, and this time it is not women who wear the headscarf who feel disenfranchised: it is those who don’t.

Beyond the killing of innocent civilians, this week’s events may well incite further anxiety and suspicion, deepening divisions within the country. What Turkish people need is not a war to unite them in a divisive time, but common values. Those who separate religion from politics and public life are at odds with those who think religion should play a leading role in politics and government. If Turkey’s leaders can manage to create a common ground for citizens, where “the freedom to be” is respected on all sides, the country can be a model for a tormented Middle East. Women can play a major role in this: they truly have the chance to create and advocate for unity among Turks.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit


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